In our one-on-one game, Beth and I are in the second act of a campaign arc set in the Dwarven kingdom that I had the luxury of planning while she DM’d a delightfully dreadful romp through the Shadowfell. Extra time to recharge and plan is one of the most awesome reasons we think both people in a duet should take a turn DMing. Plus, it’s really not that hard to do!
If I sat down and planned out every beat for the next few months of play, I’d have time for little else. We play four-hour sessions weekly and sometimes more. We like to take our time, so our games unfold slowly with lots of roleplaying and some tactical combat.
When we started, I found that almost every facet of planning was taking me a long time. However, I discovered that after we had a good understanding of our characters and their relationships, a healthy chunk of what I was spending time on before came more naturally and required less pre-game prep. Now I try to apply that idea to prepping campaign arcs for our home campaign.
One of the most effective ways to design a campaign arc for Dungeons and Dragons is to fully flesh out a place and its inhabitants beforehand. Try to give the important NPCs goals and flaws that are set against one another. Then, introduce an outside force or complicating factor. If these things are in place, you might find that the campaign writes itself.
This post covers one way that I have had success designing campaign arcs for D&D. It is in no way the only way to approach that complex task.
In this post, I will be using examples from my first experience applying this approach to game design when our characters explored the Elven Realms. I will move from a very “zoomed out” perspective and spiral inwards as we get more and more specific.
For the purposes of this article, we will understand “campaign” to be a string of related adventures that generally follow a larger storyline. “Adventures” are smaller story arcs contained within a campaign and can generally be completed in 1-3 sessions of play.
(Basically, campaigns are like seasons of a show where the adventures are the individual episodes.)
For this reason, campaign design can feel like a daunting task, especially if you’re just starting out, but hopefully this article can provide some guidance of one approach that has been successful.
Quick note: You don’t have to plan a whole campaign arc if you’re a new DM. It might be easier to put together a few different episodes which will fit together, looking back, as a campaign arc, but feel free to keep things simple at first.
In our (real life) world, the geographical reality of our environs has a profound impact on us and influences and informs the cultural realities of the people who share that environment.
People from different places have different attitudes and customs based on what has value (or doesn’t) in their communities. For instance, a person raised in an environment in which there is a lack of potable drinking water would naturally abhor wanton waste of water, whereas someone from a community where that was never an issue might think nothing of leaving the water running while brushing their teeth.
Exploring the Impact of Geography
Think about the geographical region that your campaign is going to be set. Imagine yourself there. What do you see? Is it mountainous, or flat? How much water is there? What kind of biome do you see? Savanna? Tundra? Equatorial Islands? Tropical? Rainforest? What animals (if any) are present/abundant/missing? Are there monsters lurking about? What natural resources (whether mundane or fantastical) do the people in this region have access to? Importantly, what are they lacking?
For example, when I think Elves, I think forests (stereotypical, I know). I decided when I foresaw our party first going to the largest stronghold of the Elves that it would be a forested place that had humongous trees, a couple of primary rivers, lots of streams and springs (nymphs FTW).
Elves and Fey go hand in hand, so I made the forest a rather wild place where danger and delight could be lurking behind any tree. This created an opportunity!
Perhaps the elves had tired of the uncertain vagaries of the forest, its proximity to the Feywild, and the resulting dangers. Perhaps this resulted in more and more elves congregating in cities, trusting civilization over nature. Perhaps not everyone liked this shift…
Whether you are going full-on homebrew or you are playing within the published worlds from Wizards of the Coast (The Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, etc.) or you are doing a blended world (using inspiration and pieces of the published stuff and making up the rest), most fantasy settings have a variety of sentient humanoid races.
If you are using published materials like The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide then many of these races come ready to use with cultural history, general attitudes, and a rich history.
If you are not using published materials, you can draw from these resources and from a thousand other representations of fantasy races. I am a fan of using the published ones as a starting point and then tweaking major aspects or even playing against standard fantasy stereotypes.
Matt Mercer has this great video about playing against type. Know that, whether or not you are playing into or against racial expectations (war-like orcs, woodland elves, crafty gnomes) your players are bringing to the table all of their experience and expectations with them. Don’t be surprised if your party members try to attack a peace-loving ogre rushing towards them for a hug!
After you have your region figured out, ask yourself, what kind of people live here? Do all of these people share a culture? Is there one race, or many? How do they get a along? If they do, how? If they don’t, why?
Another way to bring the peoples of your region to life is to consider the religious composition (or lack thereof). The pantheons outlined in the DMG or in the back of the PHB are terrific starting points. I think it is especially helpful that these lists of deities include suggested domains, a nice cue as to the possible personality and motivation followers of a given deity may have.
Religion is a primary expression of culture. By answering the question of what religions are present, how they interact, and how much influence they have over the population, you are fleshing out important details. This will serve to characterize many of your important NPCs as well like we discuss in this post about incorporating worship practices. Religious organizations and their varying (and sometimes competing) motivations also make for great story hooks.
