If you’re thinking about starting your own D&D campaign you should pick an underlying theme as the structure with which you’ll build your world. I’ll try to expand on related ideas and best practices for someone trying to start their own D&D game, but at the end of the day I think this single line is the best advice I can pass on:
If you’re thinking about starting your own D&D campaign you should pick an underlying theme as the structure with which you’ll build your world.
But wait, where should I start my D&D game?
Let’s say you’ve gotten the best possible scenario: an eager group of players are all suddenly looking to you to run an RPG for them, and they want you to do it this weekend. If you have the means, I highly suggest you purchase a low/entry-level published adventure for whichever RPG system you’d like to run. You should be able to read through it fairly quickly and then run it with a resaonable level of success, however don’t be surprised if everything doesn’t go perfectly. That’s okay, and it should even be the expectation. This is where my advice may differ from a lot of other people: run the same adventure again. You can even do it for the exact same group of players, as long as they’re okay with it.
I was always very uncertain of my abilities to run an RPG session, but back when Critical Hits was first gaining attention in the community the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons was just coming out, and I was fortunate to receive a review copy of the first 4E adventure Keep on the Shadowfell (I wrote about all of this almost exactly 10 years ago now …wow). Many of our friends were super excited to try out 4E D&D and I wanted to do my due diligence as an up and coming RPG reviewer, so I ended up running that module 4 or 5 times across a period of a few weeks. I give a lot of credit to this activity for my later comfort and ability at running my D&D campaign from 2008 through 2012, and continued through today with follow up campaigns and adventures.
Bear with me as a I use a sports analogy: It is very hard for any person or athlete to hit a golf ball one time. Certainly a PGA pro player is going to do better than I am, but if you watch golf (like I do, it has a reputation for being “boring” but once I started playing golf I enjoyed watching it) you notice that pros miss a lot of shots too. However, if you go to a driving range, most players will improve by making the same shot over and over. The key to golf, and to running RPGs, is that no two shots out on the course AND no two adventures run for any group are ever identical. By repeatedly running the same published adventure for the same group and different groups of players, I learned what changed and what stayed the same between each session. I learned what I could change as the one running the adventure and what kind of impact that might have on the game play around the table.
So if you have the means and the opportunity, I recommend you talk to your players and say, “Hey, I’d like to run this adventure a few times, we’ll get some ‘do-over’ sessions and see what kind of game we like best”. Maybe you can experiment with different characters, different play styles, and different themes that everyone around the table wants to try out and see how they fit.
Taking Ownership of the Game (as a Group)
Before running Keep on the Shadowfell several times, I personally had a strong aversion to published adventures and campaign settings. I think this was the main reason I struggled with running RPGs before 2008, I was trying to do everything on my own and made a lot of mistakes that people had already learned from and fixed or avoided. Afterwards, I felt a lot more comfortable picking and choosing elements form published content and using them however I could, inserting bits and pieces or whole sections of modules into my homebrew D&D setting. So the next step I would suggest is, whether or not you’ve started with a published adventure, is to find a published campaign setting and use it for your game or at the very least pick and choose from existing settings to get yourself started.
My strong aversion to published campaign settings came from the fear that I would get called out while running a game for not knowing as much about the setting as one of my players. I wanted to have confidence in what I was saying and that I could make the “right call” while running the game. Now I am more comfortable letting my players take more agency in the setting, but it is still a concern if the person running the game isn’t comfortable with the material. Don’t be afraid to approach an RPG campaign with “This game is set in a world that’s like Eberron, but different” or “I really like Ravenloft so think of that as the setting, but we’re free to change things from any of the published Ravenloft canon.”
As long as the expectations are clear from the beginning, this should be fine. Where you will hit tension with a group is if a player is a big fan of Dark Sun, sits down at your “Dark Sun campaign” but then discovers you’re changing things from what they understand of the setting. Some players may be fine with this, but others may not, and it is very important that everyone is on board from the beginning. If this happens to you, I’d suggest the player that says “OMG I LOVE DARK SUN” may want to be the one to run the game, or you can make an agreement that they’ll be the go-to source for lore and setting clarifications, which is a good step towards sharing narrative control as a GM which I personally have grown to encourage more and more when I play RPGs.
But I want to Create a World of My Own!
I get it, this is exactly what I did for my D&D games, and the rewards of having my own D&D setting / world built up over years of playing are immeasurable. I was going to go on a long tangent telling you all about “my campaigns” but I remembered I’ve already did all that a long time ago, so here you can read about my earliest attempts at world building, or the beginning of my aforementioned 2008-2012 campaign, or you can even read about the beginning of Dave’s 4E D&D campaign which he decided would be super cool to set in an in-between time period in my game world as well.
