Worldbuilding Magazine: Overarching Conflict in a Dungeons & Dragons Campaign

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Overarching Conflict in a Dungeons & Dragons Campaign

by Imachinate/Ianara Natividad

Demons have appeared in the vast Underdark and threaten to destroy the material plane in its entirety should they be unleashed upon the surface world. An unfortunate group finds themselves trapped in Barovia, a realm ruled by the vampire lord Strahd von Zarovich, where the only way to leave is to destroy him and free the land of his terror. A spreading curse makes all resurrection impossible; the heroes must search the lands of Chult for the cause and stop it so that people can be brought back to life again. Each of these scenarios corresponds to the hook of an official adventure, or module, published for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D; D&D 5e) by Wizards of the Coast (WotC). More importantly, they represent a vital part in any campaign narrative: the overarching conflict.

From a broader standpoint, overarching conflict refers to the main problems of the setting or the adventure. This type of conflict functions as the purpose of the campaign and the driving force for its major events. A campaign is a string of consecutive and often related adventures that the Dungeon Master (DM)—a unique player role that manages the rules, story, and world’s occurrences in D&D—runs for a party of Player Characters (PCs), which serve as the other players’ avatars in the game world. The setting is generally where the players engage the campaign; its scope can range from a dungeon to a village or even encompass an entire realm. Thus, the DM may ultimately task the PCs with addressing the problem(s) afflicting the world around them.

The term overarching conflict implies predicaments on the grand scale, the meaning of which shifts with the campaign’s context. The problem may be a massive affair in the world, like an international war or the spread of a deadly plague. Traditionally, grand conflicts appear in novels, films, and television shows where the dramatic proceedings eventually lead to its resolution. Similarly, central tensions drive the stories of D&D campaigns; they act as the hook that pulls the adventurers to brave perils.

However, overarching conflict in campaigns does not only encompass large scale altercations. In Against the Cult of the Reptile God, a module for an earlier edition of D&D, PCs address a cult that has infiltrated and assimilated the people of a village. The adventure ultimately results in a confrontation between the party and the cult’s leadership. In that example, the module’s main struggle addresses the problems in a small-scale area. It is not a war or plague, but it does give the players a focus for their characters’ efforts.

The introductory segment for my campaign led the PCs to defend a town called Duford from invading forces, like roaming orcs and bandits. The party also encountered evil, supernatural monstrosities known as the Scourge, foreshadowing much riskier encounters. For that portion of my game, the players focused on the town’s affairs until they had sufficiently aided the settlement and became its heroes. The characters then moved to another part of the world, expanding the campaign’s scope. From the problematic circumstances in Duford to the aftermath, I built upon the character’s experiences to fashion a plausible and engaging narrative for the players. Beyond the campaign, the overarching conflict provides a framework through which the DM molds the overall setting.

This framework can be relevant at any point during the campaign, and by introducing this sort of conflict, a DM accomplishes several things. First of all, establishing it early on provides a direct avenue for the DM to worldbuild and display the world they created to their players. In my personal campaign, a massive war that grips the continent of Varia has pulled most of the realm’s major powers into its throes. This conflict existed before the PCs were even conceived in the world. Through the web of complications created by that event, there laid the possibility for expanding upon numerous elements of the setting. I fleshed out locations, factions and their ideologies, geopolitical cultures, and the systems of magic and the technologies used—simply a rabbit hole of topics that bolsters the world’s sense of reality. Locking down those major facets of the setting not only filled it out but helped me prepare how I wanted to run my campaign.

Overarching conflict creates a repository of lore and theoretical situations that all remain plausible because of the established context, though implementing it is not the only method to worldbuild for a campaign. The details that spawn from an overarching conflict will serve the DM more than the players, at least initially. Players will not have an encyclopedic understanding of the setting since their knowledge ideally reflects their characters’. At my campaign’s onset, I provided my players with enough information for them to believably play their characters, like common histories, details for hometowns, and associated factions. However, as different topics become relevant to the PCs, I oblige their desire for knowledge within the limits of the characters’ experiences but otherwise do not share details not of relevance or interest to them. For example, I had drafted out a prominent city called Wiltide, the surrounding region, and its invasion, but the campaign went on for nearly a year before Wiltide played a direct part in the adventure. One of the party’s allies assigned them a quest that made Wiltide their next destination. I already had a considerable basis for the area, so I could then extrapolate more details that might interest the characters. A DM confident in the aspects of their world will more likely succeed in presenting it in a believable and immersive fashion to their players.

The second thing overarching conflict brings to the game is altering the manner that players engage the campaign and the setting. Introducing the central tension before or during the players’ character creation process provides a narrative-driven source of control over the resulting characters and party. In this case, the DM can forewarn the players that the PCs will ultimately be affected by the hook. They may even set the direct expectation that characters should have some motivation to interact with the conflict. Ideally, players will create PCs that accommodate the setting and have some awareness of the world’s major circumstances. For example, my campaign has a player who created a former soldier that partook in the warring in Varia before becoming an adventurer. The character’s backstory then gives her insight on the scale of the struggle and possibly motivation to get involved in the proceedings, or utterly avoid them. In Curse of Strahd, the module suggests how to introduce Barovia to the PCs, and characters become privy early on to Strahd’s antagonistic role in the adventure.

