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Uncharted Territory: Using the Fog of War in Your Campaign

Written by Janna - Published on July 10, 2009

Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.

Picture by Goran Aleksic

I remember the first time I played a game that used the fog of war mechanic. It was the original Warcraft computer game (Orcs vs Humans), and the dark places on the map held all kinds of unseen danger. I liked the element of the unknown, even if the surprise ambushes were annoying. What the heck is my point? You can use the fog of war to make your D&D world a dark and mysterious place.

Dark Around the Edges

You know those old maps that read, “Here There Be Dragons“? That’s your world in a nutshell. There’s a spotlight shining on the PCs’ starting location, and the rest of the map is dark around the edges. An unexplored and unmapped campaign setting can be a lot of fun for both the players and the DM.

Your PCs are adventurers, right?

Imagine starting the game in a rather isolated village. Nobody knows what’s on the other side of that forbidding mountain range, so crossing it is a very intimidating endeavor. There could be all kinds of rumors and superstitions about the surrounding lands. Who’s to say what’s true and what’s not? Visitors rarely find their way to the village, so if the PCs want knowledge of the outside world, they’ll have to go get it themselves.

You could also place your campaign in a world that has been newly devastated by disasters. Maybe one of the Planes has encroached on the natural world, changing its geography in radical ways. The PCs will have to venture forth to discover the new lay of the land.

The Perks of the Unknown

The major advantage of having an uncharted world is the suspense and excitement that comes with exploration. Your PCs are adventurers, right? Nothing’s quite as adventurous as stepping out into a dark and hidden world full of unknown threats. When the group discovers a new dungeon or town, that discovery will feel like a big accomplishment – one that they can mark on their own maps for future reference.

To really keep PCs in the dark, successful history and lore checks should only give information that pertains to the known world.

This type of game is great for DMs, because they’re under no pressure to map out the entire world up front. They can design locations and keep them in reserve until the PCs discover them, but those locations can be changed or replaced until the moment of discovery. To really keep PCs in the dark, successful history and lore checks should only give information that pertains to the known world.

All Will Come Clear – Someday

The world won’t stay hidden forever. In time, the PCs could create their own maps and bestiaries. Or they could run into a society of lorekeepers who are willing to share their collection of maps and geographic texts. The party could compare notes with other adventurers, or they could make contact with spirits or even gods who are willing to help them plot their course.

3 Quick Plot Hooks

  • Monster tribes are attacking the village. It’s up to the PCs to find out where the monsters are coming from, and to map out the boundaries of their territory.
  • The town’s merchants want to open lines of trade. They hire the PCs to discover other towns and map easy routes to them.
  • An artifact was once housed in a temple beyond the rise – but that was before the land changed. Now it could be displaced, buried, or destroyed. It’s up to the party to find out.

Have you played in an unmapped setting? Do you enjoy exploring unknown terrain, or do you prefer worlds with plenty of maps?

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Written by Janna

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Janna discovered D&D at the age of 16, and she's been rolling the dice for 16 years. (You do the math.) She is fond of intelligent villains, drow society, and campaigns that explore the Dark Side.



13 Responses to “Uncharted Territory: Using the Fog of War in Your Campaign”
  1. Noumenon says:

    I feel like unmapped settings are the default – I’m always aware that nothing outside what the DM has prepped really exists, and so I don’t have nearly as much exploration desire as in a video game.

  2. Delf says:

    Good article, Janna.
    I really like the “points of light” concept that 4th ed encourages. It makes you think about how little people knew about the lands more than a few miles from their homes. Maps were rare, and their accuracy varied. Forget GPS and Google Earth, people didn’t even have access to atlases or roadmaps.

  3. Stormgaard says:

    Good start to an article – but I was hoping for some practical ideas of how to actually implement this mechanic.

    We are after all still playing on a plain old table with. We don’t have a giant computer monitor on it’s back to place our minis on.

  4. Juampa says:

    I agree with Stormgaard, I really liked the post but would have enjoyed a more grounded advice.

    I’m currently playing a fog-of-war campaign and having a blast. It is really well executed by our DM and the sense of wonder is everywhere: the terrain, the monsters, the history, even the plants and animals :)

  5. Yax says:

    @Stormgaard, Juampa:

    Looks like we have a follow-up article to write! We’ll try to hook you up with more on this topic. Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Harvester says:

    Great Article Janna – After playing some campaigns on Mystara, Oerth, Fearun as a Teenager and been a bit fed up with other people from TSR or WOTC telling me how ‘their’ world is evolving (which 9/10 isn’t how it turned out for my group – chuckle) – I have always played Fog-of-War campaigns……. It’s great for a DM as you can play a Mystara dungeon (with some slight of hand name changes), followed by a Goodman Games DCC adventure followed by a Kingdoms of Kalamar adventure then a generic AD&D adventure etc etc etc and even you as the DM don’t know what’s gonna happen or where the campaign is going in a few levels (Coz you haven’t decided which adventure to use yet).

