Saturday, 21 April 2012

Devising Initial Adventures for Dungeon Crawl Classics


When preparing to run a Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG campaign, the aspiring Judge must obviously devise a starting adventure, or use one that is currently on the market.  This essay assumes that the Judge wishes to devise his own adventure.

The initial adventure described in the rule book is intended to be a 0-level character funnel, in which numerous 0-level nobodies are winnowed down to the core surviving adventurers.  Thus ends the initial adventure.

I argue that this is a mistake (and that the funnel in the Core Rulebook seems to imply the same).  In my opinion, the best initial adventure offers a natural stopping point where the survivors can rest, reflect, and grow in power, and then continues with the newly minted 1st level adventurers.

In DCC RPG, the 0-level characters require and average of 5 encounters to reach 1st level.  That may be a lot of encounters to survive at 0-level, but it is not a lot of encounters for an adventure.  The sample initial adventure in the Core Rulebook, for example, contains more than 5 encounters.  Remember that dealing with traps also counts as an encounter!

Obviously, the Judge can vary the number of encounters required (as does the initial adventure in the Core Rulebook) by making some less difficult, so as to result in 1 or 0 XP.  This is perfectly acceptable, and makes sense.  However, this also limits the adventure, and prevents the characters from experiencing actual growth during the adventure.  The setup of the DCC RPG strongly encourages actual growth during the initial adventure – both based upon the ruleset and the Appendix N source material – so that, again, allowing characters to level during this adventure should be strongly encouraged.

Therefore, I encourage you to break your initial offering into two parts:  the 0-level character funnel, and the 1st-level finale.

The 0-Level Character Funnel

Some of the requirements of the 0-level character funnel are obvious, but some might be a bit trickier for the Judge to anticipate.  That the funnel must contain enough danger to winnow the wheat from the chaff is clear – character death must be a real possibility.  But, in addition, character growth must be planned for.

Your surviving characters are going to become warriors, thieves, wizards, clerics, and demi-humans.   The demi-human path is easy; the characters were prepped for this by rolling their starting occupation, and the Core Rulebook contains at least one Patron that is well suited for elf characters.  Elves can buy one set of mithral armour and one mithral weapon at standard prices when they attain 1st level; you will need to have something in place to both allow this to occur, and to not create a situation where said mithral goods are always available.

Thieves are also easy enough to deal with, so long as the funnel contains sufficient traps for them to overcome and sufficient wealth for them to obtain.  Preferably, there is treasure that requires some intelligence and/or work to attain.

Warriors are going to need access to weapons and armour.  Your initial setup must make these available, even if they are not the best possible weapons and armour (and they should not be)!  Potential warriors are also going to need opponents they can fight.  As with the initial offering in the Core Rulebook, this should be a combination of simple and difficult fights, and the difficult fights should be resolvable using brains over brawn.  The opponents must also be interesting, at least some of them demonstrating some unexpected property…even if you only make the giant rats have hand-like paws and be capable of speech.

Clerics and wizards are the tricky pair.  You have to ask yourself, what in the 0-level funnel can encourage a character to take these two paths? 

If you have the Core Rulebook, or picked it up at Free RPG Day last year, read over The Portal Under the Stars.  Now, come back and tell me, why would any PC going through that adventure feel a calling toward clericism?  The player may wish to have a cleric, sure, but that career does not arise naturally from the adventure as presented.  Your initial funnel must include the divine in some way, shape, or form.  It may include a hidden shrine where the influence of a god is felt, or it may include a fight against some unholy thing in which a holy artefact is of aid.  It may include a mark of a god on the floor of one chamber where the PCs find themselves safe against the undead hordes assaulting them.  There must be something.

Likewise, you are going to have to do some background work on the divine in your setting.  If a cleric knows the spells of his god, you are going to have to know which spells those are.  Moreover, you need to communicate this effectively to your players if they choose to level as clerics.

Potential wizards need a way to access spells.  They also need a way to make contact with potential patrons.  This, again, means that you as a Judge should go to the effort of devising those patrons fully.  Don’t worry if the material isn’t used yet; as your campaign progresses, your unused patrons can appear as the masters of NPCs, and may eventually attract different PCs to their patronage. 

You need to be willing to give your players options; just don’t be shy about making them work for it.  In The Portal Under the Stars, there is a way to confer access to the invoke patron spell that will not necessarily be obvious to the players.  This is okay; it is better to have too many opportunities that are hard to find than too few that are obvious.  This is touched upon in some previous blog entries, and is a requirement for a feeling of actual discovery.

