Building a Campaign From the Ground Up

So you want to be a DM. You want to craft the ultimate adventure. There’s a craving deep inside of you that wants to develop nightmare inducing monsters and memorable NPCs in a campaign that keeps players playing until 4 AM and obsessively plotting for their next encounter. Well, I have the same desire.

So what do you say we team up? Sound good? Great.

Over the next few months, we will build a campaign of epic proportions. Not just the story, or the world, or the NPCs, or a few encounters; but the entire campaign from the ground up. We’ll rely heavily on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual, and Player’s Handbook of course; but we’ll also pull ideas and whatever else we can get our hands on from the super helpful internet. If there’s anything I’ve learned as a writer, it’s to utilize the world around you, and luckily there’s a very healthy and helpful DnD community out there.

The goal of this series is to create a great playable campaign for the DnD community. Along the way we will stumble. We’ll run full speed into the mouth of a red dragon and find ourselves in terrible developing predicaments. At times, we’ll even think the entire thing is ogre poo. But we will prevail. It’ll take time and dedication, but by the time we’re done we’ll have a campaign that’ll rock this world and the Sword Coast!

Now, I could ramble on and pump you up about what we’re going to do for thousands and thousands of words and that’s all good and could be a grand ol’ time, but the fact of the matter is nothing gets done that way. So instead of wasting any more of our precious minutes on this earth babbling about it, let’s just hit the books.

Where to start.

There are infinite ways we could approach this. Some people will start with a strange, spectacular creature they made up, while others could’ve just watched Lord of the Rings or played Dragon Age and are overflowing with inspiration. Or maybe, the future DM likes to torture players and needs a way to implement their devilish encounters. These are all good ways to begin this journey. We’re going to take the path of a writer—go figure. Not a seat of the pants writer, though that method is grand in its own right and is my preferred method, but as an architect. What does that mean? It means we’re going to start with a rough story outline and turn it into a campaign over time.

How? Utilizing Dan Well’s 7 point story system.

  • Hook
  • First Plot Point
  • Pinch Point 1
  • Mid-Point
  • Pinch Point 2
  • Second Plot Point
  • Resolution

If you’ve never heard of it, check out Dan Well’s presentation. It’s a great technique some writers use in putting together their works. I’m not going to delve too much into it. Dan does a great job in his video and to repeat it would be a waste.

We’re going to use this method for two reasons:

  1. It provides a rough outline of what you’re trying to accomplish from the get-go.
  2. I think 7 steps will break nicely into separate ‘Episodes’ for gameplay.

Could I be wrong? Sure. Like I said before, we’re going to make mistakes and that’s ok. Editing is one of worst parts of writing! Wait, did I say worst? I meant best. Editing is one of the best parts of writing.

Resolution

As per Dan’s structure, we start at the end. It’s easier to get there if you already know what it is. So, what’s our end goal? What do we want our adventurers to accomplish? In HotDQ and RoT, the Resolution is slaying Tiamat and saving the world from destruction; a pretty epic achievement. So what are our adventurers going to do? Wake up the Wind Fish so they can get home? Prevent Thanos from assembling the Infinity Gauntlet?

Now, I like saving the world as much as the next guy, but that happens all the time. So what can we do that’s different? Call me crazy, but I feel like the Wind Fish comment I made above is my self-consciousness leading us in the right direction. What if our adventurers our trapped somewhere and the only way out is to destroy some mythical beast or destroy the being that’s trapping them there. Or maybe the world has already been destroyed and they need to piece it back together? I’m just spit balling, but let’s lock it in.

Resolution: Adventurers re-unite the shards of the world.

This could lead in many directions. Picture a world fractured into many pieces. Travel between the pieces is thought to be impossible, but our adventurer’s will change that. They’ll journey to put it back together and make it whole again. They’ll fight monsters, demons, whatever, to do it. Why? We’ll figure that out along the way.

Hook

The hook is what draws the reader, or our players, in. It’s NOT a plot point, but simply a hook. Got it? Dan suggests a hook is the exact opposite state of your Resolution. Harry Potter being a prime example: Harry potter is a boy who lives under the stairs (Hook) to Harry Potter defeats the Dark Lord Voldemort (Resolution). So what is the opposite state of our adventurers uniting the shards of the world?

Hook: Adventurers are slaves forced to fight for sport.

How does that sound for a start to campaign? Are your gears turning to put the pieces together? How are the adventurers going to get from enslaved gladiators to re-uniting the shards of the world? I mean they’re lowly slaves.

I’m already excited about where this is heading. My brain is starting to leap ahead of me and think up great encounters to play out the various steps.  But calm down, we’ll get to that.

