Five strangers meet in a tavern. They have nothing in common. They have no families, no friends, no real idea of what they want in life. But they’ve got a special set of skills, and there’s a man willing to pay them a fistful of gold to beat up some bad guys. Let’s roll.
Once upon a time, this was the basic set-up for a typical D&D campaign. And there’s nothing wrong with this, if all you’re looking for is a chance to roll some dice and fight some monsters. But a campaign can be much more than this. There’s two things to consider here. The first is ways to create characters that have interesting ties to the world and hooks for the players and DM to make use of. The second is developing this in Session Zero—taking a little time to work through the story and to establish ground rules before diving into a campaign.
CREATING EBERRON CHARACTERS
You’re starting a new Eberron campaign. Players are supposed to create 3rd level characters using point buy. But half the players have never heard of Eberron, and they don’t have time to read the Eberronicon to get a feel for the world. If they have a little time, you can encourage them to read the introduction of Eberron: Rising From The Last War; if they don’t have the energy for that, this Reddit post lists ten important things to know about the world, as well as providing links for people who want to do further reading. Those ten points hit the most crucial elements of the world. It’s a world of magic with airships and dragonmarked dynasties; the Last War has ended, sort of; it draws on both pulp and noir for inspiration; and familiar things may not be what you expect them to be. At the end of the day, this covers a lot of crucial ground.
Who Are We This Time?
When I’m starting a new campaign, the first thing I do is to pitch the concept to my players. I’m thinking about a campaign in which you’re all reporters for the Korranberg Chronicle, being sent to investigate the biggest stories in Khorvaire. The first, most important thing is to make sure the players want to play in that campaign. The second is to give some basic direction on creating characters. This is an idea that Eberron: Rising From The Last War explores with Group Patrons. The simplest of these is the Adventurer’s Guild, in which the idea is that you are professional adventurers; it establishes that your campaign is likely going to involve dungeon crawls and exploring ruins in exotic locations. The tone can be set by the guild; for example, the Clifftop Guild has a positive reputation and generally doesn’t employ evil characters, while the Deathsgate Guild thrives on dirty tricks. On the other hand, you could all work for the Boromar Clan (Crime Syndicate), you could be private investigators in Sharn (Inquisitive Agency), or you could be agents of the Argentum (Religious Order). This gives players a clear focus: For our group of reporters, we want someone who’s good at social interaction, a good researcher, and some muscle to keep us safe and throw around a little intimidation when we need it.
Even when you don’t have a shared patron, the setting can inform characters. In my Q’barra campaign I established that the characters were living in a small mining town and encouraged the players to draw on classic Western archetypes, noting that the town needed someone to be the Sheriff, someone to be the Preacher, and someone with an interest in local business; the players could claim these roles for their characters, otherwise I’d fill them with NPCs. On the other hand, when running a game set in Callestan, I told people that the tone was similar to Gangs of New York and that they were living in one of the worst districts in Sharn, and the question they needed to answer was why? Were they urchins who grew up in the neighborhood? Did they have ties to local criminals? Were they excoriates or deserters hiding out from powerful enemies? Or were they virtuous vigilantes trying to make a difference?
The main point here is that by clearly establishing the story, you can help the players come up with ideas. If this was a movie, how does your character fit in it? Even if your character is a professional adventurer, take a moment to think about why they’re a professional adventurer—how they got into that line of work, where they expect to be in ten years. Are they just in it for the thrill? Are they searching for inspiration for their arcane experiments? Is it the equivalent of waiting tables while their real ambition is to be an actor?
While establishing a story will give some clear guidance for characters, there are some basic questions that any Eberron character can think about.
What did you do during the War?
For most of the last century, the continent of Galifar has been embroiled in a bitter civil war. If you’re human, you’ve never known a world without war. If you’re a warforged, you were literally built to fight in it. The Last War came to an end two years ago, after the utter destruction of one of the warring nations. With this in mind…
- What did your character do in the war? Were you a soldier—keeping in mind that this is a magical world, where wizards and artificers had roles on the battlefield as well as warriors? If you didn’t fight in the war, were you a criminal? A conscientious objector? A fugitive? Or were you just a civilian whose connections or talents kept you off the front lines?
- If you fought in the war… How did your service end? If you take the Soldier background you’re still in good standing, but otherwise you’ve left it behind. Are you proud of your service? Is it something you’d rather not talk about? Is there a particular event that was a defining moment for you—a battle where you did something especially heroic or where you were one of the only survivors?
