Creating new roleplaying game campaigns requires three decisions: create characters, pick a setting, and pick a story or at least a theme. You can do this in any order you like, or all at once. I’ll discuss one possible way to do this in the following post.
Outlining is the most exciting stage of creating a roleplaying game campaign for me. The group collectively picks a theme and hook. I create a possible ending for the campaign, then bullet-point three acts, where most of the first act focuses on resolving semi-random character background. The middle part should be dark and disastrous, and usually, fall into place quickly last.
There is no right or wrong here. This post is only one possible way of doing this. Let’s break it up into seven steps:
- Theme, Hook, and Format
- Create Characters
- Start at the End
- Plot the First Act
- Create the First Adventure
- Plot the Second Act
- Deal with Changing Plans
Then rinse and repeat thirty sessions later.
Step One: Theme, Hook, and Format
The first step of creating a roleplaying game campaign is a series of intertwined choices. You collectively pick a theme and hook. The goal is to find a hook and theme everybody is comfortable with and can see a potential for an exciting character.
- Type of characters.
Picking the format for the campaign is complex. You should decide on the format – how you want to play – at the same time. Your game will benefit from choosing scope and format early, and a simple and rewarding format for the story is the three-act structure, which can be developed either as series of linear stories or a “sandbox”-game, or a mix of the two.
- Scope and length.
- Three-act structure or a Sandbox.
Theme and Hook
Deciding theme and hook is a simple, yet vital step. If you get wrong, you are off to a bad start. Pay especially attention to players who keep quiet at this stage. Indifference is a bad sign, and unwillingness to voice opinion is even worse.
Anyone who feels outvoted may be miserable for the rest of the campaign or even quit. I suggest everyone should have the option to veto a theme or hook. Make sure every player understand this is both acceptable and necessary. Everyone must agree, a simple vote is not enough.
Examples For Campaign Themes and Hooks
- A band of mercenaries who sell their services to the highest bidder, taking any job, in a civil war with shifting alliances.
- A noble house determined to take control of the region and become one of the great houses of the empire.
- Scions of fallen noble houses determined to reclaim their place in a city of intrigue and betrayal.
- A band of royal squires takes it upon themselves to save the kingdom from an assuming orc horde and a sinister cult deteriorating the royal court’s will to defend the kingdom.
Scope and Length
Deciding scope allows you to set reasonable story goals. Creating characters that aspire to tackle the gods does not mesh well with a campaign that never leaves a tiny valley with random bands of orcs and brigands.
Story goals for each character should be on the same ambition level. If not you risk having a couple of main characters, reducing the rest to sidekicks.
You would be able to choose the pacing for the story if you figured scope and length early. When do you introduce the main bosses? When is the dark midpoint of the story? What are the possible consequences of the campaign setting? How tough is the final boss?
I keep a reasonably regular journal at the gaming table, so I know for past campaigns that my ideal campaign is roughly thirty sessions. By the thirtieth session we have explored the characters, delved deeply into the backstory, explored a handful of dungeons, learned a few secrets about the characters and the world, and the characters may even have altered the world around them in some significant way.
After thirty sessions, I am also bored to tears with whatever we are doing. The most critical limitation is my focus and ability to remain interested. With this in mind, it is time to prepare a new campaign. So whenever I start out with a new campaign, I aim for thirty sessions or roughly ninety hours of actual play.
The Three-act Structure
The three-act structure is a well-known narrative model used to break up stories into three distinct parts: the setup, the conflict, and the resolution. The setup is where we meet the characters and learn about the conflict. It also includes an event that kicks off the story. The middle point is where the conflict gain momentum, the characters learn about themselves and changes. It also contains a dark moment where all hope seems lost. The resolution is the climax.
Others better explain the more delicate details but suffice to say I think the model to perfect for planning roleplaying campaigns.
Using my statistics I need to prepare for at least 24 sessions to make room for a sizable story arc, and yet be able to finish on a high-note without rushing the end to just get it done. That leaves me with six sessions for the first act, 12 sessions for the second act and finally six sessions for the third act.
When we were kids, we could easily play 10-hour marathons. Nowadays we barely squeeze in three hours after general nonsense and reminiscing about the Old Days (TM) is done. If each scene is 30 minutes, that gives me 144 scenes to plot. This is a huge task at first glance, but you do not have to do it all at once, and most of the scenes should be instigated by the players anyway.
The Adventure Path
Most published adventures are relatively linear, probably because they are more accessible to both read, write and play compared to more open “sandbox” adventures.
The advantages of linear adventures are many for the person running the game. You have a specific ending or possible endings in mind. You are never in doubt where you are going, foreshadowing and supporting that end is easy, and everything you do with the campaign should keep that final fight in mind.
A series of linked adventures are also called an adventure path, a term that showed up in the 3e era of Dungeons and Dragons.