Implementing large-scale conflicts can emphasize a DM’s worldbuilding and control over the game’s events. However, taken to the extreme, a DM may create a railroad scenario where the central problem appears as the exclusive option for campaign progress. The players find themselves trapped in a situational box in which they have limited control over their circumstances; resolving the conflict may only come in a plotted, possibly linear process that ignores player creativity. This approach may cause the DM to step over the players’ agency and their sense of impact upon the campaign. Published adventures often follow a railroaded structure to an extent since they provide set encounters that eventually lead to the module’s end. Having a detailed outline for how the conflict unfolds and what the characters experience on the way is a great resource, but it should be taken as a guideline, not a script. The players will interact with the world in unpredictable ways, and the DM’s role then is to ensure the game proceeds smoothly while taking their actions into account. In that regard, the main conflict helps frame the decisions made and their consequences in the campaign. There is no singularly right approach to narrative direction, and the best choice for any given table depends on the group’s overall preferences.

When the DM introduces thee central conflict also affects its impact on the campaign. If presented early on, this type of conflict formalizes a campaign’s direction and gives players a more solidified impression of the setting. Integrating PCs sooner than later into the overall narrative also helps players immerse themselves quicker into the world. A DM who takes this approach gains leeway in their independent worldbuilding because they can assume that players will abide by the campaign’s focus. However, a DM may opt for subtler ways of introduction, where overarching conflict only becomes known gradually. With this way, the players have more time to get invested in their characters and the setting. Familiarity increases the impact of the conflict coming to affect them. When organizing a game in this manner, the campaign’s direction initially seems more abstract for the players, who may unintentionally create characters completely unrelated to the main quest. Yet, the DM can take advantage of the aspects of the world or the characters that interest players by finding a way to connect them back to the overarching conflict. Accommodating the players’ narrative preferences and making those feel important lead to a more collaborative form of worldbuilding and campaign design.

Engaging specific player interests enhances the investment that they develop for their characters, their places in the world, and the setting itself. At this approach’s extreme, the DM effectively designs the campaign around the PCs. The greater attachments players have in their own characters and the campaign, the more likely they are to interact with the setting beyond their initial interests. The DM hooks the party onto their intercharacter dynamics and the world itself. Then, they muster this investment to enhance the stakes for the long-planned introduction, if not integration, of the overarching conflict. Take for example a campaign I played in called Out of the Abyss. In it, the PCs began as prisoners who had to free themselves from their captors and escape the Underdark. While that situation provided the central tension for the first half of the campaign, the module’s true conflict became increasingly apparent as the characters traversed the lethal Underdark. They became firsthand witnesses to demon lords and their lesser kin wreaking havoc in the subterranean system. The threat would no doubt bring chaos to the surface as well. Powerful factions then sought to enlist the PCs to defeat the demons after they escaped the Underdark. Though my character was traumatized by his previous experiences, he nonetheless felt an obligation to his companions and loved ones, leading him to continue adventuring and save the world.

Modules with set encounters and results create expectations for campaign progression. The reasons why characters brave great dangers, such as facing demons and braving the Underdark in the previous example, represents a wider ideology. When the players and their characters feel threatened by a problem posed in front of them, they are more likely to address the matter. This mindset proves particularly useful for a DM that has been plotting the overarching conflict for as long as the campaign has gone on. Admittedly, this approach is better suited to longer running campaigns. The DM gambles on the players developing an investment and a sense of accountability for their surroundings while they prime the central problem. Yet, designing and playing out an overarching conflict that emotionally grips the players merits a more fulfilling sense of accomplishment for everyone at the table. What the characters have done becomes important to the players because they made the choice to address the conflict themselves. Their decisions grow more organically from their relationships or interest in the setting and the characters therein, as well as with each other.

Creating a setting and a campaign can be an intrinsically independent pursuit. In any given game of D&D, the DM serves as the keeper of their world’s secrets. However, to have a legitimate campaign, the players must act their way through the adventure; their ability to abide and contribute to the setting’s narrative gives the world a sense of reality. Simultaneously, the DM becomes the one who pulls away the veil, enlightening players to the world around them. Each table will differ since any given group brings its own approach to maneuvering through the story and the game’s methodology. Overarching conflict is a multipurpose tool that builds up a DM’s world. For players, it generates investment. Though this type of conflict comes in varying forms, adequately using overarching conflict may mean the difference between a good campaign and a great one.

Worldbuilding Magazine is a bi-monthly publication which covers a variety of worldbuilding topics. You can visit their website and read full issues here. Make sure to join their Discord or follow them on twitter for the latest news or to talk with the team that creates it. Nerdolopedia is a proud partner of Worldbuilding Magazine.

Sources:

Niles, Douglas. Against the Cult of the Reptile God. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR, 1982.

Wizards RPG Team. Curse of Strahd. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2016.

Wizards RPG Team. Out of the Abyss. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2015.

Wizards RPG Team. Tomb of Annihilation. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2017.

Featured image credit: EA Games