FIRST PLOT POINT

Or the point of no return. A lot of times this will be the inciting event. This site has good examples to check out. The key is for the first plot point to introduce conflict. Based on our decided hook,

First Plot Point: Adventurers discover way to traverse the shards and use it to escape slavery.

With this we have our inciting incident (Discover a way to traverse the shards) and our First Plot Point (Escape Slavery). Now we have two huge things going on with our story that we can use. We’ll have the build-up to and attempt to jump shards, all the incredible opportunities with a second world (shard), as well as the chance to play with what price they’re about to pay for escaping. All stuff for the back burner.

MIDPOINT

This is where things take a turn; literally. Here we want to transform our adventurers from freed slaves to the group that re-unites the shards. Throughout a story, or campaign, the characters grow and grow. They start out as something incapable of saving the world or slaying the dragon and bit by bit turn into the one who will. So what’s our midpoint?

Midpoint: After learning that traversing the shards will turn them into sub-dimensional, tortured demons who haunt the shards for eons to come, decide to reconnect the shards in an attempt to save themselves and the world from their eternal damnation.

Who wants to be turned into a mindless creature of destruction? Probably no one, that’s who. With this midpoint the characters realize that they’ve doomed themselves for eternity. Slavery was bad, but eternal suffering might be worse. They’ve already committed the crime, but there’s a way out. At this moment they are no longer free slaves, they make the proactive choice to conquer the unthinkable. They are now survivors fighting for their life and the safety of the shards. They have taken the turn.

Second Plot Point

The point they acquire what they need to make the resolution happen. It’s that simple. Whether it’s Link receiving the second tri-force piece from Zelda or Luke discovering he has the force, they’re both that final piece to the puzzle.

I’m not going to lie, I struggled with this one. But after taking a bit of a breather from writing this I came up with:

Second Plot Point: Adventurer’s return all relics to the center shard.

What does this mean? I’m not entirely sure yet to be honest. Like I said, writing and creating is not completed on the first pass through. As you add on to it, things will be tweaked, unknowns defined, and many things changed. We have to be ok with this in taking this approach. Let the creation bring itself together. For now, we have a loosely defined Second Plot Point that gives us many things to look forward to.

First Pinch Point

A Pinch Point is conflict. It takes the characters and puts them in a situation they don’t want to be in. It’s used to move the story along between Plot Points and Midpoint. Our First Pinch Point will take the adventurers from escaping slavery by traversing to another shard (Plot Point 1) to learning that they’ll be turned into tortured demons and deciding to re-connect the shards of the world in an attempt to prevent it (Midpoint). A mouthful for now, but we’ll clean it up at some point.

First Pinch Point: Unknown force comes for adventurers and they begin to feel the after-effects from jumping the shards.

This will introduce them to the real threat of our campaign. It can also lead our adventurers to seek help and learn what’s truly going on. It’s an unexpected event that shoves them in the right direction.

Second Pinch Point.

From here we have to go from learning that they’ll be turned into tortured demons and deciding to re-connect the shards of the world in an attempt to prevent it (Midpoint) to returning all relics to the center shard (Second Plot Point). This one comes naturally.

Second Pinch Point:  Gathering all relics.

It won’t be easy, they’ll just happen to be locked away in big bad dungeons full of dragons and other monsters. Each a big conflict in its own right.

That’s it. We’ve put together a seven point outline to our campaign. Let’s take a quick recap:

Hook: Adventurers are slaves forced to fight for sport.

First Plot Point: Adventurers discover way to traverse shards and use it to escape slavery.

First Pinch Point: Unknown force comes for adventurers and they begin to feel the after-effects from jumping the shards.

Midpoint: Our adventurers, after learning that traversing the shards will turn them into sub-dimensional, tortured demons who haunt the shards for eons to come, decide to reconnect the shards in an attempt to save themselves and the world from their eternal damnation.

Second Pinch Point:  Gathering all relics.

Second Plot Point: Adventurer’s return all relics to the center shard.

Resolution: Adventurers re-unite the shards of the world.

This will help guide us as we move forth into development. It’ll give us something to base each encounter off of and help us fill out memorable characters and places. We have the bones, we just need to add a bit of meat.

Tune in next time as we get our creative juices flowing.

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2 comments

  1. Great website, but this post kinda jumped the shard.

    Just kidding, but I couldn’t resist: this sounds like a clever campaign idea, albeit a little too magicky and demony for my personal DMing taste (I tend to prefer gritty realism). But regardless of one’s stylistic preferences, the campaign-development approach is excellent.

    A further aside to the author: if you deliberately came up with that tangential Happy Days allusion (viz. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumping_the_shark), then kudos for your subtle satirical brilliance!

    Like

    1. Hey, thanks man! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It got derailed a while ago. Life gets in the way :(. But I hope that people at least take the story approach to help develop some meat into their campaigns.

      Like

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