Last Updated on December 21, 2021
So, you’ve decided that pre-written modules either aren’t for you or that making up something that’s uniquely yours is more interesting.
But, no matter how long you stare at the blank page, a grand campaign filled with intrigue, peril, and maybe even a dragon or two fails to materialize.
Welcome to our guide to coming up with campaign ideas for dungeon masters in D&D 5e.
Hopefully, this breakdown will help point you in the right direction and get you thinking about some of the essentials when it comes to mapping out a campaign.
I’ve come up with some campaigns that you could use, tweak, break apart, and rebuild as you desire – mostly as a way of crash testing whether or not my own sage advice is actually actionable or not.
Note that this guide is very much focused on planning out the world, tone, playstyle and other narrative elements of your game.
Try these links for more of the nitty-gritty stuff, like building a starter town, how to award experience, different tiers of play, traps and puzzles, how to use CR, making maps, and some tips for first-time DMs.
“In and out,” she said. “A quick three-session adventure.”
What’s a Campaign?
In simple terms, a campaign is a series of adventures strung together into a single story with a (mostly) persistent group of players.
Campaigns can be as short or as long (I think the record is held by a guy in Canada who’s going on 34 years or something mad like that) as you like.
Of course, if that’s an intimidating prospect, you can always kick things off with a series of One-Shot adventures so both you and your players can try different adventures on for size.
Think of them as runs of a TV show with adventures as seasons of that show and individual sessions of play as episodes.
Take it from someone who’s slogging through Season 17 of Grey’s Anatomy right now – as long as people like the characters and the stories feel fresh, there’s always another season’s worth of content.
Of course, setting a specific number of sessions or real-world time in which to complete a campaign can help keep up the forward momentum.
Because campaigns are theoretically interminable, sitting down to write one can feel like a big commitment.
A pre-written module like Curse of Strahd or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has a defined ending. Strahd dies, the dragon is, uh, heisted (I haven’t read it), and everyone goes home.
Sure, you can pick up a new module right away and continue, but there’s a defined end to the content.
If you’re writing everything that happens in a campaign and no one’s telling you to stop, it’s easy to feel pretty overwhelmed (are you okay, Shonda Rhimes?), especially if the decisions you make right at the start come to define months or even years of adventuring.
I’ve been running my current campaign for about two years now and, while I love the players’ characters and we have fun, I’ve watched mistakes I made very early on (when I didn’t really know where the whole thing was going) cast very long shadows over the rest of the story. Ho hum.
Hopefully, that hasn’t sent you running back to the safe, cozy hills of pre-written adventures. If you’re still with me, here are a few tips on how to get a campaign off the ground.
Three Tips for Getting Started
There’s a lot of (constantly evolving) discourse in the D&D 5e community about how to write a campaign. The following tips are my attempt to collate the suggestions that I see most frequently and that have worked best for me.
Beg, Borrow, and Steal Everything From Everywhere
The fundamental difference between writing a D&D campaign and writing a novel or a script is that it’s a piece of content made specifically for your table of players and, unless you’re planning on releasing it as a pre-written adventure for money or streaming it, your players alone.
You’re blissfully free from pesky restraints like “the need to be original” or “copyright law.”
So, steal anything, everything, and whatever interests you.
Love pirates? Literally, drag and drop the plot and key characters from Black Sails (I maintain that the show plays out like peak D&D) or The Curse of the Black Pearl. Better yet, stick them both in there.
Don’t worry about your players thinking you’re being unoriginal. Nine times out of 10, they won’t notice unless you tell them outright, and if they do pick up what you’re putting down, they’re going to feel oh so smart.
I ran a very successful adventure that was legally indistinct from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
The players didn’t figure it out until the final session (okay, a big minecart chase may have been a little on the nose), and they loved it.
Steal the plots, characters, weird magic items, places, and monsters from your favorite books, TV shows, nature documentaries, blogs about philosophy, folk stories, or political events – just like great fiction.
What is Dune but an allegory for Western imperial meddling in the Middle East with cinnamon-flavored crude oil? Oh, and sandworms.
That actually brings me to a great quote from an advertising exec called John Hegarty:
“Originality is dependent upon the obscurity of your sources. There’s no such thing as pure originality. It’s not where you get it from – it’s where you take it to.”
While I wouldn’t cross the street to cast Create Water on most advertising execs if they were on fire, I think about this quote a lot.
Whatever you borrow, rip out, and hack into your campaign, make sure that:
A. You love it.
B. You put a little twist on it.
This can be as simple as my pirate idea, where dropping two well-known pirate franchises into the same campaign and then seeing what happens would definitely create something completely new.
