There many ways to make a D&D campaign, but today I am going to give you some advice from 18 years of experience on how to make a great campaign!
When you make a D&D campaign there are many important steps. The most important is having a solid beginning and end. The middle should be almost bare.
I have tried to fill in every part of a campaign before it has begun and it was disastrous. This is the most important part of making a successful campaign.
The beginning and the end
When you make a D&D campaign you need to properly craft a beginning and an ending.
In order to craft a good beginning you need to first set up the world and go through some pre-game things (which we will talk about later). After you have answered some important questions you need to answer the most important questions.
Why are they here, and why should they stay?
If these questions are not answered then the players get bored quickly. That is why many dungeon masters handwave how the players met and put them in a desperate situation like being stranded in the desert or running out of money.
You need to give a reason why the players are where they are at. Did they form a group to survive? Have they been working together for a while and it is only natural to try and find a job? These can be answered fairly easy, but the hardest part is getting them to stay.
No campaign can work well if the players do not want to play in it. That is why you should give them a reason to care. The reasons can vary from player to player. One person might want to kill the woman responsible for murdering her parents while another wants to protect the town.
You need to give them a reason to care and a reason why they should stay together. If any of those reasons fall apart then the game quickly falls apart. This is why a paladin and a necromancer are generally not the best characters to have in the same party.
The ending is extremely important as well. Where do you want this game to lead? Do you want the party to eventually throw a ring into a volcano? Does the party eventually kill a king and ascend to become gods? What epic idea do you have?
Once you have an ending make sure to stick to it. Do not foreshadow events or set up storylines to only pull them out from the parties feet as a surprise. No one likes this, but if you know the ending then you can adequately set up these epic endings.
If the players can look back at session 3 and remember something that should have been obvious but wasn’t since hindsight is 20/20 you have made a great campaign. Everything should eventually tie together and once players realize that everything ties together they will be impressed.
Why you don’t want to plan the middle too much is because you are not writing a book. You will need to leave some wiggle room for the players’ actions to matter.
If every single event is planned out then why play and what do you think your players are, rational people? Players will completely go off the rails and no one can predict what players will do.
D&D is where everyone works together to tell a story. Not just where people follow the story that you are trying to get them to play out. That is called railroading and it is absolutely terrible.
These blank sections can be planned out a little bit. You can loosely say after the beginning that should be mapped out where the players are intended to go. Something simple like ‘goes to a wizard tower-big battle-help slaves?-kill necromancer-fight evil god’s minions-kill evil god avatar.
The end is mapped out. The players will kill an evil god avatar, but getting there and the specifics of that encounter are non-existent.
We will talk a bit more about this later, but for now, we need to talk about what must be done before the game begins.
Tone and setting
You need to talk to your players. Tell them a few options for making a D&D campaign and get some ideas. You might be surprised to learn that a person who was in your last game that contained world-shattering events wants a smaller scale game. Perhaps only to a small region or city.
Talking to your players will help you understand what game they want and make a better game for everyone. After all, no one wants to play a game that they will not enjoy. This is why you present to them a few options so that you can also enjoy what you will be playing.
The setting can be something as simple as a small town, or as large as multiple dimensions. The setting can also be a low or high magic setting. It is a big question to answer, but once you get an idea what players want, you have somewhere to start.
After you have given some options to your players and received feedback you need to create the world. This is a huge part of the setting and luckily we have a whole article on creating the world here so read that make a grand world of your own!
Now that you have the setting down you need to figure out the tone of your game. Is your game lighthearted, realistic, a comedy? You need to figure out the tone of the game that you are running and make sure that everyone is fine with it.
I, for example, would be fine running a game that is serious and gritty but my players want some lightheartedness. This doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen, but it can’t be too serious with the fate of the world in their hands every new quest.
On the opposite side, players might feel that the game doesn’t mean anything if you are not being serious enough. Some players like to have a serious game where progression is important. It all depends on your players and what you want to play.
Whatever you think the tone should be, you need to stick to it. Sometimes you are able to break from that tone and add in comedic elements or serious elements, but they are never the main focus. Stick to your tone for the campaign that you are running and don’t change it midway or it will make the campaign feel strange and alien to everyone.
