28 Sessions Later: A Dolmenwood Delight


Sandbox and hex crawl campaigns have always fascinated me. Yet, running these types of games has always been a struggle for me. You can build the setting yourself, starting from the bottom up. This approach involves starting small and gradually filling in the blanks. It requires constant work. If you're like me, the world becomes less coherent over time. Alternatively, you use an established setting. But what if the ones you are familiar with feel overused or hard to grasp? For me, the answer was the mystical and whimsical forest setting of Dolmenwood. I ran a campaign for my friends last year, and it has been a blast.

We are currently on hiatus, but I'm already making plans to return soon. This seemed like a good opportunity to sit back and reflect on last year's campaign. In this blog post, I will talk about.

First and foremost, though, the biggest reason for the success of my game this time is the community behind the OSR/NSR/POSR/DIYelf games (I'm not sure which ones are the correct terms, haha). Your discussions, insights, and publications have been invaluable. A big thanks to all of you.


A toot from last year, talking about the start of the campaign.

Before I dive in, I want to share a copy of our campaign log, for those who are interested and want to read more about the adventures we had. It is being maintained by my players, who share the responsibility to keep it up to date. Some of my personal highlights of the campaign are:

Dolmenwood Highlights - What really hooked me

A Familiar Yet Refreshing Fantasy World

Perhaps my attraction to Dolmenwood stems from being tired with the kitchen sink fantasy common in D&D and other games. Another reason is because, having grown up in Central Europe, the fairy stories remind me of childhood folktales. Either way, the fairy and forest setting immediately appealed to me.

Dolmenwood feels grounded, yet it becomes much more fantastical and weirder the deeper one delves into the forest itself. Players can learn more about its history and its factions that hunger for power like the Drune, a cabal of wizards, or ones that are more secretive, Witches who worship old Wood Gods. The more you go and discover, the more intriguing it gets.

Effortless Navigation and Game Preparation

While running a session, I often reference the PDFs. The layout and hyperlinks impress me with how quickly they allow me to find the information I need. Great layout design has become a staple for Old-School Essentials products, by the same people behind Dolmenwood, and it's great and remarkable to see this trend continue and improve on it on a project size this big.

A quick example: Each hex is described on a single page. Locations, NPCs, and unique monsters—you can find it all on that one page. And if that's not enough, you also get a mini map showing the surrounding hexes which are also hyperlinked in the latest preview material. With this, you can swiftly navigate the PDF without much trouble.

Once I realized how easy it was to run locations I hadn't prepped at all, I grew more and more confident. Suddenly, some anxiety was lifted that used to nag me. What if players go somewhere I didn't plan? In the past, I had to stall them with encounters or directly tell them that I didn't plan this route. Now, it's not a problem at all. Each page gives you promptly enough information to make it through a session at least.

Rich, Evocative Tables for Enhanced Gameplay

Whether you want to flesh out different player characters (or NPCs) with looks, behavior, and beliefs, or you want to roll on which type of flavorful dishes a tavern serves this evening, you can find these in the form of tables or lists that have conveniently as many entries as a specific die.

I'm particularly fond of the tables you can find in the Monster Book. Each major entry here comes with multiple tables. Most commonly, different traits they can have to give them some fictional variety and, my favorite, the Encounter tables. These not only give you a great source of inspiration or a fun encounter on the fly, but they also tell you more about how certain creatures behave in the setting.

During our campaign, my players made two separate encounters with a so-called Gloam—undead creatures that are composed of the corpses of crow-like birds. In the first encounter, they fought with it after it was chasing a friar through the night. They managed to help the friar and learned two things about the creature:

Weeks later, in a swamp, they encountered their second Gloam. This one was, however, not aggressive but in fact was haggling with a taxidermy peddler about a stuffed squirrel. The party decided to pay for it and give it to the Gloam, which greedily took off with it. Two very different encounters that both tell you more about a creature.

Making the World More Believable by Using Factions

The Problem with Factions

The factions in Dolmenwood are great. They are detailed with maps where they all operate, who are the important NPCs, what are the different goals they have, and even a variety of ranks that a Faction has. I love it. They are one of the best parts of Dolmenwood.

However, as the sessions progressed, I noticed that the factions don't have much impact unless the players actively engage with them. That felt like such a waste to me. Of course, there are a lot of different things you can do to nudge them in a direction.

These are all great, and if you can, you should do this. Nevertheless, I had a difficult time meaningfully including more than two or maybe three of the factions this way.

Besides engaging players with the factions, another thing that bothers me is that if you don't do anything, everything is locked in a perpetual status quo until the players interact with it. Yes, there are numerous pieces of advice on the internet like "nothing is canon until the players know about it" or "don't prep things that are not relevant for the next sessions". This is good advice, and I mostly agree with it. So, why does it bother me that factions don't advance without player interactions?

To sum it up in one word: verisimilitude. If you want to make your world feel alive and don't have to as the referee directly decide on what happens off-screen, then using a framework for how factions advance is a really elegant way of handling this.

Introducing Faction Turns for Dynamic Storytelling

This is a term I first heard when I read Stars Without Number many years ago and describes basically a whole procedure for a GM to follow and play out how different factions in a sandbox interact with each other, creating new conflicts in the process.

Still, I always found the SWN approach too detailed. It wasn't until I read Mausritter, which introduced a simpler method, that I changed my mind. This method involves giving each faction a set of resources and goals on a tracker. These advance with a single dice roll, making me confident enough to try it out. After a little research, I was even more convinced that this will work when I stumbled upon the blog post Faction Procedures + Dolmenwood Example by Jim Parkin, who wrote about the very same thing I was trying to do and was a big inspiration for the process.

