How to Develop Your D&D Campaign’s Theme

As a player and connoisseur of role playing games, you likely enjoy a variety of genres. Maybe you like exploration and ancient civilizations, murder mysteries, stories based in unique and unnerving locations, gothic horror, or even secret organizations. 

But as a DM, how do you pick the right theme for your campaign? Let’s review my 3-step process for developing a campaign theme.

1 – Identify what type of campaigns would interest you.

Here’s one of the biggest “elephant in the room” secrets about being a DM: you have to like it. You’re taking on a lot of planning and prep work, and you want your players to have a great time. But if you don’t like the game you’re running, odds are your players aren’t going to like it either.

So start by making a list of some of the themes you are currently interested in developing into a campaign. For our examples, I’m going to stick with some themes I already mentioned.

  • Exploration – think Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones
  • Ancient civilizations – also Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones, but also 300 and Clash of the Titans
  • Murder mystery – think Murder on the Orient Express or even Knives Out
  • Location-based – think Deadwood or Bad times at the El Royale
  • Gothic horror – think Penny Dreadful or any of the classics that inspired the show
  • Secret organizations – this is pretty varied. Anything from National Treasure to The Kingsmen, or even the Hand from Marvel Comics

There are obviously a ton of other themes you could add to this list, and a few of them may even combine effectively. More on combining themes in my next step.

2 – Draft a selection of campaign descriptions

Now that you’ve made a list of campaign themes that would make you happy, you’ll need to narrow things down a bit. Make a few selections that you really enjoy, but also make sense for the collaborative story you’d like to tell with your players.

Don’t feel like you have to come up with everything yourself if you’re just starting out. There are published adventures that fit each of these theme combinations. They’re sort of the bread-and-butter of D&D.

But for the sake of this example, I’m going to narrow things down to 3 potential campaigns, and all of these options will be for my homebrew campaign world.

Ok, for Option 1 I’ll go with ancient civilizations and exploration themes.

Relics of the Ancients

Many of the modern cities of Ventas are built on the foundations of ancient realms or old fortresses. Over the years, several antiquarian societies have funded expeditions and brought specialists together for archeological exploration. However, after some interesting recent discoveries, there is a renewed need for brave explorers to aid in their search.

Notice that I give my campaign a name, just like the professionals do. It’s not just for show. The name helps reinforce the theme. It helps me set the stage for the players and give them a hint of what’s to come.

I’ve also made sure to build in a hook that can be discussed with the players during Session Zero. That “need for brave explorers” is pretty standard for any campaign, but the fact that they would be tied to specific “antiquarian societies” or factions adds an additional layer of interest.

Ok, for Option 2, we’ll go with a combination of mystery and location-based campaign themes.

Patrons of Providence Manor

On the outskirts of Fallon’s Peak sits Providence Manor, an old family estate now operating as a boarding house. This conversion to a short term residence has recently brought some interesting travelers into the area, and there may be more to this old mansion than meets the eye…

Again, campaign titles are important. With a location-based theme for the campaign, it’s best to have a specific location planned out ahead of time. It will give me the opportunity to prepare the manor, its inhabitants, and background before we get started. 

With the “more than meets the eye” teaser, the mystery is implied without really saying what it is. That’s important at this stage. I should have a good grasp on the main mystery before we start, but I need to leave things open for me to develop the mystery as you go, and really change things on the fly as needed. It also leaves it open for me to listen to my players during Session Zero, and adapt to things even after a choice is made.

By the way – this is a little easier with a homebrew story. It’s possible with a published adventure, but it will just take a little more prep depending on the adjustments.

For the final option, I’ll go with a secret organization and gothic horror themed campaign.

The Kindred

Rumors throughout the land say there are nameless powers fighting a long, cold war in the shadows. To some this battle is a calling, but to others it’s a birthright. Who rises up to participate in this ongoing struggle, and, more importantly, will you join them?

I know, I know. The title of the adventure isn’t as straightforward as the others. But, combined with the description, I think it works. I mention nameless powers and a war in the shadows, so it should leave the players asking, “what is/who are the Kindred?” And that’s a good thing.

Now that I’ve got everything narrowed down, and three descriptions written, I can send these options to my players ahead of Session Zero. That will help streamline the discussion so we can come up with a final choice for the campaign.

3 – Develop ongoing “theme enhancers”

Selecting the choice of theme is just the start. You have to enrich the experience using some of the established tropes most related to the included themes.This isn’t to be formulaic or predictable, it’s just to help ensure that the players get what they were hoping for in their choice.

So what are “theme enhancers?”

The best way to identify a theme enhancer is through examples, so let’s rundown a few based on our three campaign options.

In the Relics of the Ancients campaign, the themes are exploration and ancient civilizations.

So I may emphasize forgotten archaic languages, including detailed descriptions of places with unfamiliar architectural styles. I’ll  also likely use map handouts, refer to ancient out of circulation currency, and unique artifacts whenever possible.

However, Patrons of Providence Manor is a mystery and location-based campaign.

I would need to put an even greater emphasis on how the NPCs, location, and surrounding events make the characters feel. The detailed descriptions should invoke emotions. Especially recurring characters that play an even more important role in a location-based campaign.

And from a mystery perspective, I need to leave clues in a purposeful way, include a few false flags, and provide several acceptable suspects.

The Kindred campaign emphasizes secret organizations and gothic horror. This may be similar in some ways to the first two options, but there will still be some unique things that should be emphasized. 

For instance, time of day can be increasingly important; I’ll make nightfall seem as unnerving and dangerous as I can.

Codes, symbology, and rights of passage could also be used to slowly expose any secret organizations working behind the scenes.

Save Unused Ideas

After you and your players have chosen the campaign, you are more likely to be on the same page and have similar expectations about the type of game you’ll be playing. But don’t let that deter you from your other great ideas.

Save all of your unused write-ups for other campaigns. You went through the effort of putting some thought into them, so add them to the next list of possible campaign choices for your group – or for another group of players.

In the end, if both you and your players are happy with the theme of your campaign, you are helping to set yourself up for success as a DM.