From Dragon Magazine 256
Ray Winninger

Last month, we resolved some basic logistical and administrative issues-how many players is best, what rulebooks to use, and so forth. With that out of the way, it's time to start creating the campaign environment.

Before we start play, before we even attempt to design our first adventure, we should flesh out the campaign world. What's our fantasy world like? What sort of adventures await our brave players?

These are a couple of the more basic questions. Before we go too far, though, it's time to introduce you to the First Rule of Dungeoncraft: Never force yourself to create more than you must.

Write this rule on the inside cover of your Dungeon Master Guide. Failure to obey the First Rule has been the downfall of too many campaigns. You shouldn't feel compelled to create more information or detail than you'll need to conduct the next couple of game sessions. When some DMs sit down to create a new campaign, they are strongly tempted to draw dozens of maps, create hundreds of NPCs, and write histories of the campaign world stretching back thousands of years. While having this sort of information at your disposal can't hurt, it probably won't help-not for a long time yet. Spending lots of time on extraneous details now only slows you down, perhaps to the point where you lose interest in the game before it starts. For now, the goal is to figure out exactly what information you'll need to conduct your first few game sessions. You can fill in the holes later, as it becomes necessary. This approach not only gets you up and playing as quickly as possible but also keeps your options open and allows you to tailor the campaign around the input of the players and the outcome of their adventures. In this spirit, you should aim to start your campaign as soon as you can, while doing as little preliminary design as possible.

With that in mind, you face an important decision at the start. You must choose whether you want to use a published AD&D setting or create one of your own. As usual, there are both advantages and disadvantages associated with either path.

TSR's settings were all created by expert game designers, so they're full of great ideas. They also come packaged with professionally crafted maps and play aids, and there are dozens of published adventures available for most of them, which might help you get through the occasional dry spell during which you don't feel like creating your own adventures. Surprisingly, however, none of the settings is terribly appropriate for inexperienced Dungeon Masters. Most of them concentrate on presenting the sort of information that's unlikely to directly influence an actual game session for quite some time (detailed histories, cultural backgrounds, etc).

Creating your own setting, on the other hand, requires you to begin from scratch. Ultimately, you must generate your own maps and supply your own ideas. While this can be challenge, successfully tackling it is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have with the AD&D game.

For the purposes of future columns, I'm going to assume that you'll be creating your own campaign world. If you'd rather use one of the TSR settings, the advice in "Dungeoncraft" will still be useful. You'll be surprised how much of the work that goes into starting a new campaign remains the same under both options. If you decide to use a published setting, you might be able to skip a few of the steps that follow, but we'll probably catch up to you within the next column or two. Note that those of you who create your own settings should still take the time to browse through the various AD&D supplements and adventure modules down at your local hobby shop, even those specifically tailored to one of TSR's published settings. Most of TSR's AD&D material is easily adapted to just about any campaign setting with relatively little effort. Later, you can look to the occasional module for a welcome and temporary relief from your design duties.

Starting the World
How does one go about creating an entire fantasy world from scratch? After all, it sounds like a lot of work. The secret is to remember the First Rule and to keep in mind that "creating the world" is what you and your players are going to do together over the next several weeks, months, or years of play. For now, your job is to create only those details necessary to get the ball rolling.

Your starting point is the world's basic concept or "hook." Most successful AD&D settings have a single, easily digested characteristic that makes them unique and interesting. Ultimately, it's this concept that captures your players' imaginations and draws them into the game. Making an imaginary world come to life is one of the most difficult tasks you face as the Dungeon Master. The more unique and interesting your world, the easier it will be for your players to accept its reality. A good "hook" goes a long way toward immediately signaling the world's unique characteristics to the players. Think about your favorite fantasy worlds from books, movies and games and try to identify what it is about each of these settings that makes it different from all the rest. Try to express these differences in no more than a paragraph or a few sentences. This is exactly the sort of distinguishing characteristic or hook you need for your own world.

Most hooks can be broken down into five categories: culture, environment, class/race, opposition, and situations.

Perhaps your game world is set against a cultural backdrop not encountered in the typical AD&D game. For instance, you could run a game based on the cultures of ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, or the ancestors of the American Indians. You can then set about adapting the AD&D game's magic systems, character classes, and monsters to this new environment. Depending upon the culture you choose, TSR has published some excellent sourcebooks and settings that might inspire you. Some of these titles are out-of-print, but you might be able to find them at local stores, game conventions, or Internet auction sites.

