When i first started writing a weekly column for Nerdarchy, the focus was on the ups and downs of finding time for Dungeons & Dragons amid the challenges of adult life. Things like full-time jobs, mortgages, families and other responsibilities make coordinating schedules for several people a complex game itself.
That series will continue here, and with my D&D gaming group approaching our one year anniversary it’s a great time to examine one of the biggest hurdles we’ve faced.
On average we meet twice a month and play D&D for about five hours each session. Most of our time is spent playing an ongoing campaign. Despite the premise that the characters are all crew of a spelljammer vessel so “away teams” are whoever shows up for a particular get-together, there’s times when it becomes awkward. Handwaving character absences works well most of the time, but mid-campaign arc becomes weird.
Maintain campaigns or run adventures for fun
What’s a Dungeon Master to do? With limited time and varying players at the table, is it better to keep up with a persistent world campaign or take an old school approach and play through adventures without connective tissue between them?
Both have benefits and drawbacks, and one is certainly not better than the other. My group primarily sticks to a central campaign-style D&D gameplay but a couple of times we’ve run through one-shots or other short adventures with different characters.
If your D&D group is anything like mine, there could be an ioun stone of insight floating around here somewhere.
What is a campaign?
Doesn’t matter if it’s D&D, Starfinder, Star Trek Adventures, Open Legend or any other tabletop roleplaying game, a campaign is a continuous storyline running through a series of adventures featuring recurring characters. Woven into the adventures, whether they’re dungeon crawls or wilderness explorations, the characters develop their own storylines and arcs, developing as individuals both independently and alongside the larger narrative.
In a campaign a primary antagonist typically lies at the heart of the narrative, fueling the action through villainous pursuits, ambitions and goals. The player characters aim to stop the villain, driving the action forward through their adventures. Generally there is a defined ending for a campaign, and the interconnecting adventures take place in a consistent setting. Campaigns can last months or even years.
Fantastic examples of campaigns abound in today’s D&D environment. First and foremost, the model followed by Wizards of the Coast breaks away from the adventure module format of yesteryear and instead focuses on campaigns.
Lead storyteller Chris Perkins and the WotC team have been putting out complete campaign books at a rate of about two per year. i’ve played through one of them through the terrific Adventurers League organized play program, thumbed through the rest quite a bit, ran some of one, liberally borrowed elements from several and anxiously await the arrival of the newest in a few weeks.
The great thing about published campaigns is that someone else already did the heavy lifting. Plot structures are solid, villains are wonderfully well-developed, and balance between the three pillars of D&D gameplay ensures fun points of interest for all the players and characters.
Even 2017’s Tales from the Yawning Portal – an anthology of updated classic adventures from D&D’s history – loosely follows a campaign structure based around the eponymous tavern where adventurers strike out to tackle famous quests. As an aside, my take on TftYP is the Entry Well inside the Yawning Portal Inn is a literal portal leading to the various adventures.
Official D&D campaign storylines through 2017
Any of the D&D campaigns from Wizards of the Coast are well worth adding to your collection. Even if you don’t get an opportunity to play through them entirely, the care and design put into them can inspire your games. You can also pull elements from any of these great books and drop them into your adventures. Cool magic items, unique creatures and encounters, useful maps and more abound within the pages.
- Tyranny of Dragons – Hoard of the Dragon Queen
- Tyranny of Dragons – The Rise of Tiamat
- Princes of the Apocalypse
- Out of the Abyss
- Curse of Strahd
- Storm King’s Thunder
- Tales from the Yawning Portal
- Tomb of Annihilation
Campaigns in action
What’s great about D&D these days is in addition to phenomenally produced campaigns like these, gamers can watch and follow along with campaigns in action. The big dog in the yard is Geek & Sundry’s Critical Role, where Matt Mercer and a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors play D&D every Thursday at 10 p.m. ET on Twitch and Alpha.
