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Creating a campaign can be tricky, especially when you're doing it for the first time. Sometimes it can help to have an example of a creation process, which is exactly what this guide will provide. Of course, this guide is based on my creation process, and it's by no means the only or perfect one, but hopefully it'll help you with figuring out what to look out for, what to keep in mind, and with finding your own creation style. Do note that I won't delve into everything in detail, that's what the other guides are for.
The campaign I'll create in this guide will be an easily adjustable one in terms of how long it'll be. It could be a relatively open ended one-shot, it could span over multiple sessions, or it could even be turned into a long running campaign. The biggest focus is on one primary quest however, but I will delve into possible side quests, events, and other encounters as well.
Creating non-player characters (NPCs) is an integral part of creating a campaign as well, but I've put their creation into part two of this guide, found here, purely for the sake of keeping things easier to keep track of.
First things first, we need a quest, a purpose, something for the party to do. I'm going with a search and rescue quest for this guide, but there'll be more to it than just search and rescue of course. I like to keep things really open in my campaigns, part of which you'll see in this guide, but I'll keep things relatively condensed to make it easier for the first time game masters (GMs) to create their own campaign without being completely overwhelmed.
Right, the quest will be as follows: Find Keira, a young woman who hasn't been seen for a few days, and was last seen after she brought a strange trinket back to her town. She claimed it was proof of evil forces being at work somewhere near town, and, when nobody believed her or paid enough attention to her, went to look for more proof.
Note that this is the quest as I, as a GM, know it. The players don't. They will have to uncover it by interacting with my world, but I will cover this in the 'meeting the quest giver' part of this guide.
What's important at the moment is that we now have our first NPC we'll have to flesh out, so I note this down on a separate sheet. Normally I might flesh her out partially in my mind or write down parts at this stage, but she's fleshed out in the second part of this guide for simplicity's sake.
Another thing we'll have to answer is "Why does the party have to look for her?", or more specifically "Why can't the towns people or her family look for her themselves?". The reasons, in this case, vary from people not caring enough to "Keira being a bit of a dreamer, she's probably just camping nearby", and from reasons like it being too dangerous for some people to venture out to reasons like some people have actual work to do and can't afford to go look for some absent-minded girl.
We'll need to fill in some other details as well. First and foremost: who or what is going to be the end boss or event? We need a good pay off after all. Simply finding Keira and bringing her back won't make for a very exciting game. This is where we can add a lot of mystery, intrigue and possibilities for bigger stories. Is Keira secretly the enemy? Is the trinket truly evil or just a random piece of metal? Maybe something else is at play.
In this campaign the enemy the party will encounter when they find Keira is a leader of a mysterious cult. I won't delve too far, but the trinket Keira found is something they normally store magic in, allowing them to use a one-use teleportation spell that brings them into their secret hideout. Keira's trinket no longer has a charge, so the party won't be able to find much of any magic should they inspect it, nor will they be able to teleport into the base.
The true enemy, however, is Keira's grandmother, who lives in town and could be talked to by the party should they wish to, but more on that later. She is the mastermind behind the cult, and should the party uncover enough during the Keira quest-line, they will be able to delve into a far greater and far deeper reaching storyline.
But let's bring it back a step, there's still more to decide. For one, where is Keira? She's been taken prisoner by the cult after a failed attempt to gather more evidence for the townsfolk, and is hidden in their base in a cave not too far from town. She hasn't been disposed of yet as the grandmother believes she can convince her granddaughter to join them, she (and the cult) are not purely evil either, so killing people in cold blood like that is not just immoral in their eyes, it could also lead to some very unwanted attention.
So, we now know what the quest is, where the quest target is, we have NPCs who could give the party this quest, we have several enemies, and there's already a fair bit to explore and discover for the party so far. We also have at least 3 important NPCS: Keira, her grandmother, and the supposed leader of the cult they will encounter at the end. We also have a bunch of townsfolk we can flesh out a little, as they'll be giving the quest, as well as giving answers should the party explore.
With that out of the way it's time to delve into the beginning of the campaign as a whole, and add details where needed.
