View Full Version : DM Help How to make a campaign "from the start"?

2016-01-12, 01:07 PM
So, this is kind of silly question, but my players really like to start at lvl 1, like for their characters to have "backstory". So, recently we talked how would we go about someone starting as Commoner and eventually switching to his chosen class. While for some classes (fluff and meta wise), that is easy (Commoner who wants to be a fighter perhaps starts as Commoner, switches to Warrior after two session and eventually to lvl 1 Fighter in session 5), but for some it is really hard (Wizard must learn for years to become what he is).

These characters sort of "meet in a tavern" and roll off onto adventure. But what if you want to RP the years of becoming an adventurer? How do you do it for classess that demand years of experience? You could go with a group of same-class PCs that work together like Wizards on school of wizardry or commoners/warriors in a City guard that eventually go on as adventurers.

How could you bring together a Fighter, Rogue, Cleric and Wizard in this case?

Then again a group of fighters/clerics/rogues could work really well and interestingly.

I hope you guys understand what I wanted to ask :)

2016-01-12, 01:56 PM
These characters sort of "meet in a tavern" and roll off onto adventure. But what if you want to RP the years of becoming an adventurer? How do you do it for classess that demand years of experience? You could go with a group of same-class PCs that work together like Wizards on school of wizardry or commoners/warriors in a City guard that eventually go on as adventurers.

How could you bring together a Fighter, Rogue, Cleric and Wizard in this case?

Then again a group of fighters/clerics/rogues could work really well and interestingly.

Even commoners have a good 16-18 years behind them as a base age. In most Fantasy setting that's maybe at least 6 years as an apprentice or other form of schooling. So if you wanted to start them off very early in their careers it'd be best to make them all apprentices/young adults. The following would all be commoners but with slight stat/skill variations.

A Fighter could be a farmhand, or a blacksmith, and thus while not a skilled combatant, is strong and familiar with a blade (Or scythe) enough not to chop their own head off.

A Wizard could still be an apprentice, perhaps sent to learn under the local wizard because there isn't much else they are good at. Their parents hoped for them to become a Scholar or scribe, until one night they finally managed to cast their first cantrip. They would only start with two or three cantrips, nothing else.

A Cleric could be a ward of the Temple, brought up in service to whichever God of the hour. They have swept the halls and listened as miracles happen, as divine blessings are bestowed. They have learnt how to give aid and healing, there is a feeling deep inside, more than faith, a spark of the divine, and with time it could flare up and do great things.

A Rogue could be living on the streets, hard done by. Stealing to survive, more likely to flee than fight. Has learnt how to be unseen so people don't kick out at him or call the guards to move the little rat along.

Those are just my ideas, people living around each other but separate, perhaps some of them know each other from school or around the town/village/tutorial but they are still very much commoners until something happens that leaves them banded together, maybe their Home is attacked by Raiders and they are tasked with evacuating the other kids as the adults try to hold them off. Maybe the Mad King has heard a (self-fulfilling) prophecy that all children born under X Moon in X year will rise up to overthrow him. Cue manhunt and slaughter of all said children. Maybe a Wizard dumps an evil Macguffin in their laps and then rides off leaving them being hunted by the Dark Sorcerer.

Training/graduating up a class could happen with small time jumps. Once the children are safe in the next town or they have joined up with the resistance against the Mad King. The 4 try to go back to a normal life, but find themselves meeting up again to train and become heroes, to stop what happened to them happening to others. Cue upgrade from Commoner to Warrior/Hedge Wizard/Priest/Thief. After a few more sessions they become full fledged classes and you go from there.

2016-01-12, 02:44 PM
I actually did basically this. Everyone started out as a commoner (maybe an expert - I forget for sure) who lived in a po-dunk town in the mountains. They were all out in the foothills one day (exploring or some such) when suddenly a bunch of skeleton warriors started after them, to which they ran away screaming.

They were chased into a cave where they met the remnants of an ancient god who was on his last dregs, as no one worshipped him anymore and he had been sealed into the cave. (going with the deity explanation where worship=power) He was able to keep the skeletons out of the cave, but his power ended there. In return for their worship and promise to get him more worshippers in the future, he would use some of his little remaining power to grant them strength. (Giving them level 1 - and equipping them with old weapons/armor etc. which were in the cave - basically what they'd bought with their starting gold but hadn't gotten as commoners.)

It was an interesting campaign - and the deity could whisper into the ear of the group's cleric. It was going to eventually turn out that he was a LE deity (Hexor style - all about order & control - so not THAT bad) who had been sealed away by paladins & good clerics, making the group the 'bad guys' without being all that bad. Unfortunately, the campaign fell apart for IRL reasons before we got that far.

2016-01-12, 02:46 PM
For D&D specifically, there are grades of spellcasting you could do out of Commoner - the feat Magical Training, for example, grants a spellbook and a few cantrips, and then there are Adepts and Magewrights, NPC classes that do an okay job as being a stepping stone.

