D&D General Beginning a new campaign advice - foreshadowing and railroading


Some time ago, I ran a short campaign (very) loosely based around Treasure Island. The PCs were a naturalist expedition to a mysterious island and shortly after their arrival to the island a mutiny left them stranded and the adventure became dodging the treasure hunting mutineers, uncovering the island's mysteries and trying to find a way to escape. Demonic pirates, dinosaurs, mysterious ruins, buried treasure, all that good stuff.

As part of this the first non zero session was set on board ship travelling to the island - a chance to introduce aspects of the setting (pastiche regency Europe, exploring the Not-Galapagos) and for the PCs to get to know each other in a relaxed setting. I also put in some foreshadowing that the mutiny was likely to happen and to give them a chance to spot one of the primary antagonists stowing away aboard their ship. I was also keeping track of how they were treating the crew to determine how hostile they would be post mutiny (turns out the PCs went out of their way to annoy the crew :D )

This all went off very smoothly - the PCs were largely oblivious to the foreshadowing but were able to piece together the reasoning when the mutiny actually happened so it didn't feel completely out of the blue.

I am currently considering re-running a slightly tided up version of this for a new group in the next couple of months and on revisiting my notes I was struck by how vulnerable I'd made the start of the campaign. If the PCs had spotted the mutiny before it happened then I'd be in trouble - depending on when and how they attempt to foil it the PCs may never end up on the island, be overwhelmed by a functionally unwinnable fight (we all know how well that usually goes down) or end up re-framing the whole adventure (from tropical island survival and evasion to having significant NPC backup and a way off the island) in a way that I'm not particularly interested in running.

For the sake of this setup for running the campaign again let's assume all the players are on board with the overall framing of the campaign agreed in session zero - travel to a tropical island, explore it and end the campaign when you leave the island.

I'd like to start the meat of the campaign - the hexcrawl over the island - in a similar state to the previous group. Betrayed, isolated, a little shocked and motivated for a bit of payback.
As far as I can see I have a few options for getting to this starting state:
  • Just run it like last time - Pro: play is quite natural and allows the players the satisfaction of putting the pieces together themselves - Con: As above, risks a very awkward, potentially fatal start to the game
  • Run as before but remove the foreshadowing : Pro: play is natural and doesn't risk the campaign disrupting issues - Con: Mutiny comes out of the blue completely, players may feel they should have been able to spot something before it happened.
  • Start in media res just after the mutiny happens - Pro: dodges the issues above, gets into the main part of the game straight away - Con: Reduced impact of the betrayal, misses the low tension introduction
  • Start in media res and flash back to how they got there - Pro: dodges the above and allows for the intro session - Con: Paradox dodging and can feel quite frustrating as the players know they are walking into a trap they can't do anything about.
  • Tell the players about the mutiny in session zero and get them to play along - Pro: informed player buy in - Con : Similar to the flashback and "ruins the suprise"
Details aside, what I'm attempting to do is force/railroad a starting situation to an adventure where I'd like a bit of play before reaching that start point for largely flavour reasons. Again, assume that this is self-contained and all the players have bought into the basic premise.

It feels like this is something that other DMs would have faced, does anyone have any advice on how to approach this? Am I overthinking this? Is the whole premise flawed from the ground up?

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A suffusion of yellow
If you remove the stowaway and then play a cruel captain and dissatisfied crew then you still get a plausible but not an assured mutiny. Theres nothing to foil except the dissatisfaction of the crew


If you need the mutiny to have the rest of the campaign then I'd start in the immediate aftermath - the PCs have been abandoned, and on we go.

The alternative is to make the mutiny all-but assured, by introducing at least one NPC officer who exists almost entirely to rile up the crew. Said officer should die in the mutiny, of course.


He / Him
You could have the mutiny be one of a few ways the characters become stranded... You could also introduce a storm, a sea monster, a curse... And if the characters manage to stop one then one of the others strands them.

For example, as they investigate this stowaway and rumors of a mutiny, the captain tells the crew they've cross into the territory of a legendary sea monster... Meanwhile, storm clouds gather overhead, lightning flashing and thunder roaring...

Now you have the opportunity for the characters to face (perhaps successfully) one challenge while one or two others still lead them to being stranded.

It's still a little railroady but it builds in player agency and allows them to be the drivers of their own story.

BookTenTiger has it the way I'd run it. If it goes naturally, fantastic. If they're successfully defusing the situation, it'll make them some friends (and some enemies), and then you can have a storm come up unnaturally quickly, have a sea monster destroy the ship, the only visible bit of land is the island, and maybe imply the bad guys are involved as they declare 'if I can't have this ship then no one can!' as massive tentacles rip the ship asunder. It potentially introduces a new thing which needs to be dealt with before they can successfully leave, but significantly increases your options to get to a desirable start state and reduces the story vulnerability.

In this scenario, I'd start with a long opening description that leads up to the mutiny, with the actual game starting after the mutiny. If you want to give the players a level of surprise, don't give them any clue during session 0, preventing them from prepping during character creation. It's a bit of a bait and switch, but is still probably acceptable to most players.

You could just fess up during session 0 and tell them it's going to happen. The downside is that the players can build the characters specifically to mediate the difficulties of being stranded (e.g. outlander background). I'd really only do this if the play leading up to the mutiny is really important and can't just be done via a description.


I’d start in a moment that allows the players to make a choice. After all the things that “need” to happen to get to the point you want. In this case, I think it would be after the mutiny and once the players are on their own.

You can fill in details about the specifics of the mutiny and the participants as you go, or maybe as part of character creation. So there may be certain crew members that are friendly with the PCs. Maybe there are some that are particularly hostile. Maybe other non-crew passengers that can serve as allies or enemies.