Here is a short summary of what I ended up doing.

For the last point, I decided to take a turn every time the players do downtime or when a month passes. I'm not afraid to change things irreversibly in the fiction; however, I don't want things to escalate too quickly and can turn the dials on the plans or cadence if I feel it's going too fast or too slow.

In the most recent sessions of the campaign, my players found themselves in the little trading post village of Fort Vulgar in the north of Dolmenwood. Merchants from the realms north of the wood come here by boat to trade with the Duchy. The Crookhorns, corrupted goat humanoids who serve the Nag-Lord, lurk in the forest northeast of the village. Rumors of a looming attack on the town of Prigwort, that lies on the mentioned trade route, have been going on for a while. It's suspected they will strike in the spring, less than a month away.

While the Players are taking a much-needed downtime in Fort Vulgar, the plans of the Nag-Lord advance. The Crookhorns blocked off the trade route in order to surround Prigwort. They don't fear Fort Vulgar as it hasn't the capacity to be relevant. This means the players find themselves now cut off from the rest of the human realm and have to decide how to deal with this new emerged situation.

Takeaway: By giving the factions their own goals, resources, and plans using Faction Turns, not only enriches the game world's verisimilitude but also creates dynamic, evolving scenarios that engage players in the larger narrative. This approach allows the world to feel alive and responsive, enhancing the overall gaming experience.

Use Downtime to Increase Engagement with the World

I always knew I wanted to include a downtime system in the campaign. I love it when characters engage in activities outside the usual adventuring. Initially, I used a simple carousing table. Players would spend a random amount of gold for direct experience, with a small chance of encountering a funny or dangerous situation. However, I wanted my players to use downtime to engage with the world and do things that they normally wouldn't in a normal session. So, I kept looking for something more suitable and found it with Downtime in Zyan by Ben Laurence.

This beautiful zine is a list of common downtime activities like researching, carousing, and crafting, as well as uncommon ones like going on a spiritual quest or opening and maintaining a business. For each activity, the player usually has to pay some gold and decide on a goal like "I want to learn more about that wizard whose tower we just ransacked". The goal then gets a progress bar assigned depending on how difficult the task is, and the player rolls 2d6 with the chance of failure, partial success, or success.

It's well-designed and system neutral. You can use it with no changes without any trouble at all. Most of the activities are great for granting characters fictional advances like reputation, friendships, or even learning skills. An NPC who becomes a good friend might help you later in certain situations, or they will maybe ask you to do something for them.

The first time we used this system in Dolmenwood, one of my players excitingly became the owner of a new caravan business that would make him earn contacts and a passive income over time. When you create a business from scratch, you start small. So his caravan would just serve two local businesses to help them bring their wares to the next settlement. The initial roll was also just a partial success, which means there needed to be a complication. A prominent guild member caught wind of the operation and wanted to drive the player out of business by using her guild contacts and then steal the idea and found her own caravan.

Now, the player had some time but needed to find a way to deal with the troublemaker. In a later downtime when the time was almost up, he was desperate to save his business and got in bed with some shady members of a thieving guild, who helped him and dealt with the situation. Time will tell if that will cause other problems down the line.

Takeaway: By incorporating a detailed downtime system, it encourages players to engage more deeply with the game world and develop their characters beyond the typical adventuring. By allowing characters to pursue personal goals, build relationships, and face unique challenges, downtime activities can significantly enhance player investment and narrative depth.

One Thing I Still Need to Do? Populating the Map Even More!

As I mentioned earlier, running the adventure sites described in a hex of the Campaign Book is straightforward. Nevertheless, there are locations that really need to be fleshed out to do them proper justice. Like the magical chateau of a powerful sorceress where delegates of various fairy lords are hosted and secret research is done, or the crypts of the ruined abbey dedicated to the most important patron saint of the wood. The latter will be detailed in an upcoming official module, and more official content will likely follow, expanding more parts of the world.

But that's not stopping us from doing our part as well. For my return to the campaign, I plan to focus more on improving locations or adding new ones. There is already community content available, for example, ktrey released Dolmenwood Dozen—a set of locations and dungeons for you to add to your map.

Of course, there is also the third option of taking already existing modules and dungeons that are not designed for Dolmenwood and tweak them to fit the setting.

In my campaign, I used the Incandescent Grottoes dungeon and put it in a much-recommended hex where the described geographical features matched with the dungeon. I just needed to change some monsters and details.

This method is really popular because when else do you get a chance to use all the adventures of your campaign? Personally, though, I'm not too keen on using a lot of non-Dolmenwood 3rd party modules. I'm happy to take parts of them and remix them to my needs, but I often find complete adventures are better served as their own thing and feel a bit disconnected without much effort.

Going forward, I plan to use more of my prep time to develop more locations. I believe monster lairs make good mini dungeons that can be used to tell little stories as well.


In the future, I will continue to run adventures and campaigns in Dolmenwood. I had a fantastic time with my first campaign, and I'm sure it will only get better the more content is available for it, and you hear more about other people's adventures. I highly recommend checking Dolmenwood out if you haven't!

Personally, I will continue to write about it. My current plan is to explore different systems to use with Dolmenwood as a setting only. I'm sure some conversion is needed, and I will share what I come up with. Additionally I'm planning to expose my prep for future sessions like the mentioned creation of new locations. Since I'm going to write it down anyway, why not put some extra effort into it and share it?

Finally, if you are running or planning to run Dolmenwood yourself, I have a couple of questions for you:

#dolmenwood #retrospective