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D&D 3E
How do you create a campaign? 
21st-Aug-2008 11:22 am
Disney-Mermaid MythandMagic
I have an idea for a campaign that I have wanted to run for a while. I have the world, history, main plot and most of the major NPCs figured out. But I'm kind of struggling with... now what?

I found the mass of free maps that WotC released and I have flagged a few of them to use, and I know where I can find suggestions in the DMG and MM as to possible encounters for different environments and I even have a few unique monsters/races written out.

But how do I go about writing the campaign? How do you guys design it? I mean, is it just brainstorm after brainstorm? Do you brainstorm chronologically, by the order the PCs will progress through the adventure, or geographically, visually placing dungeons and events on a map? Are there any materials that lend themselves to GM brainstorming?

Also, if you have any suggestions on how best to make the a campaign moving smoothly, please let me know, My group is rather large (6 players) and tends to lean towards the bloodthirsty. 

Edit:  Thanks to all of you who offered your advice, it really helped. With your suggestions in mind, I have come up with another question.

I had originally planned on introducing the PCs to this new world that my campaign takes place in, because it would be easier, I thought, to introduce them to the new aspects of the world little by little. There are some really bizzare aspects, especially in the matter of the deity system. And because that's kind of how the plot evolved in my mind, with the PCs as planehopping adventurers. But now I'm thinking that it might be better for me to give them the background of the world and let them be natives, give them a chance to get familiar with the world as a native rather than a foreigner. It would be easier for me to start small that way, as you've suggested. What do you guys think?
21st-Aug-2008 05:04 pm (UTC)
I start with an outline of a general story progression from 1st to, say 20th level, right now simply by stringing together pre-written adventure modules to fit a theme. The campaign I have going right now, set in Britain right before the birth of King Arthur, started PCs in an inn, the Shady Dragon Inn (having a pre-made map was a big reason I chose this as a central meeting hub for my party), and soon had the PCs move into the city of Eburacum. I ran them through module B5 The Veiled Society first, then progressed them into a couple of one-shots drawn from B9 Castle Caldwell and Beyond and for the major story line B10 Night's Dark Terror. To keep the party on the trail of the slavers, I moved them into A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade, and now I've dangled the next hook to lead them to A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords. Depending on how they do with the Slave Lords, they will either go urban again with some adaptations of some Lankhmar modules or they'll do some dungeon crawling. Mostly, I dangle a couple of hooks in front of the party and follow the one they bite on, though. I don't write my campaign so much as allow the PCs to write it.
21st-Aug-2008 05:53 pm (UTC)
For campaign design I tend to start simple and grow more advanced plot lines as the game progresses. The main reason for that is no one -- players or DM -- will really know how the party dynamic will work. The players may all know each others general RP/gaming styles, but the characters and their personalities are variables.

As part of the prep work, I encourage my players to write short backgrounds of the character including how they met the other PCs (optional) and to list three to five goals for that character. This will give me ideas for some plot lines that can ensnare the group.

For campaign design in toto, I break it down into five distinct phases:

* Novice (levels 1-5)
* Journeyman (levels 6-10)
* Heroic (levels 11-15)
* Legendary (levels 16-20)
* Epic (levels 21+)

4e fans may find this familiar, but I've used this model before. The key thing is to not think too far ahead of yourself when it comes to the details. It doesn't make sense to stat out the Demon Lord and his lair in the Abyss for the climax of the Epic phase if the PCs are just picking up the d6's for ability scores. You may have a cool idea or two for the other phases and that's cool -- hang on to those. But focus on the phase you're in and start taking specific notes for the next.

When doing the actual plotting, look at your maps and see what's in the area, keeping in mind the scale of the adventure. You don't want to introduce a "save the world" plot at first level. Keep it simple -- a rescue, a dungeon crawl, bandits, an Orc raid... whatever. Take notes as the game progresses and look for opportunities to exploit character goals. When there's a lull in the activity, get some feedback from your players. By the time you're ready to go into the next phase, you should have enough to plot things through.

I play with a prefab setting: Kenzer & Company's Kingdoms of Kalamar. The core campaign sourcebook has given me more than enough hooks to mold into plot for the PCs. (plug plug plug)

For the most part my campaigns are fairly open ended as a result of this method. It gives the players autonomy to occasionally pursue their interests(rather than being railroaded into a plot line) and if gives me some flexibility as a DM to shift things around depending on how the players react.

