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October 14

How to Write a D&D Campaign in 5 Easy Steps

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Wondering how to write a D&D campaign? I've spent over 10 years DMing campaigns small and large, quick and long, in taverns, jungles, futuristic worlds and everything in-between. Here are the five steps I follow every time I sit down to write a new adventure!


There comes a time in every Dungeon Master’s life where published, official content just doesn’t scratch the itch anymore.  

Your vampiric tyrants in a gothic-horror demiplane, your undead dinosaurs rampaging through a tropical mercantile island, and your wanderings in the frozen north beset with witches and magical beasts... 

...all are trite and bland in comparison with the ideas fermenting and brewing in your head! 

The only problem? 

Transcribing those bubbly ideas from the nebulous realm of your mind to the nebulous realms of your players.

Send-to-Sleep

Fear not! This article is going to do its darndest to ensure that your ideas, your adventures can shift from thought and memory into actual, functioning game play! 

 Here are five easy steps to help you write amazing, interesting, and fun D&D campaigns!
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How to Write a Dungeons & Dragons Campaign

Writing a D&D campaign involves five simple steps:

Let’s dive in!


Understandyourstyle

Every person has preferences in the stories they enjoy and the media they consume. 

Some people love high-stakes thrillers, where a team of plucky rogues band together to steal a rare and powerful object from the clutches of a dastardly megalomaniac. Others prefer quiet, character-driven dramas about living in a small town at the end of the decade. 

The first step for crafting an adventure is to understand what you, as a person and a dungeon master, enjoy in life. 

Whether it be heists or hull-breaches, politics or partying, or simply seeing where the road takes you, a dungeon master seeking to make their own adventure will have innate preferences that lend themselves to certain styles. 

Genre is often a good starting point when sitting down to begin. 

PActboon

Ask yourself: What kind of stories do I enjoy?

Dungeons and Dragons is a game of infinite pathways to adventure, and many different genres have existed in the system’s history. Horror, comedy, adventure, epic fantasy, modern day, even sci-fi! 

Once you’ve figured out what kind of style you want to run in your game, look for some sources of inspiration! 

Genres have tropes and archetypes that inform the viewer what they can expect from the content — a horror movie will generally be unsettling, intense, and frightening, for example. 

So, if you want to run a horror campaign, think about what you love about horror — the monsters, the silly decisions, the intense drama, the scary imagery — and try to incorporate that in your game’s style. The same goes for any genre. Write down what you love about it!

Take action: Make a list of all the genres and tales you love. Write down the movies, books, games, and comics you love and what you love about them.


Step 2
Content and characters

Every adventure starts somewhere! 

Whether it be fighting ghosts in a graveyard, scouring an ancient tomb for a glowing object of immense power, or in the dead of night during a city-wide invasion from aliens, every adventure has a beginning. 

As a dungeon master, it’s your job and passion to decide what kind of content you’ll create for your first (and future) sessions. You can be as detailed as you’d like, but know that not everything can be encountered, no matter how long a group stays in one location. 

Generalize first, then go into detail when you’ve hooked your players with an idea.

Charactersandcontent

When creating content, it’s often helpful to consider the Five W’s of Writing: Who, What, Where, When, and Why?

When I sit down to spin some content up for my players, I often think of an idea, and then put it through the Five W’s. Here’s an example:

I want my new adventure to be a segway into a bigger conflict, now that this story arc is coming to a close. The party really seemed to hate that dragon cultist that escaped from the last fight scene, so I’ll start there.

  • Who is this dragon cultist? A devoted knight templar to the Dragon King, of course!
  • Why is he a dragon cultist? He seeks power, fame, and the ability to turn into a dragon!
  • What made him become a cultist? His family. Nepotism is a theme in this campaign, and I think it’ll help the party really come to hate this jerk.
  • Where is he from/Where is he going? To serve the Dragon King, he travels around the continent, subjugating and annihilating the weak.
  • When will he strike next? The next town, in the dead of night, when the party least expects it.

Using the Five W’s, you can help flesh out not only a potential plot-line, but also develop a character into something more than just a line or two of notes. 

The best thing? 

You can apply the Five W’s to anything: towns, people, objects, monsters, etc. 

These questions help you identify the facts of a situation, and also provide important details! 

Of course, these questions not only help flesh out your ideas, they also help organize your thoughts and provide a path to creating Character.

While your players and their player characters are often going to be the main protagonists of your campaign (even if you might not WANT them to be sometimes), they won’t be getting any adventures done without a strong cast of supporting characters. 

The NPC, non-player character, can be as simple as a way to voice a concern or bestow a quest, or as complex as the villainous mastermind that’s pulling every string behind the curtain of your campaign’s setting. 

Do not be afraid to be silly, or scary, or simple — your characters are, just like monsters and loot, tools to help further your content and to create more content.

