Creating a D&D campaign that works, that engages your players session after session and gives them the tools for their characters to grow is one of the great pleasures of DMing.
Throughout the course of a great campaign, the players and the DM have the chance to create a story together and in doing so have an amazing transformative experience. A great quest that draws in the players is a truly timeless thing and this post, on the topic of how to create a D&D campaign, sets out some ideas and principles for you to experiment with.
As with all posts on this blog, the advice is simple - borrow what works, ignore what doesn’t and create the game that YOU want to play. There are no hard and fast rules, so magpie as many ideas as you can and use them to make something amazing.
What is a Campaign?
A D&D campaign is an ongoing series of related or connected adventures, often set in the same location or using similar characters. Think of a campaign like a season of your favourite show, where you see a progression in a greater narrative in each episode.
A campaign can be set in a particular location (a city or a wilderness mountain range), or it can take PCs on a tour of an entire world or set of realities or dimensions.
The location isn’t as important as the narrative thread that binds them together, without which your campaign becomes a series of adventures or encounters that have little to connect them. There’s nothing basically wrong with this of course, but it’s not a campaign.
Unlike the plotting of a great novel, when a campaign is being devised, the DM doesn’t have control over the actions of all the characters and the PCs can take the campaign in new and interesting directions through their actions and responses to encounters.
Just as the show runners of great TV series re-write and re-think scripts even as each scene is being filmed, it’s ok as a DM to think on your feet and add new elements.
You can drop elements of the campaign that you don’t think are working any more or which mess with the pace and the flow of the adventure.
You can introduce new sub-plots, story lines and even set up the next campaign as you play the existing one (Marvel are masters of creating new storylines before the current one has been played out).
Think of the campaign as a live document, something that can be altered if it suits the overall gaming experience.
A great place to begin is with one simple question - what story are you trying to tell? Ultimately, as DMs, we’re all just story tellers who are co-creating narratives with players and throwing in a little chance to liven things up.
Your Campaign Story
If you were writing a pilot for a TV show, you would be expected to come up with an elevator pitch (the summary of the story that can be told to a bored TV exec in the time it takes to ride an elevator up to the 15th floor).
It’s always a good idea to have an elevator pitch for your own campaign and here are a few examples.
When players arrive in a dark city full of secrets they are forced into helping a princess escape from prison. Her uncle, the king, has seized control of the realm and his necromancer advisor is secretly building an army of the dead to invade neighbouring lands. The PCs must help the princess overthrow her uncle and restore justice to the realm.
A family member of a PC has been reported missing and the party journeys to an abandoned mineshaft to find them. They are sucked into a terrifying parallel reality where monstrous vampires riding giant eldritch bugs hunt mortals. The PCs discover a doorway back into their own world and learn that the family member has actually been conspiring with his new vampire allies.
The PCs are rogues and misfits who are given the choice of helping the local spymaster or going to prison. They must infiltrate the enemy to find out their plans and in doing so prevent the overthrow of the realm.
Blood Stone Heist
The PCs are in debt to the most fearsome gangster in the realm who believes that they can obtain immortality by seizing the Blood Stone. This priceless gem is part of a crown worn by the princess of the realm and guarded by the King’s most powerful mages. The PCs must infiltrate the kingdom and plan the most audacious heist of all time.
We will come back to these pitches later on. You might have observed that they are both brief and vague, and this is purposeful, if we start to impose too much depth and detail on them at this stage they easily become dull and lifeless. Let’s imagine that we’re going to use the Blood Stone Heist and we’ve decided to create a 12 session long campaign. The first thing to do is to create a narrative structure to the campaign, and the easiest way to do this is to think of it like a movie or a play. There are three acts in a movie, of which normally the second act is the longest, so out of a 12 session campaign you might see something like this emerge:
Act One: Sessions One and Two
Act Two: Sessions Three to Eleven
Act Three: Session Twelve
Why does it take this shape?
To answer this question you need to think of the point of each act. In act one we establish the players in the world, understand who their friends and foes are and learn about the nature of the challenge.
A perfect example of an act one set up is everything that happens in the Fellowship of the Ring from Gandalf arriving at Bilbo’s 111th birthday to the moment Sam and Frodo flee from the shire. During this scene they acquire the knowledge that is needed to inform their actions and propel them through the story all the way to Rivendell, Moria and to the borders of Mordor itself. This is what you need to do in your first act.
