Throughout the pandemic, my friends and I have kept up with our weekly Wednesday game sessions, moving them online until we can hang out for real again. It could happen eventually, you never know! In that time, we’ve tried out a few different RPGs, such as Edge of the Empire and Numenera, but we’ve always come back to D&D. There are several good reasons for that – it was how we met, it was the first game we ever played together, and it feels like home. We know the system, and it’s easy to pick up and play, which makes all the difference when you’re trying to play it online through Discord.
After running a year-long campaign and several other shorter campaigns, I figured by this point, I’m not a bad DM, and I made the decision to finally take the plunge and start writing my own campaign. Set in Phlan, a long-neglected part of the Forgotten Realms with a brief mention in the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, my campaign was originally supposed to be a series of brief one-shots with a city setting to link them, and somehow evolved into a full-blown story with twists and turns and a mystery to solve. Not only has it been really good fun, but it’s also been great for me mentally – to actually have something to work on, with a weekly deadline, means that I dedicate at least a couple of hours a week to something creative. It’s not a foolproof way of keeping the lockdown demons away, but at least for those few hours a week, my focus is substantially diverted, and I’ll take all of that I can get at the moment.
However, there’s a big difference between picking up a pre-written module and crafting your own, so here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
Listen to your players
On the whole, the big pre-written modules like Out of the Abyss, Curse of Strahd and Tales from the Yawning Portal are all crafted in a way that’s easy for you to follow, and are no doubt going to excite and entertain your players. The D&D creative team have years of experience, backed up with decades of material to draw from. They know what they’re doing. As a novice campaign writer, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I know I’m having fun doing it. I also need to make sure my players are, too.
So after each section of my campaign, I ask them what they’d like to do and see if there’s anything else I can add to develop their characters’ stories in particular. I’ve played games with groups who love to fight, fight, fight, whereas other groups want to go and explore the setting and make friends with a whole bunch of NPCs, so getting regular feedback means that I can develop the campaign in a way that fits with my players’ tastes. I’m also making notes as we go – whenever they make a suggestion in-game, or take a guess at what might be happening behind the scenes, I jot it down to see if I can somehow incorporate it or use it. The ideas might not always work for my purposes, but sometimes, there’s a little gem in there that might reinforce something I was trying to do or actually be much better than what I was planning!
Develop an overall plot – but don’t be afraid to mix it up!
When I first came up with the idea for my campaign, I took a look at other modules and figured I was probably looking at around 10 chapters. I took my idea and figured out how to best split it up into those chapters – much like I would if I was plotting out a proper story. Then, I’ve been working on each chapter as time goes on. Crucially, I didn’t try and write each chapter up front. I looked at the first few, to get the adventure off the ground, and then I’m working on each one as it comes up. This means I can incorporate side quests, either at the request of my players or if it would suit the story at that point, and I can change my plan as the players do and encounter different things. While I want to keep the central thread of my story very much the focus, I want my players to come to it in a way that feels natural for them – after all, D&D is very much a collaboration. I also find that whenever I prep anything, I’ll maybe use about 60% of it and the rest will be off-the-cuff, as a result of how my players react. So there’s no point in writing too far ahead!
Keep a primer
In the middle of a session, someone is going to ask the name of the bartender, or of a random passerby on the street that they’ve somehow talked to. If that character rears their head again, you better remember who they are. I picked up a cheap project book, split into sections, that allows me to keep a primer on characters, key locations, and other details. I don’t write down much – maybe a short paragraph on each item that includes a brief description and how the players first interacted with it – but it means that if that person or place ever comes up again, I can quickly flick back. Plus, it gives you an opportunity to use ALL the gel pens.
I’d also recommend getting a few tables that you can roll from to help you generate those ideas initially. The name table in the back of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is invaluable, but I also recently picked up the Roll & Play dungeon master’s toolkit, which is fantastic and has lots of inspiration for not just names and character descriptions, but items, Wild Magic surges and even critical roll effects.
Use software that keeps you organised
Scrivener is a lifesaver for D&D campaigns. I bought it for other writing projects, but it’s been ideal to keep everything all together in one place – from character notes to adventure outlines, I can pull up whatever I need mid-session.
Another fantastic alternative is Microsoft OneNote – I used this for years for blogs and stories, until I made the switch to Mac – or Evernote, if you’re not a fan of Windows programs. Essentially, anything that works like an on-screen notebook is perfect for this. You don’t want to be rummaging around your folders trying to find the notes on Character X, or the map for Dungeon Y.
Find a decent map generator
Who has two thumbs and is terrible at drawing maps? This gal right here. I suck at anything artistic, and lo and behold, that includes maps. I’ve found two workarounds to this. First of all, I picked up the official Dungeon Tiles Reincarnated box for actual dungeon settings, so I can piece together my dungeons using pre-made tiles. Secondly, I discovered an online tool called Dungeon Scrawl, which is a very simple web-based dungeon mapping program. While I’m sure you can do all kinds of fun stuff with Dungeon Scrawl, I still have a lot to learn, but it was ideal for bringing my randomly generated dungeon, built by the tables in the back of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, to life. And, there are plenty of different styles you can give to your map, so if you want to share it with your party, it’ll look great!
Have a good dice bot on your server
We’ve been using Discord to play (other gaming platforms are available) because it’s free and we all have it for other gaming purposes, and one thing that’s crucial is having a decent dice bot. We spent the first part of our latest D&D run using a dice bot built for FFG’s Star Wars system – our first campaign – that had a polyhedral dice setting. Not good enough when it comes to D&D!
Avrae, the official D&D Beyond Discord bot, has easy-to-use commands and pulls a load of extra info from the SRD. You can integrate character sheets if you want to, or pull up spell information, or keep track of treasure. It requires a bit of effort from your players so they can get what they need out of it, but it’s an excellent resource.
However, in true Dungeon Master style, I roll my dice behind the screen each session. Despite the fact that nobody is physically opposite the screen. It just feels right, you know?
We’re now a few months into my campaign and it’s one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had. If you’ve been wary of taking the plunge into the deep, deep waters of campaign creation, don’t be afraid! Just take it steady, dip your toes into the shallows and before you know it, you’ll have a rich and exciting world for your players to enjoy.