3 Shows That Could Easily Make For Memorable D&D Campaigns
There are plenty of notable published adventures—you can find some free ones on this site—but there’s something uniquely rewarding about developing our own campaigns so that the protagonists will have greater agency and so that we can react more quickly and coherently to their actions. If there are no railroad tracks, the adventure can neither be forced onto or off of them.
However, developing our own campaigns can take a lot of work. We need an end goal. We need hooks. We need monsters and NPCs. And we need to understand what our players might accomplish and enjoy within the span of a single adventure.
For guidance in all these matters, we can turn to television. TV shows need to compel us through individual episodes, like a good Dungeons & Dragons adventure, and the best of them weave these episodes into an ongoing story arc—a guiding myth if you will. Like a campaign.
So when we’re looking to start into a campaign, it can be useful to think about our favorite TV shows and imagine how we could re-purpose them for our own adventures.
What follows is a short look at three great TV shows and how they might make great Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
The sci-fi classic, Firefly, only ran for a single season, but it continues to have an outsized impression upon geek culture. And it could easily be the perfect model for your Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
The show follows the outlawed crew of the Serenity as they fly through the stars, from one heist or con job to the next. Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, the ship’s captain, and first mate Zoe Washburne were previously soldiers in a war that their side lost. As their former enemies, the Alliance, now govern the core worlds and seek to exert their influence more fully upon the outlying planets, Mal, Zoe, and the rest of their shipmates struggle just to get by—to fuel their ship, put food in their bellies, and maybe (just maybe) to score big someday.
Because Firefly positions its main characters so firmly as underdogs, the stars become a hostile place, much like the vast fields of darkness that exist between the points of light in a Dungeons & Dragons setting. Also, the fact that the crew members are outlaws puts them under pressure and forces them to act like a team—or an adventuring party.
You could easily translate this show into your Dungeons & Dragons campaign by casting your player characters as the crew aboard a sailing vessel or as outlaws eager to get paid for taking small, retaliatory jabs at the force that seized and occupied their lands. Each adventure is a new job, a chance to make some small, incremental dent in the way of things.
But to make this a campaign?
The difference between an adventure and a campaign is the difference between a short-term tactic and a long-term goal. In Firefly, the show found its driving force when Mal learned that one of his passengers, River Tam, had escaped from the Alliance and had talents and knew secrets that they viewed as a severe threat. Some episodes would follow these leads more than others, but the need to protect River and the possibility of using her knowledge against the Alliance gave an extra edge to the crew’s outlaw existence and suggested the action would have to lead—eventually—toward some climactic confrontation (which it did, in the film Serenity).
Framing your episodic adventures within an overarching narrative is proper campaign planning— mainly because it’s just good storytelling.
We see the same structure within The X-Files, one of the most excellent television shows ever to feature monsters. Each new episode would look at the protagonists Fox Mulder and Dana Sculley tasked with solving a different mystery—typically involving a beast or some person invested with paranormal abilities (read: “magic”). But the show wasn’t propelled by the novelty of each new creature. It was driven forward by Mulder’s desire to learn the truth about his sister’s disappearance and his relationship with the skeptical Sculley.
Like Firefly, The X-Files layered its individual “adventures” over a deeper vein of conspiracy that emerged now-and-again in countless episodes. Sometimes, we would meet a character in one episode, or uncover one tiny little bit of knowledge, that we would later learn was part of a deeper conspiracy. Sometimes, we’d find episodes that would dive head-first into the conspiracy itself. These would reframe our understanding of Special Agents Mulder and Sculley. Usually, we’d think of FBI Special Agents as powerful and important figures with a great deal of agency to uncover the truth, but the episodes of The X-Files that dove into the threads of the show’s ongoing conspiracy would recast Mulder and Sculley as outsiders fighting to learn the truth of a hostile and powerful group of mysterious individuals. Much like the outlaws of Firefly.
The critical difference between Mulder and Sculley and the crew of the Serenity is that where Malcolm Reynolds and his team were clearly outlaws, working against the government and forced to live on the outskirts of society, Mulder and Sculley worked inside the government and could never be entirely sure if their colleagues were truly working with them or against them.
