Currently, I am part of my first campaign of D&D 4E as a player and, I have been having fun.

Sometime in the near future I would like to host my own game of D&D with my own adventure. So far I have nothing set up but got a good idea of what I may need. My main issue is coming up with an initial story and quests.

Things I have:

  • Player's Handbooks 1-3
  • 3 sets of Standard Gaming Dice
  • 12 D6
  • Giant Journal to create the adventure in (and record progress)

Things I plan to get/make:

  • Maps of the regions
  • Dry erase board with grid squares (for dungeons and such)
  • Dungeon Master's Guide
  • Monster Guide

Sources for ideas:

I plan for my campaign to take place on an island roughly quarter the size of Australia, and divided into 5 regions. The layout is still in the works, but I plan on one region to have a mountain range form a natural boarder. Another region is going to be heavily forested. There may or may not be a desert, but that depends on how much my current DM favors his desert area (populated with monkeys).

My main problem is I know how to create the towns and land for my game, but have no ideas on creating the quests and goals needed. What would be the best advice other than read the Dungeon Master's Guide? (I am currently reading the Player's Guides cover to cover.)

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ My advice: Try not to overdo it on the preparation on your first campaign. Australia is about the size of Khorvaire - You probably don't need to detail all that space. Stick to just the locations that your players are likely to interact with, and fill in the rest as needed. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 6:03
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @RMDan Again, one fifth of Australia is still six times larger than the UK. Just, uh... Be careful, OK? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 6:47
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If it helps the perspective: Australia is about the same size as the entire USA (just a bit smaller, actually) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 7:06
  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ An unrelated comment: The dungeon master's kit and the monster vault are better value-for-money (an adventure, maps and many tokens) and are updated. The monster stats especially are much better in the monster vault. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 15:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I strongly advise you to make your very first DM'ing experience a published scinario set in a published world. Doing your own world-building is immensely rewarding, but adds a LOT to deal with. As a DM, you already have a lot to deal with, and as a new DM, even more to deal with, and less idea of how much. The learning curve will be a lot gentler if you start out doing as much as possible out of books, and do more and more of it for yourself as you grow and learn. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 12, 2013 at 12:06

8 Answers 8


I'd recommend the 5x5 method which discussed on the in detail on the critical-hits.com blog in the context of both adventures and campaigns

The basic idea of this technique, is that you take 5 ideas:

  • Overthrow the evil empire
  • Prevent the sorcerer from ascending to demon-hood
  • and 3 more...

and so on, and then for each idea create 5 milestones that will happen along the way.

e.g. for overthrow the evil empire

  • meet up with the rebel alliance
  • learn the weakness of the death star
  • and 3 more...

and for prevent the sorcerer from ascending to demon-hood

  • steal the orb of power from the temple of evil
  • kidnapped by the sorcerer's lizard man minions
  • and 3 more

Put that on a grid:

Overthrow the evil empire   Prevent the sorcerer from   Thing 3   Thing 4   Thing 5
                            ascending to demon-hood

learn the weakness of the   steal the orb of power      ....      ....      ....
death star                  from the temple of evil

meet up with the rebel      kidnapped by the sorcerer's ....      ....      .... 
alliance                    lizard man minions

....                        ....                        ....      ....      ....

....                        ....                        ....      ....      ....

....                        ....                        ....      ....      ....

And then using that as scaffolding build around them.

One of the nice aspects of this method is that you can give your players control over the paths they take. They can chose to ignore one of the lanes that you have sketched out without derailing you completely. And you can spring natural consequences of their actions on them, that make sense in the context of what has gone before.

critical-hits.com also has a summary of other places on the internet that talk about this idea

  • \$\begingroup\$ Simple enough. Thank you for the links. I could easily expand this if I wanted by the looks of it. Also I could have a grid for each region plus a one for the whole land(on a larger scale). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 5:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RMDan -- exactly - the idea of this method is that you can scale it up or down in terms of the scope for which you are plotting, and you can scale it up or down in complexity too (3x3, 10x10!!!) \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 17, 2013 at 2:06

Here is a basic approach that will carry you through about 2-6 months of campaign games.

Make a simple starting town

The purpose of this part of the campaign will be to provide the players a couple of modules to become comfortable with their characters, learn the game mechanics and outwardly express some personal goals.


  • A name and theme for a tavern
  • A name and 3 NPCs for a town
  • 1-2 quests that will be available in the town
  • Make a rough sketch of the town
  • A dungeon
  • A bearing and name for a city
  • A hook that leads players into the city

Your first module will consist of throwing the players into a tavern where they can decide how to interact with one another and customers within the tavern. Through the first 15-30 minutes of the game, look for opportunities to introduce some of the town NPCs (as tavern patrons) and offer up one of the quests you have come up with via the NPC. The objective here is to goad the players into selecting some of your pre-structured quests.

