Help me plan a D&D Campaign
July 30, 2009 6:24 PM   Subscribe

Dungeon Masters: Help me start planning and preparing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for a group of seasoned players who've been a while between rolls of the dice...

After many long years hiatus, at last I get to DM a D&D (3.5 edition) game again... oh crafty, masterful dungeon masters- how do you go about planning and preparing a campaign for your players? How do you put it all together, come up with episodes in a grand arc of story? And can you recommend any good online resources for dungeon mastering? Any hints, tips, departure points, inspiration very much appreciated. Any ideas on how to be the best dungeon master i can be would be grand, too!

I have the big idea for the campaign in mind... it's fleshing it out and breaking it into segments that i'd like help with. Thanks!
posted by Philby to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Crims! That's a big question.

As a preliminary, it's worth crossposting this to the forums - very smart, thoughtful community.

First, what sort of style are you aiming for? Knockabout rollicking fantasy, gritty, nasty, fantasy-fucking-Vietnam dungeon crawl, sly political manoeuverings? Are all your players on roughly the same page?

Get your players to start making characters. Ask them each to come up with one thing their player is seeking and another thing/person/concept their character fears.

Once that's settled, pick a starting place for the first session. Nothing wrong with 'you're all in a tavern - there's someone there with a job' or 'you're riding past a forest on the way to Genericton when a screaming woman comes running out of the forest with midgets on ape-back chasing her. Roll initiative!' Detailed fictional imaginings can come later.

Now you want a first adventure as a follow on to the opening - as above, doesn't need to be complex, you just want a chance for the players to bump up against each other and the baddies and have fun.

Don't ever assume the players are going to do things in a particular way - always have some rough contingencies in your mind. BUT! Also remember the 'Magician's Choice'. In other words, you are the only one who knows what was supposed to happen, so if you want the adventure to be down the left corridor and they go right, there's nothing stopping you moving the adventure to the right corridor.

Finally, you want a hook for the followup - letter, tattoo, talking banana muffin whatever. A useful trick is that you can foreshadow well before you know what you're actually foreshadowing, assigning meaning in retrospect.

As to the wider arc - I find the best way to manage it is to decide on a plan that's going to happen unless the PCs stop it. Then give them reasons to stop it by making it threaten things they care about.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:47 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing to keep in mind is the style of players you have. In regards to backstory and character development, there tends to be two kinds of players.

The "Constructed" type likes to have the character prebuilt. They will write out the history of their character in meticulous detail. They will usually put plot hooks in the backstory, and they will often expect you to integrate this into your world.

The "Organic" type prefers to let the character grow during sessions. They will come up with past details when it seems natural. They will usually grab on to plot hooks you give them.

Another key thing is how your players see the rules of the game.

"Simulationist" players work based upon information. Their goal is based around the idea of simulating a world as realistically as possible.

"Narrativist" players focus on themes, plot, and or narrative. Their actions are based upon what makes thematic sense.

"Gamist" players play the game as something to be won or defeated. Their actions are based upon defeating progressively more difficult challenges.

The Giant in the Playground forums are a great resource for players and DMs. They do tend towards 3.x edition, but that works in your case. Here is a guide dedicated to your questions in particular:

Lastly, here is a chronicle of DMing at its finest:
posted by CrystalDave at 7:19 PM on July 30, 2009 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: oooh... thanks guys... excellent answers! right up the alley i was hoping for-

Here is a guide dedicated to your questions in particular:
posted by Philby at 7:53 PM on July 30, 2009

Don't ever assume the players are going to do things in a particular way - always have some rough contingencies in your mind. BUT! Also remember the 'Magician's Choice'. In other words, you are the only one who knows what was supposed to happen, so if you want the adventure to be down the left corridor and they go right, there's nothing stopping you moving the adventure to the right corridor.

This is key. You can't plan out every contingency, but you can sketch out specific plot points or set pieces that you want to occur and just find an appropriate place/time to slot them in no matter what the players choose to do. Best if you don't let on that you're doing this so they think you actually have planned out every contingency.