What religions are present in your region? What gods are present? Are there different pantheons or only one? What do the religious institutions want to achieve? What do they fear? How do they operate? What do religious services entail? How open or secretive is it? What is the attitude of the general populace? How devout is the political leadership?
Finally, it is important to consider what the political make-up is in your campaign region. Many adventuring parties will find themselves tied up with public officials on some level. Whether a Captain of the City Watch witnesses the kleptomaniac Rogue pickpocket a few coppers or a magister puts out a bounty on the job board to hunt the monster plaguing the sewers, it is helpful to know beforehand how the party’s interactions with the law and officials is going to go.
Again, the Dungeon Master’s Guide has a number of resources on this subject including a helpful compendium and explanation of different types of governments that adventurers may run across in a fantasy setting. They describe systems of control from a democracy to a magocracy and everything in between. I have also run across some very helpful discussions and things to consider on the subbredit r/worldbuilding.
What system of government is in place? Is the government corrupt or just? Is the government fair to everyone, or only some? What do the common people think? What does the government want to achieve? How big is it? What impact does it have on a normal person’s daily life? What are the biggest challenges it faces at home? What threats does it face in the region? Who are its allies? Its enemies? How old is it? Who is in charge?
They should be coming to your adventuring party with attitudes and opinions about the campaign region and peoples that you have set up. Whether or not their ideas about the area’s religious institutions or forms of government align with or go against the prevailing attitude of most of the population will speak volumes about their character.
Also consider your NPCs’ position in the society that you’ve built. I try to present my player(s) with NPCs from various walks of life. If your characters only ever interact with the upper echelon of society, they are going to have a very skewed and incomplete understanding of your carefully crafted region.
Think about how you can believably put NPCs into your character’s path from as many different sides of your campaign region as you can. This creates the sense that the area that you dreamed up is well-rounded and rich.
When making your important NPCs, ask what affiliations do they have? Are they an insider or an outsider? What do they want to accomplish? What is their personal history? What do they do when they aren’t talking to your characters? What would they say is the biggest problem (for themselves, their culture, their region, their race, their religion)? What family or friends do they have? What are their secrets?
All of the previous questions and considerations are the set up for the region at “rest” or at status quo. The answers to these questions provide the stage upon which your campaign will play out and where your player(s) will have to make their difficult decisions.
The final element that I would suggest mixing in is something I’ll call the matchstick. We have all the pieces in place for a great story, but what sets the whole thing off? What additional, outside force or factor upsets things from just continuing on as they always have?
If you have done the work to set up your campaign region, peoples, and important NPCs, you likely already have several possible points that would need only a little shove to turn into an epic story. Following these to their natural conclusion will make for good adventures. For example, this noble house doesn’t like this other noble house, so they hire the party to fix a horse race to shame their rivals.
However, I like a campaign to feel like more than the sum of its parts and sometimes that takes an additional threat that the big names or powerful entities don’t already have a plan for. This could look like a natural disaster, an invasion, a plague, a major political betrayal, or anything else that would put the powers that be on their back foot. It could even be the arrival of a band of powerful strangers…
For example, in our Elven Realms campaign arc, the Drow and surface Elves had a functional peace. The matchstick I tossed into this status quo was a resurgence of religious fanaticism among some of the Drow in the form of Lolth zealots who were determined to undermine that peace. The Drow and the surface Elves already understood each other and were working on maintaining peace, but neither side anticipated the outside meddling of the Spider Queen.
As you strike the match to toss onto your powder-keg of a campaign region, consider, what will shake things up the most? What are the powerful entities prepared/unprepared for? Who/what is holding things together? What would happen if they weren’t there anymore? How would the powerful groups react to an unforeseen outside threat? Who would suffer the most if things changed dramatically? Who would emerge on top?
Asking these questions also allows you to have active members within the region so you can avoid passivity on behalf of the populace who are stuck waiting for the players to magically come in and fix everything. How can the party work within the region itself and alongside its varied peoples?
Prepping your D&D Campaign Arc
You should find, if you can answer all (or most) of the questions I’ve posed above, that prep for your campaign suddenly becomes much easier. When you have all the pieces laid out before you, it becomes much simpler to see how they fit together and what the different active parties might try to do in order to accomplish their goals.
After you have played a character for a while and you have a good sense of their personality and what they want to achieve, you don’t have to think about or plan the word for word of their role-playing. Similarly, your entire campaign region can propel itself once you have it set up.
This does take a little bit more planing on the front end, but this method (for me at least) saves so much time while running the campaign and allows me to focus my efforts on adding detail where needed and crafting compelling situations and problems.
Since I already know how all the big stuff is working, I can spend more time focusing on the smaller bits. Beth has a great page of resources for the nitty-gritty part of planning adventures.
I hope these thoughts about prepping your D&D campaign are helpful. We would love to hear about how you set up and plan for your duets or group games! How much do you make up on the fly? Where do you go for inspiration? Tell us or ask any questions in the comments.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan