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How to Write a D&D Campaign

You can always crack open a new book, watch another movie, or jump into a video game, but the amount of joy of creating a D&D campaign from scratch is truly remarkable.

What is better than that is playing the game with your friends!

The Dungeons & Dragons game offers a full-on world of possibilities. From the medieval to the futuristic, it’s a fantasy world set in any era and on any continent.

And D&D writers are only limited by their imagination—D&D authors can create adventures that are both realistic and fantastic.

If you are into Dungeons & Dragons and want to write a campaign, then this is the ultimate guide for you.

I’ll start with the basics: describing the D&D game concept. Then I’ll move on to the actual steps of writing a D&D campaign.

Lastly, I’ll introduce you to some books that can inspire your next Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Let us begin.

how to write a d&d campaign

What Is A D&D Campaign?

The question is: what is a Dungeons and Dragons game?

Well…

Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy tabletop role-playing game, which was initially published back in 1974.

The player who runs the game controls the monster and non-player characters and narrates the tale is called the Dungeon Master. The rest of the players role-play adventuring characters.

In Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the story never ends, there are infinite possibilities, and there isn’t a winner.

Well, you win together, not as an individual.

If you’ve never played it before, it might sound confusing, but it’s pretty straightforward.

The players, each of whom takes on the role of the character they are playing, work together and go on adventures in the D&D world. The players take on challenges as a team and strategize together.

You get a group together, choose the Dungeon master, create the characters, select an adventure, set it up, and play!

Three Pillars of D&D

D&D has three major pillars of gameplay, namely Exploration, Interaction, and Combat.

three pillars of d&d

There’s an element of each in every adventure, and—according to The Dungeon Master’s Guide—”Creating an adventure involves blending scenes of exploration, social interaction, and combat into a unified whole that meets the needs of your players and your campaign.”

Here are brief descriptions of the three pillars, and—by the way—they have not been ranked by importance.

Pillar 1: Exploration

The Player’s Handbook (5th edition) states that “Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result.”

The implication of this is that exploration is the interaction between the characters and players and goals, threats, complications, and the potential outcomes that the DM made.

Pillar 2: Roleplaying/Social Interaction

Social Interaction refers to the player characters reacting with non-player characters.

Writing a D&D campaign isn’t like writing a book or directing a movie. It’s more like making a cake. The three pillars are the ingredients, and social interaction is what makes it overflow with flavor.

Social Interaction refers to the player characters interacting with each other and reacting with non-player characters (NPCs). In Dungeons & Dragons, this pillar is where the majority of the role-playing occurs—the majority of opportunities for adventure or action arise from social contacts.

For me, roleplaying is important for D&D or any social RPG. The roleplaying bits of the game—especially the conversations—take up a lot of time; therefore, they affect the strategy of combat and exploration.

For example, a Dungeon Master who is into other roleplaying might let the players affect the narrative or progress of the game through conversations (without having to roll the dice).

Pillar 3: Combat

characters from dungeons and dragons interact within the game.
Characters from Dungeons and Dragons interact within the game.

The third pillar of D&D is combat, and combats are the characters’ life-or-death battles.

Because Gary Gygax’s original Dungeons & Dragons focused significantly on the dungeon crawl element, combat is one of the most exhaustively explained cornerstones of the game.

The other pillars were included in the original game, but fighting kind of took center stage. Over the years social interaction and exploration have gained more significance in D&D, but Combat is obviously vital to the game.

The purpose of most combat encounters is to defeat the adversaries; if the characters fail to do so, they are unlikely to accomplish their encounter objectives.

6 Ways to Write a D&D Campaign

1. Begin with a Theme

Just like fiction writing, you have to begin with a theme, which forms the basis for the premise of your campaign.

Come up with something your players would deem worth exploring. For example, “interstellar heroines trying to stop evil alien Princes who are on a planet-destroying quest.”

Having a theme helps navigate the creative process easily—it’s a road map for both your story structure and premise.

2. You Need a Premise

dungeons & dragons game in progress.
Dungeons & Dragons game in progress. (Image credit: Philip Mitchell on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Writing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign is no ordinary task because unlike other forms of writing where there’s some sort of fiction involved, you can’t write an inflexible plot.

The story has to have a structure, but not something like a rigid plot.

When writing your campaign you will simply create a nexus—or backbone of sorts. You detail out your campaign from its overall story arc down to individual situations and encounters but allow just enough space so they make it their own by proactively engaging with these details rather than rely on them being there already and contrived.

And while it may be your players’ actions that complete the bulk of the tasks taking place in-game, they will need some guidance from you to do so unless they all happen to be experienced writers in their own right.

So your story premise needs to mention a problem that has to be solved, where the campaign takes place, antagonists, penalties, and deadlines.

3. Start Small

It all starts with an idea, you probably have in your mind the kinds of adventures you’ve been wanting to experience.

And, now you can bring them to life by writing them down, figuring out how the characters will react (or at least who they are), which creatures might pose problems along the way, and deciding what rewards there will be in store for your players once they reach their destination.

A lot of people approach game prep with an idea of what it’s going to be before they begin. The best game masters tend instead to act like gardeners—planning out some general features, adding certain details if they think they will help flesh things out later (but being careful not to overplant here either).

