Ray Winninger

Last month, "Dungeoncraft" passed an important milestone. After sixteen installments, we've finally created everything needed to begin a new campaign. These last few months have been pretty grueling -- we've drawn maps, devised governments and religions, created some NPCs, and designed an entire adventure. Now it's finally time to get those dice rolling!

The first step, of course, is to locate a group of players. As mentioned way back in the first installment of this column (Dragon Magazine #255), I feel that the AD&D game works best when you can round up a whole lot of players -- say, somewhere between five and eight. Finding the perfect player is an art form unto itself and probably worthy of an entire column some day. For now though, I'll just assume that you have easy access to five or six friends who enjoy each other's company, won't whine when they don't get their way, and won't insist that you allow undead tyrannosaurs as player characters. Once you have them, it's time to begin the process of rolling up characters and preparing for play.

DM Preparation
As DM, you have just a few more decisions to make before you're ready to invite your players to create their characters. Begin by re-reading the character creation chapter in the Player's Handbook, paying close attention to the various options it presents. Your first order of business is to decide which class and race options you'll open up to your players. Just because a particular combination is covered in the Handbook doesn't mean you have to allow it in your own game. Maybe there's no such thing as a half-orc on your world, or perhaps there aren't any druids. Of course, you don't want to narrow the options too much -- players appreciate a variety of choices.

As far as character classes are concerned, unless you're quite experienced, you should allow all of the basic classes: fighter, thief, wizard, and cleric. By excluding one or more of these classes, it's pretty easy to throw the AD&D rules out-of-balance -- imagine a world without clerics, for instance (and thus, no healing spells). Instead, pay particular attention to the specialized sub-classes, looking for options that might not fit into the world you've built. If your campaign world is dominated by savage barbarians, for example, a paladin player character might not make a lot of sense. Similarly, depending upon how you see magic working in your campaign, you might want to exclude illusionists and other specialist wizards.

Another good reason to exclude a character class is concern about potential abuse. If you've ever had bad experiences with a particular character class or you think you might have trouble handling any of a class's special abilities, feel free to rule that class out of bounds. An excellent example of a potential concern might be the paladin's ability to detect evil. Some DMs find this ability extremely confining and believe that it almost completely takes away their ability to plan encounters that surprise the players. Other DMs find it relatively easy to adjust and handle detect evil without a problem. If you fit into the former camp, you should simply prohibit your players from choosing paladins.

These same guidelines apply when it comes to PC races. Exclude any that make you uncomfortable or don't fit your campaign conception. I also tend to weed out a race when I can't think of anything interesting I can do with its culture. For some reason, I often drop gnomes from my games. I guess there's just something about the little beggars that throws off my imagination. Plus, I've always had a difficult time differentiating them from halflings. Of course, your own experiences will vary.

The Cheat Sheet
Once you have a pretty good idea of what you will and won't allow, you should start to create a quick "cheat sheet" for the players. Ultimately, this sheet will contain everything the players need to know about your campaign. The sheet should begin with a brief description of your campaign concept (see Dragon Magazine #256) and then a list of all the available character options, including a sentence or two describing how the more outré options might fit into the campaign. Rangers and paladins, for instance, are usually members of some sort of organized society or order. Are there any details about this order that a paladin or ranger player might need to know as play begins? Similarly, thieves are often organized into guilds. Is there a thieves' guild operating in your campaign area? If so, are PC thieves automatically members? When creating this information, don't forget the First Rule of Dungeoncraft. You don't need to generate reams of data about any of these organizations or societies. For now, just a sentence or two will do; you'll fill in the details later, as they become important. The idea is to give the players everything they'll need to choose a character type before play begins. With this in mind, it's certainly a good idea to use this section of the cheat sheet to briefly summarize the options for priest and cleric characters we discussed way back in Dragon Magazine #258.

You can take this opportunity to tinker a bit with the restrictions and abilities of the various classes to help them fit into your own campaign. Perhaps in your campaign, all magic-users must be of evil alignment, or all paladins receive occasional prophetic dreams from their patron deities. Although this is a great way to "personalize" your campaign, it isn't something you should do lightly. Again, the AD&D rules are carefully balanced, and it's surprisingly easy to upset the apple cart. It's generally a good idea to keep all alterations as minor as possible and proceed only if you are quite comfortable with the results.