Take action: Take time to develop your main story, based on the inspiration you took from step one. Write down the end goal of the campaign (i.e. stopping the arch-villain or creating the ultimate party boat), and use that end goal to decide on interesting characters your party will meet along the way. Then, use the 5 W’s to flesh out those characters.

Creating a stable of recurring NPCs, like a local guild-master or arcanist, can help ground the player characters and provide them a stream of content. This leads to Step 3: Developing Conflict.


Conflict

No matter how peaceful the town, how quiet the kingdom, how gentle the forest, something or someone is going to come about and muck everything up. 

Conflict is essential to any story or adventure: things do not happen in a vacuum. The world is a messy, complicated place! 

Conflict is inevitable, and should be embraced by a dungeon master for what conflict brings to the table: a chance to see new places, risk the wealth or safety of your party members, grab more power from the hands of the villain, or end a storyline in a blaze of glory!

When developing conflict, it is good to consider a few Crucial S’s: Start, Scale, Stakes, Settle.

  • Who or what is Starting this conflict? Is this a conflict caused by the player characters, and the dungeon master is reacting to it? Or is it the opposite, where villains in the campaign are applying pressure or threat to the player characters, and the party is forced to react?
  • What is the Scale? Scale is how grand and far-reaching the conflict can be. It is often a good way to represent how influential and powerful a party has become over the campaign. At the start, the scale will be small: bar-room brawls and scuffles in the woods over a few bandits. Then the next thing you know, every battle is scarring the world and bringing demigods to heel. Dungeons and Dragons is often like that.
  • What are the Stakes? Stakes are what a party can gain, lose, or damage during a conflict. They can be people the party loves, a rare item the party has gained or is trying to gain, or an entire village’s livelihood and safety. Generally, a conflict will end with the stakes being settled, or raised. If a villain lies dead, the stakes are settled — the party won. If a villain rides away on a blimp, cursing the names of the fighter and cleric, only to live another day — the stakes have raised. That villain WILL be back, and they WILL be stronger.
  • How will this conflict Settle? The monster lays dead and defeated. The village is aflame, but safe. The tomb has collapsed. The villain is manacled and led off in chains, curly mustache deflated and no longer twirled. Settle the stakes: what did the party gain? What effects did that have on the setting? Did the party bolster their reputation, or damage it? Settling a conflict doesn’t always have to end well for the party — maybe they succeed, but at an immense cost, or with scars. Playing with how a conflict settles can further a campaign, develop or introduce content, and even shock and surprise your players!

With the Crucial S’s, a dungeon master has a strong grasp on how their story will play out. 

Preparing loot, buffs, or consequences allows a story to progress. Players can talk about the events and make plans, and a dungeon master gains an easy way to further their content. 

Maybe your world map is ready to color in the next shadowed spot now that the local baron has been defeated? Maybe the legends of that magic weapon are starting to turn into facts and rumors that the party can act upon? Maybe the villain has left a threat, and the group has to act on it immediately, or suffer an unpleasant end? 

Settle your conflict, while using the opportunity to introduce new ones!

Take action: Use the four Crucial S’s to determine your story’s conflict.


Plotdefined

A series of conflicts involving characters, settings, and choices — otherwise known as The Plot. 

Not every conflict needs to further The Plot. Not every NPC needs to be integral to The Plot. Not every decision made by a player character has to factor into The Plot. 

Waterdeep

That being said? Try your best to keep a picture of what these conflicts, this content you’re creating, is leading up to. 

Nothing goes on forever — even the greatest campaign of all time must resolve itself eventually. 

The plot of a campaign is the summation of its conflicts and consequences and, unlike a movie, not every plot ends with a clear story arc with everything tying up neatly. 

Some campaigns end in a grizzly splatter due to some bad rolls and low luck. Some end because life interferes and the schedule becomes untenable. 

The Plot is a good way to not only create content and have it all relate and make sense, but also to provide a way for the story to end when the content has run its course.

Of course, a dungeon master has a plot, but they also plot between sessions. 

Keeping notes, making story arcs, and fostering a sense of progress are all good ways to keep your story moving forward and your player characters interested. 

When plotting, keep the goal in mind. Answer these questions in-between sessions:

  • Why are all these conflicts happening to my players, and what strings link them all together?
  • How does this all come to a conclusion?
  • Based on the plot so far, would these decisions make sense?
  • Does my new content make sense when compared to the first few events that started this whole thing?

Nobody is perfect, and not every story has to make perfect sense. But it should make SOME amount of sense. Keeping your plot in mind helps focus your vision, and knowing the steps of a plot can help your content creation! 

Most stories have the following breakdown:

Introduction

The Plot is introduced: rescue the princess, steal the diamond, slay the dragon. Characters meet each other and come to a decision.

