D&D Campaign Design: Open World vs. Linear vs. Hybrid

Planning D&D Campaigns Key Takeaways:

  • Understand Campaign Styles: Differentiate between open-world, linear, and hybrid campaign styles, each offering unique opportunities and challenges.
  • Open World Campaigns: Offer high player agency, endless exploration, and encourage creative problem-solving. However, they require extensive preparation and can lead to decision fatigue or a disjointed narrative.
  • Linear Campaigns: Provide a structured and focused narrative that is easier to plan and manage. Ideal for storytelling and character development within a structured plot, but can limit player freedom and lead to a feeling of being "railroaded."
  • Hybrid Campaigns: Combine structured narratives with player-driven exploration. They offer a balanced approach, fostering deep engagement but requiring careful planning and adaptability to maintain narrative cohesion.
  • Practical Tips: Use campaign modules with homebrew side-treks, create a home brew story arc with published side-quests, and employ the "Hourglass" method to balance major quests with open exploration.
  • Balancing Story and Player Agency: Ensure a cohesive story while allowing player-driven exploration. Integrate character backstories and dynamic plot lines to create a rich, immersive experience.

There are many options for Dungeon Masters (DMs) to plan their adventures and campaigns, from open-world mayhem to linear single-track quests. Luckily, those aren't the only options at a DM's disposal. Each style offers unique opportunities and challenges, and combining them can lead to a rich and dynamic storytelling experience. Let’s dive into some ideas to help you prepare your campaigns and understand the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Open World Campaigns: Driven Storytelling and Player Freedom

Open World campaigns offer a sandbox experience for players, providing a vast, dynamic setting where their choices can significantly impact the story's direction. In this type of campaign, the DM creates a world filled with rich lore, multiple locations, and various factions, giving players the freedom to explore, make alliances, or enemies, and pursue quests at their own pace. This approach encourages exploration and player-driven storytelling, making every campaign unique based on the decisions and actions of the players. If that sounds like fun, its because it is! If it sounds like a lot of work, it's because it also is!


  • High Player Agency and Freedom: Players can choose their paths, creating a highly personalized and engaging experience.
  • Endless Possibilities for Exploration and Discovery: Ideal for homebrew lore, allowing for a highly customizable game driven by the players.
  • Encourages Creative Problem-Solving and Decision-Making: Players must think on their feet and make impactful choices.


  • Challenging for DMs to Prepare for Every Potential Scenario: Requires extensive preparation to cover all possible player actions.
  • May Lead to "Analysis Paralysis" or Decision Fatigue Among Players: Too many options can overwhelm players, slowing down the game.
  • Story Can Become Disjointed Without Clear Objectives or Goals: Without a strong narrative thread, the story may lose focus and cohesion.

Open world campaigns thrive on player freedom and the dynamic nature of exploration. They provide an excellent opportunity to weave in character backstories, making each player feel integral to the unfolding narrative. This method is ideal for groups who enjoy creating their own paths and discovering new elements organically. However, it demands a lot from the DM in terms of preparation. You need to be ready for a multitude of possible scenarios and maintain a cohesive world despite the unpredictability. 

In my own games, I have first hand seen players take fairly long side-treks that have lasted months in real time. Once you sense the feeling of disjointed lack of direction, it's time nudge players to get back on track to the main quest. The most important thing is to make sure that the detour continues to relate to the characters, their class skills, and backstory interests as much as possible keeping sessions relevant.

When preparing for all the possible scenarios, it's best to focus your players as much as possible based on their interests. So long as you listen to their conversations and clarify goals if you have to, you will be able to know which scenarios to be prepared for. Then you plan a balanced amount of social, exploration, and combat, where you will be able to buy yourself time to unfold future quests before the next session. It is not uncommon for me to end a session asking if the players intend on going left or right, and typically they are happy to decide knowing that you are going to have time to generate a better adventure tailored to their decision.

As we’ve seen, open-world campaigns offer unparalleled freedom and creativity but come with their own set of challenges. Now, let’s explore the more structured approach of linear campaigns.

Linear Campaigns: Structured and Focused Narratives

Linear campaigns follow a more structured narrative, with a predefined storyline that the DM guides the players through. While players still make choices, the overall direction and major plot points of the story are predetermined. This type of campaign focuses on delivering a coherent narrative experience, with each session designed to progress through the storyline towards a climactic conclusion. Modules or pre-made adventures often fall into this category.


  • Easier for DMs to Plan and Manage: The predefined structure simplifies preparation and ensures a smooth progression.
  • Ensures a Cohesive and Focused Narrative Experience: Players follow a clear path, maintaining story continuity and depth.
  • Ideal for Storytelling and Character Development Within a Structured Plot: Provides a solid framework for developing plot and characters.
  • Great for New DMs: Offers guardrails that ensure a coherent and engaging plot, reducing prep time.


  • Less Freedom for Players to Explore the World Outside of the Main Storyline: Limits player agency and exploration.
  • May Lead to a Feeling of Being "Railroaded": If player choices seem inconsequential, it can reduce engagement.
  • Potentially Limits Character Engagement: Less opportunity to delve into dynamic backstories due to structured plot constraints.