After you've listed and discussed all the character and race options, you should round the cheat sheet off with a brief description of the geography in your campaign area (discussed back in Dragon Magazine #261). Here, your goal is to give the players just enough "lay of the land" to understand any references that pop up during play, allowing them to make some educated decisions about where to go and what to do. A single paragraph summary of the local government/economy and a brief list of the major geographic features in the region (each described by no more than a single sentence) should do nicely. You should already have all this information at your disposal. Lastly, if possible, adding a small version of your area map to the cheat sheet is a nice touch. This is particularly easy to do if you created your map on a computer, but even if you resorted to old fashion paper and pencil, you might be able to photocopy your own map and add it to the cheat sheet. In any case, you should make sure that the map you'll give to the players does not include any secrets or other pieces of sensitive information.

Once the cheat sheet is complete, you should make copies for each of your players. While you're at it, make a nice pile of extras -- as soon as word gets out about your incredibly well conceived campaign, lots of latecomers will want to join in. You'll find a copy of my own cheat sheet on the following pages.

The Character Creation Session
Once your cheat sheet is finished, it's finally time to assemble all your players and ask them to create their characters. If at all possible, you should always ask the players to create all their characters together as a group -- unless you are particularly pressed for time, frown on the idea of the players arriving at the session with their characters already created. In this way, you can guarantee that the players have an opportunity to review your cheat sheet before they get started. This method also allows the players to consult with each other, allowing them to assemble a better balance of character classes and races.

If at all possible, try to conduct the character creation activities immediately prior to an actual game session. Some DMs like to hold a special session solely devoted to character creation, but I like to make sure the game gets started immediately. I think it's important to give the players a taste of the adventure as soon as possible in order to keep their interest high. I've seen far too many DMs go the other route and never get the actual game off the ground due to boredom and logistics. Over the years, I've learned that the sooner you begin playing, the more likely you are to keep playing.

Once your players have cranked through all the various dice rolls and decisions discussed in the Player's Handbook, your final step before beginning play is to give each character a careful once over. Here you want to make sure that you're completely comfortable with every aspect of the character. Pay particular attention to the class and race chosen, as well as the character's spells and equipment. Did the player purchase an item that isn't really appropriate to your campaign? Does the character have spells you're not comfortable with? If so, here's your chance to demand a change with a minimum of fuss. Also, you should use this opportunity to make sure that the players have selected a healthy mix of character classes. If there isn't at least one cleric, one wizard, and a couple of fighters present, you might suggest the players shuffle things around a bit. Such a mix will definitely improve the players' chances and make a "false start," in which the entire party is quickly wiped out, far less likely.

Aris Player's Guide (the "Cheat Sheet")
Although the world of Aris is covered with trees, it's simpler to indicate only those forests that are pertinent to the campaign. The DM should always keep a simple terrain map handy. This map was created in only two hours using Photoshop 4.0.

Aris is a lush world that is almost entirely blanketed in trees of almost all descriptions: tall redwoods, majestic conifers, dense oaks, and lush palms. Because there is so little arable farmland, food can get quite scarce; a number of political factions square off to gain control of the all-important trails that cut through the planet's thick forests.

Another characteristic that makes Aris unique is the fact that most of its inhabitants are certain that the planet itself is alive. Legends speak of living forests capable of forming and obliterating new pathways at will, and strange sentinel spirits that occasionally rise up to defend the forests against incursion. Aris herself is the only major goddess worshiped across the planet.

Character Choices
Most of the options presented in the Player's Handbook are open to PCs:

Fighters come from all walks of life on Aris: ex-soldiers, jungle barbarians, adventurers and just about anything else you can imagine.

Rangers on Aris are fighters who feel a strange sort of mystical bond with the planet-goddess; in many ways, the rangers are special defenders chosen by the planet itself. Although they aren't really organized in any fashion, rangers always seem to recognize each other by sight (even if they've never met before) and don't often refuse a request for assistance that comes from another ranger.

Magic users of all types (including illusionists and other specialists) can be found scattered across all of Aris, though in most areas they are either so rare or so low profile that some of the planet's residents occasionally doubt whether wizards exist. Sorcery is an ancient and elusive art on Aris, and no worldly creature has ever penetrated enough of its secrets to understand its real origins.