- How did the war affect you? Did you lose someone in the war? Was your home town destroyed—or are you from Cyre, in which case your entire nation was destroyed? Did the things you saw during the war cause you to lose your faith, or did they actually strengthen it?
Keep in mind that a character who served in the Last War doesn’t have to take the soldier background. Because of the Military Rank benefit, soldier is good if your character is still respected by or tied to the military. But as long as you’ve left the service, an outlander could have been a scout; a sailor might have served in the navy; an entertainer could have started out as the company musician, while an acolyte could have been a chaplain; a criminal could have been dishonorably discharged, while a folk hero could be celebrated for heroic deeds they performed during the war, even if their heroism went against orders and wasn’t rewarded with Military Rank.
The war is over, but it hasn’t been over for long. Thinking about how it affected your character and if it’s tied to their skills—was your rogue a smuggler who avoided the war, or did they use their skills to infiltrate enemy territory—is a way to add depth to the character and establish a concrete connection to the world.
What’s your religion?
Assuming the player isn’t familiar with the setting, I’ll focus on the main options.
- The Sovereign Host. The deities of this pantheon don’t manifest in the world, but their followers believe that the Sovereigns are with them always, offering guidance. This is the most popular religion, but it’s a casual faith that asks little of its followers.
- The Silver Flame is a spiritual force that holds demons at bay. Followers of the Flame seek to protect innocents from supernatural evil and to encourage compassionate behavior. It’s sort of like a cross between the Jedi and the Men in Black; they don’t believe in an anthropomorphic deity, but they can draw on the power of the Flame to fight evil.
- The Blood of Vol is a grim faith that believes that there’s no afterlife and that the gods are cruel, and that all we have is each other. Followers of this faith believe that all mortals have a spark of divinity within their blood, and Seeker clerics and paladins draw divine power from their own souls.
- Primal faiths include druids and other cultures that are devoted to the natural world and animistic spirits.
- Many people are faithless. Gods don’t physically manifest in the world, and there are people who either don’t believe that they exist or just don’t care whether or no they do. As a faithless character, did you lose your faith because of something terrible that happened, or have you just never been a believer?
The other faiths—Path of Light, Tairnadal, Dark Six—I’ll suggest if they seem especially appropriate based on the player’s concept. Likewise, if they like the concept of a Primal character, I’ll suggest a more specific option (Gatekeeper, Warden of the Wood, Talenta) once I know more about their character.
Where Are You From?
If I’m working with players who don’t know the setting, I’ll usually suggest an answer to this question. Rather than trying to explain all the nations in sufficient detail for the player to make an informed decision, I’ll say tell me about your idea and see if it lends itself to a particular nation… especially when informed by their role in the war and their religion. A Silver Flame cleric who served in the war? Sure sounds like Thrane. A faithless or primal outlander ranger who didn’t serve in the war? Talenta or Eldeen, depending on your species.
If a group of people are new to the setting, I’ll often suggest that they come from Cyre. They could have served together during the Last War, or they could have been thrown together by the Mourning. This has the advantage of a shared loss and of an easy explanation for why they are adventurers; they have no home to return to, and all they have is each other. The next question is if they want to help other Cyrans, or if they’re just out for themselves.
What Do You Want?
This question isn’t particularly tied to Eberron, but it’s a good question to ask. Why are you adventuring? Are they just in it for the gold, and if so, what do they want the gold for (if they don’t know, this is a great opportunity to use the Why Do You Need 200 GP table from Rising From The Last War). Are they fighting for a cause, and if so, what is it? Do they want to recover a lost heirloom? Are they seeking vengeance? In all of these cases, as DM my job is to find a way to work that desire into the thread of the campaign. If they want vengeance against the man who killed their father, well guess what—he’s part of the Emerald Claw, the main villains of this arc! And he’s carrying the heirloom sword the other character is determined to recover!
Backgrounds provide skills and proficiencies, but they also add depth to a story. It’s important to keep in mind that background is background—it’s typically what the character used to do. One basic question is why they left that life behind. Why isn’t the acolyte tending a shrine? How did the criminal turn their life around, and why? If the character is a guild artisan, what’s their guild; does this character have a tie to a dragonmarked house? What’s the entertainer’s most popular song, and did they sell the rights to House Phiarlan? If I’m working with players who don’t know much about Eberron, I’ll ask them to come up with the basic story, and then I’ll offer suggestions tied to the region where the campaign is taking place. In the case of an acolyte, I can suggest a particular temple or monastery they served at; if they’re a former criminal, I’ll offer a suggestion for their criminal contact. With that said…
Ongoing Questions and Flashbacks.
