How to create a D&D campaign world – a step-by-step guide

A wonderful and inspiring part of the roleplaying game hobby is worldbuilding, however many dungeon masters feel it’s a daunting task to create their own campaign world. In this guide I will do my best to outline my method of building fantasy worlds. I hope it will help you by making worldbuilding more inspiring and less of a chore.

My core worldbuilding philosophy: start small and expand

In my opinion the biggest mistake many worldbuilders do is biting off more than they can chew. If you create a huge world map and then try to fill it with everything that could possibly exist in a world you tend to either overwork yourself and lose interest, or stretch your imagination too far and end up with something quite bland “like butter scraped over too much bread”.

Not only does “starting big” risk draining your inspiration, it is also (most of the time) unnecessary. A typical adventuring party in a quasi-medieval D&D campaign won’t visit every far corner of the world, and even if they do this is not something you need to plan out years in advance.

A campaign world isn’t necessarily a “world”. It might not even be a country. It might start out as just a small town and its immediate surroundings. We could call it a “campaign environment”. It might or might not develop into a world but for starters let’s concentrate on what you need rather than what you might need in the future.

What you need is a playground for your players’ first few adventures.

A list of things that you probably need to know right now:

  • The overall theme or genre (high/low/dark fantasy, steampunk, etc.)
  • What monsters lurk in the woods just north of town
  • The name of the local innkeeper and some other important NPCs
  • The most relevant deity in your starting region, and how it is worshipped

A list of things you probably don’t need to know right now:

  • The name of the king in a neighbouring country
  • What lies beyond the sea or the mountains far to the west
  • Every significant faction in the country and how they interact with each other
  • Details on every organized religion in the world

Creating your homebrew campaign world – a step-by-step guide

Step 1 – the overland map

Create an overland map or get one online. A few (7-10 or so) hexagons of terrain will do. Each hex is 6 miles. Fill the hexes with the general type of terrain you want for your theatre. Woods, mountains, grasslands, hills, moor, swamps, etc. Add a few interesting landmarks.

Note: you don’t need to use hexes if you don’t like them. I find them really useful for making maps and tracking both travel and exploration in a campaign, but if you prefer to measure distance differently go right ahead and choose another method.

Fourtower Bridge Hex Map

Step 2 – the starting town

Create a small town and a handful of non-player characters (NPCs). Some of these NPCs need help with stuff, and they need adventurers to take care of their problems. The NPCs are some of the best roleplaying tools you have to shape your campaign and influence players/player characters.

Here’s a town you can use if you don’t want to create one from scratch: Link to Fourtower Bridge.

The Bulette's Barrel inn - isometric map
“Meet the locals” – the inn is often a central location for roleplaying in a fantasy campaign. A great place for the players to learn more about the world.

Step 3 – adventure sites

Make up a few adventure sites and connect some of them to the NPCs in town. A deserted mine, a desecrated temple, a ruined old tower, a brigand hideout, etc. Draw some simple location maps and mark the sites on your overland map. Place treasure and monsters.

Note: You don’t have to make up all of these adventure sites from scratch. There are plenty of free resources online, or you could buy short adventures from websites like DriveThruRPG.com. You can also find a lot of free maps and adventure sites on this website, for example The Haunted Cloister, that can easily be dropped into most fantasy campaigns.

Top-down dungeon map of a druid's cave
The druid’s cave is a small adventure site, perfect for an evening of gaming

Step 4 – build your world by playing in it

Start playing. The player characters are a bunch of adventurers in search of gold and glory. They arrive in town and have just enough money to spend the night at the inn. Drop rumours on them. Let townsfolk seek their aid. And then let them decide what to do next.

Breathe life into your little world but don’t plan everything ahead. Roll on random tables. You deserve to be surprised just as much as the players do. Between games always keep a notepad with you. Write down cool stuff you come up with. Inject it into your campaign. As you come up with new places to explore, draw new hexagons or add to existing ones on your overland map.

Ask the players what they want to do. Let them inspire you as you expand on the overland map. What do they look for, and how can they get it? What lies beyond the mountains in the west? What’s the origin of the strange idol they found in the abandoned mine?

