One of my favorite things about a game of Dungeons & Dragons is that it can be as long as it needs to be.
However, this is also something that I find to be the most intimidating about tabletop roleplaying games. When do you stop playing? When is the story over?
How Long Is a DnD Campaign?
You can have a fun, compelling adventure in a single session — explore the dungeon, fight the monsters, kill the boss, get the loot — over the course of a few hours, or you can play with the same people and the same characters in the same world for years (decades even).
Now, the answer to that question depends on the kind of game you’re running and who’s in your group.
I’ve run D&D (and other games as well) before as part of a rotating cast of game masters who would take the reins for a session or two.
We played everything from grimdark Swedish black metal fantasy to games about criminal bears.
I’ve also been a part of groups that have played with the same characters in the same world in the same ruleset for years at a time, following a single grand adventure from one epic confrontation to another.
Then there were the campaigns that were supposed to be one-shots, but we didn’t quite get done in one session, so we stretched to two, then three.
And then the true CR 40 monster reared its head: side quests.
What began as an A4 piece of paper’s worth of vague notes about a train robbery turned into about a year and a half of rambling around in the wilderness fighting gnolls and starting a moderately successful pop music ensemble.
By the time the campaign fell apart (for real-life reasons), my players still hadn’t gotten around to finishing up the story I had written on that single piece of A4.
Basically, D&D campaigns can get out of hand. They grow like something in David Cronenberg’s basement. Sometimes, that’s absolutely fine. Sometimes, that’s what you wanted to happen from day one.
And sometimes, much like this introductory section, you find yourself wishing they could have been over a long time ago.
Whether you’re filling in for a forever DM who needs a break or want to try out a new campaign without committing to years of adventures, this article is all about tips, tricks, and resources that will help you start (and finish) a short D&D 5e campaign.
What’s the Difference Between an Adventure and a Campaign in DnD 5e?
Isn’t a short campaign just an adventure? Well, sort of. The main differences between an adventure and a campaign are scale and focus.
In D&D, an adventure is usually used to refer to a series of scenes or events, and a campaign refers to a series of adventures.
Think of it like the difference between an episode of TV and a whole season. Exactly how much the individual episodes (adventures) in a season (campaign) relate to one another is largely up to the show (you).
Some shows — Star Trek: The Original Series and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia leap to mind — are highly episodic, with the implications of one episode rarely bleeding into the next.
Events are isolated from one another and the characters largely remain the same throughout.
Running a campaign like this is great if you want to make a place (or a string of unconnected places) or group of people the focus of your campaign.
Personally, I don’t think episodic storytelling makes for very good short campaigns.
There aren’t going to be enough sessions for you to establish the level of familiarity that makes this kind of storytelling enjoyable.
(Of course, the advantage of episodic storytelling in a D&D campaign can be that, even if you put that campaign down for a few months or even years, when you come back, everything is going to be right where you left it.)
When there’s less time to get a campaign started and finished, it’s usually best to think of it less like a syndicated network TV show and more like a miniseries: a more condensed, usually isolated story in which the focus is more on a single dramatic plot but is still told over a number of different episodes.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a long-running campaign that also centers on a single, main objective where the tension is pretty much always high (looking at you Lord of the Rings), but in a long-running game, that decision is more a matter of personal preference.
In a short campaign, it’s how you keep things focused.
Even though a short campaign can be wrapped up in just a few sessions and will probably work best if you restrict it to one main goal that the players are always working toward, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t contain multiple adventures, building blocks that move the campaign toward its conclusion.
How Long Is a Short DnD Campaign?
A short campaign is longer than a one-shot or single adventure, but it still wraps up in a few sessions (the exact number is up to you).
When I run a short D&D campaign, I tend to think of it as a series of three to five short adventures, each of which takes one to three sessions.
Assuming a session of D&D takes about three hours, a short campaign can take anywhere between nine and 15 hours to get from start to finish.
Personally, I like to vary the length of my adventures as well, keeping one shorter than the others so there’s time for a bigger introduction or a more dramatic conclusion.
How Do I Prepare for a Short Campaign?
When you’re starting an intentionally short D&D campaign, there are some important steps you can take, which I like to break into two two categories: Game and Table.
Game Prep is all the stuff that relates to the in-fiction campaign.
It’s picking adventures or making your own, making notes about NPCs, designing encounters — the whole bit we largely think of when we think about being dungeon masters.
I talk a lot about coming up with ideas for a campaign — from the central tension to playstyle — in this article.
There are also articles here for the more 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.
