A wise man once told me, “Writing a D&D campaign to play and run by yourself is writing a book.” At first I laughed at this notion, how is writing D&D similar to writing a book? I just come up with a few scenarios and let the players decide what to do. 80 hours of writing later, I have spent more time on my D&D campaign then I’ve worked on my actual novel. I have pages of notes all over the place; There are maps and drawings of traps laying on my floor; and I realized that I am writing a book that is alive.
I like to think J.R.R. Tolkien would have been one of the best dungeon masters. The Lord Of The Rings would have been an awesome campaign for any player that wanted to join. He did so much world building that the land of Middle Earth truly feels alive as you’re reading or watching. To flip things a little bit, A great DM Campaign could easily be a novel. You not only have to create a setting that is detailed and full but you also need to create characters that feel real. Sure, the players create their own characters but as a DM, you have to play the role of all the characters the players interact with. This doesn’t mean they all need to sound different (trust me doing voices is hard) but they need to feel like individuals.
Another important part of novel writing is the action. Your protagonist needs to do something while they are living in this fictional world. This action can be a variety of things and it doesn’t even mean they need to physically do anything but there must be action of some type. Once again, D&D has the same requirement. As a DM you need to give your players something to do. Of course this action could be a conversation with an innkeeper or a quest to a dungeon in the sky. It doesn’t really matter what they’re doing as long as they’re doing something. Sometimes the players run out of things to do and as the DM you need to throw something in there to spark a conversation or force a battle.
I have two more pieces I want to discuss. The next one is expecting the unexpected. My friend Cassidy (who writes for this site) has talked to me about writing for years and one of the things I have learned is your characters will do things you don’t expect. You’ve setup this planned scenario but as you’re writing the situation, your character does something totally unexpected. Of course this is exactly how things go in D&D campaigns. For example: I had a character in my campaign that was meant to restore the party's spells so they could continue through the dungeon. She was only supposed to help once and then she would be on her way. The party, however, had different plans for her and managed to roll persuasion checks to keep her around. I had NO IDEA they’d do this but that's the beauty of both novel writing and D&D campaigns; you need to be ready for anything and everything
The last example I want to talk about is the Hero’s Journey. A great story will have the character grow in some way over the course of the story. Sure there are exceptions where a character intentionally doesn’t grow, but for most stories, they need to learn or grow in some way. Doing this sort of thing gives the reader a point to what they are reading. Its something to which the reader can relate. As human beings, we are constantly growing, and a story should reflect that. Again, D&D should reflect the same thing. As your characters progress through the campaign they should face situations that makes them grow or learn something. Stealing another example from my current campaign: The players have learned to hate when a minstrel is playing in the campaign because it reminds them of annoying NPC named Steven Bradley who constantly bothers them. Its not a grand change in persona but its little changes like this which will build up over time and the players will walk away realizing the journey they've been on inside and out.
The rules that apply for creating a compelling narrative within the pages of a book, also apply to crafting an entertaining campaign in. If you're a storyteller of prose or roll playing games, I'd love to hear from you. Toss a comment below.