Random tip:

If you want to improvise (and I'm very much of the flesh-out-a-world-and-improvise-everything-else school), a book or movie you know none of the players has read/seen can be a huge help. Especially if the book/movie is set in the present day or scifi or something so your wholesale lifting of plot sequence etc. will be masked by the shift in setting, just change the names and swap magic for tech and you're good to go. After all, you're not trying to write a bestselling novel here. The goal is to have fun. For bonus laughs, get away with this when your players are familiar with the work in question.
posted by juv3nal at 8:09 PM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


There you go. I apologize for the inconvenience.
posted by CrystalDave at 8:09 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks CD- that SilverClawShift thread is utterly engrossing.
posted by Philby at 8:24 PM on July 30, 2009

Best answer: Ah - another two tricks that are an indispensable part of the toolkit:

1 - 'What if...?': Basically, this is just being open to sudden slashing changes of direction. You're running a session, they've killed the courier (or whatever) and they're searching him. What if he's actually a kobold in disguise? What if the whole meet up was an ambush? Trust your instincts.

It's often the case that the sudden brainwaves will be the key to the really awesome sessions, which is why it's generally better not to be hogtied by toooo much detailed plot preparation.

2 - "These guys both have vests - they must be agents of the Vestrymen!" This is sort of related - listen to your players. They may write your plots for you. Because you're the only one that knows the plot, your players can't know whether you've just half-inched their idea, or whether they're just being really clever. and sniffing out your genius plan.

To give us some more to work with, do you have any ideas for your over-arching plot? We could jam something up for the first couple of sessions, maybe?
posted by Sebmojo at 8:33 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Most stories have a few key features. You need to familiarize your players with the world a bit and then introduce them to the overall story line. During this part back fill your universe with other things. Maybe the miller has a side business that involves smuggling. Maybe one of the city guardsmen is not what he appears. You want enough of this stuff that the players never feel like, "We go north because we'll fall off the world if we go in any other direction" but not so much that they can't find the arc once they're looking for it. Also, a couple people out there who owe the characters a favor can be a convenient tool for you to fix things or move them along.

Once your players see that there is a big story things will move on their own.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:42 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Robin's Laws of good game mastering are along the lines of the material CrystalDave pointed us to (thanks, CD!). It's a for-purchase PDF file from Steve Jackson's e23, but I thought it was worth it.
posted by dylanjames at 9:22 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: over-arching wise:

the sleepy, isolated village of Blauhuhn, in the semi wild hilly forests far from town or city, has been peaceful and harmonious for who knows how long? but lately there are reports of orc tribesman wandering further afield than anyone remembers in a few generations...

out in the wilds, a cabal of ogre magi have been press-ganging orcish villages into service as they assemble a rag tag army of monsters, with plans to march on the cities a week or two's march to the west-

i like the idea of exploring the nature of monsterhood- the idea that orcs are just regular guys (tho monsters they may be) trying to make a living... but that their monster nature can be used against them. they're not evil in themselves- but can be put to work for evil purposes...

the players shouldn't know too much about what exists more than a day or two's walk from the village- but soon enough they'll be swept up on a quest to stop the ogre magi before they can lay waste to the lands beyond the wasteland from whence they came..

i have a few ideas for some sections of the adventure- i was thinking their might be some encounters with orcish refugees fleeing their settlements after the ogre magi forces have swept thru, orcnapping whoever they could. and perhaps one of the cabal who defects- not necessarily for good natured reasons- but is wounded and poisoned, holed up in his fortress- perhaps eventually the players could seek him out to learn more of the OM's plans..

what do you think? where can you see me taking it?

thanks again, guys... this is the first AskMe I've ever posed to the hive mind... and gosh you sure have marvellous brains to pick!
posted by Philby at 9:41 PM on July 30, 2009

That's an interesting idea. If you aren't opposed to looking at published modules for ideas, Red Hand of Doom has a similar plotline, and is widely regarded as one of the best 3.x modules out there.

Outside of that, your story can go many directions. In order to figure out good places for it to lead, there are a couple questions you should answer:

1. How far is the party going to go level-wise? Will they reach epic levels, or are they going to stay small and bite-sized?

2. How common is magic in this setting? Are the party one in a million? One in a thousand? Is a mage a feared and misunderstood entity, or do people pop off to their local magic shop for an endlessly refilling cup of tea?

Don't be afraid to use tropes from various settings and genres. They are tropes for a reason. They are a shorthand which allows you to tell the story you wish to tell without being bogged down in the minutae. is fantastic for such things.
posted by CrystalDave at 10:19 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nice and simple, but with the potential to expand - I like it. I suggest working up the leaders (more than one, as that adds potential for interesting doublecrossing) of the Ogre Magi in some detail, personality and history; it might feed into the story in a number of ways. The quicker you can personalise the main antagonist(s), the better. Maybe an orcish chief too?

