D&D General Making worlds for classic dungeon crawling campaigns

Yora

Legend
As I see it, the classic dungeon crawling campaign style has a huge space of potential for engaging and long running campaigns, and can be a lot more than a monster fights and puzzle rooms gameplay loop repeating ad infinitum. The basic premise is very simple. The PCs are in a town, and there are various dungeons in the surrounding areas, which the PCs can scour for the lost treasures of the past. As the campaign progresses, the party might relocate their base camp to another town that is closer to the area they plan to cover next, but that's basically the long term plan for what is expected to happen.
As I see it, the key to making a campaign like this more than just a sequence of monster encounters to grind through to gain the power to fight bigger monsters with more treasures is to make both the dungeons and the wilderness in which they are located more than random rooms with monsters and treasures. Instead of a series of fights that provide loot, a good and engaging classic dungeon crawl has to be an exploration first. The focus of the campaign shouldn't be put on clearing out the dungeons of all hostile creatures, but on understanding the dungeons and revealing their secrets. And I think to really make such a campaign exciting and thrilling in the long run, the individual dungeons shouldn't exist by themselves in isolation, but each constitute another fragment of a much bigger picture.
And while the meta-objective for the players remains "go to dungeons, get the treasure", poking around in dangerous places that hold valuable and powerful objects is a great opportunity to run into other people with their own interests in the treasures and ancient magics, and get entangled in their various conflicts. No need for a prepared plot. Simply situations in which the players could decide to assist other seekers because they seem nice and their cause just, or seek confrontations because they are up to no good and pose a grave threat to others. While this is less likely to lead to epic scenes of great battles and encounters with the great lords and ladies of the land, the great degree of control that players can have in these unscripted interactions can be just as exciting and memorable, if not even more so.

Now to get to the actual point. A campaign in which the dungeons are interconnected and things that are found inside them parts of a bigger picture, and where NPCs have complex motivations and objectives, requires a solid and well thought through setting to take place in. If you just start with one town and three dungeons in a vacuum with no further backstory, then it will be very hard to create that sense of discovering the past, and making NPCs come across as more than generic good guys and generic villains. Aleena and Bargle are not going to cut it in the long run.
What I am currently trying to do with a new campaign I am working on is to set up a new world that is tailored to the specific needs of such a campaign, providing considerable detail in areas that will be highly relevant to the play style, or at least have great potential to help with creating more playable content, while at the same time avoiding putting too much work into areas that are unlikely to become relevant in actual play.

There are a couple of basic parameters, that I think are quite obvious once you start thinking about this subject for a few minutes.
  • The world must have a considerable number of underground ruins.
  • Those ruins must hold significant amounts of treasures.
  • Getting the treasure, particularly magic items, out of the dungeons has to be more efficient than creating new ones.
  • There has to be a reason why most of the treasure has not been salvaged yet by other adventurers.

Typically, the assumption is that in the past, there used to be very wealthy realms that had great amounts of magic, but they don't exist anymore. It's popular to make the disappearance of these realms take place long ago in the distant past, but that only increases the amount of time during which someone else could already have looted the ruins clean. I think it makes more sense to have that collapse set at a time not really that long ago. That also helps with making it seem more believable that the various traps and mechanisms are still working and have not already been set off by random creatures or explorers.
Another factor that helps with making the situation seem more plausible would be that the current inhabitants of the towns near the dungeon settled in the area only quite recently. Again that reduces the stretch of the imagination that nobody has cleared out the dungeons yet, and by having the native population not be descendants of the original builders you retain the sense of mystery and the unknown about the ruins that you' also get if they were thousands of years old.
In addition, I think it also helps if "adventurer" is not a typical occupation for vagabonds and penniless veterans. If the towns where the party sets up their main camp have regular groups of adventurers coming through, it really doesn't feel that plausible that most of the dungeons still have their treasures sitting untouched.

These are the factors I have identified so far. And while you can certainly play with a level of detail as complex as this, I don't think it would retain momentum for very long. Still completely untouched are the matters of spellcasters in the world, the prevalence of monster and which kinds are most common, the cultures of the ancient builders, or the importance of gods and other worlds.
 

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Post apocalyptic or post fallen empire, all magic knowledge including making magic items have been lost. Except for few outpost, that need to salvage past ruins to rebuild everything.
 

Post apocalyptic or post fallen empire, all magic knowledge including making magic items have been lost. Except for few outpost, that need to salvage past ruins to rebuild everything.
I was going to post something similar, but I'd go a step further. I'd go with a more or less complete apocalypse, all intelligent life wiped out as well as domesticated and stock animals that were anywhere near civilization. Some few mortals ascended to godhood while trying to stop the end of the world, and after it was over, they created new people to rebuild civilization, then left to pursue whatever threat caused the apocalypse in the first place.

What were the previous people like? Are they all truly gone? What caused them to disappear, and could what happened to them occur again? The only way to find out is to dig into the fallen ruins of the old world. Flavor-wise, I'd probably make it something akin to fantasy Numenera, possibly mixed with Horizon: Zero Dawn. Lots of weird artifacts that react in unpredictable ways, possibly some magitch vibe in the kind of monsters that appear. Like the previous world was carefully constructed and maintained, and without that maintenance it starts spiraling into weirdness and peril.
 

Minigiant

Legend
My Klassico setting uses the Treasure loop.

It goes like this,

  1. Rich adventurer buys or is granted Ruin in wilderness
  2. Adventurer turn Ruin into Stronghold of their class type. Stornghold houses Adventurer's treasure.
  3. Stronghold attracts followers of the adventurer's type. Support villages pop up nearby.
  4. Adeventurer dies or leaves. Followers and family take over management of Stronghold.
  5. Monsters attack. Followers and family are killed or chased off to village.
  6. Monsters turn Sronghold to Dungeon.
  7. Questing Adventurers quest to clear Dungeon. Some die and deposit their treasure within.
  8. Eventually questing adventurers empty Dungeon. Dungeon becomes Ruin.
  9. Return to 1
 

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