First things first! If Jess, Rachel, Julie, Megan, or Shawn are reading this, STOP. Please?! C’mon, be cool!
OKAY GOOD (I hope). I don’t think they read this or even know it exists, but ya never know! Seaward is my first on-going, homebrew Dungeons & Dragons campaign! I’ve written and run a couple one-shots and even ran several sessions of a campaign I was writing, but that sputtered out. A lot of D&D does, in my experience!
Seaward is an adventure designed for players with little-to-no D&D experience, but it’s also intended to be engaging and exciting for more experienced players too. This first post will be a sort of “Session Zero”: an origin story for this campaign, a brief look at my own D&D experience, a rundown of the choices I made and why, plus a slate of cool pre-generated player characters! If that sounds cool to you, and again, you aren’t Julie, Shawn, Megan, Rachel, or Jess, read on, brave adventurer!
I was OVERJOYED when my players thought of me to run a one-shot as part of a birthday celebration. Even better, all the players were Dungeons & Dragons noobs to various degrees: the player with the most Fifth Edition experience had only played a dozen and a half sessions–and I ran ’em!
I love Dungeon Mastering for newbie D&D players for two reasons:
1. They’re more likely to work with you and be super-engaged since you’re also teaching them the game.
2. Precisely because they don’t have a solid handle on the game, they’re really creative and chaotic! They haven’t learned to pigeonhole themselves into certain roles or actions. (Paladins will attempt to steal, wizards will throw punches, they’ll befriend the badguys! It’s fucking wild and it rules!)
So yeah. If I could somehow DM for cool newbies for a living I’d work 90 hours a week and die happy. UNTIL THEN I’ll just thoroughly enjoy writing and running Seaward!
Long before I was tapped to put together a birthday one-shot, I had a couple ideas for ways I’d like to kick off an adventure or campaign. The “you all meet in a tavern” intro has long been goofed on for being the most overused and unoriginal way to get an adventuring party together, but that’s not why I didn’t use it. I personally LOVE the “you all meet in a tavern” intro–there’s a reason why it’s a classic! But the two intros I’ve been wanting to use are a lot spicier!
1. The party members find themselves locked up in the same cell in a dank dungeon.
2. The party members find themselves aboard a sinking ship.
Both intros force the players to instantly work together. Every type of player character wants to be alive and/or free, regardless of what they’re all about ability-wise, personality-wise, etc.. Right out the gate you get to see your players and their characters operate under pressure. It’s a great ice breaker for everyone at the table!
So I was INTO adapting one of these ideas for my next campaign no matter what, but then one of my players–the newest of the newbies–was joking about being excited to fight and kill the other party members. I knew she was joking, but when I gently explained that the game would be focused on them fighting together instead of them fighting each other she did seem a little bummed. Before we even got around the table, I knew this player needed action and dramatic, immediate stakes. I knew I needed to prove to this player that working together could actually be more thrilling than player-vs-player and prove it FAST. So FUCK YEAH I needed to use one of those crazy intros. Or in this case, I kind of combined both:
The players come to, tied up in the brig of a goblin slaver ship. Shortly after they get their bearings, IT STARTS SINKING. So elements of both intros are putting the pressure on: the players need to get free, and they need to do before they fucking drown. The bare bones of this introduction–just a sinking goblin slave ship–gave me the story hooks and angles I needed to flesh out not only this one-shot adventure, but story threads for a grander campaign too.
I’ve only been playing tabletop RPGs like D&D since about 2014 or 2015, so I’m not some old pro or mastermind expert. I started out as a player with the original Pathfinder before switching over to D&D 5e, and only tried my hand at DMing after logging a couple years as a player. I’ve tried Pathfinder 2.0 and oddball indie story games like Fiasco and Dread. I’ve read up extensively on Modiphius’ Star Trek Adventures and Call of Cthulhu 7th edition… but I always just find myself wanting more D&D 5e. Fiasco and Dread are super-accessible and a lot of fun to play, but they’re SO rules light that the spotlight can get stuck on one player or scenario. I ran a Dread game that went WAY off the rails in a way that was very entertaining, but not for the right reasons (and not for one of the players, unfortunately). I was a less-experienced Game Master at the time, and the game’s rules didn’t include any mechanics to help keep the story chugging along. What was supposed to be a tense, Fire in the Sky-style alien abduction thriller became a dark comedy of errors where a ‘roided up high schooler beat the bejeezus out of his injured grandfather and burned half the house down.
