The basics of building a Dungeons and Dragons 5e campaign are as follows:
- Understand the fundamentals of storytelling, but don’t plan for a linear storyline.
- Lead your players with achievable goals and treasure.
- Input your players’ backstories into the campaign.
- Practice the art of improv.
- Do your prep work.
This question is bound to appear with every new D&D player. Once the hurtles of memorizing the game’s mechanics are conquered, many players seek to DM a game of their own. Little do they know a whole world of new problems is just waiting to be explored.
The new DM is eager to begin, painting the setting of his/her world and inventing interactive characters. They generally have an idea of what monsters they want to use and what kind of dungeon to drag you through. World building is the fun part. However, when it comes time to break open the grand adventure, something seems to go off script.
Some of your friends are difficult…
One questionable friend wants to steal a horse in broad daylight, another well-meaning player might have a nagging sense of magic in the wood of the tavern’s bar (a druid of highest order, of course).
But wait, you didn’t spend any time writing up any magical tavern bars. So, what gives? Did your friends just hijack your story?
Nah, they’re trying to play the game. If you don’t present the flies with honey, they’ll buzz around exploring every nook and cranny of the room.
The goal can be a treasure, a magic sword that benefits multiple types of players, multiple weapons of exotic origin, a secret clue to the answer of your people’s origins. Your players will enjoy your world building in time, but nothing ignites a game like a direct problem to solve.
Juggling NPCs and calculating combat stats aside, there’s always the chaos of combined storytelling to deal with. What does that mean? It means the DM isn’t the only one pushing the story along. Characters have backstories that fit into the world, and they want a say in the fate of the story.
Understand the fundamentals of storytelling.
You could always use the old “mercenaries in a tavern” trope if you wanted to get to it, but let’s pretend like you actually want some semblance of emersion and not just another analogue WOW raid.
So, let’s crack this egg open. Creating a story is an art and a challenge in and of itself. Most people think of world building or character creation when building their first campaign, which is definitely an important element, but that’s really just surface level detail. That’s the easy part.
What experienced Dungeon Masters know is storytelling. They’re familiar with concepts like motivation and character archetypes. Even if running a D&D game isn’t exactly like writing a novel, being comfortable with story creation is an important first step, especially because you will have to learn improvised and cooperative storytelling. Why are your characters concerned about the lost sword in the jungle temple? How does it affect them personally and the world around them?
The Dungeon Master’s job…
What you learn as you advance your storytelling technique is how to tease out information to keep your players interested. You learn that splurging all of the good stuff up front is going to make the rest of the night boring and tedious. As the DM, you’re supposed to know and keep secrets (to a reasonable degree) from your players, but don’t clog up the play time if your players are confused.
You also learn how to world-build piece by piece. You can get caught up in trying to explain the entire planet, but good storytellers build the setting with immediate detail. Your players don’t necessarily need to know about kingdom trade agreements or its tax system: they need to know about the piano in the corner of the bar or the vines growing up the decrepit stone walls of the castle.
What you should not do is try and plot out the entire adventure. It’s not going to work, so don’t stress over having every turning point mapped out. Everyone is sharing the experience, adding their input and morphing the story. This is fantastic exercise for up-and-coming writers and storytellers. Plots are all well and good, but the minutia of the story is critical in captivating an audience. How do you get from point A to point B in a logical manner? What actions and logical reactions occur between characters with different goals?
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Lead your players with achievable goals and treasure.
The thing is, motivation isn’t just for non-player characters: it’s primarily for your players. Everyone shows up to the table for a good time, and it is your job to set the stage. Just like that free video game on your iPhone, you need to manipulate your players into wanting something made up. You gotta’ push that dopamine button, brah.
This is the secret to keep your friends on task, if you want to call it that. It simply comes down to what is expected from the gameplay. Are your friends set up to kick some monster ass? Then they probably need some challenging monster encounters. The scenario could be set up as a deep-wilderness monster hunt—say a larger beast, with smaller encounters in the forest.
Even in the most basic “score some sweet loot” play style, if you place the “sweet loot” deep inside a treacherous dungeon, you have an engaging game.
