6 tips for writing awesome D&D campaigns

I’ve written a number of role-playing campaigns, across a number of systems, but mostly Dungeons & Dragons. Hopefully, that means I can give you some good tips.


So, I’m going to give you advice. That’s always a risky proposition.

Always, and I mean always, take advice like this with a grain of salt. What works for me and my party might not work for yours. I’ve played with varied groups of players, and all groups are different. Some players like more combat, others more intrigue. Some are very involved, others need to be dragged into the story. There are those who like to explore the rules, those who just want to mess around in a strange world, and those want to be sucked into a story.

Basically, your mileage with these tips may vary.

Also, in the title it says ‘D&D’ campaign, but most of these tips apply equally well to a Starfinder campaign, a Shadowrun adventure, or a session of Numenera.

With that out of the way, onward to the tips.

#6 Create choice

Writing a role-playing campaign is not the same as writing a story. I’ve done both, and they are very different beasts. A story uses foreshadowing and character arcs to push a story to an emotional climax. The reader needs to identify with the protagonist you created.

However, in a role-playing campaign, the players have created the protagonists. They’ve put together a character and want to get to know them, and guide them through a story. You need to do it differently then a story. To get to know a character, the players need choices. They need dilemmas, both puzzles to solve and moral quandaries to debate.

This means that any campaign you make as a dungeon master should contain different paths. When you write a campaign, you should not try to create a fully fleshed out story. That’s a trap. As I’ve written about before, I don’t even plan far ahead these days, but instead focus on changing the story based on what the players do.

#5 Add memorable NPCs

Have you ever played Skyrim? In that game, the world is populated by a thousand NPCS — Non-Playable Characters. However, they all barely have a personality. Each shopkeeper repeats the same mantra “the finest weapons and armor”, and the phrase “I took an arrow to the knee” is super famous, but not because of the character it belonged to. It was a stock phrase villagers might utter.

NPCs are what makes a world come alive. We all remember Jeff Moreau from Mass Effect (if not, go replay the game), or Yennefer (or Ciri, or Triss Marigold) from the Witcher games.

To make a role-playing campaign come alive, create memorable NPCs. I always try to give them a twist, such as the overweight dwarf who had accidentally swallowed a ring of create food and water, or the magistrate who kept pushing players to enforce stall-placement rules on the market instead of investigating the string of murders in the city. If the players don’t care for the NPCs, they won’t care to save their world. Make them count.

#4 Mix combat and story

Some groups prefer intrigue. They do not want to engage in violence. Some groups prefer combat without all the silly storytelling. Both are valid play styles, but I’ve found most groups of players fall in between these two extremes. And that means you have to mix combat and story.

Finding the right balance between the two can be hard. If you err on the side of story, you might have sessions that start to drag. When a player talks to an NPC, it’s only that player. That means the rest end up fiddling with their character sheets. Puzzle-solving in a made-up world is also hard, because nobody can actually see the world. Combat, on the other hand, can get boring if there’s too much, and the story doesn’t provide the proper emotional framework for the combat.

You want enough story to make the combat stand out, preferably ensuring the story invests the combat with tension. On the other hand, you want enough combat to challenge players and reign in their feeling of invulnerability. Yes, your actions can have deadly consequences, and yes, you do need to invest in good armor and a sword.

#3 Put player goals at odds

Players create characters that they want to be unique. Making them unique is hard. One way to help them is to put their goals at odds.

For example, I once had an NPC blackmail a player character into acquiring an item, and then had another NPC convince a player to destroy the item. That accomplishes several things at once: your players have a dilemma to work out, the tension goes up, and the players have a chance to role-play their differences. Who do they side with? Do they choose to appease the party? Confess? Keep secrets? Backstab each other? The choices are legion and the results always interesting.

One word of caution: ensure you don’t create tension outside the game. Usually role-players can separate the game from the real world, but not everybody can do that. It helps if people have been playing together longer. But if arguments carry over outside the game, step in. Immediately. Friendships have been ruined over less.

#2 Don’t plan it out

Wait, what?

That’s right, don’t write an entire campaign.

I already alluded to this above, but it bears repeating. Some dungeon masters write out their entire campaign in advance, often even before the players have created their characters. There are three dangers in that.

The first problem is that it can lead you to railroad players through your story. If players wanted that, they’d read a book. Players need agency, meaning they need to be able to change the way the story goes. See above. When the story is already written, that becomes harder — not impossible, but it’s harder to steer players in a specific direction than it is to simply adjust your story to match what they do.

If your campaign tells the heroic story of NPC A and B, instead of the tale of the players, the players get bored. They need to be the center of attention. You need to make it about them. That’s what a role-playing game is about.

And finally, it’s very hard to do pacing properly when everything is set in stone. Each session of a campaign should ideally fit a chapter in the story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. With a pre-written story, this is harder to do.

There is one exception to this. I advise against pre-writing a campaign. However, there are a ton of pre-written campaigns out there. Are they bad? I personally hate them, yes, for the reason outlined above. But writing a campaign is hard. So using a pre-written adventure book as a basis can help. I start playing with one, three decades back. It can help, especially when you don’t know the rules yet. Which brings me to my last tip.

#1 Find your own process

Don’t take my word for any of what I just wrote. Figure out what works for you. Look at player reactions. Experiment. The Internet is filled with role-playing advice, but that all goes out the window when you come into contact with the enemy… er… the players.

When the game is on, you are in charge. Not me.

So find your own way of running games. Use a pre-written adventure. Make it all about combat. Do what you want and find your own way. And if you can’t, don’t be afraid to admit it. Not everybody enjoys being a dungeon master. And that’s fine.

Also, if a session backfires don’t be scared to discuss it. “I tried this new gimmick and I don’t think it worked very well” is way better than sending players home thinking they should find a new group to play with.

But when all is said and done, ensure that you and your players enjoy yourselves.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands