The Zen of Campaign Design


The day feels oppressively hot, the sun baking all of L'Trel as the heat wave continues for at least one more day in the northern port-city. You hear a cry from nearby, and a rumbling far away. You turn to see, and you observe a cloud of flame rise and reach for the sky, as a mushroom from the wet, spring soil. People young and old alike cry out in unison around you, just now you hear the first of many wails of disbelief and screams of terror, and people begin to run for their lives from this flaming menace. You look ahead of you, and you see a woman trapped under the wheel of a now-abandoned wagon, and just then, as you move to help, it begins to rain. This rain brings no relief however, as it is not water but fire falling from the emerald and azure summer sky.

The day feels oppressively hot, the sun baking all of L'Trel as the heat wave continues for at least one more day in the northern port-city. You hear a cry from nearby, and a rumbling far away. You turn to see, and you observe a cloud of flame rise and reach for the sky, as a mushroom from the wet, spring soil. People young and old alike cry out in unison around you, just now you hear the first of many wails of disbelief and screams of terror, and people begin to run for their lives from this flaming menace. You look ahead of you, and you see a woman trapped under the wheel of a now-abandoned wagon, and just then, as you move to help, it begins to rain. This rain brings no relief however, as it is not water but fire falling from the emerald and azure summer sky.

A formless form, a design that both guides the characters and is shaped by them, a fluid model of sewn-together adventures, exploits, and grand quests; a great campaign is something very Zen-like. Just enough but not too much, living in the moment yet responding to the PC's whims, a great campaign is a very tricky thing to design. I hope through this series of articles to, at least, illustrate one way in which campaigns might be made, and give a general idea about the components that make a campaign truly rise above the normal and the everyday.

Part I, Inspiration:

There is a real difference between the everyday sort of adventure and/or campaign, and one that rises to truly mythic status. Ordinary adventures get the job done - they slake our thirst for fantasy but they do not give us a story to tell, they do not make us grow or change; for this to happen the campaign must truly be legendary. Some legends are forged of heroism, some of conflict and character development, and others of slaying grand beasts and casting down foul sorcerers from their equally foul places of residence. These legends are legends precisely because they are tailored to their audience. Though the line between player and storyteller is often blurred in role-playing, there is a definite audience in mind when a Dungeon Master, Storyteller, or Game Master decides to write an adventure or a campaign, and that audience is the players. Players are the ones who respond to the world the storyteller crafts in their imaginations, they are the ones who defeat the great wyrm, or run from it; they are the ones who kill the exiled technocrat or take him in; it is their destiny they are writing in the sand, and it is your task as a storyteller to give them something legendary to write about. The methods set before us to accomplish this task have been covered in great detail, and the most common (nigh obligatory) tool in use to tell stories to our players is the adventure.

Designing an adventure is easy enough. Set up an antagonist, give him motivations to run counter to those of the PCs, and then set obstacles between the PCs and the antagonist. This is really quite simple, at most entailing an evening or two of inspired work or a week's hard labor. Adventures, though - like campaigns - begin with an idea. A necromancer doing dark things in a dark tower, for example, makes an adequate kernel for an adventure. That same idea isn't nearly sufficient to build a campaign around, however. To be clear, it isn't the scope of the idea that is lacking. A very powerful necromancer with lots of guards around his tower planning on doing something on a massive scale (but still dark, of course) makes for a wonderful high-level adventure, but still is poor fare for a campaign and cannot be called legendary. It does nothing to stretch the player's imaginations; it does nothing to change how they see their characters and the world around them; in short, while it is fun to play through, it is also meaningless in the end. To make your players rethink their world and their characters, to really affect them, the campaigns you craft must have a bit of myth in them, they must reveal something about the world through the experiences the characters engage in, something that could not be understood without the experiences, threats, challenges, and often mortal danger involved.

The myth and the legend are both tools of old, tools used by men and women when the written word was neither popular nor widely available. In role-playing, we hearken back to these times, and it is from those days we draw the techniques necessary to make our campaigns truly sparkle. To that end, the seed of a campaign must be far-reaching and meaningful to the players, it must speak to them on more than a narrative level, it must draw them in as people, and make them feel as though the place to which they have been transported could really exist, and that their characters are real people, of depth and spirit, struggling to find meaning and keep their wits about them in a world of danger and intrigue. Characters must struggle for more than imaginary land, gold, or a few magical items; they must struggle for those things real people would fight to the death for. Very few people in this world would consistently put themselves in mortal danger for the sake of one, one hundred, or even one hundred thousand gold. Those same people, given a fight worth fighting, would gladly lay down their lives for the sake of something worthwhile. To save those they love, to discover the truth about their past, to take hold of the power and influence that they have worked their whole lives for; these are the aims of real men and women, and these are the things they would lay down their lives for.