But much in the same way that a 1st year Architecture major isn't going to get to work on real buildings, a wizard's apprentice need not be running around casting actual spells.

2016-01-12, 02:48 PM
Run the Harry Potter series, and say that, when you're done, they get to be level 1.

2016-01-12, 03:18 PM
I would argue that you can't spend much time to doing interesting things as a commoner, because you will stop being a commoner pretty quickly (ah...one way or another.). And a lot of classes don't lend themselves well to doing interesting things while you "learn to be them" unless those interesting things happen in a wizard school or clerical monastery or something. And those don't lend themselves well to like, meeting other PCs.

So I guess what I'm saying is: There isn't a good way to do this, really. Even if these people were commoners once, they story of how they became their classes usually isn't very interesting, and it certainly didn't happen while they were all together, which makes for a pretty bad collective gaming experience.

I think it's more interesting to start with a bunch of old friends meeting in a tavern at level 1 and talking about what they've learned and how now they're all ready to pursue <goal they agreed on when they all split up to become adventurers>.

2016-01-12, 04:41 PM
Depending on the system, Level 1 is "the start". There is nothing happening before that, besides being an apprentice.

If they really want, start as level 0 pre-teens with age-adjusted attributes and skills, and basically no equipment. They have an adventure together, each are inspired to become whatever class, and then go off to be apprentices. Cut to ten years later, everyone is level one and meet up again to start adventuring.

Even better, use a system designed for it. Dungeon Crawl Classics starts everyone with a gang of level 0 commoners. They go into the crucible of adventure for whatever reason, and whichever characters survive can choose a class and become level 1.

2016-01-12, 05:54 PM
In the nWoD, they have a book called Innocents, that focuses on characters of 8-13 years. The adventures that the characters are expected to go on are not standard fare, focusing more on flavorful, low-power encounters. For people of that power, a wolf inspires as much dread as a werewolf for the adults. Play with that concept for the beginning. Depending on how much time you want to devote to it, I agree on using time-skips. Let me paint a picture I'm ripping straight from Final Fantasy III:

The party of adolescents from different walks of life were all sent to a nearby forest with a haunted ruin on different tasks. Maybe a wizard's apprentice and/or a cleric-in-training require some herbs that grow out there, or the fighter's son was sent to find a sturdy piece of wood for carving into a practice sword. They all arrived at the forest for different reasons, but all of them knew of the same secret: bushes of delicious [insert word]berries near the ruins. The party meets at the same point while grabbing the delicious treats, when the ground begins to shake! The group falls into the ruins, their fall broken by the ruined foliage. The party then has to make their way through a ruin fighting things like rats and solving puzzles, until they reach the final boss, a creature that is cannon fodder for true adventurers but still a challenge for the youths. With that done, the crew exit the ruins, pockets filled with berries, with a sense of adventure. Maybe one of the party stoops down and plants some of the berries, with the youths swearing an oath to reunite when they finished their educations.

Time-skip several years, and one of the former-adolescents returns to the hole where they had experienced their first adventure, and spots a new plant around the corner. A bush, ripe with [insert word]berries. Biting into one, the PC smiles and grabs several branches, one for each of them. That night, when each of them returns home, they find the branches: an adventure has begun!

2016-01-13, 12:58 PM
So, recently we talked how would we go about someone starting as Commoner and eventually switching to his chosen class...

How could you bring together a Fighter, Rogue, Cleric and Wizard in this case?
I'm writing from a D&D perspective, but in general terms so you can adapt to whatever system you're using. I'm breaking this into two questions:

1) What are interesting things four teenagers (or even pre-teens) could do before, or perhaps in order to get, their first class level?
This is an easy question to answer if you read fantasy novels. Almost every series starts with a single "coming of age" book about a young hero/heroine who goes from nobody to somebody. Often the fame takes a few books, but the skills and confidence are often gained in the first book. Harry Potter, Sword of Shannara, Mistborn, Sword of Truth, Wheel of Time, Ranger's Apprentice, the list goes on. That first book tells how a kid starts on the path to greatness. What you are doing is an origin story, the First Book of the heroes' saga of greatness.

Each player needs to consider who their character is. Pick a background (if playing D&D 5e, literally pick a Background) that augments who they eventually what the character to be. Then plop the character into the last few months of that background setting.

Examples: The cleric whose parents sent him to the temple is still at the temple. The wizard whose parents are merchants is still sneaking into the shop at night to study a spellbook they haven't been able to sell yet. The rogue is a pampered young noble so bored that he is always playing pranks on the servants, sneaking around the manor and disguising himself to visit seedy taverns. The fighter is a runaway living on the streets who protects a group of younger homeless kids.

Whatever background each character picks, they have some basic knowledge that will eventually blossom into their first class level. Most likely, none of them have any fame or money (even a noble at this age is likely known only because of his parents and has no money beyond what is given to him).