In the post linked above about my “earliest attempts at world building” I wrote this:
“I can’t remember exactly what went through my head while preparing my first D&D campaign back in the spring of 2002, but the general concept I held onto was that the party would be following in the footsteps of an old group of heroes that had adventured years before them.”
What I do remember about my worldbuilding back then is that it was very generic, “high fantasy”, with medieval towns connected by roads across grassy fields and forests, with some mountains and lakes or oceans nearby, and maybe a river or two. GENERIC. One of the most magical things about D&D and roleplaying games is that settings like this can work really well. The players and their characters become the highlights and focus of the story, they can easily stand out compared to the bland backdrop world. The world gains character through play and interaction with non-player characters and whatever story unfolds. Sounds great, right? The problem is that it can be dreadfully painful to prepare and plan this kind of game, and the lack of an intriguing setting can lead to a slog of early adventures as everyone around the table gets up and running building out and discovering what interests them in the game.
the Ravenloft setting is built primarily on the theme of gothic horror
These experiences of mine in early worldbuilding are what led to my advice at the beginning of this post: pick an underlying theme as the structure with which you’ll build your world. Many of the evocative published D&D settings stem from a set of core themes, assumptions, or tropes onto which they build layers and layers of material. Dark Sun is built on the themes of dying world/scarcity, survival, and dark fantasy (certainly many others, but I tried to pick a few of the most basic themes), while the Ravenloft setting is built primarily on the theme of Gothic horror.
Warning: I’m going to talk about Dark Souls (again…)
So if you’re struggling to create your own world and setting for an RPG, make a list of themes that interest and excite you and see if one or more of them stand out and spark some ideas. One of the first examples that comes to mind of me relates to the Dark Souls video game series (I talk about the series a lot, because I love it. Here’s a post from 2011 right after I was introduced to it about how much it inspired me with ideas for dungeons in D&D and RPGs), so Dark Souls spans across at least three games with different but connected plots. The underlying themes of the series really serve to tie each game together with a similar feel, though many people might debate what the core themes are I would argue that the simple concept of “fire” is one that runs through all of Dark Souls and really informs almost everything in the games. The checkpoints in the games are bonfires, which you find dormant but ignite to activate them, and the transformation properties of fire and kindling show up repeatedly in each game, with the theme growing and developing in each installment of the series.
You don’t even have to worry about being extremely original or creative with your game, if you and your players are fans of Dark Souls go ahead and run a tabletop campaign inspired by those games, or twist the same theme and apply it to a different genre. Dark Souls interprets the theme of fire in a dark fantasy setting, but what would a high fantasy game with rampant and powerful magic, legions of magical races, and more heroic characters look like using the same themes?
What would a D&D campaign look like built around the central theme of “balance”, or “justice”? Maybe some magical forces in your world have enacted an artificial balance on the world, causing stasis, stagnation, and boredom. Then something powerful disrupts the stasis, and the forces in power struggle to bring things back into balance. A campaign built on the theme of “corruption” or “change” could be really powerful, with iconic monsters such as rust monsters taking on greater meaning as they’re tied more strongly to the game’s core theme. A game built upon “life / growth” might put more emphasis on nature, with players encouraged to play characters like druids and clerics, and creatures like trolls might be a strong focus or even inspire reverence in the setting.
Putting it all Together
If you follow my early advice in this post and start a game with a published adventure or using an existing campaign setting, you might feel stuck or locked in to themes that you didn’t choose. The first step I would suggest is to be very open with everyone around the table about what you want in the game, what you enjoy, but also listen to everyone else and find out what they want ouf out of the game. If you started with a Dark Sun adventure and everyone enjoyed it, but you find out the majority of the table isn’t very interested in the harsh struggle of day-to-day survival, you can always change to a different setting or you can modify your game world to accommodate the table (as long as everyone is on board). There is no written rule that every Dark Sun campaign must adhere to the same setting, so change the default assumptions.
If your players all want to play heavily arcane and divine characters, but also (for whatever reasons) still want to play Dark Sun (which has no divine entities and no source for arcane power beyond defiling the land), then nothing says you can’t have gods and their influence and/or an external source of arcane energy return to the setting. This could lead to some really cool and unique stories that other players might not have thought of because they’re outside the default assumptions of the setting. That said, please don’t force these kinds of changes on anyone, because one of your players might be a die hard Dark Sun fan and may have been really excited for a “classic” experience in the setting. Again, as long as everyone is on board or at the very least willing to give it a try, the world and what happens in it are all made up anyway.