This time around, I’m going to go into more detail about how to design your story. As previously mentioned, because I’m trying to be as system neutral as possible, I will use broad strokes to describe my typical process.
This article will take you through the brief step-by-step method that I usually use when designing campaigns. Feel free to use any and all of it for your own purposes. If you feel like anything is missing or could be improved, let me know in the comments. Each step will be illuminated with an example, using the D&D 5th Edition campaign that I am drawing the Actual Play posts from. Those posts are still taken from the Starter Set but will eventually reach the material discussed here.
The first thing to consider is what you want to play. You aren’t going to enjoy writing, and playing through, a campaign that you personally aren’t invested in.
When writing my campaign, I really wanted to have something grand in scope with a huge, world ending threat at the end of it. I know it’s not very original, but it’s something I’ve wanted to run for a while, and it’s not too difficult for first time role-players to deal with.
The second thing is you NEED to write something your players will enjoy. This can be done through discussing things with them, just by picking up on what they enjoy in the first few sessions of play, or through their characters.
One of my players is a Ranger with ‘undead’ selected as her favoured enemy so that was pretty obvious. All of my players also enjoyed their interaction with the Nothic so I decided to play off of that and have scope for more Nothics later in the game. Nothics being wizards from Netheril, the empire that used to rule the Sword Coast, suggested to me that Netheril could play a large part in what’s to come. I know that my players like history so I felt fine adding Netheril in.
The obvious thing to do is to have a Lich, or similar, from old Netheril be the main antagonist. So I ran with that. I came up with a name of vaguely Latin origin and decided that Netheril was a pseudo-Roman civilisation.
This gave me a history to things (an Empire brought down from within, ruins and remnants all around the area they are exploring, customs and traditions that are accepted as fact but that no one can explain) and gave me an idea for my grand scope. Graeco-Roman gods were frequently extremely human in their behaviours, to the extent that political leaders were often identified as divine themselves and nothing was seen to be wrong with that.
My thought process then ran to ‘what if?’. In this case, it was what if the emperor was actually a god? What if Netheril was ruled by an immortal, divine being? What happened to it?
These questions lead me to the third step; throw a spanner in the works.
An antagonist, to some extent, should do this already, but more than that, this means do something unpredictable.
In this case, I decided time travel was the way forwards.
Netheril, the God, was ripped from his time (leading to the collapse of the Empire) by the Lich (themselves the last scion of a noble family wishing to resurrect the glory of Netheril) and brought forwards into the timeline of the game.
The fourth thing is to decide on rough tiers of experience. Each section of the game should feel appropriate to the player character’s abilities.
In D&D, PCs get stronger and stronger, becoming powerful heroes. As such, things should scale with them. There are rough guidelines given in one of the core books and I ran with those. Levels 1-5 are covered by the Starter Set and represent the PCs coming into their own. Levels 6-10 are designed to cover the heroes realising the threat of the Lich and racing to stop him, reaching a crescendo with the Lich performing the ritual to summon Netheril. Levels 11-15 will, hopefully, see the heroes flung backwards in time and working to take down Netheril (the empire) from inside, contending with mythical heroes and divine beings. Levels 16-20 will (assuming we make it that far) have the heroes facing off against Netheril, gaining allies and bringing order back to a world in thrall of a god.
Into this framework, I inserted a variety of combat, social and exploration based encounters designed to hit the main plot points and narrative milestones of each chapter. Around these encounters, I will insert more sandbox based things that arise during play, to give the players a sense of agency. Something important to note is that whilst the non-sandbox encounters are, by their very nature, less flexible, I’ve designed them in such a way that they can occur in a variety of situations so that the players don’t feel funnelled into one particular course of action.
So that is my rough approach to campaign design. Obviously, it’ll change from game to game, but these are the points I try to hit every time and can be applied to one-shot games, as well as campaigns.
I hope you find the above helpful.