There’s no need to establish every detail about a character at the start of a campaign. If you’ve established that the fighter fought for Breland during the war, when a Brelish veteran shows up during an adventure the DM can say You saved his life during the Last War—how did that happen? Or perhaps they run into a Boromar enforcer, the DM can say He was in your unit during the war, but you didn’t get along—what happened? When an entertainer takes advantage of By Popular Demand, I might say you played at this tavern a year ago and something dramatic happened—what was it? Details about family can be established over time. Consider the typical movie or novel: we get enough details about our protagonists to draw us into the story, but we usually don’t get a detailed dossier. In the case of a certain war in the stars, revelations about family end up being part of the story!
So there are many more questions you can ask—For example, What’s your biggest regret, possibly using the table in Rising From The Last War. But usually these basics will create enough of a foundation that I can help the player flesh out the story with additional Eberron details. And that’s a key point: I know the world. I understand the story the player appears to be looking for. So I can offer suggestions that translate that story into the setting. I don’t need to ask them if they have ties to a Dragonmarked House if they don’t know that that is. But if they describe Romeo & Juliet, I can say “Eberron has these powerful houses that forbid marriage—what if you’re tied to one of those?” Between the war, faith, desire, and background, there’s usually good hooks to work with as I build out the story.
WHAT’S SESSION ZERO?
By this point the players know the basic idea behind the campaign and have ideas for characters that could be a part of it. Session zero is about bringing players together before you actually start rolling dice to discuss the story you’re going to create together. It’s a final opportunity to make sure everyone knows what they’re getting into and to see what excites people about this story—and just as important, to make sure everyone knows the places they don’t want the story to go. It’s a chance to establish ground rules, both for characters and conduct. The basic principle of session zero is that a roleplaying game is a collaborative story. It’s not solely the responsibility of the DM to make all the pieces come together. The players should help in that process, which means it’s important for them to understand one another—to agree that the rogue won’t steal from the party or whether romance will be part of the story.
When hold a session zero, I start with a few basic things.
Before delving into the story, it’s good to establish the things players don’t want to see at the table. This can be anything from plotlines involving child endangerment to any sort of romance involving my character. A common approach is to discuss this in terms of lines and veils. Are there elements that a player doesn’t mind being part of the storyline, as long as they are veiled, kept in soft focus or occurring off camera—and are there lines a player simply doesn’t want the story to cross, things they don’t even want to be mentioned in passing? While this is useful for the DM, it’s also an important time for the players to establish boundaries with one another. It’s entirely reasonable to say I don’t want to play in a party with evil characters or I’m not comfortable with in-character flirting. This could be a simple discussion or use a detailed checklist. Beyond this, it’s important for characters to have a way to talk about these things if they come up over the course of a campaign; it could be that you don’t think you have any lines until you’re in the middle of a scene and you realize you don’t want to go any further down that path.
This is a deep topic, but there’s a lot of good resources related to this. Here’s a list of safety tools assembled by Golden Lasso Games, and here’s an extensive free PDF on the topic from Monte Cook games. Thanks to my patrons for recommending these resources!
As a DM, are you planning to use any house rules? Is there anything about your approach to the game that players should know about? A few things that might come up…
- Death. How does the group want to handle player character death? Is it just straight up, let-the-dice-fall-where-they-may play where if an ogre gets a critical hit you might die in the first session? Is it the case that dropping to zero hit points will render you unconscious, but that as long as someone survives the group will be OK? Somewhere in the middle, where a character that drops to zero hit points won’t die but will have some form of lasting scar or injury, which the player and DM can discuss at the time?
- Descriptive Rolls. How does the DM plan to handle things like Charisma-based skills? Can a player just say “I intimidate them. I roll a 20. I’m so scary!” or does the DM expect the player to add more detail to the scene—what are you doing that’s so terrifying? This is something that can be handled on a player by player basis; one player might enjoy detailed roleplaying, while another player may have taken expertise in Persuasion precisely because they aren’t comfortable roleplaying such interactions and want to be able to roll through them.
