One thing that a lot of people fail to realize about Dungeons & Dragons is how malleable it really is. It goes far beyond “pick your race and class”. Lots of dungeon masters not only have a story for their group to experience, but they also have a veritable ‘genre’ that can be attributed to that game.
Now, the common term for what I’m referring to is the “campaign setting”, but it’s misleading. (That or I misunderstand what that term actually means, which is a possibility.) What I’m talking about is the gameplay focus for the game. What is the party doing session to session?
The type of D&D I grew up with is heavily focused on combat. In this setting, your character doesn’t matter. Every three hour session will probably have a combat, and the game is all about getting better loot, gaining experience, and fighting bigger monsters. This sort of campaign is, I dare say, the easiest to run.
But the thing is, everybody has a different ‘style’ of D&D they enjoy most. I know lots of people that only care about optimizing their combat and sitting down at a table to fight the monster of the day. While that’s all well and good, I care a lot more about story-telling.
The campaign that I run is far more story driven. After nearly a year, the party is almost Level 4. (For comparison, in the recent campaign I do not DM for, we hit Level 2 after the first real session.) I try to make it as realistic as possible, with ‘side quests’ sprouting every where. The party has a main objective, but its hundreds of miles away and will take a long time to get there. Do we rush there with as much haste as possible, or do we help these people that need it? As a side note, my particular campaign has a lot of mystery thrown in. Often, more questions are asked than answered, and there are several story threads that never reach their conclusion, because that’s not really how life works. There are certainly pros and cons to that, but I’ll get into that another time.
Another campaign setting I’m excited to run in the future is what I call the “Guild Home”. In this setting, the players set up a guild very early on, and the entire campaign is focused on raising the guild’s renown, building a reputation, and ‘upgrading’ the guild hall. It’s therefore very centralized and while it will naturally have story tied into it, there won’t be a main antagonist trying to end the world.
There are countless ways to run D&D campaigns. The most common is possible the “one-shot”, which starts and ends after one session. But many others are short-lived. In my experience, campaigns that last longer than a few months are in the minority.
The key thing is that D&D can be whatever you want it to be. You can have a campaign set in a dystopian sci-fi future full of the common fantasy races of elves, dwarves, and orcs. (I’ve done that!) You can have a campaign where the party is a bunch of wizards trying to take over the world. Maybe the setting is a zombie apocalypse set in Middle-earth, and the party has to kill literally everything in their path.
Dungeons & Dragons can be anything. It’s my firm belief that if somebody plays it and doesn’t enjoy themselves, it was a problem with expectations not meeting up to reality, which can almost always be fixed. I honestly believe that basically everyone can have fun with this game if the circumstances are right. It just requires the dungeon master being vocal to the players about what kind of campaign they plan on having. A good DM can accommodate any player, but everybody needs to make their expectations and needs known in order to let that happen.