This article builds heavily upon the previous one which spoke about what to do before and during session zero. You can find it here.
At this point, if you’ve gone through session zero and its pre-prep, you have a lot of tools in your bag. You know at least a little about your world, the player characters, and the histories of both. Now you just have to mold all that chaos into something cohesive and compelling. This is the fun part. You get to begin crafting the mightiest epic of all time!
Might as well shoot for the stars, right? But where does it start? Where is it going? How do I make this less overwhelming?
Each character likely has at least some drama written into their back story at this point. A good player might have even provided you with several hooks. This is a great time to make a list of all of them for use as a future resource. Afterwards, you have two options. First, you can pick one of those hooks and use it as the central plot for the entire campaign. That does tend to center the action around a single player, but there are ways to mitigate that of which will speak of shortly.
Secondly, you can look at all those hooks, even if its just one per player, and start thinking about what might be at the center of that web. What could you possibly do to link them all together? Could it be that the same villain or forces are at work against all of them? Is there some grand adventure that could sweep up all their pasts and destinies? Sometimes that answer comes easily. Other times, its a slog and might not be worth pursuing.
There isn’t really a right or wrong answer here. If one of their hooks really stands out, feel free to center around it. There will still be plenty of fun for the other players to have. If you had a huge idea for the campaign when you started, all the better. You can start figuring out how you want to work the characters into that tapestry. It’ll likely take your original idea in directions you never thought, but that is a big part of the fun.
So now you probably have an idea of the grand scheme of things. Take some rough notes. You might think you’ll remember all your great thoughts, but you won’t. If something really grabs you, write it down. Then, take a moment to congratulate yourself. You know what your campaign is going to be about.
But wait… you have this big picture, right? But what about the first session? You know where the big bad is, you know what they did, but you can’t just start the players at the final battle. How do you begin?
Very, very small.
Pacing is really one of the hardest things about running a game. You can’t just throw all the awesome out all at once; you have to build up to it. The first quest can be only marginally tied to the outcome of the overall campaign. If there is an evil warlord rampaging across the land that the players will eventually face, maybe the first quest involves dealing with some kolbolds that have been seen in the area. The kolbolds have been displaced by the rampaging hordes of the warlord, but no one needs to know that. Maybe the players hear news in the tavern of this warlord. Its enough to get it on their radar but not enough to make it important enough to immediately pursue. It could just be rumors at this point.
While you slowly build up the main story line, how do you keep the players engaged? Easy. Use their personal back stories they wrote. I like to rotate which player the current quest is focused around. I take one character and make sure elements of their back story are present to give them a sense of connection to the campaign. Perhaps they run into an old acquaintance or friend of a friend. Better yet, maybe a friend of an enemy.
Recently, I had a party who was traveling aboard a ship. A few good perception checks later, they notice one of the dwarven sailors was keeping an eye on them. When they confronted him, they found out he used to serve under a different captain who was an enemy of one of the PCs. The sailor had no personal connection to this. He was just curious, having had a physical description of the Bard in question before. The interlude pretty much ended after the questioning, but it had a lasting effect: It kept the player connected to that sense of danger. Its real, still out there, and likely coming for them.
All in all, the first quest doesn’t need to be over the top. Have a hook, make a few encounters, and you’ll have enough to carry you on to the second one. Once it gets going, it’ll likely flow itself and you’ll have to give it just a little guidance now and then. The players will do the heavy lifting. You’ve been grooming them for that since before session zero. Just keep making the game about them, and they’ll be happy to do the work.