Wizards of the Coast develops amazing adventures which they publish for Dungeon Masters to use when leading a campaign for Dungeons and Dragons. They are thorough, well-designed, and intriguing. I have played many a sessions out of these campaigns and I can tell you first hand that they are phenomenal.
Sometimes, though, you just gotta create your own thing. It’s like an itch that needs to be scratched. That’s when you make a homebrew adventure.
But where do you start? How do you make it compelling? How do you even make it cohesive with all the chaos which can occur when the players themselves are making decisions?
Here are a few tips that I have put together from personal experience.
Design Robust NPCs
If you are a creative at heart, it will be obvious, when designing a homebrew campaign, to design a robust world. It will be a ton of fun to draw maps, develop political systems, cultures, scheme out dungeons, and all the world-building stuff.
But if you want to make it important to your players, the people they interact with must be fully fleshed out. These Non-Player Characters (NPCs) will make or break your game.
If the only function of your NPCs are to impersonally hand out quests or become cannon fodder, then the highs of your adventure will rely solely on the adrenaline you can produce from combat. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly peak-adrenaline rushes when you’re about to die and you’re saved at the last second by another player. But it is not enough to sustain a truly memorable campaign.
Your players don’t only need a “what” to do, but a “why” to do it. Robust NPCs can give a dungeon crawl much higher stakes. Success becomes more than just getting cool items after you defeat the boss. Success can become the salvation of a person who has sacrificed greatly as a friend to the party. It can become the destruction of an old friend who has become a traitor.
With robust NPCs, success becomes something which is highly personal, and personally felt.
So do the hard work of giving major NPCs a backstory. Give them motivations as to why they act certain ways. They need to have fears and doubts. Just as real people are flawed, make the NPCs flawed. Give them a blindspot which causes them to make imperfect decisions.
Make their problems complex – I’m sorry guys, but a “I’m a farmer and my daughter was kidnapped, please help me adventurous strangers who have accidentally come across me on the road” is not going to cut it in more than an introductory course of the mechanics of D&D. Make their problems morally ambiguous and difficult to solve.
Believe in the Power of Active Protagonists
One of the biggest complaints about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was that the main character, Jyn Erso, had no agency for 95% of the movie. Things just kept happening to her and she had to react. It wasn’t until she made the decision to argue against the highly bureaucratic Rebellion leaders to go after the Death Star plans that she made any choice for herself.
This lead to a protagonist who was highly unrelatable. No one can relate to being chased between planets on the run from an evil galactic empire. But when a character looks at their dire situation and take a risk to do something to change their circumstances, that is something that all of us get. We understand the stakes and we know how hard it is to take reach for it.
If Jyn Erso made more choices which impacted her story either negatively or positively, we would have felt a more personal connection to her, and therefore to the story. As it was, watching Jyn was kind of like watching a stranger forced to do tasks for 2 hours. It sucks, yeah, but the viewer’s personal investment in the story was difficult to develop without a ton of effort on their part.
As a Dungeon Master, the temptation is going to be to make your story, and force the players to assimilate into it. And believe me, I understand. You work hard on your campaign. You put love into the world and the NPCs and the storyline itself. You know how good it can be because you can imagine yourself in a romantic situation where you overcome all odds and defeat the baddie.
But your players are not you.
They need to have agency so they can relate to the story and to their character. They need to be allowed to take initiative and act.
Let them do things which ruin your plotline. It’s your responsibility to either salvage it or create a completely new direction.
Let them do things which ruin it for themselves. It’s their decision. Even if it destroys them, it will be an ending which they will remember because they stood on their own choices and bore the consequences.
Let them have more than a choice to either choose the left door or the right door. The world is open, and they might choose to break down the wall instead. Let them.
Let them burn down the tower, if they want!
Know Your Players
Every player has a set of expectations going into a game, and I will promise you this: They are different from yours and different from everyone else’s at the table.
Some people enjoy high amounts of role-playing, and thrive when given the chance to use their speech to influence situations.
Other people enjoy the intricacy of combat. They will need tactical battlefields and difficulty monsters to face.
Some want to perfect their character at all costs, so they will need challenges (as well as successes) when leveling up and finding magical items.
Others feel a need to live out a persona which is very different (or maybe very similar) to how they act in real life. This player thrives on causing chaos for chaos’ sake. They attack without warning and insult whomever they want. This kind of character needs to feel the weight of the consequences of his/her actions and see how it negatively affects them. Strict boundaries probably would only lead to a feeling of resentment, unfortunately.
There are all sorts of different desires that every player will have. It is the responsibility of the DM to make sure everyone is engaged in the adventure. Know your players and give them what they need to stay engaged. Even if you have little interest in a specific aspect of gameplay, make sure you respect that others might have a high interest in it. So be willing to go outside your comfort zone.
Incorporate Personal Importance for the Players
The players almost always love their character. They think about them more than anyone else in the world. They create their backstory and imagine the world of possibilities for this unique hero.
The character is the player’s baby.
It is unbelievably satisfying to the player when some minute detail of the story gives a nod to something else which is a part of the character’s backstory. Maybe the dagger that the bad guy is holding is the very same one which was stolen from his brother 10 years ago. Or the brewery turns out to be run by the same money-hungry tyrant who sold her into slavery. Or the long-lost father is found dead on a battlefield fighting for the opposing army.
In situations like these, the player feels, “My character is the only one who recognizes this. My character has significance in the world. My character has value to the rest of the party, since he/she can reveal this vital information…or withhold it.”
That small detail may very well become a central plotline. Not always. But sometimes.
It is in a DM’s best interest to acknowledge these kind of heart-felt details in minor or major ways. Do your best to design a plotline which incorporates aspects from each character’s history.
If you haven’t noticed by now, all these principles are very difficult to achieve for a DM. It’s hard to know whether your preparation for the next session satisfies the needs of the players.
And so you must always re-assess.
You might realize that for the past few sessions, the characters have been railroaded – they have not been able to make any decisions on their own, and they feel kind of trapped.
It’s gonna be okay! Maybe the next session you don’t require them to be captured by the city guard as you had originally planned. Rewrite the plan. Leave it more open-ended.
But if you’re not reassessing after each session, you won’t recognize it, and you’ll leave your players with the worst possible outcome for any DM: an unmemorable campaign.
I suggest getting a friend who has experience DM-ing. Spend time talking with them and discuss decisions you made and why you did it. Be willing to accept constructive criticism. I know it feels like a personal attack when you put your story-creation out there for scrutiny, but growing pains are worth it. You’ll get better, and your players will love you for it.