The next thing that you need to consider when making a D&D campaign is size and length.
Size and length.
Are the players going to go on a small size campaign or a giant size campaign? If you are only playing at school for a semester then the campaign should probably be a smaller one. If you are grown up, have been playing with your friends for a year and will continue to do so then you might be able to make a bigger campaign.
A short campaign will only last less than a year and a long campaign will last more than a year. I would always advise making a short campaign since you don’t know what will happen in life. Only plan for a long campaign if you are sure it will happen and everyone is going to make it work.
I have planned a lot of long campaigns that have never finished because real life came up. It is a terrible feeling and I wish that I could just have finished them, but I can’t. I don’t want you to make this mistake so be sure about your group and everyone’s interest/life before committing to a long-standing campaign.
The safe bet is to make a small-sized campaign that has room to grow or have additional parts. The hobbit is a great example of this. The characters got to go through a story of their own and when they finished it a new campaign was born out of the first one.
If you are not 100% sure that the campaign will make it into a year or longer then plan for small campaigns. These games can link to another campaign if it goes longer and is the safe bet.
Now that the pre-game aspects are covered let’s talk about how to plan for a campaign.
If you are going to make a D&D campaign you probably have some ideas already. We get inspired by many things and start to make a story revolving around them.
If you don’t have ideas you generate them through looking at inspiring things. Books, movies, other games, the monster manual, whatever piques your interest think about the coolest experience that you have ever had. Now use that.
If you don’t have an experience that screams at you then you can watch movies, read books, and just try to find something that you like through those.
After you get a cool idea figure out how to make it unique. You are not re-telling Star Wars or some other story. People don’t like that. Instead, make it something new with your own twist on it.
It is okay to use other people’s ideas as long as you make them your own. This is where people might have some reservations but that is only when it is a complete rip off of someone else’s idea. If you make it your own and add some flair you have generated an awesome campaign idea!
Now how to work that idea.
When you create a campaign idea you need to work backwards.
You need to envision what the players will end up doing in the end and then work backwards. Create that big bab encounter in the end (loosely) with the idea that they will face the evil person and save the world. If not the world, perhaps they will destroy a corrupting item to save the town after finally being able to destroy the darned thing.
You need to have a concrete idea of what the ending will entail. The players get to the edge of a volcano and throw in the ring. Whatever you have planned make sure it happens but be prepared to change everything in that ending on a dime.
The players might want to keep the evil object and become evil warlords themselves. You never know what the players will want to do. This is why you should now fill in the beginning.
We talked about how the beginning should be filled in with a bit more concrete session ideas and the middle has vague entries. Once the time comes to plan those entries plan them in detail like the beginning.
You want to work backward and leave enough gaps so that your players can influence the story in their own way.
Players influencing the story
Players will want to play D&D, not be part of a book. This is critical when you make a D&D campaign. That is why we leave areas blank for players to add their own flair to the story.
When filling in these areas the players might do something ridiculous like kill the mayor of a city that they are in. Should they have killed the mayor? No, they should have not, but they did. Now you can create different arcs to fill in some of the blanks.
These arcs can be based on player decisions, consequences, or backstory.
A player’s backstory might come back to haunt them and make the game more personal. This increases the investment and makes the game more interesting.
A character could have a change of heart that takes a whole arc to resolve. These are personal character arcs and are a great addition to any story.
Do not make every arc be a character arc. Others will get bored and even miss some sessions if their arc is over and everyone is going through their arc. I know it seems ridiculous but I have seen it happen and I don’t want it to happen to you.
Sprinkle these character arcs in and you do not have to make them the main part of an arc. A player’s past can come back to haunt them while the villains are a main part of the story. There are many ways to do backstory arcs.
The other personal arcs that you can use are consequences. The players earlier killed a mayor. They should not just get off scot-free without anything bad happening. The players should be punished in some way.
This shows that their actions do have consequences and whatever they do shapes the world around them. If they have to face an enemy created by their own design they will feel more like they should continue the game.