This brings me to my last piece of advice when it comes to intellectual property collage. This approach only works if you cease to be precious about the source material you’re drawing from.
Your players are the driving force behind the story. If you want to recreate Lord of the Rings, put on a stage play. Your players may very well try to take the One Ring, burn Rivendell to the ground, and make fun of Legolas’ hair.
Whatever grand narrative you’re drawing inspiration from, you’d better believe that your players are going to bypass important plot points, kill heroes, befriend the villains, and generally put their own spin on the story just by virtue of existing in it.
This is not a failing on your part, nor is it going to “break” your campaign. This is the campaign. If you players want to go muck about in the Shire for 30 sessions, that’s fine.
Don’t be mad, just like they’re not allowed to be mad when Sauron conquers the free peoples of Middle Earth and his armies sweep across the land like a tide of living darkness.
Just as your players aren’t expected to show up to Session One with a detailed plan of how to take their character from 1st to 20th level, you aren’t expected to start a campaign with perfect knowledge of how it ends.
In fact, having perfect knowledge of how a campaign will end – and all the twists and turns in between – means you’re not playing D&D; you’re just writing a novel.
My advice is to start small. You can figure out the specifics of the BBEG’s plot and its effects on the price of chicken in three kingdoms away later.
Right now you’ve got players in need of a dungeon. Write that first. Make a starting town and a few NPCs, maybe a random encounter or two, and you’re good to go.
Things will probably happen during those sessions that spark ideas for a wider campaign, or you can drop vague hints about the (equally vague) ideas you have for a main plot, or maybe all the players’ characters will die in the first room of the dungeon and they’ll decide they don’t want to play anymore.
Aren’t you glad you didn’t write 400 pages of content now?
Talk to Your Players, Consider the Party
Speaking of the players, while I’m always the first to remind people that the dungeon master is a player too (and if you’re putting in all the effort it takes to write and run a campaign, the least people can do is show up mentally and physically).
Making sure the people in your party actually care about (or at least aren’t actively turned off by) the campaign you want to run is hugely important.
Consider writing a few quick pitches for different campaigns and asking players about the kinds of characters they want to play, the tone of adventure they want to have, and so on.
You might walk away from it brimming with great ideas. If you don’t, it’s better to find out that you and your group aren’t a good fit before the campaign begins rather than 10 miserable sessions later.
No D&D is better than bad D&D.
The Key Elements of a Campaign
When you sit down to write the broad strokes of your campaign, consider these three elements: a Central Conflict, a Theme, and the Playstyle you want to promote.
When you create your world, one of the most important things to consider is tension.
Where there’s conflict, there’s drama and therefore interesting stories for your players to get mixed up in. Choosing a central conflict is a great way to make this happen.
A central conflict gives your game (and everything in it) something to pivot around.
As an example, think about Wilderness vs. Civilization.
An aggressive human kingdom is expanding into uncharted territory, risking conflict with elves and druids, digging up things best left buried.
This is bad on the face of it, but the humans also bring roads and order to the wilderness; they have children to feed and their communities are beacons of safety and comfort in the middle of a dangerous expanse of untamed land.
The PCs will probably have opinions about which side of the central conflict is “right,” and, if you play it right, both sides can be compelling.
Central Conflict Examples
- Law vs. Chaos
- Good vs. Evil
- Freedom vs. Safety
- Science (arcane magic) vs. Faith (divine magic)
- Progress vs. Tradition
Matt Colville has a fantastic video essay on putting a central tension into your game and the benefits it can provide. He’s much smarter than I am, so you should just go watch that.
On the face of it, a milieu could just be the central conflict wearing a different face.
However, settling on your milieu – what your world looks and feels like, from aesthetic to social conventions – is essential to making your campaign feel alive.
Think about the monsters that fit into your world. Is this a low-fantasy setting where even the appearance of an Owlbear is an event talked about far and wide? Are dragons commonplace? Are there dinosaurs?
Think about how the different factions and important NPCs in your world act, worship, trade, play, work, and express the game’s central tension.
Settle on even a few of these options, and you’ll find yourself equipped with more than a few different events and plots in motion for your players to interact with.
Playstyle: World vs. Plot
Lastly, after talking to your players about the kind of game they want to play, think about where you want your focus to lie and what kind of playstyle you want to evoke.
Want to run a game about classic dungeon delving for ancient, probably cursed, treasure?
Better spend your time coming up with some dungeons – they will be the mechanism through which your players’ characters go on adventures and find conflict.