Knowing a necromancer is doing dark things far away is poor motivation to defeat his fell hordes and cast him down from his seat of power. Seeing a colleague and a friend slowly fall to a darkness consuming him from the inside out however, and knowing this necromancer is responsible, drives men to become heroes. Seeing your brother, once a bright, happy, and kind man turned to darkness by this foul sorcerer, drives men into mortal danger time and time again. It isn't for love of money that legends are made; those who love money are mere mercenaries. In role-playing, storytellers seek to craft true heroes from committed men and women, to elevate them - and the legends they struggle through - to mythic status, to be told for generations to come.

Campaigns shouldn't focus solely on narrative, drama, and awesome fight scenes, though these are fabulous complements to the rhetorical objective of a campaign. It is this rhetorical objective that drives the meaning of the campaign into the hearts of the players, and will have them coming back for more. It is the questions a campaign provokes, rather than the answers, which will hold the players' interest, and motivate them to role-play to the best of their ability. If nothing else, it is this questioning of the self that makes humans special, and it is often lack of these questions that makes characters incomplete and unrealistic. The storyteller must attend to and inspire these questions in his players if he wishes them to expand their style and their skill as role-players. The kernel of a campaign must begin thusly, with something that players, as human beings, can connect with. To do this in game, the storyteller must attend to the meaning of the campaign.

This is not the sole component of a legendary campaign, however. Apart from the rhetoric of a campaign there is narration, drama, and the ultimate conclusion. As integral to a legendary campaign as an effective rhetorical objective, the narrative of the campaign and the story goals will be focused upon in the next segment of "The Zen of Campaign Design."

Excellent start. I can't wait to read the next installment.

Luke, can you e-mail me at, I cant get in touch with you because of internet problems. It is fairly urgent, I'll fill you in when you e-mail me.


Almost forgot, good article.


Good in theory, but I have to ask, 'what can make a player care so much about an imaginary campaign world, that he really feels a sense of achievement if he succeeds or loss if he fails.'

After all, the brother that sinks into evil, is imaginary, you have invested nothing in him, you have no real memories together, how can you possibly feel a real sense of loss at his fate.

Think about this carefully. I think that Auron has come up with a valid point here, but what would make players really care about their campaigns ? I'll tell you how I think this can be achieved later.

Emotion. I remember the best campaign, at the end, the player was crying. Even an imaginary death means something.

Hey there,

Mohammed brings up a good point, and Millow hit on the solution: make the conflict/evil as grand in scope as you like, but also make it personal to the characters. They may not give a hoot that the Mad Baron has unleashed a horde of demons on the land, but have one of said demons rob him or kill his wife/mother/best bud and watch how the PC gets involved.


That one can be taken too far, though. Unless you plan for it from the beginning and make sure that the NPC(s) to be taken are know to the players - say, wipe out their village after they send a few sessions in it with family and friends - it won't have the same impact. And the players might get rather angry if this sort of thing happens a lot, or if they think that the friends/relatives of their PCs were killed just to get them involved in destroying the Great Evil(tm).

A better alternative can be having an NPC almost succeed and be stopped by the PCs. Say, townsfolk end up in comas no one can break or get badly scarred by a demon before the PCs save them or even get saved from opening the "Book of Utter Evil" at the last moment. This can add urgency in the PCs needing to both defeat the Great Evil(tm) and make sure it can't strike out against their friends/family in the meantime.

LOL... guys, read the title. Part *one*. There's more a'comin. Also, thank you Milow, that's precisely the sort of thing I try and inspire in my players. If there is no sense of achievement, if there is no emotional investment, then in my humble opinion there is no role play. I'll get to how I like to inspire that emotional investment in my players in Part II. Hope you enjoy it!


I think that a key ingredient in the emotional aspect is shock. As 20th century individuals, we tend to take certain things for granted. The police are your friends, the government is there to at least provide some help for the people, the law is just, people are nice, and ect. I recently started pitting my players against a diabolical and dangerous enemy who's been attacking them through non-standard means, and it's amazing how it can effect them when some of these things they take for granted are removed.