Mechanically, do NOT treat them as Commoners. They may be commoners in essence, but the numbers will get confusing if you give them those stats. Instead, do the following:
- Each PC has the statistics (strength, dex, etc) they would normally have at level 1
- Each has half the life they would have at level 1. For example, a D&D 5e wizard with 10 CON would normally start with 6HP; for our level 0 PCs, the wizard starts with 3HP instead. (If the system you are using measures HP as a physical attribute only, not a combination of physical and mental stamina, then you may want to start them with full level 1 HP.)
- Each PC starts with one feature of their class. The fighter starts with the ability to attack like a normal level 1 fighter, the wizard can cast 1 cantrip and 1 level 1 spell once, and etc for the others. This represents what they are doing in their lives that eventually enables them to become level 1 of that class
- Each PC starts with equipment necessary to enable the feature given. The fighter has a rusty short sword (-1 to damage) that he found in a gutter. The wizard has the components to cast the 1 spell he has. Etc.

2) How would the characters meet?
The fighter overhears a local bully planning to attack a merchant. Maybe the fighter thinks he'll get rewarded if he helps defend the merchant. Or maybe he feels it is the right thing to do. Or maybe the merchant kindly gave him food once or twice. Regardless, the fighter starts hanging around the merchant's shop. Perhaps he warns the merchant of the danger, but the merchant doesn't take him seriously. Maybe he doesn't say a word. But he meets the young wizard, who wants to know what the street urchin is doing, and the two become friendly acquaintances.

The rogue is out (in disguise) slumming when the bully attacks. Thinking this is exciting, the rogue comes to watch. Maybe he dreams of greatness and fame, or maybe he is trying to win the heart of a girl. Maybe the wizard is a girl. Whatever the reasons, when a fight breaks out between the bully and the fighter, the rogue helps the fighter.

The wizard is there as well, possibly up late studying the spellbook. He obviously helps defend his parents' shop. When the battle is over, somebody (PC or NPC) is critically wounded. The players rush to a local temple and find the young cleric is the only one awake- after all, the senior members of the order went to bed hours ago, pushing the unpleasant night watch on their youngest member. The young cleric either performs the healing, or wakes a more experienced healer. Regardless, the injured person remains at the temple for a few days, giving the cleric time to interact with the other PCs (as they visit the injured).

By the end, all four characters have some kind of relationship, either friendly or rivalry, and decide to set out together, possibly against their parents' wishes.

Or maybe the merchant is visiting a town and a neighboring country assassinates a local noble in the marketplace. The rogue, his parents killed before him, chases the assassin. The wizard (visiting with his merchant parents), the fighter, and the cleric all get involved during the chase.

Or maybe undead attack the town, and the young would-be heroes are all involved as the town fights off waves of skeletons.

Or maybe a bounty is placed on a pack of wolves, and the fighter thinks it would really be nice to earn some money and maybe get off the street, so he recruits others he thinks might help him. The wizard does it to prove to his parents that his magic is useful, the rogue is out slumming when the fighter is recruiting and joins for fun, and the cleric sees an opportunity to help the people. Perhaps a local ranger finds them and becomes the "wise" character that so many stories have (the druid in Sword of Shannara, Halt in Ranger's Apprentice, Obi Wan in Star Wars, Master Oogway in Kung-Fu Panda, etc). He helps the group find the wolves and can offset some of the difficulty in such an inexperienced group fighting wolves.

You'll have to adapt the circumstances to match whatever backstory the players pick. The most important thing to consider is the difficulty of any fighting: these characters are weak. If possible, have a mentor helping them (like the ranger with the wolves, or other townsfolk fighting the skeletons), or have them fighting something equally weak (like a Commoner bully at the merchant's shop). Or maybe they don't have to fight anything at all.

After they pass the challenge, they gain their first level. As part of this, they probably need somebody to teach and/or give them something. Either in recognition of their achievement (helping fight undead), or they pay for it (using bounty money from the wolves), or their actions caught the attention of interested adults (defending a merchant against a local bully), somebody helps them out with the beginning aspects of their training. Most likely, they won't have enough money for a full set of gear, but that can be their first quest as newly-minted level 1 heroes.

3) For extra flavor
Run a short encounter with each player as individuals before the characters meet each other. Taking my earlier examples for backgrounds, the young would-be cleric has a test of faith in the temple he serves in. Maybe he decides to fully commit to serving his god, or he has to chose between being a cleric or a priest, or whatever. The would-be wizard is faced with some challenge related to his life as a merchant's son, and that challenge can at least in part be addressed with something he learned in his secret studies of the spellbook. And so on for the young noble rogue and run away fighter.

You can do these short encounters with the group, or schedule separate time with players individually. They should be short (a single problem) and completing them gives no experience, but may yield items (like the fighter's rusty short sword). The goal with these is to further deepen the backstory and give more meaning to the characters.

As the characters are weak, and don't have a party to back them up, be very careful about fights in these encounters. And as the PCs don't have many options, you probably only want to do one such mini-encounter per PC, not a string of them.