Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Types Explained

How many different types of campaigns are there? There are multiple ways to approach this question.

The players influence the type of campaign in many ways but first, let’s talk about what I call the two categories of campaigns. The first campaign type can be thought of as the storyline. The second category campaigns fit into is setting or the set. 

When defining the storyline, you need to know how you’re telling the story. Is the storyline completely linear, primarily linear, or a sandbox or some combination? In the set category are things like actual setting, e.g., wilderness or urban; roleplaying expectations, e.g., everyone is focused on the group to completely free form. As the DM, you can flesh out a lot during campaign play. I expand on some of the high nails below.

The Storyline

Know your audience

The most important thing in identifying types of campaigns and which one you pick to run depends on your audience. What level of roleplaying does the majority of the players expect? Do they all like it when everyone is focused on the same thing? Does your group prefer having differing and sometimes competing goals, or is it better to have individual goals and group goals align? What type of Characters do players like to play? A party of paladins is a lot different than a party of rogues. DMs should know their intended audience when developing or preparing to run a campaign to have the most fun.

How will you tell the story?

Completely linear

Completely linear, with one main story that drives every encounter. Many out-of-the-box campaigns and campaigns designed to play in one session. Like at a convention. Linear campaigns tend to leave players feeling railroaded. Pushed along from encounter to encounter no matter how they influence the storyline. There is no getting off track in this style of campaign. Generally, players know that they are signing up for this type of campaign and the linear progression. There is plenty of fun playing one-shot adventures that are a bit sidetracked from the primary goal. Staying focused on one goal, such as completing the mission, finding the McGuffin, or rescuing the captured person. Most conventions run linear-style campaigns. One of my favorite things to do at Gen Con is to sign up for multi-day events. I know there is a single objective, and that is to complete the mission. I think it is fun sitting with a group of strangers, getting into character, and testing our gaming skills against other players. We all hope to complete the campaign by the end of the convention. We are all working toward that goal. This style is how Adventure League is set up. Each session contributes to a more extensive campaign; however, no matter how you interact with each adventure, the next start out as planned. It may not sound fun when I say it, but you’re missing out if you haven’t tried playing in your local Adventure League.

Mostly linear

Every encounter brings you closer to the final goal in a linear campaign. A primarily linear campaign will have an overreaching common goal; however, there will be the optional side-quests and more diversity in the world. Players can derail a session by going in a direction that the DM didn’t prepare for. However, it is easy to get the party back in the right direction in a primarily linear campaign. Each session influences the next. However, the storyline will continue to point you towards the campaign’s overarching goal. I like this type of campaign for newer players. It allows them to explore the world and, at the same time, guides them along. This helps ensure they don’t get stuck shopping for items in the players’ guide for four hours instead of storytelling and dice rolling.


I highly recommend only running this campaign-style with players who have had more than a few sessions under their belt. The sandbox campaign style also requires the most preparation by the DM. In a sandbox, the storyline is entirely nonlinear. Players genuinely drive the story. Characters go where they want, when they want, and do whatever they want. There are, of course, consequences for actions, and characters can find themselves in prison or, worse, at the end of the hangman’s noose. In this style campaign, the players are presented with multiple options. There is no actual set storyline, just a world that is waiting to be shaped by your hero’s. First-level characters may start in a small village where they all grew up or end up one way or another. The local farmer may be looking for someone to look into the recent cattle that have gone missing. The innkeeper could be looking for someone to clear the giant centipedes out of the cellar before they hurt any guests.   The local mage could be looking for young adventures to find some spell components. Or there could simply be the nearby cave rumored to be filled with treasure but guarded by a troll. Regardless of which rumors and opportunities you present, you get the point. Players have options, and the DM needs to respond to the player’s choices. As I said, this is the most challenging style to DM, but it is perhaps the most rewarding. I’ve had my best gaming experiences running sandbox-style campaigns.

The Set

Published Materials vs. Homebrew

For 5th edition think, published material only settings, modules, and adventure sets, e.g., Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Princes of the Apocalypse, or Curse of Strahd. You’ll also want to know your player’s view of supplemental and 3rd party content. Is it “everything goes” if a player can find it published somewhere they can use it? The DM runs the game and makes all the decisions regarding what supplements are and are not to be used. Somewhere in the middle. If I find it, and my DM and I agree on it, I can use it. Or are Supplements off-limits? Only core rules are allowed at the table.

Like most things in life, homebrew settings are only as good as the amount of time you dedicate to them. Some players and DMs like exploring a new world. They like the idea that they are the first to talk to Drü’gár the Orc chieftain to discuss why his tribe moved further west, closer to human lands. There could be no humans, magic, or maybe high magic in a homebrew campaign. The level of technology can be based on a steampunk era and less on high fantasy. While homebrews are more work for the DM, they can be a lot of fun and create something that will be memorable for the rest of your life. I still get emails from my players from years past thanking me for running a memorable and unique campaign.  