If the players decide to save 1 village instead of the entire world then have them deal with that decision. Show the destruction that their decision caused and make that a focal point of the game. Decisions are a great way to give weight to the game and make it feel more alive.
Personal arcs are the arcs that dungeon masters either do too much of or completely forget about. You can make normal arcs by filling in the blanks for any session. The problem usually lies in making your players care.
Making players care
When you make a D&D campaign you are creating something for yourself and the group. Earlier you gave them some options on what campaign they wanted to run. This is a good start but you need to make the campaign itself desirable to the players.
No one will want to stay in a city that constantly fights them at every turn and is horrible.
If you give the players something to protect, they will want to protect it if they value it. A great way to do this is by making good NPCS. Not every NPC needs to be bad and harm the party. Some can be great. If you are interested in making NPCS then read our article on them here.
Another great way to make the party care is by giving them something they care about. The most common example is a home. If the players have a home that is something they have earned and cherish then they will go through hell and back to keep that home safe.
You also cannot make these things a burden. If an NPC the players like is always asking for help the players might get tired of their requests and feel that the NPC is a burden rather than a contact. The same thing goes for their home.
If the players feel that their home is more of a pain than it is worth then they will want to abandon it. For example, I started my party off with the Dragon Heist module and they gained a bar. The players also according to the module had to deal with an infinite number of guilds. This in addition to their own issues that they caused made the bar a liability.
It was almost abandoned, but due to their incompetence, they had to go back to Waterdeep with a party member running the bar successfully. I handwaved the guilds and the players have loved that bar ever since.
The party tried to abandon a home because it was too much. Your party will do the same if you are not careful. So make a D&D campaign where your players will enjoy what they have and want to participate.
If you don’t, the players will just leave and want to do something else. Can you blame them? This also begs the question, why are they here?
Why are the players doing whatever they are doing? Why does it have to be this town or this job? You need to have an answer and have the players on board. It could be that they are given something important for completing the mission.
The players could be doing what they are for revenge, justice, whatever reason that you come up with the players will have to be on board for.
In order to do this, you need to make an interesting hook. A hook is where you lure the players into your campaign by giving them a reason to risk their lives.
This hook is very important and can be as simple as giving a person money for completing said task. A hook could be something personal like revealing the name of the person who murdered their parents. Whatever it is, it is the reason why the players are going to do something.
On the same note, the villain should have a reason why they are doing something. There has to be a cause for conflict. The villain might be trying to gain more power to bend the city to their will, or the villain might try to end the slave trade by becoming a slave lord. They could think that being a slave lord is the only real way to provide services since the government is corrupt.
Making a simple reason is okay, but a complex one that has no real answer gives you more to work with.
Working villain motivations into your campaign
You know where the ending is. You have made the enemy with a motivation for your players to face at the end of the game, so now you have to add elements of that villain/reason throughout your campaign.
In session 3 you can show how the slaves in the city are abused. In session 11 when the players try to do something, they find out that their efforts are being thwarted by higher-ups. They would need to completely re-structure society and it would be chaos.
These little threads can keep popping up here and there so that the party is aware of them but never overbearing. If the party is chasing a murderer through the streets you can mention how they see a slave and then move on. You do not need to mention that they see slaves every time, but it should be evident enough that the players know about it.
When you make a D&D campaign you want to impress people. You want them to remember session 3 and think it was brilliant how everything linked back to the endpoint. This doesn’t always happen, but it is more impressive when you can do it.
This all stems from working backward. Once you know the ending it is easier to plant little pieces throughout the game.
This is how you make a D&D campaign successful. Work backward, fill in the blanks, and have a solid ending/beginning. Work session to session and let the players decisions have weight.
Give the players consequences, changes, and rewards based on their actions. D&D is a game where you all organically tell a story, not where players act out a book for your amusement.
You might still have questions like:
‘How do I introduce my villain?’If so, then read this article dedicated on how to introduce your villain.
‘What if I have already started and don’t have a campaign idea?’ If so, then read this article dedicated to creating a campaign after you have already started.
Our website has answers to these questions and more so check us out!
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!