For example, while entering a town they were attacked separately and then two invisible stalkers broke into their inn rooms and attacked them. The damage to the inn rooms was entirely the fault of the invisible stalkers, but with no bodies the innkeeper charged them for the damage and quite frankly gouged them. As one party member put it "Someone else broke the window and I have to PAY for it?". The real final straw occured when they were preparing to leave the town and a patrol of the city guard came up and unrolled a proclamation from the Merchant's Council (the ruling body in the town, and quite succeptible to bribery) effectively blaming them for the damage caused in all three attacks, exiling them from town for a year and a day, and threatening them with death, imprisonment, or impoverishment if they were to pursue any other course of action besides immediately leaving the city. The guard patrol then closed ranks behind them and escorted them to the gates.

Up until the last bit, the party probably could have accepted things with some equinamity...but the blatant miscarriage of what they considered to be basic social laws had the party's thief ready to go back and rob the merchants blind and the barbarian plotting to make this city number 1 on his horde's list. They were, quite frankly, furious.

It's an interesting tactic...and with this particular opponent, it's one that I'll probably use again. They haven't heard his name, have never seen his face, and in fact have only the vaguest shadowy idea of his existance...but they all want to tear him limb from limb. The great evil thing will come up, of course (He's a vampire necromancer who's starting on the conquest path) but it's going to be intensely personal by that point.

I agree with the emotion thing, but I have a point. Shock is good and works wonders but I think the interest comes from deeper. I think the players will have interest if they have imagination, it's the same thing that makes people enjoy good books, movies and video games. Most of the time, RPG players are that type of people.

TOT Dave, that's an awesome anecdote. I've been an advocate of doing that sort of thing in White Wolf games, as it's fairly easy to devise things like that. I've been speculating about how to bring that quality to a D&D game, and you've stirred my imagination. Awesome.

Recently I was made very proud of my players...they actually provided me with a major plot hook for the very first time. I mentioned in my last entry that they were being pursued by a shadowy individual who was using his wealth and power to keep them hopping. Recently said individual (who is a high level vampire) made things more interesting by sending one of his spawn to give her best college try at removing them. She first stepped in and stopped an attack by hellcats (that she triggered), and then in the ensuing conversation dominated the party's fighter, took him up to his inn room and, among other things, drained him of some of his constitution. The next night, since he wasn't going to be good for much, she talked the party's rogue into having a girl's night out and dominated her as well. Now that she's got control over 2/3 of the party she's using it lightly, basically insuring that she's got regular access to them in order to regularly drain some of their constitution. As a rogue herself, the simple measure of using a wand of cure light wounds and blurring their memories ensures that there are no telltale marks.

The hook came at the end of another confrontation that she had set up so that she could prove her worth to the party. An air elemental, ogre mage, and tiefling (rogue, 7th) came in and attacked them all while they were having a drink. The ogre mage and the air elemental left when things got hot for them, but the tiefling got caught and interrogated. I was overwhelmed that they'd actually taken a captive! I had initially intended the encounter to be just another step in the trust earning process so the vampiress could betray them more effectively later...but now they've uncovered that there's a high powered merchant in their enemy's pay and are planning to pay him a visit and have a little talk.

Zen thought - things are added sometimes through natural but unexpected processes. Once there they can become a part of the whole...and are they any different than those things that were a part from the beginning then?

and I say again... wait and see, wait and see. By the way, I would have posted part II some time this week, but two tests (Physics and Genetics) got in the way. Expect Parts II and III soon enough though. Until then, remember to make inspired plots, remember to shoot big, and remember, above all, to cater to your players. Go where they go, and let the story flow.

Auron the Red Robe

Awesome article sweetie. I can't wait to read more, so get busy. Just kidding :-P Love ya!

"A necromancer doing dark things in a dark tower, for example, makes an adequate kernel for an adventure. That same idea isn't nearly sufficient to build a campaign around, however."

I made a campaign based on that once and it worked beutifully, I think it really applies to your application of the initial idea.

"applies to your application"

What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Let's try:
"depends on your application"

Yeah, that's better.

True. I was simply saying that a campaign should have, at its heart, something more significant than a setting and an antagonist. All great literature has within it an element of truth, of meaning, and without it, that literature just tends to fall flat. Even if that meaning is something akin to a rejection of any unified meaning, it is still there. That, in my humblest opinion, should lie at the heart of a campaign. Were I not facing a dreadful bout of writer's block, then the idea would be more fully elucidated for you with the rest of my series on campaign design -- put simply, the element you're talking about it setting and narrative, not inspiration or meaning. Without a motivation, without a reason behind the guy doing dark things in a dark tower, there's no real depth or complexity to the narrative structure of the campaign, I would contend, and it's THAT that I was referring to above.

