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It's Never Too Early
Dungeoncraft
by James Wyatt

The announcement has come and gone, the tempest of emotion it brought is beginning to fade, and the excitement is starting to set in. Seven months from now, you and your players will be sitting down with your shiny new Player's Handbooks, taking a look at all the new rules, and trying to figure out what to do next.

You don't have to wait until May to start planning your first 4th Edition campaign. The launch of a new edition is a great time to imagine what new directions you might want to explore, and figure out what new adventures and new worlds might lie before you. Keep playing for now, but it's never too early to have your eye on what you might be playing when May rolls around.

That's what this column is all about. For the next few months, I'll be sharing my thoughts about creating a new campaign for 4th Edition, and I'll actually sketch out my own campaign as I go. I invite you to follow along with me to collect what insights we can find about the job of world-building and campaign design.


Room to Adventure

Imagine a world shrouded in darkness -- vast stretches of wilderness untouched by the civilizing hands of humans and dwarves, dotted with crumbling ruins left by the ancient empire of the tieflings or the last great elf kingdom.

Scattered far and wide amid that darkness, like faint stars in the night sky, are the enclaves of civilization; here and there one finds a great city-state or strong barony, but mostly you encounter frontier towns or close-knit villages of farmers and artisans who cling close together for protection against the dark.

Your players' characters will start in one of those points of light.

This idea of the world as a vast sea of darkness, with only feeble, flickering points of light keeping civilization alive, is a core idea of 4th Edition D&D. It's not intended to turn every campaign into a horror game or something laden with dark angst. Instead, it gives space for adventure.

It's tempting for me to design a campaign setting as a world, or at least a continent, filling in every square mile with swamps and forests and nations divided by borders. And sure, I can look at a map like that and say monsters are in the swamp and elves in the forest, and this nation doesn't get along with that nation. That's the sort of thing I've been doing since I was in middle school, inspired by the World of Greyhawk and early Forgotten Realms products. TSR put out hefty campaign worlds -- just as Wizards of the Coast still does -- and my natural inclination was to develop my worlds in as much rich detail.

The trick is, when you work with such a large scale, all of those details are far away from the PCs.

If I were to drop the PCs down right on one of those borders where two nations are simmering at the edge of all-out war, there'd be room for adventure there. That could be a pretty cool campaign. Maybe a city is right on the border. Maybe its people don't really consider themselves members of either nation, and they resent being fought over, but there are also plenty of immigrants from both nations living within its walls. That could be a lot of fun.

But that only works because I've switched from the big map to a very small spot on it. Once I start running that campaign, the forest with the elves and the swamp with the monsters don't matter, at least not until the campaign grows and expands to include them. In the short term, I'm better off putting time into fleshing out the city on the border and the adventure possibilities there, rather than putting another thought into what lies half a continent away.

When you start with the small view, you're creating space for adventure even on that micro level. It's not just about the monsters that live in the swamp a hundred miles distant, it's about the dangers that threaten you where you live. In 4th Edition, the danger is large and the safe zones are small. Adventure is never far away.

Start Small!

Side Note: Greenbrier is a name that popped into my head maybe a year ago, and I jotted it down. Now I finally have a chance to use it! That's a useful habit to get into: When a cool idea comes to mind, write it down someplace where you'll be able to find it when it matters.

Greenbrier is one of those tiny points of light amid the surrounding darkness, but it's more like a flickering candle than a burning beacon. As the darkness grows, the little village draws people from the surrounding area to its sheltering walls, offering what little promise of safety might come from numbers and the fragile wooden palisades surrounding the center of town.

The starting place of your campaign might be the place the characters grew up. It might be a city that has attracted them from all the surrounding countryside. Or it might be the evil baron's castle where each of them, hailing from across the barony, is locked up in the dungeon at the start of the campaign, throwing them right into the midst of the adventure. Whatever you choose, the key thing is that it provides a common starting location for the characters -- a place they have all gathered, met, and decided to put their lives in each other's hands.

For my campaign, I want the players to have the sense that they've known each other for a long time and have some past connections. For that reason, I'm going with the first option: the place all the characters grew up. I'll call it the village of Greenbrier.