We need to party to actually get a chance to start the quest, and, depending on how long you want the campaign to be, we'll need other things they'll be able to do in town, around town, with the NPCs, and things or NPCs they can interact with to find more answers once they have their quest(s).
In some campaigns the quest giver could be a single character or perhaps even an object (letter, message board, etc.), but I prefer to keep things more dynamic and open, so in this campaign the quest giver can be any of the people living in town who would realistically know about Keira being gone for several days now. With that in mind we have the following characters: Her mother, her father, her sister, her friend, her grandmother, as well as some miscellaneous townsfolk. By miscellaneous townsfolk I mostly mean characters who might have overheard things, but, in terms of creating them, they will generally be the exact same two or three characters. What I mean by that is that I'll flesh out two or three characters to some extent, and then use these for whichever of these characters (if any) the party comes across. If they come across more than these, those NPCs simply won't know much, they'll be somewhat unresponsive, or I'll simply make up a character on the spot if the party still needs help.
The reason I like using the method of keeping all the options open is that it can drastically change the way the story plays out, as well as change how the players experience the story. Each NPC will respond differently, some might make it seem like there's great danger out there, others will make it seem like there's no danger at all. Some might become allies who will join the party temporarily, while others might be working with the cult, and thus try and thwart the party in secret.
With that in mind, here are a handful of examples of interactions with the before mentioned characters when asked if they know where Keira is:
- Her mother: "She found an odd looking trinket, and she said something about going to find more. She also said something about it being part of some kind of dark magic, it seemed like just an ordinary piece of metal to me. She's always had a big imagination, Keira, silly girl. She's probably staying at her old tree-house, it's where she usually goes. I worry about that girl at times, she's always looking for trouble."
- Her father: "She found a hunk of metal, big deal. A dwarf probably dropped it, so it must be worthless. Anyway, she needs to stop daydreaming and playing pretend, she's getting far too old for that. There's work to be done around here."
- Friend: "She was in a hurry when I last saw her, didn't even want to go for a drink at the Golden Reed. Said something about a dark trinket, and that she was going to get more. I haven't seen her since, so I guess she's probably still looking for them."
- Shopkeeper (telling a lie): "Ooh, yes, I know her. She asked for a ridiculous price for this artifact she found. Can you believe it? The nerve! Anyway, she bought some climbing gear, and said she'd get more of those things. As if that makes them worth any more."
- Grandmother (seemingly a little senile): "Keira? Ooh, yes, such a charming girl. .. Trinkets? I have many trinkets, would you like to see?". She'll grab her jewelry box, if the players/characters are patient enough, the fourth trinket she shows will be similar to the one Keira found.
- Sister: "I've been looking all over for her. She's always been one to get into trouble, ever since she was a child. Come to think of it, I've always been the one that found her again. If you don't mind, I'd like to come with you, I should be the one to find her, I'm not her big sister for nothing."
With just these 6 responses the players will already get a big chunk of these character's personalities, and there's a lot of information within these few lines too, as well as a few hints. The shopkeeper may have been lying about Keira wanting to sell the artifact (he was actually the one who wanted to buy it), but he did speak the truth about her buying climbing gear, which is my way of subtly suggesting the players might want to stock up in some supplies as well.
The other hint is, of course, the trinket in grandma's jewelry box. Should the party find this, how it plays out will depend on how the party responds, but I like to put little risky elements into my games, elements of "you technically could face off against the true big bad guy way too early". If it does happen, my plans will have been for nothing, but the result of this reveal could lead to amazing moments too. Besides, the party won't be able to defeat grandma at this stage anyway.
Realistically speaking the grandmother would just lie, tell them those trinkets are common and that her granddaughter is seeing things, or perhaps tell the party she found this trinket in a field near the next town, buying the grandmother more time to deal with the party.
With the various potential quest givers they can meet in various locations out of the way, it's time to cover some more elements the party could explore or otherwise interact with. The most obvious one is the shop. The party might need to restock on supplies, so adding some shops is always a good idea. The rest of the town itself could be fleshed out as well, even if just for the sake of making the town feel more alive.