For example, in the novice phase, I started with the PCs joining a pilgrimage, only to have the whole mob ambushed by kobold, who captured a few people and made off with them. One captured kobold was interrogated, and the PCs found they were working for some slavers. Among the pilgrims was an NPC Cleric of the Guardian, who was vehemently opposed to slavery, so he offered to lead a rescue, and seeing as most of the PCs were rather mercenary, offered coin and gems for their assistance. Long story short, the rescue was successful, the NPC Cleric turned out to be a zealot and the PCs didn't want anything more to do with him. Which made the story line involving the leader of the Slavers (a hobgoblin) and the conflict with the Cleric peter out.

PCs decided to move on, so I looked at some old modules for inspiration when I found "The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh." Well, the PCs were at a coastal city (and a major port of call), the plot of the module fit the area nicely. A few tweaks and some restating of NPCs (sahaguins became lizardmen) and voila! The next adventure is ready.

If you're looking for inspiration, you can check out and see if Goodman Games still has their sale on 3.5 modules going. They're barebones modules so if you see one you like you could incorporate that into your campaign.
21st-Aug-2008 06:24 pm (UTC)

Thank you so much! Yes, that really helped. I have been trying to look at it all in the big picture, probably because I'm overcompensating for the module right now which includes a bunch of events that make absolutely no sense when put together.

But, you are absolutely right. All I really need to do is find a small low-level adventure and just go from there.
22nd-Aug-2008 01:40 pm (UTC)
Looking at the big picture's never a bad thing -- just don't focus too much on it. That way you can change or fill in details as the game progresses.

Another example: One PC, a Ranger, wants to kill a Dragon and make armor from its hide. It's one of his goals. I made a note of it and set it aside. After an encounter with a young Black Dragon, the Ranger decides to do a little more research. He starts asking/paying sages for info on Dragons and where they breed. Flipping through a couple of source books, I found a location in a more distant kingdom that fit the bill. So I filled out some plot points and slated it for the higher level phases of the game (probably low end Legendary).

As a result, I have the framework of the adventure, but I won't go into details unless the players actually go there. And if it doesn't happen, I have material for the next campaign.

Also, if you're looking for assistance in crafting villains for your games (and yes this is a shameless plug), check out Kenzer & Co.'s "Villain's Design Handbook." You can get a pdf of it, and it is an excellent resource on developing a villain and his compatriots. You can even make a Lawful Good villain. :D
21st-Aug-2008 05:55 pm (UTC)
I think it all depends on your GMing style. Are you telling a story and the players are following along, adding their bits of input, and occasionally influencing what happens? Or are you providing an environment and reacting to what the players do? Certainly the latter will give the players more flexibility and ability to change the world.

Of course, there are paths in between. You can generate a backstory "up till now," create some very memorable NPCs, and then set the thing in motion and see how the players react to it. Between play sessions, you as GM will be generating new stuff to react to the players.

Your question, which I characterize as "Now what?", leads me to believe you're ready to play! What makes you think you're not? You have a world, a history, a main plot, and major NPCs. Are you looking for that first adventure?

What are your NPCs doing? Why should the PCs care about it? that's the hook. You have a bloodthirsty group, so they're not gonna have a problem with a cliche like, "They are bad; you should kill them all." Or, really, in the right-before-play-backstory, have the bad guy kill off a loved one of each of the PCs. They all band together for revenge. The first clue leads to the first dungeon. Voila! Instant plot hook.

Cannibalize existing published modules for stat blocks and encounters! Just rip that stuff out, change the names of the monsters if you want (kobolds become human marauders with a flick of your pen) and re-skin a couple of their special abilities.
21st-Aug-2008 06:12 pm (UTC)
Are you telling a story and the players are following along, adding their bits of input, and occasionally influencing what happens? Or are you providing an environment and reacting to what the players do?

Really good point, and one that I'm kind of worried about. I'm afraid that I'll be too much of a storyteller, and I don't want to be, but I'm also afraid that if I am too open, I'll be trying to run off-the-cuff and then I'll get mauled by devious and rules-savvy PCs.
21st-Aug-2008 08:25 pm (UTC)
Don't be a storyteller, but if you set the campaign up the right way, it's not hard to direct your players without making them feel railroaded.

