One of my favorite pastimes is playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. I’ve been playing tabletop role-playing games for about a decade at this point; I started with 4th Edition D&D before moving on to Pathfinder and, finally, back to D&D for its 5th Edition. In that time, I’ve almost always played the role of Dungeon Master.
Being a DM can be daunting, that’s for sure. You’ve got a plot to plan, non-player characters to develop, dungeons to map, encounters to build – sometimes it can feel overwhelming! Luckily, there are some things you can do right at the outset of the game that can make the rest of the campaign a lot easier. Today’s post is going to be all about getting a campaign started right.
Before we really get going here, I want to make a distinction. I think of most campaigns as falling into one of two categories: narrative and sandbox. The line between these is a little fuzzy – a narrative game can still be set in a sandbox-style world, and a sandbox game will likely have a strong narrative. My distinction lies in the focus. If you are running a game because you have a cool idea for a story, that’s a narrative game. Your focus is going to be on progressing that specific story. If, on the other hand, you have a cool world to explore and a billion small stories to tell within it, that’s a sandbox game. There’s no one story for the players to chase – instead, there are tons of plot hooks for them to pick up depending on what they want to do. Neither campaign style is better than the other; they’re simply two different ways of approaching the game. This article is going to be focused on narrative games; at some point, I’ll write up my tips on planning sandbox games, too.
If you’re running a narrative campaign, then I assume you’ve already got an idea for a story, or you’re running a pre-made adventure module like Storm King’s Thunder or Curse of Strahd. Your first step, then, should be to create an outline of that idea, figuring out its beginning, middle, and end. Now, if you’re running a module, this step is already done for you – the adventure book lays everything out. If you’re developing your own idea, though, this outline is the first major piece of prep you should do.
I know what you’re thinking – outlining a whole campaign, even the end? Isn’t that railroading? That’s not a game of D&D, that’s a novel! I totally get why you might think that. For a long time, that’s what I thought, too, and I didn’t bother with an outline. I just figured out my core idea and started playing… and a lot of those games ended up losing steam halfway through.
Here’s the thing: an outline and a story are two different beasts. An outline is vague. It’s got wiggle room, and blanks to fill in as you go. You can throw the whole thing out halfway through if you decide you don’t like it.
When I set out to start a new campaign, I try to map out the logical beginning, middle, and end of the story I have in mind. Think of this as the ‘vanilla’ version of the plot, the version that will happen if the players react exactly as you expect them to. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago I ran a campaign I called “The Throne of Caeran.” It was set in a world I had homebrewed myself, and it dealt with the attempted assassination of a king. The idea was that the players would be investigating the failed assassination and, in the process, uncover a vast, continent-spanning conspiracy. My basic outline looked something like this:
- Players come together to investigate assassination attempt and pick up assassin’s trail, leading them out of Caeran.
- Players catch up to assassin on the island nation of Vagos and learn that he was employed by agents of the Valhabon Empire.
- Players travel to Valhabon to stop imperial plot to conquer Caeran; they discover proof that there are imperial sleeper agents in the Caerani king’s court.
- Players return to Caeran, save the king, and defeat the conspirators.
In order to work out this outline, I had to make some assumptions: the players would investigate the assassination attempt; the players would successfully track down the assassin; the players would get information about the conspiracy from the assassin; and the players would act on that information to prevent the conspirators from conquering the kingdom of Caeran. I had no guarantee the players would do any of these things, but making those assumptions helped me plan the overall arc of the narrative. The important thing is not to get married to that arc. Maybe the players won’t find it compelling. Maybe you’ll think up a better idea partway through the game. Maybe you’ll introduce a one-off NPC that the players completely fall in love with and you’ll need to shift things around to make them a bigger part of the narrative. All of that is fine! This outline is just to get you started.
The outline serves a few purposes. First, working on it helps you refine your idea. I started with the simple idea of ‘someone tried to kill the king, the players need to find out why.’ There were a lot of possible reasons why someone might want to commit regicide, but the one I settled on was ‘a foreign power wants to weaken the kingdom.’ Alright, now the scope of my campaign goes beyond this one country, that’s interesting. It also makes me think, hey, if this other nation is willing to resort to assassination, what else would they try? Thus, the idea for the conspiracy within the king’s court. I also realized I would need the players to learn some of this – the campaign couldn’t end with them catching the assassin, because now I’d decided the assassin was just a pawn. If the assassin is too loyal to the bad guys, he’s not going to give up any of this info that the players need, so maybe he’s not loyal – maybe he’s just a killer for hire. If that’s the case, then maybe… well, you get the idea. By the end of the process, I knew exactly who the assassin was, who hired him, and why he took the job, all of which informed the circumstances of the first session. Thinking about where you want the story to go can help you decide how the story starts.
