The Caveman's Guide to Creating a Classic Dungeon Fantasy Campaign

The following article was originally written by a fellow going by the name “Abyssal Maw”. It is the clearest and most concise guide to running a classic dungeon-style role-playing game I've ever read, easily the best introduction I've seen for folks unfamiliar with that play style. As such I think it an excellent starter "how-to" for running C&C. Note I've somewhat edited the original and added a couple of my own ideas (a shameless tinkerer am I).

The old standard “dungeon-crawl” fantasy role-playing campaign is nearly a lost art, abandoned by gamers in favor of ambitious attempts at sweeping drama and bold story-telling. Some folks, its sad to say, even look down on the tunnel-delver mode of play, disparaging it as juvenile and unsophisticated. However, its a style of play that works, a solid yet simple play structure that back in the glory days of basic "red box" D&D any kid in high school could put together and run to create ongoing fun play. So, lest this valuable lore be lost, I'm writing up this “caveman's guide” on how to do it. “Caveman” in this case meaning basic and modest, functional not fancy. This process isn't about creating a multi-layered fantasy epic of narrative brilliance, but it will set-up a fun and functional campaign about killing monsters and taking their stuff .

This article assumes that you're looking to run some version of the classic class-and-level fantasy role-playing game, where the rules reward the slaying of fell beasts and the looting of their bodies thereafter. Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, Castles & Crusades are what this article has in mind (or non-commercial alternatives like Labyrinth Lord and Basic Fantasy). This is important, because this advice may not work so well with games that don't blatantly promote the use of blunt violence to achieve glory and fame. It could be especially toxic for a drama-minded game system. So the first step, before anything else that follows, is make sure you know what you want to do, and that you're using the right tool to achieve that.

Before the Campaign Begins

You'll actually do the most work before the first session even begins. Try to get started at least a couple weeks before your first game, so you can create at a leisurely pace, an hour at a time every other day or so. When possible, try to work with paper and pencil, since you'll want these notes available at the gaming table, portable and easily modified. Get a good, sturdy binder to keep all your notes in, some graph paper for mapping and regular ruled sheets for note-taking. And yes, you'll be drawing an old-fashined dungeon map. And a region map.

Step One: Region Map!

You 'll only need one single sheet of graph paper for your region map. You aren't making a whole world or even a continent. Low level characters don't generally fly across the landscape right away. The scale will be about 1 mile per square.

For now, the area map will be your only information on the region. Don't worry about writing up separate descriptions of what you add to it or explaining how the region works or its history.

Just start doodling wherever your fancy strikes. Drop in a few geographic features; put in a couple of forested areas and some hills and possibly a swamp or coastline. Put in a river. I mean, everyone knows how to make maps, right? Well, try not to make it too crazy or clutter it up too much. If truly stumped for inspiration, there are literally thousands of existing maps out there you can crib from. Look in the first couple pages of any generic fantasy novel, player guides to video games, and of course actual historical maps. Keep in mind that you're aiming for a modest scale, so don't copy the whole Roman Empire in a go.

Place about three towns on the map. Make one of the towns bigger than the others. These will be the human settlements. Note, the player-characters' initial home-base will be one of the small towns, not the big one. Going to the big town should be a notable event for the party that comes after they've adventured a bit and earned a reputation as heroes. After the human towns add a couple settlements in out-of-the-way areas. These will be the friendly non-human settlements, traditionally an elf-village in a forest and dwarf-fort in the hills or highlands. Give every town a name.

Also name all the major geographic features (forests, swamps, river, etc). Try to make at least a few of the names evocative of a bigger story. That doesn't mean you actually have to figure out what the bigger story is right now, but calling something “King Farl's Downfall” instead of just “Mount Stonetop” implies there's more to know and gives you hooks to work with later.

Mark about three known or rumored dungeons waiting to be explored. At least one of these should be within walking distance of the party's home-base town.

Plop down one or two mystery features. An abandoned village, a tract of unnatural terrain, or just some unknown area that no-one has ever returned from. Don't waste any time now detailing them, they're there to offer later expansion when you need it, or just to keep the players curious.

