First Steps: The Cave Test

First Steps: The Cave Test

First Steps: The Cave Test

One of the first traditions in gaming I can remember is the Cave Test. I don’t remember if it was something we read somewhere, or a device of our own creation, but til this day I use it to help new players ease into the game.

A Cave Test is an adventure that encompasses the character creation process. The idea is to get the player playing the game BEFORE scaring them off with numbers and choices. Most new players don’t really grasp the concept of creating a character right out of the gate, and with no knowledge of the rules they are unable to make informed decisions. The cave test circumvents those issues by allowing them to play a character the way they want and then define that character with the rules, rather than forcing them to choose something they MIGHT want to play and funneling them into a set role.

At it’s core a Cave Test is an event based dungeon. The events should be planned around basic decision making that will help determine the characteristics that are normally fleshed out during the character creation process, like race, class, appearance, personality, alignment, etc.


One: Reflection

A Cave Test typically starts in an isolated chamber with a single interesting feature that creates a reflection. Usually a still pool of water, but anything that will allow a character to see him or herself will work. Enchanted mirrors, magical portals, even reflective bits of steel or silver, anything that suits your needs. This reflection answers one or two of the main character creation questions: Appearance, and probably race. Give your players the chance to describe their reflections and give everyone at the table a first glimpse at their characters.

Two: Problem Solving

Once all the characters have described themselves they should be presented with a task or problem to solve. Typically I place the pool or reflective object in a cave or dungeon room that has the character’s trapped. Cave-ins, prison cells, abandoned mage towers, whatever strikes your fancy. It helps to support this with a reason for the character’s being there, but in a pinch temporary amnesia will do. The story of how they got into this situation can always be fleshed out later.

The nature of the problem is straight forward: “How do we get out of here?” You should always provide two or three different solutions to this problem that the players can discover. They key elements you want to establish here are the individual character’s attitudes toward problem solving, and how the group solves problem together. Make note of who scrounges for clues or keys, who tries to dig their way out or break down the door, who waits for someone else to figure things out, and who thinks outside of the box.

Three: Exploration

Once the characters are free of their prison, give them a chance to get their bearings. Allow them to experience what exploration is like in the game, and introduce them to some of it’s conventions, hazards and rewards. Providing them with either a partial map of the area or tools to map out the locale themselves will teach them the importance of navigation. A non-fatal trap will teach them the dangers of recklessness and dealing with darkness and locked doors will teach them the value of using all your senses and having the right equipment. A couple chambers and tunnels, or rooms and hallways should suffice. Providing a little gear along the way is a nice reward for exploration and will prepare them for their first encounter.

Four: Tools of the Trade

Before sending the players into an actual encounter, they need a few things. Weapons and gear, yes, that’s probably important, but more important than that is some actual skills. If you used the amnesia hook early on, this part can be as simple as petitioning your players for input. “As you continue to explore you come across some sort of storage room. There are some common items here like torches, rope, and even food, but each of you sees a collection of items that look very familiar. What are they?” Now obviously, if one of your players recognizes his missing Golf Bag of Holding full of Vorpal Swords +5, you should point out the rust monster that has just finished off the last remaining sword and is now gnawing a hole in the bag. As this formula is meant for new players, this sort of thing isn’t likely to happen.

The idea is to get your players to tell you what bits of gear their character would have considered to be essential to his or her career before ending up in this place. Spend some time here, fish for clear answers. Some players will obviously want a sword and chain mail, or a book of spells and a magic wand, but many times a set of lock picks or a humble holy symbol elude the novice player as not only viable, but important, and even POWERFUL options. Help them figure out or “remember” their class and fill out the appropriate sections of their character sheet. Encourage the players to tell a story about their gear and how they got it. Maybe give each player a chance to determine one accomplishment worth bragging about to each other that would not have been possible without their trusty equipment. This can help keep a bookkeeping heavy portion of their first game exciting.

This is the time to roll up ability scores. I like to ask the player about their character FIRST, but if the player is struggling to come up with a concept for their character then you can use ability scores to help them flesh out an idea. Most times players have a decent idea of who their character is by this point, and there’s nothing worse than having to tell someone they can’t be a wizard because they rolled a 6 for Intelligence. Bend the rules a bit, within reason. Forcing a new player to be something they don’t want isn’t fun and may just scare them off. Allow spell casters to use their spells without the need of preparation and rest before hand.

