They are innumerable ways to start a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign and none of them a the right answer. My absolute favorite method of starting a campaign is the low level, very grounded slow burn. It does take a group who shares a deep level of trust and players who are really willing to experience a slow narrative, especially in the beginning where they may not be deeply involved. Let’s go into the nature of slow burn pacing in a D&D campaign, talk about what makes it something I love, and some pitfalls that can come with it.
Feel that slow burn pacing
The best memories I have of playing D&D over the years have all stemmed from a campaign that started small and simple. All characters involved are not adventurers… yet. They are farmers, priests, and laborers but they all share one common trait: they yearn for more. Whether known to them or not, within them is the drive for greatness just about to show itself.
The first few hours of play are meeting these individual characters and the important people in their lives. Family, friends, and neighbors are so important in these early sessions, so much so that the starting hamlet really starts to take on a character itself. Starting like this plays heavily into the tier system suggested in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. You start as a member of a small society then through drive and purpose, become heroes of this small town before moving on to a bigger struggle.
This style focuses heavily on exploring characters and building them up. The narrative needs to have connections to the characters or else why would these characters be the focus of this story? It’s important as a Dungeon Master to spend time sitting down with each player to work together, crafting and sculpting a compelling character who has a plan for growth with the space to do it.
Like many things in life, this isn’t for everyone. Firstly, if it wasn’t terribly obvious, if you are a player who needs combat every session this is not likely to happen. There will be many hourlong stretches of talking with NPCs and other players in character. The characters are the centerpiece for this campaign type and you have to be a player who derives a lot of enjoyment from this aspect.
This might also be a frustrating style for someone who wants quick progression. Lending to more of a creeping of advancement rather than grabbing up levels and magic items quickly. This may also lend to player frustration for those who need to be the spotlight in most scenes or even in a single scene every session.
When using slow burn pacing in your D&D campaign, it tends to be an entire session or even two in a row might be focused on a single character. This doesn’t mean you can’t contribute or find ways to be involved, but the scene is not crafted and handed to you. It takes a skilled player to always be thinking, “How can I contribute in a meaningful, non-upstaging way?”
These types of players are amazing, the ones who are engaging the spotlighted character, asking important questions to get the difficult thoughts out in the open, prying skillfully into the backstory of this character. These players will shine and often be paid back when their scenes come up and the rest of the players at the table want to help improve set pieces focused on them.
A good burn for your D&D campaign
The benefits that come from slow burn pacing in a D&D campaign are what really drive my taste for them. When people talk about this hobby being a group storytelling venture, this style of game is hyper-focused on that idea. The story is focused on the most interesting part, however. Not the world, not the dice, and not the NPCs. It’s intently focused on the characters, their growth, and how they fit with the world and NPCs.
The players’ choices of how their characters react to the myriad situations that crop up can snowball, greatly changing the course of the game. Yes, there are villains, dungeons, and NPCs needing aid in this campaign, but the the pivotal focus is the characters and how they interact with these scenes. The world is altered by there actions, initially in small ways.
An NPC who has been treated well might speak well of the party, which might even lead to those characters being aided due to these rumors. Conversely, if the party acts cowardly, this could have ripple effects later. The greatest aspect by far is that most of the adventures the party goes on means something to at least one of the characters. This can take the shape of fulfilling an ancestral destiny or as small as being tested in a way that makes the character question their ideals and bonds. This style of game combines the beauty of roleplaying games and the strengths of narrative in all other mediums.
What do you think? Do you like slow burn pacing in your D&D campaign? Is this something you want to try? Have you tried it and disliked it? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading and I hope to see you next time.
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Child of the Midwest, spending his adolescence dreaming of creating joy for gaming between sessions of cattle tending. He holds a fondness for the macabre, humorous and even a dash of grim dark. Aspiring designer spending most of his time writing and speculating on this beautiful hobby when he isn’t separating planes.