How to Write a D&D Campaign Your Players will LOVE!
Join us live 9/5/21 at 7pm Eastern on Youtube.
How do you write a D&D Campaign Your Players will LOVE?
Everyone wants to be the Dungeon Master (DM), but writing a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign can be intimidating. As long-time players and game designers, we want to share with you our tips for ensuring your adventure is fun for everyone.
By the end, you will be writing adventures that your players will be talking about for years.
Whether you’re a player or a Dungeon Master, you have probably been in a D&D campaign at some point in your life. However, finding a toolbox to write amazing Dungeons and Dragons is what can make a difference between a fun Saturday night and the BEST Saturday night your group has ever had. And that is exactly why we wrote: “How To Write A D&D Campaign Your Players Will LOVE!”.
Join us live 9/5/21 at 7pm Eastern as we discuss these fantastic tips. We hope you will share with us and all of Crit Nation all of your own tips and tricks to writing D&D campaigns that your players will love!
1. Develop the Campaign Premise
When you decide you want to run a D&D campaign, you must first decide on what the premise is going to be. This is the foundation of all the adventures, characters and even monsters the characters will encounter. Just like a building, if your foundation isn’t strong, it can all come crumbling down into a hot mess.
Your campaign premise is a short summary or outline of what you envision for the campaign.
Some core aspects to start with are listed below.
Where does the campaign take place? What is the world like? (Setting)
What problem is present that must be solved? (Call to Action)
Who or what is behind the problem? (Antagonist)
What is at stake if the characters don’t take action? (Consequences of Failure)
What is the deadline? (How Long Before Problem is Out of Control)
What is the problem the players must solve?
2. Start Small
While we want to rush in and completely flesh out the world (because it's fun), it really is a lot of extra work that in most cases is honestly unnecessary. While you certainly could plan out every single detail, it would take a lot of time that could better be spent on what the characters are actively doing. The reason being, is the characters and players are only interested in what is happening at that moment. While they probably would be interested in the details of the 500-year war that spanned generations between four nations. This information is best left vague and fleshed out as the characters interact with NPCs and monsters. Start small, with a single village or region. Then expand out as your player characters adventure out. Discover the details of the world together.
Not only does this let you put more effort into the upcoming session, but it is just a lot less work for you as the DM. Especially since the players aren’t probably going to follow the path you expect anyway.
3. Rule of Three
Part of building a world and campaign for your player characters is ensuring it feels like the world is alive. This is very difficult to do when you only place a single hook or choice in front of the player characters and force them down that road. Likewise, having too many options can lead the players left being stunned with analysis paralysis. To solve this, we recommend using the rule of three.
Build three hooks that the characters can use at any given moment. Not only does this give them a sense of freedom to go in a direction they want, but it also allows you to play around with different approaches in grabbing the player's and their character's attention.
Three options right from the beginning seem to be a perfect balance to keep players intrigued and invested without overwhelming them. If you categorize the types of choices you give, you can quickly learn what types of hooks your player characters are interested in, and better build options they will jump at.
4. Player’s have Worldbuilding Power Too!
Let your players co-create the campaign setting and world with you. Leverage their actions and choices as a way to flesh out the parts of the world that interest them. Many Dungeon Masters spend so much time and effort building parts of the world that the players don’t care about. Spending two hours designing a fleshed-out blacksmith and his forge doesn’t do any good if the characters aren’t interested in the blacksmith and his story. Because the characters are the focal point of the story, they decide what is important. So let them.
One of the pitfalls DMs make is that if the characters don't take interest in something the DM cares about, they end up pushing the characters in that direction against their will. This can lead to upset or even hostile players.
When a player character takes interest in something, toss the proverbial ball in their court. For example, if a character wants to ask around town about the location of the alchemist’s shop. Ask them to describe the NPC they approach. Not just physical traits such as race, outfit, and hair color. But also what are they doing when they approach. This gets them invested, and helps them build the world for you.
I like to take this one step further. I’m not one to fully describe in great detail every shop and business in a town for instance. So when the characters visit, I ask them to describe the details of the rundown alchemist’s shop, even the details of the NPC. Not only does this make my job easier, but it also allows players to do what they love, building characters.
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5. Prepare Encounters
As DMs, we can’t possibly plan every possible choice the player characters are going to make. Remember, DMs build the world, but the players write the story.
Following the rule of three above, you want to make sure you have at least three events structured. While some DMs can play completely off the cuff, this isn’t always a great thing. No only can it slow down game progression, but it gives the impression that you don’t care enough to prep and that there isn’t much of a story, even if there is.
It's recommended that these structured events are tied to the story and your hooks in some way. For example, if you toss out a hook about an infestation of rust monsters (MM), then you should at least prepare an encounter map and have the rust monster statblock available along with a hazard and/or trap or two.