As an unabashed Critter myself, becoming engrossed with Critical Role just prior to getting my D&D group together heavily informed the direction of our gameplay. The dream of many a D&D gamer involves a grand campaign such as this – a sprawling epic spanning the length and breadth of the game.
To this end, my campaign began with a fairly extensive regional map, setting lore and a narrative thread to be woven into a large tapestry in collaboration with the players. We’ve since gone far afield, the concerns of our initial arc becoming a bit pedestrian relative to the universe-spanning stories emergent through introducing Spelljammer elements to our game. Nevertheless it remains a campaign-style game, with all the challenges that brings.
One obstacle you may run into with an ongoing campaign is maintaining momentum. The strength of Critical Role and similar programs and home games is consistency. If your group meets regularly, like every week, this isn’t so much of an issue. Gathering with the same group of players fairly often keeps the story fresh in everyone’s mind and progression occurs at a good pace.
But if your group meets sporadically, and even then with players who might not always be able to attend – a scenario many busy adults face – it can get difficult for everyone involved. DMs need to make adjustments last minute or on the fly, making improvisation skills paramount.
Players need to be prepared to suspend their disbelief with things like suddenly-changed party makeup, as well as recall what happened last session and keep the energy up.
Another dilemma facing sporadic groups is campaign fizzle. Keeping a long narrative going, building towards a climax that began at 1st level and strives to reach the ultimate conclusion with 20th level characters is incredibly ambitious even for consistent gaming groups. Add to that a shifting player group meeting perhaps once a month and the struggle vastly increases.
Along the way, players might want a break so they can try out different characters, or take a turn behind the DM screen themselves. DMs might get burnt out or lose interest in their own grand ideas and concepts. Or everyone in the group might simply want to try a new story or setting.
It happens. Countless campaigns in the history of D&D have never reached fruition or completion. This isn’t to say they’re failures by any means. If the group had a fun ride then mission accomplished. But it can be disappointing for DMs whose sweeping arcs never reach a conclusion, or players who imagine their characters epic journey reaching a satisfying end.
Adventurers of adventure
In contrast to the campaign style of game, there are serial adventures. D&D groups who play this way might share many or none of the qualities of campaigns. The structure of play is largely the same, with adventurers setting out to complete quests and goals, but the difference lies in the connective tissue.
This isn’t to say there’s no stability to adventure style gameplay. But where a campaign seeks to maintain a central core between all the quests and stories as well as build on the moments between the action, adventures are more isolated affairs.
D&D players can tackle adventures in a variety of ways. The classic example of this sort of game is the earliest days of D&D. With the focus squarely on the eponymous dungeons, the DM typically gave a short narration explaining a bit of lore about the adventure, the location of the dungeon, and why the adventurers took up the quest. More often than not this was simply because there was treasure within the dungeon. Sure, there might be a kingdom in peril or a missing person of consequence, but adventurers sought gold!
These games usually start with the party at the dungeon entrance. Roleplaying the acceptance of the quest and travel to the location usually took place through the short introductory narration from the DM. Into the dungeon the party would delve, slaying monsters, overcoming traps and puzzles and interacting with the denizens within.
D&D players in the current climate have changed a lot since those early days. There’s still plenty of groups that play this way, and it’s a vibrant, exciting style of D&D with a focus on action and exploration. At the same time, a great many people enjoy the intricacies of deep character development, discovering more about the characters and their relationships and place in the setting.
This is not to say the two are mutually exclusive. Plenty of character development takes place during dungeon delves, just as campaigns certainly contain tons of opportunities for pure adventure. The distinction lies in the time between those adventures.
For D&D groups running the risk of campaign fizzle, or running into problems from sporadic meetings and changing player attendance, adventure style gaming might be a good philosophy to adopt. Verisimilitude will suffer, as one adventure might take place in a mountain cave system and the next in a desert pyramid tomb.