While settings based on cultural hooks can be interesting and rewarding, they're often difficult to create. To do a good job of adapting the AD&D rules to your chosen backdrop, you'll probably have to do some serious research and maybe a little game design to patch the few holes that pop up. For a detailed example of the sort of work involved, pick up any of the TSR products mentioned in the sidebars. One obvious benefit of a cultural hook is that it has the potential to tell you and your players an awful lot about the game world. If you base your game around an ancient Egyptian culture, for instance, you know something about the setting (largely desert), some of the adventures the players can expect (exploring hidden tombs), some of the monsters the players are likely to encounter (sphinxes, the phoenix, various desert serpents) and something about the world's mythology and theology (both based on ancient Egyptian beliefs).


Another option is to use a particular environment as your hook. Imagine a continent that consists almost exclusively of forests, mountains, swamps, jungles, deserts, or islands. Note that your choice of environment can also tell you a few things about your game world. The idea of a forest world, for instance, suggests that elves are more prevalent than they are in other AD&D settings. A desert world suggests that its cultures are largely nomadic and that finding drinkable water might be an important part of many adventures. A world that consists of an enormous archipelago suggests that seafaring will play an important role in the campaign.

You might also think about basing a hook around one or more of the AD&D game's character classes or races. Imagine a world in which all the player characters are members of an ancient order of wizards, or another in which all the adventurers are members of rival orc tribes (in which case you might want The Complete Humanoids Handbook). Most of TSR's Class Handbooks give you some advice on how you might run an entire campaign built around a single character class.

While campaigns built around such a hook can be lots of fun, they're often difficult to pull off. First of all, the various character classes and races work together to balance the AD&D rules. By tampering with the available choices, you can upset that balance. As an example, think about how much more difficult the average adventure becomes if none of the player characters are Clerics and the party has no access to healing spells. Similarly, lots of players prefer or dislike various roles. By limiting the available options up front, you're making it harder for some players to create characters they like.

The most commonly encountered opposition is another possibility for an effective hook. In this instance, your campaign is dominated by a single monster or a closely related group of monsters. The exact monster you choose should suggest to yourself and your players something about the world. For instance, a world dominated by dinosaurs probably has a primitive "land that time forgot" appeal. Likewise, a world dominated by undead suggests that the campaign environment has been subjected to some sort of evil curse and that the ultimate aim of the player characters is to lift that curse. In fact, if you're interested in running this type of game, it's important that you select an adversary that suggests similar possibilities. Deciding that your campaign is set in a world dominated by stirges or umber hulks is bound to confuse your players and isn't likely to help you create the campaign environment.

Sometimes, a simple situation can serve as an effective campaign hook. Imagine, for instance, a world on the brink of apocalypse. Age-old prophecies predict that a great cataclysm will befall the world just a few short years after you begin play. It sounds like the players' job to uncover the true nature of this cataclysm so they can try to prevent it. Similarly, think about a campaign dominated by a conspiracy comprised of evil dopplegangers who have replaced many of the world's most important nobles at the behest of a tanar'ri prince (sort of a medieval version of The X-Files). Games based upon a situational hook allow you plenty of room for creativity and give you an opportunity to create a memorable campaign. The possibilities for intriguing situations are endless. If you're finding it hard to invent your own, you can always borrow a concept from a favorite book or movie and adapt it to an AD&D setting.

To get your creative juices flowing, here are a few more ideas:

A world in which all humans, elves, dwarves, and orcs are psionic.
A world which hasn't seen a sunrise in more than five hundred years. This world is plagued by famines and suffering. Ultimately, you might allow the players to solve the mystery of the eternal night and restore the light.
A world in which humans are incredibly long-lived or even immune to death from natural causes.
If you're having a hard time choosing between several appealing possibilities, don't fret. Pick the possibilities that are easiest to develop and move on. You can always supplement your world with a new location built on an entirely different hook at a later date. For instance, if you're having a hard time choosing between a world dominated by dragons (opposition hook) and a world dominated by Wizards (class/race hook), go with the dragons. Later, you can introduce a separate continent ruled by Wizards. In fact, every time you introduce such an area you have an opportunity to devise a rationale that connects its hook to your other hook(s) and adds depth to your game world.

Returning to our example, let's suppose that, across much of the world, all the most important rulers are dragons and that most wars and international affairs stem from conflicts or alliances between these dragons. While humans can rise to the rank of duke or baron, they are ultimately little more than slaves or vassals of the dragons. Eventually though, the players discover a large hidden island in the middle of a vast sea. This island is ruled by Wizards, the ancestors of whom successfully rebelled against the dragons and established their own secret kingdom more than a thousand years ago. The Wizards' ancestors defeated their reptilian masters by stealing the secret of magic from them. It turns out that every human Wizard in the world ultimately owes his ancestry or tutelage to an inhabitant or former inhabitant of the island. Working together, these two hooks have just provided us with some rich backstory and fodder for future adventures. We now know how mankind learned the art of sorcery, and we can suppose that at least some of the dragons are interested in finding the island and recovering magical treasures stolen long ago.