Build as you go. Make stuff up. Allow yourself to get surprised. Use free stuff from the community. Work with your players. Build a world – not a story. You don’t need an endgame yet (if ever). You have a lot to discover, so enjoy the ride.

Bonus tools: random tables and rumours

Random encounter tables

Random encounter tables have been a staple of fantasy roleplaying games for many years. They are not just relics of old, but actually really good tools for worldbuilding that animate your world and make it feel more dynamic. By creating random encounter tables you define what creatures inhabit an area of your world and you make it significant. The probability of encountering a certain type of creature tells a lot about your world.

If there’s a high risk of encountering orcs in your campaign environment it should be reflected in the encounter tables, let’s have a look at an example:

Random encounter table – west moorland road

Roll 2d6

2-6No encounter
7-8Merchant caravan
9-10Orc raiding party (2d6 orcs)
11Troll
12 Hill giant

What does the above random encounter table tell us about the campaign environment? Well, first of all it seems commerce and travel is a thing in this part of the world – there’s a fair chance of bumping into merchants. We also learn that orcs seem to be the dominant non-human race in the area, and that they’re on the prowl making travel risky (but not risky enough to fully deter humans from travelling). There are also more powerful monsters (trolls and hill giants) lurking nearby, but apparently they’re not common enough to outcompete the orcs – perhaps they are allies? It’s just a simple table, but all of the above are important and defining elements of your worldbuilding.

Remember that you can have random tables for more things than encounters, such as weather and other types of events. For example, a random weather table tells a lot about the climate in your campaign environment. If you’re aiming for an occult feel to your campaign perhaps a table of mystic omens would make sense to create.

Rumours

The Internet doesn’t exist in a fantasy medieval world, and the adventurers can’t google “nearby adventure sites and treasure”. Rumours are perhaps the most common source of information and will play an important role in determining how the players will decide on what to do in your world. They do not know about the old tower ruin two hexes to the north unless you somehow tell them about it, so creating such rumours for them to pick up when interacting with NPCs is a good way of helping them learn about the world beyond the hex they’re currently exploring. Again: The NPCs are some of the best roleplaying tools you have to shape your campaign and influence players/player characters. Plant rumours to guide players without forcing them in a certain direction.

Not all rumours are (nor should be) true. Some have just grains of truth in them, and some are just nonsense. However all of them help bring your world to life.


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Retainer sheet for D&D B/X and Old-School Essentials

This retainer sheet is made for use with Old-School Essentials and other OSR games based on Dungeons & Dragons Basic/Expert. Please feel free to download and print it for personal use.

Note: if you use ascending armor class and attack bonus, just use the field for THAC0 to indicate the retainer’s attack bonus value.

The checkboxes doesn’t serve a specific purpose. I added them because it’s always nice to have checkboxes, right? You can use them to track rations, torches or any other type of relevant resource.

Looking for a full character sheet?

Check out my hand-drawn character sheet for D&D B/X based games here!

Support my work through Ko-fi (if you want)

Let me be very clear: the content on this website is free for personal use, and it will stay that way. That said, I sometimes get questions if there’s any way to support my work. If you insist on giving me a tip my Ko-Fi account is https://ko-fi.com/pathspeculiar. This will make me very happy, but is not expected!

The Spudfield Good Girl – free D&D adventure

The Spudfield Good Girl is a free two-page adventure for use with Dungeons & Dragons. It was made with the B/X edition of the rules from 1981, but can easily be adapted to any edition of the game.

The adventure is meant for a party of low level (1-3) adventurers but can be adjusted for higher level play by introducing tougher enemies. If you choose to make the adventure harder you should consider increasing rewards/treasure as appropriate.

The Spudfield Good Girl is a fantasy adventure with light horror elements, but nothing too gruesome.

Download the adventure

The Spudfield Good Girl - click iamge to download free pdf
Click image to download the adventure in pdf-format

Adventure background

Conrad and Eliza Spudfield and their five well-mannered children are in need of adventurers. Two days ago, when Eliza was about to bring up some potatoes from the root cellar under their kitchen she spotted a monster! An undead abomination peered at her from the shadows. She quickly escaped up into the kitchen and slammed the hatch shut. Eliza heard growling from below, and then everything went silent.

