Tobold's Blog
Friday, February 21, 2020
Make your own campaign

Last year in the D&D community there was a lot of talk about how great an idea a "session zero" was, a session at the start of a campaign in which no actual gameplay would take place, but characters were created, and expectations for the campaign discussed, to get everybody on the same page. Now I was planning what campaign to play next with my more active group, I ended up expanding on that concept.

I have been playing a lot of published campaigns since the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons came out. There are a lot of them, and some are quite interesting, although not all of them are ultimately great. In previous editions, and playing with a group that wasn't all that interested in overarching grand stories, I had some campaigns that were what I would call "episodic", with the group being travelling adventurers, wandering into all sorts of places with smaller stories. Comparing the two, I figured out that the overarching story of a campaign setting wasn't all that difficult to invent yourself.

However, I had also played several self-made campaigns of other Dungeon Masters, and was quite aware of a typical pitfall: The DM spends so much time preparing a game world, that during the game sessions he ends up doing hours of exposition; the players meanwhile fall asleep, and would much rather roll some dice. I left one campaign after not getting the opportunity to roll dice even once in two sessions. That isn't my style of D&D (but I'm not saying that you are playing it wrong if you and your group like it that way).

So I came up with a new concept, the "make your own campaign" offer to my players. We would do a session zero in which we would not only discuss the usual stuff, but also the campaign setting and the overall story arch. Just like the blurb text on the back of a published D&D book, a campaign can often be described in a sentence or two. "A group of adventurers searches the jungle of Chult for a cure for the death curse." Usually the players are aware of at least that much information about the campaign anyway. So why shouldn't they take part in creating it?

The dirty secret of D&D writing is, that it tends to be not very original. If you give me a phrase describing a campaign, like "the group is trying to assemble an artefact in 7 parts to overcome an evil wizard", I can write you a series of adventures that go with that, and that aren't any worse than a typical published D&D book. It isn't that hard. And it is extremely flexible to accommodate various wishes from the players. Some groups like more investigative adventures in a city setting, others prefer dungeon crawls. Asking them what they want, and what they dislike, gives me a series of elements that are more than enough to create a custom-made campaign with.

The advantage is that at this point you can also ask a bunch of meta questions, like how long the campaign should be, or from which level to which level it should go. These parameters are very much predetermined if you play a published campaign, but if you write the campaign yourself, you can make it fit player expectations much better. Of course none of this guarantees a great campaign, but it sure should help.


I did that with my current game. I had a session 0 and a session 0.5.

Session 0.5 was actually 1 session of 2-4 hours with each player individually. I used their background and their goals to make them explore the world before the game started. It also gave me time and reason to steer them to the exact location of the starting campaign.

Everyone seemed to like it.

Hope it works for you!
It's not something I've ever tried, though in later years I've mostly run heavily adapted published adventures because of lack of time for writing. That changed for me last year, I made a concious effort to sacrifice MMORPG time to spend more time writing my own series of adventures (for DMsGuild). One of my principles in writing this is to lookout for story moments and situations that lend themselves to different approaches - prompts in a sidebar offering alternative solutions players may think of or prefer over a straight up fight, for instance.

Encouraging more buy in from players in joint story-telling with the DM is a laudible goal, but I think from my own perspective of many years of more traditional D&D, it's something to edge into rather than jump into all at once.
I think a Session Zero is worth the time, particularly if you haven't run games for this group of players before. It should save you time in the long run.

For my games, I am always thinking of a story and preparing a session to suit my specific group rather than a generic bunch of players. After 10 years, I know what each of them like so I can make sure they all have at least one moment to shine. I can also draw on other stories we have played to mess with preconceptions and force myself to come up with unique NPCs.

What works for us, and what can I do to make it different.

Of course, when it comes time to play they do some crazy stuff that sends the adventure off in a whole other direction, but I feel like I have used my preparation time wisely.
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