I call upon the mighty wisdom of ENWorld to help me set up the Perfect Campaign (for my purposes)


This is the second branching off of the "We're Getting Old" thread, specifically post #79 in which I started discussing the "labor of love" that is DMing, which led to two separate (although loosely related) inquiries, one of which I elaborated further here.

Anyhow, here's what I want to do in this thread. I want to invoke the collective wisdom of ENWorld to guide me in designing a campaign. To give some context, my group has been on hiatus for about a year mainly because I'm the only person who can (and really likes to) DM, and I've been super busy with work (teaching), family (two kids and a wife), and the icing on the cake, grad school (went back for a Master's). Anyhow, I have a between-semester break in grad school from January to April so I figure that if I can take some time over the next couple months setting up a campaign, and then get it up and running in January, it might have enough momentum to carry on afterwards.

So these are the basic parameters for the campaign:

Rules: I'm hoping to use the D&D Next playtest rules and then, once the game comes out, update everything

I'm designing a setting from scratch, but porting over a lot of stuff from a setting I used for 4e and own a ton of setting material so can borrow liberally from different books

I want to combine elements of sandbox, short site-based adventures, which would eventually turn into a larger adventure path plot.

Campaign Trajectory:
I'd like to start the game off small with a small town or large village ala Shadowdale as a base for the adventures, and create a "sandboxy" region for them to explore for a bit as they advance through early levels, via a combination of hexcrawling and dungeons.

Once they get to the level 3-5 range, I'd like to start dropping hooks and threads to weave together which would gradually turn into a larger plot with a quest-vibe--say, around 7-10th level--perhaps eventually Saving the World from some Ancient Evil that is awakening (levels 12+)...you know what I'm talking about.

To put that another way, the players start off as pure adventurers seeking gold and glory. A major component of the campaign would be them gradually putting together a back story based on an intricate history and mythology, a kind of "Secret History of the World." My task would be to drop hints without seeming, at least at first, like they are anything more than bits of setting color. But gradually they would start figuring out this deeper story, and then find that they are enmeshed in something that has been unfolding for millenia. In a way you can say its a "from sandbox to metaplot" campaign, although hopefully retaining the freedom of the former even as the latter reveals itself.

The local region itself is roughly similar to something between Conan's Hyboria and the North of the Forgotten Realms, a wilderness on the edge of civilization - fairly standard stuff. The world itself has a deep history, so there are layers upon layers of lost civilizations and races, thus plenty of ruins, treasures, etc. Eventually the game will span beyond this region, but for now that will be the focus of my design with everything else just broadly sketched out.

What I Want From You:
To put it into two words: guidance and resources. I've got tons of resources in the form of hundreds of game books of varying kinds, D&D and non-D&D, but I'm hoping to get some ideas as to how to put it all together, and especially in a way that will be manageable for my busy schedule. What I *don't* want to do is save time by taking the creative component out of my hands, that is simply by running pre-made adventures in a published setting. That's fun but not nearly as inspiring as creating the world and story myself. I love world building (I've actually taught a course on it at the high school I work at) and wouldn't want to deny myself that pleasure, but I'm also looking for short-cuts - things to port into the setting, whether it be site locations, encounters, means of organization, etc.

What I Have:
As said, I've got a fairly sizeable collection of game books, including anything from dozens of different campaign settings to the rule books for all editions and many other RPGs, to plenty of campaign setting books and resources, from the Ultimate Toolbox to Paizo's Gamemastery Guide to Rob Conley'ssandbox creation guidelines. I also own quite a few adventures, from classics like Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth to Paizo's Runelords compilation...and a ton of other stuff. But the point being, I've got a lot to work with.

I'm open to suggestions, even if there's a good chance I own the product; but I'm not only, or even primarily, interested in specific book suggestions (although those are good too), but guidance on how to put all of this together in a campaign that is both A) self-designed, and B) relatively easy to run.

I'm willing and wanting to put in the time in the next few months to get things set up so that when we start in January, I don't feel harried or unprepared - I can probably find a few hours each week, so if we're talking November to mid-January, that's about 20-30 hours total. At that point I'd like to at least have the sandbox set up, with a bunch of sites loosely defined, and a few more detailed sites (perhaps modified pre-published adventures).