4. Let the players build the world with you

playing dungeons & dragons
Playing Dungeons & Dragons. (Image credit: Benny Mazur from Toledo, OH, on Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

It is good to be meticulous and design every inch of your campaign world, but it is equally good to gradually build the world with your players.

You’re building a world that has to be relatable, so you have to let your players co-create the campaign, let them voice their choices at least.

If you always decide to plan everything out using your input only, you risk creating a plot that makes sense to you only.

You need to make the campaign feel more organic—because if you don’t, the campaign becomes inflexible and your players will feel left out of the storyline.

5. Prepare

Yes, we want the story to feel organic, but game preparation is important. You must plan and prepare your campaign, rather than Dm-ing as you go.

Prepare organized interactions and scenarios. To start the campaign, plan at least three events and allow the players to choose whatever scenario they want to pursue first and furthest.

6. Make Notes

After you come up with the premise, main quest, and—probably—some side quests, make a few notes.

In the notes, include significant NPCs, necessary location-based details (such as the interior of a dungeon’s chambers), and other things that make the process simpler.

The aim of taking notes is to simplify things; therefore, you don’t need to write too much.

A Step-By-Step for Creating a D&D Campaign World

Worldbuilding is a fantastic and exciting aspect of the roleplaying gaming hobby, and as a dungeon master, you can construct your own campaign world.

Here’s an approach to creating fantastical worlds:

Step 1: creating the overland map

You don’t need to be an illustrator, there are a lot of tools/software you can use to draw out my little d&d kingdom online.

An area of about 9 hexagons will do, with each hex representing about 6 miles of terrain. You can add landmarks or features that will fit your story setting such as mountains, grasslands or woods, swamps, et cetera.

Step 2: creating the town

You need a small town and a good number of human and nonhuman non-player characters (NPCs) that adventurers have to encounter during a campaign.

Some NPCs may be part of the adventurers’ quests to take care of their problems. You have to creatively use NPCs to “bring new life to a party,” and generate wonderful twists, and shape your campaign, and influence players/player characters.

Step 3: adventure sites

dungeons and dragons map
Dungeons and dragons map.

When creating a campaign, the first thing you need to do is start with a few points of interest: What type of encounters shall you need? What type of monsters shall be encountered and where? How should the townspeople react to the player character’s actions?

Then you create a couple of adventure sites where your players will interact with the NPCs in the town.

Some suggestions include a deserted ancient tower, an abandoned mine, a desecrated temple, and so forth.

Go back to your overland map and mark the locations on it and allocate tokens, monsters, and treasure.

Step 4: Start playing

the picture show the map of a dungeons and dragons game
The picture shows the map of a Dungeons and Dragons game. (Image credit: Moroboshi, on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

With most of the game’s aspects set, it’s time to get started!

The player characters, on some sort of quest, roll into town where they interact with the significant NPCs and try to accomplish their goals.

Remember, you DON’T need to plan everything. Unexpected turns (for both you and the players) are what make the game exciting.

Always have a notebook with you, make a list of any interesting ideas, and incorporate them into your game. Add more features or new areas to your overland map for exploration.

Now, it’s the players to decide on what they want to do next. As the overland map expands, the opportunities increase, new quests arise, new methods of accomplishing them are discovered, and it’s the perfect time for you to come up with new ideas or improvise.

Stages like these are why I told you that a D&D campaign doesn’t need a rigid plot because you can continue to make stuff up and introduce new twists. The story can go on and on, with no end in sight!

Top 3 Books That May Inspire Your Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns

1. The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Books of Earthsea

When it comes to fantasy world creators, the gargantuan Ursula K. Le Guin’s name is among the best.

This edition is stunning, to say the least. Just its author, the book Gargantuan, and it includes all six volumes in the series as well as the short tales. As if that weren’t reason enough to acquire this book, it also contains previously unpublished short stories all set in the Earthsea realm.


2. The Locked Tomb Trilogy

The Locked Tomb Trilogy

The books in this trilogy are Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth, and Alecto the Ninth.

Enraged necromancers, bone regeneration, decrepit houses of dying lords, and thirsty sword lesbians?

Anyone?

And, the MC is a hot wild lesbian, the kind of girl everyone loves.


3. The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, Book 1) by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World

This is the first installment in Robert Jordan’s #1 New York Times best-selling epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time.

This is a story about Moiraine Damodred who goes to Emond’s Field on a quest to find a prophesied messiah, a person destined to stand against ‘The Dark One.’

The story picks up when a group of half-men, half-beasts invade the village, looking for their master’s adversary enemy.

Although this book is based on a generic fantasy trope—the chosen one fated to battle the big evil lord), it is an epic tale.


Start the D&D Journey

Writing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign is more like show running. The players take on many roles, and we collectively work to create a living world with continuing plot lines and story arcs.

A D&D campaign means inventing characters and beasts, crafting a world with a history that your players can uncover as they explore, and—sometimes—going off base.

There are a lot of inevitable inconveniencing events when playing a Dungeons and Dragons game: you’re going to miss a rule, forget a story hook, or mess something up. Focus on the fun part because that’s what D&D games are for: having fun!

About Jessica Majewski

Jessica started off as an avid book reader. After reading one too many romance novels (really... is it ever really enough?), she decided to jump to the other side and started writing her own stories.

She now shares what she has learned (the good and the not so good) here at When You Write, hoping she can inspire more up and coming wordsmiths to take the leap and share their own stories with the world.