How to Write a D&D Campaign – Everyone wants to be the Dungeon Master (DM), but writing a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) campaign can be intimidating (especially if you are new). My friends and I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons for decades, so we’ve written our share of campaigns over the years. And, in this article, I break it all down for you.
This is your ultimate DM guide for easy prep adventures!
But in case you are in a hurry (like your players are staring at you and the pizza just arrived), here’s the quick and dirty DM summary:
How to write a D&D campaign? You write a D&D Campaign by making a D&D Campaign Outline, preparing campaign starters, allowing your players to co-create the plot, stealing shamelessly from other plot sources, and remaining flexible enough to change the campaign on the fly.
I’d be remiss for not acknowledging that one of my main sources for this post was my big brother, Johnathan, who is my personal favorite Dungeon Master (but, yeah, I’m biased :)).
In this article, you are going to learn everything you need to know to write a homebrew D&D campaign from scratch. Read all the way to the end because I have a campaign template you can download, print, and use today.
Ok, let’s dive in!
How To Write a D&D Campaign (Top 10 Ways)
Get ready for the top ten ways to write a good D&D campaign for beginners even if you have never written a campaign before!
0. Develop the campaign premise
Yes, I’m cheating by making a number “0” but it also has a point.
The campaign premise is the basic DNA of your entire campaign. It includes all the elements you need to know to begin.
What is a campaign premise?
Your campaign premise is a short summary of your “story” that includes:
- The problem the players must solve. (This kicks off the campaign)
- The setting (Where the campaign takes place)
- The antagonist (the bad guy or girl who is actively thwarting the players).
- The campaign stakes (What are the consequences if the players don’t succeed?).
- The deadline (how long do the players have to reach the goal?)
1. Start small and only build what you need for the next session
The players are only going to be interested in what the characters are doing now.
You COULD plan every single detail of the entire campaign, but that will probably take you hours (at best) and days (more likely). It’s going to be overwhelming.
D&D is supposed to be fun. Never forget that.
And, after all that work, your players will only be interested in what’s happening right now. That makes sense, right? The adventure happens now, not later.
Plus, that means less work for you as the DM. You can put more effort into this session, this part of the adventure. It’s a no-brainer, easy prep method for launching an epic campaign.
2. Rule of 3
Set 3 things in motion for the party to interact with at the beginning. Any less and the story feels forced, any more than 3 will lead to paralysis analysis.
This gets your campaign off the ground. It also gives your players three different routes to take, and many players will appreciate the freedom to choose their own path. Three things happening right away creates motion and momentum for your campaign. Your characters will pick up on this forward movement and drive the story onward.
Basically, you are applying the common writing advice of “starting in the middle of the action” or, in Latin, “In Medies Res”.
If you spend the first 30 minutes of a campaign warming up to the story, your players may get bored and restless. If you don’t give your players at least a few choices, they may get angry at being forced along a certain storyline.
This can lead to player infighting that is not conducive to an exciting, enjoyable adventure.
Too many options can also stop your campaign in its tracks. Players can get stuck in the paralysis of analysis.
Three options right from the beginning seem to be a perfect balance to keep players intrigued and invested without overwhelming them.
3. Let the players build the world with you
New DMs painstakingly design every detail of their campaign world in advance. Veteran DMs allow the players to build the world with them.
Things are going to change. Your players are going to do something unexpected. Count on it. When they talk to random people you didn’t expect, ask the players to describe the person and use those random encounters to fuel your imagination.
Let your players co-create the campaign with their choices.
If you plan everything out in advance, you’ll ignore good fresh ideas. You’ll pigeonhole the plot by funneling characters down a plot path even if it doesn’t make sense anymore. If, instead, you set up the framework but remain flexible to adjust the campaign based on real-time play, your players will feel more integral to the storyline.
The entire campaign will feel more organic—because it is!
4. Prepare structured situations and encounters
3 things are happening in the town today. The story is created at the table with the players deciding how their characters react.
This is stated nicely by an anonymous writer for the website Vidokay: As a dungeon master, you build the world, but your players write the story.
You definitely want to plan your campaign instead of Dm-ing on the fly or off the cuff.
Organic is one thing. Complete lack of preparation is another.
Prepare at least three events (three structured situations) to begin the campaign. Let the players which situation they pursue first and farthest.
5. Define the ‘ending’ but be flexible on how to get there
You can, and should, plan for the beginning and the end, but realize you only truly control the beginning (of the session, of the adventure, of the campaign).
