My friends want to play D&D and they expect me to be the GM; since none of us has ever played before, their wanting to keep playing or not pretty much depends on me. I have bought the Player's handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual (4E), and I'd like to create a campaign from scratch. My question is, aside from reading the handbooks, do you have any tips on how to start a first campaign? How to make it interesting? How to make the players want to keep going?

Or is a campaign too ambitious to design as a first D&D adventure?


Edit: Thank you all for your useful answers, it's clearer now how I should start :)


5 Answers 5


It is not. What I believe to be the easiest way is to start from the inside and work outward. Have the PCs be somewhere, have one adventure (see Designing my own D&D Adventure) and be ready with a few things to do when your PCs get out of the path you designed for them. They probably aren't going to discover a world-threatening conspiracy in their first session.

So, what I recommend is: Have the campaign flow out of the characters' actions. Are the players keen on beating up orcs? Then make an orc villain for the next sessions, who plans to invade their homeland. Do the characters like beating up random monsters? Have them battle random monsters for a while before introducing a big plot point.

It also depends on the type of campaign you want to run, and as DM, it's something you probably should experience.

So, to sum it up. Start from the little things, learn from your players, and use those ideas to build a campaign. It is not impossible for a newbie to start that way – I did as well, and I think the DM Guide should have some resources for that. Build the campaign as you go along, and it should work out as long as you spend some thought on that. A campaign is not about the mechanics, it's about the story and the interconnected adventures. And that can be made by any DM, even a starting one.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for that, you can probably guess that English isn't my native language. \$\endgroup\$
    – kravaros
    Jun 3, 2013 at 17:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ No problem! I enjoy editing, especially when I have good material to work with. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 4, 2013 at 6:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for being ready with things to do when someone does something unexpected: overly aggressive rail-roading is a very common pitfall for new GMs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aesin
    Jun 4, 2013 at 12:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ It is not clearer how the OP should start? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Mar 3, 2016 at 22:53

It's definitely too ambitious.

Start with a simple adventure so you can try the mechanics and get in touch with the characters, the roleplaying and the kind of things you can do with the game.

If the games goes well, people have fun, and they like their characters, slowly expand the game universe and make plot progressively more complex.

All GMs do many mistakes at their start. If you prepare your chronicle at a later point, when you have learned a little of what works and what doesn't work, hopefully it will end up being a better campaign than one made without experience.

You can still write some ideas that come to your mind, though. Just don't grave them on stone.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I'd say that graving ideas in stone is generally a bad thing for any DM at any phase. A good answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – kravaros
    Jun 3, 2013 at 17:32

I've been in exactly the same situation as you, and this is what I've found is useful:

Start Small

Don't plan a campaign to begin with, start with something easier to manage. A dungeon is a good example. If you can create a nice dungeon, and the players enjoy dungeoncrawling, then you know that your campaign will work well if you have a lot of dungeons. If the players hate it, then you should probably either work on your dungeon-making skills or simply avoid having many dungeons in your campaign. This is fairly intuitive.

Build Bottom-up

Don't decide that the world is going to be made up of 6 continents, each of which will have about 20 countries, each of which has around 30 large cities, and so on and so forth. Start by making the area around the PCs and expand this space when the PCs want to move on. Don't add depth until you need it, as you will otherwise have to redesign a lot of your areas. It's good to have an outline of the world, but this should be something you can redesign at the drop of a hat.

Have fun

No matter whether you follow the rest of this advice, remember this: If everyone is having fun and playing the game, you've succeeded as a DM. That's the only thing that matters. If none of your players want a large campaign, don't force it on them. If they adore epic world-saving quests, then give them that. And don't worry about mistakes - everyone makes them when they start, and your players will remember your triumphs more than your tragedies.


Unless you're bursting with ideas and champing at the bit to make a whole campaign, don't. Start with one adventure. An adventure by itself can be plenty of work, but a solid method to create one that's suited to even novice DMs is the 5 Room Dungeon method.

Once you've had one adventure, you'll know whether they want to keep going or not. (If they want to keep going but didn't like the adventure, you can tell 'em that they can try DMing. Switch DMs until everyone enjoys the game – one of them might surprise themselves and find they like DMing more than playing.) Then it's just a matter of creating another adventure, possibly using a bit from the last one as a "hook" to tie them together, but even that's not necessary.

Stringing together a bunch of adventures like this, you'll find that a campaign is organically growing already, without having to plan it all ahead of time. Once your game is starting to build momentum though, you'll find that you want to prepare just a bit more, and you'll also have enough experience to start building out more of the campaign ahead of time. There is lots of good advice in the "Related" right sidebar on this very page (assuming you're using the desktop site). There's also the 5x5 Method (not related to the 5-room dungeon method) that gives you a handy framework for building a campaign.


There is nothing wrong with a newb DM running a campaign.

It is easiest to do so as an Episodic campaign. Write a dungeon, turn them loose upon it. If they beat it, write a new one for the next session, turn them loose with it; if they didn't, let them continue against it.

A campaign, at its simplest, is a series of adventures with the same characters (or a majority of the same characters). As a new DM, you're likely to accidentally end a campaign... by accidental overkill.

Start small - one dungeon. And put it on a "regional" map with a town, a river, and some wilderness, and a road leading to a city. As you add dungeons, add them to that map. Add an extra town when you need it. Let them go back to known dungeons.

I'd suggest a blank piece of paper, and 1" = 8 miles (a day's hike on bad ground) to 36 miles (a hard day's march - people can hike 2 MPH comfortable on decent ground, and 3 MPH on roads).

Put your base "town" on the map, as a circle no more than 1/2 mile across - basically, a dot. Have a road run through it. Drop a smaller dot every 10-15 miles along the road. These are villages, probably with inns. Put some other terrain on in light colors - the town should have a river, which should run across the map.

The first dungeon should be half a day or less away. Mark it. Draw it up on separate paper... Run it. If they survive, add another nearby dungeon to the map, and draw it up, and run it. Poof! It's now a campaign! And, as you add new dungeons, have them further and further out. After the first couple, add travel across the region map as a prelude to the new dungeons.

There is an old guideline I'll share, derived from the old B/X/C/M series dungeons:
Level 1-3: Dungeons near base town, so you don't have more than one wilderness encounter per character level to get there.
Levels 4-6: dungeons a couple days travel away.
Levels 7-9: dungeons up to a couple weeks travel, or non-dungeon political adventures
levels 10-12: Dungeons up to a month's travel away, or on "nearby" planes. Political adventures near home. Start into the business of ruling.
Levels 13-15: dungeons on other planes, or where magic is needed to simply find it. Politics and rulership.

Heck, most 1st level dungeons can be "My cellar got invaded by _!" Go down, kill them all, and stop the problem. The dungeon isn't the cellar - it's the tunnels that broke into the dungeon. (The other end is outside the town).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think the question assumes that "campaign" is synonymous with top-down design, but that's just a niggle with how it starts. The rest is a great treatment of one of the better bottom-up methods. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 4, 2013 at 6:45

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