Exposition

Details are revealed. Choices are forced and made. The dragon doesn’t want to fight back. The princess kidnapped herself and intends on ending the world. The diamond is actually a cat named Diamond, and it's REALLY pissed off. Generally, if a plot is going to have a twist, it will be introduced and developed in this portion of the story. Use your twists wisely: too many make the story seem forced or silly, while too little may lead to your players doubting the events, or even bored.

Rising Action

The Plot begins to accelerate: more decisions are made, conflicts become unavoidable, the stage sets for the incumbent conflict. In D&D, Rising Action is where you will most likely place your challenges, your fights, and your tough choices, before you reach the Conflict and Climax.

Conflict

The Plot reaches its breaking point: the players must fight the bad guy, stop the princess, save the dragon, or get Diamond to the veterinarian. This is your finale moment, so bring the bang!

Climax

The ending is revealed: you cannot predict everything, but generally, your villain or players will triumph over the other, and consequences will be applied.

Resolution

Settle your conflicts, end the plot, save the world, etc.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

If the campaign is still going, repeat the process until The Plot is finished.

Keeping this structure in mind helps lead The Plot to a satisfying end, and everyone has a good time! Sometimes, a session has to end before The Plot can resolve: we call this a Cliffhanger in the business, and this helps keep tension established for the end. 

Take action: Using the end goal you developed in step two and the conflict you created in step three, create a general plot idea for your campaign. Write down the big events leading up to your conflict and climax. Where will your adventurers start? What will be their exposition? What causes The Plot to accelerate (i.e. your Rising Action)?


Resolve

Now that the session is finished, the plot has concluded, and the story has ended, let your players make choices for their character’s ending. Tell them how the events ended — what happened to the supporting cast, how has the world changed, did the kingdom survive, etc. 

Let the players decide what happens next: Does the Fighter marry the Cleric and ride off into the sunset? Did the warlock further their patron’s nefarious plot? Did the wizard learn the spells they risked life and limb for? 

Not all stories need to end here, either! Resolution can simply open the door to a new campaign! 

Unless the players are level 20 — then you might want to make some new characters, since that’s the end of endings in D&D.

Lastly, ask your players what they thought

Building a Campaign 5e

Feedback is the most important aspect of any creative endeavour. Listen to their criticisms, accept their compliments, and learn from both. 

Nobody is perfect, and not every story can please every audience. The important thing is to polish your craft and strive for the best experience you can offer. If your players aren’t enjoying certain aspects, or if they REALLY want to play again, listen to them and implement their advice!

Take action: Take notes of your player’s feedback. What did they enjoy? What did they hate or find boring? What suggestions would they make for future campaigns and sessions? Listen and absorb this feedback into your next campaign!


Ending the Adventure

With these steps, you’ve begun your journey towards the intricate and mysterious art of Dungeon Mastering. 

While I hope they shed light on the process, these steps are simply what I’ve found to work. If you have a different way of making content, or a few insights or suggestions, let me know in the comments! Also check out our campaign ideas to get you started! Thanks for reading!

Campaign Ideas to Start You Off

  • A mysterious object crash-lands in the middle of a bustling port town. The object petrifies everything in a five mile radius, and forms a portal leading to a mysterious area, filled with beauty and wonder. What lies within the Stone Portal?
  • A dragon issues a declaration of war to the last bastion of the dwarves: do the surrounding civilizations draw the ire of dragonkind by stepping in to a war that’s lasted for centuries, or do they sit idle and let the dragon destroy an entire race of people?
  • The sea is rising, and with it, strange war beasts invade from the Abyssal Depths. Who is behind this, and what are they hoping to accomplish?
  • A wizard creates her own kingdom, and begins to create automatons that replicate themselves. These automatons move to other kingdoms and towns, and serve with perfect efficiency. How does this change the world? Is it a good thing? What does the wizard hope to achieve by doing this?
  • WEREWOLVES AND VAMPIRES TEAM UP TO FIGHT THE GOOD GUYS!
  • Gnomes create an incursion into the Feywilds, with the hope of finding a fountain of time-travel. Will the party aid them or stop them?

Itching for more D&D content? Click here to read about D&D world-building!

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Brendan "Amigo"

About the author

Brendan has been an avid fan of games, stories, and the human experience for a good part of his lifetime. Laughter, friendship, and advice are all things he lives for. As a Dungeon Master, he’s seen his fair share of campaigns, and is always looking to craft some cool experiences for his friends. He will talk for days, if you let him, about his homebrew content, as well as whatever new story or phenomenon has caught his attention this week. Favorite systems are Dungeons and Dragons, Monster Hearts, and the newly released LANCER. He prefers long walks on the moon, dancing like everyone can see him, and a nice chianti with fava beans, but no liver. He’s on a diet, and  liver meat is awfully fatty.

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