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The D&D session starts as the bruised and battered but ultimately successful heroes return to the capital under false identities, bearing evidence of Duke Leodegan’s ties to the doomsday cult behind the recent spate of murders around the kingdom. The heroes made it look like they died back in the collapsing mineshaft and intend to keep it that way until it’s time to fight back. They hope the Queen will listen to them, this time.
D&D is both a game and narrative experience. We don’t play to make numbers go up; we want to be wowed by engaging stories. The game’s mechanics double as a system of emergent storytelling that combines DM intent and player agency. The broad shape and core themes of these stories are the DM’s domain.
When preparing a campaign and defining its shape, you as the DM should keep in mind practical game concerns and matters of story. But don’t get too attached to your outlines, or else you railroad a party into some unfulfilling times; instead, you will not only come up with templates and plans but also continually tweak them to take past events into account.
A bit daunting, but worry not: it’s not some mind-melting arcane discipline, and, in this article, you’re going to gain the tools to do it well without too much hassle. Onwards!
D&D Campaign structure: The Nuts and Bolts
Clear and upfront: The way to structure your D&D campaigns is around encounters (usually challenges) and rewards. Let’s quickly define both:
An encounter is a situation that happens in real-time instead of being abstracted away (e.g., hand waving a situation away, “ok you leave the tower” instead of having them explain how). Usually, an encounter is also a challenge, and they tend to have the following components:
- A goal: if it’s a scene in your session, you want something to come from it. Fording rivers, felling foes, making friends, and unlocking a magical door—all examples of goals.
- The outcome will affect the story going forward: besides life and death, other things may be at stake—the friendship of an influential figure, getting ahead of competitors in a rush to grab some MacGuffin, the safety of a third party that the team needs to protect, and so on. It can even be personal things like a Player Character’s (PC’s) relationship with their family .
- Success is uncertain: The exceptions to this point are encounters whose purpose is to present an emotional beat without posing a challenge. For instance, a sibling who was presumed dead comes to you in secret and tells you why they remained hidden, revealing both a danger and possible quest to pursue.
Rewards are what PCs get for inhabiting the story world and pursuing goals within them. Often in D&D, rewards are stuff (money, useful items, spell scrolls) or simply unlocking a path forward, but they can also be information and emotional beats (making some encounters their own reward).
Experience (XP) is also a reward, but it doesn’t show directly in the narrative until you accumulate enough of it, so it shouldn’t be the only one. If you’re throwing random encounters at the party while they traverse a dangerous region, make sure there’s loot as well as XP by the end of combat. Also, let’s face it, leveling up from beating up some random roadside bandits is anticlimactic and that stuff is better saved for big accomplishments.
Alternatively, you can do milestone leveling, in which case leveling up is one hell of a reward and is always neatly paired with a suitably climactic encounter.
Following most encounters with rewards creates a satisfying gameplay loop. It gives the players a nice sense of progression.
Knowing this, you can start to think about possible patterns that will feel rewarding to complete or turn upside down as a player. As a DM, your job is to provide compelling challenges in an interesting world and a flow of information that makes everything feel like a cohesive, immersive experience.
5e Session Structure
Generally speaking, a regular 4-5 hour session comprises 4 to 5 encounters, unless you’ve unlocked the magical secrets of “players not arguing for 30 minutes when faced with a fork in the dungeon corridor” and “hushing table-talk with a snap of your fingers.”
Ideally, the types of encounters in a session will not all be the same, or if they are, they’ll be flavored by different circumstances and stakes, and have little speed bumps or set pieces in-between. Ability checks and NPC interactions sprinkled in-between, extended descriptions of particularly relevant story elements, and so on.
In a longer campaign, a session is just a piece of the larger ongoing thing, but it can have some structure to it as well. Some ideas for sessions in this context are:
- Build up: Ratcheting up the tension (gradual or nonstop), working towards a finale. Dungeon crawls can be like this if you drop hints of what awaits or if the PCs go in already pursuing something major.
- The Arc’s Climax: A whole session of climatic action. It can be a boss fight, fleeing a crumbling megastructure, making your case in court after gathering evidence and enlisting allies, or whatever else fits. Prior sessions were building up to this.
- Epilogue: whatever the latest big thing was has just happened. The story loses momentum, but the PCs must deal with the aftermath of the big moment. They fended off the gnoll horde, but the townsfolk suffered heavy losses. Or maybe they just beat up a would-be god and are heading off to some well-deserved downtime and taking care of personal matters.
- Sudden crisis: things were pretty ordinary when something extraordinary happened with no warning and threw the established order of things up in the air. Maybe the party was at a solemn ceremony when a group of dragons descended upon the city…
- A sudden crisis lends itself well to introducing a new antagonist or shaking up an ongoing quest. Have your players gotten too settled with hunting powerful MacGuffins for the final showdown? Now is the perfect time for an old enemy to make a comeback and force them to change their immediate plans or suffer the consequences.
- Mini-arc: you introduce a goal, build up to it, then let the PCs resolve it by the end of the session. This is how one-shots are done, and you can get away with a slightly more rail-roady style if everyone’s agreed to the adventure beginning and ending in the same session.
Looking to challenge your players?
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It’s usually a safe bet to assume that people interested in story structure have stumbled upon the hero’s journey. It is certainly one effective way to tell stories, hence its enduring popularity across the media landscape. For a lot of people, it’s dogma—and dogmas can be stifling.