The Second Act is the bulk of the adventure itself. It begins when the PCs set off from the known to the unknown, for example what happens when the PCs leave the tavern they have been staying in which is familiar and start to wander across the wilderness to their objective.
During the Second act they need to acquire information about their adversary, they will be challenged by setbacks and given opportunities to grow and become more skilled or powerful (because by the time they encounter the big bad they will need to be stronger than the heroes they were when they started their quest).
The third act is the climax of the adventure, and needs to be skillfully set up by the second act. If halfway through the second act the PCs have encountered an enemy far more deadly than the final big bad, then the climax becomes an anti climax and the defeat of the big bad seems easy or pointless.
The big bad might have appeared previously and defeated the PCs, leaving them fearful of facing it again. Think of act three as your version of the final battle in Avengers Endgame, which is a particularly good example because half way through the battle Thanos raises the stakes again and says that he will now shred the universe down to the last atom. Without a well structured act two, however, which in both The Fellowship of the Ring and Avengers Endgame are full of setbacks to be overcome, the Third Act makes no sense.
So, to this end we have to keep ratcheting tension throughout the campaign, which doesn’t mean making things harder and harder until they become impossible (which will just make your players give up - impossible isn’t half as motivating as people think it is), but the challenge level should continue to grow as the players grow.
There are several ways to keep ratcheting tension:
Contextual Tension: Once the heist has been discovered, the streets fill with the King’s soldiers who are going house to house to find the players.
Challenge Tension: Throughout the adventure, the monsters and bads become harder to defeat.
Time Tension: The PCs only have a short window of time to achieve certain tasks.
Setback Tension: The PCs lose a crucial item or person they need in order to ensure their success.
Consequences Tension: If the PCs don’t achieve their goals there will be serious consequences - these must be consequences that the PCs will be forced to live with (being fugitives, becoming lost in the evil dimension).
Sample Plotting: Blood Stone Heist
PCs are gathered together by a gangster they are all indebted to, and told to steal the Bloodstone.
Problem: If they don’t do this, they will be on the run for the rest of their lives, but if they do, their master will become immortal and he’s bad enough as it is.
The PCs accept the mission and before they set out are able to find out about the stone. They learn that it keeps a Princess alive with its powers and she will die without it. They learn that it is guarded by fiendish traps.
Problem: The PCs risk killing an innocent person to get themselves off the hook from their evil employer.
The PCs also learn that either:
They can use a form of mirror magic to clone the stone.
The stone itself has an evil twin that is cursed and will trap the person who wears it.
The evil gangster is in way over his head and has no idea what forces he is meddling with. Interdimensional custodians of powerful gems have been sent to stop the PCs before they create a monster.
Now we can see that Act One has sent Act Two spinning off in one of several different potential directions and this alone should give Act Two lots more pace. We’ve increased the stakes and now we need to give act two some structure.
We know where act one takes place, at the tavern and at any site that can help the PCs prepare for their ordeal (at a temple where they learn about the Bloodstone, or meeting a reclusive hermit driven half mad by it). Ideally, these locations shouldn’t be too far away from the tavern, because we want location hopping to be the stuff of Act Two. Let’s create three scenes within Act Two.
Let’s imagine that PCs have to travel over the border to the rival kingdom, which is ruled by the Princess and her father. Sneaking through the border defences might be the first challenge they have to face. Act Two Scene One might be the bit where PCs have to cross through the underdark in order to pass under the border defences.
In this scene, we can just occupy them with the monsters of the caves and the physical difficulties of crossing chasms and swimming through underwater lakes, but if we don’t refer to the main narrative the underdark sequence becomes a disruption to the story not a continuation of it.
So, we need to find a way of bringing the PCs back to the main story. Perhaps they find a clue about where the Bloodstone’s twin can be found? Perhaps as they go through the dark they are ambushed by the interdimensional stone hunters?
Perhaps they discover an anomaly that lets them see one of many possible futures where the gangster has the stone? All sorts of stuff can happen deep underground and so you’ve got license to place here ‘the thing that will keep the narrative moving forward.’ It might be that the PCs need to find a useful item, piece of information, fragment of a map etc - you need to think of a reason for it being there in the first place.
In Scene Two, Act Two we need to take the PCs further towards their goal. Once they emerge from the underdark and they are on the other side of the border we must ask ourselves the question ‘now what?’ The player’s logic will be to go to the capital city where the Princess lives and hatch a clever plan to seize the jewel. That, dear reader, would be boring and so we must prevent the players from acting against their own best interests and making things dull.