Auron the Red Robe

Ah, I see.
In my game the mage in the dark tower had a detailed backstory, he had recently killed his master for said tower, and was in the proscess of sacrificing an artifact that the PCs were looking for to Thakisis to bring dragons back to the world. He had teamed up with the Undead nation to launch a war against the norse island kingdom of Allengard in exchange for the princess. There's not really a better way to piss off some vikings than kidnap their royalty and unleash an undead horde on their kingdom.

So, yeah...... I see your point.

All that background stuff is really interesting but will the players ever find out? While I too like to build psychologically complete NPC's (at least the main ones) I no longer bother to build complete backgrounds for all of them because I found out that in the end, most of it was wasted and my players never got to discover it more than superficially.

So only allies and long term vilains get the full treatment, others just get a rough background and profile.

Eater, your campaign sounds like the shiz-naz. Undead kingdoms, dark towers, vikings, princesses, I love it!

Sam says:
"All that background stuff is really interesting but will the players ever find out?"

I says:
"Theres not really much point to all the backstory if the group never finds out. At first it was a search for a missing artifact, then there was a missing princess and an undead invasion. It just mushroomed out untill the group was in over their heads with no way out. It was great. Unfortunately I was gaming with a bunch of fuckwads."

Olly says:
"Eater, your campaign sounds like the shiz-naz."

I syas:
"As a matter of fact, it was."

An amusing little footnote to that campaign. The group of players I had, the afore mentioned fuckwads, had the unfortunate habit of playing for hours and hours but not getting anything acomplished. While fun at times they did this constantly and this game had a timeline. So by the time they were in over their heads like I had in mind they were WAY behind schedule. They didn't end up assaulting the mage's tower untill after he had sacrificed the said artifact, a gem of ancient power, to Thakisis and released dragons onto the world. The Norsemen did push back the horde of undead but they had their capital city gutted by dragon attack. I don't play with those guys anymore. They were some losers that used to come into B.U.B.s. I decided thereafter that I would not waste so much time on a cool campaign if they were just gonna act stupid the whole time.

Another totally unrelated anecdote. I liked that story so much that I kept all my notes and will turn it into a novel.

You should do that, I'd bloody buy it! Just one thing, can I half-inch the name 'Allengard' for a land in my campaign world? I needed a name for the place my world's Vikings came from, but was never able to find one I liked. Now, 'Allengard' that's a goodun.

Sure, Olly. Feel free to plagurise untill your heart is content. I do it all the time in games. If you want to check out something I wrote that is in the same world but not the 'Siege Of Allengard' story you can check out my website at Random And Senseless which is also linked in my author bio.

There's alot of other weird crap at that site as well.

Okay. So I can't put html into the posts. Here's the URL:


Oh, I allmost forgot.

Allengard was also an island kingdom. Similar in size, but not climate, to the Phillipines. My most recent fantasy novel deals with Allengard also when the hostole kingdom of Terraque-Len, an oriental land, attempts to conqur them while they, Terraque-Len not Allengard, are threatening war with the Empire Of Orrim. The novel is called 'War Nerve' but is primarily a fantasy spy story.

Thanks for letting me borrow Allengard, and, if you need a villain for Terraque-Len, allow me to lend you one of my oriental super-villains. Hang Man Chang.

Hang Man Chang was trained, almost from birth in Crab form Kung Fu. He is the leader of the Red Crab criminal empire, an immensely powerful secret organisation which has some kind of agent in every country in the world. Hang Man Chang is mostly focussed on becoming the emporer of the world. He had a great deal of wealth, which he had gained from the illegal trade of opium, which in his native land, was abundant. He was almost defeated once, when a band of adventurers battled him on the edge of a cliff, and threw him over it, onto a jagged coral reef. They felt sure he was dead. However, it turned out that Hang Man Chang had a few more tricks up his sleeve. As he lay there, his body broken on the jagged coral, he called upon his servants, the crabs, to rebuild his shattered bones and tissue, and nurse him back to health. He now lives, and continues to plot against the world, but he is somewhat... different, now. He now sports a large crab's pincer where his left hand used to be, having lost it in his battle with the adventurers. He covers the pincer using long robes, so it is not immediately obvious at first. However, the pincer makes him formidable in combat. He is occasionally accompanied by his daughter, Woo, who is as cruel as she is beautiful, and serves him as his most loyal minion. He may also have giant crabs, skilled martial artists and savage-flesh eating crabs in his service as well. If you imagine him as one of those technically rather racist Fu Man Chu type characters, from the Sixties and Seventies films, almost always played by rather thick-set caucasian actors, I find that helps his character no end.