Space for Races

Besides creating room for adventure, the notion of points of light gives me an excuse to bring a bunch of different races together in what might otherwise be a stereotypical human farming village. As a starting point, I'm going to flip through the races chapter of the Player's Handbook so that, no matter what race a player chooses for his character, there will be some story ideas in his background.

The populace is mostly human. The Player's Handbook suggests that the last powerful empire before the fall of the present darkness was a human one, and I have no reason yet to change that. I'll make a lot of settlements human-dominated, though none of them will be human-only. The humans of Greenbrier are mostly farmers, which means that the lands of the village spread far out from the palisades. So some residents of the village don't have the protection of the walls -- those farms are vulnerable to attack. That's useful for providing adventure hooks.

I don't want to stick elves off in some distant forest. Let's say there was such a forest where the elves lived, but some enemy burned the forest down several years ago -- long enough ago to explain any half-elves in town. The elves moved into the smaller, tame forests closer to Greenbrier, and their camps and roving bands are as much a part of the village as the scattered farmsteads. I don't know yet who burned the forest down. I'll come back to that.

Eladrins are a new race in the Player's Handbook. They're akin to the elves, but they more often make their homes in the Feywild. I'm not positive what I want to do with them yet. My placeholder idea is that the forest where the elves lived was a "thin place" where passage between the world and the Feywild was easy, and an eladrin town stood near the elven community. The Feywild is unharmed, but some of the eladrins lived among the elves and have relocated with the elves.

Hmmm... I'm not sure I like that. Maybe the Feywild isn't unharmed. I could say that whatever enemy burned the forest also invaded the Feywild and drove the eladrins out. Or maybe that enemy came from the Feywild, driving the eladrins into the world before them. I'll come back to that when I'm ready to give more thought to the nature of this enemy. Some dwarf merchants and artisans are settled in the village, and others come through in caravans from time to time. Dwarf caravans link Greenbrier to the big city and a few other nearby towns. Caravans on the roads are another easy target for bandits and monsters -- more adventure hooks!

A group of halflings, like the elves, has moved in close to Greenbrier in response to danger -- some threat up the river drove them to move. They live on a raft of small boats lashed together, ready to pick up and float away if danger draws too near.

I like the tiefling race presented in the new Player's Handbook, but I don't see them fitting in to Greenbrier. I think I'll tell my players not to make a tiefling right out of the gate -- as the campaign goes on, perhaps they'll have the opportunity to bring in a tiefling to replace a dead character, once they've moved into more cosmopolitan areas.

Humans, elves, eladrins, dwarves, and halflings make Greenbrier a fine melting pot. But it needs one more ingredient race-wise. What about shifters? They're my favorite race from the Eberron setting, and I want to use them in my game. They're not in the Player's Handbook, but they are in the Monster Manual, so my players could make shifter characters if they want to. I'm going to say that these shifters used to wander the plains where Greenbrier is now, and in the early days of the village there was a lot of conflict between the shifters and the humans with their expanding farms. At this point, some shifters still live in the wild, but they're evil. The ones in the village have been pretty well assimilated.

All I've done so far is to flip through the Races chapter of the Player's Handbook and think about the role I want each race to play in my new campaign. Shifters aren't in there and tieflings are, but I'm using a little creative freedom to put in a race I like and leave one out that's not working for me just now.

That simple start sparked a lot of story ideas, and I'm getting a pretty clear idea of the village in my mind. The plight of the elves emphasizes the danger of the world beyond this little point of light, but I haven't decided yet what force of evil destroyed their home.

Heart of the Village

I don't really need a map of Greenbrier -- the simple idea of a village grown up around a crossroads will do fine for now. A wooden palisade stands around the center of town, offering feeble protection against the encroaching wild.

There's a common house in the middle of town -- it serves as the classic D&D tavern, sure, but it's also where the villagers gather for meetings to handle the sorts of things a town council would handle in a larger settlement.

The temple is the other main gathering place, where people come together to celebrate and mourn the many passages of life. I'll need to give some thought to the temple and the religious life of the village.

Turning to another chapter in the Player's Handbook, I run down the list of gods. I don't get very far before Bahamut's portfolio jumps out at me: He's the god of justice, protection, and honor. These people fear the encroaching darkness, so it seems natural to me that they would pray to Bahamut for protection. I'll say that Bahamut's altar occupies center stage, as it were, in the temple.

