D&D 5E New DM with campaign anxiety

fendermallot

Explorer
I am not too far off from my group of new players finishing the essentials box and I don't think things have gone too badly. I know the rules pretty well (I've played before), but I'm having problems figuring out my next campaign arc.

my group is moving down to waterdeep and we plan on basing ourselves from there. One of the characters has immersed himself in the 3e (maybe 2e) waterdeep lore guide we found and has decided that he will be a gnome with connections to the tinkers guild there. Our other members will be hired guards for the gnome player as he delivers some important tinkering plans to the guild. They are waylaid at sea and wake up floating in the wreckage of their ship only to see a Caravelle with a specific flag and name sailing away.

that is my introduction to the campaign.

My overarching story, at this point, may be too hard for a new dm to pull off. I was thinking of something along the lines of shapeshifting demons have established a cult to the East of the Sword Coast. Their goal is to summon their master to the mortal realm. I haven't decided if that should be via a ritual of sacrifice or maybe through opening planar rifts in order to weaken the barrier between the planes (thanks crit role for that idea). This is a pretty big idea and I have an idea of the steps that the bad guys would have to take in order to be successful, but not how to present it or set it up for the players.

I'm feeling really at a loss and overwhelmed.

any advice?

thanks everyone!
 

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DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
You got this. Keep asking yourself questions and be ready to grow.

Remember that it is okay for some things to be unfinished. Only the stuff for your next session or two needs real polishing. Maybe have some solid ideas for what is next but don't spend too much time on them too early.

It is okay to change your mind, and revise, revise, revise! Even better, purchase a module or two with good reviews and file off the serial numbers.

Keep a big idea in mind and drop a few hints. Flavor a few straight-forward sub-quests. If the players grab on, move with them. If they go somewhere else, just rewrite it all to fit with the new direction.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
So how do you set up a doom cult over many sessions? Start with a basic series of enemies by CR. At low levels players can deal with weak things like kobolds, goblins, and some humanoids in the books. These are the guys doing basic grunt work for evil plots.

Thieving to get cash. Kidnapping for ransom and sacrifices. Somewhat generic bad-guy things that get in the way of the PCs one way or another. But drop some hints. They have the same contact. They have orders written in the same hand. One always has a panther medallion.

Next CR up you see humanoid casters start leading the missions. Their goals are bigger and more dangerous. Maybe a town disappears and your players get a hook to investigate. Choose a style of monster the cult likes that has versions at a few CRs and have them start showing up. Theme it.

Beg, borrow, steal. The first Season of Critical Role is stuffed with cliches and they work great. Players are fine with it. Give them a sense of momentum and don't let the game have too much dead air. And do not, do not remove player agency. Just find a way to write your ideas into their choices so they work together.
 

fendermallot

Explorer
So how do you set up a doom cult over many sessions? Start with a basic series of enemies by CR. At low levels players can deal with weak things like kobolds, goblins, and some humanoids in the books. These are the guys doing basic grunt work for evil plots.

Thieving to get cash. Kidnapping for ransom and sacrifices. Somewhat generic bad-guy things that get in the way of the PCs one way or another. But drop some hints. They have the same contact. They have orders written in the same hand. One always has a panther medallion.

Next CR up you see humanoid casters start leading the missions. Their goals are bigger and more dangerous. Maybe a town disappears and your players get a hook to investigate. Choose a style of monster the cult likes that has versions at a few CRs and have them start showing up. Theme it.

Beg, borrow, steal. The first Season of Critical Role is stuffed with cliches and they work great. Players are fine with it. Give them a sense of momentum and don't let the game have too much dead air. And do not, do not remove player agency. Just find a way to write your ideas into their choices so they work together.
thanks for the reply! As I've sat here trying to sort some of my ideas and how to get them to gel together, I looked at a map of Toril and realized that I could easily use a mostly unexplored landmass to the west for my campaign and have everything be new and fresh.

