A few years ago, after discovering the joys of Acquisitions Incorporated, I got really excited about playing Dungeons & Dragons. So I did what any sane, married 30-year-old would do, and without even waiting to find a group to play, I bought the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Starter Set, Player’s Handbook, and Monster Manual, and planned my first game.
At the time I hadn’t played Dungeons & Dragons before at all, nor had anyone I knew. My only experience was with the much maligned ’80s kids’ cartoon and the early Elder Scrolls games on the PC. I didn’t let this hold me back, however, and within a few days, I had somehow convinced five friends to give it a go.
I would be their guide in the realm of Dungeons & Dragons.
As far as I can tell, our experience with the 5th edition Starter Set was pretty standard. The players used the pre-generated characters: Fighter (Sir Pauladin Du Stunfort), Wizard (Adran Starflower), Fighter (Salazar Turami), Cleric (Gannondwarf Metalbeard), and Rogue (Duncan Blueband), and named themselves The Troops of Baselandia.
As a new DM, I stayed pretty tight to the source material, only veering off-piste when players couldn’t turn up. (At one time this involved an improvised side quest to rescue the missing PC from a vampire cult who then accidentally summoned a dinosaur, and it all got pretty Scooby-Doo.) After a few 4-hour-long sessions, we had worked out the main rules and mechanics, and the party had taken care of some goblins, rid Phandelin of its bandit infestation, simultaneously fought a spectator and a nothic, and had even met and run away from Venomfang, a young green dragon, twice.
At first, the players found it pretty hard to engage with the “theater of the mind” approach, but once I started using LEGO minifigures and roughly sketching out battle maps, this eased up pretty quickly. They soon got attached to their PCs and created some pretty cool backstories for each of them. Four or five sessions in, I was amazed to see them actually caring about what happened, so much that on the first occasion one of the PCs died, I felt so sorry that I hastily inserted a resurrection pool. Although some might think this a little soft, it did have the side effect of making the recently dead fighter extremely traumatized by the experience, leaving them forever scared of any undead creature and having to roll to see if they would flee in terror whenever they fought a zombie or skeleton–in my version of the Starter Set this happened a lot.
Eventually, we came to the end of the Lost Mine of Phandelver; Nezzar the Black Spider had been defeated and all his machinations scuppered. To my surprise, rather than that being the end of it, my friends satisfied that they had indulged me long enough, they all wanted to continue playing. The party had reached the dizzying heights of level four, the Wizard was planning which spells to choose next, the Rogue was excited by the prospect of increasing his already deadly sneak attack, and they were all keen to see what would happen for the Troops of Baselandia.
For the next chapter in their story, I turned to Goodman Games Fifth Edition Fantasy for inspiration and ran the Glitterdoom module, which worked really well and provided some exciting new weapons, monsters, and character options to boot. For this story, I even went to the effort of building the eponymous mine out of LEGO and creating what I thought was a rather cool set–now that I’ve watched all the Acquisitions Incorporated videos I realize I have been seriously outmatched by their in-house model builder.
Once this session was complete, the party now found they owned a substantial mining company, consisting of two mines and a base of operations (Baselandia itself).
I then decided to try my hand at a larger campaign and, after some research, decided the official Wizards of the Coast Elemental Evil storyline Princes of the Apocalypse would be the best fit for the party. This campaign has the players caught up in a war waged between four elemental cults all vying for power in the Dessarin Valley and looking to bring their demonic prince to the Material Plane. Thus I had the stone cult attack Baselandia and destroy their mines, giving the PCs a pretty strong incentive to put a stop to this elemental madness and get some sweet revenge, perhaps even saving the world in the process.
Over the course of the next year and a half, my players fought their way deeper and deeper into the Dessarin Valley, facing cultist after cultist (and boy were there a lot of them!).
They fought air cultists in giant towers, battled stone cultists in concrete monasteries, defeated water cultists in the Plunging Torrents, and overcame fire cultists on bonfire night.
Eventually, at level 10, the party came face to face with Ogremoch, Elemental Prince of Stone, and had an incredible battle before ultimately sending him back to the Elemental Plane of Earth from whence he came.
From planning the sessions to seeing the unexpected twists and turns of a communal storytelling experience, over the last two years I’ve had the most fun and I’m pretty sure my players would say the same thing too. As a new DM, it has been challenging and at times stressful, but ultimately rewarding, more so than I could have originally thought. Now that this epic campaign has been completed, we’ve decided to let these characters rest. But that doesn’t mean we’re stopping with Dungeons & Dragons. We have already spent some time creating new characters and have tested them out on a mini-module that I put together, and now we’re about to embark on WotC’s Rage of Demons campaign Out of the Abyss. We have a Bard, Monk, Necromancer, Druid, and Ranger, and this time if they die, I might feel less inclined to offer up a conveniently placed Well of Revival.