If you’ve always wanted to be a Dungeon Master but have had a hard time setting up campaign, or you’ve got a game starting soon you haven’t prepped for this guide is for you. In this post, I’ll show you the bare minimum you need to set up a D&D campaign, and some suggestions on where to add some more time if you have it. The areas you’ll need to set up are The World and Tone, The First Adventure, and I’ll give some productivity tips too. The effective use of this post assumes access to the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Monster Manual (MM).
To set up your world you just need a style and a starting area. The style needs to be decided first because it informs every other decision you should make about your world. Swashbuckling adventures need interesting islands and port towns to explore, while sword and sorcery settings need evil sorcerer kings and blighted landscapes. Some example styles are Epic Fantasy, Sword and Sorcery, Mythic Fantasy, Horror Fantasy, and Mystery. For more examples check out pages 37-41 of the DMG. But don’t take too long, just choose the setting you think is coolest.
Once you decide a style, you need the setting. This starting area consists of the region name, the starting city, and what the environment is like. Adding a map is great, but it takes time and requires you to build the whole world ahead of time. It’s best to build in chunks, describing only the area immediately around the players and keeping the rest of the world mysterious. For your first session, all the players need to know is where they are right now, what that area is like, and what is close by. This is also your chance to establish your style. Is it the sprawling capital city of a great kingdom, an outpost on the edge of untamed wild jungles, a monetary complex in the midst of a blighted hellscape, or an elven city carved into a magical forest? All of these settings set up different types of adventures for your players and set certain expectations about how the world should feel.
If you have extra time, creating a regional map can be a great way to communicate the locations in your world. Creating the history of your world and making a timeline of important events is a good way to further establish your style
The first quest the players embark on is their first introduction to your world. Every quest needs the following: Characters, an Objective, and a Place. The standard arrangement is to have a questgiver give the players a goal, the goal take the players to a dungeon, and have a villain oppose the goal. Other arrangements of these certainly exist so let’s break down the components.
Every Non-Player Character (NPC) in your world needs at a bare minimum a name, traits, goals, and resources with which to achieve those goals. Names are easy, use the last name to establish familial relationships with other characters and a first name that you think fits. For traits, just choose four concepts that describe a character, and make two seemingly contradictory if you want an interesting character. A character who is Humble, Hard Working, Loving, and Proud can cause some interesting tensions between her humility towards her work and her pride towards her family. Next, you need some goals for the character. To make a character more important give them many short and long term goals. For average characters, one general goal is sufficient. A blacksmith might want to earn enough money to send his only child to the national academy. The powerful wizard main villain of the campaign might want to secure a suitable phylactery to harbor her soul in the short term, establish a network of spies across the land, gain favor with an ancient dragon, and establish a marriage alliance with a Barbarian prince, all in an effort to start a yearlong ritual to become an immortal lich. Having a few supporting goals to the main goal will give the players opportunities to interact with the main villain and thwart her plans without killing her off right away. Lastly a character needs some resources with which to achieve their goal. These can be monetary, relationships with people in positions of power, influence, or property. Simple characters like a blacksmith might only have their shop, and their friend on the town watch. Kings will have armies, diplomatic networks, alliances, vast gold reserves, a fortification, food distribution networks, roads, and industries at their disposal. The resources at their disposal measure the power of a character.
Objectives are just the goal of the quest. Don’t be afraid to just steal the plot of one of your favorite movies, books, or games and change it slightly. Goals can have many layers if you want them complex, or be straightforward if you want a focused experience. This is where the character goals become interesting. Allies become those who have goals aligned with the quest, and villains have opposed goals. Allies use their resources to help the players achieve their goals and villains use them to stop the players. This is also an opportunity to reinforce your world’s style.
Many D&D adventures take place in dungeons, but feel free to come up with any other locations that make sense for your quest. Dungeons are easy because you can control the experience of going through the network and you confine the players to a known space. The place should have a description and opponents who live there. These inhabitants are the enemies the players will have to defeat to accomplish their goal. The description is what the place looks and feel like. With more time you can create a map of the place, but when pressed for time you can just make a sketch on a sheet of grid paper when necessary. Don’t be afraid to just make something up on the spot! Additionally you can plan out encounters based on page 82 of the DMG with extra time, or just choose some monsters from the monster manual that make sense and have a challenge rating lower than the players level. As a rule of thumb players can face up to one monster that’s equal to their challenge rating (CR), two monsters of a 1 lower than their level, and 4 monsters of CR 2 lower than their level. Feel free to add a few random treasure hordes to the place too (DMG pg 136-139). Players love treasure, and better yet players love rolling dice to decide the treasure. Just record which tables you’ll roll on and where in the place they are.
The Quest Continued
Once you have an objective, some characters with goals that intersect with the goal of the adventure, and a place for the adventure you’re good to go! Whenever you face a question during gameplay, just do what feels cool and right without worrying how exactly it fits into the world. After the night is over you’ll have time until the next session to figure out the ramifications in your world.