How a to Plan a D&D Campaign

Planning an entire campaign might seem like a daunting task, but you don’t have to plot out every detail right from the start. You can start with the basics, running a few adventures, and think about larger plotlines you want to explore as the campaign progresses. You’re free to add as much or as little detail as you wish. 

This is great advice straight from the 5e Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG), but let’s expand on this a little further.

Before I jump into  my take on this, I want to give credit where it’s due. My campaign planning method was adapted from Deborah Chester’s book The Fantasy Fiction Formula. It’s an excellent book that focuses on fantasy fiction writing, but several of the concepts can be modified and leveraged for use in a D&D campaign.

Write a Campaign Story Question

In my process, the first step is to write the campaign’s story question. If you’ve already established a campaign theme, or even written a description for a campaign you’d like to run for your players, you’re already ahead of the game (pun intended).

By the way, I’ve detailed more about developing the theme in my previous post on the topic.

For me, writing a campaign story question is a great way to ensure I’ve got a handle on the basic premise of the collaborative story my players and I are going to tell in our game. But it’s important to note that a campaign story question is different from a campaign description.

Campaign descriptions are for the players, and campaign story questions are for you as the DM. 

The campaign story question follows this format:


As always, examples make things a little clearer. So let’s fill in the blanks a few times and see what we can come up with.

  1. When the undead begin to rise, the player characters endeavor to put an end to the devastation. But will they survive when the necromancer increases her power by finding the orb of chaos?
  2. When the heir to the throne is kidnapped, the player characters accept the quest to recover him. But will they succeed when the king works secretly to hide his son from the world?
  3. When arcane magic begins to fail throughout the land, the player characters seek out an explanation and resolution. But will they succeed when the High Priest seeks to complete the final ritual to rid the world of arcane spellcraft?

Each of these examples uses the same campaign story question structure, but they offer different versions of campaigns. 

I sort of like the last one best, so I’ll continue with it as we move forward.

Use a Living Campaign Story Planner

For me, a plan for a homebrew campaign is sort of a living document. It’s different from a published campaign where everything has been laid out in advance and you have to adapt it along the way. 

With this method, you create the campaign along the way. You’ll have to adjust as you go, but the idea is that you don’t actually write out an entire campaign from the start. Just put together a basic structure, then let it develop as you and the players have a great time crafting the story.

Again, since examples make things clearer, I’m going to stick with that last campaign story question. I’ll also be using my Campaign Planning Guide to record my notes as we go.

For this example, we’ll stick with…

Campaign Story Question (for the DM):

When arcane magic begins to fail throughout the land, the player characters seek out an explanation and resolution. But will they succeed when the High Priest seeks to complete the final ritual to rid the world of arcane spellcraft?

That story question is just for me (or you) as the DM. I use it to keep myself focused on the intent of the campaign. But I’ll also need to craft a campaign title and description to go along with it. This will give the players a glimpse of what they are getting into without giving everything away.

The Curse of the Arcane – Campaign Description (for the players):

Since the end of the Ruined War, Ventas has been a continent of peaceful collaboration between nations. But recently, there have been rumors of a second Weeping – one that is happening slowly throughout the land and threatens all who tap into the power of the arcane.

With those two covered, I should also call attention to a great piece of advice from the DMG: start small. Start by crafting the initial adventure to get the ball rolling. Focusing on the initial adventure is not only a great way to set the story into motion, but it will also allow you to adjust things on the fly. 

However, starting with the end in mind can be an important part of foreshadowing and laying clues along the way for your players – especially in a mystery-oriented story. For this reason, I also think it’s important to have a good idea of what the campaign climax should be.

First, let’s take a look at a potential plan for the first encounter.

Session 1, Encounter 1 (social encounter)

The PCs enter town and notice there is a group of traveling entertainers performing for the townspeople in the square. They promise a demonstration of “arcane delights” – a magic show. But during the performance, the spells fail, and so does the applause.

So through this social encounter, the PCs can learn that arcane magic is beginning to fail. And while the arcane spellcasting PCs haven’t yet experienced this with their own abilities, they are warned that it may happen to them as well.

Now we’re cookin’! We’re starting off with tension right from the beginning of the campaign, and it isn’t just world-tension. This is player and PC tension and worry that they may have the same thing happen to them. I mean…a wizard without the ability to even cast a cantrip?

So, we have our starting point. Let’s take a look at the brief plan for the Campaign Climax.

Final Session, Campaign Climax:

The PCs try to stop the final ritual. 

That’s it. That’s all the planning I can do for the climax until I’ve run a couple of games and see how things actually progress.

With this method, I can plan encounters as we play, and incorporate the game session’s progress into the overall plan as we go.

Include Important NPCs

Since I have an idea of the first and last gaming sessions, I will likely plan out the most important NPCs and/or monsters that will be making an appearance in those games.

For the first encounter of the first game, I’ll need to note some of the performers. Especially the arcane spellcasters within the group. 

There will also be some key members of the town that I can flesh out a bit. Maybe the mayor and a shopkeeper or two. 

But I’ll write down a few basic names, descriptions, character traits written down for other townspeople. Just a list of things I can pull from to put together characters on the fly. 

For the campaign climax, I’ll go ahead and put some ideas down for who the High Priest is. Maybe even decide if they are a member of an established church, or if they are a well-known zealot. 

Again, even this can be adjusted later if I need to, but whenever I make a decision that enters into the game and is revealed to the players, it becomes officially part of the story.

By taking this approach, you are building NPCs as you need them, and if you bring them back, they are now recurring NPCs. These can be PC favorites or mid-level bad guys who got away and come back later to cause problems.

There are also some great supplements and references that make NPCs even easier. 

The Game Master’s Book of Non-Player Characters by Jeff Ashworth is a great resource available from a 3rd party publisher that you should definitely check out. 

It’s completely 5e compatible, and includes hundreds of characters. The great thing about this particular book is that it divides NPCs into four main sections organized by environment: 

  • Big cities
  • Small towns
  • Remote outposts
  • The realm underground

Each of these categories is also broken down into subcategories making it easier to find the right NPC for your session. 

And this just scratches the surface of the content in this book. And no, I’m not currently an affiliate, and they aren’t currently a sponsor. It’s just that useful and I highly recommend it.

No matter what other resource you prefer, the point is, give yourself a break. You don’t have to have every NPC planned from the beginning. Or even create all of them from scratch. 

Include Important Locations

You need to have a place for your encounter to happen, so you need some detailed locations created right? Well yes…and no.

You need enough information to run the session you’re currently playing, plus a little extra information. The amount of extra info will depend on if you’re running things on your own homebrew campaign world, or if you are using an established setting like the Forgotten Realms or Tal’Dorei. 

If it’s your own world, you can detail locations on a session by session basis, having some basic notes of the surrounding areas and homelands of the PCs if they are from somewhere else. Then build out your world as you play through the campaign. 

The beauty of this is that the players are inevitably part of the world creation process. Their questions and interests will spark your creativity and planning.

For established settings, just read up on anywhere you plan to hold your campaign. You don’t have to be the expert on every part of that campaign world, but you should have a good idea of anywhere you’re asking your PCs to visit or explore during the game.

Step by Step

In the end, don’t be overwhelmed. Just take one step at a time, and use pre-existing resources whenever possible. With practice, this will become second nature, and you’ll master your own method.