Keep it simple for this first quest. Offer a few types of quests while they are in the tavern. Players will usually accept the first quest offered but wait for them to debate over it to see if it's something they want to do. It's okay if you are a little heavy handed in this first interaction, but get used to players conditionally accepting missions. Decide on one map design and fit the player's chosen quest to the map you drew. Be sure to provide adequate rewards, and elude to them early.

Use the DM Guide to build encounters of different types and get used to encounter design. If the players overcome your challenges, reward them monetarily and gradually increase their approval level in the town.

Moving on to the big city

The above section of the campaign can go on for as long as the players are having fun. If they want to power level or roleplay you can keep feeding them simple dungeon crawls. Eventually, they will want to purchase magical items and go to bigger and better places. When they are ready to leave their starting town they can travel to the city.


  • Name your city
  • Come up with a couple of stores
  • Make a few taverns
  • Come up with a government and a leader/king
  • Choose between 2-5 threats to the city
  • [option] choose a large threat

By this point (2-3 games into the campaign) you should be pretty familiar with the party's motivations. Keep throwing NPCs at the party to provide them opportunities to express their goals.

At this point, try to throw new quests at the party that compel the players to ...

  • Accept missions critical to their own character development
  • Challenge their character choices
  • Tempt them with amazing rewards
  • Confront them with profound moral causes

I realize that this is omitting much, but this my basis for starting a campaign.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "Be sure to provide adequate rewards" -- sometimes giving too much loot is worse to a party than giving too little. \$\endgroup\$
    – Pulsehead
    Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 13:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Agreed, @Pulsehead. Hence the term 'adequate'. :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 18:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ Rewards can extend beyond loot, too. Some players are looking for a tough adversary, an opportunity to roleplay or special situations where their character's mechanics can shine. Cool boss battles or stealth missions may be reward enough, and if you tease the prospect of such events then it can serve as a hook. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 22:18

It's pretty simple but it is challenging if you haven't done it before, here is my advice.

An adventure is solving a problem, so come up with a problem, that problem will be the basis of a quest so let's say "The Earl's daughter has been kidnapped." that is the problem, then you come up with a villain so let's say " Cultists of Orcus (I'm using him because he's in the Monster Manual.) are responsible for kidnapping the Earl's daughter." Then you need to come up with a motivation for your villain we will say "The cultists need a virgin of the royal blood line for a sacrifice for a mysterious dark ritual." So right there we have an adventure " The Earl's daughter has been kidnapped by demonic cultists of Orcus for a mysterious sacrificial ritual." The next thing is you need a location so we will say that this cult resides in a few miles north of town. Next we need a hook to pull adventurers in so that they will actually go on the adventure. The Earl could approach the characters and offer a reward or maybe one of the characters is in love with the Earl's daughter, or maybe one of the characters has broken the law and is offered a clean slate. The possibilities are truly endless. So now we have a problem, a villain, a location, and a hook.

That's a basic adventure it is a good method for beginners, I suggest watching this five part series on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCg-YPC8ajo that is episode one. It is an adventure building workshop from WoTC it is essentially what I described above but the videos may clarify things.

Also remember that your job is to make a problem let the players solve that problem. You may also want to check out some DM advice websites, there are literally dozens of these websites dedicated solely for GM advice. They helped me out a lot when I was starting.

Good Luck, Welcome to the site we're all here to help whenever you need it!


I would reccomend starting small - dont build the world, build a problem. Make the problem something satisfactory enough, so they have a motivation to solve it, complicated enough so it makes sense for a party of adventurers to be hired, and yet unimportant enough, so they can rise to much greater challenges later (I am assuming you are planning a 1st level adventure, if not, feel free to add demon princes and evil gods planning invasions).

Then find out how your players want to play, if you dont know that already - hack&slash? puzzles? serious roleplay? The best way to find out (I think) is by trial and error - try different approaches over the first few sessions (you will have to take this into account when planning your first adventure), and find out what suited them the best. Dont be afraid to ask the players for their impressions.

Then become the villain - you are the stupid orc cleric who is overseeing his kobold minions, you are the long dead wizard who built a riddle filled vault to store his possesions in, you are the Duke who wants you to attack the wizards guild in fear for his power. Direct your minions, design your dungeon, parley with the PCs, and do everything you can to slow their progress to approaching their goal.

And then add a way for the players to succeed, whether it be weak kobold guards at the entrance, hints in the labyrynth corridors, or helpful NPCs at Dukes court. (however, be careful with the Deux ex machina strategy)

And then you come to the point where you design everything else - NPC quirks, random encounters while traveling, the strategy of orc assasins sent to kill off your PCs, the treasure, anything else, and the story. As you gain more experience in making adventures, you can place the story on the first place in the list, but for now, just think of a way to tie different adventures together.


