Three Different Types of D&D Campaigns to Inspire DMs
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In theory, there are infinitely different types of D&D campaigns. You can base your campaigns in any setting or off of any idea. Don’t tell my players, but I once based an entire campaign off of characters I asked Ninja Sex Party to doodle for me at Comic-Con. In my 7ish years of being a Dungeon Master, I’ve found most campaigns get off the ground best when there’s a noun to base things around. If I remember my School House Rock, a noun is a person, place, or thing. I’ll be weighing the pros and cons of centering campaigns around a character, a destination, or object.
Character – Off to See the Wizard
Yes, the wonderful Wizard of Oz! This is a good example of a party that sets out with the express purpose of finding a person. This person usually has valuable information (how to get back to Kansas) or powers that can help (giving the party vital organs).
The main pro of this campaign basis is it gives the DM the ability to build the mythos around this goal character. The party hears whispers of the Wizard’s ability to weave the fabric of reality around them. Maybe Mr. MacGuffin is secretive and the campaign is centered on finding the clues to locate them. Or they’ve erected a massive green city around them, and it’s less about finding them and more about actually reaching them. On top of that, the DM can throw a curveball once the character is met. Is the Wizard truly who Dorothy and crew think he is? By the time the party reaches this NPC, they’ve grown stronger themselves and the Wizard’s power might not be as impressive as what they heard.
A con of this setup is that that after meeting the big character, something impactful needs to happen, and it’s hard to make something stick without being anticlimactic. Unfortunately, we aren’t all Matthew Mercer, and it’s difficult to make a character that impacts the party in a substantial way. This turning point could be Oz-like in that the Wizard’s image is all smoke and mirrors, and he has no real powers. Perhaps the Wizard needs something from the party? Or needs them to go to some place..?
Destination – The Walk to Mordor
It’s anything but simple. Frodo and Sam’s journey is all with one destination in mind: Mt. Doom. Their goal is straightforward, but all the magic lies in the journey through Middle Earth.
The biggest pro might also be the biggest con for this type of adventure. It’s nearly completely character driven. A journey across the world to a specific destination is perfect for a party that wants to role play inter-party interactions. Much of the spotlight is on the party and how they interact with the world, not the other way around. We follow the hobbits (our party) to Rivendell, and Bilbo (NPC met in session 1) happens to also be there.
The focus is on the why of our party, not of this other character. If players want to see the lore of the world itself, they need to go search it out or make themselves a part of it like Aragorn. I’m pretty sure the only lore Frodo learns is from Gandalf expositing about The Ring. Even then, the only truly useful bit to Frodo was that Gollum is gross and The Ring drove him crazy.
This may be one of the more difficult of the different types of D&D campaigns to pull off. The party has to be excited for long stretches of travel days. The DM has to prepare the road ahead, and any sidetracks Merry and Pippin take into the ent forest. Personally, I’m a sucker for the Lord of the Rings in any capacity. If my party wanted to take a trip to my made up Mordor to do the thing with the special item, I would be more than happy to oblige.
Object – The Last Crusade
Archaeology is fun! At least, when you’re looking for magic artifacts lost for millennia. The promise of fantastical loot is always a good lure for parties. Hopefully none of them are too insistent that they belong in a museum.
The biggest pro is that the D&D 5e system is built around this kind of dungeon delving. The rules for role play are nebulous at best, and is wildly dependent on players. This isn’t a bad thing, role play is my favorite part of the game. It’s just that the concrete ruleset of 5e lends itself much more nicely to a musty dungeon riddled with traps and monsters. Coincidentally, this is precisely where a lot of magical artifacts end up. Dungeons are also easily scaled up to account for bigger and stronger parties.
The only real con, if you can even call it that, is that the limit is your own imagination. Dungeoneering is fun and all until the party realizes this is the 6th beholder-ridden ground hole they’ve cleared. If the entire campaign is focused on exhuming artifacts, it needs to be kept fresh. Each totally legit archaeological dig should have its own relatively unique feeling. This is difficult to do when the party is coming up on their 10th dungeon anniversary.
Overall, each of these different types of D&D campaigns has its own advantages. My best recommendation is to talk to your party and see what sounds best for them. For me, if my players are having fun and I’m not actively ripping my hair out trying to figure out where they’re going next, I’m having fun!
The main utility I use in planning campaigns is D&D Beyond. From the magic item maker to encounter planner, the whole site is riddled with useful info to keep my ideas together.