D&D 5E What is your "go to" campaign concept?


So once you've DMed for a long time, you tend to develop habits, or things you like to fall back to. Either because they are comfortable or they just work extremely well. So what are the go-tos you find yourself coming back to when designing your campaigns?

For me its the concept of "Pcs belong to an organization that are assigned missions"

As my group has gotten older, I find that they less and less want to roleplay out where or why they are going to X place, they just want to get there and get to the business at hand. I also find that when I run open ended more sandboxy campaigns, the game slows down a lot. Again, my players have real world jobs and familes and X responsbilities, they don't necessarily want to do a whole lot of thinking when it comes to gametime, they do too much of it in real life already.

So I have found the mission concept works exceptionally well for them. From the PC side, they get to jump right into things, the mission says we do X....so we all do X. No infighting, no squabbling, just get to it. From a DM side, mission concepts give me a lot of freedom, I can design all sorts of missions from steal X item, to kill X person, to blow up X. I can make the missions connected, or independent. I can give rationales, or I can choose not too (the boss says we need X....so we are going to go get it). And its easy for me to design a mission during prep time without worrying that the PCs will ignore my carrot and just not go to a dungeon, or talk to a person, etc. If a mission says you need to get this item from a dungeon, then I can design the dungeon with full confidence it will get used.

I've run 9 campaigns in 5e so far, and probably 7 of them have been mission focused (and definately all of my most successful campaigns have been that style). I just find for my older player group, it works amazingly well.

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I like what you are laying down here OP, but I also like a lot of the opposite things. Players start as free agents and can join organizations if they wish. Lots of political intrigue and faction play. Decisions, decisions, decisions...


He / Him
My go-to seems to be designing a kind of playground rather than a straightforward path. I tend to build worlds and towns with clear rules that the characters can interact with (or resist) in order to pursue their interests. I usually have some really clear adventure threads the characters could pursue, but I don't rely on them or expect the characters to follow.

So for example I was building a campaign based on the idea of vampire overlords in a swamp valley. I decided on the following "rules":

1. Vampires are always in charge.

2. Vampires are evil, but those who work for them are not always evil.

3. There used to be other power structures in the valley, but they are now either extinct, part of the oppressive system, or criminal rebels.

4. The valley used to be ruled by knights who forged magic weapons from fallen stars.

From there I designed areas in which there were fun things to interact with: dungeons, evil creatures, tournaments, taverns...

I also make sure to have some townsfolk who are quick to spill all the tea about what's going on in the area.

Inevitably some thread catches the characters' eyes and then we are off on an adventure!

In that campaign, the characters started in a village in which the vampiric Baron who ruled it rarely made appearances, and the townsfolk raised huge pigs for their blood (to keep the Baron satiated). There was an upcoming tournament, a dungeon with an imprisoned vampire hunter, a tortle fortuneteller, werewolves in the forest, a tavern with fantastic meals...

The characters decided to free a potential ally from the dungeon, then slay the Baron at the tournament. And so they set about following rumors of a secret entrance into the Baron's dungeon...

(But had they decided to instead fight the werewolves on behalf of the Baron, compete in the tournament, buy a boat and go sailing down the river, that would have been okay too!)

Lord Mhoram

For fantasy I tend to include at least two or three of these:

  • All non-mindless undead are evil (although ghosts are not specifically undead an have their own rules). Making mindless undead is evil.
  • The PC should have heroic attitudes or good aligned (if the system has alignment).
  • No evil gods, the only supernaturally powerful evil things are demons and devils (which makes any evil cleric a demon/devil worshiper by definition).
  • Much like the original Star Wars or Elric - the world is/can be a battleground for two forces, in mine it's Good vs Evil (as the above rules might indicate).
  • Usually a slightly better than "Points of light" - there are vast wilderness (or worse), and major places of civilization - historically the "coming out of the age of darkness after the last great fall of civilization"
  • There is a difference between little e evil and big E evil, and things that work against "Evil creatures" only work on Big E evil - evil clerics, evil outsiders, and usually dragons - there has to be some direct supernatural element to that. If using D&D that is the only evil a Paladin's Detect Evil senses.
  • All sentient races are free willed, so mostly fair game in a time of racial war, but not to wander in and slaughter.

The tone is High Fantasy and the feel is epic.


Magic Wordsmith
For D&D 5e, town-to-dungeon sandbox, starting small and expanding over time.

For D&D 4e, over-the-top episodic adventures that feature complex set pieces, pulpy vibe.

What I go to is informed by the rules I am using.


Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I run campaigns for 4+ years, always homebrew setting and adventures, with the setting tailored some to be able to explore stories and concepts that aren't necessarily available in other settings.

