We’ve all been there. You have an amazing idea for you D&D campaign. Your players seem excited. In character creation all is well and finally the first session starts. If it is a new formed group role play can be a little awkward in the beginning but in the end it feels like everything clicks.
I’ve talked too many DMs that told me about their first session with a new group. Most of the time it went awesome and they couldn’t wait to play again. But in the second session the vibe changes. Players don’t seem as enthusiastic anymore. Of course, when you ask them how they liked the session 10 out of 10 will answer “it was great”. Don’t be fooled it wasn’t.
So what went wrong?
Your campaign idea doesn’t align with their kind of fun (that they expected)
You might have the greatest campaign ideas, but when your players expect something else, it didn’t matter. Imagine to create an elven ranger who loves to explore the wild. You think of mountain ranges, woods, plains. All of a sudden the campaign takes place in the Underdark. It might even technically be wilderness but this wasn’t your point. This is what happens to the players more often than DMs would like to think.
“But we talked about the campaign in Session 0 and we were all on the same page!” You might shout at your screen in demise. Truth is, you probably didn’t or you didn’t mean the same thing. Especially, in a Session 0 with all players present, people tend to go with what the more dominant persons in the social group suggests. In many cases it is a dominant player, in some it is the DM.
So how do you solve this problem? By handing out small campaign pitches. Emphasis on small is important, no one wants to read pages on pages about your ideas. Make them fun and concise. And then, explain what they mean for the players.
Parameters of your campaign ideas
Different campaigns have different foci. While Princes of the Apocalypse is a fight for good against endless masses of cults with a somewhat game-y megadungeon. Curse of Strahd is a sandbox goth fest with mood swings of a neglected teenager. So what are the important parameters to discuss? I present to you a system taken by Matt Colville and changed by me. Matt always emphasizes that a DM should steal for their campaign. So let’s steal this from him and make it our own.
This is often not necessary if the players are already familiar with you. They know how you tick and what you prefer. But new players might wonder, if the game has a more serious tone or comedic. What about fun pop culture references? How dark will the game be? Is it more of a high fantasy campaign or pulp or low magic? Especially, when you play in a homebrew setting, this is essential.
Sandbox or Story driven
Sandbox games can be awesome, but for newer DMs following the safety of an adventure module is the easier choice. Either way the players need to know what it means for them. There is a disappointing example in the newest WotC adventure Descent into Avernus. Basically they explain to the DM that if the players don’t want to take the initial quest, you need to force them with an armed patrol. If this doesn’t work you send more men or kill them.
This is such a bad practice and astonishing that they would recommend this. The correct way is to tell the players before the campaign. “Look, I have this great story I want to play. Your characters should believably be comfortable with the following kind of hook.” This is not taking away player agency, this is about playing a fun story the DM prepared.
This doesn’t mean the campaign is entirely on rails and decisions don’t matter. It means we can play Dungeons & Dragons with structure. Later on the players might go crazy and change things up, but it should be agreed by all members of the party and the DM, that it is okay.
Let’s go over the three pillars of D&D. How many social encounters are there? How often can problems be solved with talking? This is not about roleplaying. Every group should roleplay and I believe groups inherently find a middle way between all playstyles at the table. This is about how much social constructs like intrigues, betrayals, bonds with NPCs factor the campaign. While Dungeon of the Mad Mage has a low social component, Curse of Strahd has a great amount of encounters solved by negotiating.
The second pillar of D&D is combat. How much are the players expected to fight? How important is it in your campaign? Some players have no problems with sessions without any combats, others cringe by the lone thought of it. Finding a good answer for this can be hard but answer this question as a DM to yourself: Will there be combat encounters that don’t move the story along? If yes, then you will most likely go for a combat heavy style or with a medium amount.
The hardest pillar to do right. How often will the players explore the wilderness and find magical places they don’t understand? What role will travel have in your campaign? There are not nearly enough rules for wilderness encounters in 5th Edition but one can try to make the adventure more exciting by house ruling the environment. Fighting against an avalanche or the wild sea can be memorable without drawing your weapon.
Tomb of Annihilation is an adventure that comes to mind with an inherent exploration component being a traditional hex crawl. I’ve heard of several groups disliking the style not knowing what they signed up for beforehand.
Lastly one of the most underused topics. How much time and effort do you expect from your players? The worst feeling is when you want your players to care about this great NPC and they don’t. Be clear to your players what your expectations are.