6. Define the Ending
One thing that happens in my experience, is that Dungeon Masters don’t set an end point or ending for the game. This means that the story can go on indefinitely. Now, this isn’t a bad thing sometimes, as everyone loves to play. But deciding on an ending (I like to call them arcs), means that there is a sense of accomplishment for the characters and a beginning, middle, and end of their adventure.
When doing so, keep in mind that you need to be flexible during the campaign. Deciding on the ending is one thing, but having tracks the characters must follow to get there is another. This form of DMing is often frowned upon. Though, some tables do like it. Instead, leave it open of how the characters get there, rearranging events or encounters that allow it to still flow in a fluid way to the ending. The best way to think of this is as the story's villain. How would they change their plans, if at all, based on the actions of the player characters?
If you listen to your players during their chats, you might even be able to pull some great ideas right from their own discussions. Nothing is more satisfying for a player than that moment when the story unfolds in a way they predicted earlier in the campaign. So take notes.
7. Request Next Steps
At the end of each session, you can ensure your writing and preparations are in line with what the characters will do when they return to the table. How do we do this you ask? How do we predict the unpredictable? Easy, we ask the players.
Once again, let's revisit the rule of three. By the end of the session, the players kinda have an idea of what direction they will follow moving forward. Ask them what it is, and use that as a basis for your next rule of three as well as your prepared encounters. Now that they have told you what they want to do, you can easily develop the story and encounters based on the actions they’ve told you they are going to follow. This means, building encounters and events that they want. Not what you think they want. Thus, your story will be captivating and engaging for the players and characters.
8. Lean into Tropes
There is a reason that many adventures start in a tavern, or dwarves are expected to get tanked when they visit said tavern. These are classic tropes that have been a part of storytelling for generations. The reason they have been around so long is that they work. Players, readers, and moviegoers alike love tropes. Can they be overdone? Sure, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have them in your stories and campaigns.
Sometimes the brutish goliath barbarian is just that. Simple-minded, battle hardened, and looking for a good challenge. Likewise, wizards are expected to spend most of their time locked away in a tower studying ancient tomes and scrolls.
It's ok to lean into these tropes, they are tropes for a reason. It’s a fact that players like when things meet their expectations, so give them what they expect.
9. Don’t ALWAYS Lean into Tropes!!!
Now, while leaning into tropes is great advice, breaking those tropes on occasion is just as fun. The player characters running into a single goliath barbarian who has put up his maul in place of running a small-town library is an excellent world-building choice. A wizard who doesn’t really care to put time and effort into his studies, so their spells aren’t always super reliable (Wild Magic Sorcerer flavored as a wizard). These are great ways to toss the expectation on its head and add a memorable moment.
Players love misdirection, plot twists, and emotional rollercoaster of expectations in their stories and campaigns. Just do it sparingly, as if you don’t want to get in the habit of constantly fooling your players by breaking the expectation. Dwarves drink (except one they meet), orcs raid (except one who became a minstrel) and wizards keep themselves locked away reading.
Keep the game fun and fresh by not always meeting the player's expectations. Just do it rarely. It makes the broken trope that much more interesting.
10. Steal Shamelessly
I’m a huge fan of Brandon Sanderson. Arguably one of the best fantasy authors of our time. As a writer, it was not a surprise that I would attend one of his classes. During which he indicates that you should steal shamelessly from other works of art that you love. Now, he is clearly not saying to steal it word for word. But instead, take the general idea or framework and apply it in a new way. A way that helps you leverage what you love about the story and share it through your own words.
A great example would be from one of my favorite campaigns I ever ran. The story was based on the Will Smith movie Men in Black. Instead of the aliens being on the planet secretly and an agency keeping them protected, while at the same time secretly protecting the world from deadly threats. The characters became part of a secret sect of guardians and emissaries of the planet. Refugees from other planes of existence were trying to leave terrible situations, but because they look like monstrous creatures, mundane commoners would never accept them. So the sect was created to help provide housing, lifestyles and comfortable lives on the material plane. All the while keeping it secret.
This is the same story, just told in a different way. The story was great, leading to a variety of different play styles from hunting down invading hostile scouts, collecting rare and powerful alien artifacts, etc. Many amazing stories have already been told, very few of which are unique (looking at you Disney). The way we present the story and the setting it takes place in makes it unique, without needing to delve into the complexities of being a master author like Brandon Sanderson.
Steal shamelessly. Steal often. This goes beyond adventures but can include magical items, plots, etc. Just reflavoring alone can make this go a long way.
Also, if you’re interested in trying out Brandon Sanderson’s work. I highly recommend Stormlight Archives Book 1: Way of Kings. Get it the first 3 books bundled 33% off here.
Life before death.
Strength before weakness.
Journey before destination.
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