My players are starting in a shipwreck. I might have them be shanghai'd and taken to Returned Abeir (Laerakond) as slaves then maybe have them take jobs to earn their freedom. Keeping in mind that there will be ways for them to gain their freedom that does not include working for the "bad guys". Then I think I might introduce them to a group who is not happy to be ruled by dragons, or the worshippers of the dawn titans, etc.

thanks for the ideas on how to slowly set it up. It's still really good info to adapt!
 

ninjayeti

Adventurer
Sounds like you have some cool ideas.

First, focus on the next adventure rather than trying to map out the whole campaign in advance. Doing a ton of planning in advance is unnecessary, and stories often go in unexpected directions, so it can be counterproductive. Sounds like your PC's start stranded at sea - how do they survive and return to land? Wash up on a mysterious island? Captured by sahuagin? Rescued by sea elves? You can run this adventure perfectly well even if you have no idea what the next step is.

Second, if you know what the bad guys are doing, you can figure out how the PC's intersect with that. Sounds like the bad guys stole some tinker guild plans. The PC's have a motivation to recover the plans and lead on the thieves. How do they find them and what happens when they do?

Third, a linear structure, where each adventure provides a hook to the next one, is fairly easy and can work well for a campaign like this. Each adventure has 1) a hook that gets resolved (the stolen tinker plans); 2) some information on the overall plot (the thieves were not simple pirates, but members of a demonic cult); and 3) a hook to the next adventure (the the cultists have a captive gnome artificer, who built the device from the plans; the artificer and device were taken to a new location).

Finally, don't try to stretch things out too far. You don't need to map out a years-long adventure path that takes the PC's to level 20. Build in as many or as few adventures into the arc as make sense and cap it with a satisfying finale before the players start to lose their enthusiasm for the story.

If all else fails, an episodic campaign is a great option. Writing one adventure is easier (and less intimidating) than writing a longer arc, and is probably the best option for newer DMs. Once you have a few successful (or even no-so-successful) episodic adventures under your belt you will have a lot more skill and confidence to tackle a more ambitious projects.
 

Dausuul

Legend
IME, the most important thing is not to try too hard to control the game. You can play off the players' ideas. If they seem interested in something, that can be your hook for the next adventure (even if it wasn't what you had in mind). Get them engaged and they'll do a lot of the work for you.

And I second the suggestion to keep to a more episodic approach; it's a lesson I am finally learning after repeatedly burning myself out on epic campaigns. We start out with visions of "The Lord of the Rings," but D&D is really better suited to "Conan the Barbarian"--short stories full of action, larger-than-life heroes, and fangorious monsters.
 




Great advice so far. If you can afford it, pickup Dragon Heist. (Don't run the module as written though.) Its a great resource for things in Waterdeep. Lots of locations and a bunch of personalities that are pretty focal for the city. You can use the Cassalantar story parts for your demon cult, or at least the Waterdeep part of your campaign.

Don't read Dragon Heist front to back. Skim it, get the overview. Then take a look at Dragon Heist Remix – Part 1: The Villains (and the rest of the series) as it shows you one way you can take the content from DH and re-use it for a better and more complex (but not complicated) campaign.

Then, again if you have the money, you can take a look at Princes of the Apocalypse, as that takes place to the east in the Dessarin Valley. Again, use it as a resource for maps and key NPCs, but put your own plot to it.
 

fendermallot

Explorer
Great advice so far. If you can afford it, pickup Dragon Heist. (Don't run the module as written though.) Its a great resource for things in Waterdeep. Lots of locations and a bunch of personalities that are pretty focal for the city. You can use the Cassalantar story parts for your demon cult, or at least the Waterdeep part of your campaign.

Don't read Dragon Heist front to back. Skim it, get the overview. Then take a look at Dragon Heist Remix – Part 1: The Villains (and the rest of the series) as it shows you one way you can take the content from DH and re-use it for a better and more complex (but not complicated) campaign.