- Inspiration and Bennies. Does the DM plan to use any sorts of rewards for clever play—awarding inspiration when a character plays up a flaw, or providing some other sort of benefit?
In MY campaigns, I always have two basic things I emphasize. The first is that I’m a story-driven DM: the rules are a framework, but I may choose to ignore or override a rule in a particular scene. I am happy for players to bring rules to my attention if it seems like I may have overlooked something, because often that may be all that it is. But if I acknowledge it and say that I’m intentionally ignoring it, I don’t want to argue about it. Likewise, part of my DMing style is to ask players to add details to a scene—There’s a mob of zombies! They’re rotting villagers. Tom, describe one of the zombies that draws your attention. I like doing this because it helps to give players a concrete investment in the scene, and players will come up with things that I never would. But I always want to make sure that the players are comfortable with this style of play, and that they know they can always say “Pass” if they don’t have an answer or just aren’t comfortable with the question. The goal is to let everyone share in building the story, but the more important goal is that everyone should enjoy the experience—and not everyone likes being put on the spot.
Review the Story
I always want to make sure the players approve of the basic concept of the campaign before we reach this point, but session zero is where I’ll lay it out in more detail. We may have agreed in advance that the adventurers are starting in a mining town and that the warforged fighter is the Sheriff, but now I want to tell the players about the basic situation in Q’barra and the events that are shaping the story. At this point, I’ll usually ask the players to add some personal elements to the setting. There’s only one tavern in town, the Cat and Biscuit—tell me one detail about it or tell me about someone you know in Callestan. This could be a relative, a friend, a rival; the point is that it helps to give the character and the player a connection to the location, and now I’ve got a few NPCs I can work with.
Have each player introduce their character and say what they like most about their character—what they see as most defining aspect of their character, what’s important to them. Now that people know the basic building blocks of the story, you have an opportunity to work together and establish connections between the characters. Who served together during the war? What was the worst thing they endured together? Who lost the most gambling, and does one of them still owe the other money? Perhaps the elf and the dwarf are siblings—How did you never know you were adopted? Maybe the charlatan was the entertainer’s promoter for a time, or the urchin always used to hum one of the entertainer’s songs in hard times but never imagined they’d meet. Most likely players have been thinking of their characters in isolation; this is a chance to find things that bring them together, that make it a shared story instead of five strangers.
In creating characters, I encourage players to think about their characters’ aspirations. But what about the players’ aspirations? What interests players the most—social interaction? Challenging combat? Solving mysteries? Political intrigue? Do they want to own land or gain titles, or to just focus on carefree adventuring? Ideally, a group will be largely united in what they want to see, but it’s still possible for the DM to work around different player’s preferences; the fighter is never going to have to worry about politics, but the bard may be drawn into intrigues.
Aside from these broad choices, this is a chance for players to describe things they’d like to see happen at some point during the campaign. This could be anything from I want to find a holy avenger or I want us to fight a dragon to I want to overthrow Kaius III and become king of Karrnath. It’s important to be clear that these things might not happen for a long time, or ever; but as a DM, knowing it’s something the players want to see helps me shape the story. I’m not going to drop a holy avenger in the campaign at first level, but perhaps the adventurers hear stories about a legendary blade early on. If they’re fighting the Emerald Claw, Lady Illmarrow’s chief lieutenant could be a death knight who lost the blade after breaking his oath—and the only way that they can ultimately defeat this enemy is by finding his forgotten blade and breaking the curse he’s laid on it. So they’ll get to that holy avenger, but by the time they get there it will be part of the story. Likewise, if a player wants to overthrow Kaius and that just doesn’t fit with the campaign, I might still be able to work aspects of that into encounters. The adventurers may have an opportunity to help a Karrnathi warlord, earning their respect—or to win the friendship of a group of mercenaries who could prove invaluable in a campaign against Kaius. It might not happen during the campaign—but I can help the player believe that they’re moving toward that goal.
This is a basic list, and you may come up with many more topics based on the nature of your campaign. The key points are…
- What’s the story we’re about to embark on? Where does it begin, and who are we? What brings us together?
- What are the things people want to see and the lines we won’t cross? When there’s a problem at the table, what tools do you have in place to identify it and to deal with it?
- Are there any rules or house rules people should know about?
Dealing with all of these things in advance can help to avoid disappointment or frustration down the road, and build a sound foundation for a future campaign.
That’s all for now! Thanks to my Patreon supporters for requesting the topic.