Five: Close Encounters

Armed with not only a few weapons, but some actual defining abilities, the players are ready for an encounter. Usually an encounter is combat, but this needn’t always be the case. If the players can resolve this first encounter diplomatically, or tactically without violence it should be counted a victory. I find it’s best to use something that requires the players to act and think fast. Maybe they find a handful of goblins torturing a prisoner. Maybe it’s a couple of bandits robbing an unarmed man. Maybe it’s another person lost in the same place they are, asking for help. Whatever the encounter is, be sure it’s relevant in the setting, (Why is an unarmed man wandering around this mage tower? And for that matter, why are bandits here and not on a busy road somewhere?) and be sure it will grab your player’s attention. Monster on monster violence might illicit a “Let’s wait til they pass” reaction, which is reasonable but hardly exciting. Monster on people violence however, should spur them into heroic action.

Six: Moral Dilemma

After their first encounter, the player’s should be confronted with a complex decision. One where there is no absolute right or wrong answer. Depending on the maturity level of your group, this may be tricky. Did they rescue a prisoner from the clutches of some monster? If so, they players SHOULD have been savvy enough to question the person before rushing to their aid and freeing them. Maybe that person admits to being a criminal, or a lost noble, or even a fellow adventurer. Should they help a criminal? How bad could his crime have been? Helping a noble seems like a good idea but how do they know the story is true? And do they really want to responsible for protecting this person for an extended period of time? A fellow adventurer seems useful, but do they cut them in for an equal share of the loot, or is their timely rescue all the payment this person should expect?

Whatever you decide, get your players thinking, and encourage them to role play. Speak the part of the person they’re encountering, and nudge them along with a little narrative. If done right this part can solidify a character’s attitude and personality, and it may also define their alignment. If they players have not named their characters before this point of the adventure, insist upon it now.

Seven: Interlude

At this point the players should have complete, or mostly complete character sheets. This might be a good time for a break, as the players now have a lot of new information to process. This is also a good time to answer player questions, and go over their sheets to be sure things are complete and correct. Be careful not to overload your players with information, even if they ask for it. Only give them what they need to know to play the game, and feed their imagination.

Eight: The Saga Continues

The simplest way to continue after the break is simply to repeat steps 2, 3 and 5, with the kids gloves off. Stock a small dungeon, perhaps 5 rooms or less, and let them actually play the game. When they discover the exit and are ready to leave the dungeon you can conclude the adventure.

Nine: Just Rewards

This is a portion of them game I find is commonly ignored or vapored over in most games. I used to neglect it myself, mainly due to poor bookkeeping or preparation. DO NOT SKIP this part. It’s vital to reward your players to hold their interest and give them the feeling of accomplishment that makes the game so satisfying. Experience points should be awarded, and explained. What do they do? Why did I get them? How many do I need for my next level? What do I get when I reach my next level?

Experience points are roughly equivalent to achievements in modern video games, and have a strong psychological impact on your player’s enjoyment of the game. Loot is nice, and often times the more obvious reward for playing the game. Treasure either comes with a monetary value or a power value attached to it, and it’s importance should not be understated. However, ending each game with experience point rewards ensures that even if you had a particularly rough game, you are always ending on a high note, and your players are always thinking about the next game when they leave your table.


If you found this useful or have an idea for making this concept better, leave a comment. Likewise, If you decide to use a cave test or something similar in your own game, let me know. I’m always interested in feedback and new ideas for gaming.


Baby’s first dungeon

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie

Let Sleeping Dragons Lie

I was looking back on the adventure notes of the last few games I ran, and I was a little surprised at how challenging they were. Not so much because they were written to be especially devious, but rather because many of my players were sort of thrown in to the middle of an ongoing story. There just wasn’t a lot of time to really TEACH the game properly. I’m proud that they all made it through on their own creativity and teamwork.

That said, I probably owe my group an apology. Sorry guys! There were some problems they solved with mundane ingenuity that they COULD have solved with a special ability or a spell. I’m certain the main reason they didn’t use any of these special abilities is because they didn’t know they could. In the end everyone had fun, and they succeeded, but I didn’t do my part in teaching them. I taught them how to play, but I didn’t teach them how to play WELL.

Our game has been on hiatus for a while, and many of my players have been away at college. I’ve been using the time to prepare the next chapters of their adventure. With this latest realization of how terrible a teacher I’ve been, I’ve taken the opportunity to give them a slow reentry into the game. There will be some challenges below their level that are meant to teach some fundamentals they didn’t get the first time around. I’ve decided to blog about the process here, in the hopes that it will help new DM’s learn how to teach the game to other players.