4 D&D campaign ideas and how you pitch them to hook your players

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.

Tone

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.

Social

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.

Combat

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.

Exploration

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.

Buy-in

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

This pitch works amazing with my planned In the City’s Shadows adventure path. Check out my first adventure Sickness of the Gnarley Forest to see what unfolds.

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,

Frogsama

Sun Blade in 5e – History, Stats and Recipe to create your own

Sun Blade in 5e
Sun Blade in 5e

The Sun Blade is one of the iconic weapons in Dungeons & Dragons. While not as old as the infamous Vorpal Sword, it is still a great weapon for any campaign. Especially, clerics who worship the god of sun, Pelor for Greyhawk and Lathander for the Forgotten Realms, it is the weapon to find or craft. We will look at the history of this magical item and the different ways you could craft it in your campaign in 5th edition.

The History of the Sun Blade

The Sun Blade’s first iteration was in I6 Ravenloft (1983) for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It was called the Sunsword. It was a sword with a crystal glass blade and one could argue it was a different sword back then. After that the Sun Blade under its name appeared in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1989. In this book, there was no Sunsword but only the Sun Blade with slightly different mechanics. The first time together they appeared in the Encyclopedia Magica Volume 4 of 1995.

Brief Appearance in Greyhawk Adventure Path

While now the Sun Blade is an established magical weapon, it wasn’t used in any 2nd edition adventure (to my knowledge). It took 18 years after its first appearance to be used in a published Greyhawk adventure. In 2007, in Dragon Magazine #145 the adventure City of Broken Idols advances the adventure path Savage Tide for 3rd edition D&D. It so appears that on the Isle of Dread, there is a lake. And on that lake is another island, the Taboo Island. On this island there is a temple and in this temple in a random crypt lies the Sun Blade. Well, better than nothing.

Comeback of the Sun Blade in 5th Edition

The Sun Blade appears in Out of Abyss (2015) as a sentient sword called the Dawnbringer. Also it appears in the remake of the Ravenloft module, Curse of Strahd in 2016. Here it’s called the Sunsword again. Interestingly, both of these swords have a blade out of pure light energy, opposed to the original Sunsword. Both of these swords are mere iterations of the raw Sun Blade as they have some additional properties. They are both sentient while the normal Sun Blade found in the Taboo Temple is not.

The Sun Blade in 5e

  • melee weapon (sword, martial)
  • Damage: 1d8
  • Damage Type: Radiant
  • Item Rarity: Rare
  • Modifiers: Melee Attacks +2, Melee Damage +2
  • Properties: Finesse, Versatile
  • Secondary Damage: 1d10
  • Weight: 3

This item appears to be a Longsword hilt. While grasping the hilt, you can use a Bonus Action to cause a blade of pure radiance to spring into existence, or make the blade disappear. While the blade exists, this magic Longsword has the Finesse property. If you are proficient with shortswords or longswords, you are proficient with the sun blade.

You gain a +2 bonus to Attack and Damage Rolls made with this weapon, which deals radiant damage instead of slashing damage. When you hit an Undead with it, that target takes an extra 1d8 radiant damage.

The sword’s luminous blade emits bright light in a 15-foot radius and dim light for an additional 15 feet. The light is sunlight. While the blade persists, you can use an action to expand or reduce its radius of bright and dim light by 5 feet each, to a maximum of 30 feet each or a minimum of 10 feet each.

Crafting the Sun Blade

Of course, there is always the way to find the blade in a dungeon or in possession of a random cleric of Pelor or Lathander. But it is also cool to craft it yourself. Maybe read about it in a book and make it a quest to attain one.

Crafting Rules as Written

The Sun Blade is a rare weapon, that is why the creator needs to be at least 6th level. The creation cost is 5,000 gp. That means it takes the player 200 days to create the blade. But then there would be no difference between the creation of a normal longsword +2 and the creation of the Sun Blade. Here the Dungeon Master’s Guide assumes it is the DM’s decision how it should be done. And that is the freedom we all love in D&D.