Create campaigns you would love to run
So now with these things in mind you start to plan your campaigns. It doesn’t matter what focus you set for each of the campaigns, you need to make sure you will enjoy it. Don’t pitch a hexcrawl to your group if you hate it. DMs are allowed to have fun too. Give small story description that detail what way the campaign will most likely go, even if you feel like you spoiler anything, you won’t and your players will love the heads up. Everyone knows you go to hell in “Descent into Avernus” or you fight a vampire in “Curse of Strahd”. It doesn’t diminish anyones fun.
5 campaign ideas for D&D in the World of Greyhawk
With this in mind I present to you the five campaign pitches I gave my players for my upcoming campaign. After I sent them the ideas I checked in on everyone one by one and asked what he likes the most and what he would veto strongly against it. If they say they wouldn’t veto, ask them to rank them. Never play a campaign that is on the last place on one of your players list. You will lose them.
The epic adventure one
Your group arrives in the Free City of Greyhawk. You try to find your first job to earn your living. The city is visibly unrest shortly after the Greyhawk Wars but in the shadows different powers try to get a hold of the city. Fight for glory, money and honor to protect the innocent. Make a name for yourself and save the world.
- Tone: Heroic, Light
- Story Driven
- Social: Medium
- Combat: Medium
- Exploration: Medium
- Buy-in: High, please care about the world
The political one
Your group arrives in the Free City of Greyhawk. You try to find your first job to earn your living. The city is visibly unrest shortly after the Greyhawk Wars but in the shadows different powers try to get a hold of the city. Make allies, join factions and find out who is in charge in Greyhawk. Are you okay with who is leading the free city? Gain influence and shape the domain as good as you can or die trying.
- Tone: Serious, Intriguing
- Story Driven at the beginning, then high player agency
- Social: High
- Combat: Low-Middle
- Exploration: Low-Middle
- Buy-in: High, understanding the different factions can be tough
This hook can easily be started with my Sickness of the Gnarley Forest adventure as well but the focus will soon be different. Remember, by choosing this path the players know what is coming and will act accordingly on their own. The same adventures play out totally different just by setting the scene for the campaign beforehand.
The exploration one
Your group arrives in the Free City of Greyhawk. You try to find your first job to earn your living. The city is visibly unrest shortly after the Greyhawk Wars but in the shadows different powers try to get a hold of the city. But after the war the continent is in turmoil. Adventurers are needed more than ever. Find one of the many high paying players of the city and complete exciting explorations. The jobs might be dangerous, they might take you to the greatest treasures you have ever seen, or to your death.
- Tone: Indiana Jones, Fun, Light
- Sandbox, take whatever quest you desire
- Social: Low-Middle
- Combat: Medium
- Exploration: High
- Buy-in: Low-Middle, there might be some lore but nothing too big
You can start this campaign with either Sickness of the Gnarley Forest or with my second adventure Shrine of Maglubiyet. At the beginning it is all about making a name for yourself and finding lucrative jobs that excite you. Beware to not take a job you can’t handle.
The Guild One
Your group arrives in the Free City of Greyhawk. You try to find your first job to earn your living. The city is visibly unrest shortly after the Greyhawk Wars but in the shadows different powers try to get a hold of the city. But you don’t care. Greyhawk is the Gem of Flanaess. Everything is possible in this great city. Make your own Adventurers Guild or take over the existing one. Make money, gain Influence, rule the world, hire henchlings. The world is yours, you just need to take it
- Tone: Fun, Light, Can get a bit bureaucratic
- Sandbox as big as the Sahara
- Social: Middle
- Combat: Middle
- Exploration: Middle
- Buy-in: Middle, you form your day so you should think about what you want to do
This one might be hard for new DMs but amazing if done right. Knowing all the ins and outs of the City of Greyhawk might be needed. But don’t fear to make the Greyhawk setting your own. In the end it is your campaign.
Those are very diverse. Sure you want to dm them all?
Did you notice how there is no combat focussed campaign or one talking about megadungeons? That is because I hate it. In the end you will always have a favorite but you should love all the pitches you give out. I think my players are considering the third or fourth campaign idea. We will see. What kind of campaign are you running? What are your best campaign ideas? I would love to hear them.
See you in the Green Dragon Inn,