This article will give tips for how to structure and start a D&D campaign! We will end with giving you a few D&D Campaign Ideas to get inspiration from!
Intro for D&D Campaign Ideas
Perhaps the most revolutionary idea behind Role Playing Games was not so much the new and fascinating rules and mechanics that it brought to the gaming table but the freedom that it introduced. Previously, tabletop gaming had been based on historical re-enactment, such as a re-run of The Battle of Waterloo or an alternative take on Alexander the Great’s ten-year campaign to conquer the world. Rules were important and they were inflexible. They had to be.
What DnD brought to the table was flexibility. Rules were there mainly to translate a player’s actions into a system that gave logical and consistent results. The rules made the game flow but it was the imagination of both the players and the Dungeon Master running the campaign, that drove the action.
And if the successive editions of the game added more and more depth and offered rules which covered ever more interesting outcomes, one thing that has always been left up to the imagination of the person running the campaign is the nature of the world that their game is set in. And before we look at the way that you can make your campaign more interesting, before we talk about story arcs and ongoing narratives, we should start by looking at the world as a whole.
It’s Your World, Never Forget That!
Of course, ever since there has been a set of DnD rules, there have been background scenarios, pre-generated, “off-the-shelf,” campaign regions and even whole backdrops such as Forgotten Realms for you to drop your players into. And whilst these are fun to play and certainly a great way to learn the game, it is, at the end of the day, someone else’s idea. For me, the fun of being the DM of a campaign is the fact that you get to build a whole new world for the players to inhabit. And it is through the creation of this brave new world that you will find the inspiration for overarching storylines and ongoing plot devices.
If you are a fan of fantasy RPG’s then you are probably a fan of the films, TV and books which belong to the same genre. You can find ideas in everything from Lord of The Rings to Game of Thrones to poster art and of course a wealth of novels. Inspiration is everywhere. And this is perhaps where you can start getting some core ideas for your campaign.
It is fair to say that DnD was founded on a Tolkien-esque idea of Dark Age Europe but there are plenty of other core themes to choose from. Instead of the usual themes, you could opt for something more original, an ancient middle-eastern vibe, medieval Japan, you could set your campaign on a series of islands so that it becomes a waterborne adventure or add a sort of 17th century or steampunk vibe.
Think big but start small
If building a whole world feels daunting, it shouldn’t. All you need to know about your world, to begin with, is the area that your first adventure is set in. Just makes some notes about one small region and make it as brief as you like. You have created your first session, let’s say a small dungeon run to reclaim an item of sentimental value that has been stolen from the local duke. All you need to know, for now, is where the players came from – say a small town on the duke’s lands – maybe flesh out the road between the two locations, maybe a few other ideas and locations to add a bit of background colour.
Half a page of notes and a rough map and you are done. Then when you design the next adventure you can fill in a bit more detail, decide what lies in the player’s path as they venture over the next hill or into the dark woods nearby. As you play more sessions, the map will naturally grow. As the players react with what you have created so far, it will suggest other locations and features.
War and Religion
Once you have fleshed out the local region, the lands around your player’s homeland, you might want to start thinking about how the world got to be how it is. When you look at the real world, the political map is the result of two major factors. War and Religion. So maybe you want to think about the history of the world that you have created. Having two (or more) powerful religions or countries in opposition creates some great opportunities for the players and tension for the world in general.
If there is overt war or covert espionage taking place, the world will need spies and adventurers, mercenaries and freebooters with a special set of skills. Skills that your players have. The war may be far away from where your players begin their adventures but there will always be a need for spies and information gatherers, assassins and hired muscle, even hundreds of miles from the battlegrounds.
You might even want to set up a brooding empire sitting just on the edge of the map, like the ancient Roman Empire, a place of wonder and danger, intrigue and opportunity. A place that the player characters could be united against or who they could serve and various combinations in between.
And, having briefly fleshed out your slowly blossoming world, spare a thought to its history. Empires rise and fall, cities are ruled by ever-changing dynasties, the power and influence of religions ebbs and flows. Perhaps sketch out a rough historical timeline. This will help you to understand your world as you see it today by understanding the past that it grew out of. It will explain how those ruined temples, ancient underground lairs and dungeons got there. And again, as you create new storylines, you can link them into events of the past, which again creates not only logic and consistency but can also be used as a source of secret information that your players might need to collect and unlock.