Plan for possibilities but be willing to scrap them for the better ideas your players are bound to have.
6. Build leads into the situations
Ask the players what lead they plan to follow so you know what to prepare for the next game. If there is an assassination attempt, have 3 hooks to other scenes – guards arrive on the scene, distinctive markings or items (like a dagger maybe) to investigate, and survivors to interrogate…err…I mean ask for help.
Or oatmeal to dip things in (That’s an inside joke. Don’t worry about it. Let’s continue).
This basic preparation, flexibility and inclusive approach to DM-ing is the easy way to create D&D campaigns that your players will never forget.
7. Lean into expectations
People expect up and down emotional beats, they expect the dwarves to drink and be rowdy, they expect the sun to rise in the east, they expect the skinny innkeeper to betray them (never trust a skinny innkeeper!).
People like it when things meet their expectations.
So, give your players what they like, want and expect.
8. But don’t ALWAYS!!!
That skinny innkeeper may just be on the keto diet and is a saint.
It can be fun watching the players suspect the poor guy. Just do this sparingly and for a reason.
Misdirection, plot twists and expectation reversals can make campaigns interesting and fun. But unnecessarily fooling players as a kind of roleplaying prank will only backfire.
Keep things fresh by not always meeting expectations. But do it intentionally and rarely.
9. Steal shamelessly
Unless it is something you truly enjoy, there is no reason to ever draw a map because Google. Need a tough gladiator to fight, just use the stats for an ogre or a bear or a freaking dragon. Just describe her and her actions like a badass MMA fighter.
Steal shamelessly. Steal often.
10. Goes for adventure plots, magical items, etc. Just steal from wherever
Serial shows have contained plots that are easy to re-flavor, news sites describe all sorts of horrible things people get up to, novels have super sweet characters and plots…. use them.
Use them all.
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D&D Campaign Ideas
If you are looking for D&D plot hooks or D&D quest ideas, this is the section for you.
Here you’ll find the best resources for building out your campaign with the best ideas. All of these resources are online, so you will save time and be able to access them anywhere you have an internet connection.
We’ll start with a brief list of ideas you can use instantly to spark ideas. Then we’ll look at a few resources that virtually generate campaigns for you.
Here is nice short list of campaign hooks, quest ideas and campaign starters to inspire your own imagination:
- A wizard is always at the wrong place at the wrong time. Like at the bottom of a waterfall next to a dead body. The only witness is a mute bard who is hiding a secret of his own.
- Water has suddenly disappeared from this land.
- An enemy ship just crashed into the harbor. It’s empty.
- Civil war just broke out near an active volcano.
- A pair of adventurers just claimed to have discovered a lost city.
- Everyone who enters this forest becomes mysteriously ill.
- An entire town’s nighttime dreams are suddenly coming true. Some are monstrous nightmares.
- Nothing is as it seems in this story.
- The animals on this farm can talk. And they have secrets to share.
- Is this entire trade route a front for a criminal organization?
- The Sopranos but it’s a family of sorcerers, not gangsters.
- Someone is murdering elves for the magic in their blood.
- Who is kidnapping the kids in this kingdom?
- Someone new is ascending to the throne, and it’s the last person anyone would expect.
- One of the players is framed for murder.
- No one remembers your characters (even friends and family).
- One of the players starts to age backward.
- A little girl with fire powers terrorizes a small town.
- All the dead animals in the kingdom have come back to life.
- Your players are shipwrecked and must survive.
- It starts in a pumpkin field with an attempted suicide.
- A gypsy curses one of your players. The player is now rapidly losing weight.
- Conquering pillagers arrive in the kingdom.
- The players must bring a message to two brothers in the middle of a war.
- The players must transport a valuable artifact across enemy lines.
How to Write a D&D Campaign: Automatic Generators
Still stuck on where to start? Try one of these plot generators and apply the plot to your D&D world!
These online tools do all the work for you.
- Reedsy Plot Generator
- WritingExercise.co.uk Plot Generator
- Big Huge Labs Plot Generator
- Springhole Generators (a list of specific generators for every campaign need)
D&D Campaign Template
You’re in for a real treat.
One of the easiest ways to create a D&D campaign from scratch is to use a ready-made template. Lucky for you, I have one that you can download and print for free directly from this post.
The template is a D&D Campaign Outline with everything you need to create and organize your next adventure.
It’s fairly intuitive, but here’s a quick explanation of the various parts of the template.