For now, all player character clerics on Aris belong to one of two societies: the Children or the Legion. Both societies worship the planet as their only goddess. The Children are made up of good- and neutral-aligned clerics who operate most of the temples in most civilized regions of the world and worship the planet's bounty. The Legion is composed of evil clerics who worship the destructive aspect of the planet's nature. Because it operates like a secret society, relatively few of Aris's inhabitants are aware that the Legion exists.
Services and Tenets of the Children: The Children hold special religious services in honor of the nature goddess during each change of seasons; the clerics of the order spend the rest of their time studying, adventuring, trying to aid members of the flock, and spreading the reverence of the goddess. The services consist of lengthy festivals and banquets attended by most residents of the campaign area and are designed to celebrate the goddess and her bounty.
The members of the Children believe that the goddess's bounty is a manifestation of the good or evil of the world's inhabitants. So long as the flock continues to do good deeds, the goddess will deliver a bountiful harvest, the weather will be mild, and her people will enjoy long, peaceful lives. They also believe that owls are sacred; the owls are the "eyes" the goddess uses to monitor her flock. Clerics of the Children are required to spend one week of each season alone in the wilderness.
Services and Tenets of the Evil Order: The Legion also holds services during the change of seasons; its clerics spend the rest of their time trying to attract and corrupt new followers. The Legion's services consist of human sacrifices, fires, and other acts of destruction.
The clerics of the Legion believe that the Children have blinded themselves to the goddess's true nature. Power and understanding, they believe, always stem from suffering and an acceptance of nature's destructive capacity. Clerics of the Legion are required to kill one innocent per quarter (every three months) to reaffirm their faith.

Druids on Aris are special priests who devote most of their time and energies to exploring and protecting the planet's forests. Like rangers, they have some sort of strange mystical bond with the world itself. Unlike rangers, they have organized themselves into a strict hierarchy as described in the Player's Handbook.
Services and Tenets of the Druidic Order: The druidic order holds a service on the night of every full moon, consisting of chanting and a reading of litanies. The druids believe that the goddess's only daughter (the planet's single moon) will one day take her mother's place in the cosmos; life will eventually die out on the main planet and spring up on the moon. The druids are required to abide by all the restrictions of the druid class listed in the Player's Handbook.

Thief, Bard
Like fighters, thieves and bards on Aris come from all walks of life: cutpurses, rogue adventurers, wily traders, and troubadours.

Local Geography
The campaign is set in Ironoak, a stronghold that lies on the fringes of the kingdom of Umbria. Umbria is a noble monarchy surrounded by an uncivilized wilderness that is inhabited by several malevolent tribes of humanoids. One of the kingdom's many claims to fame is the fact that its rulers always abdicate on their 40th birthday and venture alone into the forest, never to be seen again. No one knows why they do this or where they go.

Built within and atop a cluster of tall trees, Ironoak is ruled by man named Richard, the rightful Warden appointed by the king of Umbria. His main responsibility is to protect the kingdom against humanoid incursions that might arise in the adjoining cluster of wilderness known as The Black Wood.

A few points of interest are noted below.

The Wandering Wood
A small subforest located just outside of Ironoak, the paths through the Wandering Wood seem to mysteriously shift and flow. Unskilled travelers often find it impossible to navigate the area effectively.

The Webbed Wood
This small cluster of tall oaks is honeycombed by thick spider webs, causing all but the most intrepid travelers to avoid it.

The High Mountains
This rocky, tree-covered mountain range forms Umbria's western border in this region.

Redheath is the town that stands closest to the Ironoak stronghold. It currently boasts approximately 1,100 residents and stands as a major waypoint along all the merchant trails leading through south Umbria.

The Rotwood is a cluster of dead and fallen trees inhabited by all manner of strange creatures.

The trees in this sector of the forest occasionally drip a deadly poison from their leaves down onto the heads of interlopers. Although most of the poison trees in the region seem clustered in this area, there are a few scattered at random throughout several of the neighboring forests, making it dangerous to travel through certain areas without an experienced guide.

The Scar
The Scar is a rocky, desolate rift that lies just inside of the Black Wood. It's one of the few areas on Aris that is not blanketed by trees. Local legend has it that some sort of cataclysm formed the scar and killed all the trees in the area several centuries ago.