How we craft the Sun Blade in 5e

I never liked how they handle magic item creation in 5th edition. I feel that everything your characters do should be part of the story. A story about someone sitting in a laboratory creating an item for 200 days is simply not fun. I’m a huge fan of the way they did it in Volo’s Guide for All Things Magical of 1996. Here they presented to different ways to create magical items, either by a wizard or a cleric. They overcomplicate a little bit by inventing a whole bunch of spells but the idea is really fun. One thing they do especially, is giving magical properties to different ressources making the whole creation also a research and gather operation.

How you want to approach this as a DM is all on you. You can let the m research what materials they need and what kind of spells they need to cast or just present it to them. Maybe they want to find someone instead that can create the weapon for them.

A good choice is Sarana, the 15th level cleric and high matriarch of Pelor, leading the temple in the Free City of Greyhawk. For sure she wouldn’t do this for free though. A quest to prove you are worthy of such a quest might be in line. Also it is debatable if she would create it for someone else than a cleric of Pelor.

Materials

As ingredients we need a metal for the hilt and a gemstone to hold the power of the blade. The most essential ingredient mentioned in Volo’s Guide is a gemstone called Heliodor.

Heliodor: This precious stone is a deep yellow variety of golden beryl varying in hue from greenish yellow to reddish yellow and yielding large or medium impressive faceted gemstones. 

In magic, heliodor can be used as a casting component in all priest spells of the sun sphere in  place of normal components that one lacks (provided these need not be specially constructed). Powdered heliodor is essential in the forging of a sun blade.

Volo’s Guide to All Things Magical

So all we need now is a mountain range that is known for yellow beryls. The Crystalmist Mountains are just one possibility. After achieving such a gem you would need to cut in a specific shape, a Round Rose cut for example.

For metals you can use any combination of pristine material. Maybe a mix of gold and white silver is appropriate.

Process of creating

Cleric spells work in 5th edition in a way that all clerics automatically learn all the spells of their level. So implementing new spells for item creation doesn’t make much sense. Instead, I assume the cleric who wants to create the Sun Blade has to invent some kind of ritual to please their god and achieve the power.

This can be researched by your players of course but your players can also get creative and come up with their own ideas.

Things I would assume: 

  • Must be created on a holy place of your god (Pelor, Lathander)
  • A great deed must have been done prior to please your god
  • A 24h ritual with deliberate use of holy ingredients like holy water and holy incenses

Conclusion 

So here you have it, the way I implement the Sun Blade into my campaign. The whole process would be a part of my campaign, a task a player tries to achieve while doing things for the group. The whole creation cost might at the end be in line with what the Dungeon Master’s  Guide says. Even the time it took might be the same. But, it feels way cooler to be part of he process and not just do it in downtime.

Did you ever use the Sun Blade? How do you handle magic item creation in your campaign?

See you in the Green Dragon Inn,

Frogsama

D&D Encounter Ideas – 7 Encounters in the Gnarley Forest

Encounters are the bread and butter of Dungeons & Dragons. Every session in its true form broken down is just a set of encounters. So, coming up with exciting encounter ideas is one of the most important skills as a Dungeon Master in D&D.

Let’s start examining what we need to make good encounters that your players will love. At the end I will present 7 encounter ideas to you.

Framework for good D&D encounter ideas

The most important part for a good encounter is the setting. This is typically the first (not asked) question answered in any campaign. Where are we? There are always very generic answers like “in a forest” or “in a town” but the Dungeon Master should always know about something more that is going on.

D&D Encounter Ideas for a forest
Descriptions are fundamental for immersion

The Gnarley Forest as the setting

For the purpose of this, we will use the Gnarley Forest as our encounter setting. It is a place in the Greyhawk setting. If you want to see the place in action, you can check out my free adventure.

So as a Dungeon Master, if you state the adventuring party is merely “in the forest” without any further addition, good players might ask more questions. What is the forest like? What do I hear? How humid is it? 

Especially, new DMs have their hands full with all kinds of stuff, so this answer might have been heard at many tables: It is just a forest. Believe me, I was both the perpetrator and culprit of this sentence. It breaks immersion immediately.