Then, again if you have the money, you can take a look at Princes of the Apocalypse, as that takes place to the east in the Dessarin Valley. Again, use it as a resource for maps and key NPCs, but put your own plot to it.
I don't own Dragon Heist, but I found an overview of it somewhere on the internet and that was sort of the basis for my campaign idea.

I actually had another idea of taking my players, to begin, West to Returned Abeir (Laerakond) as slaves picked up at sea and have them earn their freedom and perhaps join factions (or not!) to overthrow the Dragon rulers or to join the Dragon led governments and search our their remaining former masters, the Dawn Titans. Then, when the players feel done in that area they could perhaps make their way back to the Sword Coast and take care of personal tasks, etc.

too many ideas. thanks!
 

fba827

Adventurer
Breathe
Accept that you cannot account for everything
Dive In with the parts that excite you for adventure and campaign building
Fill in minor details that don't excite you but think you'll need ready for the basic premise
Make a couple extra names and items and such to pull out on the fly when they ask for the name of some random barkeep and spend half the session talking to him when the whole adventure is happening right outside the door if they would only turn around.....
Have fun and good for you for trying!!!!
 

fba827

Adventurer
Oh also, tell the players upfront at the start of the first session (before any of them has a chance to dazzle you with his/her read knowledge) that this is YOUR world and things may not be exactly as presented in published materials (thus giving yourself freedom to deviate and not have some player be a better encyclopedia than you).
 

