How to Write A D&D Campaign (Epic DM Guide in 2024)

Updated February, 2024

My friends and I have been playing Dungeons & Dragons for decades, so we’ve written our share of campaigns over the years.

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.

Read all the way to the end because I have a campaign template you can download, print, and use today.

How To Write a D&D Campaign (Top 20 Tips)

(This post may have afilliate links. Please see my full disclosure)
Dungeon Master narrates as game table blends into dungeon scene -- How to Write a D&D Campaign
I made this image and content using AI — How to Write a D&D Campaign

Get ready for the top 20 ways to write a good D&D campaign for beginners even if you have never written a campaign before.

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 :).

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?)

By the way, you can easily turn this premise into a campaign template (some people call it a campaign statblock).

To help you out, I’ve provided a beginner template later in this article that you can download for free.

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.

DND characters in a busy town center
I made this image with AI – How to Write a D&D Campaign

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 mid-game.

You could call this “Reverse Campaigning.”

Beginning with the end in mind offers a unique approach to campaign planning.

This reverse engineering technique allows you to design your campaign’s climax first, then plot backward to ensure a coherent buildup to this finale.

By knowing the ultimate confrontation or resolution, you can weave foreshadowing and breadcrumbs throughout the campaign.

This method ensures that every session contributes meaningfully to the overarching narrative, building anticipation and depth as players gradually uncover the path to the endgame.

Crafting your campaign in reverse fosters a tightly knit story, where themes, character arcs, and plot developments all converge towards a predetermined climax, enhancing the narrative’s impact and cohesion.

DND characters battling a dragon in ruins
I made this image with AI – How to Write a D&D Campaign

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.

These expectations provide a comforting framework within which players can navigate, making the world feel more accessible and immersive.

However, it’s the nuanced handling of these tropes that can turn a good campaign into a great one.

It allows for moments of surprise and innovation within a familiar context.

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.

Strategic subversion of expectations keeps the campaign fresh and engaging.

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.

This doesn’t mean constant twists for the sake of surprise but rather thoughtful deviations that add depth to the narrative.

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

The internet, books, movies, and even real-world events are treasure troves of potential content that can be adapted to fit your campaign.

This method of appropriation allows for a diverse and engaging game world, filled with unique artifacts and compelling story arcs.

The transformative process of adapting these elements ensures they fit within your campaign’s setting and themes, providing a customized experience that feels both familiar and new.

Embrace the vast array of resources at your disposal, using them to enrich your campaign and captivate your players.

11. Creating Active Enemies

Instead of passive antagonists waiting for the heroes to arrive, design enemies that actively work against the party throughout the campaign.

These adversaries should have their own agendas, making moves and plans that unfold in parallel with the players’ actions.

This approach creates a dynamic and interactive world, where the players’ decisions directly influence the antagonist’s strategies and vice versa.

An active enemy adds urgency and realism to the campaign.

Your players must contend with a proactive force that adapts and responds to their moves.

This ongoing cat-and-mouse game enriches the narrative, providing continuous tension and challenge as players navigate the evolving threats posed by their foes.

DND characters around a campfire in the forest
I made this image with AI – How to Write a D&D Campaign

12. Embrace Player Backstories

Integrating player backstories into the campaign narrative deepens engagement and personal investment.

By weaving these personal histories into the fabric of the campaign, you make the world more relevant and meaningful to each player.

This could involve tailoring quests that align with a character’s goals, confronting them with figures from their past, or presenting dilemmas that challenge their beliefs.

Acknowledging and incorporating player backstories not only enriches character development.

But it also enhances the collective storytelling experience, creating a more immersive and emotionally resonant campaign.

13. Use Environmental Storytelling

Crafting a world that tells its own story through the environment adds layers of depth to your campaign.

This technique involves using settings, landmarks, and background details to convey history, culture, and conflict within the game world.

Whether it’s the ruins of an ancient civilization, a battlefield scarred by a recent war, or a city divided by political factions, each element of the environment can tell a story.

This approach encourages players to explore and interact with the world, discovering its secrets and histories organically.