Making your players part of an organization like a military lets you give them missions that lead them through your plot without relying on them to happen upon a certain plot point.
21st-Aug-2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
Making your players part of an organization like a military lets you give them missions that lead them through your plot without relying on them to happen upon a certain plot point.

Ooh... what a great idea! Thanks!
21st-Aug-2008 08:23 pm (UTC)
Ask your players what kind of game they like playing, unless you already have the measure of them. Running a detective/mystery style game for hack and slashers or vice verse will leave your players bored, no matter how great it is.

The 4e DMG is -great- with this kind of information. It details all the major play styles and how to keep them satisfied. It's one of the best DMing articles I've ever read.

Anyhow, I've found that it's best to map out what you see the big points in your campaign being. Who the big bad is,what he's doing, when the plot twists happen. Then figure out how to get your players to those points as you go along based on the decisions they make.

I'm not a fan of multiple year campaigns, so I level my players once every session regardless of how much XP they earned. It keeps the advancement steady, lets me use a wide variety of enemies, and lets the eventual final showdown feel appropriately epic without doing innumerable filler missions. I try to distill the campaign down to it's essence and keep things moving.
21st-Aug-2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
It also totally changes the reward mechanism of the game, so be careful. When killing monsters => XP => levels, then players will kill monsters to level. When you remove the requirement to kill monsters to level up, players start acting differently. They run from fights that they don't need to. They stop killing weak creatures, sometimes out of pity or morals. I find this far superior to normal gameplay, myself, but it isn't the way the game was meant to be played.

At its heart, D&D (especially 3e and 4e) is a "kill things and take their stuff" game. It's fantastic at doing that, and is loads of fun doing that. Use caution when changing the core reward mechanic.
22nd-Aug-2008 04:32 pm (UTC)
I think it will work out fine, on the whole. I'm going for a very specific plot-intensive game, and the stakes are high enough that they are not like to ignore very many scenarios without abandoning their mission entirely.
22nd-Aug-2008 12:36 am (UTC)
You keep changing your icon :p I get like halfway through a thread before I realize "oh, wait. It's lady2beetle" :)

I first usually come up with the basic campaign world, mostly so I know where the races and classes fit in, and what will be available to players. This usually gives me a pretty good sense of what the game world looks like, and usually by that time I've come up with a basic game premise (my last game was: "you are pirates"; my current game is "you're isolated military cadets").

I then come up with one or two things that are going on in the world that the players will get involved with. This is both to help drive the story (so to give the PCs quests to go on), and so that I can have something "happening" if the PCs fail to act. In the pirate game, one of the pirates was trying to find a magic artifact that would let him take over a kingdom. The PCs ended up working for him, but they also could have become his enemies. But no matter what he did, his actions would direct how the world around them changed. Or really, how they influenced his actions would direct the world.

Then I come up with a start for the game--the first encounter or two that will start things off. In the pirate game, this was the PCs' ship being attacked by pirates.

Then I usually plan session-to-session, dungeon-to-dungeon, or adventure-to-adventure. I'd ask "okay, what is the next event in the story thread I've come up with? How do I want the PCs to be involved? And what will be a fun set of encounters/events that go along with that?" So I know that the pirate is going to go get this artifact. So the first step was getting there--I knew I had to run an adventure that was traveling. Then I came up with encounters for the traveling. Then I knew that they had to get the artifact from the ancient ruins. So I planned that out. And so on.

Basically I was following a story that the PCs were involved with and even driving, simply by knowing what would happen if they did nothing. And once you've got a few sessions in, it's pretty easy to know what your players (and their characters!) would do in a situation, so it's easy to give them a choice and be pretty sure of which way it's going to go. And if they surprise you, it just means that you're writing up a different encounter for the next session!
22nd-Aug-2008 01:31 pm (UTC)
Ooh... I'm sorry!

Here's another one?

In my defense, it isn't usually intentional. I get so excited about making a reply that I forget what icon I'm using.
22nd-Aug-2008 12:49 am (UTC) - Natives
Allowing the characters to be natives always seems easier to me, at least when you have enough world background to offer them. As natives, they would fit into the setting by default unless they didn't want to, and allow you to develop the world from small and local to larger scale. Stick plenty of adventure hooks in the initial background material so that the PCs can start with something in mind. In new campaign settings I try to arrange a sit down session with each player to go over character back story and help them tailor to the world design.
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