The Basics

A campaign is a series of regular roleplaying game sessions which advance a continuing story. It is the most common form of tabletop roleplaying, at least in the CLAWs community. Once-off adventures, or "modules", which theoretically only require one session to complete, are usually only found at conventions.

A traditional campaign needs a set of players and a game master (most commonly referred to as a "dungeon master", or DM—a term coined in the original Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook which has stuck for ever). The players control one character each (a "player character", or PC). The DM prepares most of the framework for the story, is responsible for narrating the results of the PCs' decisions, and controls all the supporting characters (non-player characters, or NPCs) who appear in the story.

Running your first campaign can be an intimidating prospect. Roleplaying sourcebooks sometimes provide blow-by-blow examples of how the system mechanics are supposed to work during a game session, but are often low on details about what is actually involved in preparing and running a whole game. As a result, roleplayers new to the hobby tend to get started by playing in someone else's campaign to see how it's done.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult for new players to find an existing campaign to join if there is a dearth of experienced DMs and a large number of newbies. The solution? More players taking the plunge and starting campaigns of their own. Hence this article.


First you need to decide what kind of campaign you want to run: determine the setting, genre and system. You may choose to use an existing sourcebook for both system and setting, or opt for something more homebrewed.

The setting is the world in which the story will take place: Middle Earth; the Star Wars universe; the Wild West; historically accurate Renaissance Italy; the Prohibition-era United States; a fantasy re-imagining of medieval Japan—the possibilities are endless.

By "genre" I mean the kind of story you want your campaign to tell: if the setting is fantasy, do you want epic high fantasy full of elves riding dragons, or gritty low fantasy about mercenaries freezing their toes off in the snow? If it's science fiction, do you want political conflict between space empires, or the adventures of smugglers on a tiny, rickety ship?

The system is the set of mechanics that you will use to resolve the success or failure of your players' actions. Some roleplaying systems are complex, and provide detailed rules for many specific situations. Some systems are simple and abstract, and rely on agreement within the play group that certain details will be "handwaved" and narrated.

Which systems are easiest for a new DM to use is a subject of constant debate. A complex system can provide more unambiguously "fair" results, but may require frequent consultation of the sourcebook and complicated calculation of dice totals. A simple system provides a loose framework within which it is easy to improvise impromptu rules, but some players may consider such ad-hoc, high-level resolutions to be "unfair" or otherwise unsatisfying.

Ideally, the campaign concept should be something you and your players are equally excited about. If you are really invested in a particular idea, you could advertise it and see who is interested. If you already have a group of players in mind, you could compromise on the idea that you all like the best.

Preparing For the First Session

The single most important thing about running a campaign is to be brave enough to bite the bullet and actually have the first session. Don't overplan—assume that the first session will mostly consist of players creating their characters, establishing the initial party dynamics and asking you questions about the game setting. Prepare a short, simple adventure with a well-defined and achievable goal, and give the players time to play their characters.

What kind of characters you should allow your players to make is a subject complicated enough for a whole other article (and if you browse through previous CLAWmarks, you will find some). Suffice it to say that characters need a reason to work together and trust each other, and that reason should not be that they're all PCs in the same roleplaying game. A party which consists mostly of loners, people with vastly incompatible goals or people who are constantly plotting against each other may provide some exciting inter-player conflict for a couple of sessions but will ultimately implode. Be firm, and be prepared to veto ninjas, spies, people secretly possessed by demons, or anything else that you think will be too disruptive.

You should also discourage character concepts that you don't think will fit into the game genre at all. If you're going to run a combat-heavy campaign set in a war zone, a player with a pacifist character with no combat skills might not have very much fun.

Character concepts should not overlap so much that some of the characters seem completely redundant, but there's no need to go to the extremes of D&D-style party balance (we only need one wizard, one fighter, one cleric...). If you're running a combat-heavy campaign, it's perfectly fine to have four soldiers, if they're four different soldiers. If you're running a political campaign, you can have four non-combatant diplomats.

Be prepared to revise your ideas for the campaign after incorporating ideas that your players have brought to the table. Once you know what characters your players have created, you can adjust certain plotlines to give them greater personal importance.