Lots of good advice. There's a few things I'd like to add to what's already been said based on my own experiences.
1) Focus on Stories, Not Stats - Sometimes we have something too specific in mind and it limits us or screws us over. In a long running campaign I planned on the PCs taking on the evil, tyrant necromancer around 8th level. That never happened. I didn't plan on having a campaign that lasted 5 years. The campaign took a turn for the better and we had a lot more fun doing other things. The stories of the necromancer were what was important to the setting, and not the stats. My original idea was a basic Necromancer NPC with a few magic items and lots of minions but it was never set in stone. The PCs never actually faced the Necromancer until they were 20th level. By then, after research, spies, and scrying, they discovered the evil tyrant was a Death Tyrant from outer space whose ship crashed aons ago. That wasn't my original plan. If they would have faced a CR8 monster at 20th level it would have been a complete joke. If I would have planned out the encounter, rather than focus on a narrative, I would have completely wasted my time. Build the stats when the encounters are closer to happening.
2) Don't Look too Far Ahead - There's no point in worrying about what the PCs will be doing when they're 15th level if you haven't even started your first session. Trying to plan that far ahead will overwhelm anyone. It's good to have a meta-plot for your campaign. However, focus on the moment, where the PCs are right now. Then try to build encounters and a narrative that fits within the framework of your meta-plot while not being contrived. From my own campaign, I had the PCs working as Road Wardens to keep travel safe after the Great War. My meta-plot was a Spelljammer game with all kinds of strange aliens. So rather than BOOM! there are aliens everywhere, I started it as a normal D&D game to set the tone. It starts off like normal D&D where there are Zombies eating brains, and the PCs are fighting the remnants of an Undead Army. Then it turned into the horror trope where they find dead bodies with their brains sucked out. First instinct it's more Zombies, but where are they? It's actually Aliens eating brains, and it quickly turns into a sci-fi horror. How long did it take to get there? About five sessions. Basically it took as long as it needed to establish the PCs and their place in the world, and then turn it upside down. That's what the others meant when they say "don't try to control everything." You need to have a rough plan, a story, but then let the players and their characters move around. Take notes, and revise. See what they're doing and revise. I planned on three sessions but we were having fun being Road Wardens so I just let it happen.
3) Helpful but Kinda Useless - Adding NPCs that are friendly or helpful, who have their own motivations, is a great way to bring the world to life and provide exposition without reading boxed text. I tend to make them useless in some way: too scared, too busy, frail, incompetent, unreliable, etc. In your campaign it would be easy to have the players wake up and a friendly, very old, fisherman is standing over them. He's old so he doesn't have good eyesight, and can't really tell them what he saw or heard. He pulled them up in his nets and by the grace of the Sea God they're alive. He can tell them all about the town, and point them to the harbormaster for more information about that Caravelle they see out there. I add lots of NPCs like this in my games. Characters like this are perfect for delivering the plot hooks without feeling like it's a train ride. They're also useless for adventuring, which means the PCs are the only ones who can remedy the situation and must take action themselves.
4) Session Outlines - Years ago someone posted a session outline format on this forum and I've been using it ever since. I tried to find it with a search but I can't, so I'm sorry but no link to that post. However, a session outline helps me stay focused and gives me the basics so the game is running smoothly. Writing a session outline is pretty simple. Here's basic stuff from my own outlines:
  • Quick Recap - Start with something you can read to the group to remind them and yourself what happened. "Where we last left off the Road Warden heroes had just hunted down and defeated the orc raiders when they witnessed a great fireball fall from the sky and land in the town of Hillsfoot far off on the horizon. Riding their horses, the heroes move swiftly to investigate." A few simple lines to remind everyone what happened and to get ready for what's about to happen next.
  • DM Goals - I usually have few simple things I want to accomplish in this session like "Evoke a feeling of paranoia and isolation" and "Reveal horrific alien origins for previously mundane fantasy events".
  • PC Goals - A few things the PCs are trying to accomplish like "Investigate the falling star" and "Protect the people of Hillsfoot". These are often more important than the DM's goals because the players often forget why they're doing what they're doing.
  • Locations - Jot down a few places of importance and a few sentences outlining what that place is, who's there, and why it's important. I'll usually have 5 locations in my outline, something to read quickly so I can create the scene for the players. Oldham's Farmhouse: the farmhouse on the hill belongs to the Oldham family. The front door is wide open. There are no lights on in the house. The PCs look around and find no signs of forced entry. On the 2nd floor, Farmer Oldham is lying in bed. He's very pale. Closer inspection reveals a blood-soaked pillow and a hole in his head. His brains are missing.
  • Encounters - A few encounters I want to happen, and keep it simple: Monster (CR and exp), quick description, motivations, and treasure. Psychic Ooze (CR1/2; 100exp; pg 240, 243 MM); The Psychic Gray Ooze is devouring townsfolk. It's broadcasting echoes of the last victim's thoughts, and luring people in. Treasure: Boots of the North. You hear a familiar voice. The sheriff is calling out from the barn. His voice is muffled. "Help! I've fallen and I'm hurt. Is there anyone out there?" You look into the barn and see a big puddle, and the sheriff's boots in the middle of it, glistening. Roll initiative!
  • Random Treasure - I'll put some thematic treasure in there and have a random table, usually 1 to 6 and keep it simple. If it's pirates it might be coins, scrimshaw, jewelry, potion of swimming, potion of water breathing, etc. These are where the consumables go. That way I don't have to worry about what I'm giving them and letting the players roll for treasure is always fun. It's like gambling, but you always win something.
I save my outlines on a Google Drive so I can access using my phone. Over time I started typing up my entire adventure online, and then referencing it in my outlines so I can access the full notes of the adventures whenever I need to. Keep it simple and thematic so it's easy to read quickly and improvise.