Conrad bolted the hatch securely and just to be safe they moved their large cupboard onto it. They need adventurers to go down the hatch and dispose of the monster so that they can gain access to their food supply or there will be no spuds for the children trickin’ and treatin’ on Olde Hallow’s Eve.

Free to download for personal use

The adventure is completely free to download and print for personal use with your gaming group. Please do not re-publish the adventure without my written consent. You may never sell copies of this adventure.

Would you like to translate this adventure?

Some of my previous adventures have been translated by other gamers to their native languages (for example Italian and Portuguese). Please reach out to me if you’d like to translate The Spudfield Good Girl into your own native language and I can provide you with the source material. E-mail me at niklas@wistedt.net.

In loving memory of Doris

This adventure is dedicated to the best friend I’ve ever had, who I miss so dearly. You were such a good girl.

In loving memory of Doris 2010-2020

More from my world

The Spudfield Good Girl is set in my own little campaign world, next to the small settlement of Fourtower Bridge. Fourtower Bridge is a town module that is also free to download, and can be used together with the adventure to provide more context for the player characters. Click here to read more about Fourtower Bridge and to download the module.

Support my work – buy me a Ko-fi (if you want)

Let me be very clear: the content on this website is free for personal use, and it will stay that way. That said, I sometimes get questions if there’s any way to support my work. If you insist on giving me a tip my Ko-Fi account is https://ko-fi.com/pathspeculiar. This will make me very happy, but is not expected!

The Bag of Holding is a bad magic item for D&D

Please excuse the provocative title, but I would like to talk a little about why I think the Bag of Holding is an item that’s better left out of your Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

What is a Bag of Holding?

The Bag of Holding is a magic item that exists in most (all?) editions of D&D, as well as most clones (like Pathfinder and OSR games). It is basically an enchanted bag with an interior considerably larger than it’s outer dimensions. It is used to store treasure and equipment that would otherwise be too cumbersome for the player characters to carry.

Below is how the Bag of Holding is described in D&D Basic/Expert from 1981. Note that in those older editions weight was defined in coins. 10 coins were equal to one pound, so this Bag of Holding can fit items with a combined weight of 1000 pounds. (source: Old-School Essentials System Reference Document):

Bag of Holding
A normal-looking, small sack that can magically contain large objects and weights.
Size: Objects of up to 10’×5’×3’ can fit inside the bag.
Weight: Up to 10,000 coins of weight can be placed in the bag.
When full: The bag weighs 600 coins.

The modern version of the Bag of Holding (D&D 5th edition) is more or less identical to the B/X one, but carries “only” 500 pounds of weight.

What purpose does the Bag of Holding serve?

In short: the Bag of Holding lets player characters carry much more items than they would normally be able to. This is of course extremely useful for a bunch of semi-medieval adventurers in a fantasy world. Players are happy because their characters can bring more equipment and salavage more treasure. The dungeon master is happy because he doesn’t need to bother with rules for tracking encumbrance.

Why the Bag is Bad.

So, why is this a bad thing?

Well, it’s not bad per se. If you want to run a superhero style D&D campaign, where characters are larger than life then it’s fine to not track mundane mechanics such as encumbrance. But then again – why not just ignore it completely? You don’t need the Bag of Holding as an excuse to remove encumbrance from your game. Just assume the characters somehow manages to carry everything they want.

But to me D&D isn’t a game of superheroes and epic encounters. To me D&D is a game about heroic burglary and expedition style adventures. I would argue that most older editions of the game support my approach. Others would argue that later editions are built for something very different. Both viewpoints would probably be correct.

If you want to play D&D the way I prefer, then mundane choices become important. The Bag of Holding removes those choices from the game. It makes them irrelevant, and that is why it’s bad.

Expedition style D&D

Expedition style burglary adventures are all about prioritizing. When encumbrance is a factor the party need to somehow decide what to bring on their journey.

