Having trouble writing your own Dungeons & Dragons campaign? Look no further.
I consider myself an experience Dungeon Master. I’ve ran a dozen campaigns, and have been role-playing for nearly over 28 years. Over the years, I’ve refined my campaign process, and I hope writing it down will benefit you too.
No two people are alike, so no two dungeon masters are alike. No two player groups are either. This means that you should take my process as guide, not a straight jacket. Everybody has to find their own process, but reading about how others do it, and why, can help you refine your own work.
So, let’s dig in.
Step 1 brainstorming
You can’t create a campaign from whole cloth. You need a start, a pile of building blocks, a foundation. And that means brainstorming.
You can go full corporate-office-style and put up a whiteboard that you fill with stickies. I prefer to simply use my Apple Notes app, or create a page in Scrivener. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you can easily write stuff down.
In this phase I like to write down whatever strikes my fancy. I like to take some time for it, several weeks or even months. Something I read or see in a television show might spark an idea. Sometimes I just have to sit down and do it. In the end, though, I have a list of ideas.
So, what to write down? Well… anything. “A shapeshifter villain masquerading as a local noble” might be cool. “The players are trapped in a mine that is slowly filling up with water” could be an adventure. Or “they find an artifact that ages who holds it ten years during each rest.” It doesn’t matter what you write down. You are not required to use it. But these are the seeds of your campaign, the stuff it will be made of.
Preferably, during this process you will start to have some idea what you want your campaign to be about. I’d recommend choosing a role-playing system and setting during this phase. For example, “It’s going to be a D&D 5th edition Ravnica campaign”. Because some brainstorming ideas might go a bit far afield otherwise “Save a derelict starship filled with poisonous gas” is cool, but not in Ravnica, which is a fantasy setting.
Step 2 Tent poles
Armed with all that material from step 1, it’s time to start to do some weeding and grouping. A campaign benefits from a central theme, a backbone for the story. Now, I do not like to write down the entire story. I want a good setup, and some of the set pieces and broad strokes for later on.
Writing down everything in advance is a lot of work, and you run the risk of removing player agency. Might as well save yourself the trouble and not do that. You do need a strong opening, a hook to get the players on their way, and an idea of what is going on, and what it might lead to. And then you take it from there (see step 6).
So, I want to go with the shapeshifter masquerading as a noble. How to create a hook for that? A couple of things are needed. The players need to have a reason to get involved, regardless of their different classes, races, and back story. It needs to be exciting. It needs to be an adventure.
You also want a clear short term goal for the first one or two sessions. I’ve been in campaigns where the DM kept piling on complexity and foreshadowing. Around session five the ‘it’ll become clear later’ excuse will get very, very stale. That doesn’t mean you can’t foreshadow things, or leave events unresolved. But, you do need some short-term pay-off.
For now, I’ll give you the tent poles I had for my Ravnica campaign from a while back. You should know Ravnica is a setting where ten guilds rule the world-city of Ravnica.
- Start: the players are asked to join an inter-guild task force
- Their commander asks them to solve various mysterious
- There is a traitor in the inter-guild task force, who manages to spark a war between the guilds
- The guilds blame the players for that war and they become wanted criminals
- End: The players find the traitor and defeat them.
Step 3 The villain
Next step: the main villain. The tent poles are nice, but I try to leave wiggle room. It might be that during the campaign I’ll find better tent poles. As long as you haven’t told the players, it’s not written in stone. If I see a better ending than I initially thought of, I will go for it.
To keep the story logical, I do need two things: to keep track of what I revealed to the players and also, a well-defined villain. You could leave this step out. It is a very valid approach to have the players tackle a number of conflicts with different villains, or even problems stemming from forces of nature.
What is important is that the antagonist the players face is clear to you. You need a Sauron, a Hans Gruber, a Darth Vader — or an acid-blooded alien or even a Meteor. The point is, you are pitting the players against this antagonist. It should be a chess match. The villain makes a play, then the players counter (preferably in an adventure), and the villain moves again. This idea of a move and counter move gives your players agency. Their actions affect the story, but you need to be able to figure out how the villain will react.