Edit: a quick story about DM anxiety. Around 14 years ago I was running games for the neighborhood parents and the kids. My friend's brother-in-law hadn't played since high school and was eager to start playing D&D again. We had 11 people playing and most were kids. I felt completely overwhelmed, like nothing is getting done and I'm herding cats. So I went home defeated. Then I started getting messages on our Yahoo board from the parents and my friend. Everyone loved it. What I thought was a disaster was a lot of fun. So I read carefully and came back with a renewed vigor. I ran the sessions more "tournament style" because there was so many people: each person has 30 seconds to complete their actions, roll all of your dice at the same time, only read out the final result, etc. It was even better then next session. After the summer was over the the kids were back in school the brother-in-law wanted to run a game. I'll never forget that first session. He was shaking as he's reading his notes. He was overwhelmed with fear. Our friend just put his hand on his shoulder, "Slow down. Take a breath. Start over." He had to overcome his fear of public speaking, fear of failure, and basic DM anxiety all at the same time. Let me just say this guy had run some of the best campaigns I've ever played in, including that first one. His campaigns were brilliant in their own way, and I've stolen a LOT of great ideas from them. Fast forward a decade and his son is getting married. He's standing in front of 80 people with a microphone, no problem. Being a DM helped him overcome his fear of public speaking. You just never know.
 
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aco175

Legend
I like to plan a campaign in arcs of a few levels to keep things fresh and to keep from boredom creeping in. A good starting arc may involve getting to Waterdeep and finding out about the death cult and putting a stop to a base plan of theirs along with defeating the BBEG. This may take the PCs from levels 1-5 and then another arc from levels 6-9 or something where they infiltrate the larger cult and defeat the 3 heads of the order only to find the overarching leader is a masked lord of the city. Levels 10-13/14 is where the PCs need to deal with politics as much as combat in order to stop the final plans from coming true. My campaigns do not get past this level.

Starting off, the PCs fins themselves lost at sea or washed up on shore. They are found by some low level cultists to save them or help them. You can have one o f the npcs be someone the players like and want to befriend. The cultist may have a problem they need adventurers for and hire the PCs to clean out a goblin temple, which is a perfect base for the local cultist chapter to form in. The PCs gain a level, friends, and some knowledge of the temple for when they need to come back in a few levels. The cultist/friend asks the PCs to drop something off in the city since the PCs are going there anyways.

This sets up some great elements. Would the PCs try to reform the NPC friend after they find out about the demon cult. Will the PCs open the sealed letter being delivered? Would the city hire them since they know about the temple location? Maybe have the 5th level BBEG show up after the PCs clear out the goblin temple and thank them but show the players that he is not the best of people by having him suck the life out of a goblin that was captured. This foreshadows that the PCs may not have done the best thing but should realize that they are not that powerful to stop it yet. There are some good Matt Colville videos on this.
 

Bolares

Hero
Hey, DM with anxiety here. Just wanted to say you are not alone in feeling the way you do. I've being DMing for a decade now, but from time to time I can feel insecure and overwhelmed. That's okay, that happens. When you feel like that try to figure out why you feel the way you do. Sometimes it's about the game, sometimes it's about real life afecting the game. It's okay to talk to your players and say you need some time to feel prepared for the next arch of the game, or you need some mental health time to feel better. If I'm insecure about the game I try to see if there is some pre-made adventure that covers what I'm trying to do and steal from it, or if I'm in a rough place I just run the pre-made adventure as is, because it gives my some creative time out.
 

I am not too far off from my group of new players finishing the essentials box and I don't think things have gone too badly. I know the rules pretty well (I've played before), but I'm having problems figuring out my next campaign arc.

my group is moving down to waterdeep and we plan on basing ourselves from there. One of the characters has immersed himself in the 3e (maybe 2e) waterdeep lore guide we found and has decided that he will be a gnome with connections to the tinkers guild there. Our other members will be hired guards for the gnome player as he delivers some important tinkering plans to the guild. They are waylaid at sea and wake up floating in the wreckage of their ship only to see a Caravelle with a specific flag and name sailing away.

that is my introduction to the campaign.
That's pretty solid. Biggest hurdle I can see is the player that knows all the lore. It's normally the DM that controls the world. So, make sure to either let the player tell the group how Waterdeep works, and keep the entire story arch outside of Waterdeep. Or tell the player that you control Waterdeep and it's not necessarily matching with the official lore.
My overarching story, at this point, may be too hard for a new dm to pull off. I was thinking of something along the lines of shapeshifting demons have established a cult to the East of the Sword Coast. Their goal is to summon their master to the mortal realm. I haven't decided if that should be via a ritual of sacrifice or maybe through opening planar rifts in order to weaken the barrier between the planes (thanks crit role for that idea). This is a pretty big idea and I have an idea of the steps that the bad guys would have to take in order to be successful, but not how to present it or set it up for the players.