Also, I like the 'what is a monster' angle as an overall theme - there's some possibilities around having (say) human slavers taking advantage of the Ogre Magi depredations, or evil priests working with them to gain their dark knowledge (etc).

Plus, there's an open question of what the OM's ultimate goal is - and I'd recommend working out what the players think it is, encouraging them to think that, then having it be entirely different.

There's only two things you can do as a story teller: give people what they expect, or what they don't expect. It's your job to know which is which.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:04 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also: mother of god, that giantitp thread is incredible. 3.5ed at its best (you could totally do it all in 4th, but 3.5 does gritty better).

See this for comparison.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:07 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not saying your idea for a start is bad, but it does involve significant player buy in. The sleepy little village start where the characters don't know much beyond the village comes with some built-in assumptions as to what players can play.

Some class options take a hit. Where did Johnny the Wizard learn his magic? Does the sleepy village have a school of some sort? What if J'honneigh the Wizard is an elf? Does that mean the little village has a significant elvish population? What if out of 5 players, you have 4 that want to play nonhumans?

If your players are willing to work within the frame of the setting, then it's no worries. One thing to consider (and this is something that a DM of mine did years ago in the Best Game I Ever Played) would be to start the players as youths (Use the NPC classes in the DMG, just for the first session) and let them grow in to what the players want them to be. Run a few sessions with the players as Commoners and then Hand of God some reason for them to split up for a few years and then reunite. Maybe an orcish raid causes the village to be evacuated, soldiers sweep in and send everyone out, and the PCs go off to see a bit of the world, get some education, and then hear that the village is reopened/restored and return with actual character class levels. It would certainly give them some motivation into getting to the bottom of the orcish raids in the first place.

When I played in a similar scenario, the character that I started as an Artful Dodger guttersnipe ended up becoming a priest of Mask and the heir to a citystate by the time he hit 'real' level 1.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:56 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

A sleepy, isolated village is not going to have a magical item shop that caters to PCs; keep this in mind as you generate treasure for the campaign. That +2 longbow you pulled from the random item generator might be the most expensive item you've ever given them, but if no one can use it, at best it will be a hunk of gold after the campaign is over. At worst it is encumbrance with a saving throw. You want them to be able to gaze at their gold pile and the options it allows after the campaign, yes, but players love getting shiny new trinkets during the campaign too.

I love doling out wondrous items or thinking up new ones that give my players more options but with limiting conditions so that they won't upset the power balance. Give them a weak bag of tricks that they can use for scouting or trap defusing, an immovable rod with a weight or time limit, or some thought-controlled levitating sunrods. Items like these let characters (especially non-spellcasters) feel like they have tricks up their sleeve to adequately deal with the challenges you throw at them.
posted by ThatRandomGuy at 7:06 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also^2: Names. Names, names, names. Have a big list of names you can pull out of a hat, then some way of ensuring you remember them. If there's a theme to the part of your gameworld (Mongolian/American Indian both might be a good fit) then google up some appropriate names and add fantasy flavour to suit.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:07 PM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds like you want to play a plot-driven game, as opposed to a more sandbox ("Explore the dungeon") type game. If that's accurate, here's a couple of suggestions and tips.

Figure out who the main NPCs are going to be. You really just need a name and a one line description for most of them. It helps if you write these down on a sheet of paper, since you can paperclip it to the inside of your DM's screen (if you have one). e.g. Bob is the King of Happyland; Jim is the Dark Lord of Sadland.

Next, figure out their main goals. You just need a rough idea at this point. e.g. Jim wants to get ahold of the MacGuffin of Power. Bob wants to crush the rebellious forces within his kingdom

Protip: Don't give everyone the same goal (two NPCs is fine, but if _everyone_ wants the MacGuffin of Power for themselves, it's really annoying), and don't give only one guy a real goal and everyone else a reaction to that goal (e.g. Jim wants the MacGuffin of Power, Bob wants to stop him, Jackie wants to stop him, Al wants to stop him). Try to be specific, and try to pick goals that the NPCs are going to act on immediately. Generally, this should be about a sentence long and include at least one action. I can usually fit this on the sheet of paper with everyone's names and descriptions, personally.