Mark a couple areas known to be the hunting ground of particular types of hostile monsters. The classic is of course the dragon-haunted mountain range, other ideas are a zombie swamp, a goblin forest or an ogre-infested rocky plain. Then add at least one area held by a tribe of potentially benevolent creatures, such as centaurs or giant eagles.

Include one feature that gives a link to a wider world for when the PC's eventually want to explore farther afield. The river or coastline mentioned before is good, as is a mountain pass or roadway leading off the map.

Step Two: Dungeon Map!

To start, you're only creating one dungeon, and that should occupy the players till they reach about their 3rd character level (at least several months worth of sessions). This dungeon should be the one closest to the town you plan on having the PCs start in. I recommend making it at least two levels deep with an additional surface level of some kind, so that's what I'm going to show here. You will need three pieces of graph paper.

Your first sheet will be an overview map, showing the general layout of the whole dungeon and its surface feature.

Split the first sheet into two maps, by folding it in half to make a little crease line. On the top half you should make a vertical 'cut-away' profile which shows the layers. The reason for this is you may eventually be expanding the dungeon, so leave some room for that.

The bottom half should show the surface area immediately around the dungeon entrance - like maybe some ruins; yeah, lets' go with that. So you have some overgrown areas, some crumbling walls, or whatever. Place a couple of low level encounters up here, something the party won't be in mortal danger from, but will still wake 'em up and put them on alert. Also make two entrances to the dungeon. One should be big and obvious, a big cave entrance or set of doors going right to room 1 on level 1, the other one hidden and leading to some part of level 2. The secret entrance is an old tradition, something the party isn't expected to find until after a couple trips to the dungeon, usually by stumbling across its other end in the lower level. Its there so the party can bypass any lingering difficulties on the upper level and also use it as an emergency exit, provided the party is ever clever enough to discover it.

Use the other two pages to draw the individual levels of your dungeon map. Have fun with it! Just doodle around, mapping out whatever strikes you as interesting. You could mark a room as an ossuary (a fancy word for "crypt full of bones"), another as a library filled with mysterious tomes, and so on. However, keep in mind the following:

  • You'll have to describe your dungeon to the players, so be wary of making rooms or passageways too convoluted to express easily.
  • Avoid bottlenecks. Make sure you include lots of multiple pathways giving the characters multiple routes for reaching any area.
  • Don't bunch up the rooms too much. Make the rooms big enough to battle in.
  • Make it good enough for you, but don't waste time on meticulous cartography or calligraphy. You're the only one who will see the original map!
  • Include a few traps, so characters with thief-type abilities get to feel useful. Remember that you're the only one who'll see this master plan, so just put 'em right on the map!
  • Make sure you put at least one stairway that leads from level 1 down to level 2 somewhere.
  • Make sure to include that secret exit that leads out of level 2 back to the surface.
  • Do at least 10 rooms per level. Preferably more.
  • You can also do sub-levels (little supplemental mini-dungeons) leading off the main one, if you are so inclined.

Now stock the dungeon with encounters. Since this is your players' first dungeon, be careful. You've already placed some encounters on the surface, so the players probably won't be walking into the dungeon 'fresh'. Drop about 5 easy encounters on the first level. Stick a tougher encounter in there somewhere too, near the passage to the second level, to let them know that going down means things get harder. And of course, make sure the second level is a bit harder. About half the encounters should have treasure. I'd say make at least one encounter per level a GM-character who isn't interested in fighting the PCs, just there to let them role-play a bit. Also throw in a beneficial encounter per level, something the characters can use to their favor. A secret stash of healing potions, or a holy spring that grants the benefits of a clerical spell (though in classic form, there should be strings attached, usually a guardian who demands a service before allowing access).

You don't have to write out full stat blocks for everything. Just write what encounter is there, how many, and anything else interesting. When it comes time, you can run the encounter right out of the Monster book.

Step Three: the Town!