I'm feeling really at a loss and overwhelmed.

any advice?

thanks everyone!
Like others wrote: no need to work this out in detail. Plan at most 1-2 sessions ahead (personally, I plan 0.5 session ahead). Players tend to not follow your story line anyway. Let it happen.

But I will plan ahead the main story arch. So, the cultists are attempting to achieve a goal. Maybe they are getting some items, establishing a lair somewhere, then start incantations which cause monsters to appear, before being successful to get the BBEG into the world. Now you know the encounters that your PCs will see: Early on they will see raiding cultists that try to get some items. Then some hints about a lair. Then weird monsters. And then the big dungeon crawl. And suddenly it does not matter anymore where the PCs go. This time line will happen regardless, and you as a DM can speed it up or slow it down. Mix in some random encounters and you have a campaign.
 

Oofta

Legend
I don't have a ton of advice that hasn't already been given and there's no one style that fits everyone. On the other hand, I've been DMing for a long, long, time and I still feel overwhelmed at times.

One thing I didn't see was Random Lists. I rely heavily on improvisation with the aid of a few lists. What kind of lists? Do a google search for "random ____ name" for taverns, people, items, you name it. One site for example is behind the name for when I want somewhat realistic names based on real world cultures. I have a cheat sheet that I can refer to, so if someone wants to talk to the orc guard I can give it a name other than "Grog". I then make a note on my cheat sheet that the group interacted with "Yolmar, Son of Furbog", and that Furbog may be upset that they killed his boy.

You can also get character descriptions, motivations and so on. There are tavern generators for example that will give you a menu. Play around, find one you like. Generate a handful of entries for whatever you think you may need. This helps a lot when the PCs go left when I never, ever, expected them to do anything but go right. At the same time I don't want to create a whole city ahead of time when 99% of it would go to waste.

Just be sure to jot down a few notes for later for you after-session summary. Oh, and relax. Nobody expects you to be a professional DM the first time out.
 

Cruentus

Explorer
Sounds like a lot of solid advice above. I don't have a lot to add except:

Take it slow.

I am wrapping up a campaign (early, for reasons) where at 1st/2nd level I put the major world affecting plot hooks into the campaign (a sandbox). The players grabbed those and dashed for the end, and showed little interest in doing anything else in the world.

You didn't mention what level your characters are. If they're 10+ already, ignore what I said. If they're lower levels, then a slower build up to Dragons and Titans might be more enjoyable? Your players would be the best gauge of what they're ready for.

Good luck and let us know how is goes!
 

fendermallot

Explorer
Sounds like a lot of solid advice above. I don't have a lot to add except:

Take it slow.

I am wrapping up a campaign (early, for reasons) where at 1st/2nd level I put the major world affecting plot hooks into the campaign (a sandbox). The players grabbed those and dashed for the end, and showed little interest in doing anything else in the world.

You didn't mention what level your characters are. If they're 10+ already, ignore what I said. If they're lower levels, then a slower build up to Dragons and Titans might be more enjoyable? Your players would be the best gauge of what they're ready for.

Good luck and let us know how is goes!
We will be finishing up the essentials box at level 6-7. The players, who are all new, were offered the option of remaking characters for the next arc in case they decided they didn't enjoy their current character. So I have 3/4 remaking level 7 characters for upcoming arc that starts in the waterdeep area.

Thanks!
 

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