  • How many torches do we really need?
  • How much water and food can we carry? What if we run out?
  • Do we need to bring any special equipment or tools based on what we know of the site?
  • Can we make do with one tent, or do we need two?
  • Do we bring things “just in case” or only what we know we’ll have use for?
  • Do we need to get a donkey? A cart? What do we do with it when we enter the dungeon? (hello Bill)

By having to make all these choices the game becomes richer. Already in “town” the players need to start planning their venture. They benefit greatly by gathering information about the adventure location as such information can help them prioritize. Without a Bag of Holding these are hard choices! With a Bag of Holding they can just buy up the whole inventory of the store and they’re all set. There are no choices to make except for possibly financial ones.

A game of burglary

D&D is a game of burglary. It’s about reaching hard to reach places, and enter dangerous sites to find treasure and get out alive. This presents important choices. Treasure weighs – often a lot. If the players have a Bag of Holding they can just grab whatever they find and stuff it. If they don’t – well that’s another story. The 200 pound statue looks valuable, but is it worth the effort? Salvaging a chest full of coins is a feat of it’s own. Even if you manage to get it out of the dungeon you might not be able to bring it back to town without assistance. Perhaps better bury it somewhere where X marks the spot.

Being encumbered is risky, especially in old-school D&D where combat is dangerous. An encumbered character is putting his or her life at risk should a hasty retreat become necessary. When danger lurks around the corner you want to make sure you’re able to run. Having to leave treasure behind is an excruciating decision to make, but an important lesson can be learnt here: next time make sure to bring hirelings on your expedition.

All these decision makes the game richer in my opinion. What the Bag of Holding does is to remove such dilemma, and that’s why I think it’s bad.


Edit 2020-10-11: this has made some people angry. That’s fine, there’s no reason to agree for the sake of agreeing and everyone plays the game the way they want. Some of the angry readers have accused me of being a boring DM for taking the mundane into consideration when playing D&D. And while they might be right about me being boring (I hope not, but I’m not the right person to say) I’d like to write just a few words about why I think the mundane has an important place in my campaign:

The tension between the mundane and the fantastic

A lot of people roll their eyes over mundane things like encumbrance mechanics in D&D. To me such things are important to set the right tone in the game. It’s not about “high” or “low” fantasy. It’s about tension between the mundane and the fantastic.

To me fantastic genres like fantasy, horror and sci-fi is at it’s most captivating when the mundane encounters the fantastic. It is the contrast between those two realms that creates tension and awe.

If your character is a flying half-demon that shoots laser from his arse then few things in a fantasy world will feel very fantastic. Finding a magical item will be convinient, but never awe-inspiring because magic is an everyday commodity.

This is why I prefer human characters and why I think it’s good to count torches and track encumbrance. Because when the characters are rooted in the mundane, encountering something that isn’t is a truly magical experience.

More stuff to browse on the blog:

Welcome to Fourtower Bridge

Quick download (.pdf) Fourtower Bridge v1

The home base (town, village, hamlet) is an important element of many fantasy adventures. It provides opportunity for roleplaying and setting the tone for the campaign. The home base also allows the game master to adjust the difficulty of the adventure by deciding what resources are available for purchase, if retainers can be hired and if rumours can give hints about dangers to come. The home base works as a hub, and lets the game master enrich the campaign world by adding lore and side quests.

Despite this, many adventures lack a town, and leaves it up to the game master to create it. That is why I created Fourtower Bridge. It’s a small home base that can be dropped into pretty much any fantasy campaign or adventure, with minimal (if any) work required by you.

This is Fourtower Bridge

Fourtower is located on the moorlands in the outskirts of the realm. The name refers to the bridge itself as well as the small settlement surrounding it.

The fortified bridge provides safe passage across the river for those traveling the old King’s Road. While originally built for military purposes, the fortification no longer serves such a role and civilians have been allowed to build houses around it, forming a small hamlet. While a few farms are scattered across the surrounding landscape, this area is certainly considered the backwoods of the realm.

The bridge construction consists of four towers and thick gates barring passage across a sturdy stone overpass. The fortification was given as reward by the local regent to a party of four adventurers who did the realm a great service many years ago. The four adventurers are now retired and live in the towers. “The Four” collect tolls from those who wishes to cross the bridge, although not from locals.

Sample spread from Fourtower Bridge
Sample spread from Fourtower Bridge

Download “Welcome to Fourtower Bridge” (.pfd)

Welcome to Fourtower Bridge is free to download and print for personal use, but please do not publish it online or in print without written consent by the author.

