In the 1950s, Joseph Campbell presented the Hero’s Journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This story structure occurs constantly in hundreds of our most famous myths, stories, and novels, and is taught in many a writing class. More importantly, you can use the Hero’s Journey to create a campaign of 5-10 sessions that pushes and fulfills your players.
Campbell breaks the Hero’s Journey into several major parts: The Ordinary World, The Call To Adventure, Crossing the First Threshold, Challenges, Approach to the Inmost Cave, The Ordeal, The Reward, and finally, The Escape. There are two optional parts of the Hero’s Journey (Refusal of the Call and Meeting the Mentor) that I will skip over for now (I don’t think they work as well for a campaign), but feel free to look them up in your own time.
The Ordinary World: At the start of your first session, set the scene. Build a world around your players before that fateful moment when they’re given their quest. Give your players friends, family, and innocent civilians to care about. Show them people, places, and ideas that they will want to defend from danger. Give them something, and then threaten to take it away.
The Call to Adventure: A great example of the call to adventure is in the classic Star Wars line “Help us Obi-wan Kinobi, you’re our only hope.” In D&D, the call could be a wizard sitting in the corner of the bar telling old tales of approaching doom or the summons of the King for a new adventure. Whatever the adventure is, tie it back into the world you built in the initial setting of the scene. Try to have your player’s characters have a personal stake in the outcome.
Crossing the First Threshold: The heroes have accepted the challenge and struck out into the wild; now they experience their first danger. The first threshold represents the difference between the ordinary world, where things are safe and calm, and the new, dangerous world. This can be your player’s first combat or the first time they experience the big bad. Something should be on the line, but they should have a relatively high chance of success. The threat is experienced by the players first hand, solidifying the dangers of which the Call to Adventure warned.
Once the threshold is passed, there is no going back. If you’re so inclined, you can even add a concrete game mechanic to represent this. In one campaign I played, the GM would have disasters occur after a certain number of sessions. This made our time precious, and we refused to waste time.
I recommend that the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, and Crossing the First Threshold happen in the first session.
Challenges: After the first experience of danger, the heroes are exposed to increasing threats and more strenuous challenges. This is the bulk of the campaign. Characters slay enemies, conquer puzzles, and befriend allies. A campaign can consist of only combat encounters and be enjoyable, but I’ve had the most fun in campaigns where a variety of challenges pushed my character to grow. Try to use your challenges to mature your characters in ways other than their XP.
For example, in one campaign, our party included a morally stalwart Lawful Good Paladin. He refused to do any wrong. Artfully, the GM locked us in a challenge where paladin could use his god’s power to lift a curse from a family but only if he killed the non-cursed, innocent father. If he felled the man, the father’s family lived; if he refused to draw his sword, the father would watch his wife and three children die. The Paladin drew blood, and for the rest of the campaign, they changed from a one dimensional Goody Two Shoes into a conflicted man trying to do his best by the world.
Challenges should take up anywhere between 2-4 sessions.
Approaching the Inmost Cave: After a series of challenges, the heroes finally arrive at the source of the threat. Think Strahd’s Castle, the Death Star, or Mount Doom. The air should feel filled with magic and danger. Create a high-stakes atmosphere by punishing mistakes harshly The more dangerous and challenging you make this final stage, the more rewarding the victory will feel to the heroes.
Some of you familiar with the hero’s journey might ask: Wait, if we make the inmost cave challenging, doesn’t that mean that the heroes might lose? Don’t the hero’s always win?
This is not the case. Many myths end with the hero’s failure. Though triumphant in his quest, Theseus failed to put up the white sails that signaled his conquest over the Minotaur. Believing his son dead, Theseus’s father commited suicide, throwing himself off of the cliffs in front of Theseus’s own eyes. An enjoyable story makes us feel something. This feeling doesn’t have to be triumph; it can be sorrow.
The inmost cave can take up to 1-2 sessions.
The Ordeal: The climax. In this scene, the heroes confront either a great evil or a trial of will that pushes them to finally master their skills. Think of any D&D fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy, Buddha’s test at the tree before he reached nirvana, or Luke Skywalker facing off against Vader and Palpatine. A mistake could spell more than death; a mistake could spell the end of the ordinary world as the heroes know it. Reference and incorporate challenges and characters from the entire campaign. Make it hard for your heroes to overcome the final ordeal, and try to make them pull from lessons they learned along the campaign in order to overcome this challenge.
The Reward: With the ordeal overcome, the heroes find their reward. This can be a moment of peace after months of strife, a legendary weapon that will save their world, or new knowledge that pushes them further. The reward does not need to be just loot, It can be a revelation that answers a campaign-long mystery or the revenge the heroes and their allies have been seeking since the start of the adventure. It should be something that you know your players will appreciate, and it should be worth the sessions of effort they’ve spent to reach this goal.
The Escape: The ordeal overcome, the heroes must now flee. A good example of an escape I saw recently came from IT Chapter Two. (Spoilers!!) After defeating Pennywise, the heroes of IT notice the cave crumbling around them. They are forced to flee for their lives. Use this second climax as an opportunity for your heroes to make use of the new knowledge, skills, or loot they gained from overcoming the ordeal.
The ordeal, the reward, and the escape should all take up 1 session, with most of the time being spent on the ordeal. This can be a very long session, and I’d recommend finding time on a weekend.
The Hero’s journey is too complex for me to properly describe in a single article. Campbell himself dedicated hundreds of pages to it. However, I hope this outline can work as a good start to building a 5-10 session campaign that is focused on character growth and hard earned triumph.