Most published adventures are linear, probably because they are more accessible to both read, write and play compared the alternative sandbox adventures.
The advantages of linear adventures are many for the Game Master. You have a specific ending or possible endings in mind. You are never in doubt where you are going, foreshadowing and supporting that end is easy, and everything you do with the campaign should keep that final fight in mind.
Example: The 1e Modules
The 1e era of Dungeons and Dragons had several series of more or less linked adventures, or modules as they were called in those days.
The Scourge of the Slave Lords was four adventures that picked up where the previous left off.
The Temple of Elemental Evil was the first “super-module” with a whopping 128 pages covering play from first to eight level characters.
Against the Giants was three modules, continued with two Underdark modules and ending with the Queen of the Demonweb Pits. TSR later reprinted series as the Queen of the Spiders.
Playing the Temple of Elemental Evil and the Queen of Spiders as one long story was perfectly viable, and is the first adventure path covering play up to the fourteenth level.
Example: The 3e Adventures
The adventures to launch 3e back in 2000-2002 (beginning with The Sunless Citadel and ending with Bastion of Broken Souls) formed a campaign of sorts but was only loosely connected.
Swapping out a few adventures, or creating a few your own, and tightening the plot with more recurring villains would serve just as well, or better.
Example: The Pirates of the Dagon Sea
Another, perhaps more creatively satisfying option, is to assemble and link a series of adventures of your own choice. Years ago I outlined the following adventure path, but sadly never got to play.
- Tales of Freeport, from Green Ronin Games.
- Torrents of Dread, see Dungeon # 144.
- Rana Mor, see Dungeon #86.
- Porphyry House Horror, see Dungeon # 95.
- Secrets of Xen’drick, a 2006 Eberron book.
- Lost Temple of Demogorgon, see Dungeon #120.
- Isle of Dread, see Dungeon #114.
The campaign would have worked pretty well with a custom-made overarching villain and possibly material from the Savage Tide adventure path (Dragon #139 to #150). It would have been a unique story with lots of ready-to-go material. The Tome of Annihilation is another option.
Linear adventures, despite all its advantages, has two unavoidable severe flaws: predictable may turn out to be boring for the Game Master, and the players may feel they are being “railroaded.”
The Sandbox game addresses these flaws. The basic idea is that the Game Master provides the world, then lets the players run amok, and improvises the outcomes to the best of his or her ability.
The basis of the sandbox is improvisation, which can be challenging. This requires that you know the setting and the rules well and that you prepare to improvise. You must either know the setting very well or have a strong vision of what should be. Improvisation is harder if you struggle with the rules as well. Preparing for a sandbox game means keeping your notes as modular as possible so you can mix-and-match on the fly.
Running a sandbox game relies on strong characters and the skill and desire to improvise. The game can be great fun, with many twists and turn. It can also be tedious and pretentious with nothing going on. I have done both, and recommend the former.
Using the three-act structure does not fit the sandbox but can be faked. Keep the beginning easy, then hit them hard after five or six sessions, before making it dark and hopeless after the fifteenth session, and finally finishing strong with whatever plot that may have stayed with the characters. It should work. Sort of.
The inherited danger of sandboxing for a rabid world builder like myself is using the sandbox format to over prepare the setting and not think about the adventure at all. That does not make for a good game so you should strive to find a balance.
The Tools of a Sucessful Sandbox Game
The tools of a successful sandbox games includes:
- Generic stats.
- Plenty of varied maps.
- Lists of random names and locations.
- A backup plan.
You should create generic monsters and antagonists with adaptability in mind. Use broad themes that fit your world – like sellswords, cultists, catacombs, orcs, evil temples, and so on. Each theme should include four to twelve NPCs or monsters of varying types and levels. This will allow you mix and match using the same theme throughout the campaign.
The advantage is that you can change plans quickly, and I am consistent with the themes of my world. The downside is predictability, so you should add new characters to the themes of the campaign progress.
A stack of varied and reasonably generic maps is useful for a sandbox game. Players’ whims can be unpredictable and may require new maps.
You should keep lists of names for new nonplayer characters and locations. Calling the innkeeper “the innkeeper” signals that the person unimportant and does not invite engagement, while calling the innkeeper “Barliman Butterbur” suggests a real person with an agenda, secrets and possibly forgotten notes. The latter is more appealing.
Similarly, if all your city guards are called “Arnold Stallone” your game may be in trouble.
Finally, you need a backup plan. Some nights nothing happens. Perhaps real life has taken its toll, and the players are tired and uninspired. This can be something as simple as three thugs with crossbows entering the tavern, or something more elaborate as an old ally approaching with a chore that needs to be done. Maintaining a short list of scenes that may work throughout the campaign is a good idea.