That needn't be the end of it, though. In any polytheistic religion, people offer prayers and make sacrifices to different gods for different occasions. As the sun god, Pelor is an important god of agriculture. He'll get a shrine in one wing of the temple. In better days, he was more important than Bahamut in Greenbrier. In fact, there might still be townsfolk who resent the priests of Bahamut for usurping Pelor's place in the center of the temple.

That story has some interesting possibilities -- but I'm not sure where I'm going with it just yet. It might be a seed I plant that doesn't flower until later in the campaign -- maybe much later.

Bahamut is often closely associated with Moradin and Kord -- they say that the three gods share an Astral Dominion, called Mount Celestia. So those gods will also have shrines within the temple. That ought to be enough for now -- four important deities, with some room for stories in the relationships among their most devoted followers.

Drawing the First Circle

From the starting point of the village, I need to fill in a circle around it -- just enough to give me and my players about as much knowledge of the surrounding world as the characters and the other people in town would have. These aren't world travelers -- they know their village, the road that links it to other towns, the river the halflings came down, and the burned forest. And that's all I need to know right now.

So I sketch out a map with Greenbrier at the center. I've said it's a crossroads, so I'll give some thought to what lies down at least three roads.

The big city appears on the map as an arrow pointing north and labeled "to Silverymoon." I've stolen the name from the Forgotten Realms, and later on when the PCs find their way there, I might steal more than just the name. I like Silverymoon as a good example of a city situated in the midst of dangerous wilderness.

The southern branch of the road points "to Tower Watch." That's the next nearest town. Its name (pulled out of the air) suggests that it might have been built in or near an ancient ruin with a prominent tower, either crumbling or still standing, mysterious and unexplored.

Oh, I like that. I think my PCs will explore the tower of Tower Watch before too long.

The halflings live on a river. I don't know yet what lies upriver to the northwest (except whatever made the halflings move) or where the river flows -- presumably there's a big lake or an ocean down that way somewhere, to the southeast. That sparks an image of Lake Town from The Hobbit, which might be another cool thing to steal. So the third branch of the road runs along the river, with an arrow pointing to Lake Town.

The last touch on the map is an ancient road running off to the west, branching away from the river. The bricks laid down to mark its course in centuries past are broken and worn, choked with grass and weeds. It, too, runs off the edge of the map, with an arrow pointing "to Harrows Pass." Why? Because my son came up with that name one day and I really liked it.

And there's my campaign setting.

No, not really. But it's the start of it. It's where my players will have their first experience of 4th Edition -- their first adventures as novice characters just beginning their heroic journeys. And it hints at what lies beyond: Tower Watch, Lake Town, Harrows Pass, the burned forest, Silverymoon.

The only thing it lacks is a dungeon.

Greenbrier Chasm

The frightened little village of Greenbrier needs a dungeon -- it needs space right nearby where player characters can answer the call to become heroes. The darkness encroaches, and heroes must push it back.

So right at the edge of the burned forest (which I should probably name at some point), a chasm named after the village opens up. I imagine Greenbrier Chasm as a deep cleft in the ground, choked with the prickly weeds that gave the village its name when settlers first cleared them away to make room for their farms.

Greenbrier Chasm opened up when the forest burned. I still don't know why, but that means it's a relatively recent arrival on the scene -- the latest evidence that danger and evil are closing in on the little village.

And when Greenbrier Chasm opened up, it revealed a dungeon -- the long-buried ruins of an ancient city or stronghold. By scrambling down through the briers to the bottom of the chasm, characters can gain access to these ruins and search them for treasures. Note for future reference: There might be a deeper point in the chasm that leads into another layer of dungeon, or some event might make the chasm deeper as the campaign progresses.

This will be the dungeon where my PCs gain their first few levels, letting their characters grow and mature into budding heroes.

Next month: The dungeons of Greenbrier Chasm!

About the Author

James Wyatt is the Lead Story Designer for D&D and one of the lead designers of D&D 4th Edition. In over seven years at Wizards of the Coast, he has authored or co-authored award-winning adventures and settings including the Eberron Campaign Setting, City of the Spider Queen, and Oriental Adventures. His more recent works include Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, Cormyr: The Tearing of the Weave, and The Forge of War. His second Eberron novel, Storm Dragon, releases this month.