Note, too, that not every patron should be wise to choose.  Offering players poor choices, as well as good choices, is a necessary part of allowing them to decide their characters’ fates by their choices.  Moreover, some things that seem to be good, or bad, choices, should be the opposite.  Better yet, whether the choice be for weal or woe can depend upon subsequent choices….


Look again at The Portal Under the Stars, and see how the adventure points towards investigating a dryad sighting to the east.  Your 0-level funnel should contain a similar sense of unfinished business, which draws the characters into the 1st-level finale.  In effect, I argue that the Core Rulebook offers only half of a starting adventure – if you use it, you really ought to prepare the other half!  If not, you steal an important part of the rpg experience from your players.

Remember that in the DCC RPG, characters gain XP for surviving encounters, even if they run screaming from them.  This builds in a good way to transition – a threat remains that must be dealt with, but the 0-level characters are not powerful enough to do so.  They must go back into the darkness, perhaps by another route, to deal with what was left behind.

(There is a precedence for this in Appendix N fiction as well.  See, for example, A. Merrit’s The Moon Pool and Dwellers in the Mirage.)

The funnel may also indicate the resting place of a treasure which can be accessed only at certain times, giving the PCs a chance to rest and level, but a need to head out again before too long.

Another model might be taken from The Hobbit, where the overall adventure is getting from Point A to Point B, and the 0-level funnel is reaching some safe place (ala Rivendell or Beorn’s House) along the journey.  Characters can then rest there and level up.  The advantage of this model is, of course, that what the group is headed to Point B for might make up their first 2nd level adventure, if they have enough encounters along the way.

The point is that (a) the danger (or goal, such as a treasure to be won) must be pressing enough to require returning to the overall adventure sooner rather than later, but (b) must allow enough downtime to believably level the characters.

Imagine a scenario where a village is being attacked by Unknown Things in the Night, and send the 0-lvl PCs to a nearby castle for aid.  On the way to the castle, they experience the 0-lvl funnel as the Things try to stop them, and even see where the Things are coming from.  They rest at the castle, level up, and are sent back to deal with the Things themselves!  Perhaps the local lord is responsible for the incursion in some way – it is a curse he suffers – and he hopes the PCs will deal with it for him, as he cannot.

The 1st-Level Finale

The 1st-level finale need not make the characters reach 2nd level.  Its purpose is twofold:  (1) to resolve the issue(s) arising in the 0-level funnel, and (2) to showcase character growth.

As to the first purpose, even using the “treasure map” scenario, the adventure must “loop back” onto the material in the funnel.  It answers some unresolved questions, faces similar opponents, and/or fulfils the promises of the first half. 

For example, the funnel could include a locked and unopened door, and the treasure the map leads to could be the key. 

Or, if the PCs were forced to flee from some Chthonic horror as part of the funnel, have the danger it presents continue to be real.  Imagine a scenario where the funnel leads in through one set of tunnels, which the horror causes to collapse behind the fleeing PCs.  Now the PCs must enter through another way (possibly by following the horror’s minions), and end its terror for good.  What, then, of the other tunnels leading to its chamber?  Meat for other adventures, perhaps.

Examine the structure of The Hobbit, and you will see how ideas, themes, and creatures recur within the text.  Bilbo lives underground, enters the troll hole, enters the goblin caves, enters the wood elves caves, and enters the dragon’s lair.  He bandies words with hidden meanings with Gandalf, with Gollum, and with Smaug.  He sleeps in on the day the company is to leave, Bombur falls into a long magic slumber, Thorin sleeps beneath the Mountain in death.  He finds the key to the troll’s hole (which they would have thought secret), gets the keys from the wood elves’ gaoler, and figures out how to use the key to the hidden door in the Lonely Mountain.  He finds Sting, the Ring, and Arkenstone.  And so on.  Each section of the story parallels and reinforces earlier sections, just as earlier sessions foreshadow what is to come.

If one was using The Portal Under the Stars as the 0-level funnel, a suitable 1st-level finale would link the dryad to the extradimensional tomb in some way.  Perhaps she was the lover of the warrior-mage from long ago?  Perhaps she also serves the goat-headed patron, but has displeased him in some way?  Better yet, the quest for the dryad leads to a portal to the alien’s world/dimension, giving the PCs strong reason (though perhaps not taken!) to avoid making pacts with the goat-headed entity. 

The point is that the arcs should not seem unrelated by the time they are resolved – the second half brings the events of the funnel to a satisfying conclusion.  The best 1st level finales will make the players rethink what they learned in the 0-level funnel by casting that location and those events in a new light.

No More Generic Orcs!

The Goodman Games “No more generic orcs” concept also means “No more generic campaign milieus” – you will have to work to create a vibrant DCC RPG setting.  Your world will contain gods, patrons, spells, and monsters that are unique.  It is better to start with the first adventure.

