At the dawn of your adventure as a Dungeon Master, you will inevitably dive into “out of the box” campaigns that sprouted from the imagination of veteran DMs. Still shaky in your role, even that can be daunting. As you gain confidence and inspiration, however, you will long to craft your own story; your own campaign. Are you as lost as the witching apprentice you are planning to include in your campaign? Don’t fret — we come bearing tips.
Anyone reading this will already be aware that Dungeons & Dragons — D&D or DnD for short — is an incredibly famous tabletop fantasy game. First created in 1974, D&D now already has an impressive history and, no longer the sole domain of nerds, D&D persistently pops up in TV shows. Even if you have, say, watched a veritable ocean of YouTube videos about D&D or seen the gang from Stranger Things play it, you might still ask what D&D actually is. Dungeons & Dragons is notoriously complex for the uninitiated to understand, largely thanks to its open-ended nature, after all.
The players, or adventurers, craft their own characters, complete with origin stories and abilities. The backdrop and storytelling aspect of the game is the domain of the Dungeon Master. Although the players craft the plot of the game together, through the decisions they make, there is a right and wrong way to play D&D — and if you’re not familiar with them yet, you can download the basic rules of Dungeons & Dragons here.
By the time you start thinking about writing your own D&D campaign, you probably have the basics down — you will have some experience as a player, and some experience as a Dungeon Master, by using campaigns others have crafted and generously made available to anyone with an internet connection.
A D&D campaign is a series of intertwined adventures set in the same world — for which the Dungeon Master will create a backstory, settings such as cities and forests, and exciting Non-Player Characters to help the story progress. D&D campaigns can unfold over the course of a few days, but they can also take weeks, months, or even years to complete. There’s even one notorious D&D campaign that’s been going on for decades!
You probably don’t want to aim for a very long campaign as a beginning Dungeon Master — if it’s your first time writing a D&D campaign, planning on allowing it to play out over around four sessions is a good idea.
How To Write a D&D Campaign (Step-by-Step)
Are you ready to get started? You’ve got this, and we’ll walk you right through the process of writing a solid D&D campaign!
Before you do anything else, keep in mind that your first D&D campaign should tick a few essential boxes. You can start brainstorming now, or jot down a few great ideas you’ve already come up with — but you can also just let it percolate for a little while. No matter what, though, your final Dungeons & Dragons campaign should always include:
- A theme! Some of the most common D&D campaign themes are epic fantasies, combat-themed campaigns, Medieval horrors, and holiday themes — but you will definitely find the odd alien battle and cyberpunk-themed D&D campaign as well. As long as you’ve got a great imagination, the sky is almost the limit.
- Key locations. Where will your epic adventure unfold? Unless you set the backdrop in advance, your party won’t be able to discover the exciting plot points you’ve set up for them. Make it as grand as you want!
- Cool NPCs with a simple but compelling origin story. What do they want? Why? Connect your NPCs to one another to create a world that feels whole.
- Your players! Your party members are hard at work crafting their own characters and abilities. To allow their hard work to shine, and to really get them riled up, create unique opportunities that aligned with the adventurers that walk your world.
OK — now you’re ready to start writing your campaign. Here’s a step-by-step guide to aid you through the process.
1. Commit to a Campaign Premise
Craft the backbone of your story even before you begin to outline your campaign, and write a brief summary down to help you as you craft the details. This should include:
- The challenge that will start your campaign — make it an exciting one! Perhaps a desperately power-hungry necromancer has erected an undead army in a bid to dominate the world. First, he must unite the undead tribes strewn across the map. Will your party be able to stop the threat?
- The world. As you boldly set out to write your first D&D campaign, you will probably want to keep things small. You do not need to create an elaborate map, but you should have at least some key elements in place — a town, a forest, a castle… or wherever your imagination takes you.
- You’ll need a believable antagonist. D&D’s “good guys” and “bad guys” alike always have a reason for being the way they are, and for pursuing their goal. Perhaps the necromancer was once a trusted aid to the powerful King, who stole his power. He’s now seeking revenge.
- Consequences! Who will suffer if your party doesn’t reach their goals? Can they pick sides? In other words, are there reasonable arguments to be made in favor of multiple sides, and do you have good story ideas going forward either way?
- The end. Some D&D campaigns go on for years, but if it’s your first campaign, you’ll want to plan a good ending in a few sessions — no matter what decisions your players make.
2. Outline Your D&D Campaign
With the premise sorted, you can craft a broader plot line — or rather, multiple. If you’ve ever played an open-ended adventure game, you know that the choices a character makes radically influence the outcome every step of the way. Never plan for your party to make just one decision, but offer three different choices and write a possible ending, complete with further development, for each one.
3. Interesting NPC Interactions for Your First Session
The first session can make or break your D&D campaign. Make it interesting — after sharing your compelling but short backstory, you will want to drop your party into the middle of some serious action, to get them hooked and moving forward. That’ll be easier if you only focus on the session ahead.
4. Allow the Players to Build the World with You
Remember, your players come into each D&D session with hopes and aspirations for their characters. Especially if you have veteran D&D players in your team, listen to their feedback and actively encourage more. Allow them to voice their ideas to make the story even more exciting.
