Dungeon Mastering Dragon of Icespire Peak
Part 1: Planning the Campaign
This series is intended to introduce running Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) games as a new or returning Dungeon Master (DM) through the Dragon of Icespire Peak campaign provided in the D&D Essentials Kit.
Whether you’re preparing to be a DM for the first time, someone who wants to one day become a DM, are someone (like me) who returned to the DM Screen after many years, or just a DM looking for advice on running the Icespire Peak campaign, this blog series is for you!
Throughout the series, I’ll present tips for planning, expanding, and running the campaign. I’ll have campaign-specific advice and also best practices and suggestions on being the best DM you can be. Every DM has a different style, so not all of my suggestions will work for you, but it’s my hope that every DM who reads this series can take something away from it. This series is principally written for those playing in person, but most of this guidance applies to games run online using a virtual tabletop (VTT) as well.
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Getting Ready to Be a DM
What You Need to Know
If you’ve decided to take on the role of DM, chances are it’s because you love creating stories and worlds. Maybe you’ve been enchanted by the way another DM wove a story in a game you played in, and you wondered, “I wonder if I can do that?” The answer is, of course you can!
You might assume that, to get started, you need dice (true), players (true), an adventure (true, but you can make one on your own if you like), and a complete and comprehensive knowledge of the rules of Dungeons and Dragons (hint: this is the false one).
In fact, very few DMs are true masters of the rules. Instead, we become really good at adjudicating situations within a loose framework. You can always look up the correct ruling later, but it’s more important to keep the game flowing than to look up every single rule at the table. This ability to adjudicate on the fly is actually BETTER than knowing all the rules, because there are situations that will inevitably arise in your games where there exist no formal rules for how to handle, and being able to improvise a ruling on the fly will show your players that you are truly master of the game.
Here’s a list of the things you actually need to understand, all of which are covered in the basic rules:
How attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws work
How Advantage and Disadvantage work
What a difficulty class (DC) is, and the difference between DCs (hint, easy = 10, moderate = 15, difficult = 20, adjust to your liking)
How to read a monster stat block
How to create a character (you won’t need to create one, but your players will, and it helps if you can answer questions)
In addition to these rules, there’s an excellent section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Chapter 8: Running the Game, which has some solid advice. However, most of it is very situational. Still, I do recommend reading the sections on Table Rules, Rolling the Dice, and Using Ability Scores. These sections together will teach you a lot about adjudicating situations when you don’t know the actual rule.
How to Find Players
While it is possible to play solo, D&D is best as a social experience, so you’re going to need to find players. If you already have players, great! If you want to put together a group, here’s an article I wrote on how to do it.
There is lots of good advice on running great D&D games on SlyFlourish.com, but one I’ll point out here is an article on finding and maintaining a D&D group: https://slyflourish.com/finding_players.html
Choosing an Adventure
We’re assuming for this series that you’re planning to run Dragon of Icespire Peak from the D&D Essentials Kit, which we’ll talk about more, below. However, you can also create your own adventures. Check out this great video from Matt Colville on running your first adventure.
Like me, you may have chosen the D&D Essentials Kit and the Dragon of Icespire Peak campaign because the idea of building your own adventures sounded too time consuming or overwhelming. And what I will share with you is that both creating your own adventure and running a published adventure both require some work, but of slightly different types, and both approaches can be fun and don’t have to be too time-consuming.
The focus of this blog series will be specifically on using Dragon of Icespire Peak, but I will be suggesting a lot of ways to customize the campaign and make it your own, so I would still encourage you to check out that Matt Colville video as well as any of a number of articles on Sly Flourish’s website.
Planning the Campaign
Dragon of Icespire Peak is a relatively short campaign that will take characters from level 1 to level 6 or 7 and can be completed in 4-6 months depending on your play frequency and other factors. Our group had 6 players, we played 3 hours a week and the campaign took us just under 5 months to complete. The campaign is set in the Forgotten Realms, setting of the recent Dungeons & Dragons movie, many popular novels by R.A. Salvatore and other authors, as well as many well-known video games such as the Baldur’s Gate series. If you don’t know anything about the Forgotten Realms, it’s not a problem, but there are some factions you can leverage the flesh out your campaign if you don’t mind doing a little Googling or checking out the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.
The campaign is set in the mining town of Phandalin near the Sword Coast. It’s the same setting as the shorter introductory campaign Lost Mines of Phandelver. In Dragon of Icespire Peak, a white dragon has recently moved into the region, and it’s causing all sorts of problems and, surprise, the town is in need of adventurers to help solve local problems. On top of this, worshippers of Talos, god of storms and destruction, are causing problems in the region. The campaign is made up of a bunch of short adventures, some of which are connected and some are not. Characters will complete quests for the town before ultimately having to deal with Cryovain, the white dragon, and this campaign’s big bad evil guy (BBEG).