What are their goals? What does the villain want, and how do they go about achieving it?
My villain was a shapeshifter from the Ravnica guild called ‘House Dimir’. House Dimir — and by extension the villain’s goal — is to destroy the other guilds. They do this from the shadows. So the villain wants to gaslight the players, and cause mayhem in a way that sets the guilds against each other.
I also wrote down a main false identity for the villain, given they’re a shapeshifter. They would be masquerading as a House Orzhov advocist (another guild). A kind of evil lawyer. That was easy to insert into adventures, and who doesn’t hate evil lawyers.
Step 4 The first adventure
Okay, you have a list of random ideas, the tent poles of your campaign, and a villain. Time to put together the first adventure. As I mentioned, this should give the players a victory, while providing a hook into the bigger campaign theme.
It needs its own hook, its own NPCs, and a proper ending. However, it should play into the bigger events of the story, and preferably introduce a recurring villain, or even the main villain. The players don’t need to know that they’re facing the villain, and might even consider them a friend.
So, what did I come up with? Well, I had the idea for an interguild task force. To start things off, they were sent out on a murder investigation. The murder seemed to point at a certain guild (Rakdos), but was really committed by a member of another guild (Orzhov). The actual murderer could be represented by a lawyer, my actual main villain.
And so, things started to fall into place.
Step 5 Player input
That leaves just one more important step. The players need to create characters for the campaign. They also need a back story. Not all dungeon masters do this, but I always want back stories, and I always work them into the campaign.
Why? Well, to give players a stake in the story. To make it more about them. An added benefit of using backstories is that you can use the backstories as hooks to start adventures, and to give players information no other players have. That is useful to create dilemmas for them, and to help the players shape their inter-player interactions.
Characters are shaped by their interactions, and so, players need to interact about things, especially moral dilemmas. For example, the ranger might not want to stake out a goat to lure a dragon and kill it, while the barbarian does want a good fight, and the wizard doesn’t care as long as he gets dragon scales for his potion. Interactions allow players to shape their characters’ personalities. And the more you can help them, the better your campaign will be. Don’t be mean, or pick on players, but do try to set them add odds with each other. Added bonus: players interaction gives players a feeling of agency, and means less work for you as dungeon master.
In my case, one of the players created a character that was a part of house Dimir, while another character’s family was hunted by a sinister group of villains, and she was trying to figure out what was going on with her stepsister. So, I decided the sinister group of villains was House Dimir, and the stepsister was in fact another guise of my shapeshifter villain. I also started to secretly feed the Dimir party member tasks to undermine the party.
Step 6 Rinse and repeat
And so, you can start your first session. The adventure is ready, and you can roll. Of course, after that first adventure you’ll need a second one, and a third to get to your tent poles — or you need to change your tent poles.
So, how do you do that? Well, you run the adventure and write down what happened and what information the players now have. Then you think up a new adventure using your brainstorming notes, the tent poles, the villain, and the player back stories. No adventure survives contact with players, so you need to take that into account. Taking that into account, think about the counter move the villain(s) might make. Usually, these things will give you enough to write a second adventure, one that might bring you closer to a tent pole. Then rinse and repeat until you reach the end. And voila.
What happened in my case? Well, the party solved the murder, met the advocist and hated him, and I let the Dimir party member place a clue at the crime scene that led to the shadowy group that the other player was hunting with her step sister. My second adventure led to a secret lab of another guild, where trouble happened, and I had another clue dropped. Then the step sister started to gaslight the party. After a couple of such adventures I turned the tables. I had the step sister feed them bad information so they caused a war to spark between the guilds for which they were blamed.
And yes, they did eventually find out what was really going on, and arrested their own traitorous party member.
I hope this gave you some insight into the process of setting up a role-playing campaign. Again, this is my way, and it may not be your way. Take what you like from my process, then make it your own.
Happy dungeon mastering.