Sure, you can endeavor to implement something like the hero’s journey in your game. Feel free to tell a story about PCs who start out living normal lives in a normal world and are called to adventure, refuse it, then accept it, cross over into an unfamiliar world, overcome many obstacles, and return home changed for the better by the experience—masters of both worlds.
But you may also want to tell a story that goes from bad to worse in a downward spiral of horrible events outside the PC’s control and how they desperately endure or don’t. This is quite familiar to fans of horror, a genre that generally eschews the hero’s journey.
Instead of strictly adhering to it, you can go for Dan Harmon’s circle—his take on the journey—or think about emotional arcs more directly, like Kurt Vonnegut’s shapes of story, or the six emotional arcs that scientists at the Computational Story Laboratory in Vermont University datamined out of 1700 stories (some of which match Vonnegut’s).
Such thinking is better suited to someone writing a videogame, film, or book, however. These are media where the person experiencing the story is essentially piloted through it. Yes, even in games with a ton of choice built into them, the choices amount to choosing which track to follow from a predetermined set.
D&D is different because the players can create new tracks and go off the path laid out by the DM, who then has to build branching paths from this new starting point. Players have the narrative authority to push things in new directions via their character’s actions, despite the DM still holding more power.
Whenever you want to use one established story template in your campaign prep, remember that it should be fairly loose.
Want a mentor character like in the hero’s journey? Put them in the world, but don’t force the PCs to meet them in a way that matches the usual order in media you like. If player decisions are such that things don’t align with a particular story shape you like in the long run, you can still take from it to enrich the new paths they take.
Discover Ancient Treasure
The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.
The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.
Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.
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5e Campaign Template
One thing to keep in mind as we dive in is that preparing a whole multi-year campaign in advance is a fool’s errand. Some useful pointers for outlining your homebrew campaign are:
- Never prepare too far in advance: it’s a recipe for wasted work. Focus on the immediate story arc, and jot down ideas for future adventures with the understanding that players’ choices can force you to heavily change or even ditch them for something else.
- You should have a granular understanding of what a given session is about when you run it, some solid guidelines for the adventure the session is in, and a general, flexible idea of what the big picture story looks like.
With that covered, we can finally come up with a broadly applicable campaign template. Attempting to write down an exhaustive list of all possible functional templates is a hopeless endeavor, but we can certainly provide one solid example here:
- Have the party already know each other by linking backstories and coming up with a group origin story in session 0. Decide what they’ve been doing just before the campaign’s start. If the players are experienced, I recommend starting at 3rd level so everyone can already have a class archetype from the get-go.
- The campaign starts: the party was minding their business in a small town or having dinner at a roadside inn when a sudden crisis prompts them to act!
- The first episode of Critical Role’s second campaign is a great example of how to do it, even though the party didn’t all know each other.
- The sudden crisis was part of something bigger, and the next couple of sessions are about making sure it doesn’t happen again, at least for a while. The party levels up after dealing with the problem.
- This first adventure is where you establish themes and tone, and even hint at a bigger threat on the horizon. The crisis might have been the work of the BBEG’s lackey, a splinter cell of a larger cult, or just a symptom of a magical anomaly that’s spreading.
- The world opens up, and there are multiple threads to follow. Between information they can follow up on from the first adventure, regional hooks you can seed on their path, and their backstories, there should be plenty of content.
- Make sure to continually raise the stakes of the party’s shenanigans according to the tiers of play and make the consequences of their actions more and more relevant.
Frighten Your Players
In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.
Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
“Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.
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Additional Resources for Campaign Prep
You should also consider how to deal with the power spikes at levels 5, 11, and 17. These mark changes in the tier of play, which in turn affect the game’s narrative. We have a whole article for this also, complete with campaign ideas divided by tier.
Finally, suppose you want to run for a single player or two. The process turns out quite a bit different as you need to factor in the imbalance in the action economy and what an individual PC can reasonably accomplish. We cover it all in our article about how to run single-player 5e. This one also includes campaign ideas for your perusal and possible artistic
theft borrowing—which is a good thing!
By now, you have the tools to think about campaign prep in a sophisticated manner. Let’s go over the main points again before you leave:
- D&D is both a game and narrative experience. The mechanics double as a system of emergent storytelling that combines DM intent and player agency.
- The DM is in charge of the general shape of a campaign, but they should be flexible enough to allow players to exert narrative autonomy to the point of ditching pre-made plans.
- Campaigns should be structured around encounters (followed by rewards) to create a satisfying gameplay loop. Don’t forget to provide downtime!
- Encounters have goals, consequences, and the uncertainty of success—with some story-driven exceptions.
- Rewards can be money, useful items, story beats, relevant information, progress on a journey, and experience (XP). Milestone leveling tends to have more narrative oomph than accumulating XP, which can cause some underwhelming level-up times.
- Don’t prepare too far ahead. Things can change a lot within a single session, and your prep process should be able to take past events into account and change according to what the players want.
- Each play session can have some structure to it as well, like a giant climactic encounter, a build-up to such a climax, or a whole mini-arc in 4 to 5 hours.
- You can use well-established story structures like the hero’s journey to some extent when preparing a campaign, but be careful not to railroad players into fulfilling them.
- Remember to factor in the genre you want to explore, as well as the tiers of play built into 5e.