Dont be afraid to rely on different resources off the internet - dungeon maps and generators, puzzles and riddles others have written down, and about just anything that you feel would ease your job and make the adventure more fun. The only thing you should watch out for - make sure it ties into your lore. You cant stick a nigh impassable trap into a corridor kobolds use everyday, and a totally cool (but living) monster into a vault that hasnt been stepped into for thousands of years.


I feel it is in your interest to have an over arching objective, ideally with some sort of time urgency.

That said, what is more important to me as a player is to have varied and diverse combats. Generally it is good when you coerce players into raiding a dungeon for mystical item A. Then once they are inside try and do a variety of combats with only short rests in between. To vary the events maybe do one room with a few traps and a couple fairly easy monsters. Do another room with a bunch of enemies that are the players level. If you can throw in another encounter with 2-3 decently strong enemies with a bunch of minions, even better. Lastly finish it off with an elite solo and voila one dungeon done.

My DM is bad for doing skill challenges, but they can be fun too. For an example, if there is a river, you can have the players ride a rickety raft and do acrobatics and athletic challenges to see if they hang on once the raft hits rapids.

Just keep mixing it up and with a good attitude, I'm sure you'll have some great D&D sessions.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Well it may be half a year before I even plan to start a campaign, but good advice on dungeon setup. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 8:18

A few other minor points to consider when designing quests and goals for the players: make sure there are no plot holes in your fantasy world & campaigns or easy wins for PCs!

A friend of mine once designed a campaign revolving around players tracking down an evil wizard on the run. It was meant to be a traveling adventure with the PCs hot on the trail of the wizard as he teleported from one location to the next in the kingdom. However what the DM didn't foresee is that the wizard's travel itinerary was fairly obvious. The PCs knew where his final appearance would be - they simply waited there for the wizard to appear and then nabbed him.

The other issue is making your fantasy world believable and internally consistent. For example, if magic is prevalent, can it be exploited in ways that would unbalance your fantasy setting (like mass producing magical swords, resurrecting the dead, or eliminating the need to farm the land when food can be magically generated)? I think most magic loopholes have been eliminated in D&D 3.5, but there may still be a few.

Maintaining suspension of disbelief could be important - it depends on the type of players. The players may wonder why the king hasn't simply cleared out all the dungeons in the land with his army (perhaps his army is tied up fighting wars or guarding the frontier). For that matter how do monsters survive cooped up in underground dungeons with no food source? If the players pick up on rumors of a fantastic treasure guarded by a dragon or a kidnapped princess, why aren't there scores of other adventurers, who've heard the same rumors, also planning to slay the dragon or rescue the princess?

In a sandbox setting, players should have some options for quests and challenges of varying levels of difficulty. For example, there could be rumors of a gang of highway robbers holding up travelers (too easy), a tarrasque rampaging through a neighboring kingdom (too hard), or a tribe of Orcs raiding local farmsteads (challenging but enticing). The danger of getting in over your head should always exist. Otherwise, campaigns could seem suspiciously contrived. If the adventures are too easy players become bored.


Usually, I begin by asking why the players are there. For example, in most of my adventures, I have the players having joined the local militia, each player having given their own reasons. Then, the story depends on how detailed the PC's back-story is. For example, I had one player who wrote a full page and a half on where he came from, and why he joined this adventure. His story became well woven into the campaign, and while the player who simply said he came from a poor family whose home was ransacked by bandits, I could only give encounters with the same bandit group.

In essence you are trying to tell a story. Usually the players supply the Who, the Why, and the How. You supply the What, When, and Where of the story.

Decide what their goal is, who will oppose them, who will help them, and so on. I usually find it helpful to begin with two sessions of the campaign prepared for the first game, so you can gauge how the players think and play. From the on I have three to five sessions ready in case the players power through more maps than I expected, but I still have room to improvise is the players do something unexpected (like killing an important NPC I had prepared).

So long as you have a goal in mind, the you can use the player's input to improve your campaign.

Also, I steal shamelessly, if there is a character you like in a book or move, add him in, if there is an artifact that sparks your imagination, throw it into the campaign. As long as you make the story your own, the sky is the limit.


For my campaigns I prefer complex storylines with lots of twists and mystery. The strategy I outline below can be adapted to a large-scale world building style game or a small self-contained 1-2 month campaign. It's adaptable since you build up complexity as you go. Lastly, this approach allows you to build your world and your story simultaneously which, in my opinion, produces more organic and believable environments.

A good, believable world or setting relies primarily on the fact that our universe is a deterministic place - things never happen isolation and events always influence other events. I imagine the worlds I build as a massive network of interacting events and use this to make the world more believable.