Some Specific Questions:
With regards to the sandbox, what's a good size for a starting region? As said previously, I'm thinking for the first few levels the PCs would be hexcrawling with a few more detailed sites. Given that our group won't be able to play more than twice a month, I like level advancement to be relatively quick - maybe one level every two sessions for the first few levels and then slowing down to one per 3-4 sessions.

I'm especially looking for good, low-to-mid level encounters and short adventures - stuff that is atmospheric, focuses on exploration, has interesting tidbits of lore, and is easily adapted to my setting. What do you recommend?

What are some suggestions for short-cuts in terms of the nuts and bolts of setting up a viable sandbox region? Specific resources, etc?

I've got to go - my daughters are having some drama that requires intervention - but I look forward to any responses. Sorry for the length of this, but I wanted to give as accurate a picture as possible.

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Well, that was fun
Staff member
OK, some resources right here on EN World which might (I hope!) help are the random generators. For your purposes, the following might be useful, if only for inspiration; these are some generic fantasy ones (I've avoided the Pathfinder ones since you specified D&D Next):

Plus there are various name generators (elf, dwarf, orc, etc.)

These may be useful for some of those little details, names, locations, and stuff that don't need to be hand-crafted. Hopefully that would save you time to focus on the more important things than the name of the eleven bartender.


First Post
Well it doesn't sound like you need the basic sort of help that is easy to provide over the web. You're experience and equipped to do a fine job already.

So really I can only think of three helpful things to suggest.

1. Get your players involved in the world building. Have them over for a session of kit bashing. Centre the discussion on your starting town. Depending on your players you can just start the ball rolling and let them run with it, or if they need more direction you can use more structures approachs like going around the circle with each person floating an idea and others suggesting modifiers, or even madlibs. "The town of _____ subsists mostly in trade of ____. The town is prosperous although they've been having problems with ___, and their patron ____. A local religious festival of ____ recently attracted the attention of ____ leading ___ to worry that _____." You get the idea.

This gives your players greater buy-in and let's you delegate some of the work. Plus they are likely to give you plenty of plot hooks to build on.

2. Theme. Perhaps the local humans tend to have Enligh sounding names, while Elves use spanish and the dwarves tend to have polish names. Then sprinkle a few oddball ones into the mix. A wandering trader with a german name or a strange letter addressed to an oriental name. This let's you do some easy reinforcment of your world-building and depending on how your plot goes you can use it to provide clues. Perhaps the cultists all hail from an area that uses basque names, or they have a habit of addressing people with strict formality.

Visual themeing is harder to do, but you can have a few iconic styles that gamers will be familiar with and mention them as they pop up. Things like celtic knotwork or germanic script.

Then when you use an off-the shelf -module you can do a quick pass through to retheme the names and visuals to match your world. "The Gnoll leader should be Stainslaw because he took a dwarfish name to ease trade with the Leadhammer clan. We change the black altar to a green torii to match the symbolism of the gateholder cult."

3. Chart your stuff. Whenever the PCs take interest in something or you sprinkle a plot hook add it to your ideas chart. As they build you can draw links until the main plot emerges. Maybe you just added Boris the wandering merchant as a bit of local color but he develops enough links to ongoing events perhaps he becomes a central figure.


Hi Mercurius.

Sandbox games are always fun. As to the size of the region to use - as your PCs level-up, the region size will have to grow considerably to continually challenge them. I've found that I tend to start with more outlines than details, filling things in as I go. I use to believe I had to have everything written out in advance and in great detail; but now I write out the bare minimum and fill-in the details as either the master plot or player-interest dictates.

I tend to borrow heavily from medieval mystery novels (Ellis Peteres, CJ Sansom, Bernard Knight, Susanna Gregory, Philip Gooden, and Michael Jecks); at least for the short-term plots. Long-term, I set up a goal (in my current campaign it's a war) that the party can choose to stop it, or support it.

I use a wiki to keep my notes in order. One of my players keeps an online log of the adventure, which I mine heavily for information. Seeing what she writes when re-telling the adventure shows me what to detail next and often fills in holes in my own notes. The adventure log is hosted online; so everyone has access to it.

One of the benefits of a wiki is that the format is easy to transport (it's all on a usb key) and I can access the information and update it off any computer (helps with the busy lifestyle). I can also make copies of the wiki for my players if they want access to more background information than the website will every contain (due to copyright constraints and time).