Support my work – buy me a Ko-fi (if you want)

Let me be very clear: the content on this website is free for personal use, and it will stay that way. That said, I sometimes get questions if there’s any way to support my work. If you insist on giving me a tip my Ko-Fi account is https://ko-fi.com/pathspeculiar. This will make me very happy, but is not expected!

Top-down town map of fourtower bridge

Dungeon design tips: the balance between flair and function

Sometimes when I post my dungeon maps online I get angry comments pointing out design elements that “doesn’t make sense” because they don’t serve a practical purpose. Such elements can be anything from a simple alcove to a corridor dead-end or more fantastic features such as a bottomless pit or a unpractical trap. The people protesting these elements claim things should be constructed with a clear, practical purpose or it doesn’t make sense and breaks the immersion of the game.

But does everything in a dungeon need to serve a practical purpose? No, it certainly does not.

What is a dungeon?

I will be discussing “dungeons” in a fantasy context like Dungeons & Dragons or sword & sorcery litterature. In this context the dungeon concept is not limited to the prison-pits of medieval and renaissance Europe (although a prison could certainly have non-practical features).

In this broader definition a dungeon can be any type of confined space where the adventure takes place, such as:

  • the underground temple of an evil cult,
  • the cursed mansion of a deranged noble
  • a necromancers dark tower
  • the ruins of an ancient dwarven city
  • the cave-settlement of an orc tribe
  • an old crypt containing the remains of a great general
  • etc.

Why do we build?

Humans have always created things with little or no practical purpose. We do it because we are visual, creative and curious creatures. While we are amazing at creating practical things like the wheel and the nuclear power plant we are also driven by aesthetics and curiosity. This heavily influences the way we craft things. We construct a fully functional fighter plane, but still feel the need to paint shark teeth nose art even though it doesn’t affect the functionality of the plane.

Sometimes we build things just to see if we can. We do it it to prove our exceptional skill and to instill awe. The Statue of Liberty was useless as a lighthouse, but a wonder of engineering and still one of the most famous and beloved landmarks on the planet. Does it serve a practical purpose? Not really. Does it make sense? Yes, to a human it does.

This is not something new. There are cave paintings more than 40 000 years old that likely served no other purpose than decoration or religious expression. Medieval castles were certainly built with a practical purpose in mind, but they are still fitted with decorative and extravagant features – things of beauty and pride. Quite often humans do things just to show off.

The folly of architecture

There’s even a word for this: folly. A folly is a structure, often eccentric in nature, that serves no other purpose than decoration. Like a Roman ruin built in 18th century England or a “Chinese” pavilion in a Swedish palace park. It’s basically a very expensive conversation piece. Another example is the classic garden maze.

And sometimes we fail. Sometimes we build things in a certain way just because we didn’t know better. Not all architects are good at what they do. History is filled with examples of unsuccesful construction. It’s easy to say in hindsight that such a construction element “makes no sense” – but it did to the ones that built it.

In short: while we build things to serve practical purposes we also build for the sake of beauty, curisosity, awe, narcissism, vanity, superstition, faith, love, hate and … folly.

The sense-making dungeon?

Considering the above not everything in a dungeon needs to “make sense”. While there need to be some balance – everything should probably not be silly – adding decoration or eccentric design features makes the dungeon more interesting to explore. It makes for a better game.

An insane (but powerful) necromancer has his minions create a dark underground palace. Would it really be so far-fetched that his megalomaniacal ego would shape the construction of such a site? Does it not make sense that he will create traps that are overly sadistical in nature even if the typical nature of a trap is to deal out instant death? What would his idea of “beauty” be? Probably different than most.

A rich and decadent nobleman builds a castle. Would it not be possible that he’d spend his gold on a folly labyrinth just to show off for his guests? And with all gold spent on the folly, the construction of the rest of the castle took an abrupt end leaving several corridors in dead ends.

When an obscure cult build their temple, their leader gets a vision telling him the ceilings of the inner sanctum may not be taller than five feet. Ridiculous, of course, but people in the real world have come up with stranger religious dogma than that.

