One of the hardest things to do is to start a new well thought out Dungeons and Dragons campaign. What is a campaign? A campaign is a cohesive story that lasts months to years in real-time. If you have seen Stranger Things on Netflix you could view the entire show as a single campaign with story arcs that comprise each season of the show. Each season wraps up a lot of the storyline but still leaves open questions that can be solved. Then the new season picks up where the last one left off – maybe months later – to answer those questions and ask new ones. In many ways, you should view your campaign like any good episodic TV show.
- Introduction: View your campaign as TV show
- Core elements to plan a campaign
- World Name
- Your Story
- Major Kingdoms / Races
- Notable Factions
- Important Alliances / Rivalries
- Heroes / Villains
- Campaign Length
- Major Plot Twists
- Story Arcs
- Major Events
- What else is needed?
- RPG City and Country Planner
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Introduction: View your campaign as TV show
Think of your D&D game like a TV show. Each episode is a game session. Each season is a story arc inside of your larger campaign. As you string together episodes / game sessions they form a story arc that has an introduction, middle, and conclusion that is still open-ended to move to the next story arc.
As you conclude a season there is a very clear introduction with characters and conflicts being introduced. Then as you progress through the game sessions you are fleshing out the middle of the story where most of the action and reveals take place. Everything typically culminates in a fight with an enemy or group of enemies. Wrap-up that may reveal a new clue, enemy, and/or conflict that needs to be dealt with. Queue the next story arc. Rinse and repeat as much as needed.
Core elements to plan a campaign
What are the core elements that are needed to plan a campaign?
- World name
- The brief story you want to tell
- Major kingdoms and races
- Notable factions (could be religions, guilds, powers)
- Important alliances / rivalries
- Well-known leaders and villains
- How long do you think this will last (Months / Years | Levels ___ to ___ )?
- Major plot twists you want to foreshadow?
- How many seasons (or acts – like in a play) do you see you need?
- Briefly plot out the major event in each season and what is needed to transition to the next season.
- Timeline the events if that would help you.
Printable of all this info
RPG City and Country Planner
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Amazon book of all this info
Let’s deep dive into each of these areas so you have an idea of how to build out your campaign at the highest level.
Check Out Our DM Journal
The Dungeon Master Design Kit is for Dungeon Masters that like to create their own RPG campaigns from scratch, but have trouble keeping all of their notes in one place.
This book contains 5 pages of questions for you to quickly plot out the overview of your RPG campaign.
From there we split into three sub sections (or sub plots or acts) and ask drill down deeper into the story line so that you can tell a cohesive story in your RPG even if it lasts for 45+ weeks.
If you want to name your world then you can. If you just want to name the kingdom where everything will take place then you can do that here if you wish. It is up to you to determine the scope and size of the world.
This is covered in detail in our World Building Guide that can be found here. In short, this will include a brief history of your world, the geography (including a map if you feel you need one), and any other notable cultures to give your world depth. This will also allow you, the dungeon master, to have an idea of where your players originate from. If elves only live in one part of the world then any player playing an elf must have been born in that part of the world. This can help that player form a backstory if the location of your campaign is hundreds or thousands of miles away.
This is where you briefly set up the story you want to tell. I want to begin this section by dispelling an objection I hear when people read that line.
First, the dungeon master needs to have a storyline in mind to run the group through.
Second, no this doesn’t mean that the dungeon master forces their storyline down the player’s throats.
Third, it means that the dungeon master has a general outline with names, places, conflicts, and events laid out beforehand. However, it is up to everyone at the table and the randomness of the player’s actions and dice rolls to determine how those events take place.
Fourth, dungeon masters have a duty to not remove the players’ ability to make their own choices.
Therefore, when you are creating a story that you want to tell it is to give a sense of guidance for the players to have the ability to make choices. A fully open sandbox world wouldn’t be fun to play in.
Over 50 Pages of RPG Ideas
Get adventures for 5 popular monsters for Pathfinder and D&D. Each one will have 10 adventure ideas like the ones on this page, but each comes with a longer adventure with a custom map, hook, plot, climax, and aftermath with named NPCs and items (if applicable).
Avoid a sandbox
Before you write angrily about that last line, think about it for a second. Pretend I am your dungeon master and I say, “Ok you meet in a tavern. What do you want to do?” There isn’t a hook or call to adventure. Just 4 people in a tavern having a drink wondering what to do on a Monday night. Instead, the dungeon master knows the players will eventually be responsible for saving the world or potentially all failing and dooming the world into perpetual darkness, but that will be in a literal year from now. Tonight I need to introduce a minor villain for them to follow to the major villain.
Given all of that, what story do you want to tell? What stories will your players want to hear? I would suggest you look at playing the lexicon game with your players before you dive too deeply into the story. You can find that here.
