Campaign Design: Resources

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on February 13, 2009

Ethan the rogue worked patiently on the lock. Never before had he experienced a lock of this complexity. Adjusting his thieves tools slightly he disabled one of the magical wards. With sweat dripped from his brow he was aware of Braddoc standing over his shoulder ready to break the door down with brute force. “Back off Braddoc” the rogue said, “if this wizard has half the treasure we’ve been told of we can’t risk you setting off an explosion!” With that said Ethan made a few final adjustments and click. Turning the door handle Ethan opened the door of the chamber. Inside stacked on shelves were the wizard’s tomes, countless millennia of knowledge.

Before you begin the quest of designing your own campaign world it would be wise to equip yourself with the appropriate resources. Just as your Fighter wouldn’t go into battle without his armour and trusty sword, neither should you wade into the task of campaign design without an arsenal of tools to assist you.

Over the years plenty of resources have been released to assist those interested in world design. Some are official D&D sources and others are third party. In this article we will take a look at some of the resources that are available.

Official Sources

Wizards of the Coast have published some good books to assist in the design of your own campaign. You first stop should be the Dungeon Masters Guide.That’s right the trusty DMG is a great place to start and draw some ideas from. There are sections relevant to encounter design, pacing and storytelling. Another place to look is Dungeon & Dragon Magazines.

So far Wizards has not release any 4e books specifically on campaign design. However, a wide variety of materials was released for previous editions. While the mechanics may not be 4e, the concepts that are described still apply. Here are a few good ones.

  • Frostburn, Sandstorm, Stormwrack
  • Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook
  • Book of Challenges
  • Manual of the Planes (any edition)
  • Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide
  • Wilderness Survival Guide
  • World Builder’s Guidebook
  • Dungeon Builder’s Guidebook
  • Dungeon Master’s Design Kit
  • Campaign Sourcebook
  • Catacomb Guide

These are just some of the great campaign design books that WotC and TSR have published over the last 15 years. Check your gaming store for these gems. Many books from previous editions may even been marked down. If you can’t find some of the older books, see if they have a section for out of print books.

Existing campaign world source books are another great source of inspiration. Just because you don’t want your game to be set in the Forgotten Realms doesn’t mean you can’t borrow some ideas that they have put to good use. Let’s be honest, your game world isn’t going to be that big (in the beginning anyway) so borrowing elements from different settings doesn’t hurt. There haven’t been that many original ideas in fantasy since Tolkien came along so don’t feel bad.

Third Party Sources

Recently the people behind Kobold Quarterly put out the Kobold Guide to Game Design. While I haven’t had the opportunity to read this resource it is getting a very good reaction within the community. Read a review on the product.

Never discount the power of the official Wizards forums or EnWorld. Both of these are great places to pick up some random ideas. More importantly they are a great venue to test your ideas out. Ask the community what they think of your wild west Amazon campaign.


History has always been one of my favourite subjects. Get inspired by taking a look at the world we live in. Visit a museum and get a sense for what medieval times were really like. If you’re building an oriental campaign, visit that section of the museum. Do some field work, you’ll learn more about a culture and your world will feel more authentic for it. Don’t forget to take pictures. PCs love visual aides.

Digital Resources

As your campaign grows you’re going to need help keeping things organized. Get an excel spreadsheet going. Start up a blog to document your thoughts. Perhaps Obsidian Portal is what you need.

Then there are those pesky maps. Programs like Dundjinni and Campaign Cartographer can assist you with that. They are professional design programs with great community support.

You can never have enough resources as you begin the task of designing your own campaign. Be careful not to overwhelm yourself. Certain aspects of the design phase aren’t required immediately. Take your time and flesh out your world. Do some reading as to what makes a good world. If you can’t find a book that covers a particular niche don’t worry we will in an upcoming post.

Part 1 – Introduction

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1 Micah February 13, 2009 at 9:51 am

Be careful not to overwhelm yourself.

That’s the same advice I give people when they first sign up for Obsidian Portal. I’ve seen many people get so excited that they sit down and write for hours at a time, only to find that their players barely skim it or don’t read anything at all. They show up at the table knowing none of your custom deities, nations, or races. They just want to test out their new character. It can be very disheartening.

So, the cure is simply to plan only what’s necessary, and quit immediately when it starts to seem like work. Let the players flesh things out as they stumble into new parts of the world. You’d be surprised at how much of your work they will do for you.

Thanks for the mention and link!

2 Wimwick February 13, 2009 at 1:19 pm

@ Micha, thanks for stopping by and some great advice. You’re correct that often the players don’t pick on those tiny details that we love to put in place.

Next week’s article will detail working with and using your players to help design the world.

3 KoolestDM June 22, 2009 at 7:47 pm

I disagree, i feel that even if the PC’s dont appreciate the fine details, the complexity and depth in your campaign is worth all the hard work, just knowing that you have all this down is an accomplishment in itself.

4 Van der Hoorn October 17, 2009 at 2:45 pm

@KoolestDM, I agree. It also provides a more detailed overview (+ some structure) of the campaign for yourself as a DM, thus allowing you to write future parts more easily.

5 Purple Wise August 27, 2012 at 10:45 pm

I say ive seen a lot of original ideas since tolkien, so stop discouraging imagination, anyone can come out with the next brilliant and original idea.

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