This post was originally made in June 2015 on Dungeons & Donuts.
Pre-made adventures or campaign settings are only useful if A) they’re easier/faster than coming up with something yourself would be, or B) you have a lot of free time to read a game book and memorize all of its details.
My advice for starting a new campaign?
1) Have your first session start with the players waking up in a dungeon you made. No other details, no plot, no story, just “We’re stuck, we need to work together to get out of here”. This way, you don’t need to come up with a whole world before playing your first game. If you have some campaign ideas already, you can pepper them in throughout the dungeon crawl.
Don’t let not having a whole campaign ready to go stop you from playing D&D. Chances are your players won’t care.
2) Take a 8.5x11 inch piece of paper. You’re gonna use it to make a map.
3) Roll a handful of dice onto the paper. Four d6′s, two d10′s, a d20, and a handful of d4′s work best. Make sure they’re kinda spread out when rolled. If they’re too bunched up, roll them again.
4) Now…each dice and their number rolled corresponds to a location on your map. d4′s are ruins, d6′s are dungeons/strongholds, d10′s are small towns, the d20 is a city. Now you have a bunch of places for your players to go to.
5) The number rolled on each of the dice determines the specific type of location it is. They break down like so:
- A razed village, burned to the ground. 50% chance of their being treasure under some floorboards.
- A centuries old elven landmark.
- A centuries old dwarven landmark. Buried treasure.
- A broken obelisk of almost alien design. Either portal to another plane, or a camp for important monsters.
- Old tomb. Undead.
- Basement of ruined castle.
- Abandoned and cursed temple. Weird cultists.
- Arcane Tower. Crazy old wizard.
- Old Fort. Full of monsters or jerk humans.
- Death Trap. Has a lich. Leads down into a bigger megadungeon.
Roll another d10 and multiply the roll by 20 to determine the population. The roll is also the level of the highest level NPC in that town.
- Ghost Town. Ignore population roll, there's only like four or five people here. Something bad went down here.
- Farming town. Everywhere nearby is good farmland and irrigation ditches.
- Ranching town. Cattle or other herd animals graze around here. Lots of fields around.
- Fishing town. A river runs through the town and through the map.
- Trading town. A crossroads runs through this town.
- Lake town. The town is in the center of a huge lake. Rivers extend from it.
- Gate town. Sits at the base of a mountain range. It's a gateway to a mountain pass.
- Cut-throat town. Full of shady thieves and villains. Basically a town-sized dungeon crawl.
- Non-human town. Populated entirely by halflings, dwarves, orcs, or elves. Roll 1d8 on this table to determine the kind of town.
- Monster town. Town run by monstrous people like, goblins, kobolds, vampires, skeletons, etc. Roll 1d8 on this table to determine the kind of town.
This is the biggest settlement in the immediate campaign world. It is generally a place the players will want to get to, as it’s the best place to sell treasure, buy unique armour, and get curses removed. Roll another d20 x100 to determine the permanent population. The roll is also the level of the NPC in charge of that town. If it’s really low, that person is either a simpleton or a child.
1-3. God fearing city. Leader is a theocrat. Magic is treated with more hate than usual. Temples are abundant. Brothels and Fest-halls also abundant, but hidden.
4-5. Slum city. Leader is a thief/despot. Collection of shanty-towns. Full of shady characters. Great place to fence goods and buy weird items.
6-8. Villain city. Leader is a campaign villain. She/he keeps the common people downtrodden and will try to exert her/his authority over the players in petty ways.
9-11. Monarch city. Leader is a noble (viscount, duke, baron, etc). Peace is kept with a town guard. Knights are common and welcomed here. Adventure hooks can be passed down from the monarchy on high.
12. Ruin city. Leader is a mayor. Buildings are a collection of towers built on top of a much older ruined city. There’s a dungeon below.
13. Magic city. Leader is a magister. Home of a magic college or ruling wizard class. Anything can be bought/sold here. Oddities and strangeness are abundant.
14. Elven city. Leader is a high elf noble. The campaign map is under elven rule. That rule may be waning. Lots of trees, stained glass, dueling in the streets.
15. Dwarven city. Leader is a cabal of dwarven trade concerns. The campaign map is under dwarven rule. That rule may be waning. Partially underground, great armour, maybe lava flows.
16. Halfling city. Leader is a halfling matron. The campaign map is under halfling rule. That rule may be waning. Lots of hills, all the buildings are meant for shorter people, the food is great.
17. Invasion city. Leader is a foreign invader. This native city has been seized by a foreign power and is in the throes of occupation/rebellion. The players can pick a side if they want.
18. Devil city. Leader is a secret devil prince/princess. Clearly full of evil creatures and bad folks. Not hostile, but evil. Trade is great. No non-evil temples.
19. Giant city. Leader is a frost giant prince/princess. The city is built and intended for giant creatures, but open to smaller folk. Trade is ridiculous.
20. Ghost city. Leader is a lich. Built on top of an ancient mausoleum. Ghosts and humans interact normally, using each other for mutual gain. Everything is spooky.
6) Now that you have all your locations, connect them with roads, rivers, and paths. Fill in empty spaces with forests, deserts, coastlines, etc. The types of towns and cities you rolled should dictate the environment.
7) The dungeon that is furthest away from the city is the one your players woke up in. That’s where they start on the map.
8) Come up with names for all the locations. Fill in the details. Adjust to your own tastes. Now you have a ready made campaign world with an implied history and geography. Have fun watching your players systematically dismantle it in the most ridiculous ways possible.