Set Location

The storyline will have a little to do with this, whether you’re using published material or homebrew. When we talk about the set location, think of the wilderness, many unknown terrain, strange beasts, and tribal baddies. Rural backdrop with lots of farmers, small cities, some roads, and a government that is rarely seen or heard. Rural settings are perfect for a regular orc, goblin, bandit, and barbarian raids. Great hook. Starting in an urban setting has its own challenges. Urban settings include big cities with very active and visible governments. Adventure hooks include political intrigue and powerful organizational hierarchies. Think of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. Sorry if I spoiled anything. One of my favorites is the classic dungeon/cavern crawl. Lots of dark underground twisting and turning with magical creatures and strange subterranean races. Planar, Underdark, and Undermountain all deserve an honorable mention. Each of those settings is supported with published material, 2e Plane Scape, The Underdark sourcebook for the Forgotten Realms campaign setting of the 3.5 edition (and a bunch of sourcebooks for 2e) 5eWaterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.

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Level of Combat

There are a couple of things to consider when planning the combat level in a campaign. In an immersive roleplaying campaign, there will be very little combat. It focuses more on the interaction between characters and their ability to solve problems. In contrast, hack-in-slash games are more violent. The characters are typically self-appointed murder hobos.     This campaign is all about finding and killing the bad guy or villain. The more dice rolling and description of the results, the better. Throw in some treasure that players can use to make combat even more one-sided; you are good to go. Of course, there is everything in-between with more or less talking mixed with more or less hack-n-slash.

DMs should also consider the challenge level of the combat. Is it the strong hero’s stomping on the weak and cowardly monsters, or does every player have a backup character because total party kills are inevitable? Of course, there is a sliding scale here as well. A good rule to follow is planning your encounters to expect to survive them. Still, they no at least on encounter could turn deadly if they do not make a good decision and work as a team.

Magic & Deities

Magic can be thought of as the level of magic items available in a campaign. Is a +1-longsword common or rare? The answer to this question will guide how much magic your campaign has in it. For instance, if +1-longswords are abundant, there needs to be a large number of high levels spellcasters to craft and imbue such magical items. In a high magic campaign, wizards abound. There are many scrolls, wands, potions, magical weapons, and armor. If a +1-longsword is a rare commodity that only the most potent character wields, this would be a low magic setting. In a low magic campaign setting, spellcasters are rare. Wizards and priests are a secretive and hidden group; finding a scroll, wand, potion, or magical weapon or armor is a cause for a major celebration, and all are worth a fortune. Generally, this is a sliding scale, so you can make magic more plentiful or rarer as you and your players want.

Deity involvement is another thing to consider for your campaign. Do you allow clerical magic? Things to consider are campaigns with a high level of deity involvement. Priests are at the center of the campaign, and the deities walk among the people. Medium involvement campaign where priests are not rare, but not that common. Priests make powerful allies or enemies. The deities’ presence is felt in the lives of mortals. A campaign with low involvement would see the priest’s class demoted down to a weak fighter whose clerical duties are ceremonial or the priest simply does not exist. Science has taken over for healing and is performed by herbalists, alchemists, and medicine proprietors. It’s a science over magic thing.

How do you know what type of campaign to run?

Campaign Questionnaire

How do you know what type of campaign to run is a great question? The answer is simple, you ask. I included an example questionnaire, but I encourage you to search the web for other examples. You will get the best results if you ask questions relevant to the style of campaign you plan on running. If you do not have a preference as a DM, you can use my questionnaire. Let me know your suggestions to improve it. Thanks

How to use the data

This is a question everyone who collects data asks. It really depends on your skill level. At a minimum, it will let you know what kind of game most of your players want. A simple spreadsheet can quickly present the data in charts and graphs. Visualizing the data makes it easier for many people to see patterns and trends. In our case, it all helps us to design a campaign that the players will get the most out of. It also lets you determine who you should invite to your table. If one person doesn’t like to play in published campaigns, you only have time to read and make a few notes between sessions. Maybe that person isn’t a good fit for your group. Especially if everyone else prefers published materials. Many people have liked the idea of playing one character for years. Others like the idea of playing multiple characters in a year. The questionnaire helps you decide what best pairs you and your players.


The more thought you put into your campaign initially, the more fun everyone will have during the campaign. Being a Dungeon Master can be a lot of work or something you put little effort in. Both styles and everything in between can be a rewarding experience. Hope this helps you find your style of play!

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