Piecing out story information also falls into this category. This is the secret to captivating attention, in D&D or any other form of storytelling. When your listener or reader or player isn’t sure of what’s going to happen next, they are engaged in finding out. All of sudden, that curious druid isn’t involved in the study of the tavern bar but directed toward your mysteries.
With all of this said (or written), be sure to involve your players on what kind of adventure they ultimately take. They will have input on the story, so everyone should be on the same page and willing to react off one another.
Input your players’ backstories into the campaign.
This point is an extension of leading your players with goals. As the Dungeon Master, it’s vital you understand your players’ characters. How are we supposed to lead them where we want if we don’t understand their desires?
Let’s use the lost-sword-jungle-temple example.
Suppose you thought of the jungle temple concept, a daring adventure full of Indiana Jones style boobytraps, lush vegetation and giant snake encounters. How would you construct a story that sends your characters to your desired location? What kind of history do your players have with each other? What classes are your friends playing and what are their backstories? All of these answers can be weaved into what the sword means to the game.
Maybe there’s a paladin in the party who must retrieve a lost family heirloom. There could be a ranger who needs this magic sword to slay an invulnerable foe, or a wizard who simply wants the sword as a key to open a buried vault. Including your players’ input is a vital part of the game and is also creative fuel for your story. Don’t resist this input—the story is a shared creation.
You don’t have to join a class at the local theater—although that’s a great start.
Improv is a mental skill that is cultivated through practice. It’s impressive when comedians make humor out of thin air on stage because it’s a craft. The speed of thought comes with creative repetition, similar to writing.
Simply said, the more you do it the better you become.
So, where do you start if you’re not willing to goof with the theater kids? The answer is at the D&D table. If you can see the game as a story in which you play a small part, you can bounce around your friends’ ideas. Are you a paladin forced to adventure with a rogue? Ham it up, maybe you have preconceived notions about rogues and learn friendship from an unexpected place, or maybe you use the disjointed relationship as comedic banter.
You’ll misfire every once and while and say something weird. It’s not a big deal. Let it go and have fun. The whole point of the game is to build on these archetypes and tropes, adding our own flavor into the unique story unfolding in the game. Once you’re able to get a hold of improv at the table as a player, it will come much more natural to you as a DM.
Do your prep work.
Obviously, you need to prepare your game beforehand, and you need to know the basic mechanics of D&D. I could write about these technical issues, but there is an entire book worth of subject matter to talk about, so we’ll just say learn the game as player first.
If you have the basics down, it’s still important to place due diligence into building your campaign. Yeah, some of us can improv like a master, but even that style of play could be improved upon by diligent prep time. Drawing out basic maps of the dungeon layouts, finding and studying monster encounters, creating dynamic villains, all can add a tremendous amount of depth to the game.
Implement meaningful encounters…
You also want to strategize turning points in the story. Create meaningful encounters that develop the story further, especially monster encounters. This can reduce the thoughtless smash and grab routine that can actually turn the game tedious and boring. A group of goblins could drop a compass that guides you to your next turning point, or a shade could drop a mysterious letter written in blood—you know, something radical that carries the story forward.
Spend this time to create a villain and you’re really cooking with fire. You could even roll up an entirely different character just to act as an obstacle to your party. A black knight with the paladin class or a typical warlock with, well, the warlock class. The options to create a devious villain are just as vibrant as the hero.
Preplanning monster encounters is also needed. This part of the setup can be fun, as you have time to sift through the monster manual and choice pick creepy dudes that fit into your world. These monsters are dynamic challenges, with unique abilities and stats. A little study into the lore and a drafted encounter will help the game smoothly transition into a battle.
To sum it up…
Rock ‘n roll, party down and roll some dice. When played the right way, with the right group of people, this game is a fun time. Serious writers have much to gain from D&D as creative exercise. Though we leave plotting at the door, practicing the craft on a minuscule, minute-by-minute basis will only enrich the tactile experience of your novels.
Don’t stress over running a game. Don’t stress over a bad player or bad group. Move on and find creative people to engage. As soon as you understand the basics, and take a little time to examine your game, you’ll be opening up the most epic of game nights.