• Justin Handlin

5x5 Dungeon Master Campaign Design


Three adventurer's planning an adventure

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How do I build a Dungeons & Dragons Campaign?

Being a Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons can be a lot of work. While there are a variety of ways to write a campaign it can often be a daunting task. The 5x5 method is an organization tool for planning out an entire campaign with a vibrant network of linked scenarios and that means you will have more time to focus on other aspects of the hobby without stressing over a complex story. All while keeping your prep time to a minimum. I originally read about the 5x5 method in Dragon Magazine written by Dave Chalker.


One of the things that I absolutely love about it is that it leaves the game open to the player characters' agency with a sandbox feel while limiting choices to a more manageable level. Additionally, it gives a large 1000 foot view of the story and allows me to easily connect those changes to different parts of the campaign. This simple technique allows us to easily create five overarching quest paths. Each of which is broken down into five adventure concepts. Each quest path culminates into a critical event in the campaign's story. The 5x5 method essentially gives us the outline for twenty-five adventures that can generate seeds and hooks for over 75 encounters.


How do I start the 5x5 Campaign Design?

The process simply starts by writing down 5 clear and distinctive long-term goals or quests. Each of these are going to be major plot points in your campaign, we will call them quest paths. Keep in mind that you don’t really need to flesh them in extreme detail. Just a short line and convert them into a detailed paragraph or two later. When deciding on these major points, make sure to include player character motivations, backstories, etc. This will ensure that it is easily able to hook the players. Each block of the 5x5 can focus on a different playstyle to fit the character's motivations. For instance, one might focus entirely on exploration, another on political intrigue, or maybe a more traditional dungeon crawl. By including these in each of your long-term goals/plot points. You can ensure that each player character is rewarded with an aspect of the campaign that focuses on what they want.


Below are some sample quests to get us started.

  • Recover the lost Iron Horn of Valhalla.

  • Destroy the Temple of the Crimson Exiles.

  • Prevent the Kingdom of Armyrlin from entering civil war.

  • Research and complete an arcane sealing ritual.

  • A Dragon Defeated.

  • Now that we have our first 5 quest paths outlined, we can now flesh them out, then add the list of steps the characters can take to complete them.


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Recover the lost Iron Horn of Valhalla

Legends say that the Iron Horn of Valhalla (DMG) appears when the goliaths need it most. Hill Giants are organizing an assault on the mountain tribes of the Frozen Peaks. A hill giant leader wielding a magical weapon leads the invasion force to claim the peaks as their own. The only way to defeat them is to find the Iron Horn of Valhalla and place it in the hands of the goliath chief.


Destroy the Fel Temple

Rumors are bountiful in taverns, inns and places where adventurer’s gather. Word has it that since the invasion of the Frozen Peaks, evil creatures have been seen flocking to an ancient stronghold. Word spreads that they are preparing for something big. The location of this gathering of dark ones is unknown, but whispers from locals may reveal some clues. What nefarious plan are these creatures of darkness hatching, and can the characters stop it?


Prevent War in Armyrlin

Policy changes in the human city of Armyrlin are inciting riots among its citizens on a near- daily basis. Some believe a particular noble is spurring the chaos with disinformation for their own motives. With every day that passes, it seems the kingdom is falling into a greater depression. Soon, much of the city will be in a civil war. Currently, the kingdom is already defending its western border against dragon cultists. Should the troops be forced to withdraw to maintain order in the city, the dragon cultists may use that opportunity to raid Armyrlin.


The Sealing Ritual

For centuries, a phylactery has served as the housing for a powerful dracolich. In the ancient past, the realm that is now the kingdom of Armyrlin was ruled by a tyrant dragon. As the dragon’s power waned, it forced its followers to help convert it into an undead ever living dracolich. The vile creature trusts a small group of its most trusted spellcasters to perform the complicated ritual. But it was betrayed and once its soul entered the phylactery, it was sealed and imprisoned forever. The phylacteries' magical seal has slowly been corrupted due to prolonged exposure to the evil nature of greedy and corrupt men in the city. If the characters can identify the origin of the seal, they might be able to develop a ritual to restore it to its full strength and cleanse it of its taint.


A Dragon Defeated

The dragon cultists follow a dragon who seeks to become a dracolich to gain everlasting life. Despite the dragon’s cleverness, the cultists have been manipulating it in order to resurrect the ancient dragon; it needs a host body, a dragon’s corpse. The dragon cultlists convince the dragon they are unable to deal with the intervention of the characters, and thus, it must face them itself in order to gain eternal undeath. If the characters successfully slay the dragon, it leads to the resurrection of the ancient dracolich.


Developing the 5x5 Grid

Now that we’ve got a good general sense of what we want the campaign to be, albeit from a high level. We now need to write down five specific steps or quests to complete each quest path. It’s best to write this out in a linear format so that the first step must be completed before the next. Keep in mind, this is open enough that the approach of the characters is left undefined, just the final goal is clear. The fifth and final step should be a major accomplishment and impact the story significantly.