You use this information to draw up two documents that are going to be doing most of the work for you in game. One is a timeline, the other is a relationship map. It helps if before doing this next step, you arrange a session where everyone gets together and plans out their characters, so you know who's going to be a lizardman ninja and who's going to be a peasant with a sword. You've got the names and ideas for major NPCs, so you can throw these out to the PCs as possible relationships or contacts they have or know about. It also gives you a chance to change anything the PCs really hate, or to come up with new cool NPCs based on the character concepts they're throwing at you. You don't start playing the game at that session, you're just planning things out. It helps if you bring some beers and a boardgame in case you run short with planning and discussion, so that people don't think they're wasting their time and refuse to come in the first place.

After that, you draw up the relationship map and the timeline.

To make a relationship map, you should write the names of the PCs in the centre in little bubbles (each PC gets a bubble). Then write the names of the major NPCs you have around the edges of the paper. Draw arrows from one character to another, and write a couple of words explaining the attitude they have towards the other character. You're probably going to have two arrows for each relationship, one from each character towards the other. That's so that it's not confusing when the two NPCs have different attitudes towards one another. e.g. Bob ---hates ---> Jim
Jim ---holds in contempt ---> Bob

Don't forget to give the NPCs attitudes towards the PCs, though it's not as important to keep track of the PCs' attitudes towards the NPCs (those'll be obvious in play).

After each session, you'll want to glance over the relationship map and update it (usually takes no more than a few minutes erasing and rewriting). You're going to want to keep this paperclipped to the inside of your DM's screen. What it'll let you do is depart from your planned material more easily. It's much easier to consult than long form notes, and it'll provide a touchstone so you can improvise the behaviour of NPCs. e.g. "Oh yeah, Dark Lord Jim thinks Bob isn't worth his time, so he doesn't even bother to ask what his plans are." Remember that the map is descriptive, not prescriptive, and it changes over time as relationships between NPCs and PCs change.

The next thing you'll make is a timeline. This also takes one sheet of paper (the third and final sheet of paper). I typically draw up timelines for a single session, or maybe two (if they're really short sessions), and I find that works better than timelines for a dozen sessions just because it allows you to drill down into what's going to happen without overwhelming you.

All you do is write the major NPCs' names at the top of the sheet of paper. You then draw lines across the sheet of paper and above each line you write something like "Scene 1: Bob's castle on day 1; PCs get quest" The idea isn't to precisely describe every possible scene, but to get a sort of impression of the major scenes, when and where they're happening. You then draw arrows down from each NPC name to the next scene they appear in. So if Bob is in scene one and scene two, there's an arrow down from "Bob" to scene one, and a second arrow down from scene one to scene two. If Jim first appears in scene two, and then only reappears in scene six, there's an arrow from "Jim" to scene two, and then one from scene two to scene six. Generally, I shoot for six or less major scenes per session - about 1 every hour or half-hour (with some wiggle room). Combats always count as a major scene.

The last thing you do is write out next to each arrow what the NPCs are doing during the span of time represented by the arrow. Once again, a short phrase is usually all you need. It helps if you list where they are as well, unless that would be too complicated or cluttered. That lets you know what they're doing off camera. It lets you set up your scenes more easily, especially if you have to wing it in response to an unexpected PC action. "Oh, you want to go see Bob? Bob is... he's assembling his forces on the Happyland Campaign Grounds." It gives you an idea of where everyone is and what they're doing so that you're not caught flatfooted.

The timeline is just there to help you keep this stuff in mind - you shouldn't try to stick to it rigidly. Remember that it's only meant to help you keep track of major scenes as well. Minor interstitial scenes aren't tracked on it. And PCs can often depart drastically from it based on their actions. You should add or drop NPCs from each timeline based on how important they are in the session. If Jim's not going to show up for a long time, just make a few brief notes on some general ideas of what he's up to, and insert the NPCs the PCs will be interacting with in his place.

Each session should get a timeline, and that timeline should be compact enough to fit on a single sheet of paper. If it's not, the plot is probably hitting the upper limits of complexity or you may be trying to cram too much into a single session.

Anyhow, with those three sheets of paper, you have 90% of the information you need to react to anything the PCs do in a dynamic way. That's important in plot driven games so that the PCs don't feel railroaded or locked into a particular set of actions. It saves you from having to write out tons of longform notes that are hell to read through, and it takes far less time to update a relationship map and draw up a new timeline than it does to write out tons and tons of prewritten scene-notes, complete with contingencies, etc.

Hopefully some of that helps.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:21 PM on August 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

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