One last thing to think about before we head into the idea of story arcs is what sort of rewards your players can expect for all their hard work. Many adventures that they will embark on will have some sort of cash reward but there are other benefits to be had too. A campaign where players wander around with a whole arsenal of magical weapons and mythical relics is going to get dull fairly quickly when any encounter or obstacle can be beaten or avoided through the use of a magic item.
Magic items should be placed in the players’ path sparingly, though not so sparingly that the risks of trying to obtain them far outweigh the rewards. Magical items should have a back story. Even a humble +1 longsword can be more than just a statistic. It isn’t just a sharp weapon with a bit of an advantage in battle, it is the Sword of Glamos, a blessed weapon wielded by the captain of the city guard of Rankha, as you can tell by the inscription on the blade. And now you have something else to add to your world’s history. How did it find its way to its present location? How did the captain die? Is one of his descendants looking for it? Now you have an interesting idea for a random street encounter somewhere in the future.
One way of limiting magical rewards without diminishing the game is to introduce more community-based benefits. Returning a long lost item to a local mayor could result in one of the players being made head of the town’s militia, a position of privilege and allowing them to command a small band of soldiers to help them achieve their future goals. A wizardly player could find themselves as a court advisor, Clerics might be given their small temple, rangers become custodians of a sacred glade. It isn’t always about money or magic, honour, reputation, power and prestige can be just as important and a lot more interesting to the ongoing narrative.
So, the world now has some structure. And even if most of that structure is a collection of loose ideas of how the past has shaped the world and what lies over the next hill, you have an idea of the form that your world takes, general structure and logical shell to your creation. Now you need to thread some storylines through it, the narrative stepping stones that your gaming sessions will move through. Here are some interesting plots and story threads that can be introduced into any campaign.
Here are some D&D Campaign Ideas:
1: The Nemesis
All players are going to make enemies. Robbing temples, plundering dungeons, attacking lairs all come with a price and that price is often revenge. The idea of a Nemesis can be introduced at an early stage in the campaign. It could be an orcish warlord whose stockade the players have raided or an all-powerful Mind Flayer that they have wronged. But much more fun is to start this adversary small, perhaps a goblin foot soldier whose brother the players have killed or an assistant to a town mayor who the players have made to look a fool.
As the players move up through the levels, so too does The Nemesis. The next time they meet the vengeful goblin they have become the leader of a small war band, the time after that they are encountered as an advisor to a powerful goblin king. Similarly, the mayor’s assistant gives up town administration and goes to wizarding school, dedicating his time to dark arts and burning with revenge, and perhaps one day they encounter this wronged clerk at the head of a dark army of otherworldly creatures. Non-Player Characters shouldn’t just remain stationary as the world evolves around them, they too are growing in power all the time.
2: Pieces of the Puzzle
One great way to build a great story structure that can thread through the campaign is through a series of interlinked quests, each centred around finding a series of related items. Perhaps the players learn of an angel or good dragon or minor god that has been locked in a parallel universe, or secret fortress. The only way to release them is through collecting 16 runic stones and placing them on an altar in a far northern temple which will then create a portal to allow the creature back into the real world.
The player’s reason for doing this could vary. A paladin or Lawful Good cleric might see it as their duty. Maybe they have been hired to find the stones by a religion or magical cult. They might even be doing it because they believe releasing the creature will bring them fame or rich rewards.
Whatever their reason you now have sixteen runic stones to place hidden at the end of sixteen dungeons or wilderness adventures or in high towers of magical universities or hidden temples that the players can collect over months or even years of adventures. And of course, not every session needs to result in finding a stone, you can drag the quest out for as long as you like. And what happens when the players release the heavenly creature? A war of reprisals? An age of peace? That’s for you to decide.
3: The Perpetual War
War always provides great opportunities for players. The idea of perpetual war, or at least one that has been raging since before historical records began, makes for a great backdrop. The war might be miles away from the players but it is easy for them to get drawn into it.
Perhaps there is a recruitment drive and the players are conscripted into one of the armies. Maybe the sibling of one of the players has been lost in the war zone and the party head off to find them. And of course, armies will pay well for certain skills and so the players might find themselves offered a financial incentive for their talents or perhaps get hired as a mercenary retinue.