That’s all game prep, and you’re going to need to do plenty of that for your short campaign.
This article is going to mostly focus on specific steps you can take to make a campaign that gets going, keeps up its momentum, and actually finishes when you want it to.
Table Prep, on the other hand, is all the stuff that happens out of the game.
It’s about talking to your players beforehand, picking a night of the week to play, figuring out which VTT to use, whether you’ll be using theater of the mind or maps, and, perhaps most importantly, pitching your campaign.
You can do this during your Session Zero or before.
Aside from general concerns like house rules, table conduct, and safety tools, the Session Zero (and conversations that happen before it) are a great place to do three critical pieces of Table Prep for a short campaign.
Manage Expectations, Set Boundaries, and Expect Buy-In
If your players come to this game expecting a grand sweeping epic that lasts for years, they’re going to be disappointed. Likewise, if they show up expecting to play an exploration-heavy sandbox adventure, they’re going to be unhappy.
When you’re running a short campaign, it’s only going to stay short and be fun for everyone if people know what they’re getting into.
Be explicit about it. Say you want to run a short campaign that will be wrapping up soon. Manage your players expectations, and set boundaries for the game.
Those boundaries can deal with in-game metrics, like saying you’re going to run a certain adventure or focus on some other in-game measure of time.
Or you can set a hard limit outside of the game, like a certain number of sessions or real-world time.
In addition to preventing a campaign from getting out of hand, this can be a really good way to keep up the momentum of any campaign.
A short campaign requires the DM to keep a pretty tight hold on the reigns, so it’s important that your players are okay with that.
There’s this idea that I see in newer players especially that it’s the DM’s job to entice, cajole, and get their characters to come on the adventure while the player characters do everything they can to undermine that momentum.
These players are no longer welcome in my games.
You don’t have to be confrontational about it, however. Just bake it into the expectations for the game.
“This is going to be a campaign about resistance fighters undermining the occupation of their city”… “This is going to be an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt, and you’ll all be archeologists on the trail of an ancient artifact”… and so on.
By expecting your players to buy into your game, you’re asking them to focus on the story you want to tell.
Honestly, this isn’t something I would have ever done as a novice dungeon master; it feels too restrictive, too much like I’m railroading.
However, I’ve been running games for long enough that I not only know that my time and effort are valuable, but my players and I also know that I can run a fun game, and my players trust me to do that.
Besides, if you pick a fun concept (I’m about to start a weird, Ghibli-inspired pirate campaign), people are going to be excited to be a part of it.
A Word About Pre-Written Adventures for DnD 5e
One of the reasons I think the lines between campaign and adventure are a bit blurry at the moment are that the official “adventure books” released by Wizards of the Coast for D&D 5e are actually campaign books.
In terms of scale, they encompass multiple locations, encounters, and NPCs, usually over multiple levels of play and can take years to complete.
Running something like Storm King’s Thunder or Out of the Abyss is no mean feat, especially in terms of DM prep.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t just grab any 5e “adventure” and run it like a campaign, but (and this is especially true if you’re new to running D&D and want to run a shorter game) reading several hundred pages of content feels like it flies in the face of what we’re trying to accomplish here.
With a bit of work, it’s totally possible to carve a few bits out of a larger book and run that as a short campaign or grab some of the many adventures in an anthology book, like Tales from the Yawning Portal (which reskins a few classic D&D modules for 5e) or Candlekeep Mysteries, and stitch them together.
At the end of the day, it comes down to your personal preference as to whether it’s going to be easier and more fun to hack, stitch, and Frankenstein a bunch of pre-written content or write your own.
You can also use a pre-written adventure as a jumping-off point for a short campaign. Run it, take notes, use the repercussions to create a couple more small adventures that build to a conclusion.
Adventures for Short Campaigns
If you do want to use pre-written content for your game, one great resource to explore are some of the older adventures available on the DM’s Guild.
You can find great, usually more compact modules from the earlier editions of D&D. These can either serve as a jumping-off point for a short campaign or be strung together.
Saltmarsh and Ravenloft
Two 5e official adventures, Curse of Strahd and Ghosts of Saltmarsh, string together and expand the I6 Ravenloft adventure and the U1-3 Saltmarsh series by TSR UK, respectively.
As a result, they’re both probably my two favorite examples of modern D&D adventures that are suitable to run as a short campaign.
Curse of Strahd — which pulls the PCs into the gothic-horror pocket dimension of Barovia to match wits with the ancient, incredibly powerful vampire Count Strahd Von Zarovich — ticks all the boxes for a short D&D campaign.
