• Justin Handlin

5 Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Themes



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Just as settings have personalities that shape adventures that take place there, the theme of a campaign gives a distinct flavor to its stories. A collection of adventures where the adventurers go from dungeon to dungeon with no connection feels very different from a year-long struggle against Cult of the Dragon that culminates in a final showdown with the Tiamat herself. Changing up your campaign theme can not only enhance your tables game experience but will also improve your Dungeon Master skills by adding powerful tools to your DM Toolkit.


DUNGEON OF THE WEEK

This campaign resembles an episodic TV show. Each session the heroes move from one distinct setting to another such as a dungeon, cave, forest, or new town. They solve that session's problems, then move on to the next issue that needs dealing with. Once it's done, a fresh new start almost every session.


This is a great format for cycling DM’s and allowing everyone to be in the hot seat. This is the simplest of themes to run, each story is self-contained. My favorite aspect of this is that there is always a start, middle, and conclusion. An entire store unfolds and concludes. While sometimes it can feel rushed, it's nice to beagle to have a quick sense of accomplishment.


ON A MISSION

This campaign theme quickly links the heroes’ exploits with an overarching goal. You overlay a mission’s story in an otherwise independent session. Some examples;


Exploration: The heroes set out to map a particular unexplored region, may be an island, mountain, swamp, or an entire continent, encountering threats along the way. Maybe they are seeking out a hidden temple, lost civilization, or ancient tomb.


Religious: Faith is a powerful tool for a call to action: The characters could be making a pilgrimage to some holy site. Or they may be holy warriors dedicated to stamping out a particular kind of threat, such as demonic or aberrant creatures. These are great ways to


Whatever the story, it implies a stronger connection between the different adventures. These are pretty common and make for a variety of gameplay styles while at the same time keeping adventures short enough to fall in line with a beginning, middle, and end.


ULTIMATE VILLAIN

Many adventures that pit our heroes up against a particular adversary naturally lead to a single villain who’s ultimately behind everything. Our heroes may often begin their careers fighting kobolds or orcs, only to discover that they were servants of some dark wizard or demonspawn. Their continuing adventures lead them into battles with a growing list of powerful monsters, battling hordes of kobold minions, then their lizardfolk leaders, climaxing in an epic battle against a dragon. While the dragon may not have been directly involved with the heroes starting adventures, the problems raised by its minions were a result of some plan put in motion by the mastermind.


You can build a villain-focused campaign theme from the top down or from the bottom up.

From top-down, you first choose the villain and then build your adventures peppering in those connections and themes from the start of the campaign.


From the bottom up, you build encounters around low-level monsters that appeal to you (such as lizardfolk or kobolds) and then create adventures involving similar or related monsters at higher levels and tie them together.


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WORLD SHAKING EVENT

In these sorts of campaigns, the world itself often faces some sort of event that alters the world in a significant way. Often this sort of campaign has a deadline that hangs over the heroes throughout their adventures. In final fantasy 7 for example, a meteor is going to crash into the planet in a set number of days, it's up to the heroes to stop it. Maybe a primordial is entombed at the center of the planet is extending its shadowy tendrils of reality-warping energy toward the surface civilization, forming dungeons that spew forth monstrosities. The heroes must clear the dungeons and cut off their connection to the primordial before it engulfs the shattered remnants of civilization. If the heroes don’t succeed, the world will change and often not for the better.


This could make for a great opportunity to shift from a current campaign setting to a homebrew world.


UNFOLDING PROPHECY

This theme puts a spin on the world-shaking level of events, by casting them as unfolding fulfillment of some sort of ancient prophecy. Often a campaign setting that follows this starts off with some sort of event that identifies it as the start of the prophecy, coming of age of a prince/princess, the birth of a child, the attempted/successful assassination of someone of importance, and a sort call to action to those who would be destined for greatness.


The great thing about a well-crafted prophecy is its ambiguity. While the heroes may learn or assume they know the meaning, you can twist and contort its meaning to catch them by surprise. Either way, there may be someone out there leading the charge to this prophecy, and the path chosen by the heroes can be one of acceptance or one of defiance.


It's important to note, that if only one person is going to be part of the prophecy, make sure that the focus of the game surrounds ALL the characters. Not just the one that the process focuses on. It's often best to just write a prophecy that includes all the characters.


Changing up your campaign theme can not only enhance your tables game experience but will also improve your Dungeon Master skills by adding powerful tools to your DM Toolkit.


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