Example: A Paladin in Liberty City
Michelle: You’re damaged goods.
Niko Bellic: No doubt.
– Grand Theft Auto 4, Rockstar Games (2008)
I first came across the term sandbox when reading about Grand Theft Auto IV. In GTAIV you play as Nico Bellic, an illegal immigrant who turn to crime when his new life in Liberty City turn out less fantastic than he hoped.
As Bellic, you cruise around Liberty City and pick up missions as they appear, or you can just drive around and explore. GTAIV is one of the most fun games I’ve ever played, and yet I cannot remember the main story, or if there indeed was one.
The Kingmaker Adventure Path is an oddity among the Paizo Adventure Paths. The series is an adventure path (it says so on the cover) designed as a sandbox for you to play in.
Kingmaker lays out the Stolen Lands as your future kingdom, yet to be built by you. How you go about this task was up to you.
Kingmaker is harder to read since it lacks a clear story, but keep in mind a published adventure is for games and is not novel.
Kingmaker seems to play well, and Paizo and Owlcat Games base the Pathfinder computer game on the series.
Step Two: Create Characters
Creating a brand new character, or set of characters, is among the fun most fun part of any roleplaying game. Roleplaying games are creating stories with our alter ego in the limelight. So creating that character is a big deal.
Completing step one and two on the same night makes sense. This pre-campaign session is sometimes called Session 0. Don’t rush this. A good start is important.
There are some things to consider, for both the player and the Game Master:
- What do you want to play?
- What is each character’s role in the party?
- Does the characters have backgrounds?
The players need to figure out what they want to play. Do a simple roll call. A good concept is usually a short one: for example, a ruthless mercenary, a dastardly bard, or a merchant priest.
You should settle concept and role in the party together, then create the characters. The key is that creating a balanced party is a joint venture. Everybody just grabbing the dice and start rolling the character may be premature.
Each player must consider the character’s role in the party. The campaign may have a problem If you have five rogues on your hands, or worse: no cleric. The players should be able to hash out who plays what, as they all know what an unbalance party is going to cost them. The tropes of a Dungeons and Dragons game is well-established: they need a tank, a healer, some arcane skills and damage dealers. They need someone who can handle traps, and they all need some social skills (both characters and players).
Character backgrounds may be helpful to finalize the character description. Backgrounds can be a joint design by the group. Random backgrounds can also be fun as it forces both player and game master to rethink old ways.
Example: The Pikemen of Clermont Campaign
Using an example for my own game, the Pikemen of Clermont is the one time I broke my typical way of creating new campaigns. I had the players craft 0-level thirteen-year-old kids, before drafting them as pikemen on a seven-year contract and shipped them off to war as first level fighters.
Anyone who wanted a different class needed a mentor in the army and multiclass. The characters, bullied and underpaid, fought in a war they only vaguely understood. They had to carve their way up within the ranks of the kingdom as the kingdom itself descended into civil war. The characters had a shared theme and background. They immediately bonded, and their goal was clear, or at least in the beginning. The result was a coming-of-age story with the characters saving the kingdom.
Step Three: Start at the End
An often cited literary advice is to start with the ending because it is easier to come up with the steps along the way if you know where you are heading.
Starting at the end means picking the main villain and the final battle as you set up the campaign. You have a clear goal, so everything you do benefits because you know where you are going.
Example: The Muvar’s Slayers Campaign, Mercenaries of Ill Repute
In a recent campaign, the players figured they wanted to play mercenaries in a time of civil war. I knew the time frame from past campaigns. A city battle was forthcoming, and I had an already established villain in that city. Both the city and the villain was currently underdeveloped, so I promoted both to be the end of this new story arc, or possibly the whole campaign.
With an established starting point and an apparent end, it was easy to see a possible story arc right from the start:
- The mercenaries sign a contract with their new patron.
- The patron goes to war.
- The villain attacks the mercenaries.
- The mercenaries besiege the enemy city.
- The battle of the city.
- The boss battle with the villain.
Everything later added to the story should support this arc.
Step Four: Plot the First Act
You are ready to plot out the first act once you have figured out your villain and a possible ending. You know where you are going, once you have the basic story.
You just need to lay out the steps on the way. You can even break it down into a list of sessions and scenes.
Example: The Muvar’s Slayers’ First Act
Last time we started a new campaign we first picked the location and timeframe from the campaign setting. Based on that decision we also knew it was a kind of war story and a few world events that would lie in the character’s future.
The players generated their characters, including a necromancer and a dark druid, and the plan was too shady mercenary types. I had no idea of what we would do with this, or if we had a story at all.
I reviewed the random backgrounds and the player’s input as I prepared the remaining sessions for the first act, and found I could unify the results in three subplots:
- Several characters had trouble with local thieves’ guilds.