I get the urge to start earlier so that you can kind of set some of these things up… but if you want it all to get to a specific point… if that’s where things really start… then I’d recommend starting there.


Like others, I never assume anything will happen unless it's completely outside of the control of the PCs. I may foreshadow that a volcano will erupt but then if the PCs realize what's going to happen then the story just becomes one of trying to convince the townsfolk that they have to flee. In the case of a shipwreck, you could always make it happen no matter what but that feels like you're taking away the player's agency. That wouldn't sit well with many people.

So when I foreshadow, it's always just one possible future, one possible series of events that could happen. Then I have high level outline of what's going to happen if the PCs surprise me and change the series of events. Maybe instead of being shipwrecked they have a different reason to go to the island, either the lure of treasure or some other McGuffin.

It's one of the reasons I think time travel rarely works very well in stories; in order to not mess up the entire narrative you have to have dumb things like "fixed points" in time or multiple universes. I don't like "this must happen" in time travel stories, it's just as bad in planning adventures.

But normally I'd just get buy-in from the players during the session 0. Explain that you'd like to play out kind of a prequel to the campaign, or even do it as a "flashback" series if the group is okay with it. The main thing is to get the group on board before you ever start play, it will work for some people and not others.

Good luck!


Moderator Emeritus
Even if the party gets involved in the mutiny, or finds a way to mitigate, that doesn't mean there aren't factions among the crew that have different ideas of what to do. . . so sabotage or wanting to hold the PCs for ransom forcing them to flee, could be other ways to push the party towards being stranded.

Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
If the story begins with the characters stranded on a mysterious island, then that is where the campaign should begin. Anything leading up to their situation is irrelevant unless it will have any significance or impact later in the campaign.

For example, let's say you want them to run into others from the ship who betrayed them or caused the situation. You don't need to give them an exposition of events that happened, and you don't want to give them the opportunity to thwart it. That's not part of the real story coming up. Its just background and setup.

An alternative setup is to have the players unaware of any mutiny or betrayal. They simply wake up on a strange shore among the wreckage of the vessel. You can let them find clues about the details of what happened as they search for survivors, gear, and supplies. There's no reason they need to be part of the crew to be on a ship. They could just be passengers with limited contact or interest in the crew, until now.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Just to take a step back, how much of the pitch to the player in Session 0 survives the surprise? If it's most of it, all good. And I think that's it - it's still exploration of the island, just with different parameters than they expected.

But if it's a dramatically different campaign then they signed on for, then you are breaking your social contract about the campaign for a single surprise in a session. In that case I'd tell them more in Session 0.

If the mutiny has "plot armor" and can't be changed by the PCs, I would start directly after it. If it has partial plot armor in that it will occur anyway but the effects of it can be dramatically changed by player agency, then I'd start before.

Also, I am a big fan of making rule changes to support the campaign theme mechanically. Session 0, tell them that since it's an exploration theme you are toning down some abilities which will trivialize it. You mention the Outlander feature, that's a big one. Maybe move to a different Rest variant so that you can still support a number of encounters per long rest you want while having weeks of travel. That sort of thing.


Thanks for the feedback on this everyone - I think the overall suggestion to kick things off after the mutiny is probably the best one, a flashback would probably be nice but not necessary.

Regarding the social contract/session zero concerns - yes, I think that this is covered by the original pitch (and anyone familiar with the classic story) The first group I ran this for certainly were happy with it.


Focus more on the setting and overall “problem” than any actual plot. The Japanese describe it as Kishotenketsu. Having an explicit goal just makes the plot too narrow. Work on character interactions first and then the plot will reveal itself.


The simplest way to do this is decouple the mutiny from the stranding.

A mutiny occurs and then a storm or monster shipwrecks them. The PCs may or may not stop the mutiny, but can’t do anything about the ship-wrecking event.

You get to start aboard ship, gradually raise tension as the mutiny winds up, give the players a chance to get involved, and then throw them into an entirely different challenge on the island.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I posted earlier, but I've been playing forever. So I asked this question of a pair of teen D&D players I knew.

They both would want to start before the mutiny, and with a "there will be unexpected things on the island" during the pitch but not keeping the mutiny a secret. They both liked the idea and would play in it as well.


Why couldn't the PCs be on either side of the mutiny? There could still be plenty of paths to follow. Someone still needs to get the map and follow it to the treasure. Then meeting with the other side and chances to defect back to the other side. Throw in a "battle of 5 armies" where both sides need to come back together to fight undead or something. Lots of possibilities.

Still the problem of initially siding when the mutiny starts.


Victoria Rules
If the story begins with the characters stranded on a mysterious island, then that is where the campaign should begin. Anything leading up to their situation is irrelevant unless it will have any significance or impact later in the campaign.
Unless the OP's intent as DM is to give the PCs a chance to get to know each other - and to roleplay this introduction process out a bit - before they find themselves in an emergency situation rather than after. I get this, as it's what I'd prefer to do as well.

The simplest way to do this is decouple the mutiny from the stranding.

A mutiny occurs and then a storm or monster shipwrecks them. The PCs may or may not stop the mutiny, but can’t do anything about the ship-wrecking event.

You get to start aboard ship, gradually raise tension as the mutiny winds up, give the players a chance to get involved, and then throw them into an entirely different challenge on the island.
I like this approach.

The nice thing about it is if the players stop the mutiny and the villain ends up in the brig (instead of murdered), you have an opportunity to introduce the villain back into the game later on the island (since he'll escape during the storm!).

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