A bigger town also means opportunities for side quests should you wish to really open things up, and it could even lead to some red herrings, but I'll delve deeper into those later in this guide.
You'll also want to cover the obvious (and perhaps less obvious) places where the party will search for clues and answers to their quest. Such locations could include Keira's house, the Golden Reed mentioned by her friend, the old tree-house mentioned by her mom, perhaps nearby ruins or mines as a decoy, a market place with traders from outside of town (more specifically a dwarf so the party can see if the trinket is actually dwarven like the father claimed), and so on.
I usually prepare side quests or threads for different main quests in such locations, but as mentioned I will focus only on the main quest in this guide. Depending on your group, you could or may even want to create small side quests and such as well.
So we've fleshed out the beginning, but some of you might be wondering "Well, what about this or that?", which is normal. The thing about campaigns is that they rarely, if ever, go as you plan them to, so planning every detail is not something you'll want to spend your time on unless you know your group will follow your every move.
The beginning has enough details to jump-start the story, and there's enough planned to offer the players something no matter where they go, but how the minor details are filled in will depend on how the players act. So, with that set, let's delve into the middle part of our campaign creation.
A big chunk of the quest involves finding the hideout, going there, and possibly even exploring the hideout. So a lot of path finding. The path they take won't necessarily be the same as the one you planned nor will it necessarily be the most efficient one the party could take, but you'll want to throw some obstacles on the path either way. In a way you're drawing several paths to the end location, and then drawing obstacles on top of them to make it look like there is no (easy) path. There are plenty of ways to add obstacles of course, but make sure they tie in with the campaign. In this campaign's case it'll be with optional fights, optional red herrings, and a grandmother working against the party behind the scenes.
Since it's always difficult to foresee how a campaign will go, I generally opt for optional fights spread in between moments I know will definitely have combat. In the case of this campaign the only definite moment of combat is when the party goes through the cult hideout, but that doesn't mean I'll want more fights before that point. If the mood during the campaign is shrouded in mystery, I don't want to break that up with just a regular fight. At the same time, if the party seems a little lost or perhaps frustrated they can't find clues due to bad dice rolls, a combat encounter could spice things up and even provide more clues.
For this campaign I'd prepare character sheets for a pack of wolves or bears for the nearby forests, a town drunk with a blabber mouth who might look for a fight, a deranged cultist who overheard the party and searches for the party to stop them, and a regular band of bandits looking for victims among forest travellers.
Red herrings are things that distract from an important or otherwise relevant issue, so in this case anything that distracts from the main quest. They will initially seem important or relevant though, which can be helpful to create a certain mood.
For this campaign I'll have NPCs with stories of mysterious creatures and dark tidings in the forest around town, seemingly connected to the cultists. In truth they are just events or creatures which can be explained with either regular magic or just good old logic. Still, there might be more to some of these grand stories than meets the eye.
Of course, as soon as the grandmother knows about a bunch of travelers actively searching for her hideout, she'll want to work against them in secret. Sparing a granddaughter is one thing, but a bunch of strangers trying to undermine everything she's trying to accomplish is a different thing entirely.
Obviously she can't just go and outright kill the party (well, technically she could), the village has to keep believing she's just an old lady after all. Instead she'll pop up around town, ask the group questions or offer them small acts of kindness, like tea and cupcakes, all the while trying to figure out how much the characters know. With some sneaky dice rolling, she could even use some mind altering spells or other illusionary spells to really affect the characters' minds.
If all else fails, she could always send some cultists after the party in the middle of the night, perhaps dressed as common bandits to make it seem less suspicious to outsiders.
During this middle stage the party will also need to uncover answers, perhaps more clues or questions, and do more than simply finding the right path. Hints can be left all over the place, but whether the party will pick up on them is a different matter entirely.
As far as this campaign goes, the biggest hints and pieces of information can be given in the actual cult hideout. The party will need to go through a cave system, which could have anything from footsteps, wall carvings, very specific traps, remnants of supplies, wandering patrols or cult members, and a whole range of other answer elements.
I will generally prepare several of them, but only use a few in the actual campaign. Which ones I use depend on how the campaign is going. Sometimes one answer might be able to reference an earlier event, for example, which will tie things together better than if I would use a different one.