Feel free to edit as much of this is needed to fit your campaign world.

Cool, thanks.

I like the sound of Hang Man Chang. Not only is he a matial badass, but he also has an extremely unnatural intimidation factor...

Chang: You will not escape, bow before Chang!

Other Guy: I will never bow, I shall fight you to the death!

Chang: Fool! You underestimate my power! You have NO idea what I am capable of!

Other Guy: HA! What could you possibly possess that could stop me?

Chang: ...I've got crabs.

Other Guy: ............

Chang: ............

Other Guy: ...I surrender.


Does not recognize "matial" choose correct spelling from the following...

a) martial


It's funny that you say that Ass, I was going to use him as the antagonist behind and STD plauge. He's gonna spread it with his gisha assassins.

I had realised there was tiny bit of innuendo involved there... I thought he wouldn't be taken seriously at first, but if you do it right, the player's never make the connection. I can't take full credit for it, however, it was half-inched from Dr. Terrible's House Of Horrible, a bit of class TV show that apparently, only I saw. In that show, Hang Man Chang was the nemesis of Nathan Blaze, who was a sort of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian detective character.

He had some great lines though, Hang Man Chang.

Blaze: You'll never get away with this Chang, in a few moments, the city guard will surround your lair, and you'll be trapped, and put behind bars!
Chang: Insect. I do not believe you, and even If I did, I still wouldn't believe you.

Blaze: Ah, Hang Man Chang... the evil, bony-fingered menace from the East.
Chang: Ah, Nathan Blaze... twat.

Chang: You see, Mr. Blaze, I am not as easy to kill as a giant crab!

And of course; after the death of his daughter, Woo, at the hands of Nathan Blaze, he uttered the immortal line...

Chang: Something has happened to my Woo-Woo!


Make sure the gisha assassins remember to use the non-lethal art known as 'flowery combat'


Is that anything like falatio combat?


Its an 'artform' female ninjas (sunichi?) were taught in feudal Japan as a means to seduce their targets or to...err...suck their way up the heiarchy.

My knowledge on Japanese history isn't what it ought to be, but I wouldn't put that past Woo. She's a cunning one...

With a name like Woo she would have to be. That and cute but asian girls usually are anyway.

And I thought the term was 'ninjettes'.

I always thought 'Ninja' sounded like a nice name for a girl.

Olly said:
"I always thought 'Ninja' sounded like a nice name for a girl."

I say:
"That is so rediculous I don't even know how to respond to that."

No! Don't write me off for saying that.

I mean, 'Ninja', to me, sounds like a girl's name. Like Nadia, Ninia or Nancy or summat.

A thread about "The History, Mythology and Reality of the Ninja" would be a GREAT article...

But, its not gaming...


*puts article back in folder*

Hey, Ass. Have it posted anyway so you know how annoying it is to have your email flooded with pointless crap from a bunch of retards that has nothing to do with the article. Seriously, you guys, you have got to knock it off.

Wait a sec, what the hell do I care? Nobody ever posts comments about my stuff so I don't know if it's annoying at all.

Nobody loves me!!!!

::howls in anguish::

*points Eater towards cliff*

Lol... you know Eater, thanks. I wasn't going to SAY anything... but the discussion over this article seems to only very obliquely relate TO the article any more. I appreciate that last post of yours.


I try, Auron. I try. Somebody has to keep these fools in line.

Now that I think of it, you should see the "How To Ruin An Adventure" thread. It's scary the idiocy that can occur when people with too much free time are allowed to waste that of others.

Lol... well I think that that's a pretty prevalent feature of our society, and mankind as a whole. People like to talk, and often enough it is for no other reason than to hear themselves speaking. I don't mind, I've grown to accept it, really, but it is nice to have a bit of peace and quiet from time to time.


Hey...I have TRIED to move the cackling into the OPEN FORUM. But nobody wants to go in there...

The open forum is boring, though. And we talked for a little while on the one about Cons. All we need is a new article from time to time so we have new things to talk about. Without them, god help the author's email provider.

Well, there's a nifty FF8 clinic going on in the open forum right now...

Oh wait, you already know that!

Dude, are you ever gonna finish this? Cause this first one was awesome, and I'd love to see what else you've got.