    And before you know it, a new game world has evolved right before your eyes……..

    Stormgaard – if you haven’t got Campaign Cartographer or similar on your PC – use paper and pencil……….. it’s amazing the worlds you can create with such simple tools……. we have a decent artist in our group and he makes the world maps as we go along on A3 paper. Not only is it fun but they look authentic as they are drawn through the eyes of the explorer rather than the creator (DM).

  7. Mike Strand says:

    I am a big fan of Profantasy’s Campaign Cartographer, and one thing I’ve learned is that old mapmaking was much more an art. I mean I always knew that, but as a gamer I always expected my maps to be accurate, more or less. Especially, in our modern world where maps are amazingly accurate and it is easy to forget how much guess work was involved in earlier mapmaking.

    Now in my campaign the players can obtain a number of maps of an area and they have to try and guess which map is the most accurate, and even which area of which map is most accurate. Not unlike asking a bunch of strangers in an Inn what lays beyond the mountain range.

    In my campaign which I am running in WotC’s Forgotten Realms, the world has gone through a climactic change and the map is different and even innaccurate and the adveturing party is going to end up in an airship mapping the known world. At this point they have no idea this is where it is going, and maybe they won’t want to play the same characters anymore, with all the cool new character classes coming out, so it may never happen. But if it does that is where it is going.

  8. Fran says:

    Not come across the Fog of war mechanic before but I do like the idea of my players in an unmapped region… I already adlib my adventures a lot as the ‘region’ they are in is based on where I grew up so I know all the geographical nooks and crannies. Thanks for this

  9. Narishma says:

    I really enjoyed the article. A real thought provoker. I have personally never used this in 9 years of gaming, bu as i am looking for something new to freak my players out with for our next campaign this article might turn out to be mighty handy.

    the only thing that worries me about this idea is if the players start over compensating for their lack of knowledge. my group tend to have over exagerated survival instincts (can’t think why =P) and i worry that their 5 person group might start buyingwagons and donkeys to carry supplies that they might need, in case say they get lost in a desert or something

  10. Zog says:

    I happened to actually be planning a fog-of-war style dungeon crawl (or cavern in this case) before I read this last Friday. The cave was very dangerous and I planned on using the fog-of-war to keep everything in the party couldn’t see a secret. So I figured I’d report my findings from last night.

    My method was purely on the computer. I made a photoshop (or I use GIMP) image with 2 layers: the dungeon floor plan, and an all black layer on top. I pre-erased the black around the entrance to designate the starting area and when the party moved, I’d fold my laptop down on the table so they could look onto it like a tablet and direct my mouse (by verbal command) as to where the party wanted to go and, based on my judgment of how far they could see, I would erase the black layer that hid the floor plan. I also had little images of treasures and creatures drawn on the floor plan to make it indicate when something of interest was found.

    The plan worked great, and there are still plenty of parts on the map that went unexplored. In fact, the concept itself scared the party so much that they split up into 3 groups based by Move Silent ranking (figuring that since they couldn’t see, they best not be heard at all). Often they’d start to walk down one path but get too nervous and turn around, fearing the dark. Some times, they’d see one creature and charge into battle, allowing me to expand the fog of war to reveal 3 or 4 more creatures they hadn’t seen much to their surprise (this also caused them to be more bold with their scouting before battles).

    Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and whenever it was time to move the party, everyone would get up out of their seat to get a view of my laptop screen. I’d be interested to hear of other ways this can be accomplished.

  11. Mike Strand says:

    That is the best use of the computer at the gaming table that I have heard yet! My gaming grognards, including myself, are all over 40 and we have an aversion to bringing computers to the gaming table as we feel that people interact more with theiir machines than with each other.
    In this case, we stand corrected.

  12. DandDGuy says:

    This is also successful in Ravenloft Campaigns. It can also be useful in other games as well such as Cyberpunk, and Vampire the Masquerade with a small group of players (Small Meaning Under 4 with 4 being Max). I have used it to great success but it takes effort on the part of the players and the DM and some just can’t pull it off.

  13. bitingback says:

    On a physical table, the DM can have a map of just the night’s section, which can be covered in clear contact paper. Use some wipe off markers with some cotton balls to black out the map. Then, when you’re ready for them to see things, wipe those sections clean, a little at a time. Add on at whim.

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