So, if you’re a newbie DM, or maybe a long-time DM that just can’t seem to get a good campaign down on paper (or on word-processor), this week’s article is for you! I’m going to take you through my step-by-step process for creating a great campaign and show you how it all comes together in the end. So take notes (or cut and paste) and enjoy!
Decide if you want to make your campaign a) character based or b) plot based.
What is the difference? Well a character based campaign is where you are building the campaign around a certain type, race, combination, or class of character. This could be an all Dwarf campaign, or all wizards, or all knights, or all evil alignment, or no magic, or only Gnomes and Halflings, or any other combination you wish. These can be fun because they usually unite the players on a different level and have some purpose beyond an adventure's normal goals. On the other hand, a plot based campaign is where the races, classes, and types of characters don’t matter because the plot will generally work for any character the players wish to make. This is much more open for the players to be creative and make the characters they really want to play but it also requires strong storytelling to keep things moving.
What’s the big idea?
Every campaign needs a big idea. The world is about to be taken over by black puddings! A Demon Lord has possessed the King! A massive earthquake reveals a lost dungeon! Some madman is out to rid the world of all of its cheese! Big ideas don’t need to be pages long. As you can see above, I put four big ideas into about a dozen words or less. It’s the same process that authors and script writers have to go through then they are asked to “pitch” their ideas. What is the point of your campaign in one or two sentences? If you’re having trouble coming up with your big idea, I usually go to a few regular places for inspiration such as movies, television, theatre, anime, comic books, video games, and novels. Still stuck? Try going to some of the online D&D forums and websites such as Wizards of the Coast (here) and EN World (here) and you’ll find hundreds of people sharing their own big ideas. No shame in swiping one and making it your own!
What do you plan to accomplish?
If you can answer this important question you can also answer many lesser ones. Depending on your big idea, you now have to decide on how your characters are going to deal with it. Are they going to tackle the main problem directly with no side steps (thus making a shorter campaign with less experience and levels gained), or are they going to have to work their way through several smaller issues before they get to the main problem (extending the life of the campaign and thus more experience and levels). Also, ask yourself: how much time do my players and I have to devote to this campaign? If you know you can only play three hours a week for two months, plan accordingly. Oppositely, if you have no limits to your time, go nuts! There is no rule set in stone that says how long a campaign needs to be. I’ve seen ones that lasted as little as twelve hours and ones that went on for years.
Who’s pulling the strings?
Every campaign needs an antagonist and preferably more than one. Who or what are they? Why are they causing trouble for the PCs? What motivates them or is forcing them to act? Is there a major antagonist pulling the strings behind a minor antagonist? And whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of making one-dimensional villains. “They are doing evil because they are evil” doesn't cut it in my world. What went wrong with their lives to make them the way they are? How did they fall from grace? How were they betrayed or abandoned? How did they rise to power and what did it cost them? Don’t forget that many of the best villains of all-time started out as heroes and were forced somehow to become evil.
What is the character starting point?
If you've come to some firm decisions on the previous steps then you should be ready to build your setting/starting point for your characters. How are they starting off? Where do they begin their adventure? Are they already heroes or are they nobodies? Are they criminals? Have they been tarred, feathered, and kicked out of the village? What level will they be? What gear/items will you give them? Do you want this to be a slow start or a fast one? Remember, first impressions are usually the most powerful. If you show your players that this campaign is going to be violent, harsh, and nasty right off the top, your players will expect that type of game to continue and they will adapt their characters accordingly. Similarly, if you show them a comedic, silly, laid-back opening, that’s what they will roll with. Beginnings are important!
Putting it all together.
Now take everything you've decided on thus far and smash it together. How does it look? You might be surprised how much two of your previous ideas clash with each other when viewed side-by-side. Don’t be afraid to go back and change it up. Better now than in-game and on the fly. And who knows, maybe you’ve uncovered two ideas that go together so well you’re suddenly filled with more ideas and plot points. I know that’s happened to me so it can happen to you. Sometimes these things take on a life of their own.
And that’s basically the whole process in a nutshell. Once you’ve gone through all six steps and are happy with your decisions, your campaign is more than half planned out. What remains are the details about monsters, traps, dungeons, and NPCs. I realize that seems like a lot but it all comes together much quicker and easier once the rest of the foundation is in place.
So, to demonstrate, here’s something I whipped up using this exact system in just fifteen minutes:
Step 1: Plot based campaign with all characters as young wizards.
Step 2: An elder wizard, the players’ mentor, dies horribly and his apprentices must find out how and why.
Step 3: The characters will go at the problem directly, played over six 3-hour sessions. By the end, they will have discovered that their mentor is still alive.
Step 4: The wizard never really died, he just faked his own death to test his apprentices. Thus, he is the one pulling the strings.
Step 5: Characters will start in the wizard’s tower which is hidden in a forest. They will begin at level 1 with basic gear and regular spells.
Step 6: Everything seems to fit.
Try this system out for yourself and tell me how it goes!