Now that the middle is fleshed out enough as well, it's time to work on the end a little. This part will generally be less fluid than the middle, so you can plan more of it, but don't be surprised if a campaign goes toward a completely different end. With that being said, let's delve into elements you'll probably come across no matter what way this campaign goes. This does mean there will be a lot of mights and ifs, but that's part of most campaigns.
Ideally the party will reach Keira, but this can go several ways depending on how the campaign has unfolded. Grandmother might have set an ambush behind the scenes, so when the party does reach Keira, the party will be attacked.
Alternatively, grandma might perhaps have "locked up" a lookalike. Since the party probably won't have run into a painting of Keira (they're not something most regular villagers would have), the party can only count on descriptions. Prepare the backstabbing knives!
Finding Keira will also lead to discovering more information about the cult. The longer it takes the party to get to her, the more Keira might've learned, but the weaker she might be as well. This could cost the party's healer a spell slot, for example, in order to heal her back to full health. Which is ideal when you need the party to be just a little weaker for a big fight. If they get there fast enough, they won't have to spend anything, but Keira might not have that much information to share.
At this point the party might either want to get out of there or explore the hideout more to stop this evil, perhaps after a little insisting from Keira (or fake Keira). So there needs to be more to explore, and this could lead to fighting what the group might think is the big bad guy of this campaign.
Exploring more is a case of risk versus reward, but this does mean there should be a reward of some sort. For some players it's merely getting more story, but others might be after loot, encounters, or something similar. So you'll want to add elements according to your specific group.
Assuming the party does confront the "big bad guy", they'll have several options to deal with it. Forcing the party to run from the big bad guy could make for a fun encounter, but since grandma is the actual big bad guy I prefer to keep this option open for her or for a different boss higher up the chain of command. The fake big bad guy the party will face will be strong, but not end boss strong. This could be a hint in and of itself, but it's a subtle one not all players will pick up on. If you need the hint to be more obvious, you could always throw in a line like "She'll avenge me!", or if it has to be really obvious, a line like "My master will destroy you for this!".
So ideally we want the party to fight this fake big bad guy, but I won't delve into creating this encounter, as there's a separate guide on combat encounters on this site. But we do need to have a few things planned. Most of it relates to the character itself, how it will respond to defeat for example, or whether they fear death. Another part of it is what the results will be should the party defeat this minor boss. Will they get good loot? Will it affect the cult severely or is this boss merely a minor puppet? Will grandma retaliate in any way?
A fun way to combine some of those elements is by having grandma reward the party in the form of an innocent looking trinket. It'll give a simple bonus, but she might've added a curse, a spying spell, or any other form of magic to retaliate. Of course, the party might discover this should they have the trinket checked by a professional, but if they had no reason to mistrust grandma throughout the campaign, they'll probably think it's a regular trinket with a simple stat bonus.
After confronting the mini boss, the party will likely conclude this quest. If not, the elements we've already covered in the previous parts will provide them plenty of exploration material, at least enough until a future game session should you really need to expand upon this story line.
The question will be whether they failed or succeeded. Obviously if they rescue Keira, the quest will have been completed successfully (unless fake Keira was really convincing), but as the trinket reward from grandma showed it could still be a failure overall. The cult will still be operational, the party might be worse off than when they started (gained cursed trinkets), but the party might not know it.
Success or failure in this way is mostly something you'll need to think about if you're planning a longer campaign that stretches beyond this quest, but it can be fun to think about even if this is supposed to be just a one-shot campaign. The answers can affect the way the campaign itself plays out.
I hope this guide so far has helped you with your own campaign creation. Each campaign is different of course, but having an example can be a big help. Just keep in mind that campaigns offer a lot of flexibility, so you might want to plan a few different paths, but rarely in great detail. Playing off of what your players give you usually leads to organic paths too, which is easier if you're better at improvising, but can be done even if you're not good at it. Try to avoid over-planning, as things rarely go according to plan. But if you do over-plan and things aren't going according to this plan, the silver lining is that your unused material can be used for a future campaign or quest line in many cases.