The following is an example for a much smaller-scale world. This is a rather mundane example but it's used for the purpose of demonstration. I assume that you already have a sense of player motivations/backstories. Take out a large piece of paper or poster board and start writing:

  1. Begin by writing down some ideas/words about the kind of story you want to tell. Perhaps yours is a political story where the party unravels a political plot. Maybe it's more of an adventuring plot where there are strange events happening in a city and you need to find the cause of it. Maybe it's more of an exploration-driven plot where the players need to wander around the world picking up clues before they realize they are part of a larger story. Maybe it's a background-driven plot where you integrate their backstories together and they realize that all of their backstories relate to a common source.
  2. Draw a box on the paper and write the following in it: Begin by thinking about a setting/circumstance in which you would like the characters to meet. Of course, this might be difficult since you don't have a story yet but this is just to get it started; you can make modifications to this later. For our purposes, let's assume the setting is a small city.
  3. Draw an arrow from the above description to a new box which describes the condition the city is in. I usually write "condition" near the arrow. Let's say that the city guard has recently dwindled in numbers.
  4. Draw an arrow from here to a new box which describes the cause in the town that may have caused this problem. Perhaps a number of dangerous monsters have increased in numbers outside the city and they are killing the town guards.
  5. Draw a new area to this box describing the cause of this event. Maybe a group of Kuo-Toa were normally hunting the monsters in the swamps outside the city but for some reason they have vanished.
  6. Draw a new cause to this event. Let's say the Kuo-Toa have been using a special substance in their rituals that has caught the interest of a cult who is trying to open a portal to the Elemental Chaos to let in demons. They have captured the Kuo-Toa and keeping them in a cave system that lies in the mountains outside of the city.
  7. Now draw some arrows from the town. What suspicious conditions might be present in the city? Perhaps the king/town leader is acting strangely, perhaps there is an influx of a certain group of new people/cultures, perhaps people are dying strangely. Let's say that the town leader is acting a bit strange and people seem to be dying.
  8. Now let's link this back to something we've already created. Maybe the cult needs something for their rituals that's found in the caves and their mining process has introduced metals into the ground water. Furthermore, let's say the city leader is involved with the cult, perhaps with the motivation of something that he desperately needs.

You can keep going like this, connecting cause and effect chains to create a believable scenario. Whenever you do this, think about what the repercussions of each event might be and how it would effect the setting. As you build up the world more and more, you can start adding more specific elements like city culture, language, religion, and government. You can think about the mood: what would the attitude of the town be? Fear? Stress? Panic? I write these kinds of words under all of the arrows and boxes where appropriate.

Next, think of some NPCs and add them into the mix. Who might they meet in this city that is related to the events you have outlined above? Will the be friendly to the characters? Will they try to mislead them?

I find that when I work in this way, it's fairly easy to come up with a complicated world with lot's of causal events that are linked together.

Now the final step is to determine player goals and sequence of events. In your mind, the events above will probably be very linear since you know the story. That means that you need to pick events that can happen based on what you've outlined in a way that is is out-of-order. Without all the information at their disposal, there is a sense of tension and mystery for the players and it makes it much easier for you to mislead them and create plot twists. They will come to erroneous conclusions because of how you have limited them. These steps are kind of "filling in the blanks" - you can figure out what role they will play in the story and what order they will find out the information in.

This step allows you to create an immerse world to the players because they are being shown the reaction to current events happening around them without understanding the context of these events. That's their job - to unravel this web and see how it all fits together. The more tangled you make it, the more complex the story becomes.

Examples of reactions: - They city guards may be anxious or nervous, less in number - Citizens may be sick - Citizens are robbed and attacked by bandits outside the city because the town guard has dwindled in number. - Citizens complain the town leader is acting strange

Examples of goals: - Player needs to visit the town leader - Player needs to visit an apothecary who can tell them what these symptoms mean. This may lead them to some mining systems within the caves outside the city. - Players need to ask town guards when these events happened. Might lead them to a house in the city with suspicious activity. This might give them clues about what is going on in the caves outside the city. Maybe it will lead them to the swamps where they can get more clues.

You can then leave it open how the players investigate these things. Always think of 2-3 different ways they can approach any goal so they don't feel railroaded. It's even better if the goals are non-dependent. If they can do them in different orders it gives the impression of a sandbox kind of environment.

This is just a simple example. You can do the same sort of thing for cities in a continent that have economic and political relations if you are going larger/epic scale. You will have much more at your disposal this way (religion, xenophobia, social disagreements etc) that can affect the way these cities act with each other. In this case, I suggest dividing up the campaign into self-contained acts with information that carries over between different acts.

It's all up to you how complex you want to make it but I think this approach works well for creating a believable world for the players filled with mystery and a touch of sandbox.


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