Let’s help them to know a bit about where they have wound up in scene two and in doing so enable them to understand the effect of the Blood Stone on the Kingdom.
Let’s imagine that they PCs emerge near a small town a few days' ride from the citadel where the Princess lives. It’s a great place to regroup, treat any wounds they might have sustained and plan the heist. However, there’s a problem; a mole in the gangster’s organisation has alerted the King to the presence of thieves and the town is under lockdown with the king’s trusted advisor in charge.
The advisor is a powerful wizard who uses mirror magic and has a large portal mirror in his chambers. Depending on how we’re thinking the story should go, the PCs could use the Portal to find and seize the twin stone, or they might decide to use it to swipe the original.
As they pass through the Mirror they naturally pass into Scene Three.
Here they find either the gem’s twin (let’s give it a spooky name like the Serpent Stone) or the Princess. Now Scene Two Act Three is a pretty crucial one, it’s here that we can’t let up on the action, but we have to make sure that we don’t make Act Three the anti climax. We might make the Princess a powerful mage or a creature transformed by the Blood Stone who is aware that the PCs are coming and battles with them. The Serpent Stone will naturally have its own scary defender. Even if the PCs do battle here, there’s still something missing. If they come away with either of the stones do they then traipse all the way home, dutifully hand over the stone, witness the gangster become an evil demon type creature and then just slay him? How boring would that be?
Something else has to occur, and in this instance I’d suggest some sort of accident. Perhaps the Princess uses a portal to the future to show the PCs what the gangster is plotting, he senses the portal and, knowing the magic name of the gem, calls to it and summons it through the Portal. You might decide, in the interests of niceness, that the portal clones the gem, so the princess gets to keep one and therefore doesn’t die. It might also mean that the cloned gem is less stable than the original. The PCs then have to cross through and do battle with the gangster and his mob.
The Blood Stone Ending
Now the PCs must face the gangster, who has powers beyond his understanding. They won’t be able to defeat him through brute force alone, instead they have to have discovered a crucial piece of information in the underdark or the town about the stone. They must understand something that the gangster himself doesn’t quite understand about the stone he has sought out all his life. Recall how Dr Strange is able to outsmart Thanos by understanding the only sequence by which the Avengers could win? No amount of battling Thanos any other way works. What if the PCs learned that the Blood Stone will be benign when worn by a good sort like the Princess, but will become more like the Serpent Stone (which we’ll come to in a moment) when it is worn by an evil individual. What if the PCs know that the interdimensional gem hunters have a special prison lined up for the gangster and the gem, and they just have to lure them there? What if the PCs realise that the real owner of the Blood Stone, a demon, can be easily summoned and the gangster can be tricked into using the gem in a special way to do so?
The Serpent Stone ending
Ok, so what it the PCs locate the Serpent Stone and try to palm it off on the gangster? Well guess what, the Serpent Stone and the Blood Stone are the same thing, just in different states. When the PCs find the Serpent Stone, it’s basically the Blood Stone that has been in the hands of an evil user, which it has devoured. Now the PCs discover they have a dangerous artifact on their hands and one which produces nasty beasties to attack them. The stone reading the players minds, senses that an evil dupe is at hand and opens up a doorway to the gangster who steps through and takes his prize. The PCs are in real trouble now, or are they? They know (because you, the DM left the information lying around for them to find) that the Serpent Stone, after making its user powerful will suck them into a dimension of pure horror. Once the Gangster realises that this is his fate he will try to escape and if possible sacrifice the PCs, so the final battle involves forcing the gangster, the Serpent Stone and the beasties through the portal and then destroying it.
So if we’ve done all of that right, the two possible endings with the gangster should be pure adrenaline show stopping mega battles that push the PCs right to the very edge of their abilities and even face one or two with having to make the ultimate sacrifice. How do we reach this zenith at this particular moment? Through structure, through pacing, through having a framework.
Everything in this article is supposed to be useful, but not all of it will be of use to you in every circumstance and scenario. Cherry pick what you want and discard the rest, stick to a structure when it serves you and go rogue when that feels like the right thing to do.
We will return to the Blood Stone adventure next time and look at how to seed it with adventure hooks for the next phase of the campaign, how to introduce recurring villains and a whole lot more.