NaNoWriMo for RPGs: How to Create a D&D Campaign in 1 Month

I've already talked about my love for NaNoWriMo, the one-month novel-writing binge that unites writers all over the world.

But as a Forever DM always trying to come up with new D&D campaign ideas, I wonder: can RPG players get in on this?

And so, without further ado, I present NaRPGCaWriMo: National RPG Campaign Writing Month.

It's NaNoWriMo, except I just made it up and it's for D&D! (Or for EMBERWIND, Pathfinder, Vampire: The Masquerade, or whatever RPG system you buy too many dice for.)

NaRPGCaWriMo: Create a D&D Campaign Idea in One Month

NaNoWriMo challenges writers to create 50,000 words of a novel throughout the the month of November.

For NaRPGCaWriMo, the goal is to create 5 planned sessions of a D&D campaign in a month.

I think it's totally doable. Here's how I would arrange the schedule.

Week 1: Campaign Concept

For week 1, you try to dedicate some creative time and wordcount to your campaign's core concept.

If you're creating your own world and campaign idea from scratch, I'd say you try to answer the following questions (and write down your answers so you can go back to them):

  1. Where does the campaign take place?
  2. What elements of the world will I need to explain to players?
  3. What is the central conflict?
  4. What decisions will the players be able to make to affect the conflict?
  5. How can I get my players invested? (I.e., what will my adventure hooks be?)

If you're using a pre-established setting, you may choose to spend the time you would spend on question #1 and instead do refresher reading on the campaign world. Make note of world elements (locations, monsters, items, NPCs) that you want to use.

If you're trying to come up with these elements on your own, I'll point you in the direction of The Story Engine Deck, the deck of storytelling prompts and D&D campaign ideas I created to help DMs and writers come up with their best ideas.

Picture of battlemap with D&D dice and The Story Engine Deck of story prompts on it

Week 2: Story Structure

Creating a D&D campaign for your players is a little like drawing a portrait of someone.

You start with a broad outlines and loose sketching, and then start to refine the details.

(Of course, most artists don't have to deal with their subjects actively trying to derail the composition or murder the non-player residents of the painting!)

Anyway, in NaRPGCaWriMo, week 2 is when you start outlining the structure of your composition.

  1. Make a note of the key events that are likely to happen to players follow the broad story arc you have planned for them. 
  2. Also not where those events happen, and who else (NPCs, monsters, etc.) might be involved.
  3. Brainstorm the major decision points where players may either want to divert from the main story, or could otherwise affter the plot in a big way.

For #3, you'll want to do a little planning to "expect the unexpected." Being a good DM means respecting the motivations of your party, while also giving them reasons to respect the world and storylines you have planned for them.

For each point the party could derail your plans, I would develop one of the following as a plan:

  1. Off-road roadmap: jot down rough notes on what stories you could pursue if the players leave the path you have planned.
  2. Alternate route: introduce a B plot that could get the players back on track.
  3. Scenic path: if the players don't seem tempted by the path you've laid out for them, give them reasons to choose it. I never recommend railroading or roadblocking players into choices by taking away options, but giving them new reasons to care about your A plot (a beloved NPC in danger, the conflict expands and affects their hometown, etc.) respects their agency and motivation while also indicating to the party where you've put the bulk of your planning effort.

Week 3: Pacing Your Campaign and Planning Sessions

Now that you've got a plot outline for your campaign, you'll want to start furnishing the details.

Break up the story into distinct encounters, and make a note of the storytelling elements that go into each encounter.

A good D&D campaign idea will offer a mix of challenges for players: some combat, some social roleplay, some skill challenges, and some creative problem-solving.

Take notes and keep dice handy as you plan your D&D campaign idea

Make a note of each type of encounter, and also where the most climactic moments are. Then, start to play around with where each of your 5 sessions might begin and end.

Ideally, each session will contain one climax (usually in the latter half), one combat, and at least one non-combat encounter. 

If it helps, you can try reordering your encounters (what if that goblin ambush happened after they left town, rather than before they left town), or making note of which encounters are optional or redeployable. It's always helpful to know what material you can cut or save for later if a session is running long or short.

Week 4: Planning Encounter Details

Depending on what kind of DM you are (meticulous planner or seat-of-pants pilot), and how much experience you have, you may want to use this week to plot out all 5 sessions in detail, or just the first session.

For each encounter, you'll want to:

  • Leave yourself notes for how to describe and roleplay NPCs.
  • Find or develop stat blocks for monsters and NPCs.
  • Write out relevant traps, hazards, skills DCs, saving throws, and more.
  • Draw maps of combat zones or settings with a tactical purpose.
  • Write out items and rewards (including gold and experience).

This can be a lot of work, and the players may end up rerouting your story plan, which is why I recommend only going into detail on the first session, plus the bits you KNOW the players will encounter at some point.

(If they don't come looking for Zegdar the Dread Lich, the Zegdar the Dread Lich will come looking for them!)

If you do plan to plot out all 5 sessions in detail, I'd give yourself extra time for this step.

The 4 week schedule accounts for 28 days, and November has 30 days, so you have 2 bonus days to work with, and I'd spend them here.

It's Dangerous to Go Alone! Take This!

So that's my pitch for National RPG Campaign Writing Month and how to create a full-fledged D&D campaign idea in a month.

If you're looking for ideas to get you started, or if you players throw you a curveball and you need to develop new NPCs, items, locations, or story hooks on the fly, I've got you covered.

I developed The Story Engine Deck, a deck for creating instant customizable storytelling prompts. You can use it for brainstorming, planning out campaign details, or improvising storylines.

You can check it out here, or sign up to receive a free print-at-home demo PDF.

Happy adventuring!

Sign up to receive a free PDF demo deck of D&D campaign ideas, story prompts, adventure hooks, and more!

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