On the other hand, a certain extent of burden is lifted from both DMs and players. For the former, there’s much less or no need to develop the reasons and relationships between the characters and the world at large. It doesn’t matter why or how the characters get to each adventure location or even why, beyond the existence of the adventure awaiting. For the latter, deep motivations and believable methods for traversing the world and taking up quests takes a backseat to the simply allure of adventuring.
Another benefit to adventure style D&D play is the ease of changing things up. When an adventure concludes, there are no lingering questions or plot threads. Characters are free to heed the call of whatever comes next. Rarely will one adventure bleed into the next the way a campaign moves forward.
Alternatively, a new DM can slide behind the screen and run the next adventure for the group, with new characters or the same ones, and the previous DM can join the group without needing to explain why or how their character is suddenly with the party. Most questions in this regard can be answered easily: because they’re adventurers.
Adventures are much quicker and easier for DMs to put together than planning a campaign. Our group welcomed a new player not too long ago and within a month he asked to take a turn behind the DM screen. He was nervous, naturally. But he came up with a short adventure and we all had an incredible time.
The best part for me (someone more often than not a DM) was watching how much fun he had rolling with the inevitable curve balls players introduce. We barely scratched the surface of what he’d conceived, and a follow-up session continued to illustrate the most wonderful part of a D&D game – the collaboration between players and DM. He let us help him create the world and story throughout our entire simple adventure.
If the idea of taking a turn as DM is intimidating, the best advice i have is to simply go for it. Pick a creature, imagine what it might be doing and where, and just start playing. But if that seems too far outside your comfort zone, there are limitless places to find adventures ready to go.
Over at the Nerdarchy website, staff writer Mike Gould shares new content every single Friday – for free! – with his Out of the Box D&D Encounters series. He even collected an entire year’s worth of them into a single source you can find here.
There’s also the Dungeon Master’s Guild where you can find tons of adventures to run for your D&D group. If you’re looking for adventures with specific criteria, try cross-referencing with Adventure Lookup, a fantastic free database of D&D adventures from the game’s entire history.
If that’s not enough, there are so many terrific publishers out there creating content for D&D. One of my absolute favorites is Kobold Press. Among the many treasures they’ve produced, Prepared 2: A Dozen One-Shot Adventures for 5th Edition if filled with cool scenarios ready to go at a moments notice.
Not surprisingly there’s a Prepared Vol. 1 as well. Kobold Press has so many great products. Outside of official Wizards of the Coast D&D material they are my go-to source. Many of their books see regular use at my gaming table.
The last thing i want to mention is the megadungeon. Straddling the line between campaign and adventure, this style of adventure features an immense labyrinth of many rooms, corridors and levels. Whereas a dungeon delve adventure could feasibly be completed in one or two sessions, a megadungeon can occupy a character’s entire career. (Often several characters careers – megadungeons are usually quite dangerous.)
The original Castle Greyhawk dungeon created by Gary Gygax was a megadungeon, and plenty of iconic varieties have been created since. Undermountain and Temple of Elemental Evil are but two other ones.
For my money, and one that i’m anxiously awaiting to run for my group, Maze of the Blue Medusa is the juice. This book goes beyond a megadungeon adventure into a work of art – literally! The core design is based on a painting by Zak Sabbath. He and writer Patrick Stuart then crafted a beautiful, innovative game book, winner of two ENnie Awards in 2016. The hardcover book is gorgeous but sadly out of print. However, the digital version is only $5 (or $10 for the deluxe version). It is totally worth it, even if you never get an opportunity to play through the material. It’s just fun to read and captivates your imagination.
To the gaming table!
i don’t know about you but all this discussion of campaigns, adventures and megadungeons has left me ready to roll some dice. Even though it can be difficult to keep a D&D group going amidst the trials of contemporary adult life, the triumphs of the times we share at the gaming table are worth facing every challenge.
Whether we continue our Spelljammer campaign to the pinnacle of character growth, move on to other adventures and welcome new DMs, or try our hand taking on a massive megadungeon, we’ll be creating fantastic moments and memories together.