So, the world now has some structure. And even if most of that structure is a collection of loose ideas of how the past has shaped the world and what lies over the next hill, you have an idea of the form that your world takes, general structure, and logical shell to your creation.
It would help if you threaded some storylines through it; the narrative stepping stones your gaming sessions will move through. Here are some interesting plots and story threads that can be introduced into any campaign.
1: The Nemesis
All characters will make enemies as they go about their adventuring life. A career ransacking cult temples, raiding underground lairs, and generally wrecking creatures’ homes, no matter how dark and awful those places may seem, all comes with a price.
Unfortunately for the players, that price is, more often than not, revenge. Cold, vindictive, brutal revenge. The idea of one of the characters, perhaps the group’s leader, having a Nemesis is something that can be introduced early in the campaign.
It could take the form of a goblin chief whose village the characters have just knocked over or a mighty and vindictive Wraith Lord (is there any other kind?) that they have upset.
However, it can be much more enjoyable, to begin with, the adversary at the same level as the players, perhaps an orcish warrior whose brother the players have slain or the side-kick to the mayor that players have made to look a total idiot.
So as the players advance in experience and skill, so does their nemesis. The next time the party meets the orcish warrior, he is now the leader of a small band of outlaws, and the time after that, he becomes the adviser to a powerful orcish king.
Similarly, the assistant to the local mayor might have decided that a career in town administration is not for them and has saved up enough money to go to magical college, dedicating his time to the dark arts and all the whole plotting revenge on the players. Eventually, they encounter this wronged clerk at the head of an army of the undead.
NPCs shouldn’t just remain stationary; as the world evolves and the characters become more worldly and experienced, so do their nemeses.
2: Pieces of the Puzzle
A great way to ensure that you create a story arc that will run and run is by threading a series of interlocking quests through your campaign for the players to navigate. Perhaps this could be through a quest to locate several hidden items or track down the members of a cult or outlawed political group.
It could just be good old Vampire hunting or something more harmonious, such as reuniting a family scattered to the four winds by war or slavery.
Perhaps the players learn of a spirit, a benign dragon, or a minor deity locked in a parallel universe or otherworldly fortress, and the only way to free them is by the acquisition of a number of magical stones, taking them to a far off ruined temple and performing a ritual to free them.
The ceremony has been forgotten, so the players must also find the fragments of magical lore they will need to complete the ritual.
Whatever their reason, you now have a number of magical stones to hide in various locations worldwide. You also have many magical pages to place in heavily guarded towers and the strongholds of powerful magicians.
It might take the players months, perhaps years, to find the puzzle pieces. And only some gaming sessions will always lead to the party finding a missing piece.
You can drag the story out for as long as you want. And what happens when the players reach their goal and free the creature? A war of reprisals? An age of peace? And so begins a whole new adventure.
3: The War Without End
War always makes for a great backdrop to a campaign, so a perpetual state of war that has been going on for generations is even better. Even if the war rages miles away from where the players start, it offers plenty of opportunities.
Armies need soldiers but also spies, guards for supply trains, informants, and merchants. There will be official trade and black market activities. Agents could be working on both sides. The players, being the outsiders they are, might be held in suspicion, framed, and forced to work for one side or another.
There might be a general call to arms, and the players are conscripted into the war effort. They could act as mercenaries; as seasoned adventurers, they will have plenty of skills that the common soldiery won’t have.
Another idea is that the sibling of one of the characters is stuck in the war zone, lost behind enemy lines, captured, and languishing in an enemy jail, and the party decides to head off to find and free them.
The details of the conflict swirling around the players can only be vague if you also want to combine the roleplaying of DnD with larger tabletop wargaming. You could combine the two and have the players scurrying around whilst armies clash.
Maybe the jail they want to spring their sibling from is in a sieged city, or they must retrieve an artifact from a crypt that happens to be right in the middle of a battlefield.
4: The City That Never Sleeps
Most campaigns start with adventures that see the players delving into castle basements or decrepit dungeons. Soon, the DM might combine this with some wilderness campaigns, maybe to get them from one underground location to another. But urban adventures are often overlooked and a lot of fun.
It makes perfect sense if you look at a city as like a dungeon, only above ground. The city’s narrow back streets are the corridors, the houses and guardrooms, markets and religious buildings, and various rooms.
Such a setting also offers plenty of roleplaying options. When you head underground, you know that you are in hostile territory. Most creatures encountered will be on the defensive; you are, after all, invading their lair. In a city, things are different.
Some encounters will be friendly, some hostile, and most neutral, assessing the situation before deciding where they stand, just as the adventurers are doing.
In such a setting, the players might have been hired to act as detectives on the trail of thieves or slavers. Perhaps a banned cult has set up residence in the city.
Maybe revolution is brewing, and the mayor or prince who runs things needs to get things under control and needs the players to infiltrate, report back, and perhaps even arrest or assassinate some of the more influential agitators.
City adventures offer real opportunities for roleplaying in its most complete form. Everything is nuanced and hidden. Is anyone who they appear to be? Which side are people working for? Are they playing both sides? Or just doing what is best for themselves?
If you want to add some real intrigue, have the party hired by both sides of a political situation simultaneously, either in the full knowledge of what they are doing or as puppets for powers unseen.
Maybe a party member (of chaotic alignment, naturally) has been made a better offer and is trying to sabotage the party’s efforts.
Perhaps the characters are just in the city to exploit any opportunity they might find as it falls into chaos and intrigue, infighting, and opportunism.
5: The High Planes Drifters
All of the above scenarios have been set in one world, that of mortal men. As strange and exotic as the adventures and encounters might be, their feet are on the ground. DnD is a universe of various planes of existence, numerous astral byways, mystical paths and portals, heavens, hells, and even parallel worlds. (What, I believe the comic book fans would call a multiverse.)
It is easy to slowly introduce ideas of alternative planes, even at the earliest stages of your campaign. They might find that a magician’s tower they are exploring for financial gain exists simultaneously in a parallel plane.
Maybe they find a wormhole, a portal that can take them from one side of the world to another. If you like stepping out of the usual high-fantasy realms, they find a door to a parallel world… our world, a world of the far future or prehistoric past.
As they become more accustomed to traversing these other, non-physical and far-flung otherworlds, you can even have the players visiting the upper levels of hell or wandering around the outskirts of pandemonium, sacred landscapes, and courts of angelic beings.
Get Started With These DnD 5e Campaign Ideas
If it helps, think of the world you are creating for your players to explore as a novel. You are the narrator, they are the characters, and each chapter remains unwritten (but at least sketched out) until the players run headlong into the adventure you are unfurling.
Like all novels, it has numerous storylines, subplots, and unexpected events, all impacting upon each other and causing the story to write itself in detail (through the player’s actions) as it goes along.
The rules may be there to guide the frame-by-frame action, but it is the backdrops and ongoing story arcs that really bring it to life.