I hope this helps.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Thanks Morrus, those are definitely helpful. Out of curiosity, do you generally use them in preparation or ad hoc or both?

Last game I ran was a Star Trek game. I used the sci-fi generators (which I didn't list above, as they're not what you're looking for, but they're the same sort of thing) as I actually ran the game. I found them and an ipad to be a wonderful combination for on-the-fly stuff, and left me with prep time to prepare the important stuff.


Thanks folks, helpful stuff.
[MENTION=19595]Ketherian[/MENTION], what wiki do you use? I like that idea. I guess I never considered that one could make a private wiki.
[MENTION=1879]Andor[/MENTION], the last suggestion is particularly a good reminder. I'll probably use Master Plan, which I started using with my last campaign and found helpful. I suppose it might be a bit redundant with the wiki, though.

Anyhow, the reason I won't follow your first suggestion is that I feel that the world is more immersive if its new to the players. Plus I prefer having creative control as things like internal consistency and logic and aeshetic are very important to me. A couple years ago one of the players DMed in the world I had designed and developed details of the home-base city that kind of irritated me (e.g. I stole an idea from Waterdeep that the identities of the Council of Lords were kept closely secret, and he revealed them all to the PCs the first session he ran; this is a different matter, but you get the point - I like to have creative control over my campaign world).


Once A Fool
I think you may find the first link in my sig helpful. It's specifically aimed at helping DMs create and run long-term campaigns on minimal prep. From the ground up, even.


I find that one of the best things I can do when creating a region (and I usually create an area that is about 5 days travel across, by whatever method you expect the PCs to use) is to have already created several months worth of the following:
1) weather - I use a world weather almanac, figure out what matches the region's climate and geography, and steal the general weather outline, then randomly add overall weather events on about a weekly basis (so I know it will be stormy or very dry or there'll be a blizzard, etc... but not exactly how many inches of rain in a given 24 hr period)
2) random encounter tables for regions - break down the map into specific types of areas (ie the haunted wood) and create a quick table of encounters from common to uncommon - include such things as roadside encounters, typical monsters, and rare events. I generally use a d8+d12 roll table, but you can use whatever you prefer. This helps me know ahead of time what is TYPICAL for an area - and I will usually write up short 2-3 sentence descriptions of HOW a typical encounter might go - so I don't have "3 orcs" but instead have "3 orc huntsmen of the broken fang tribe - likely bringing freshly killed deer back to the tribe".
3) a calendar of campaign-important events. This may just be holy days and moon phases, or it may include things like "the war grows worse in the west - refugees begin to arrive". It will help me keep foreshadowing things - and as the campaign plays out, I will make notes of things that are happening, or will happen in the future - "George orders a set of full plate; it will be ready in 2 weeks." I mark the ready date on the calendar, so when they get back to town, I can say "George - your armor is finally ready for final fitting - the smith is anxious to see you!"
4) lists of race-and-culture appropriate names for people, places and such. Nothing is worse than calling every stableboy Bob! Or calling two taverns in a row the Prancing Pony.

5) three or four places the PCs know about that sound scary, adventurous and thematic - I always have at least one "dungeon site" up my sleeve that I've mentioned in the past, but which the PCs have not yet explored - so when they are bored and unfocused, I can have them find a tasty lead that draws them back to that locale... and, in the same way, I have a set of NPCs that they've heard of, know SOMETHING about, but don't "know", ready to use when needed - a famous bard, a traveling wizard, a mercenary company, or whatever. Seed them into the backstory, so they're there to use when you need something. Even just a retired adventurer Innkeeper can be a handy thing to have mentioned 3 levels ago...


Staff member
1) check out the campaign ideas link in my sig- hundreds of ideas from fellow ENWorlders in there that are essentially pret a yoinker.

2) have some NPC or group of NPCS- such as town criers- that drop all kinds of plot hooks in their ordinary course of business.

3) as you run the campaign, listen to your players' table talk about the campaign. They'll be discussing things they think about the world and sometimes, what they wish would happen. And you go and recycle that into the above-mentioned NPCs banter. Your players will think they're reading your mind, while in reality, you're robbing them blind. This will also reduce your burden of trying to come up with plots on the fly because instead of just your mind at work, you're putting theirs to work as well.

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