It’s time to begin your Dungeons & Dragons adventure! You’ve got your players picked out, they’ve made their characters, and you’ve all discussed your expectations about this group playing together during your Session 0. Now, you as the Dungeon Master has (perhaps secretly) picked your adventure, whether it’s a module or homebrew, and you are ready to have your first official session.
However, regardless of how much experience you each have with D&D, there is always a lot of exposition that you have to give your players before you begin, so that they understand the world that they are in, where they are in that world, and who they are in that world, not just as characters, but as people.
Therefore, I believe that you should, before the first session (preferably a couple days before) give each of your players a handout for them to look over. This handout should not be more than two pages long, or else we might get a “Too Long; Didn’t Read” scenario. If you can make it work, if each of these topics is on one page, it’s going to feel cool as the players can see the difference between the common knowledge, and where they are unique in their knowledge.
There are things that people living in this setting would inherently know, that doesn’t require a skill check.
- Map of the world/country/area
- Current Political/Religious Leadership
- Major Threats
These are all spoiler free aspects of the setting that your party needs to know. Now, you don’t have to monologue at your party for the first 30 minutes of the first session anymore, because they can read it in a formatted document instead, and look back at it throughout.
Then, there is information that each player individually knows. This is where you want to look into their backstories, and see where you can find loose threads that you can tie into your adventure.
As examples, I’m going to run through some character-specific information I gave my players during a previous adventure, set in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh setting, so light spoilers for that.
First, we have the Human Paladin, who is the second son of a mid-range royal family. He has lots of court decorum, studied vigorously the histories of his own country, as well as the histories of nearby countries, is aware of military capabilities and knows of all the powerful movers-and-shakers.
- This town is a small fishing village, and the primary source of income for the Kingdom of Keoland.
- Keoland as a whole is actively at war to increase their borders, however this town is far from the war.
- There are other kingdoms between Keoland and your home, so you do not believe Keoland to be an immediate threat.
- A nearby town, Seaton, used to be known for its ability to withstand a sea-based attack, but the war is entirely landbased.
- You’re not sure what’s come of Seaton as of late.
The Gnome Druid doesn’t know much at all about the town he has entered, but has heard one specific rumor.
- You don’t know much about this town, but you heard a rumor that they fear spellcasters, so you feel you should probably keep your abilities secret, at least from the locals.
Our next character, the tiefling, actually begins this adventure with amnesia, and so her sheet was particularly blank. All it said was what she knew.
- When you awoke, a glass vial filled with nail clippings was found in your pocket.
- You believe this has something to do with your loss of memory, but you can’t be sure.
Another character had recently learned that she comes from a long line of infamous sorcerers that her family attempted to protect her from. Therefore she was searching for a magical mentor, to help her discover her true capabilities, and perhaps information on her families history.
- There is a brilliant but feared wizard in town, named Keledek, who might be able to help with your questions.
- It is rumored that if you speak his name aloud, he can read your thoughts, and those thoughts give him power.
- Therefore everyone calls him “The Unspoken”
This is another piece of the story from the gnomish druid above, but because this character was seeking out this wizard, there is more information, but still not much.
The next character, a Dwarvish Rogue was once a native of this town, but left due to a prejudice against his people.
- In the town of Saltmarsh, there is a Councilwoman named Eda Oweland who, when you left town, was making efforts to allow the new Dwarves to be welcomed into town.
- Because of the discrimination of the citizens of Saltmarsh, that is why you left town in the first place.
- This discrimination was most prevelent from the city guards, and one guard in particular, by the name of Officer Fireborn.
Our final character was a native of the area, a dutiful cleric of a locally popular deity, and also the artist of the amazing party photo seen above.
- There is a priest named Wellgar Brinehanded who worships another god “Trithereon,” who is the God of Individuality, Liberty, Retribution, and Self-Defense. Many of the sailors and traders worship him, whereas you worship the god of the sea and fish, to bless your family with good fortune.
- The captain of the guard is named Eliander Fireborn, and he seems to be a kind man who has good relations with the King of Keoland (Saltmarsh is just a small town within Keoland).
- He has a clear disdain for the Senior Councilwoman Eda Oweland, and for that, you aren’t sure what to think of her. She seems nice enough though.
- There is a wizard in town who everyone fears. His name is Keledek, but if you speak his name, he can hear your thoughts from his tower. Therefore everyone refers to him as “The Unspoken”
- No one knows what he does with your thoughts, but there are rumors that he uses them to make himself more powerful. Once he is powerful enough, then who knows what he’ll do.
- You’ve never seen him in person.
Now, this is where I really had fun. As you can see, I intentionally gave one character partial information about the powerful local wizard, and another character a fuller picture, that way when our sorcerer-PC starts asking about him, our cleric-PC can feel helpful, while also trying to convince them not to seek out this mysterious figure. This also could lead to a roleplay opportunity to the gnome, who thought he should keep his magic a secret. This is because rumors tend to lose their validity the further from the source you hear it.
Then I actually gave conflicting information. While the cleric sees the Captain of the Guard as a person to look up to, his secret disdain for the local dwarvish population gives him a different reputation all together. Also, the dwarf only knew him as a standard guard, whereas our Cleric knows him in his new position of power. This reinforces his popular reputation, and could lead to a Cleric/Dwarf roleplay moment, as they disagree on his merits and morality.
As you can see, this is where the fun comes in for you, as you can weave a web of information, accurate, partial, or outright false, depending on the individual characters. This allows the players to feel more important to the party as a whole, as they can begin to answer each others questions, and even disagree on the information entirely.