No Dungeons & Dragons campaign is a finished story with a predetermined end, and that’s part of what makes your campaign so unique. Go with the flow — not just between sessions, as you’re plotting what could happen next, but even in the middle of a game. To keep things consistent, do write down any changes you make so that you can build on them in the next session.
5. Draw Inspiration From More Experienced Dungeon Masters
So, you’ve followed our advice so far, your D&D session might have ended on a great note — and you have a broad idea of where the story may go next, but you could be stuck on some details. Turn to more experienced Dungeon Masters, “IRL” or on the internet, to help you decide on your next steps.
There’s always a risk that your party will get bored after a session, and setting up the next one could become a challenge. Lure them back with your next great idea, and make your next session worthwhile!
6. Keep Some Secrets
Just like you would if you were writing compelling adventure novel, never give the answers away at the outset. Draw your party in with a sprinkling of mystery and suspense. Why did the skeleton rebel against the necromancer? What is he hiding? Your party will have to work hard to find out!
7. Plan Multiple Endings
Like all things, your D&D campaign must come to an end at some point — and you will want the grand finale to leave your party yearning for bigger and bolder adventures ahead. Because your players make the story, and you, as a campaign writer and Dungeon Master, are ultimately just the world-builder, you will want to plan ahead for several different possible endings. Each end should lead your party to a satisfying conclusion that leaves them feeling like they were victorious.
3 Useful Ways to Help You Build a Successful D&D Campaign
You might now have a good idea about the steps you need to take to write a D&D campaign that will draw your party in and keep them hungering for more, but you’re still lost. What can you do to inspire yourself? No, you don’t have to conjure your D&D campaign out of thin air like one of the wizards from your world. In fact, you have a lot of handy tools at your disposal. Why not use them?
1. Use a D&D Generator
In the planning stage of your campaign, you might find it useful to turn to a D&D generator for ideas. These can:
- Help you craft dungeon modules.
- Lead you to exciting NPC encounter ideas.
- Give you ideas for magic surges.
- Help you write convincing villains with backstories that make sense.
- Generate ideas for towns and cities.
- If you’re still totally lost, a good Dungeons & Dragons Generator can even help you come up with a good campaign premise.
2. Make Use of Map Makers
D&D maps can be crafted manually — but your D&D campaign will be much easier to get up and running if you turn to a D&D map maker. These map generators can help you craft anything from small maps for short campaigns to ridiculously elaborate maps, with a multitude of townships and cities, that will allow you to keep playing for years. Once you’re done, a 3D printer can be your new best friend as you bring the world that started in your imagination to life.
3. Other Powerful Sources of Inspiration
Does your world contain everything it needs for the most exciting D&D campaign possible? Use a worldbuilding checklist to find out!
Don’t discount great books — including epic fantasy novels and sci-fi works — to offer you a ton of inspiration. Shamelessly pinch any idea worth including in your world!
Is your mind overflowing with so many ideas that it’s hard to keep track of them all? With note-taking software like Evernote, you’ll be able to organize them into a coherent story.
Inspiration for a D&D campaign can come from literally anywhere. If it’s a good adventure story, it can also have a wonderful place in Dungeons & Dragons!
D&D Campaign Ideas
As a first-time D&D campaign writer, your aim is to help your friends have fun — and you’ll want to make sure you enjoy the process just as much.
- Keep it fairly simple. Overcomplicating your world will leave less space for improvisation.
- Give each NPC a believable origin story that can help players relate to them.
- Create variety in your key locations.
- Listen to your party’s feedback.
- Come up with a grand boss battle!
- Expect to be in control of every last detail — the fact that the players decide the plot is D&D’s most powerful characteristic.
- Lose confidence if the plot takes a different turn than the one you had in mind.
- Forget to have fun. That’s the whole point, after all!
The best D&D campaigns are beautiful in their simplicity, open-ended, and allow each adventurer’s abilities to shine — no matter what step they decide to take next.
D&D Campaign VS. One Shot
One shots are one-session D&D campaigns. They’re often used to introduce new players to the game, but can also be a fun way to test out a new character. If you’re writing a one shot D&D session, plan for the story to reach a satisfying end over the course of a single session — which may last roughly up to six hours.
D&D Campaign VS. Adventure
In D&D, an adventure is one event. Although this event typically plays out over the course of a single session, it can also last multiple sessions. If you are writing for an upcoming D&D session, you will be plotting an adventure. The entire campaign can unfold over many more sessions, on the other hand.
How long does it take to write a D&D campaign?
An experienced Dungeon Master may need no more than a few hours to write a short campaign. Depending on your confidence as a writer and a Dungeon Master, as well as the content you are planning, writing a D&D campaign may take hours to weeks or even months. After a session finishes, you’ll work on the next, while keeping the ultimate goal in mind.
Can you write a campaign without an outline?
D&D campaign outlines are a useful tool that will help you keep track of the story. If you have achieved creative flow, however, feel free to just write. You can edit the details later.
Do you need to follow the Dungeon Master’s Guide for building your campaign?
You should be familiar with the Dungeon Master’s Guide, as it is packed with tips and rules that will make building your D&D campaign so much easier.