How to Write a D&D Campaign

Writing your own campaign can be a rewarding experience for Dungeon Masters and players. Not only does it allow for ultimate creative freedom, but you can revel in the fruits of your labor as your party explores the story you’ve created.

While it may be intimidating, you don’t need to be a legendary DM like Matt Mercer or Brennan Lee Mulligan to create your own campaign. Today, we’re covering how anyone can go about writing a long-term adventure for Dungeons & Dragons!

  1. Start With an Idea
  2. Run a Session 0
  3. Determine What Type of Campaign You’ll Be Writing
  4. Flesh Out a Starting Area
  5. See Where Your Party’s Interests Lie
  6. Prepare to Your Comfort Level
  7. When Inspiration Strikes, Add to Your World

Writing a Campaign Versus Creating a Setting

Settings are cities, worlds, universes, or multiverses in which a campaign takes place.

If you’re writing your campaign from scratch, its creation will go hand-in-hand with developing your setting, which can add substantially more work to your plate.

If you haven’t planned a campaign before, it might be beneficial to choose a premade setting in which to run your adventure. There are endless settings available that have fleshed-out maps, NPCs, monsters, and lore.

This is especially beneficial if your players aren’t familiar with the setting. This way, if you don’t like something, you can easily change it to suit your vision.

7 Steps to Writing a D&D Campaign

Campaigns come in every shape and size. Your campaign may go from 1st to 20th level and take three years of weekly sessions to complete. Or it could be a smaller-scale adventure that’s completed by the time the party hits 10th level.

Campaigns differ from one-shots because they have time to let the story and players breathe: Backstories, lore, and the evolving dynamics within the party will be a focal point.

Beginning to write your own campaign is an intimidating endeavor. You might get a spark of inspiration for a storyline, then get bogged down in the socioeconomic structure of the realm’s political capital. Before you know it, you’ve hit creative exhaustion.

The most common reason campaigns don’t get off the ground is because DMs bite off more than they can chew, so here are some steps to make sure this doesn’t happen to your campaign:

1. Start With an Idea

Artist: Daniel LjunggrenAn envelope in the shape of an owl opens, revealing magical golden sparks.

So, you’ve been struck with inspiration for a campaign. The first step is to jot down everything that comes to mind, no matter how scattered or incomplete. These initial notes are the seeds from which your campaign will grow. They can be plot hooks, characters, settings, or even just a general vibe you want to explore.

For me, it was, “What if Halo happened in a fantasy setting, and magic and monsters replaced technology and aliens?” That one seed sprouted over a hundred sessions of fun and memories that my players and I still reminisce on.

You can even start putting together a mood board for your campaign. This could be images, books, TV shows, movies, or songs that evoke the essence of your campaign. These can serve as inspiration later on and be invaluable when introducing your party to your new campaign.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide also has a wealth of rollable tables to help you generate creative sparks for your adventure.

2. Run a Session 0

Session 0 is where you pitch your campaign idea to your party. It's a crucial step for aligning expectations, discussing the type of campaign everyone is interested in, and setting the ground rules for gameplay and interaction.

This is when you’ll show your party your campaign’s mood board if you have one. Maybe they’ve read some of the books or watched some of the media and can draw on their past experiences to get into character. If they haven’t interacted with any of the media previously, it’s an excellent chance for them to dive into the atmosphere of your campaign and start brainstorming ideas.

You can also use this opportunity to collaboratively create player characters and write their backstories. These backstories can be a tremendous source of inspiration for your campaign.

3. Determine What Type of Campaign You’ll Be Writing

Now that you and your party are sold on the adventure and have discussed the type of campaign you want to play, it’s time to think about structuring your campaign.

There are two general types of D&D campaigns, both of which require a different mindset when it comes to writing:

Story-Focused Campaign

Story-focused campaigns are usually less meandering than sandbox-style campaigns. The party is presented with an obvious task, and they go on a quest to fulfill their obligations.

These campaigns work well when you have a group of heroes with aligned interests and an immediate threat they must address. Some will refer to these campaigns as “railroaded,” but I find that this term has a negative connotation that implies a lack of player agency.

While these campaigns may seem more “on the rails” than a sandbox campaign, you can still allow the players to meaningfully impact the story and dictate how they solve problems, especially if you let your story be flexible and tailor the adventure to the player's interests.

These campaigns are written more like novels. The players are characters in the novel, and they react to the story that the Dungeon Master has crafted for them. The main difference is the DM will have to react to how the story changes based on the player’s actions.

Sandbox Campaign

In sandbox campaigns, the party is thrown into a world with NPCs and their motivations, but the party decides what is important and how it’ll get done.