Want to run a politically sophisticated game of courtly intrigue and mystery? You’re probably going to want to spend your time building lists of NPCs and maybe a matrix of how they all relate to one another.
Find the type of experience you want you players to have, and focus on writing material that supports that experience.
Then, once you have all that stuff, you can spend as much time as you like coming up with 12 generations of heraldry for the kingdom’s nobility.
This element of a campaign also helps you settle on whether you’re running more of a linear, story-focused game with a big, central plot or (much like in Sex and the City – man, I watch a lot of crap TV) the world is the plot.
The astute among you will have recognized I’m talking about the whole linear vs. open world sandbox dichotomy.
You should decide – and talk to your players about it – whether you have a big central story in mind that you want to tell or whether you’re happy to write an area of your world and just let your players loose in it.
Different players and different DMs will prefer different approaches.
My two-year campaign is definitely a linear plot. There’s a central tension (fascism vs. not fascism I suppose) that threatens the lives of everyone on an entire continent.
If the PCs ignore what’s going on, their characters are going to have a very bad time of it.
The campaign I’m just starting, on the other hand, is little more than a big valley full of dungeons, dragons, dwarves, weird alien god mutants, and a necromancer who’s up to something (if he succeeds, it won’t be pleasant, but the world’s not going to end either, and just moving somewhere else is totally a viable option for the party if that happens).
The PCs have been dropped in the middle of everything, and it’s up to them to decide what they think is worth pursuing. So far, they’ve chatted to a ghost and decided to go and rob some graves.
Both totally valid campaigns.
Three Example Campaigns
To help you get started, I’ve tried to condense three potentially interesting campaigns into a short framework you could use to build your own.
1. The Last War
Central Conflict: Life vs. Death
Milieu: An apocalyptic conflict between a powerful arch lich’s empire of demons and death and the last surviving kingdoms of the living. Dark and pulpy, with undead “fantasy nazis,” occultism, and earth-shattering battles for survival.
Playstyle: A mixture of hit-and-run commando raids, daring secret war plots to stop dark rituals, and mass battles – desperate last stands, invasions, escapes from the clamoring hordes of undead.
Influences: Band of Brothers, Dawn of the Dead, Star Wars: Rebels, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Hellboy
There’s potential for all sorts of different types of adventure within the scope of a major war – especially one against the dead.
Players could be sent on missions to disrupt enemy supply lines, assassinate important generals, defend strategic locations against the advancing tides of darkness – all eventually culminating in a titanic battle against the massed ranks of shambling undead.
Alternatively, if you want more of a strategic campaign, put your PCs further up the chain of command, directing troops around the kingdom, making impossible decisions, and choosing the right time to head out to the battlefield themselves to turn the tide.
2. The MacGuffin Hunt
Central Conflict: Knowledge vs. Greed (It belongs in a museum!)
Milieu: A pulpy sword and sorcery tone set across dozens of locations as the PCs race to recover an important artifact before it’s too late or the bad guys get it.
Playstyle: Frantic, focused, one set piece after another as the PCs hunt down clues, explore ancient ruins, and fight off recurring bad guys in a series of exotic locales.
Influences: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lara Croft, National Treasure, the Mummy, the last two Harry Potter movies.
This is very much a linear campaign; the players have little agency over where they go and when, but that can create an exciting, frantic chase across your world (or the planescape if you want to get weird) in pursuit of the thing they need.
Just make sure that you have a recurring set of antagonists in the Indiana Jones Nazis role and are giving the players a very good reason to undertake their quest.
3. Into the Unknown
Central Conflict: Wilderness vs. Civilization
Milieu: Colonial themes and desperate frontier lifestyles collide with a limitless, uncaring expanse that exists in opposition to everything “civilization” stands for. Off the edge of the map. Here there be monsters. Also, greed and oppression brought by the pioneers. Two incompatible words in conflict.
Playstyle: A very exploration-heavy game with players left alone to explore a vast wilderness filled with ancient ruins, never-before-seen monsters, unknown cultures (just be careful), and ancient magic. Every step into the unknown is a step away from the things the PCs think are true.
Influences: Princess Mononoke, Pocahontas, the Lewis and Clark expedition, The VVitch, Annihilation.
There are a hundred ways you could do this campaign, from conflict between locals vs. settlers to a doomed expedition into unbelievably hostile territory.
Make it weird, give the players a lot of choice about where they go and what they do when they get there. Maybe include optional rules for gunpowder weapons if you want to get really on the nose about it.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.