The unknown works better within the context of the known.  This is true in much of the Appendix N literature, as well as in role-playing games.  You might create unique orc analogues, and the humanoids in the next valley over might be unique, but you would be wise to develop a stable of recurrent creatures as well.

Consider again the way the goblins, wolves, and eagles are used in The Hobbit.  They are not simply “throw away” creatures that appear in one chapter so that the creatures in the next chapter may be unique.  And all appear again in The Lord of the Rings.  Each of these volumes also has unique creatures which are encountered only in specific locations.

A persistent world needs persistent creatures; and Appendix N worlds also needs unique creatures.  The best of all possible worlds has both.  Horses, dogs, wolves, chickens, and pigs are certainly ubiquitous.  That Conan encounters lions in The Tower of the Elephant should not imply that there are no lions elsewhere in the world – quite the opposite, actually – but encountering Yag within the Tower should remain a unique occurrence.

New creatures allow for surprise, fear, and wonder.  Known creatures give a world depth, and allow choices to be made within a familiar context.  The discerning Judge will have to learn where to draw the line between the two.

Reading the Appendix N books is a good start to this.  You will see how various authors dealt with having enough persistent creatures to make their worlds viable, while allowing unique entities to be unique.  Another good example to follow is Doctor Who.  In classic Doctor Who, various monsters recur, but not always in the same way they had been seen before.  The new Doctor Who series makes use of classic monsters as well, and is not afraid to change them to meet a different vision.  Both versions also include a plethora of new creatures, and you can easily see how the new, the persistent, and the unique are combined to create moments of both surprise and series depth.

In order to showcase character growth, it is actually valuable to have some of the same creatures appear in the 0-level funnel and the 1st-level finale.  Just not all of the same creatures.  That way the players can experience their characters’ growth in a visceral sense.  The “glowing starfish” they found so difficult in the funnel are now easier to defeat….it is the thing spawning these creatures that they really need to worry about.

In my “S if for Sandbox” series of posts, I mentioned that getting at least 2 hours of play for each hour of work is an important goal for Game Masters.  This is as true for DCC RPG as for any other game.  If you want to run a campaign in this system, you should strongly consider how you can reuse the material you have created.  Persistent and recurrent monsters are as important as unique ones.  You should prepare for this with your initial adventure as well.

Different from WotC-D&D

In Wizards of the Coast’s 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, there was an expectation that characters would gain a level after an average number of encounters, and this has formed the basis of expected play thereafter.  Overall, I feel that this is a bad idea, and that it led to some real problems in the way adventures for these editions were created.

I’ve written about this before.  Specifically, the expectation that challenges would rise to match new levels led directly to a different kind of “funnel” – adventures that were extremely linear in nature.  If an adventure is to take the PCs from 1st level to 3rd level, it is important that they cannot encounter the 3rd level encounters at 1st or 2nd level.  The adventure designer must control the order of encounters, and the only way to do this is to proscribe player choices that would allow encounters to occur out of order.

There is some danger of the same result with the setup I am proffering.  In order to avoid problems of this nature, there must be a logical rest point between stages, and it must be the stages, not the individual encounters, that are level-dependent.  In effect, the rest area acts as a “choke point” between the stages.

There are two considerations the adventure designer and Judge must take into account:  (1) the players must absolutely have freedom in the choices they face dealing with each stage, and (2) there should be some ability to bypass the rest point and/or take the stages out of order.

In other words, while the overall adventure may follow an “A > rest point > B” formula, both stages A and B must be more free-form in nature.  The first stage may be less free-form than the second as a matter of form:  an average of five encounters along a journey offers fewer choices than a sprawling ruin or dungeon complex does.  It is still better to offer more than one possible path, so that would-be adventurers can avoid one set of encounters by choosing to face another.  For example, if stage A required reaching a fortified area, the characters might have a choice of taking an underground tunnel or a mountain pass.  The PCs might even split up (there are, after all, plenty of characters in the 0-level funnel), attempting both routes in the hope that someone makes it through!

Stage B should be as free-form as you can make it.  The more choices the adventures face, the better, so long as those choices don’t rob the scenario of its energy.

The ability to bypass the rest point is also important.  Let us say, again, that you imagine Stage A is to reach a fortress, where the PCs are sent to investigate a ruin as Stage B.  Some trail should lead from Stage A to Stage B directly, bypassing the fortress, and, while there should be sufficient clues that this is the “wrong way” (i.e., is not the way to the fortress, not that the Judge considers it a wrong decision by the players), the players must be free to choose it.  They might just do a reconnaissance.  They might all die.  They might resolve the problem before reaching the fortress.  Indeed, having resolved the problem, they might never bother going to the fortress at all.

