Balancing Act: Campaign Prep

One of the most exciting moments in any new RPG is the start of a new campaign: you have a new world, new characters, and a new story full of excitement and possibility. You have gathered your party and are ready to begin your saga, each adventure more exciting than the last, with challenges around every corner and new faces in every town…but after a while, things can get a bit stale. This town feels a little too familiar, that monster battle felt like the dozens before…and does this dungeon ever actually end? Although a campaign may start strong, many can meet a disappointingly dwindling end with stories left unfinished and players and DMs alike feeling burnt out. So how do you keep it engaging?

If you’re too role-play heavy without unique NPCs or igniting events, then your game risks adopting a “slice of life” feel instead of a sword and sorcery quest.

If you rely too much on combat to keep the story going, the campaign may turn into a constant grind, with little opportunity for character development.

The key to a dynamic campaign is balance: you want to keep each session narratively consistent, but with enough variety in the game play that your players stay engaged and can really explore their characters’ abilities. Here are some quick tips to help you plan out your next sessions!

Start small, then grow.

At the early stages of the campaign, focus first on the immediate situation at hand: was there a kidnapping? A theft? An unexpected attack in the town square? Whatever you choose, use the first few sessions to build the locale your players started in and allow them to explore their PC’s abilities. Don’t jump right into your end-game plot or start introducing big players in the world too early. This puts you in an awkward storytelling position where the scope of your campaign is too large for the level of your players. You also run the risk of burning all those “cool” points by showing your hand prematurely, and it’ll get even harder to raise the stakes later on.

Review the Pillars

When I’m planning out my sessions, I tie the plot back to these three pillars of gameplay: Combat, Interaction (interacting with other characters), and Exploration (interacting with the world). These three pillars are good ways for you to plot out the significant events and encounters your party will face in order to progress the story. While I don’t actually tally up XP these days, I do determine a player’s progress to the next level by how they tackle each challenge.

Each session I prepare is weighted towards one or two of the three pillars, and I try to vary it from game to game. For example, if we finish up a particularly combat-heavy segment, it’s important to break it up with down time and opportunities to learn about the world through lore drops or skill-based challenges. If we have a session that’s more focused on exploration, I’ll incorporate events and/or encounters that draw from either combat or interaction for the next game. It’s also helpful to combine pillars in more integrated ways to give your players a chance to showcase different strengths and problem-solving methods in a single session.

Make Bold Choices

Every now and then, your players can get overwhelmed by sandbox nature of D&D and they simply don’t know where to go next. You could have a plethora of different options and story lines available for them to explore, but while the leads and clues may seem obvious to you, don’t forget that your players are experiencing the world for the first time. They’re often too distracted with taking everything in to try to hunt for those campaign hooks. When you see them start to flounder, it’s time to introduce some sort of plot-propelling event. It could draw from any of the three pillars that you wish, but the key is that you need to put the players in a position where they have to act. It could be an NPC approaching them needing help, an external event or combat encounter…the possibilities are virtually limitless! Many first-time DMs are hesitant to push the players in any direction too forcefully…and this isn’t necessarily a proposal for rail-roading! This isn’t a method of feeding the players a decision or specific solution, but rather putting them in a situation where they must make a decision. This also gives them an opportunity to explore how their characters react in a stressful or urgent situation, which is very helpful in a new campaign.

Regardless of your players’ preferred style of gameplay, keeping your sessions balanced and diverse will keep you from falling into repetitive tropes and patterns. No matter how much you love a good dungeon crawl, it does get old after a while! If your goal is to enjoy a long-running campaign, remember to mix it up a bit! You’ll find yourself enjoying the campaign prep more and your players will certainly thank you for it!

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