How do you create fantasy roleplaying game starting areas? You can spend hundreds of hours creating your world and drawing your maps, but at some point, you just want to get started with your game. Or better yet, skip the hundreds of hours, and just start right away?
This post focus on creating a starter area and setting up a game as efficient as possible. Do you recall the 80/20 rule? This is about getting the 20% right and worry about the rest later.
The benchmark for all starter areas for fantasy games is probably the Keep on the Borderlands (1979) by Gary Gygax, and while it does not hold up to modern production values, all the critical elements are there.
The Home Base
“The keep is a microcosm, a world in miniature. Within its walls your players will find what is basically a small village with a social order, and will meet opponents of a sort.”
– The Keep on the Borderlands, Gary Gygax (1979)
The home base is where the characters often begin and end their adventures. This is where they socialize, buy mounts and equipment, sell hard-gained loot, listen to rumors, do research, train and learn new skills, rests, and gets healed up.
Home Base Checklist
- A sage
- A healer
- Class mentors
Possible Home Bases
- Trading Post
- Border Keep
- Noble’s Castle
- Religious Stronghold
- Arcane Stronghold
News and Rumors
You should prepare a list of news and rumors for the characters to pick up as they familiarize themselves with the home base. The purpose is threefold: (1) serve as hooks for adventures, (2) foreshadow future events and (3) create a sense of wonder and hint of a larger world, with emphasis on the first two if you to keep the players on track in the beginning.
Some rumors should be false, as long they don’t send the players to far off-track.
- Orcs have been spotted on the road and some merchants are missing.
- Hooded figures have been seen leaving the graveyard at nights and the militia has found burned-down candles in odd places.
- Dark figures fled the scene when a farm burned down last week.
- Someone broke into the militia barracks last night and several bows and swords are stolen.
- Four youngsters fought in the inn last night. Two of them, both known troublemakers, ran off swearing revenge. They have not been seen since and the locals fear the worst.
- A wounded bear is prowling the nearby woods and is likely to be dangerous. It must be healed or killed – the locals don’t care either way.
You should pay close attention when the players discuss rumors and make up their minds about what they want to do. This may give you plenty of ideas for twists and turns you otherwise never would have thought of. Simply by saying “yes” you create an illusion of the player solving a riddle and your story has improved from player input. It works brilliantly as long as the players actually catch you in amending the story – if they do it may turn on you and cheapen the experience for the players, so use caution.
Call to Adventure
Any adventurer should be able to respond to local rumors and news. It will suffice if you are short on time, and everybody is looking for a good time and just roll some dice.
Better yet is a strong hook that calls to adventure.
A proper call to adventure need some consideration, depending on what characters the players want to play, and your larger schemes beyond the starter area. Still, there is a number of ways to keep everything within the starters area for a few adventures.
Sample Calls to Adventure
- The local lord has been murdered and rangers have seen armed men heading for a local ruined keep.
- Orcs or brigands has set up camp in the wilderness beyond the village and there are rumors of fighting in nearby villages. The region is at war!
- There have been rumors of a smuggling gang operating in the area and one of the characters’ relatives have been arrested.
The calls to adventure are no longer just rumors, the stakes are higher and involve the characters personally.
Player agency is important. Roleplaying games are a collective story and the players must be able to choose their own path. Recycling and adapting plans is fine. Maintain an illusion of choice at the very least.
Lists of Names
It is a good idea to keep a few lists of names and short descriptions handy.
First of all, it may be difficult to come up with good names on the fly. You risk ending up with bad names (“Bob the Guardsman”) or causing confusion by repeating names (Is this the same Elminster we met last week?)
Second, names indicated importance. The players will not pay attention any character or location you don’t bother naming. True, not everything and everybody is equally important for your story, but if you don’t put names on people and places you deny them the chance of becoming important. You will keep people guessing if you can but a name on your guardsman without flinching.
- Aryanna Nostro, dark-skinned beauty with a nervous tick, quiet and feral looks
- Camila Antonis, blonde, plain looks, collects books, positive and enthusiastic
- Zia Biagi, brunette, petite, loves dogs, dangerous temper
- Gioberti d’Morn, bearded bear of a man, energic and pompous
- Karl Muntz, handsome and athletic, uses his hands a lot when he talks
- Waldorph Schmidt, burly, exquisite beard, erratic memory, dreams of owning a castle
The list should include a short description and trademarks, but omit age, gear, and profession, as the situation will provide those.
Example, if I use Aryanna when the characters are looking for a potential smuggler, she is likely to be carrying leather armor and daggers, and hang out in seedy bars. If they find her when looking for a wizard she might be carrying a staff and mage robes and shuffle around in a local library. Or, if the characters are looking for a city guard to report a crime, she may be patrolling the town square. Three very different characters, right?
Just like lists of names you should have a list of monsters you want to include – or possibly create a random table for the starter area, or find one in the rulebook at fits.
My brainstorming so far has given this list of monsters and NPCs:
Make sure you have the stats handy for each and that you understand them. Random encounters are never supposed to be the climax of the adventure, so do not worry about the details.
Whenever the game seems stuck have a pack of zombies claw their way up from a village basement and mayhem ensues. Worry about the whys and hows later.
Dungeons in the Starting Area
You should have several dungeons available around the starter area. Several because options are nice and you want to give the players the opportunity to choose their own path.
This may sound like a lot of work – and it can be, no doubt – but there are ways you can cheat.
You should start your own library of stock maps you like. Check out Dyson Logos’ fantastic blog for free maps. Dyson has been doing this for years and you may never need to look any further than this blog for dungeon maps.
Now that you have a few maps you like you need to stock them with monsters. To save time try to come up with encounters what may suit several maps. Try also to include elements you have foreshadowed in the rumors or your players have discussed all of their own.
For example, consider:
- An orc lair, complete with missing trade goods and human prisoners.
- A necromancer’s lair, with zombie guardians and religious artifacts from far lands.
- A brigand camp, complete with missing trade goods.
- A smuggler’s hideout, complete with illicit goods.
- An assassin’s hideout, complete with disguises and evidence of foreign plots.
What About Next Session?
Keep everything you did not use. Research stuff that fits your players’ speculations. Build on what you have and add a couple of new names and locations to your bag of tricks. You may be set for another adventure with minimal effort if you are consistent and spend your time wisely.
- Your First Dungeons and Dragons Game
- Creating a Fantasy Setting
- World Building Strategies For Your Roleplaying Game Setting
- Creating Fantasy Maps
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There are many noteworthy starting areas in the Dungeons and Dragons tradition. Noteworthy early starting area is the Village of Hommlet (1979) and the Keep on the Borderland 1979).
Threshold in Karameikos is where my first couple of characters started out. Threshold first appeared in Dungeons and Dragons Expert Set, in what then was known as the Known World, and later rebranded as Mystara.
The Expert Set only gave us a map and a page or two of background, which in hindsight hardly qualifies as help at all. Threshold was later expanded by Aaron Allston in The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (1987).
The various editions of the Forgotten Realms have used at least two starter areas. Most important is, of course, Shadowdale from “the Old Grey box” and the 2nd edition of the setting.
The current edition of Dungeons and Dragons is much more thorough with a dedicated starter product in the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set.
Port Nyanzaru in Tomb of Annihilation serves the same purpose as the keep in the Keep on the Borderlands but on a grander scale and modern production values. It may not necessarily be better, it certainly is shinier.
Paizo Publishing seems to have picked up on this tradition with the village of Sandpoint as they kicked off the Rise of the Runelords adventure path and the Golarion setting.
Dyson Logos has put together maps for sale as well. They are excellent and well worth the money.