But by the time I'm finished with a campaign, I'm ready to explore new things. I pretty much actively work to make each campaign different than previous ones so that it is fresh and enjoyable for me to create (I really enjoy world building) and to run.

Now, my style has some consistencies, and many of them can affect the setting. I enjoy shades of grey, villains who have reasonable (at least to them) reasons for what they do to the point that who are considered villains and allies may switch over the course of the campaign, and fighting is rarely the only option unless we are dealing with fiends or the like.

I haven't actually DM'd for a long time. But there are already patterns in my stuff that I've noticed.

For example, I like to insert (relatively) "innocent" NPC characters affiliated with darker groups. This has come up easily 3-4 times now just in my current game. Someone duped or misled into doing dangerous/evil things, or someone pushed into terrible decisions because they were down on their luck and in need of help. I've even reversed course on a character to enable this to happen (long story short, originally I had a "black widow" character, who had killed several spouses as sacrifices to her succubus 'patron,' but I decided that making her a tragic victim was more interesting. So I did.)

I also like archaeological ruins. Some of that is player-influenced, as I have a trained anthropologist in the group and thus archaeology is a relevant thing. But I just...really like that sort of thing. I've got multiple possible dungeon location ideas based on that sort of stuff.

My faith, or at least the principles thereof, tends to bleed over into my game. This is somewhat easier in this specific game, because the dominant religious group in the region is monotheist (strongly inspired by Islam and Zoroastrianism.) But I'm a huge fan of earnestly Lawful Good deities in general, and Bahamut in specific, so that's a campaign undercurrent that will typically show up. A contest between light and darkness, with one side clearly good and (at least) one side clearly evil, though there are many caught in the shadows between, struggling to decide or dealing with difficulties (as noted in the first paragraph.) Hence, the player characters are Legitimate Heroes, people who can truly make a difference and save others, not just help them. Though, as others have said, I prefer to have villains who do what they do for reasons, who aren't just mindlessly cruel...unless they are so, in which case, they've usually either been manipulated into being so, or are die-hard believers in some incredibly warped philosophy where what they do is somehow right.

When I need a fallback, I tend to default to "contract" adventuring, rather than other options. The kind of thing where the characters are asked to do a job rather than doing stuff purely out of the goodness of their hearts or because they're pressed into it by circumstances. I guess that just feels more...natural, to me? You have to work toward situations where the players feel they have to do a particular adventure (and I do love doing that, but it's impossible to fall back on that when you need a new adventure.) And then on the flipside, while I absolutely love it when my players are volunteering to do things, sometimes they need more direction, something to focus on, something to decide to accept or reject, and "contract"-style adventuring is a perfect opportunity to do that. Even if they reject a contract, that usually gives them the push they need to figure out what they actually want to do, and then I can support that.

And although this is something expected by Dungeon World, I'd do it regardless: Places with big ol' question marks even on local maps. I love the idea of uncovering an ancient lost tomb (the aforementioned archaeology) or a precious resource lost in the wilderness (gold, precious stones, magical materials, what-have-you), or a whole-donkey DRAGON who just happens to be chilling out in the Dark Forest and no one ever realized they live there (perhaps they have a long hibernation cycle.) That sort of thing just sounds fun to me, so I tend to lean into it.


I also like archaeological ruins. Some of that is player-influenced, as I have a trained anthropologist in the group and thus archaeology is a relevant thing. But I just...really like that sort of thing. I've got multiple possible dungeon location ideas based on that sort of stuff.
I love this! I have really gotten into exploration campaigns in the last decade.


A suffusion of yellow
I start by designing a village/town and a set of factions/fronts affecting the settlement then have a market or festival (often religious in nature) occuring asking the PCs why they are there and who they are with.
There may be set peices of a harbour (for PCs on boats, a gate with guards, an inn, market stalls and games that PCs can participate in.
Then as the PCs are going about their day enjoying the town and games, something dramatic and unexpected will happen that the PCs will witness and be asked to help with.

I too like archaeological ruins and discovery of lost civilisations - in one I had an player who was an engineer, in game he played the City engineer tasked with maintenance of the sewers - there was an explosion in a methane pocket that exposed the entrance to an ancient Lamia tomb…

Haunted moors and hags are also not uncommon…
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B/X Known World
Exploration-focused open world sandbox. Generate a map (if I’m tired of one I’ve used before), randomly roll some starting hooks, plant some rumors, and go. As long as I know what’s in the hexes within a day’s travel of the PCs, I’m good to go. Randomly generated elements, encounters, etc make it smooth and keep me surprised as well. Drop in a few well-loved dungeons and done.


