Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has long been a favorite among fantasy, adventure, and role-playing games fans. It is a fun way to escape reality, and games can consist of almost anything and last anywhere from a few hours to a year. If you find yourself in the position of Dungeon Master, however, a certain amount of pressure comes with the title. You are in charge of creating the D&D campaign, creating your campaign world.
This article will guide you through the steps in designing and choosing everything from characters to a story arc and a few notes on creating your adventure. Remember that in this role, you are not alone. Players co-create the world with you, and world-building can be incredibly fun and rewarding.
What Is Dungeons and Dragons?
Trying to figure out how to write a D&D campaign is difficult if you are unsure what the game is. Maybe you do not play, and you have been asked to write a campaign for someone else. Here is a crash course of the game, where it came from, and where it is going. The Dungeons and Dragons game was launched nearly 50 years ago as a tabletop game. It is a role-playing game, which means that the players act out, narrate, and behave like the characters.
The Dungeon Master
The role of the Dungeon Master is to set the stage for play. They are responsible for coming up with the campaign, the story, and the entire premise. Everyone else controls the characters and aids in creating the story. Some Dungeon Masters develop campaign ideas by using books and films as references. Others use adventure sites. The idea is to come up with a premise and, from that point, create a gaming experience that players will enjoy and can sustain long-term gameplay.
There is generally no winner, and games do not ever really have to end. You can keep going on the same campaign indefinitely, and on really well-made campaigns, the players want to keep going. You can create everything from a mystical forest to a feuding civil war that comes from a corrupt kingdom. The options are truly endless.
The Three Major Pillars of D&D
In fiction writing, major elements must be met according to the genre. According to the Player’s Handbook, in Dungeons and Dragons campaign writing, three pillars must exist for gameplay to go well and be satisfying: Role Play, Combat, and Exploration.
1. Role-Playing Dungeons and Dragons
Role-playing is what makes the game fun for many players. This is the interaction between not only the players and their characters but also with NPCs (non-playing characters). This interaction makes sense in the world created by the game and leaves the details and issues of the real living world entirely out of it.
For example, you do not want friends and coworkers to sit for two hours around the overland map of the world you have created, with a great adventure you have crafted, talking about how they are going to drop their kids off at the baseball game next weekend. You want a fully encompassing experience for your players that keeps them focused on the world you created, not the one they live in.
Combat is the favorite pillar of the game. The campaign must include fighting using medieval weaponry, magical items, sorcery, spells, and other war articles. Often, these are life and death scenes that are epic and create a sense of tension and rivalry among players.
When you write fight sequences and adventures, you do not need to decide every single detail of the epic campaign battle. Instead, create a general conflict, determine a fighting style, and create a setting for the combat. For example, you can set the fighting inside a cave with a monster attacking both sides. The Dungeon Master can write a summary detailing the major points of the battle, but it is always best to allow the players to decide how it goes.
If you compare this pillar to an RPG video game, this would be the “free world” part. This is a campaign where the characters get to build a life of their own and start exploring the world around them, shaping the events that will later come into play.
The players can move their characters around, interact, discover, and meddle as they see fit. At the same time, the Dungeon Master of the D&D campaign acts as the ultimate guide to how the characters’ actions and exploration affects them. Each campaign is different, and writing ahead of time is nearly impossible because the players are in charge of this part.
How to Write a D&D Campaign
So, you are the Dungeon Master. You are tasked with the big job of coming up with a game world and everything that goes along with it. A Dungeon Master’s life is full of writing adventures for the campaign, and it requires dedication and creativity. The following is a step-by-step guide to help you develop characters, setting, story arcs, and more so you can create an epic fantasy world that no video game could ever match.
1. Choose a Setting and Theme
Your campaign world can consist of any kind of setting. You can make it as vast and complicated as you want to, or keep it cozy and simple. An entire kingdom and surrounding areas can exist, or you can choose to focus on a small town and the woods and lake nearby. The choice is yours. Just keep in mind that the bigger you go, the more stories you need to develop.
Think ‘Choose Your Adventure’ Books
When it comes to both setting and theme, think back to the days when kids read the “Choose Your Adventure” stories. They were books that laid out the central theme and settings but allowed the reader to choose the path they took as a character.
D&D campaigns are not much different than these books. Players navigate the world that the Dungeon Master creates, using the theme to guide their choices. The players write much of the story themselves.
2. Plan at least Three Events
You do not want the story to feel too forced, and you want the players to react organically to the plot hooks and environment.
Coming up with three events for the players to interact and navigate through that you can ask the other players to choose from is a great idea to get things started.
You can prepare for this by thinking of three events that will likely get you wildly different outcomes and adventures. The players will have to complete various side quests and goals.
Outline, but do not spoil too much for the players when you give them the three events that you have planned for them to choose from. It is a good idea to take notes as you come up with these events so that you do not get them mixed up or end up with three very similar adventures for your players to choose from.
3. Think of Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
To have a realistic world for playing Dungeons and Dragons, many Dungeon Masters find it best to add little touches of detail and planning that show that they are committed to the best campaign premise and story possible. One way to do this is by creating non-player characters, or NPCs, to the story, complete with names and sometimes backstories.
NPCs are characters like a shopkeeper, a bartender, or the piano player in a saloon. A blacksmith who sells weapons he forged himself. The random encounters the characters may have with these NPCs can add to the body of the campaign premise and make for a fuller experience for D&D players.