Designing your dungeon

When you design your dungeon, keep this in mind:

  • not everything needs to be practical
  • not everything needs to “make sense”

You don’t have to be able to explain everything in a dungeon. People will sometimes build for shits and giggles. If you come up with something cool that you can’t explain – leave it in. There’s a good chance the imaginary dungeon builder did it just for the hell of it. Maybe she had a good reason which is now lost. Who knows? The best dungeon is the one with a mix of practical, predictable elements and elements of art and mystery.

Halberd of the vigilant watchman

Most vigilant among the King’s guardsmen was Ernest Spudfield. His watchful gaze was unmatched, and his loyalty was fierce. Three times he thwarted attempts on the King’s life, and three times he refused to be knighted for his service. Ernest was a humble man who cared little for fame and glory: all he wanted in life was to keep watch.

The king asked the dwarves to craft a masterwork halberd and on it mount the royal seal, and so they did. The Queen tied her scarlet ribbon to the halberd’s shaft. All knights of the realm cut their palms on the weapon’s edge to acknowledge it as well as the man who wielded it as the prime protector of the royal family.

And so it was presented to Ernest Spudfield who gracefully accepted the reward. He carried it for the rest of his life, and over the decades of service his zeal was infused into the halberd. At his death the weapon had become magical, even though no wizard had ever touched it.

Properties of the halberd (rules for D&D B/X or Old-School Essentials)

This +2 halberd grants the following abilities:

Hypervigilance: 2 in 6 chance of being alerted when a hostile creature is within 100 feet

Wakefulness: the wielder of the halberd only needs to sleep once per week

Damage: 1d10+2
Weight (coins): 150
Qualities: Brace, Melee, Slow, Two-handed

More fantasy weapons?

For more weapons, check out my complete illustration of the weapons of D&D B/X.

Old-school armory twitter image

The cave of the dark druid – dungeon map

Just a simple dungeon map of the lair of a dark druid and his wicked minions. Click here to download the map for personal use. Here are a few features of the cave:

  • There’s a chain and collar in the first room, this is suitable for some kind of guardian creature/animal
  • Only small creatures can crawl through the narrow tunnels (halflings or smaller)
  • In the northern cave room there’s a shaft leading down to deeper caverns
  • In the northeast cave room there’s a large stone globe that is cold to the touch – bad mojo
  • Southeast cave serves as latrine
  • The southeast room has an iron stove, so is quite warm and cozy
  • Stairs lead down to level 2

The map can easily be used for something else, here are some examples:

  • Bandit hideout
  • Goblinoid camp (hobgoblin leader in the cozy room)
  • Home of an old dwarven mastersmith (smithy on level 2)

The Spudfield Homestead – isometric map

As Dungeon Master you’re responsible for making up interesting and rememeberable non-player-characters (NPCs). It’s easy to focus on the most exciting ones – evil villains and mighty heroes. However, I think it’s really important to also present mundane NPCs to your players.

Creating some friendly and likeable townsfolk can really bring another layer to the adventure. Give the player characters something to protect. Not all adventures needs to be about finding gold and treasure (although that is certainly important as well). If you can get the players to feel for the common folks they will get more invested and put themselves in harm’s way to keep them safe. Can you get them to embark on adventures without any other reward than the gratefullness of the village?

The Spudfields are just those kinds of NPCs. Warm and welcoming, truly friendly an honest people. They don’t have anything more to offer than their friendship and a warm meal – but sometimes that might be just what the adventurers need.

Dunkelmoor Tower – Fighter’s Stronghold isometric map

In early editions of Dungeons & Dragons (as well as in many of their modern day OSR clones) one of the goals of the game is to advance in power and wealth to the point where you can build a stronghold. The type of stronghold your character can build depends on his class; clerics build temples, magic-users erect towers, thieves establish guilds, etc.

In D&D B/X from 1981 (as well as in it’s outstanding modern clone “Old-School Essentials“) the fighter is the only class save the halfling without a level restriction for establishing such a stronghold, although they still need to raise the funds somehow. This is my vision of a typical fighter keep, this one located in secluded Dunkelmoor which is a backwater part of my campaign world.

For more information on strongholds, check out the system reference document for Old-School Essentials.

More peculiar paths – check out the latest blog posts: