So, you ran your first adventure, but now you’re wondering how to keep things going? The first thing you need to do is find out what kind of DM you are, so let’s run through some examples and see if any of them match the style you’d like to play!

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Campaign Theme

Step one is deciding how realistic or fantastic you want your campaign to be. Should it be gory or glamorous? Grounded or gruesome? When a brave hero falls in battle, are they given a traditional ceremony, buried in a shallow grave, or dumped in the sewers before the guards find out?

1. Grim & Gritty: In this style, the players live in a dark world with small points of light. Environments are brutal and unforgiving, and every conflict feels like a fight for survival. Trust is hard-earned, and suspicion towards one another is nearly unavoidable. Ethical and moral conundrums also happen often in this game type, and will work well in seeing how far your players can be pushed before they turn into villains.

Example: A Song of Ice & Fire

2. Golden Age: This is a world of absolutes in which good and evil are clearly defined, and where the heroes adventure for fame and fortune. Here they battle iconic monsters, devious sorcerers, and hordes of goblins. They also collect piles of treasure and thwart evil plans for world domination. This style works best as a more lighthearted tone for your campaign, as it rarely explores the dark and brooding nature of evil…

Example: The Hobbit

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Storytelling & Writing Methods

There are different styles of running a campaign, and each has its benefits and potential drawbacks. The first step in this journey is identifying which ideas you like, and which ones you want to avoid.

Similarly to writing or painting, there are two schools of thought behind this creative process, and each embodies one of two profiles:  “The Outliner”, or “The Explorer”.

1. The Outliner, also called the Architect, will meticulously plan events, characters, battles, and almost every detail of their campaign. These aspects of the campaign are very well written, and players might be blown away by the complexity of the story. The drawback of this style is that NPCs and events may feel a bit hollow, and might be detected by the players as plot devices being used to accomplish the Outliner’s pre-established plan.

Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game) and JRR Tolkien are both writers that have a focused narrative style and a clear goal to achieve in their stories.

2. The Explorer is more inclined to think with a “sandbox” or open world perspective. They come up with unique and conflicting characters, cultures, and locations; each to be used by themselves or the players like tools in a tool box. The drawback of this style is that there might lack a focus, and the main story might not have the epic feeling or scale of the Outliner’s style.

Authors like George RR Martin and Stephen King prefer this type of storytelling. They create a deep history and rich characters, but simply set them loose into the world to create and solve problems organically.

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Session Style

Finally, we must determine what kind of sessions you want to give your players. Would they prefer one long journey, or a million little ones?

1. Overarching: Day after day, year after year, the players march, explore, scour, fight, and die, trying to accomplish one task –destroying that which haunts them. A campaign with an overarching narrative features a quest bestowed upon the heroes that seems impossible at first, but in time, each step brings them closer to their goal. Stories of this type will be long and meaningful, and when the players finally reach the end, the battle will be of ultimate importance.

Examples: Breaking Bad, Lost

2. Episodic: Variety is the spice of life! In an episodic session style, the players explore new lands and meet new friends (and enemies) each time they sit down to play. This is a less involved way of playing a pen & paper RPG, but can still achieve the same feeling of importance as an overarching story. The players will develop the story line organically with each new environment or situation.

Examples: X-files, Stargate-SG1

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Don’t choose just one!

When looking over the examples given for campaign themes,  storytelling methods, and session style, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to pick and stick to just one. Try to identify what you would enjoy running, and take the best parts of any category. Looking back on your first campaign will help you realize where you had the most trouble and what was the most fun. Using these simple steps should help you build your perfect campaign!

What kind of DM are you, and what types of themes are recurrent in your campaigns? Stay tuned! Part 3, focusing on world building, is just around the corner!

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  • The Grim & Gritty narrative style sounds so amazing. Do you know of any modules or places to start with running a campaign like that? Something that complex would be very hard to come up with on my own, with how little experience as a DM I’ve got. But that’s the sort of campaign my group and I got into RPGs to play!

    • Xaph

      You may want to take a look at “Darkest Dungeon”: it’s an extremely well-crafted lump of nightmare fuel.

      Other than that, I have quite a few custom goodies that fit the description. Just say the word, it’s always nice to help others!

      • Darkest Dungeons looks like a really fun game to play. I think I’m buying it tomorrow!