In the 5x5 method, each step or quest path constitutes one adventure. Keep in mind, we aren’t writing out every encounter, just the steps to the campaign's path. You can prepare each encounter as needed. This helps us build the encounters based on the character's actions. This prevents us from funneling them into specific encounters. Instead, it's a wider net that is more open-ended and allows our players agency in their actions. All the while keeping it within the bounds of the campaign we have outlined.


When planning out your steps in the process, make sure to consider including a variety of playstyles as we did with our quest paths. This further creates a variety of playstyles for our players and their characters. Remember, we want to tackle not just character motivations, but also player’s. This can be as simple as a single step can include a character’s mentor, family or friend. This technique makes it extremely easy to involve the characters and players, but also helps them feel more invested in the campaign.


Our goal is to give the sandbox game style feel by allowing the characters' decisions. When creating your first few steps of each quest path, consider a more relaxed structure, one in which the characters can undertake the first two or three steps in any order. This sense of freedom and choice will ensure that players don’t feel like they are losing agency. Make sure no matter what structure you use, that the first four steps should build to step 5, which is the completion of the quest path.


The five quest paths for our 5x5 campaign are presented below, with each expanded to five steps.

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Recover the lost Iron Horn of Valhalla

  • Investigation of the goliath legends surrounding the horn in Frozen Peaks, mountain home of the character Utgard “Fearless” Thunukalaki. The characters encounter tribes of the peaks whose members don’t want the horn to be found.

  • Recover the journal of the explorer Kethra Stormwind called “Travels of the Storm,” which details the last known appearance of the horn. The characters must win it from an estate Auction House in Armyrlin.

  • Venture onto the high seas to recreate the path of Kethra Stormwind to recreate the path Kethra took to find the resting place of the horn.

  • The horn is given to only those who are worthy. Prove your worth on the Lost Isle of Ignis.

  • Recover the Iron Horn of Valhalla and deliver it to Ugard Thunukalaki to use against the hill giants.

Destroy the Temple

  • Thwart the monsters, bandits and cultists who have been attacking, raiding, and pillaging innocence around the outskirts of the Fel Temple's hidden location.

  • Uncover evidence of dragon cults springing up in nearby towns and villages.

  • Flush out cultists, kobolds and monsters from nearby caverns and caves.

  • Gather and identify clues suggesting that each of the three groups, monsters, cultists and kobolds are somehow receiving assistance from the city of Armyrlin.

  • Locate the hidden Fel Temple and destroy it and any evil or monsters present there.

Prevent War in Armyrlin

  • Recover an important influential document from Darkrock Hold for the noble Lord Fjorden Bersk.

  • Investigate and discover Lord Bersk is involved with the dragon cult and escape his keep.

  • Discover Lord Bersk’s involvement in the riots and civil war. He believes the council needs new leadership and seeks a spot as an elder on the council.

  • Forge alliances and treaties with other council candidates.

  • Influence the election to ensure that the dark Lord Bersk does not rise to a position of influence and power.

The Sealing Ritual

  • A wise sage/wizard or a person of respect related to the characters seeks aide in resealing a weakened seal on an artifact hidden deep within Armyrlin.

  • Discover that the object contained within the magical seal is a dragon’s phylactery and its weakened seal is losing a taint that is affecting the minds of those nearby. Research and investigate a way to reforge the seal. Learn the key to sealing it lies within using a Shard of the Divine from the celestial realm of Elysium.

  • Locate hallowed ground crossing and convince its guardians to allow you to pass into the celestial realm.

  • Uncover the secret of the Shard of the Divine and the ritual of sealing. Convince an angel to assist the characters in ritual.

  • Gather the material components needed for the ritual, including the angel. Perform the sealing ritual.

A Dragon Defeated

  • Battle with the hoodwinked dragon as it attempts to invade and steal the magically sealed container holding the phylactery from Armyrlin’s vault.

  • Learn of a safe location to take the dragon’s phylactery to prevent it from forming/reforming before it can become a dracolich.

  • Race the dracolich and/or the cultists to the hallowed ground crossing, forcing the spirit of the dracolich to cross into the next world.

  • Return to deal with the cultists and monsters that follow the dracolich.

  • Claim the reward and celebrate the end of Armyrlin’s dark past and current civil war.

Tying it all together

Now that we have plenty of potential adventures to start our campaign. The goal is to give the players plenty of options to choose from without requiring them to follow a linear path. The great thing about this is that it gives a sense of a deep and complex campaign.


In order to do this, we create a 5x5 table and “link” a few of the quest steps together in some way. It’s important to note that not every step needs to link to another. But, mixing in one or two from each quest path will give you a more interconnected story. Below is a sample table from the adventure we’ve laid out above.

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The 5x5 method is a great and versatile tool for any Dungeon Master who is looking to develop a simple overview for tracking and connecting stories in a large campaign. To make it easy for the players to keep track of the different events, I recommend handing out quest cards. Short descriptions of goals, important NPCs, and locations to visit. Make sure to leave room for the players to add their own notes to connect the different events.


This technique won’t be for everyone. But it is worth giving it a shot. Especially if you want to reduce your workload and still have documentation of how everything connects in the story. What are some techniques you use when designing large campaigns? Share with us at critacademy@gmail.com


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