- The top box is where you write your campaign premise (remember, that’s your campaign problem, antagonist, setting, story stakes, and deadline)
- The three boxes in the middle of the template are where you sketch the skeleton plot (beginning, middle, and end).
- You can also take notes of what the players actually do in each part of the campaign to prepare for the next roleplaying session. This will help you keep track of the details of the campaign so that you keep the story consistent while making preparation for the next session a piece of cake.
- The box at the bottom is for any other campaign notes to help you create the next template (HINT: this is a perfect place to write a clear summary of what happens in the next template to jolt your memory).
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How to Write a D&D Campaign (All the Best Tips)
The top ten tips mentioned will get you started. They are enough to create endless compelling campaigns you and your players will love.
However, since this is the “ultimate guide”, I wanted to go a step forward and reveal every last DM trick. These tips come from everywhere – personal experience, Youtube videos, other articles, and more.
- Gather Your Resources. It’s obvious but has to be said that it’s useful to have a copy of the Dungeons Master Guide, Player’s Handbook, and Monster’s Manual.
- Plot your campaign backward. Start with the ending. Start with the ultimate goal of the antagonist (bad guy, girl, or force), and work your way back to the beginning where the adventure starts.
- Start with 4-5 players. If you are brand new to DM-ing, you may want to limit the number of players that you manage to 4-5.
- Create a “Monster Cheat Sheet” with the details of any monsters you know will be in your adventure. This can save you lots of in-game time searching for the info in the Monster’s Manual. You can list details such as the name of the monster, main attacks, weaknesses, health or experience points, the amount of damage it inflicts, and even what page in the Monster Manual you can find the monster.
- Plan enemy encounters. Prepare at least a few pivotal combat encounters throughout the campaign, including the big fight scene at the end.
- Plan non-combat encounters. It’s also useful to plan out a few non-combat situations, such as conversations, witness interviews, clues, etc.
- Plan random encounters. It can be useful to prepare a few random encounters (like creatures) in case you need them during the game.
- Plan exploration. Prepare locations, such as sunken ships, castles, dungeons, abandoned towns, etc. for the players to explore.
- Include traps. Plan out some unique and interesting campaign-related traps.
- Plan puzzles. Prepare some puzzles for your players to riddle out during the game.
- Plan loot. Prepare any significant loot drops that feature in the adventure (treasure, items, clues)
- Mix it up. As a DM, you want to provide a rich, layered experience for your characters. Prepare a variety of situations, traps, puzzles, and mysteries for each adventure.
- Sketch campaign maps. Create maps of any important inside or outside locations. You can even Google “D&D Maps” to find tons of sample maps for inspiration.
- Create an awesome antagonist. The antagonist is the villain or enemy force thwarting your players in the campaign. Each campaign should have one main antagonist. The antagonist remains consistent across each adventure. However, there may also be henchmen or lower-level bosses that work for the main antagonist. An awesome antagonist is smart, clever, strong, motivated, and active (doesn’t wait around to respond to the players).
- Make it visual. Find and print out pictures of what the non-player characters (NPCs), towns, or monsters might look like.
- Prepare “read aloud” scripts If there are important messages that you need to deliver in detail to your players, you can write out short scripts on your campaign template.
- Plan subplots: Subplots are standalone adventures embedded inside your overall main adventure.
- Prepare plot twists: Keep your players guessing by planning at least one surprise in the adventure.
- Improvise, improvise, improvise. No matter what you have planned, always be prepared to change the scene, encounter, level of difficulty, etc. based on what is happening or what just happened in the game.
How to Write a D&D Campaign: Types of Scenes
In any adventure, there a number of different types of scenes. Here is a quick list for your reference as the ultimate DM. You can use this list when designing your campaigns or when running your adventures.
Types of Campaign Scenes:
- Inciting action (kicks off the adventure)
- Decision scenes (When players discuss and decide what to do next)
- Planning scenes (make detailed plans of how to accomplish a task)
- Action scenes (any scene in which the players take action)
- Fight scenes
- Mystery scenes (puzzles, clues, etc.)
- Chase scenes (being chased or chasing others)
- Romance scenes
- Emotional scenes (death of a major NPC, victory, celebration, etc.)
- Regrouping Scenes (after the battle or after action scenes of rest and reflection)
Summary & Conclusion
Remember, you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to plan everything.
The most important part of any campaign is that you and your friends have fun together, enjoy the process, and share the singular joy of exploring and adventuring in a world that you have created together.
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