The Pitch and the Mission Statement – Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Advice Part 1

Like many people in the world, the pandemic of 2020 caused a boom in my Dungeons & Dragons play. I had already been playing and running a campaign of my own since 2019, but the isolation of lockdown increased that to a trio of groups I currently run and manage. In this series I’m going to share some of my favorite techniques, philosophies, and tricks of dungeon mastering. First, some credentials and caveats: I run in the 5E system (although I won’t be going into systems much in this series), I run longer campaigns that take ~40-50 three-hour sessions to complete. One group has completed 3 such adventures, another has completed 2, and my third has completed their first. All that to say: I not only know how to get groups started and going, I know how to bring them home.

Relevant to that I’m starting where I think any Dungeon Master (DM) should begin: with the end in mind. It’s a well worn cliche that a one shot turns into a whole ongoing adventure, which is fine so long as it’s driven by a party forming a collective unit and goal. My first step in creating a campaign adventure is asking: what’s the big goal/challenge the party will adventure and level up to face and overcome?

It doesn’t need to be fancy. Slay a dragon. Rescue a princess. Destroy an artifact. Some of the best stories we treasure in literature and media can be summed up as simply as that. What makes these stories stick with, move, and even change us is the world and characters we go on that adventure with. Never forget to build in options for that ending too: what if the party wants to enslave the dragon and be tyrants rather than slay it? What if they want to hold the princess ransom themselves rather than be knights in shining armor? What if they want to succumb to the temptation of the artifact rather than destroy it?

This is where that core conceit begins to build out the world around your core goal. What do the good guys want, what do the bad guys want, and what might the people in between want? Sometimes it has been helpful to outright utilize the morality grid and create factions/NPCs in the world over that grid and their relationship to the ultimate goal.

I’ve started with this simple advice which I will absolutely recognize is probably obvious but it’s easy to miss that forest for the trees when a dungeon master’s creativity gets going. I’ve seen campaigns lose momentum and fall apart due to player disinterest or inability to follow the thread. Whenever campaigns have crumbled I’ve noticed that asking players “what’s the party’s goal” is met with confusion or inability to answer that premise query.

As a DM you want to offer freedom and agency to your party (more on that later) and sometimes it can be daunting to a party when you pass them the baton and ask them what they want to do next. Anytime I feel trepidation from the party, I simply ask: what’s your goal? And without fail, if I’ve done my job of setting that endgame goal for them, the ideas, suggestions, and questions begin rolling. “We want to kill the dragon, but we’re not strong enough now… is there somewhere we can get better weapons? You said someone killed a dragon once, how did they do it? Can we find info on that person?”

As a Dungeon Master you design the world and the party is the one that writes the story in it. The most important thing you can put in the world for them is the north star to guide them and their decisions/goals each session, and then fill the sky around it with the constellations that shine for each of their characters, foibles, and quirks.

Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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