The actual mechanics of the war raging around the players can remain vague unless you also play fantasy tabletop war games, in which case you could work out a combination game whereby the players act as leaders of the skirmishing armies whilst undertaking quests within the eye of the storm of battle
If they are recruited for their more secretive skills, they could find themselves working behind enemy lines, infiltrating the enemy homeland and exploring locations where they not only face the usual challenges of creatures and traps but have to keep their own identities secret too.
4: The City Never Sleeps
Although most campaigns, at least initially, see players delving into dungeons or wandering the wilderness, urban adventures are often overlooked and a lot of fun.
You could look at a city as being just a dungeon that grows up above the ground rather than down into it. The streets are its corridors, the houses and shops, market places and temples, its rooms. An adventure or series of adventures based in such a place offers more interesting challenges than the usual dungeon. Head underground and you know that almost everyone and everything that you encounter is going to be hostile. In a city, some encounters are friendly, some are hostile, most are neutral or obscure, which adds a whole level of nuance not to mention some great opportunities for role-playing, to the game.
Perhaps the players have been hired as detectives, trying to put a stop to the activities of a group of slavers or thieves. Perhaps revolution is brewing in the city and they are working for the government or maybe even the revolutionaries and have to track down prominent leaders to be assassinated or arrested.
Again, nuance comes into play. Is anyone really who they say they are? Which side are people on? Are there double agents at work? Who is pulling the strings and controlling events? And for some real intrigue, the various characters could have been hired by different parties, some revolutionary, some counter-revolutionary, some by opportunists looking to capitalise on the confusion or the players may themselves just trying to find their benefit from the city as it falls into chaos and intrigue.
5: High Planes Drifting
So far, all of the campaign overview ideas have been encapsulated in one world, the physical world that the players call home. But of course, DnD is set in a series of alternative planes of existence, ethereal byways, heavens and hells and perhaps, if you chose, parallel worlds. What the comic book creators call a multiverse.
You can introduce the idea of alternative planes of existence gradually and whilst the players are still at a low level. Maybe they find a magician’s hidden lair is located in the folds of reality, perhaps they find a wormhole that enables them to travel from one side of the map to the other. But as they become more familiar with these other, non-physical planes you can have them visiting the upper levels of hell or the outskirts of pandemonium, heavenly fields and angelic courts.
The real fun comes when they set a series of events in motion that opens portals for minor demons or heavenly hosts to easily pass into the physical world, perhaps setting off a war between angels and demons, good and evil. And, having opened these doorways, it is up to the player’s characters to close them again, something that will require them to fight devilish guardians and angelic knights and perhaps collect revered artefacts or ancient texts to be able to seal these portals.
6: An Ancient Evil Awakes
Okay, this one is pretty Tolkien-esque but then he got his ideas from dark age European mythology, so let’s go to the same source. Many millennia ago, a powerful and ancient evil (demon, minor good, supernatural creature) was defeated when the mortal races put their differences aside and united against it. I wasn’t killed in the conventional sense but locked away and all memory of it was gradually forgotten.
The players are initially hired as a mercenary group to investigate rumours that the orcs of the far eastern lands are being united under a new, powerful war leader. They discover that this leader is a lich-king or a malign spirit uniting the tribes and gradually performing various unlocking rituals to free its old master.
They must collect evidence that this is happening, even though the dukes and city leaders of the civilised world are reluctant to commit armies to such flights of fantasy. As the evidence mounts, the players are sent on ever more difficult quests to challenge the orcish cult leaders who are gradually unlocking the magical restraints on the ancient evil.
The campaign can start small and as the players rise through the levels they are ready to meet ever-stronger foes – undead lords, mythical beasts, demonic entities, rogue kings – and hold them in check. The campaign could culminate in a series of mighty battles through which the player’s storyline runs before they have to finally face and destroy the ancient evil…or not.
It perhaps helps to think of the world that you build for your players to inhabit as a novel but a novel with lots of storylines all impacting on each other, being affected by one another and writing themselves (through the players actions) as they go along. The rules of the game might guide the moment to moment direction of the plot line, but it is the world’s background and woven story arcs that bring it to life.
You could just play stand-alone adventures that don’t hang that close together and still have a lot of fun. You could buy, off-the-shelf and pre-generated adventures and not worry that you will be going through the same motions that thousands have before you.
I would argue that not using such story arcs and historical timelines, unique maps and intriguing histories, epic quests and logical flows of ideas to bring your own, one-off world, to life, is not only a missed opportunity, it means you will miss out on a lot of fun.
Dungeons and Dragons is a game of imagination, so why not think big?