For the campaign I'll write about in future installments of "Dungeoncraft," I'm going to select an environmental hook-a world covered almost entirely by various forests. Although the First Rule precludes me from taking the hook too far at this point, before I go further it's worth quickly examining some of the hook's implications to see what they might tell me about the game world.

To me, a forest world suggests an uncivilized planet dominated by Mother Nature. It's not hard to take this a step further and envision a "living" world that is essentially one colossal organism. Perhaps the planet itself is the major deity in the campaign and a vast network of dungeon passageways beneath its surface form the living deity's veins and organs.

Next, I'll think about basic locations and geography. For variety's sake, I plan to eventually incorporate all sorts of forests into this world-tropical jungles near the equator, conifer forests near the icy polar regions, and thick marshes on a few of the coasts. I like the idea of outpost "cities" consisting of a series of interlocking platforms and treehouses spread across various levels of large deciduous forests. The geography of a forest world also suggests a geopolitical situation that revolves around the domination of strategically placed trails through the thick woods. It's worth noting that farmland is going to be relatively rare on such a world, so those few patches of land not blanketed in trees are going to be very valuable.

Finally, it's worth thinking about how the hook might tie into the various monsters, character classes, and character races that make up the AD&D game. Obviously, I have an opportunity to do something special with any or all of the plant-related monsters. Perhaps treants (from the Monstrous Manual book) are heralds or avatars formed when the planet god instills some of its consciousness into a tree. The planet god uses the treants to protect its interests and to impose its will upon its inhabitants. Clearly, there is a special role for Druids and Rangers to play on a forest world. Druids are probably the special servants of the planet god. Rangers might be the planet god's chosen warriors; perhaps their class abilities stem from a special bond with the essence of the planet god.

While I can explore any or all of these ideas in much greater detail, I have more than enough material to get started. As the campaign progresses, I'm sure I'll develop the religious customs of the Druids, the nature of the bond between the planet god and the treants, and the implications of the mystical bond between the Rangers and the forests. For now, I'm concentrating on assembling only enough information to get the first few game sessions off the ground.

Now that we've actually fleshed out some details of the campaign world, it's time to introduce you to the Second Rule of Dungeoncraft: Whenever you design a major piece of the campaign world, always devise at least one secret related to that piece.

AD&D is all about the players' attempts to explore your imaginary world, and nothing captures the thrill of exploration quite so effectively as discovering a secret. As you build your world, you should devise plenty of secrets for the players to unravel. Try to create a new secret every time you flesh out a major part of the campaign or create an important NPC. That should guarantee that your players always have new mysteries to uncover. Later, we're going to strew hints and clues all over the campaign world that foreshadow the events to come and help the players unravel some of these secrets. We might even design an adventure or two that revolves entirely around a secret. By introducing such hints weeks (and sometimes months or even years) before the players get to the bottom of a secret, you make your campaign world seem more carefully constructed and "alive." For now, don't worry about exactly how the players are going to unravel each secret or how long it will take them to solve each mystery. There's plenty of time to decide on those details as play progresses.

So, I need at least one secret that stems from my chosen hook and the few details I've sketched out. Two possibilities spring to mind, and I think they're both worth keeping. First, the "living planet" god suggests to me that somewhere in the campaign world, probably located atop the tallest mountain, there is a single enormous tree that is synonymous with the god's life essence. Felling this tree is the equivalent of dealing the god a serious if not mortal wound. Should this ever happen, the seasons of spring and summer will not come again for many years, many of the planet's forests will begin to wither and die, and the planet's Druids will lose their magical powers. Of course, the god and its followers are keenly aware of this weakness. All Druids of 9th level and above know the secret of the tree and its location. With the help of a handful of trusted Rangers and hordes of treants, they secretly conspire to defend it. Much later in the campaign, I'll probably design a series of adventures in which the tree is threatened, allowing the players to uncover its secret and safeguard the world by defending it. For the time being, I'll simply place a few key hints as to the tree's existence.

Second, I've decided that shambling mounds (from the Monstrous Manual book) are actually former treant heralds of the planet god who became corrupted by the influence of an evil artifact and rebelled. When play begins, only the treants and the shambling mounds themselves are aware of the beasts' true nature. Later in the campaign, I might introduce the artifact that caused the mounds' downfall and lead the players to believe that it boasts a potent, benevolent enchantment. Only by unraveling the secret of the shambling mounds can they discover the true nature of the artifact and avoid its evil influence. Early in the campaign, I'll drop a few hints as to the origin of the mounds.

Join me in thirty days for "Worldbuilding, Part II" in which we'll take a look at establishing government and religion in an AD&D campaign.