Anyone interested in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons can play the game for the rest of their lives and experience unique circumstances in every session without dropping a single penny on the game or accessories. If the only content you incorporate comes from the free Basic Rules there’s still a wealth of possibilities for worldbuilding, character creation and adventures filled with incredible D&D magic, memorable villains and flexible character options. Or, if you’re like us and our friends from Kobold Press you get a kick out of designing your own material like spells, magic items, races, classes and every little nuanced thing you can dream up to drop into your games and share with other players for theirs. At either end of this broad spectrum and everywhere in between your 5E D&D games really come alive as players and their characters discover the campaign world and what makes yours unique. Let’s get into it.
D&D magic,villains and character options
Show — don’t tell!
What distinguishes your campaign setting? Considering the elements of 5E D&D that capture your imagination and how they fit into your world goes a long way towards filling in the gaps before, during and after every session. It’s easy for an NPC or the omnipotent narrator Dungeon Master to explain a tense political landscape in the kingdom. If intrigue is your jam, instead convey this to players through the suspicious looks their characters receive from various factions. Perception is reality and adventurers are always a wild card — the party’s known or unknown enemies and even their friends and allies may not be sure what to make of the adventurers at any given time.
Your epic quests can take place in the Forgotten Realms, Midgard, one of many established worlds or your own homebrew setting. But once your adventures begin the world adapts to the stories you tell. Showing each other what makes the world and characters cool is one of the most effective ways to keep all the players interested, including the DM.
The Basic Rules for 5E D&D are a toybox. Take a handful of old NPCs from commoner on up and give them a cantrip or one of the many special subclass spell lists and now you’ve got something entirely new. Otherwise bog standard nobles able to cast burning hands and command presents something intriguing. For a DM this becomes a worldbuilding exercise. Do nobles from a region beset by supernatural forces become indoctrinated into a cabal and receive these powers to drive back dark forces, or do they rule harshly and mete out terrible punishment with searing flames? Whether players and their characters grow curious or not, they’ll remember those eerily commanding nobles who shoot forth thin sheets of flame from their outstretched fingertips
If the material in the core books is the assumed default D&D magic, incorporating new spells into your campaign all but guarantees showing off the unique quality of the setting for your adventures. Believe me when an enemy mage casts a spell from outside the Player’s Handbook, players notice. Nerdarchist Ted threw adventurers for a loop years ago with his Arachnomancer and spells like nest of spiders and more recent creations like our School of Beardomancy developed an entire mythos around the strange energy of the Beard Dimension.
When you want to showcase villains in your games a terrific place to start is the Monster Manual. Before your eyes go immediately to the juicy stat block and plans for how to destroy the party begin to form take a look at all the other writing on the page and you’ll discover a lot of heavy lifting done for you. I flipped mine open to a random page and found more than enough inspiration for molding a yeti into a fantastic low level villain.
“A yeti’s windborne howl sounds out across remote mountains, striking fear into the hearts of the scattered miners and herders that dwell there. These hulking creatures stalk alpine peaks in a ceaseless hunt for food. Their snow-white fur lets them move like ghosts against the frozen landscape. A yeti’s icy simian eyes can freeze its prey in place.”
Show off your scary yeti villain before adventurers ever even get a hint anything is amiss. Traveling a lonesome pass through frigid mountains and hearing a terrifying howl echoing all around you triggers warning bells. The unknown source shows players their characters aren’t alone. Perhaps even more frightening, characters do know what made the chilling sound.
Additional text reveals yetis can smell living flesh from miles away despite any environmental conditions. Some believe their howls contain the voices of those killed by brutal arctic terrain. They may attack in large groups against settlements when food is scarce and even be used as pawns lured into deadly confrontations.
Considering all this and springboarding your imagination can be the perfect formula for transforming any creature (like a yeti) into a proper villain whose motivation (hunger) combines with clever tactics on very familiar terrain to create a challenging, fun and rewarding villain.
Generally speaking characters in 5E D&D don’t refer to themselves as their character class. Maybe wizards. They’re really proud of their accomplishments as a practitioner of the arcane arts. Character options might be one of the most important — and fun — considerations to make for a 5E D&D campaign. I know it sounds silly but how player characters and NPCs view themselves and others makes a big difference. If clerics are recognizable as spiritual leaders, adventuring clerics may find themselves drawn to minister when folks approach them for guidance. Paladins who take the same Sacred Oaths may swear those oaths along with others in a loose knit organization or even a vastly complex one.
When you come across new character options things really heat up on both sides of the DM screen. A new Primal Path makes a great example. In our own Fane of the Frost Wyrm product we created the Path of the Frost Wyrm for 5E D&D barbarians. To go along with it we put together a short adventure meant to introduce new character options thought show rather than tell. In my Spelljammer campaign I modified the School of Void Deep Magic material into an Otherworldly Patron — The Void, which had tremendous significance throughout the campaign.
Create opportunities for players and Dungeon Masters alike
You can add all the homebrew and third party 5E D&D content in the world into you game or none and all and the thread running through all these examples remains the same. The deepest way we connect with the tabletop roleplaying games we love to play comes through those immersive moments when players visualize the world and begin to wonder more about what surrounds them.