You should read the section on Running the Adventure and I also recommend skimming the Location Overview for each adventure just to familiarize yourself with the campaign. You don’t need to read each adventure in detail at this point. We’ll do a deeper dive into the structure and content of the campaign in the next article for this series, but up front it’s important to consider some the bigger picture question: what kind of game do you want to run?
To answer this question, you should jot down some notes to yourself to answer the following questions:
Do you want to run a game that is more gritty and feels like the stakes are high? Or will it be more lighthearted?
What kinds of play do you want at the table? What is off limits?
It is more important to have a satisfying narrative arc or for the players to feel like the world is realistic? Or somewhere in the middle?
When are you willing to “fudge” a die roll?
Are there any house rules you want to adopt? Any specific rules around character creation?
It’s helpful if players create characters who would want to get involved in the campaign you’re running, rather than characters who have nothing to do with the world. (For example, if one of your players creates a character whose heart is set on traveling the planes, they have no real reason or motive to participate in this campaign.) So it’s vital that you tell the players what the campaign is about. You’ll do this by creating a 1-page Campaign Overview.
This Campaign Overview should be limited to a single page and it should tell your players:
What’s the campaign about?
Where is it set?
What will the tone be like?
How might your character fit in?
What house rules or character creation rules will everyone abide by?
Much of this content will come out of the notes you created for yourself when you answered the questions above about the type of game you want to run.
I also suggest providing some “hooks” that the players can use when creating characters. These hooks should provide a clear and compelling reason that the characters would be traveling to Phandalin. Your players can use these hooks to create characters that are appropriate to the campaign, or they can create their own backstory.
In either case, you should work with the players to make sure their backstories are appropriate to fit the tone and you can (and should) use those backstories throughout the campaign to bring the story to life and make it personal.
Here’s an example of the Campaign Overview I created when I ran Dragon of Icespire Peak recently.
A Session 0 is a session with your players where you discuss together the kind of campaign you want to play together. It’s an opportunity for you to share more of your answers with the players, and also hear from them what kind of game they want to participate in. D&D is not a one-sided affair, and you’ll have the best time if you and your players are all on the same page about the type of game you’re sharing.
During Session 0, players can also create their characters together, deciding if their characters know one another. It also gives you a great opportunity to learn what’s important to the players based on how they build their characters. This information will be invaluable as you plan and run Dragon of Icespire Peak. Character backgrounds, hooks, and roleplaying choices are all information that tells you, the DM, what matters to this player. With this information, you’ll be able to tailor the campaign specifically for your players and make them feel like an integral part of the story rather than simply cogs in a pre-built adventure.
Here’s an example of the notes from the Session 0 I ran for my campaign.
Relentless Brewing Campaign
You’ve already seen my Campaign Overview and my Session 0 Notes. For our campaign, we started with 5 players and added a 6th partway through. Here are the characters we began with and the important details I took note of from each player:
Reed, a halfling rogue. Reed stole a mysterious magical gem from a wizard outside of Baldur’s Gate in retaliation for his father’s death and is being pursued by mercenaries from the Flaming Fist. Reed is traveling to Phandalin in an attempt to get as far from Baldur’s Gate as possible.
Bjorn, a human artificer. Bjorn’s parents left him to go adventuring when he was a child and never returned, leaving Bjorn to grow up in an orphanage. He trained under gnome artificers and set out on his own as an adventurer, hoping to discover something of his parents’ fate and seeking to help other orphans wherever he could.
Orfro, a half-orc cleric of Gond. Orfro was raised by his human mother who, in passing away, shared a letter from Orfro’s half-orc father that referred to the lands around Phandalin. Orfro hopes to find his father and forge a relationship with the man he never knew.
Corston, a gnome artificer. Corston travels far and wide, seeking to spread the word of Gond by bringing technology to the masses. And if he can make a few gold pieces while doing so, so much the better!
Gwar, a halfling bard. Gwar is on tour raising funds to pay for his tuition to bard college. He may owe some money to a suspicious bugbear bursar, but he’s confident his alliance with the Harper’s will help him gain valuable (and profitable) life experience.
Joining us partway through the campaign was:
Norix, a dragonborn fighter. Norix was cast out of his homeland by an evil dragon who took over his tribe. He briefly joined the Zhentarim before realizing they were too evil, and traveled west looking for work as a mercenary when he stumbled into the party midway through the campaign.
Most important was that each of the players had given me details around which to flesh out and tailor the Dragon of Icespire Peak campaign to make it personal and integral to their characters. We’ll talk about how to use all that rich information in an upcoming article.
As we get further into the blog series, we’ll have more specific guidance on Dragon of Icespire Peak. For this article, I tried to keep things at a high level. In addition to the guidance above, here are some additional resources I recommend checking out at this planning stage:
What do you think? If you’ve run or played in Dragon of Icespire Peak, what tips do you have for a new DM starting out? What topics would you like to see covered in future articles? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Part 2 of this series will cover Phandalin, it's NPCs, and the first adventure. Subsequent articles will present ways to incorporate subplots, tying the characters to the campaign, raising the stakes, and enhancing and building upon the existing adventures.
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