Environmental storytelling enriches the narrative landscape, providing a dynamic backdrop for the adventure.

14. Foster Dynamic NPC Relationships

Developing NPCs with their own goals, motivations, and evolving relationships with the player characters enriches the campaign world.

Instead of static characters who serve only as quest givers or adversaries, dynamic NPCs interact with the players in nuanced ways, their attitudes and behaviors changing based on the players’ actions.

This can lead to alliances being formed, rivalries developing, or unexpected betrayals.

All of which adds layers of social complexity to the adventure.

Encouraging players to navigate these relationships not only provides additional role-playing opportunities.

But also makes the campaign world feel alive and responsive.

15. Implement Moral Complexity

Introducing moral ambiguity and complex ethical dilemmas enhances the narrative depth of your campaign.

Challenges that don’t have clear-cut solutions or that force players to weigh their values against practical considerations add realism and gravity to the adventure.

By presenting scenarios where the “right” choice is debatable, you encourage players to engage in deeper discussions and reflections on their characters’ motivations and the broader implications of their actions.

This complexity can lead to richer character development and more meaningful story arcs.

Mostly because players must navigate the grey areas of the campaign’s moral landscape.

16. Leverage Seasonal and Weather Effects

Utilizing the changing seasons and weather conditions can dramatically affect the atmosphere and challenges of your campaign.

From harsh winters that complicate travel to stormy seas that threaten naval journeys, the environment can play a significant role in shaping the adventure.

Seasonal festivals and events can also provide a backdrop for key plot developments or opportunities for character interaction.

By thoughtfully incorporating these elements, you add a layer of realism and variation to the campaign, making the world feel more dynamic and alive.

17. Build a Living Economy

Creating a detailed economy with fluctuating markets, trade routes, and resource scarcities can add a layer of realism and opportunity for engagement in your campaign.

Players can interact with the economic system through trade, investment, or manipulation.

They can affect their own wealth and the broader world around them.

This can lead to intriguing plotlines centered around economic crises, trade wars, or the search for rare resources.

A living economy also encourages players to think creatively about their resources and how they can leverage economic conditions to their advantage.

18. Encourage Exploration and Discovery

Designing your campaign world with hidden secrets, uncharted territories, and mysterious lore encourages players to explore beyond the main narrative path.

Another way to say it is to provide “Easter Eggs” in your campaigns.

Provide rewards for exploration, whether they be tangible items, valuable information, or simply breathtaking vistas, incentivizes players to venture into the unknown.

This sense of discovery can be a powerful motivator, driving players to engage more deeply with the world you’ve created.

By scattering clues and secrets throughout the campaign, you create a richer, more immersive experience that rewards curiosity and adventure.

19. Craft Memorable Set Pieces

Incorporating visually striking and thematically powerful set pieces—such as ancient ruins, towering castles, or mystical portals—can anchor key moments in your campaign.

These locations serve as the backdrop for significant events.

They also contribute to the overall atmosphere and lore of the world.

Designing these set pieces with care ensures that they become memorable highlights of the adventure, providing players with epic moments that stand out in their gaming experience.

20. Incorporate Multiple Endings

Designing a campaign with multiple potential endings adds replayability and weight to player decisions.

This structure acknowledges the impact of player choices, allowing the narrative to branch in response to their actions.

By considering various outcomes based on the paths taken and decisions made, you create a dynamic storytelling environment where players genuinely influence the story’s conclusion.

This approach fosters a sense of agency and responsibility among players, as the fate of the world rests in their hands.

Suggested Read: How To Write a D&D One-Shot They Will Love (20 Best Tips)

Check out this video about how to write a D&D campaign that your players will love:

YouTube Video by The DM Lair – How to Write A D&D Campaign

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.

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.

how to write a D&D Campaign template
How to Write A D&D Campaign-Steal this template

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).

For even more free DND templates, check out the article links at the bottom of this guide.

How to Write a D&D Campaign (All the Best MISC 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)

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.

Final Thoughts: How to Write a D&D Campaign

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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