All of these results must be okay, or players are stripped of a level of agency they have a right to expect.


The perfect introductory adventure for the DCC RPG isn’t going to come about by accident, and it will not come about by following the TSR or WotC model.  The ruleset offers the potential for a really excellent first experience, but the prospective adventure designer has some unique challenges based upon the ruleset used. 

1.  Design for the “0-lvl funnel > rest area > 1st-lvl finale” structure.

2.  Make sure that each stage offers significant choices, and that the structure can be subverted by the players if they so choose.

3.  Make sure that each class has the requirements to reach 1st level in the funnel stage.  That means the chance to gain weapons and armour, interact with the divine, gain wizard spells and gain potential patrons.

4.  Make sure that the rest area offers a way to gain mithral equipment for elves.  Preferably, the rest area should include a church or temple for new clerics to be invested, and something that hints at future adventures.  There must be some reason that the folk in the rest area don’t solve the problem themselves.

5.  The funnel stage must tie into the finale stage; there must be continuity of plot, theme, etc.  The finale stage serves to bring the funnel stage to a satisfying conclusion, and shows how the characters have grown.

6.  Design work for the introductory adventure should be persistent whenever making it so doesn’t damage the overall milieu.  While some monsters should be unique, others should not be.  There should be reasons for higher-level characters to revisit the initial adventure areas.  Note that, as the Core Rulebook suggests that a relatively small milieu is ideal, this shouldn’t be difficult.

7.  It is never a bad idea to plant the seeds of other potential adventures.  Do so early; do so often.

You can do less, but doing so means that you’ll not be taking full advantage of the strengths of the Dungeon Crawl Classics rules.

Good gaming!


  1. I like your thought process here. There's not a lot of material out there for 0-level adventures and I think getting them right is an important skill as in all probability they will represent the first impression players have of DCC.

    The only really solid 0-level adventure I can think of is TSR's old "Treasure Hunt" adventure for AD&D 1e - it shipwrecked the PCs on an island. It wasn't designed with a funnel in mind but it did expect you to take advantage of the shipwreck by adding other 0-level characters from the ship if some died in encounters.

    One thing I really liked about it is the choices the PCs made steered them toward their alignment and class and, if I recall correctly, allowed them to develop some class abilities as they approached 1st level. The climax involved the PCs as 1st level characters.

  2. Thank you. I am not putting theory into practice: When Cowled Men Creep.

  3. Hi Raven

    I was thinking about your essay and wanted to share some questions.

    Are mega dungeons well suited for the 0 lvl funnel?

    I ask this because I'm currently running a 0 lvl (surface lvl) dungeon and I have found that it leads to faster xp via random encounters (also a higher dead rate). My players haven’t explored the whole dungeon yet and some of them have 0 lvl pc's with 8 xp. The tpk is near imminent and they have started to play more cautious. I placed some seeds for character growth (i.e. for those who want to become wizards, clerics and thieves), but their recklessly demeanor have forced them to run from rooms that were significant for that sort of development.

    If the player fail to reach those "growth points" should I restrict his 1st lvl class options?

    I’m thinking to introduce some npcs the next session (bandits, one witch and a hermit) so the "growth points" reach them instead of the other way around.

  4. To answer your questions,

    (1) I'm not sure about megadungeons. I am testing this using Barrowmaze on Unseen Servant. Overall, though, I would seems to work far better than I expected it would. But using a megadungeon for another system without making DCC RPG-specific changes might cause you problems.

    (2) The "growth points" are to give the players an option to grow their characters organically. There is a big difference between playing Bob who became a cleric after the Sign of the Seven protected him from evil, and he felt the power of the gods, and Bob, who became a cleric because the party needed a healer.

    I don't think that you need to restrict player choices (although, if you wish to, I am not at all certain that there's anything wrong with doing so!). Rather, the goal is to enable players to make those choices on the basis of events that flow naturally from the game world.

    If that makes sense.

  5. Here's a link to the Unseen Servant game:

  6. @Andres: Yes, you can use the upper works (levels) of a megadungeon as a 0-lvl funnel. This works just fine. What I would recommend, though, is that you go through any work you've done for a previous game, and ask yourself whether or not it should be tweaked for DCC.

    For example, the treasure metric is very different than D&D, and you will want to include more mundane items, carefully review the magic items (and toss many), etc. Electrum is worth more than gold in DCC; you'll want to be aware of the different conversion rates.

    Just like any other megadungeon, don't be afraid of including lots of "empty" areas....they can become lairs later, give PCs a place to flee to/hole up in, and build anticipation. They also allow you to give a sense of history of the place, which is very important (IMHO).