I was asked a few days ago to make a thousand word article on how I make my Dnd campaigns. Since I had a few twelve hour watches to make pass by I decided to take her up on the offer.
Reach into my rectum and pull something out. That’s how I come up with my Dnd campaigns.
In reality it starts with seeing something in a movie or TV show, or reading it in a book and going “damn I want to play something like this in a campaign. I want to play a character like this.” Then comes the eventuality of knowing that no one else can DM the campaign that I want to play so it is my job to create the game I want to play.
Next comes the laying down of facts of the universe. Is the physics and all that other shit in the world the same? Is the campaign set in space, underground, or on a different planet with different physics/gravity/composition? Once these things are sorted out next comes the setting. Is the majority of the play going to be in a large city environment or in a forest? I work out the things like population density, general characteristics of the populace, and what the people want. Next comes your extraordinary characters, your major NPCs (because the NPCs should be almost as strong as the player characters) and the major antagonists both active and circumstantial.
After all this comes your planned confrontations. This is when I start plotting out my quests, making sure that they will be challenging to my PCs but not rape you sideways with a vampire dungeon at level four. Your dungeons shouldn’t be any more or less detailed then your world. Focus on the major details and the fine description when planning and plotting out your dungeon. The general “the walls are slimy and wet, and it feels as if the cave has a breath of it’s own” is good, but this is the kind of detail that can be made up in the middle of the a game play session. I choose to focus then on the things like “as you advance down the cave the floor begins to lower and you begin descending into the darkness. You feel a wave of evil envelop you as you cross into the darkness, and through your peripheral vision you see things that were not meant to be seen by the human eye. The walls are covered with runic writing and pictures carved into the rock. The pictures depict tentacles and humans praying to a illithid crustacean creature.” As you can see, a little bit of planning your description goes a long way and turned this run of the mill dungeon into an almost Cthulhuoid universe.
A few other major points to cover on your dungeons is “How do they interact with the rest of the world?” Your dungeon of oversized toads is cool, but how have they been eating for the past 200 years for them to grow so large? Your den of Vampires living in the second story of an opium den, how are they feeding? What is the local populace noticing about these occurrences. Are there witnesses to the attacks (from the toads most likely, the vampires maybe not.) and if this dungeon is widely known about what has the local populace done to try and wipe it out? A perfect example of this is the Lamplight Caverns in Fallout 3. The kids knew that they didn’t have the power to take out the mire lurks, so instead they built a wall and posted a guard. What has your community done along these lines?
Finally you need to make your characters NEED to clear out these dungeons. They need to feel a deep reason to want to endanger themselves, and not just because “there are shiny things in the dungeon!” or because it is expected. If the characters are from the area have there be a psychological need to help them save their town such as a PC’s sister was abducted by the vampires running the opium den. Now not only do they have a reason to raid the place but now they have a reason not to just burn the entire building to the ground. If the characters are from outside an area develop a relationship with a local to the party. It could be a young fatherless boy attaching himself to a paladin because the paladin makes him feel safe, or it could be a lover, developing a relationship with the young wizard. Don’t be afraid to make these relationships feel real. Don’t be afraid to make your young lover promise to sleep with the wizard if he saves her sister, or does something a little shady to make some money for her.
Consider the reality of the universe you create. The good needs to be counteracted by the evil, and vice versa. If vampires are running amuck killing openly and all that fun stuff then there will be large groups of paladins traveling through the country side seeking to banish this evil. Once the evil banished these groups will begin to fall apart due to a lack of need. On the opposite side of things once the evil lords have taken over infighting will begin. Anyone willing to wage the kind of war that evil wages is in fact unreliable enough to fight you months later for more territory. Your populace needs to be the opposite of the leading class, because a leaderless country will never work. A little mutual hate never hurt anyone (and in fact it is pretty normal except in cases of truly “people’s leaders” which in Dnd would be your paladin king and thief lord.)
Balance is everything, engage your players, and make the story not quite all about them. The players are a major player in the story, but they aren’t the only players.