Linear campaigns are fantastic for those who appreciate a well-crafted story arc and the satisfaction of a clear, progressive journey. Modules provide all the tools you need, allowing you to focus on narration and character interactions. This format is particularly beneficial for novice DMs, offering guardrails that ensure a coherent and engaging plot. However, the challenge lies in maintaining player engagement. It's crucial to interweave character backstories (when possible) and give the illusion of choice to avoid the "railroad" effect. A lot of modules suffer from this lack of freedom, but the benefit of being able to pickup dice and get to playing quickly often offsets that drawback.

For example, while I was player in the D&D 5e Lost Mine of Phandelver, my DM allowed us to create custom backstories. As we began, we all found it difficult to bite on the main story line and create a memorable connection. The DM injected bits of our backstory seamlessly into the story with relevant side-quests creating a unique experience. After the campaign, I asked him what the original story was and I was wildly surprised to find out how much he needed to add to make the story truly engaging. 

While linear campaigns provide structure and simplicity, hybrid campaigns offer the best of both worlds. Let’s dive into how you can blend these styles to create a rich and engaging experience.

Hybrid Campaigns: The Best of Both Worlds

A hybrid campaign takes the best aspects of both open-world and linear structures, blending them with adventures and side quests to create a rich, dynamic storytelling experience. This approach allows DMs to guide players through a long form cohesive narrative while offering the freedom to explore the world and influence its direction through side quests. 


  • Structured Narrative Framework with Player-Driven Exploration: Balances the overarching story with player agency.
  • Deeper Engagement with the Campaign World and NPCs: Players feel more connected and invested in the world.
  • Balance Between Character Development and Plot Advancement: Allows for rich character backstories and dynamic plot progress.


  • Requires Careful Planning and Adaptability: The DM must manage an evolving narrative and balance multiple elements.
  • Challenging to Maintain Narrative Cohesion with Multiple Plotlines: Ensuring all story threads are coherent can be complex.
  • More Effort to Integrate All Character Backstories: Requires extra work to weave individual stories into the main plot.

Hybrid campaigns offer a blend of structure and freedom, making them versatile and engaging. There are several strategies to implement a hybrid campaign effectively:

Using a Campaign Module Inserting Homebrew Side-Treks: 

This method involves following a structured module but incorporating side quests tailored to character interactions and backstories. It allows for flexibility while maintaining a strong narrative backbone.

Creating Your Own Homebrew Story Arc: Develop a central storyline and use published side quests to fill in gaps. This approach offers the creativity of homebrew with the convenience of pre-made adventures, ensuring a rich and varied campaign. When done properly, and not forced, it can feel seamless.
The "Hourglass" Method: Start with a major quest, open the story up for exploration, and then bring everything back to finish the main quest. This method balances player freedom with a clear narrative focus, ensuring that the story progresses meaningfully allowing for player agency in the middle.

Each of these methods has its strengths. The key here is to balance player-driven exploration with the need for a cohesive story while adding in side-quest elements to round out the world giving it the feel of an open world campaign on the surface, however, behind the screen you get to pick and choose when and where you open up the story to linear and open world elements. In some sense, this is no different than using multiple sandbox quest arcs, except you use a blend of published and homebrew materials.

Let’s discuss some practical tips for transitioning between campaign styles to create a seamless experience.

Using a Campaign Module with Homebrew Side-Trek Adventures

Using a campaign module with homebrew side-trek adventures involves following a structured module while incorporating side quests tailored to character interactions and backstories. This method allows for flexibility by maintaining a strong narrative backbone, providing room for player-driven actions and additional side-quests. For example, while the main module might focus on a grand quest to defeat a dark sorcerer, side-trek adventures could include rescuing a village from marauding bandits or uncovering ancient ruins, enriching the overall narrative and giving players opportunities to explore their characters’ personal stories. This is a great option for new DMs learning to feel out how to lead their sessions.

Creating Your Own Homebrew Story Arc Inserting Published Side-Trek Adventures

Creating your own home brew story arc involves designing a central plot and supplementing it with published side quests. This approach adds depth and variety to your campaign while keeping the main story cohesive. To maintain narrative cohesion, ensure that side quests are linked to the central plot. For instance, if your central plot revolves around a rebellion against a tyrannical king, side quests could include recruiting allies, gathering intelligence, or disrupting supply lines. These side quests not only provide additional challenges and rewards but also reinforce the main narrative, creating a richer and more engaging story for the players.

By adopting these strategies, you can create a dynamic and engaging campaign that combines the best elements of open-world and linear storytelling. This approach allows for rich character development, intricate plot lines, and an immersive gaming experience.

The Final Story

While there are no set rules in how you DM, using one or a combination of the methods discussed can be a rewarding endeavor for your campaign. By weaving character backgrounds, adventures, and side quests into the fabric of the story, DMs can craft a uniquely immersive experience that resonates with players using a multitude of techniques. With careful planning and a willingness to adapt, this approach can lead to a memorable campaign filled with unexpected twists, deep character development, and a richly detailed world.

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