Second, knowing the big story beats makes it easier to fill in the smaller details as you’re playing. In the outline above, I knew the players would start in Caeran, but would be heading to Vagos. Having designed the world, I also knew all the places between Caeran and Vagos, so before we even started playing, I had a pretty good idea of what kinds of things I’d need to prep in the near future. Assuming the players figured out where the assassin was heading, they’d need to go through the woodland kingdom of Daereen to catch up to him, but those lands belonged to a group of insular elves, so I knew I’d need to come up with a few ideas for how the players could pass through. Would they gain the elves’ respect by demonstrating their strength in a tournament? Would they earn their trust by expelling a dangerous cult from the forest? Would they bypass Daereen altogether and take the long way around, through the deadly desert of Jesk?
Those were all workable ideas, so I planned them all. See, that’s what I mean about an outline being different than railroading – there’s a general story to follow, sure, but the players can take any path to get there. As it happened in this case, my players really liked hanging out in Daereen, so they entered the tournament and then stuck around long enough to root out the cult, too. If they’d wanted to, they could’ve even stayed longer. They could have given up chasing the assassin altogether and just focused on woodland adventures for the rest of the campaign, and I would have been okay with that. I’d have to abandon my outline, sure, but I could work up a new one based on the plot hooks they were interested in.
However, I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen. I was confident that, though they might get distracted by side-quests or caught up with characters I’d intended to be minor, my players would keep following the assassin. Why was I so sure? Because I had set certain expectations before the game started.
One of the most important things any DM can do before starting a new game is to have a ‘Session 0.’ This is a session where everyone meets up to discuss what, exactly, the campaign is going to be like. It’s the DM”s opportunity to set expectations for the players and make sure everyone is on the same page regarding the game you’re about to play. There are a lot of different play styles when it comes to D&D – maybe the DM wants to run a dark, Gothic-horror inspired game, but the players are expecting something light and goofy. If the game starts with those two wildly different expectations, everyone involved is going to have a bad time, so use Session 0 to make sure everyone is on board with the game you want to run.
For my Session 0 of “The Throne of Caeran,” I told my players I wanted to run a game of political intrigue and globe-trotting adventure. I also gave them the main hook up-front and asked that they each incorporate it into their character: “The story begins with the attempted assassination of the king of Caeran. As you build your characters, please give them a reason to investigate this crime.”
On top of getting us all on the same page, this helped get my players more invested in the story right from the jump. Knowing they would need a reason to investigate the king’s assassination, they each crafted unique and interesting backstories that resulted in a really cool party. One player was a hard-boiled mercenary wrongfully accused of the crime, seeking to clear his name. Another was a good-hearted drifter who was in the right place at the right time; he helped foil the attempt in the first place and wanted to see the investigation through. Yet another was a foreign ambassador looking to earn the king’s favor so he’d sign a lucrative trade agreement. The last was a refugee from a war-torn nation hoping to earn military aid from Caeran.
Despite having a prompt to work off of, they came up with vastly different characters. Keep that in mind. Asking your players to incorporate some kind of common element in their backstory isn’t railroading them or cramping their creativity – it’s just giving them a little bit of guidance to work off of. What they do with it is still completely up to them.
I should also note that a Session 0 doesn’t necessarily have to be a literal gathering – for my current campaign, in which I’m running the module Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I just wrote up a document explaining my DMing style (“I enjoy a lot of roleplay and narrative, but I tend to keep things fairly light-hearted”), a basic overview of the module (“it’s an urban campaign in which you will be running a business and solving a mystery”), and my guidelines for character creation (“I’d like it if all of your characters knew each other at the start of the game – it begins in a tavern, so if you’re all already drinking together it would simplify things a bit!”). Then I sent that document to my group’s Discord chat and voila! Everyone knew what to expect, and if anyone had questions they could hit me up any time.
Once you’ve got a solid outline and a Session 0 under your belt, you’re in prime position to start your game. Even with this prep done, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, but you’ve laid a solid foundation to build on!