That means as a good DM, you should know the adjectives of any setting you throw the players into, no matter how important it might be to the main story. Because to the players it doesn’t matter if the place is crucial to the story. Heck, sometimes when you describe a place good enough, the players will fall in love with it and it becomes important.

The Gnarley Forest

As an example, the Gnarley Forest is a place of huge and thick oak and ipps trees. The tree trunks can have the size of small huts. A river called the Jewel is running through it with many type of ferns covering its borders. Because the forest is so old the tree canopy blocks out most of the light and it is quite obscure even at noon. Therefore, there is not much of small vegetation making the earthy ground easy to walk on. Typical small mammals like mice, rabbits, foxes and squirrels fan be found but also wolves and bears.

With this simple description every player has immediately an idea how the forest looks like and we can move on to the next step.

Populating the setting

Every setting needs inhabitants that either live in the setting or go through the setting. This is also a thing that can be improvised by experienced DMs but be cautious. Good players realise that you go of your cuff and give the encounter less value than it could have. Improvising characteristics of NPCs might be fine but in my opinion improvising groups or tribes is not.

So populate your setting with anything you like and deem interesting. Also, look at the surrounding areas to get more ideas how the population interacts with the outside world. Lastly, create conflicts and alliances between your factions in the area.

Factions of the Gnarley Forest

There are many human factions in the Gnarley Forest. From the Gnarley Rangers trying to keep the peace, to woodsmen living in small settlements or alone at the borders of the woods. A sorority of swanmays (wereswans) lead by a priestess live somewhere in the depths of trees, devoted to spy on the evil that lays in the forest.

Four clans of wood elves exist, living together in various communities. They usually mind their own business and don’t align with folk from the outside.

A hidden underground settlement called the Blackthorn cavern is the base of a big number of orcs and gnolls. They plan to excavate more of their cave and need human slaves to do their work.

Also in the forest is a now lost village called Skorane that is only inhabited by undead and a crazy necromancer.

These are just a few of all the factions in the area. Druids, faerie folk and werebears can also be found. Monsters typical to forests like owlbears are also likely.

Creating encounters

After laying out all the factions and how the Gnarley Forest looks like, we are ready to build encounters. I think you realise by just reading through the paragraphs above how the ideas pop into you head. Frankly, after the base is created, the actual encounter building is very easy.

Try to mix and match the factions, create small subareas in your setting and let the scene play out. Don’t forget you oftentimes don’t have to plan out much what is going to happen. Let the players act to their surroundings and play it out naturally. If the players love an aspect of the encounter and they pursue a way further, that is where you can improvise a little.

For the unlikely situation your players pursue a route that you are not comfortable with yet, call for a 10 minute break and make something up. There is also no shame to end a session early in desperate cases.

So without further ado, here are some encounter ideas.

7 D&D Encounter Ideas for the Gnarley Forest

  1. A wounded swanmay lies at the riverbed of the Jewel in its hybrid form. A group of orcs attacked them. Normally orcs don’t have magical weapons but these did. They can’t be far.
  2. A Gnarley Rangers fights a big growling owlbear. His friends is bleeding out and it doesn’t look good for him either. The party just arrives.
  3. The group comes across a small mystic looking pond. It feels like there is magic in there. When they approach it, a voice with an elven accent comes from one of the thick branches of the next oak tree. “You shouldn’t be here!”, shouts a young wooden elf.
  4. The party comes across a set of well laid traps. After passing two of them in a minutes walk, a disgruntled woodsman appears. “No wonder there is no game here. What is your deal anyways.”, he exclaims disgruntled.
  5. Orcs attack! A scouting party of Blackthorn found the party and believe they are strong enough. They are hiding behind thick roots of the trees and see potential slaves in the adventuring group.
  6. A gnome traveler waves from a thick branch above. He is searching for the swanmays and would love to see them. After reading in a book about them.
  7. Two druids examine trees. The trees seem to be sick. As the group arrives to greet them, two trees awaken and attack! The necromancer seems to work on new experiments.

So there you have it. 7 easy to plug in encounters for your next session. Do you have to play in the Gnarley Forest? Does it have to be in Greyhawk? No way. You can do whatever you want. It is your table, it is your game.

See you in the Green Dragon Inn,

Frogsama