Linear campaigns have a bad rap, as most players think of them as synonymous with the railroad. Since Dungeons & Dragons is an open game, many believe it should be played openly. Although it is a valid way to play J&D, it’s also possible to run a linear campaign that leaves room for player expression while ensuring a satisfying and well-paced narrative. There are three ingredients for a great linear game: theme, antagonist, and rhythm.
The first step to planning a great linear campaign is to have a strong zero session. In open-world games, this is less important as players expect to experience the narrative and themes through gameplay. However, in a linear game, it is crucial for the Dungeon Master to set expectations for gameplay. and set limits on character creation.
This may seem too restrictive, but it’s in everyone’s interest that the campaign concept and player characters fit together. For example, if the game is about robbing banks, it wouldn’t be a good idea for a character to play a loyal-good Paladin. During session zero, it’s important for DMs to ask questions that tie the characters to the premise of the campaign. This is good practice for any game, but it’s especially important when planning a linear campaign. In general, the lower the campaign stakes, the more important it is to understand why the PCs care.
After session zero, it’s time to flesh out the big themes of the game. Giving a campaign a theme doesn’t mean being pretentious or slowing down the game so everyone can brainstorm big abstract ideas. In fact, a theme should be something concrete and simple. DMs should think carefully about their player characters and choose a theme that connects to each of them. If the DM chooses a theme before knowing the PCs, the game is more likely to feel mishandled, especially if the chosen theme is irrelevant to the party.
It’s not strictly necessary, but many of the best stories work a character’s flaws into the theme. Some systems, like burning wheel and Dungeons & Dragons have players write down their character’s flaws on their character sheet. This can be a great way to find a theme.
Once a theme has been selected, the next step is to find an antagonist. This is the most important step, as a good antagonist can lead an entire campaign. The key to a good antagonist is to make them relevant to every PC. An antagonist should relate to the theme of the story, which hopefully will be relevant to all players.
The antagonist should also feel like a fully fleshed out person. It’s tempting to cast an antagonist as the embodiment of absolute evil, but these characters are rarely convincing. It’s best to give an antagonist a realistic reason for their wrongdoings. Consider carefully the values of the PCs and how these might contrast with the villain’s goals and ideals.
Another powerful way to bond the antagonist to players is to give them a similar skill set. For example, if one of the players is a strong summoner, then it makes sense to make the antagonist a strong summoner as well. Mixing and matching these techniques will help draw each PC into conflict with the antagonist. First and foremost, it’s important for the DM to be passionate about their antagonist, because that’s essentially their main character.
Finally, once you have a compelling theme and antagonist, it’s time to think about narrative pacing. This will make a good campaign a great campaign, and pacing is one of the main advantages of linear games over open-world games. A good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It sounds restrictive, but each segment of the story can stand alone almost like an independent game. For example, the campaign might start with players exploring a desecrated village to find out what happened. The medium can begin once they have made this discovery.
Each section must end with an escalation that brings the party into closer conflict with the antagonist. Even when the antagonist is distant, DMs should use conflict as a way for players to learn more about their opponent. For example, while exploring this destroyed village, players must learn something about the antagonist’s methods.
The transition from start to middle should also represent a point of no return. Exactly what this means will depend heavily on the details of the campaign, but after this point players should feel that the situation has changed significantly and permanently.
Intermediaries are delicate matters and should be handled with care. They have a location to stretch and meander over, so it’s best to think of midfield this way: now both players and antagonist know they’re bound in a final conflict. This is the time in the campaign where the players gather their forces and the antagonist does the same.
What’s exciting about the middle of a campaign is that even in stories where it’s clear the heroes will prevail, there are bound to be setbacks and defeats before they win. DMs should feel free to hit their players with lasting consequences and meaningful failures. Even though everyone expects to win eventually, these setbacks only make things more dramatic.
Finally, the ending is when players are drawn into a final showdown with the antagonist. This is where DM planning pays off and where linear campaigns really shine. People usually have no trouble imagining what a “final showdown” with the antagonist will look like, but sometimes it can be helpful to think things through and surprise players.
For example, a particularly sympathetic antagonist may not need to be defeated, but may be convinced to change his ways. If the DMs play their cards right, players might even end the game by joining the antagonist and turning on their former allies. Whatever happens, so long as the DM has paid attention to the theme of his campaign, the ending should not simply depict the PCs defeating one of their enemies, but should resonate with a deeper and more important concern.