Major Kingdoms / Races
List out any kingdoms and races that are a major influence in your world. So if you have three major kingdoms each run by a single race (i.e. human / elven / dwarven kingdoms) or a kingdom of humanoids (player races) vs monster kingdoms (i.e. undead, goblins, etc.).
Are there any notable religious groups or guilds or secret organizations that have power in the world? If so, list them and what they have dominion over. Are they known by everyone and if known is their power also known? Does everyone know that the local merchant guild is actually pulling the strings on who is put on the advisory council to the king, for example?
Important Alliances / Rivalries
Are there any kingdoms or factions that work well together? Does the human kingdom have a deal worked out with a certain group of religious clerics or guild? And the inverse, are there any groups that are actively working against each other? If there are, is it a friendly rivalry or is it a violent one? Do the players have to choose a side or is this happening in the background and may not come up in your game? If you have rivalries it gives a good excuse for one side to hire the players to have a quest to steal, raid, and gather intelligence against the other side.
Heroes / Villains
List any notable heroes and villains in your world. Names that most people may know if the name was mentioned. Then create a small paragraph describing their name, role, class, level, backstory, and role in your world. This will help flesh out your kingdoms and factions.
How long do you want to be the dungeon master in this story? I bring this up because in my groups we share the dungeon master duty and we try to commit for a period of months to allow the next dungeon master time to come up with a story they want to tell. Give us time to play the lexicon game a month before the next dungeon master starts their game. If you are the only dungeon master in your group this could still be helpful so you know how long you want to run with this story.
In other words, not all games need to last for years. If you have a clear final closure (for the most part) you can move to a different world or a different time or location in the same world and tell a different story.
One thing to think about is what level will they start at in your campaign. Are you going to try to run this story from level 1 to 20? Maybe only levels 1 – 8 or 12 – 18? The choice is yours.
What level can you start a campaign at? What should you consider if starting after level 1? Click here for our article on this topic.
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Major Plot Twists
Do you have a major plot twist you want to spring on the players? Is the “good” king really the villain’s brother or the villain himself? If so, note that here so that you don’t forget. Also, make sure that this non-player character (NPC) hints at this at least 5 times in a month or two before the reveal. You don’t have to be obvious about it. But have a couple of interactions where the players think “something is up with this NPC” even if they can’t figure it out. This helps them not feel blindsided.
If you are looking for a small backstab there isn’t a need to foreshadow it, much or at all.
How many story arcs / seasons / acts do you think you will need? I recommend a minimum of three for a story that will take about a year with seasonal breaks. My groups have a hard time meeting in July and December for #reasons.
What major events will be happening in your story? Are there certain things that will happen if the players do nothing or fail in a quest? Are there other things that will always happen no matter what the players do? I like to list the ones that are unchangeable with an * in my notes. I won’t do a lot of those but they are critical to the storyline. Note that even if they are unchangeable it doesn’t mean that they can’t be influenced or lessened by the actions of the players. See the timeline below for an example.
I love a good timeline as it helps me to plot out what the NPCs will be doing if the players don’t stop them. So I like to create a timeline of what would happen if no one intervened. This also lets me plot out major events that may not be movable. For example, the major villain is gathering an army and nothing the players do will change that fact. Now the size of that army could be diminished if the players complete certain quests that remove the villain’s allies from the world.
What else is needed?
After you have the overall campaign plotted out it is time to ask yourself what you need for the story arc / season / act.
Creating the act
You can start by laying out the introduction and end of each act. In the first act, the players need to be introduced to the conflict and at least one villain to get them started. The first act can end when the players defeat this minor villain but then learn that that villain was just following orders.
So the next act starts with the players hunting down the next villain. This villain has slightly different goals, tactics, and more power. You can repeat this until the players defeat the big bad villain and stop the overarching master plan that could be figured out just before the final conflict.
This then leaves you to create the individual game session / scene / adventure.
Creating the scene
I cover how to create an individual adventure in depth here. In short, you need a hook (to get your players moving), small conflicts, monsters, traps, puzzles, a map, etc. You don’t need all of these, per se, but enough to keep your players engaged for several hours.
We have covered how to handle the overarching campaign planning and linked out to two resources to help you plan your next campaign.
They are basically the same but the book has it laid out so you can plan your campaign, then do your first act and 9 scenes for each act. It also contains some added things at the end of the book for naming NPCs and locations.
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About the Author:
Dwight Scull has been playing tabletop role-playing games (starting with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) back in 2001. He started being a dungeon master around 2005.
He loves to play many different types of TTRPGs, including Pathfinder, GURPS, Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension (and other White Wolf Games), Nights Black Agents, and others.
Fan of mysteries, light horror, co-op board games, true crime, sci-fi, and fantasy.