I would also recommend giving your players an opportunity to revise their character concepts—especially if they weren't very familiar with the game setting or system during character creation. You can allow them to change some of their stats, or perhaps even switch to completely different characters—as a player, I have sometimes thought of a much better character after a couple of sessions, when I have a much better understanding of the setting and tone of the campaign. You can do this more easily if you plan the first adventure as a prologue to the rest of your story, perhaps setting it a few months in the past.

Now Keep Going

Now that you've got the campaign off the ground, you need to give your players something interesting to do during each session. I suggest keeping a buffer of short-term plot events that you can draw on as you need to. How much you need to plan beforehand depends on various factors: how active your players are, how much of the last session remains unresolved, and how comfortable you are with improvisation.

Active players will come up with things to do. They will want to plan things carefully. They will go off on personal tangents. This is usually a good thing, since it means less work for you. If you have a large play group, it is often difficult to engage with all the players at the same time, and it is helpful if the players who are not involved in a particular conversation can briefly entertain themselves.

Beware, however, of an overabundance of single-player side quests—you want to run one game, not a separate game for each player! Try to link them with each other and tie them into your main plot.

If your players like planning and talking, keeping up a steady pace of plot progression can be tricky—some sessions can be spent almost entirely on planning and negotiating with NPCs. This is not necessarily a problem if everyone is still having fun, but if you tread water for too many consecutive sessions, your players may start getting bored.

Some players are not very active—beginner players in particular can be very reticent. They will seldom take the initiative—they will mostly react to what happens. If your group is like this, expect to do most of the talking and to go through your buffer quickly. On the bright side, you'll probably get more done in a session—but you may feel that your players didn't participate as much as you would have liked. You may need to encourage them to speak and make decisions, and introduce a slower pace yourself so that they have some space in which to play through character interactions.

Your Story

Decide on the overall structure that your campaign's story is going to take. Will you have one big arc leading up to a climax? Several smaller arcs? A different monster every week? I tend to use combinations of these. If you have no grand plan in mind, you could start with a completely episodic structure, and extend the adventures which were most popular into a longer story. If you do have a grand plan, it's still a good idea to give your players some smaller, achievable goals to make them feel that they're making progress.

Avoid thinking of your plot as a story with a predetermined end! Players can usually detect "railroading"—the DM forcing a preferred outcome while giving the players the illusion of choice—and will come to resent it if you keep doing it. Plan out future events and NPCs' motivations in broad strokes, but leave yourself room to fill in specifics later in response to what your players do. If there's a detailed, specific idea that you really like, make it adaptable enough to be inserted into several possible points of your story.

Be prepared to tweak your plan if your players do completely unexpected things, as long as it still makes sense. Be careful not to reveal too much information in the early stages of the story, or you will be bound by it and it will be harder to change things later.

You can effect some changes through in-game events. If your players find your End Boss Villain to be anticlimactically dull but have lots of interesting history with his lieutenant, have her assassinate him and take his place! Place emphasis on the parts of the story that your players have found the most interesting.


This article has focused on traditional tabletop roleplaying games, but there are many different styles of roleplaying—your campaign could be very different to what I have described above.

For example, some play groups rotate DMs between sessions—sometimes each DM runs a completely different game, and sometimes the DMs share one game world, taking responsibility for different plotlines and NPCs. This may be a good solution if many people in your play group would like to try DMing, or if nobody really wants to commit to being a DM full-time.

There are also many independent game systems which take a very different approach to roleplaying itself. In particular, many emphasize the storytelling aspect, and either give more power to players in narrating the outcomes of their actions or do away with the idea of a DM entirely.

Phone a Friend

Most DMs love to talk about DMing so much that it's difficult to get them to stop, especially if they get the opportunity to reveal all the clever plans they have to conceal from their current players. If your campaign is stuck in a rut, or you think you've painted yourself into a corner, ask someone for suggestions, or bounce some ideas off them.

CLAWs has previously hosted a couple of DMs' evenings—events at which DMs can compare notes and exchange advice. There will certainly be more of these in the future, so watch the mailing list!

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Page last modified on January 31, 2011, at 01:37 PM