- We have a couple of orphans with murdered parents killed under mysterious circumstances.
- At least two characters have trouble with a local evil cult.
The evil cult seemed to fit as a common denominator here, so I developed a villain for the campaign, and resolving the main bulk of the random backgrounds was the basic outline of the first act.
Step Five: Create the First Adventure
Starting a new roleplaying campaign is perhaps my favorite part of gaming, and creating the first adventure only slightly less so.
A great adventure needs:
The objective is the purpose or goal of the adventure. The setup gets the action going. The action is broken up into scenes, preferably ending in a satisfying climax at the end of the game.
You are set to go. Just don’t overthink it. It is a game! Gather your friends and start playing.
Example: The Muvar’s Slayers’ Hunt for the Stalker
A possible scene list for the first session of the campaign mentioned above can look like this:
- An ambush at the inn.
- A rooftop chase of the fiendish bugbear.
- The companions probably want to gather some rumors.
- A final fight with the fiendish bugbear in a derelict house.
I was ready to play.
The campaign started in a tavern (gotta respect the tropes) as a cultist fire a heavy crossbow at the group’s necromancer and a fiendish bugbear stalking the city rooftops. I picked the necromancer as he had a built-in enemy in the backstory, and tied it to the local evil cult.
The campaign got a nice kickstart with little preparation. Most of my preparation time had been creating the random background tables since the setting already was in place.
Step Six: Plot the Second Act
Plotting the second act is straightforward at this point. You have the characters. The campaign has started, and you know where you want to end up. The second act of the story is where everything twists and you have the dark midpoint of the story. Disaster strikes.
This should be easy, right?
The sagging mid-point is a thing in many stories, including roleplaying games. The excitement for the new characters has rubbed off, and the climactic epic end is still many sessions away. The sagging midpoint is usually in a way-to-big dungeon on a side-quest in my games, but I suppose all sagging mid-points are different.
The answer is to go deeper and twist harder.
- Sam claims the One Ring.
- The castle burns down!
- The orcs invade!
- Hermione stabs Harry!
- River hijacks the Serenity!
- Vader freezes Luke in carbonite!
- Kitty Pryde is a murderous vampire!
Hit them low, hit them hard, and keep the game going.
Step Seven: Changing Plans
The best-laid plans never survive the first encounter with the characters. Embrace it.
Having a list of scenes or plot points does not mean it has to be a railroad. You can change your mind as you or your players’ shifts focus, or surprising plot twists takes you in new directions.
Sharing stories is the point of roleplaying games. Shredding up your script means you are successful. The bonus is that you now have a more vibrant story what you first imagined.
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Adventures
- Creating Fantasy Maps
- Create Roleplaying Game Characters
The Reading List
The Kobold Guide to Plots and Campaigns (2016) is an excellent source of ideas and inspiration. Chief kobold Wolfgang Baur’s essay “Choosing the Ending First” gives you a better idea of how to prepare for a magnificent finish for your campaign while “Branching Storylines and Nonlinear Gameplay” by Ree Soesbee in the same book provides more insights on the benefits of Sandbox play.
Also see Kobold Guide to Gamemastering (2017), Monica Valentinelli: “Planning your campaign in four stages.”
As an alternative approach to the campaign arc, read Robert J. Schwalb’s pragmatic approach to setting up a game.
The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985) is a classic dungeon crawl that pits the heroes against a sinister cult in a ruined temple and looming behind the scenes are even darker powers.
“The Slave Lords” series consists of Slave Pits of the Undercity (1980), Secret of the Slavers Stockade (1981), Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords (1981) and In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords (1981). The four modules were reprinted and expanded as the Scourge of the Slave Lords (1986) and could serve as a sequel to the Temple of Elemental Evil. The 2013 reprint Against the Slave Lords adds Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, a prequel adventure written by Skip Williams.
The story continues with the Descent into the Depths of the Earth, the Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, the Vault of the Drow and finally the Queen of the Demonweb Pits. The Queen of the Spiders (1986) collects the entire series.
There are multiple versions of the Isle of Dread. It is probably best known as part of the 80’s Dungeons and Dragons Expert Set, but also the 2007 update as part of the Savage Tides adventure path. Both are worth checking out if you can find them.
The Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001) by Monte Cook is a worthy successor of the original and possibly chosen as an early 3e adventure to highlight the “back to the dungeon” mantra of third edition Dungeons and Dragons.
Secrets of Xen’drik (2006) is a D&D 3.5 book with a city and vast tracts of unexplored jungle. A good chunk of the book is 3.5 rules material, but the rest is support material for adventures in the setting, for instance as side-treks for Tomb of Annihilation or Isle of Dread campaign, or matched with an overarching plot of your own.
You find Sean K Reynold’s The Lost Temple of Demogorgon in Dungeon #120.