ast week, we went over D&D Next's approach to low-level characters. This week, we take a look at low-level play from the DM's side of the screen.
When it comes to campaigns, we see the first two levels of character advancement as the DM's chance to set the tone for the game. Just as the players have the opportunity to settle into their characters' abilities as they work toward 3rd level, DMs can use this part of the campaign to start slow and build toward bigger things. Levels 1 and 2 are your chance to experiment a bit. You can lay down the foundations and boundaries for the campaign. You can kick the tires on any optional rules you'd like to use. Those initial levels give the group as a whole a chance to play for a session or two, then talk about what's working, what they find exciting, and what might have fallen flat.
Every DM has a different style and unique ideas for a campaign, and the first two levels of that campaign give you a chance to set the ground rules for your game. For one DM, those levels might be a sort of weeding-out process, with only the luckiest or most cunning characters reaching 3rd level after many sessions of play. Another DM might see those beginning levels as a chance for the characters to become familiar with important elements of the campaign—for example, the powerful guilds that rule over a massive city standing at the confluence of a dozen major trade routes.
Character backgrounds are a key tool in campaign creation. Since backgrounds are easy to design, a DM can create a set of backgrounds customized for the campaign. For example, in the city dominated by guilds, each background the DM creates could tie into a guild, or be linked to a group that fights against the guilds' rule. Adventure hooks, connections to key NPCs, and other elements of the campaign that help drive the action forward can all be included in a character's background.
A character's traits, flaws, and bonds can also bring a campaign to life. Just as a DM can shape backgrounds to the campaign, a list of customized traits, flaws, and bonds can help players tie their characters into the action. In a game of political intrigue, the DM might ask each player to select a bond to a noble house, marking it as a friend or enemy. With that sort of element added up front, the campaign has a clear focus for everyone from the beginning.
For things like feats, backgrounds, and other character options, we'll be up front in the rulebooks about how your gaming group should talk about these options ahead of time. Many groups use the first session of play to create characters. In D&D Next, part of that session should also focus on the overall tone of the campaign and the DM's approach to the game. Is this an epic story with the adventurers as the central characters? Is it a perilous dungeon crawl where survival is its own reward? Is this a post-apocalyptic Earth where magic has returned and ancient deities have awakened?
On the other hand, you might want to just sit down and bash some monsters. Though all of these tools can prove useful to your game, we believe that the ability to ignore certain tools is just as important as the tools themselves. Our general approach is to keep the core as simple as possible, so that complexity and options come into the game only when a group is ready and eager for them. The rules are like a concierge, ready to help as much or as little as you want. There are as many styles of D&D play as there are players, and the rules should exist first and foremost as a tool for the group, not a constraint.
Feats, customized backgrounds, and other options are just that—options. Like any other tool, options can be set aside if they don't suit the style of your game. If a DM says, "I'm not using the guidelines for building encounters balanced against party level," that choice doesn't hurt the game. Rather, it tells the players to expect an exciting campaign fraught with danger, where deadly monsters lurk around every corner and fleeing might be a party's first choice of tactics. In designing elements of the game that serve as tools for the DM, we've always kept that "No, thanks" option in mind. D&D works best when the action flows and the rules serve the gaming group, rather than the other way around.
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.