To translate The X-Files into a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, you want to cast your player characters as government operatives—special forces called upon by the king or some other authority to keep the land safe from monstrous threats. It’s their job to uncover the truth behind the massacres of small villages or the unexplained disappearances of various townsfolk and to destroy whatever monster or evil magician they found responsible. But the campaign wouldn’t honestly take off until the heroes found their first hint that influential figures within the government might have very well coordinated some of these attacks. That discovery would give your campaign its depth and change its tone, especially when the assassins start showing up to attack your heroes…
Game of Thrones
HBO’s epic fantasy series Game of Thrones is a natural fit for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, but not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
Yes, the show features dragons and wights and knights and magic users. Yes, there are swords and castles and battles and plenty of other standard fantasy tropes, as well. But we could say the same thing about all kinds of other shows that wouldn’t provide nearly so good a model for your campaign.
What makes Game of Thrones an excellent model for your Dungeons & Dragons campaign is the way it divides its characters among the seven Great Houses of the Seven Kingdoms. In this way, it creates belonging and forces characters to think of themselves as team players, just as if they were co-workers on the same job or outlaws against the world. Dungeons & Dragons is, after all, a team game, and you need a model that makes sense of the team dynamic.
But the narrative of Game of Thrones doesn’t work the same way as the stories of Firefly and The X-Files do. They pit the heroes against a single threat—one that is relatively constant and mostly unseen. In Game of Thrones, however, the characters looking to advance their Houses’ causes must do so amid a turbulent world. In a world like that of Game of Thrones, your party’s chief rival may be replaced by another, and the whole tenor of your campaign may change. For example, the impulsive and bloodthirsty young Lord at the head of an enemy House may be poisoned, and the bounty on your heroes’ heads may be (mostly) forgotten. But now the young Lord may be replaced by a crueler and more calculating noble, who doesn’t attack your heroes’ House directly, but looks to turn your neighbors and allies against you.
This fluidity can be a great boon to any campaign modeled after Game of Thrones. It allows you to respond to your characters’ actions in whatever fashion is most appropriate. It will enable you to grant them more freedom to succeed and fail in unexpected ways.
If they find some way to defeat your campaign’s mastermind in the fourth adventure, you don’t have to worry about it: just introduce the mastermind’s cruel, genius uncle, who had been too busy in another part of the country to involve himself until it became absolutely necessary.
If your heroes find some way to broker peace with a rival faction, you don’t have to worry about that, either: just broker an alliance between two of their remaining rivals and start plotting how they’ll try to destroy your heroes.
In a campaign modeled after Game of Thrones, ambition and selfishness are the only overarching threats you need to maintain; you’ll find and invent plenty of characters (and monsters) who can provide momentary threats—maybe even recurring threats. But it is ambition that carries this campaign forward from adventure to adventure.
Until the end, that is. Every good campaign—like every good song—needs to know when to end. And you don’t want your campaign to fizzle out. If your campaign is predicated upon the chaos of war and ceaseless contests for power, it may feel strange to end your campaign just because the heroes find their way to power, instead of their rivals. Likewise, it would be dissatisfying to stop with the heroes’ defeat.
So what else can you do to pace the campaign? In Game of Thrones, there’s a timer running against all the political machinations—the dead are looking to conquer the living. For a long time, this timer was running in the background, as rumors and as a distant concern. But in the later seasons, this threat was brought more fully to the foreground, and you can structure your Dungeons & Dragons campaign in the same way. As the heroes begin finding their way through all the battles and intrigues that surround the throne, they come to realize the seriousness of the evils that threaten the whole kingdom. Whether or not they end up ruling the kingdom, they have a chance to end their campaign with acts of tremendous heroism—by responding to the threat against all living things.
Heroes, Adventures, and Your Campaign
All three of these shows offer excellent examples of how you can shape a campaign, no matter what types of characters your players create. And there are, of course, some similarities that we can recognize:
They force the characters together and encourage them to work as a team.
They offer clear conflicts.
They introduce immediate threats that can be resolved within the scope of an adventure.
They layer these immediate threats over more profound concerns that drive the campaign forward as the heroes learn more about them.
They respect their characters’ motivations and ambitions; even more than the secrets they uncover, the characters provide the shows with energy and drive them forward.
Try modeling your next campaign after one of these shows, and you’ll get a good feel for how the storytelling works on multiple levels simultaneously. After all, one of the reasons these shows provide such relatable examples is that—in the end—they’re three of the best shows television has ever seen, and good storytelling is just good storytelling… even in Dungeons & Dragons.