On Erecting a New Campaign

Do you smell that?

It's the smell of a new campaign. New players, new dynamics, new adventures! 

Here's how this goes:

Suggest a couple of games to players a month ahead of time.
Finalize the game date.
Realize no one has picked a game.
Players select the game they want 48 hours before the game.
Hurriedly design an entire campaign from scratch.
Frantically try to print off everything you need before the game.
Forget to print off a bunch of things.
Realize only after the game starts that all the .pdfs you need to reference are on the tablet your daughter is using to watch kid's shows.
Bargain with your daughter for the tablet.
Decide to use your phone instead.
Give up on using your phone.
Refer to things as "That country I made up a name for that I can't find."
Spend 20 minutes looking for that one piece of paper that has the entire campaign on it.
Find it in the folder you made for the players.
Watch a 5e player's eyes go wide as a critical chart takes off the clerics arm.
Have her leave to go smoke.
Convince your daughter that the phone is better then the tablet.
Hurriedly try to find the name of that rebel group in the .pdf.
End the session rolling up new characters.

Beginning a campaign from scratch

I joke, but this touches on a real issue. Even using an system with no house rules and an adventure path, there's still a tremendous amount of work that needs to happen to get a campaign off the ground.

Let's take a look at what needs to be done, just to start:
  • You have to create an area for the players to adventure. You need to populate this area. If you're being a good dungeon master, this area should be able to handle both expansion, foreshadow the course of the campaign, and be thematically interesting.
  • You need to decide what races and classes you are going to allow.
  • Generally, you have to provide a selection of deities for clerics.
  • You have to either select or design a calendar to keep track of time. (YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.)
  • You have to decide what languages are available for the players to learn.
  • You need to create a facebook/G+ page and an obsidian portal/wiki as a reference for the campaign as it develops.

How much work is that already?

Then you have character creation, which even in the best games, feels like needing to do taxes so you can get your refund.

There's some person out there, full of more vigor then sense, who will likely point out that you don't have to do these things. Sure, you don't have to. You don't have to brush your teeth in the morning, but who wants to be a damn savage?

The tools have been getting better for this process over the years. I find starting a campaign from scratch much easier now–not only because I've written my own tools, but because there are more useful tools out there.

The process

Because this is something that's really opaque, I'm going to outline my process below. 

The very first thing is you get some players interested. I find, these days, it's as easy as "I'm running a game at date/time, anyone interested?" I then create a venue on a social network where these players can all interact.


My next step was to discuss what system we are going to use. No matter what is picked, there's always issues. I don't like clerics and find % thief skills obnoxious. 3.5/Pathfinder games you need to decide what books you are allowing. In this case, the players and I voted for 1st edition AD&D.

Right away, my long experience gives me some insight into how this plays out. Demi-humans are far superior to humans in almost all respects, and most players end up playing Demi-humans as humans in funny hats. I make humans mechanically superior (4d6DL & assign, versus 3d6 in order, switch 2) and add drawbacks to each race. I used Andrew Shields Death Dwarves and their meatsmithing, took a bit of the chaos elves and have them all start with at least one madness, and have half-men (Halflings) have rows and rows of teeth, who prey on the failing morals of men.

I also replace the thief with the expert class and change all the thief skills and secondary skills to use Skills: the Middle Road. I also inform the players that I will be using my Death & Dismemberment table, along with Hackmaster Critical hits.


I give a moment's thought to theme. I decide on a frontier style game. Instead of having a foreign land , where all the cultures are bizarre, I'd prefer a more traditionally medieval setting. My inspirations include Berserk, the 100 years war, Artesia, Bladestorm, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and all the drama inherent in war.

With the idea that the characters are at a forward outpost of a despotic country, with conflict brewing with the nearest city, surrounded by unknown militaristic forces, I head over to Wizardawn and generate maps until I find one that I like. Mountains to the north, a few lakes. I generate it sans any generated sites. I save this map to my Dropbox, print out a color copy and a very light almost faded black and white copy. On the light copy, I create a few cities, about half a dozen towns, and place resources and obstacles over the map. I don't generate the content for any of these. Partially because some answers will be obvious (one city and town on the west side of the map will reflect the outpost and the nearest settlement) and partially because they will develop in play. 

