Being a Newbie DM

I’ve played and run a lot of indie games. I’ve also played a decent amount of Dungeons & Dragons throughout the editions, but never at the driver’s seat. Now I am starting a D&D 4th Edition campaign with some South Bay area friends, and I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts as I prep and run the game.

The initial setup is this:

Journeys to Tanelorn

The city at the center of the world, Tanelorn is the adventure-hub for the PCs. They are a team working for a “travel agency” in the medieval Chinese style: a combination of delivery service, guides, scouts, and hired swords. Apart from these more obvious duties, travel agencies also functioned as liaison to bandit gangs and corrupt officials, using alliances, pay-offs, and outright violence to manage them.

Tanelorn itself is a large and diverse city situated near the coastline, surrounded by rich farmland and close to a major trade route or two. This makes it a major trade center and destination for pilgrims and tourists. Its center is the point where the Red Brenn and White Brenn rivers meet to form the Great Brenn.

The first things I did to set up the game were to come up with some adventure hooks, get the players to make characters, and detail their home base. To give the city some texture, I thought about it as a growing, living thing: it starts out from a center and regions grow and change as the city ages and expands. While most of the city’s landmarks remain in place, the districts around them have shifted to reflect current realities.

What’s In The City

Tanelorn is divided into several major districts.

Old Town

Located in the ‘spike’ between the two lesser rivers, Old Town is the place where Tanelorn was founded. Now much of it has been cleared to make room for market squares. The buildings that remain are primarily homes, for the wealthy, the clergy, and the several families that trace their ancestry to the city’s founders and vie for its throne. There are several landmarks in Old Town: the Capital Citadel where the city’s Regent and Council sit, the Great Sky Temple where Pelor, Sehanine, and Corellon receive worship, the House of Queens home to the priestesses of the Raven Queen, Avandra, and Melora, the Spiral Hall magical academy, run by monks dedicated to Ioun, the ceremonial City Gates, Tanelorn University where the city’s scientists, surgeons, and scholars are trained, and the Capital Market, which by law is the only place in the city where imported goods (outside of the vague city-state borders) may be sold.

Mud Town

North and east of Old Town spreads Mud Town, a disparaging name for the agricultural outskirts of the city. The Temple-Colosseum of Kord lies in Mud Town near the point where it meets the Common Quarter and the Jewelers’ Quarter.

Jewelers’ Quarter

Slightly west and north of the Old Town, the Jewelers’ Quarter is another old section of the city, home to artisans, magicians, and scholars who are comfortably well-off but not so wealthy as to live in the Old Town itself.

Common Quarter

Located north of the Great Brenn and west of the Jewelers’ Quarter, the Common Quarter is home to many immigrants; it is the most diverse of the regions of the city, and houses a market second only to the Capital Market itself. Buildings here are tall and densely packed.

Little Sarnath

At the city’s western extreme lies Little Sarnath, mainly home to tieflings and devas.

Golden City

On the southern side of the Great Brenn is the Golden City, a recently gentrified area where the nouveau riche have created lavish, if hastily-built, homes. Here there is fine dining and entertainment. There is also the Palace of Justice, where criminals are brought to trial. Rumor has it that the Palace has a hidden entrance to the city’s underground prison-catacombs as well.

Flower Town

Spreading south of the Golden City is Flower Town, where most of the land is divided up between large farming chateaux, which are the traditional homes of the city’s elvish inhabitants. In recent years, some chateaux have welcomed outsiders inside their walls, and the borders between Flower Town and the Golden City are increasingly blurred. The city’s red-light district is at the eastern point of Flower Town, spilling over into the Necropolis and Golden City. The Gates of Tanelorn Dwarfholm are found here.


Across the White Brenn from Old Town is the Necropolis, where the Sacred Forest and Great River Temple Ruins can be found. It is the traditional burial ground used by all that dwell in the city, and so it holds active graveyards as well as the construct slums, once mausolea which have true to their name become home to squatters, mostly constructs (the golems and the restless dead). It is a quiet district that is rumored to also house the local assassins’ guild, although its precise location is kept secret, if in fact such a thing exists. The Necropolis also boasts a small market.

I’ll talk soon about adventure hooks and encounters for the first session.


3 thoughts on “Being a Newbie DM

  1. Where did you get the idea for a medieval Chinese travel agency? Was there such a thing?

    It’s a great campaign concept. I’m tempted to steal it.

    • It was a historical outgrowth of Chinese trade caravans and China being a large swath of land with lots of bandits. It most frequently shows up in various wuxia stories at this point, since it’s an easy “in” into the sketchy criminal world. 14 Blades is a pretty awesome recent movie that revolves around one of these agencies, though you can find a lot of them in class Jin Yong/Louis Cha wuxia novels.

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