I usually have a weird mix of things.

Mostly sand boxy but I have the players be members of an adventurer's guild. This provides structure and mission based stuff to fill in between wandering.

I also sprinkle the world with campaign "Secrets". Places or pieces of history that shape or affected the world. These are things it is nice if players sink teeth into but is not necessary for the game.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I like to try different approaches, though I tend to start with a fairly generic fantasy world but add/remove some mechanics that support a particular narrative or style of play.

For example, my current long-running campaign is a large but contained sandbox. A mega dungeon. I use GP for XP, which really changes the dynamics of game play. There are a variety factions, a detailed history, and some overall plot lines, but the story is mostly created through play. It does involve quite a bit of downtime play, however, which not all players are going to be into.

My first 5e campaign was a home brew world where elves were for all practical purposed wiped out and arcane magic was banned. For that campaign, I used milestone leveling. There would be an adventure that would like for one or two 8-hour sessions. After which, surviving PCs would level up. Basically, the idea is that you had a party of adventurers who after a period of time, could be years, we called together once again. Bascially we played levels 1 through 20, with each level being one adventure. It worked well for for busy players.

Both of these campaigns worked well when you have players who cannot attend every sessions. It is very easy to bring in new guest players as well.

The only other campaign I ran in 5e was Curse of Strahd, because I was burned out with world building and creating all the adventures myself and I really liked the CoS adventure book. While I really enjoyed it, it was much harder to run with a group of busy people who might not be able to make every session. I had to work much more on moving the schedule around to try to ensure the entire group could attend most of the time. A full-on "adventure path" or more railroady adventure would would even harder to run. CoS was at least pretty sandboxy. But I would find it difficult to run most of the officially published WotC adventures for my main group.

Still fan of the town-wilderness-dungeon concept.

A lot of the stuff I create is filled with a lot of was is called " secondary story-telling". The PCs are not the first to explore the dungeon, as well as what they do, they also uncover previous incursions from years ago, decades ago or even centuries ago.


I don't really have a "go to" concept, as I usually run premade campaigns. However, when I combined "Trouble in Red Larch" with Scourge of the Sword Coast and Storm King's Thunder, I framed it as the PCs being agents of the Lords' Alliance being sent on various missions. I quite liked that setup and would absolutely use it again.


I tend to have some sort of basic "Save the Town" theme. Could be like the Essential box with a local dragon taken over and stirred up the orcs who have come down from the mountain to cause trouble. Something where the PCs have a home base town and find it threatened after a few smaller adventures or find out all at once. This tends to last to 6-8th level and then wraps up. The hooks in that part of the campaign tends to lead to other smaller 3-level arcs to finish things.

Another go-to is the episodic exploration. I like this one when players are more likely to come and go. Each week is a contained dungeon that wraps up and the PCs end up back at town for the next week. I had a campaign where searching through a ruined town to make it fit to settle once again. Each week had a new building or sewer or such. There was some larger problems lurking and the groups would get clues to find the demon or something. I had a farmstead turned inn as a home base about an hour from the town and the PCs show up there as treasure hunters or knowledge seekers.

I liked running city settings, Waterdeep in particular. There were 2 table in Cities of Mystery and another from City Systems. I used them for years to randomly roll up street scenes that the players would run into along the way from point A to point B. It made for some interesting scenarios and really brought the city to life.


I would like to say I don't have one, because I do try to distinguish campaigns from one another. But recent history would seem to belie that: the has been a recurring theme of "you find yourself lost somewhere and want to get home."


Um, I generally don't have a "go-to," except for a few prerequisites:

1. Long campaign. I hate short campaigns. Most can't really develop a character fully over the course of 3-7 session, and there's nothing to me more satisfying then going through the long campaign and getting that closure in the end. Thankfully, I have a pretty good group of players that have stuck with my insanity.

2. One Story. I'll have tangents and tied-on little subplots, but its all one story that is tied together. Everything makes sense, there's nothing there just because, and the only plot threads that aren't tied up are ones I intend to use for future campaigns (for example, the first statue of an ancient horrible wizard-warlord they find is the BBEG for not the next campaign, but three campaigns later).

The above means my campaigns tend to follow a fairly set formula as far as structure goes, since I have to make one story last for about a year, from level 3 to level 20. Outside of that general structure, just about anything goes.


I tend to like creepy-horror so I’m always trying to mix elements of that sort of dark fable horror into my games. I don’t beat my players over the head with it, but it adds a nice air of uncertainty that makes it fun. I mostly just like ideas that keep the game rolling along which is why we created our supplement.

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