This map is at a scale of 6 mile hexes, making it about the size of my home state of Arkansas. The distances are substantial, but not unmanageable. There's endless adventure inside a single six mile hex, so it provides plenty of room for play and expansion. I can have a whole ancient empire in just a few hexes or introduce a new castle or force late in the campaign.

Then I generate some monster threats. One worldshaker, two that are formidable opponents for Lord or name level characters, and then four that are challenges for superhero level characters. Most of the hero level challenges don't influence the campaign enough to design now.

Now that all that is written, I rationalize clerics and select a calendar. I have a few default options, one from a campaign my father was in way back in the early 80's, another that I designed to be a unique calendar that I use from time to time. Not having to do this from scratch is a big time saver.


The next thing is what we will need to start play. I'm playing 1st edition with hackmaster criticals so armor placement is important, along with character sheets. I print off a 1st edition Player's Handbook gear list, and consider printing off some gear packages, but I've been burned with having differing prices before. This later turns out to be a mistake, considering exactly how much gear the players were missing. They had a bullseye lantern no one could light, and no rope. I print out blank spell lists for spellcasters, and then I turn to my Binder.

I find some suitably gory and bizarre images to insert into the covers of the binder, and begin collecting what I need from online and my older folders. I need a copy of my "Table for Avoiding Death", some blank paper, a table for random monster behavior, combat commentary styles, Non-Player Character features, A table for random hireling traits, random backgrounds for henchmen (which will partially decide their class when they acquire enough experience to level), and a list of completely random rumors, which is often useful for inspiration.

The next section contains a cheat sheet for 1e morale, evasion, and encounter detection and a table of 100 reasons the characters are together along with a list of totally bullshit taxes that can be levied on players. The 100 reasons sheet is extremely useful for creating emergent play.

Finally, I have a section devoted to overland travel. The first page is a way to determine with one die roll when the next encounter is based on encounter frequency, instead of having to roll three, four, or even six or more times per day of travel. Then I have several lists of non-standard wilderness events, some creative tables for merchants, war travel, short encounters, unique treasure, holidays, strange inns, etc. Then I have a page devoted to an article from a hackjournal that contains a random system for naming small villages and hamlets. Finally I have a copy of the d30 random wilderness book.


Well, what now?

There's still a lot left to do. Like what are the players actually going to do when they get to the game? I generate three key Non-Player Characters, and an opening setting for their arrival in town. I also go through the various books and monster manuals (The Creature Compendium, Fire on theVelvet Horizon, etc.) and pick a small (2-6) selection of monsters per terrain type near the starting area. These will be the primary antagonists and animals the players will meet.

Due to time constraints, I forgo creating an actual wandering monster table. In order to create an actual experience of discovery and realism, I follow the method for monster tables outlined on the retired adventurer blog, each containing spoors, lairs, and other monster sign.

I then flip through some resources, looking for a few activities for new adventurers, along with ideas for other local factions and groups. I select a few from here and there, and write them down on my campaign sheet, which at this point is still a single piece of paper with a lot of writing on it. I grab a copy of a few interesting files, and dump them on my tablet.

Then I gather the books I need. My "On the Non-Player Character", Delta's "Book of War", Crawford's "An Echo, Resounding", My 1e Dungeon Master Screen, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Player's Handbook, A copy of "Dyson's Delves" for treasure maps. I also keep a copy of my Critical Hit/Wild Magic Resource, and Kellri's CCD:4 for wilderness travel nearby.

I gather dice, pencils, dice trays, my tact-tiles, dry erase markers, buy a fruit tray, and just hope for the best at this point.

The Beginning

Well, after you had the first game session, that's it eh?

Not hardly. Then comes setting up the Obsidian Portal, drawing pictures of the non-player characters, creating new non-player characters, writing the random tables, creating interesting and connected rumors, and more.