On the opposite end of the complexity spectrum, I found myself struggling to keep up with PF2’s more detailed, more structured take on fantasy gaming (even though I 100% GET why players are drawn to that amount of depth). And when I tried explaining the basics of Star Trek Adventures, I got laughed out of the room BY A STAR TREK FAN. I have yet to meet anyone that wants to play Call of Cthulhu with me–I guess people aren’t really into role-playing as helpless spectators trapped in a nightmarish hellworld right now.
D&D 5e strikes a pretty perfect balance between these two styles of game. It’s approachable and cinematic, letting players slip into the curly-toed boots of a bad-ass fantasy adventurer with variable, relative ease. But it’s got enough rules to provide the players with guardrails: no one can steal the spotlight or steer the narrative for too long, AND players have structure to help them be creative instead of being overwhelmed with open-ended questions.
So because I’m not an old pro or expert, I’ve only just now starting writing my own adventures instead of running pre-written material. My first campaign was running Lost Mine of Phandelver, the beginner adventure included with the D&D Starter Set. It really was a wonderful way to get my feet wet and to introduce a cadre of players with varying experience levels to 5e.
One of the things I learned running LMP (with the Bizkit) is that while I’m still warming up to fantasy settings and tropes, I really enjoy The Forgotten Realms/Faerun. It feels like an ideal halfway point between vanilla, classically-styled fantasy with a bit more of a “fuck it, why not?” approach. It’s a world similar to Middle-Earth, dominated by Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings, but there’s more magic, and it’s WEIRDER in a cool fun, way. It’s a setting that seems to intentionally leave room for tweaking and customization, so I heartily agree with Wizards of the Coasts’ decision to all but make it the default setting for 5e.
So tying it all together: newbie players, they’re random strangers that wake up in the brig of a (about to be sinking) goblin slave ship, and the world they play in is a slightly modified Forgotten Realms. Bingo-bango, baby! There’s one last big slice of this D&D pizza though: pre-generated level 1 player characters!
It’s no shocker that I’m having newbie players start at level 1, but there are some ulterior motives for the pre-gens. Pre-gens takes away some of the players’ agency/creativity, but it also takes a fuck-load of pressure off of them. It also plays nice with this being (originally intended as) a one-shot–nobody has to commit to anything, you can experiment and try something just because it sounds interesting. When the one-shot ends, we might not ever play D&D together again, so no harm no foul. If we do want to play D&D again, it doesn’t HAVE to be a continuation of the one-shot… and even if it is, they’d be free to change their characters or create whole new ones if they wanted. This gets the players into the game as quickly and comfortably as possible, because I love this fucking game and I want everyone I share it with to have a good time.
This being a one-shot for newbies means I’m not just selling my skills as a DM, I’m selling the concept of tabletop RPGs in general. I want to make it the best possible experience for my players because that’s what I love to do, but I also want them to have a positive experience with D&D because I know it can be a life-changing force for good in peoples’ lives.
I guess all that’s really just to say that I put a lot of thought into balancing this to be as fun of an experience as possible for players of any skill level. That includes the choices I made with pre-generated characters. They’re a mötley crüe of oddballs that cover different iconic roles and character types in D&D while also hinting at the offbeat mood and tone of the world they will adventure in. I pointedly left Wizard and Artificer out of the running because I find them to be the most complex classes to play. I’ll wrap up this post with the character sheets themselves. Next time I’ll get into the one-shot itself, when our heroes find themselves aboard the doomed goblin ship, Rat-Biter!