Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Themes
Just as settings have a personality that shapes 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. We discuss the myriad of different theme formats that exist within Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying games.
Segment 3: Main Topic: Campaign Themes
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 it.
Once its down, a fresh new start almost every session.
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.
ON A MISSION
This campaign theme quickly links the heroes’ exploits with an overarching goal. You overlay a mission or story on an otherwise independent session. Some examples;
Exploration: The heroes set out to map a particular unexplored region, maybe an island, or an entire continent, encountering threats along the way. Maybe they are seeking out a hidden temple, or they are homeward bound after taking part in a recent war.
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.
Whatever the story, it implies a stronger connection between the different adventures.
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 minion, 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 tying them together.
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 it 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.
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.
Unearthed Tips and Tricks! We bring you new and creative content for you to bring with you on your next adventure!
Character Concept: Fallen God?
A half-orc that fervently believes that he is a demigod. He talks of how he plans on ascending to the heavens again, but the other gods have thrown him from the skies to live among mortals as punishment. Other orcs don't accept him because he makes these ridiculous claims, and humans/elves/dwarves generally don't accept him because he's a half-orc. An outcast in this world, the half-orc roams from town to town, living the life of an adventurer and trying to achieve enough glory that the gods will allow him back into the heavens. (Whether these claims are delusional or not can be up to the player/DM.)
The orc is a tempest cleric, drawing his power from the might of thunderstorms. He might claim that he is in fact the god of thunder; his name... is Thorc.
Monster Variant: Symbiote Warrior
New description: This terrifying creature appears to be all muscle, smaller lower half with a massive upper torso. It towers over its foes with a massive jaw from ear to ear, lined with long razor-sharp teeth and a flailing 2-foot long tongue. Its skin appears to be a form of ooze constantly shifting around its body reaching out with dozens of tendrils.
Origin: Half-Dragon Veteran
Remove: Fire Breath, and Crossbow
Reflavor Longsword: With a description of horrifying tendrils leaping from all parts of its body.
Reflavor Shortsword: With long needle point claws.
Spider Climb. The symbiote warrior can climb difficult surfaces, including upside down on ceilings, without needing to make an ability check.
Web Walker. The symbiote warrior ignores movement restrictions caused by webbing.
Web: (Recharge 5-6) Innate spellcasting: DC 15
(if ur feeling generous upon defeat you can award the players our magic item for this episode)
Encounter: No more Rooms
After a miserable and painstaking journey through terrible freezing weather, a night promising to be much colder, our heroes arrive with hope for a bit of respite.
Unfortunately, the Inn is sold out and all the private rooms are taken, and the common room has been reserved for a private party.
The characters look around the room and see an entourage of out of town nobles and a few guardsmen. The nobles smirk at the characters while making comments such as “sleep tight” and “do try to keep dry.” followed by a few condescending insults muttered under their breath.
Additionally, if the heroes request to sleep in the stables, the snobby noble says “Our horses are rather spoiled. They hate to share with strangers, so we’ve reserved all the stables for their comfort. I hope you understand.” All the other nobles get a chuckle out of it.
If the PCs are forced to sleep outside, they can only gain the benefit of a short rest. Unless of course, they can find a happy solution to their problem.
(This is a great opportunity for the Folk Hero background to come into play with its Rustic Hospitality)
Magic Item: Symbiotic Orb
This small fist-sized clear orb contains a black and white ooze substance that appears to violently slam against the inside of the container relentlessly in a sad attempt to escape. Engraved in the clear casing is a command word(hloire).
When you speak the command word, the glass case vanishes and the black and white ooze bursts free latching onto you. The ooze begins spreading over your entire body taking on a large muscular black humanoid form with a strange white insignia on your chest and black tendrils flailing from your body in all directions.
You gain the following benefits for 1 minute.
Our strength score increases by 4, but cannot exceed 20 from this effect.
We gain the benefits of Rage at its lowest level.
The ooze around our body has twisting and whipping tendrils that appear to obey our thoughts. We can use an action to attack with the tendrils making a melee attack for 2d6+strength mod. If we have extra attack, this replaces one of them. We choose the damage type from piercing, slashing, or bludgeoning as the ooze like tendrils change shape to our needs.
When you activate this item, you gain a new flaw. The symbiote is ravaging your mind and begins to influence your behavior, you must always reference yourself as “we”.
When the effect ends the ooze is forced back into its magical container. We must succeed a DC 12 Wisdom saving throw or roll on the short-term madness table in the DMG.
This item has no limits on how many times you can use it per day, but each time it is freed its strength of will increases and the DC for the save increases by 3.
This is a sentient cursed item. Feel free to give it stats and a personality.
Dungeon Master Tip: Theme Variation
It's a good idea to mix things up once and a while, so that your players can enjoy a variety of adventure structures. Even if you have a tightly themed campaign, it's ok to veer off course occasionally. If your theme involves lots of dungeon crawls or exploration, add a bit of mystery into a few sessions, likewise, if you do a lot of mystery, maybe change it up with a bit of political intrigue. If your campaign is a little more on the serious side, toss in a goofy or silly villain for a bit of lighthearted fun to allow for a reset on the tension.
Make sure to provide various themes and villains to your campaign, this oftentimes can breathe life into a campaign that may become predictable.
Player Tip: Don’t be a Dick
Recognize the storytelling power at your disposal.
“Storytelling is the DM’s job!” A common belief that could not be more wrong.
Everyone has a hand in the storytelling of the game whether you’re aware of it or not.
Unlike classic storytelling, D&D players create stories via the choices that they make. This is a bit more subtle and often overlooked. The DM may be in charge of what you’re seeing, but you decide what you’re looking at. It may not seem like much, but this is a powerful and tricky tool to influence the story.
If your party finds themselves in a city with hundreds of people, it's likely that the DM only has a few of them fleshed out in the context of the story. For instance, if you ask a random merchant about his family, the DMs response, either off the cuff or scripted forces a response. So if for example the merchant states he doesn't have a family, you can ask why? What happened to them? If they were killed, when and where? By whom? Your questions help make the world feel alive.
By showing the DM what parts of the world interest you, you also assist them in fleshing out details that are of interest to you specifically. Of course, don’t ask about things you don’t care about, otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone's time.
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