It presents a magically restricted area and an adventure with a clearly defined goal (kill Strahd). You get a few places to explore and a few NPCs to encounter, but you can also just head straight to the castle and beat some vampire ass.
Ghosts of Saltmarsh collects and updates the U1-3 series of adventures (The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy) by TSR UK, written for Basic D&D in the 80s.
It’s a great series of escalating encounters that build in scale and could easily all be dealt with within the scope of a short campaign.
Lost Mines of Phandelver
The widely lauded adventure from the Dungeons & Dragons 5e starter set has just enough encounters to be called a mini-campaign.
From goblin and bugbear-infested caves to evil wizards, the Lost Mines of Phandelver is a great adventure for new DMs and players alike. It also includes an excellent starter town and a dragon.
As a short campaign, it’s basically perfect in size and scope. Run it as is.
N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God
A classic starter adventure that could easily provide a jumping-off point into a short campaign, Against the Cult of the Reptile God pits the player characters against a sinister organization taking over the small town of Orlane.
It has a little bit of everything: a town in the grip of dark forces, cultist ambushes, a trek through a dangerous swamp, and a final confrontation in a dungeon with a dangerous, serpentine foe.
If I were running this adventure as part of a short campaign, I would probably use Against the Cult of the Reptile God as its first half (it takes about three to four sessions, depending how quickly your players find the cult).
From there, you could either keep the focus on the town of Orlane — perhaps the absence of the Spirit Naga Explicita Defilus from the temple now creates space for a new, more dangerous threat to move in — or on the cult itself, which is now angling to take down the PCs in revenge.
B6 The Veiled Society
Another, slightly weirder “classic” adventure, The Veiled Society is an urban mystery that’s very light on combat and even lighter on monsters. What it has instead, however, is political intrigue, a grisly murder, and a riot.
If you want to run a more investigative, almost hard-boiled style of campaign, setting it in the city of Specularum is a solid choice.
The plot of this adventure is mysterious enough that you could either stretch it out into a series of adventures or you could just continue the story of feuding noble families after the discovery and eradication of the Veiled Society.
Of course, if the party fails to stop the society, a campaign that’s all about proving their innocence and bringing down a corrupt aristocracy is also great.
3 Ingredients for a Short Campaign
Of course, whether you’re stitching together pre-written adventures or writing everything from scratch, there are a few key ingredients that are going to make sure your short campaign is exciting and fun and doesn’t turn into a two-year epic.
A Clear Goal With Real Stakes
This lines up nicely with what I said earlier about managing player expectations and expecting buy-in. In a short campaign, it’s perfectly okay to tell the players what their characters’ motivations (broadly, at least) are going to be.
Give your players’ characters a goal, and make it abundantly clear what will happen if they fail. Remind them of their characters’ investment in the goal often.
My favorite way to do this is to wrap up what I want in a question for the player.
“Your character has traveled many miles to be here tonight. What is it about you that lets the others know you would lay down your life to recover the artifact?” or perhaps “What did the fey prince say to you in your dreams that convinced you to make the journey into the lands beyond the faerie ring?”
Whatever the goal is, it should be big, obvious, and uncomplicated. How to accomplish said goal can be as fiendishly obtuse as you like, but the players shouldn’t ever forget why they’re trying to do what they’re doing.
An Obvious Villain With an Evil Plan
One of the most on-the-nose goals for an adventuring party is “stop the villain from doing XYZ,” which has the added benefit of also creating the stakes: “Stop the villain from doing X or they’ll do Y and Z.”
A good, memorable villain can be the cornerstone of a short adventure or campaign — someone your players can really hate.
If playing D&D and working office jobs has taught me anything, it’s that pettiness and hatred are every bit as motivating as a desire to be a hero.
A Ticking Clock, Five Minutes From Midnight
D&D players are very, very good at getting sidetracked.
They want to go see what’s over there. They want to poke the thing. They hyperfixate on the wrong details, get in trouble with the law, and without fail try to start some sort of side hustle.
All of this takes away from progress toward the main objective.
In a longer campaign, this sort of tomfoolery is absolutely fine. Heck, usually this sort of nonsense is the campaign, but in a shorter campaign, it can really help to remind players that their time is finite.
Whether this is out of character (a hard limit on the number of sessions the campaign will go on) or in-game (the villain will complete their evil plan in three days unless you stop her, etc.), a ticking clock can be a powerful motivator.
Pull it all together and you should have a recipe for running short, fun, exciting D&D campaigns that don’t take all year to wrap up.
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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.