From the 1e AD&D DMG. The original advice, still the best.
Unlike most games, AD&D is an ongoing collection of episode adventures,
each of which constitutes a session of play. You, as the Dungeon Master, are
about to embark on a new career, that of universe maker. You will order the
universe and direct the activities in each game, becoming one of the elite group
of campaign referees referred to as DMs in the vernacular of AD&D. What lies
ahead will require the use of all of your skill, put a strain on your imagination,
bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time.
Being a DM is no matter to be taken lightly!
Your campaign requires the above from you, and participation by your players.
To belabor an old saw, Rome wasn’t built in a day. You are probably just
learning, so take small steps at first. The milieu for initial adventures should be
kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants — your
available time as compared with the demands of the players. This will
typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a
settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and
explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby. As background you inform
them that they are from some nearby place where they were apprentices
learning their respective professions, that they met by chance in an inn or
tavern and resolved to journey together to seek their fortunes in the
dangerous environment, and that, beyond the knowledge common to the area
(speech, alignments, races, and the like), they know nothing of the world.
Placing these new participants in a small settlement means that you need do
only minimal work describing the place and its inhabitants. Likewise, as player
characters are inexperienced, a single dungeon or ruins map will suffice to
After a few episodes of play, you and your campaign participants will be
ready for expansion of the milieu. The territory around the settlement — likely
the “home” city or town of the adventurers, other nearby habitations,
wilderness areas, and whatever else you determine is right for the area —
should be sketch-mapped, and places likely to become settings for play
actually done in detail. At this time it is probable that you will have to have a
large scale map of the whole continent or sub-continent involved, some rough
outlines of the political divisions of the place, notes on predominant terrain
features, indications of the distribution of creature types, and some plans as to
what conflicts are likely to occur. In short, you will have to create the social
and ecological parameters of a good part of a make-believe world. The more
painstakingly this is done, the more “real” this creation will become.
Eventually, as player characters develop and grow powerful, they will explore
and adventure over all of the area of the continent. When such activity
begins, you must then broaden your general map still farther so as to
encompass the whole globe. More still! You must begin to consider seriously
the makeup of your entire multiverse — space, planets and their satellites,
parallel worlds, the dimensions and planes. What is there? why? can
participants in the campaign get there? how? will they? Never fear! By the
time your campaign has grown to such a state of sophistication, you will be
ready to handle the new demands.
Setting Things In Motion:
There is nothing wrong with using a prepared setting to start a campaign,
just as long as you are totally familiar with its precepts and they mesh with
what you envision as the ultimate direction of your own milieu. Whatever
doesn’t match, remove from the material and substitute your own in its
place. On the other hand, there is nothing to say you are not capable of
creating your own starting place; just use whichever method is best suited to
your available time and more likely to please your players. Until you are
sure of yourself, lean upon the book. Improvisation might be fine later, but
until you are completely relaxed as the DM, don’t run the risk of trying to
“wing it” unless absolutely necessary. Set up the hamlet or village where the
action will commence with the player characters entering and interacting
with the local population. Place regular people, some “different” and
unusual types, and a few non-player characters (NPCs) in the various
dwellings and places of business. Note vital information particular to each.
Stock the goods available to the players. When they arrive, you will be
ready to take on the persona of the settlement as a whole, as well as that of
each individual therein. Be dramatic, witty, stupid, dull, clever, dishonest,
tricky, hostile, etc. as the situation demands. The players will quickly learn
who is who and what is going on — perhaps at the loss of a few coins.
Having handled this, their characters will be equipped as well as
circumstances will allow and will be ready for their bold journey into the
dangerous place where treasure abounds and monsters lurk.
The testing grounds for novice adventurers must be kept to a difficulty factor
which encourages rather than discourages players. If things are too easy, then
there is no challenge, and boredom sets in after one or two games.
Conversely, impossible difficulty and character deaths cause instant loss of
interest. Entrance to and movement through the dungeon level should be
relatively easy, with a few tricks, traps, and puzzles to make it interesting in
itself. Features such as rooms and chambers must be described with verve and
sufficiently detailed in content to make each seem as if it were strange and
mysterious. Creatures inhabiting the place must be of strength and in numbers
not excessive compared to the adventurers’ wherewithal to deal with them.
(You may, at this point, refer to the sample dungeon level and partial
The general idea is to develop a dungeon of multiple levels, and the deeper
adventurers go, the more difficult the challenges become — fiercer monsters,
more deadly traps, more confusing mazes, and so forth. This same concept
applies to areas outdoors as well, with more and terrible monsters occurring
more frequently the further one goes away from civilization. Many variations on
dungeon and wilderness areas are possible. One can build an underground
complex where distance away from the entry point approximates depth, or it
can be in a mountain where adventurers work upwards. Outdoor adventures
can be in a ruined city or a town which seems normal but is under a curse, or
virtually anything which you can imagine and then develop into a playable
situation for your campaign participants.
Whatever you settle upon as a starting point, be it your own design or one of
the many modular settings which are commercially available, remember to have
some overall plan of your milieu in mind. The campaign might grow slowly, or it
might mushroom. Be prepared for either event with more adventure areas, and
the reasons for everything which exists and happens. This is not to say that total
and absolutely perfect information will be needed, but a general schema is
required. From this you can give vague hints and ambiguous answers. It is no
exaggeration to state that the fantasy world builds itself, almost as if the milieu
actually takes on a life and reality of its own. This is not to say that an occult
power takes over. It is simply that the interaction of judge and players shapes
the bare bones of the initial creation into something far larger. It becomes
fleshed out, and adventuring breathes life into a make-believe world. Similarly,
the geography and history you assign to the world will suddenly begin to shape
the character of states and peoples. Details of former events will become
obvious from mere outlines of the past course of things. Surprisingly, as the
personalities of player characters and non-player characters in the milieu are
bound to develop and become almost real, the nations and states and events of
a well-conceived AD&D world will take on even more of their own direction
and life. What this all boils down to is that once the campaign is set in motion,
you will become more of a recorder of events, while the milieu seemingly charts
its own course!