In 2017, I was able to handle all the above in about 48 hours, whereas as short as a decade ago it could take weeks, or more. Are we there yet? We are getting better. Newer rulesets like ACKS, DCC, and Perdition require a lot less house-ruling of core systems it seems; adventurers, tools, and resources seem to be getting more useful as time goes on. Even the quality of official material seems to be of a higher caliber (but often fails from trying to be too many things to too many people).

What about your campaigns? Is every single one a task of pulling the entire world up by it's bootstraps while you are astride it?

Hack & Slash 


  1. I like to put the choice of deity for a cleric to the player. I got enough to do then describe their world view. I also let them know spells at second level are not guaranteed (for b/x games) if they treat the relationship as an afterthought. They ate their god's sole voice. Better act it.

  2. This is great; thanks for putting this together

  3. I'm a firm believer in recycling. Rather create a whole new world, I just use a different region of the previous one. Only about half of the material made for a given campaign actually gets used, the rest is carried over to leaven the next. And if at all possible, I make sure that the events of the last campaign influence or at least inform the next in order to give some depth to things.

  4. My current campaign exists because a friend of mine complained that her DM wasn't going to have his campaign ready for 'months.' I (feeling braggadocios and wanting to flex my hobby mastery) said we could start playing as soon as we found people, and a day that fit everyone's schedule.

    I think I did about an hour of prep before we started playing the first time. We're playing session 57 tonight. I just kinda make it up as we go along.

  5. This is where Play-By-Post shines, I think. I'm a moderator at the Unseen Servant Forum, a Play-By-Post forum for RPGs (with a tendency towards OSR). We have a system for setting up a game. The GM can create as many folders under a forum thread. They can control who has posting abilities under that thread. They can request private folders under that thread for each player, which allows private interactions between GM and Player that even site moderators can't see (excellent for that curious halfling who likes to leave the rest of the group to head off on their own for a few hours).

    PBP gaming eliminates the need for a Wiki page or other social media page to keep track of things. The GM can easily make folders that cover all of the background of the game - house rules, land history, deities, OOC chatter, memorials to fallen characters, and so on. Many of the GMs use the Announcements function to keep all of the active game threads at the top of the gaming thread for easy access.

    An example of a well-organized game: http://www.unseenservant.us/forum/viewforum.php?f=353

    Play-By-Post became a viable way for me to continue with RPG adventuring when RL got too full of hobbies and marriage and work and babies to set aside 4 hours on a Saturday evening.

    Some people don't easily adjust to the slower pace. But if you can, it's a continual source of entertainment all week long, every week of the year. And the slower pace allows the GM to make unhurried, proper decisions and allows players to really consider their next move. It isn't often necessary, but getting people to post can be motivated by random monster checks if the players take too long. One of the biggest challenges CAN be a bout of analysis paralysis, but a good GM will step in when they see that and make a call for action (or the random monster dice start rolling).

    I've been using Play-By-Post games, mostly on the Unseen Servant, to get my gaming fix for about 10 years now and it just keeps getting better and better.

  6. Great post. Creating a pantheon of gods is the most work, but the world doesn't feel real without it. Have run last three campaigns in different areas of the same world mostly because I don't want to re-jump that hurdle.

  7. Super helpful post! I haven't run a campaign myself in a while (I play in them regularly, just don't run very often). But I've been getting the itch to start one so if I can get myself organized and find the right players this'll be invaluable.

  8. Your death and dismemberment table is great! Cold/Nether #31 needs an edit. seems like it's missing a few words and/or punctuation.

  9. It might be worthwhile to contrast this with the Dungeon World approach, where the campaign world evolves and develops organically based on player feedback, with zero initial prep.

  10. Matt Collville agrees with you strongly (channeling Gygax) on strict time records: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZtFfq_yQQR4

    I still fondly remember our naming of months after the dangers of that month: "Krakenfest" or "Krakenfaust"?

  11. As someone who is just beginning to get his hands dirty in a as-yet-dry-docked campaign, I gotta say you make it all look plushly easy.

    Part of me whishes I could have such an embarassment of already defined tools within casual reach, but the other relishes the process of accrual, discovery and experience (in the DMing sense) of learning slowly to get a campaign off the ground.


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