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Dungeon Master (DM) Workshop is a regular feature in which Charles draws on his experience as a DM, as well as what he’s learned from the other DM’s, to help people run better games.

This particular entry is part of a series designed to help DM’s craft custom campaigns from scratch.

From the moment I heard about Dungeons and Dragons as a kid I was intrigued. Growing up on games like Final Fantasy VII and Baldur’s Gate, I knew that my favorite video games we’re influenced by D&D. But it wasn’t until I learned what it really was, and how it was played that I became intensely interested in it.

I had seen some of my friends go through an officially published campaign, and I was impressed by the level of interaction and the depth of options available to the players. I didn’t quite understand why anyone would want to be the Dungeon Master, though. “Where’s the fun in reading from the book and controlling lame NPC’s?” I thought.

But then I saw a monster that didn’t quite behave like the others. I asked my friend about it, and he told me that it wasn’t in the book, but that he had made it up himself. This blew my mind, and I started to think of all the other things a DM could put into a campaign. By the time my understanding of the game finally took form, and I realised that pre-published material was in no way necessary to the experience, I knew I had found my calling.

That’s not to say I have anything against premades. In fact, I’m currently playing through Horde of the Dragon Queen and Princes of the Apocalypse right now! In both cases I have great DM’s that are making the campaigns a treat to be in. But when it comes time for me to be the DM, I prefer to come up with the material myself.

As I’ve moved around the country and been a part of all kinds of RPG groups, I’ve noticed that I am in the minority. When I talk to other DM’s, I often hear that the reason they prefer to use published campaigns is they believe creating a campaign from scratch themselves will be a significantly larger amount of work, or their creativity is only sufficient to flesh out pre-made material.

But crafting a custom campaign isn’t nearly as hard as many think it is. The extra time investment compared to using pre-mades is minimal. You don’t have to be a literary genius to put together a fun and interesting experience. The key thing to remember is that your are delivering exactly that, an experience.

You aren’t writing a module for someone else to use. You don’t have to make fancy maps and complicated NPCs if you don’t want to. You don’t have to craft a backstory for your world, or even define anything other than the space the players find themselves in. The one and only thing you must do is create an experience. Everything else is optional, and only exists to serve the experience you want to create.

Future entries in this series will deal with the details of how you construct these experiences. But for now, consider what kind of experiences you can deliver (or better yet, what kind of experience *you* want to create for your next campaign!).

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Do you want your players to feel like they are constantly on the brink of death as they desperately search through the corridor of a great dungeon, fearing their end is around every corner?
  • Perhaps you want to see the players spend a lot of time interacting with each other, rather than traps and monsters?
  • Or weighing their potential decisions against each other in a story about intrigue and politics?
  • Maybe you envision a scenario in which the party has contradicting interests, and the players mistrust and fear each other as much as they fear the army of enemies they face.

Think about the moments that players will never forget. Those moments define the experience you are trying to craft. There’s a lot that goes into creating those moments, but the tools you will use depend on the experience you want them to build, not the other way around.

  • David Turknett

    I find both types of play equally rewarding. However, even when I run a published campaign I rarely use it “as is”. I mostly use it as inspiration for the parties own story. I use what works well for us and toss the rest. Sometimes I use the provided plotlines but usually I tie them to the characters and weave their story into it.Published material can save time in planning out some of the tedious stuff like dungeoun design and monster placement which I consider to be secondary to the story. That being said, my favorite way to DM is to start small and let a campaign grow organically based upon events that arise in each playing session.

  • Charles Joey Cox

    Agreed! Like I said in the article, I’ve got nothing against premades. I just want to help some folks who are intimidated by scratch made campaigns.

  • David Turknett

    Yep, I find the best way to write is to take the episodic soap opera approach. Keep ahead of the story just enough to make it through a session or two. Then let the events that unfold dictate the direction of the story.