This is an outline of my idea for a campaign based on some ideas I got from Matthew Colville. The basic idea is that you want to allow the players to play the fantasy they want, and since you are putting in a lot of the work as a DM, you want to put in your ideas as well. To do that, you let the player’s help build the world by building their characters.
You start with a port city on an inland sea, like the Mediterranean. This allows for a lot of different cultures to be interacting with each other. This is called Shareport, or something similar. This will be the PCs home base to start with.
Session Zero is very important in this sort of campaign, because this is where the birth of the world happens. It is very important to go into this without any thought as to characters. Having a general idea of what fantasy is to you is fine. The beginning of Session Zero is about general structure for the world. General ideas about what fantasy is are perfect for that. Specific ideas about characters are too narrow for that, and can constrain the world too much.
First, the DM lays out some ground rules. It may be good to communicate these rules to people before session zero. As an example, the ground rules to be used in the first Shareport campaign would be:
- No dragonborn or tieflings, but lizardfolk, kenku, and tabaxi are allowed.
- No artificers.
- No psionics.
- No guns.
- Gods oversee the world.
- Much of the world is untamed.
- The world is ancient.
- Conflict shapes the world’s history.
- The world is magical.
You will note that the last five are the core assumptions of D&D 5th Edition. And note that the rest of D&D 5E is assumed as well: all of the other classes, races, spells, and so on.
The DM then asks the players if any of this really rubs them wrong. In each player’s general idea of fantasy, does any of this really grind hard against other assumptions? If it does, of if a player strongly feels something else needs to be said, then that is hashed out first. The DM should be ready to compromise on some of these points, and the players should try to work with the DM.
This is also a good time to bring up any limits on themes in the game and player behavior that anyone in the group desires.
Before getting into the characters themselves, it is good to figure out how they got together. That way, it can be more easily built into the characters’ backgrounds. Traditionally this is something that the DM comes up with, to help funnel the characters into the first adventure. Here there is no first adventure, so it should be more driven by the players. They are going to be the ones who are going to have to fit this into their character.
To enhance the creativity, character abilities should be rolled down the line. This means that the players have no control over which number goes into which ability. This keeps players from bringing a character idea to the table. Note that the DM needs to take the final result into account. If party roles are missing because of the way abilities were generated, the DM needs to keep that in mind when fleshing out the world.
There are two ways to do this. One is to roll six numbers and place them in order in strength, dexterity, constitution, intelligence, wisdom, and charisma. Whatever rolling mechanic you want works. Another way to do it allows for arrays, or even point buy, to be used. Once the six numbers are determined, roll a d6: 1 = strength, 2 = dexterity, and so on. That’s the ability that gets the lowest number. Then roll again, rerolling any duplicates, to place the next lowest number. Continue until all numbers are placed.
The initial Shareport campaign will used a group rolled array. Each player rolls 4d6 drop lowest, and the DM rolls enough times that there are six total numbers. If there are not two numbers of 14 or higher, reroll. If any number is less than 8, reroll if the majority of players vote for it, DM breaks ties. The six rolls are the array everyone uses, and roll to determine which ability each number goes to.
Now you create your characters. The race and class don’t really matter much in terms of the world. But as each person builds their background, that background helps build the world. For example, one player might want to be the son of a man who was a member of the King’s guard. That means there needs to be a King somewhere in the world, and that king has a special guard.
Players should try to keep things on the general side rather than on the specific side. That makes it easier for the DM to fit everything together. For example, saying you want to be a Fedaykin from Arrakis is a problem. It brings along a whole host of assumptions and baggage. Saying you want to be an elite fighter from a desert region run by a religious messiah is much better. It slices out a core piece that can be fit together with other parts of the world.
Characters should also be designed with plot hooks, like wanting revenge for your mother’s death, or looking for a lost comrade in arms. These should be long term plot hooks, not things that need to be resolved in the next week. Every character will have some, and the DM can’t work them all into the first adventure.
All of this should be done in consultation with the DM. The DM is going to have to piece it all together, and grow a campaign out of it. Preferably, this should be done with the other players as well. This allows the players to work together, building pieces of the world together with the DM. There does need to be a back channel of communication with the DM. A back channel allows for players to have secrets from each other, and the DM can constrain the world building being done openly to account for those secrets. Just keep in mind that the more secrets you have, the more complicated things get for the DM.
Not everything needs to be related to a specific character. In the beginning of Session Zero, the goal was to be general. With character creation we start to get to the specifics of the world. It’s okay to as the group things like “Can we have a forest full of dinosaurs?” or “Can there be flying ships in this world?” But work as a group to define these things, and be sure to leave space in the world for things the DM is going to need to create to flesh things out.
While the world building is going on it may be handy to have a rough map available. To start out with, it will just have the borders of the inland sea, and the location of the port. As landmarks and nations are created, they can be added to the map. Keep in mind any assumptions about the world set out in the Ground Rules. For example, if much of the world is untamed, you need to make sure there is space on the map for the wild areas.
The First Adventure
The DM may come up with some ideas about the first adventure during session zero. Indeed, if they are an improvisational type of DM, they could just start the adventure right there. Other DMs may want to wait until Session One to start the adventure. This will give them time to bring all of the elements together, and prepare the adventure for play.
Another possibility is for the DM to have a general prepared adventure for the players. It should be something short with a clue at the end. That clue would be based on the plot hooks from character creation, and would then lead into the full campaign.
Start, Don’t Finish
The DM is going to have to take all of the bits and pieces from the players and flesh them out so that they work with each other. This may involve building things beyond what the player’s talked about in order to make those connections. What the DM should be careful about is going to much beyond linking things together. Try to build only what is needed, so that there is room for growth. You may need this room for growth as new players come into the campaign. Another good use of it is to turn wildly inaccurate theories that the players create into actual things they have to deal with.