Non-player characters act a huge part in gameplay, so having well-thought-out and planned characters is a big help when learning how to write a D&D campaign. These NPCs also make up the characters who need the help of your characters to save them from some sort of monsters, villains, or evil sorcerers, and as the Dungeon Master, it is your job to come up with these characters.
4. Start Small
Great advice for creating what will become a whole new world is to start small—a small town, a little patch of forest, a small and crumbling kingdom or castle. Then build from there. You do not want to be too rigid. It is great to have loose ideas of what you would like to happen at this stage. Each player will add to the story, adding plot twists as everyone gets a chance to start playing. Have ideas, but leave some room for growth.
What You Need to Plan
Many adventure sites can help you along the way in planning the perfect balance of story and ambiguity so that you keep players intrigued. However, there are a few things that you need to plan ahead of time so there is no chaos when the game starts.
1. The Overall Style or Theme
Do you want a campaign world based on pure fantasy, with lots of creatures? Do you want low fantasy? Perhaps high fantasy is more your style. Some choose to create a main quest that is more industrial and practical, while others opt for fantasy and magic-filled campaigns full of unknowns. Knowing ahead of time the theme or overall style you want to achieve is necessary. Otherwise, you may find your campaign pulled in several directions once the game begins.
2. Immediate Dangers, Monsters, and Villains
Who is your bad guy right from the start? Who is the first danger the characters will have to conquer? Having that first conflict will be a major help in your campaign building. It needs to make sense, and it needs to propel the story further. The starting town is your jumping-off point, and putting more effort into the first quest from that point that the adventure starts will help the rest of the campaign go smoothly.
3. What and Who is Worshiped or In Charge?
Do the characters worship a deity? A statue? A landmark like a waterfall or rock formation? How do they honor it? Maybe giving offerings so that they can avoid being murdered by some terrifying monster in the woods is what keeps their god happy. That is a major detail and needs to be decided before the game begins. Maybe the king of the land has convinced the people that he has a witch who will curse them if he is not properly worshiped or loved.
D&D Campaign Ideas
When writing D&D campaigns, just like writing a short story or novel, getting started is often the most challenging part. The following are some examples of D&D campaign ideas that you can use, work on, tweak to make your own, or twist to make it darker. Each example is perfectly fine, but getting creative with your campaign is half the fun.
- A group of children goes missing while playing near an abandoned mine at the edge of a dark forest. When the players go to investigate, they hear crying voices in all directions, as though carried on the wind. Suddenly, a loud cackle is heard coming from the depths of the mine.
- Children start to steal shamelessly from the characters and then run in the direction of a large field. When followed, it has learned that what is causing them to steal shamelessly is that all of the mothers of the village are going missing. The seer in the village has told everyone who remains that it is because they have not appeased the gods by giving trinkets and gold as offerings. The middle of the field on the seer’s land is where the offerings are supposed to be deposited.
- The characters are given a map to follow to take them to the location of a great treasure. However, they see that the town has been burned to the ground when they arrive. Hammered just outside the town is a note on a post that says, “All who enter this town shall die!“
- Creatures and monsters are descending from the mountains and stealing the youngest children in the families of neighboring mountain villages. The characters are hired to get them back and slay the creature controlling the other creatures.
- A sorceress has created thirteen crystal balls containing part of a prophecy. All thirteen must be found and interpreted, but only by a person who is blind, a different one at each location. Not only must the players find each of the thirteen crystal balls, but they must also find a blind person who can interpret the meaning in the crystal balls to help the characters understand the prophecy.
- A large boat washes up on the shore of a kingdom. The characters are sent to investigate and find the ship empty of crew and passengers and then find several large marks on the bottom and sides of the ship that appear to be bite marks.
- None of the women of a kingdom wake up from their sleep one morning. The men are forced to figure out how to save their wives, mothers, and daughters while caring for their male children, elderly men of the kingdom, and maintaining peace. The characters are husbands and sons of the town.
- The characters are hired to steal a mythical necklace owned by a bloodthirsty queen whose army consists of ogres instead of men.
- A small village full of people wakes up one morning to find that their bodies are now mysteriously covered in tattoos. The tattoos convey a map and directions to standing side by side, but to who is unknown. The characters must copy the map and find out what is at the end of the world and why the villagers have this mysterious ink on their bodies.
Templates and Generators
If you find that you are still struggling with ideas for your campaign, there is more help than just the prompts in this article. There are also templates available for download and purchase and generators online that you can use to help you craft your story. A simple Google search for plots or even D&D generators will yield results and a search for a downloadable and printable template. A template will act as a guideline to help you organize and outline your ideas.
Use Other Forms of Media as Inspiration
A favorite for D&D players when it comes to coming up with a story to follow is to rely on their favorite books, television shows, and movies.
Where Could Your Favorite Story Have Gone?
Have you always wondered what might have happened if Han Solo had not been rescued from carbonite and Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca had dealt with the Empire on their own? Now is your chance to create a parallel storyline to explore it.
Have you thought about what might have happened if the Muggles discovered the magic that existed and started using them to hostage others for ransoms and pawns the practitioners of the Dark Arts? Now is your chance to find out and see it play out in front of you. This is the ultimate creative and unpredictable experience. You have the power in your hands as the creator of the campaign’s premise. The only thing that can hold you back is yourself and your imagination.