In a dungeon-fantasy campaign, the town serves mainly as the place the party learns where the dungeons are and where they go to recuperate between forays. Unlike the wilderness and the dungeon, you won't be mapping the town. If you ever end up running any adventures in town, you may want to map specific locations there, but for the most part there's no need to delineate the overall shape of the place for the kind of the stuff the party will do there.

Instead, you will be making sure to add the following:

  • a place to get healed.
  • a place to buy stuff.
  • a couple of places to get missions.
  • a home base between missions.
  • a mystery or two of it's own.

A Place to get Healed: The obvious thing is to make a temple in the center of town. The attendants of this temple heal people at standard rate, and also perform a few charity healings. Optionally you could just have a freelance cleric, druid, bard or surgeon (not an entire temple edifice) that helps the PCs out and just lives in the town. Also, they should sell scrolls and potions of heal-type stuff at standard prices. I recommend you have a cleric who is able to cast Raise Dead live here, just in case the players need it (though getting it done should not be cheap or easy).

A Place to Buy Stuff: A couple of places, really. A blacksmith or general store is the standard, but you might want to also put an alchemist and a general goods merchant. Anything you can buy out of the Players Handbook should be available somewhere in town. The General Goods merchant is there specifically to buy stuff from the players and convert it into gold. The temple (see above) is a good place to have some low-level portable cures (i.e. potions) for sale as well.

Places to Get Missions: You can make this really simple if you want by just having a convenient character (perhaps the town mayor or an important retired adventurer) that regularly hires the PCs for dangerous missions. Of course the old standard is the tavern where mysterious strangers similarly cajole the party into quests. The temple, always alert for evil to stamp out, will probably ask for their help to. And maybe there's a wizard in town who needs weird stuff. Bottom line is you'll need to create a few places and GM-characters who make missions available to the PC's. Most of these missions at first will involve tasks around town, in the nearby wilderness, and going to the dungeon you made.

A Home Base Between Missions: This can be a house or an inn or have the PCs be guests of a someone else. But they need some place to hang out and rest up between adventures.

A Mystery or Two of it's Own: Just like you did in the region map, include one or two things in town that can lead to adventures later. Maybe a spooky abandoned mansion rumored to be haunted, an ancient stone circle in the town commons, or a cadre of cloaked strangers making silent but portentous appearances. Again, don't waste any time detailing them now, they're there for later expansion and to keep the players curious.

So that's your town. Make sure it has a name, and make sure you have a few special GM-characters populating it. At a minimum: the cleric guy, the innkeeper guy, and maybe the town sheriff/local lord/duly elected mayor to voice town authority when necessary.

Step Four: GM-Characters!

First go get a big list of names. Many books of names are available both as gaming supplements and writers aids, as are several online resources (such as the Everchanging Book of Names, Because names are vital when making NPCs, and you'll run out of them pretty quick if you have to think them up yourself.

If your GM-character is important and has class levels of any kind (say he's a priest or whatever) do a full character sheet for him. Every other GM-character just gets a name, a basic handle ("grumpy" or "foppish" or whatever), and every so often give one just a few words worth of plot-potential (“in debt to the mill”, “death cultist”).

Keep a back-up copy of every NPC you create. I do mine in a word processor and I keep them in a folder on my computer. So in case I lose a guy, I can always just print out a new record.

Don't stress about the sort of deep characterization and multi-layered motivations that other people suggest you do with GM-characters. Their personalities and relationships will emerge over time. In any case, all you want to worry about right away is the players and what they need.

Step Five: Ready to Play!

The last thing you need to do before your first game is put all your notes together in a campaign notebook. This should be a big looseleaf binder. In there you should put your dungeon maps, your region map, your town, and your NPCs. Also plenty of extra scratch and graph paper. The entire campaign fits in the notebook. You take the notebook to every game. Ideally, the notebook should be the only thing you need to run the game.

Before each game session you should probably prepare a few fresh encounters. Maybe just 1 or 2. These could be wilderness encounters, or maybe just an interesting new NPC who wanders by. But that's really all you have to do. As you add things to the campaign, add notes to the notebook, both growing together.

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