DMing a campaign is one of the hardest things you can do when playing D&D. Here are some tips on ways you can make your life easier when staring out a game, and some pitfalls to avoid.
So you want to run a D&D campaign. I’m going to presume that you are at least reasonably familiar with the rules- having played and/or run games before. But for many GMs who haven’t stepped their foot outside of randomly-generated encounters or published adventures, it can be a daunting task. I’m hardly the first person to write about these matters (I mean, heck, PeteyPab wrote an article not so long ago about homebrew campaigns), but I have several decades of experience putting games together, so I feel as though I’m qualified to offer some advice on this front.
What Kind of Campaign Are You Running?
Before you decide anything else, think about what kind of game you want to run (and just as importantly, what kind of game your players want to play in.) Is it going to be a kick-down-the-door dungeon crawl where players fight a series of exciting and unique encounters? A sprawling political melodrama where alliances form and are broken constantly? A mythic journey where the forces of fate and the divine themselves stand in the characters’ way? A personal exploration where the players come to terms with the meetings and partings of life? None of these are right or wrong ways to play the game, but they will ask for very different kinds of planning on your part. A dungeon delve needs detailed maps but cares little for the monsters’ feelings; a political game doesn’t need any map that is more accurate than within a couple miles, but the relationships between personalities are paramount.
Also ask yourself what the scale and length of the game will be. Do you intend to bring the characters all the way up to 20th level? Does it have a finite real-world time frame (say, a period of weeks) in which it needs to fit? Are you intending to tell a particular story for these groups of characters, or is it more of a sandbox where you will allow them to roam around and get into trouble of their own making? These decisions will also inform the kinds of prep work you need to do as well as how much of it you want and how large you have to think about things.- a game about clearing out local infestations of goblins won’t need to worry about what the King thinks of the matter, but definitely should take into consideration how the local magistrate views it. But, by the same token, if you are working to stop an invading army, the King’s opinion should be of paramount importance, whereas smaller figures may simply fade into the background in most cases.
What Do You Like About D&D?
This point plays into the previous one to a degree, but it’s also well worth discussing on its own. What is it you and your friends find fun about D&D? Is it the fantasy setting and the trappings thereof? Is it the rules crunch that allows you to make fun combos and beat monsters with them? The visceral thrill of triumphing in combat? Roleplaying a particular individual and falling completely into that persona? Just hanging out with some friends and sharing a social activity?
The things that you, as the GM, enjoy the most are the things you are probably going to put the most effort into and do the best at, so those should be what you focus on. But, by the same token, make sure you are including stuff for all of the players to do as well, as they will each have their own interests and preferences that you should work to cater to. There’s nothing wrong with throwing a fight into your political game so that Amy will have a chance to cause some havoc and punch out a bunch of dumb, snooty nobles that have been laughing at her half-orc all night, but it’s also worth remembering that sometimes players just may not enjoy certain kinds of games and that’s fine, too. If Amy is going to spend 90% of the night bored out of her mind while everyone talks to King Snirfblegger, she may not be a good fit for your group in that instance and there’s no shame in not having her be part of the game (though you definitely should be open and honest about this- communication is key.)
This should also apply to the game rules and world themselves. Do you think elves are the coolest thing ever? Feature them in your game, and explore elven culture and politics! Do you really like Aaokrai and think that they deserve more time in the spotlight? You can absolutely do that. Are wizards just the absolute best to you? Well, heck, set your campaign at a wizard college and Harry Potter it up, my friend.
The key, in the end, is to find something in the game that you connect with and that makes you happy and to feature that. The things you like are the things that you will put work into and make interesting to the players- and as a DM, your enthusiasm for the game can very easily be what makes or breaks it.
What Bothers You About It?
But, of course, there’s always something about a game or setting that doesn’t really click for you. Maybe it’s the encumbrance rules, which you think don’t really make sense and make collecting treasure too hard. Maybe you feel that the combat rules need a better representation of surprise and flanking, because you feel that combat against multiple foes should be more challenging. Or maybe you just think that halflings are the stupidest little jerks in the world and you don’t want them in your game.
That’s fine! The things that you dislike and want to avoid can shape a campaign just as much as the things you enjoy and want to feature prominently in it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Of course, one should always be cautious about making big changes to the rules of a game, because that can significantly shape how the players behave- and if you continuously change how a rule works from session to session that can be even more frustrating for your players because they won’t know what to expect from the rules or that any given thing will be consistent from day to day. But outside of those issues, the rules of a game of roleplaying exist to serve the story and the game, and you should always feel free to adjust them as needed.
Once you have these ideas nailed down, you can begin with the more concrete parts of worldbuilding. That process is worth dozens of articles on its own so I won’t be going into it deeply here, but I think that the “pre-generation” steps I talked about are an oft-forgotten part of the process, because before you can start to write the things you need for a game it’s important to decide what you want from a game.
As always, remember that you can get your wargaming supplies from the Frontline Gaming store, whether you’re looking to start a new army or expand an existing one.