These campaigns usually work out best when there isn’t impending doom that needs to be dealt with in a timely manner. Typically, there are events transpiring that can be affected by the party’s involvement. If the party doesn’t interact with these events, they could have lasting impacts on the setting.

In these campaigns, the emphasis is on exploration and character development. The world is your party’s oyster, and your job as a DM is to seed the pearls and let your party discover them.

When writing a party-focused campaign, you’ll need to take more of a macro perspective of the setting than a story-focused campaign: Who are the prominent factions, what are their motivations, and how do their plans impact the realm?

4. Flesh Out a Starting Area

Artist: KLAUS PILLONA tree-lined trail with an owlbear standing upon a rocky outcropping.

To build a foundation for the world you’ll be playing in, it’s best to focus on the party’s introduction to the setting. This ensures you don’t get distracted filling in details that won’t matter for a dozen sessions.

Your starting area could be as small as a prison or as intricate as a capital city, and it will give your party a taste of things to come. This could include foreshadowing of important events, factions that will play a big part in the campaign, and NPCs that will influence the party’s path, but it doesn’t need to. All it needs is a problem. Then, you can throw the party at the problem and see how they address it.

When running the campaign you’re writing for players, you’ll see the biggest payoffs from the time spent laying out the challenges the party will encounter. Prepping specific things—like NPCs, combat, and environments—will lend you more help in your sessions than an exhaustive list of the deities in your setting.

5. See Where Your Party’s Interests Lie

Starting small allows you to accomplish another limiting factor in a campaign’s success: determining the players’ interests.

It’ll be a hard pill to swallow if your players want to follow the goblin that ran away into the Underdark instead of rescuing the princess of the city you spent 15 hours creating.

But, what makes D&D such a coveted experience is player agency. Embracing this unpredictability is key. Use these early diversions as opportunities to explore what truly engages your players.

Are they warriors drawn to the promise of battle and glory? Perhaps they're detectives at heart and like to delve into mysteries and conspiracies. Or maybe they're diplomats, eager to navigate the complex web of politics in your setting.

By paying attention to these cues and adapting your campaign to fit your party’s interests, they’ll become more immersed in the campaign, which will make writing your campaign a more satisfying experience.

6. Prepare to Your Comfort Level

Once you understand the direction your players are taking in the starting area, it’s time to get rolling. I usually try to have one to three sessions of prepared material, which includes encounters, NPCs, and environments.

You’ll hear, “You’re prepping too much!” or “You’re not prepping enough!” from conflicting sources, but only you will know how much or little you need to prep for each session.

I like to plan to the point where I get an intuitive feel of the setting. I’ll understand the NPCs and their motivations, so I don’t have to write down dialogue for every possibility. Then, I will prepare a storyline, similar to what you see in published adventures, of what I think the party's most likely path forward will be.

If a party does something surprising, I have enough of a foundation to improvise with their antics because I have a solid plan for how the story progresses.

If the party takes off into unplanned territory, I’ll use my knowledge of the world’s locations, NPCs, and monsters to improvise a session and note the people, places, and things they run into. Then, when it comes time for the next session, I’ll prepare more storyline beats from what I think will be the most likely actions the party will take based on this new direction.

7. When Inspiration Strikes, Add to Your World

Artist: Craig SpearingA student examines a frog sitting in a cage.

While writing just enough to keep ahead of your party is an efficient way to be prepared for each session, sometimes you just want to flesh out your world.

Now that you’re prepared (or prepared to improvise) for your party’s actions in the short term, you can have some fun worldbuilding and look ahead to the long term. If you think the socioeconomic structure of your realm’s capital city will play into the campaign in the future, go ahead and flesh out its imports, exports, and tariff structure.

If you see something cool, read about a fun new monster, or stumble across an image that evokes a feeling of adventure, start painting with broad strokes to fill in your campaign.

And if you run into writer’s block for this cool, new idea, just put it down and let it marinate for a bit. Write down whatever good ideas you have now. Flesh out the rest when it becomes relevant.

This could also be when you start to map your campaign's setting. Not every setting needs a map, but it serves as an excellent tool to prepare future plots and ensure geography remains consistent across your sessions.

Set Forth and Weave Your Tale

The last and most important thing you need to remember is D&D is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun writing your adventure, take a break. Maybe run a one-shot. Maybe get one of your players to take over for a bit to run a mini-arc set in the distant past of your setting. Or, get away from your adventure and read a book, watch a movie, or play a different game.

You’d be surprised how inspiration can strike and how enjoyable writing your adventure can be once you step back and let writing become fun again.

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Mike Bernier (@arcane_eye) is the founder of Arcane Eye, a site focused on providing useful tips and tricks to all those involved in the world of D&D. Outside of writing for Arcane Eye, Mike spends most of his time playing games, hiking with his partner, and tending the veritable jungle of houseplants that have invaded his house.


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