Building A Campaign World – Part 1

Building a campaign world can be a daunting task. One glance at an official setting of any sort – be it the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Greyhawk, or whatever – can almost be enough to put you off entirely. These worlds are huge and detailed, with characters and politics and history that you could spend a lifetime reading and writing about. How can something you create yourself possibly compete?

The answer is a simple one: you don’t need to compete.

Your players come to your table every week (or every month, or however often you play) to have fun telling stories about their characters. While it’s awesome to know what Baron von Crazypants is doing over in the Duchy of Dingleberries, it’s not actually necessary. True, some of your players – and, probably, you yourself – might really enjoy that level of detail, at the beginning of a game it simply isn’t necessary. The only things that matter are the things affected the players’ characters right now, or the things that might affect them in the near future. As a rule, that’s all your players care about – and for the most part, I think it’s the only thing you should care about.

There are plenty of books and articles out there that will tell you the broad strokes of world-building – things like the difference between bottom-up and top-down worldbuilding, how to design political systems and factions, guidelines to writing sweeping histories of your world. I’ll link to a few good resources at the end of this post, but I should say off the bat that this isn’t going to be another series like them (and it is going to be a series, because there’s no way I can cover all this stuff in one post). Instead, I want to take you through the process that I went through while building my campaign world – the process that I go through while building all of my worlds.

Starting Big and Small

The Big

Ideas about top-down and bottom-up world building are great, but personally I find that they just don’t work for me. Instead, what I prefer to do is a combination of the two approaches, driven and informed by the kind of story I want to tell* and the kind of characters who are going to be in it.

The first thing I do when designing a new campaign world is the think about the larger themes of the campaign itself. Even if my desired end-game is months away, I want the themes and images that I’m hoping to evoke for my players to be visible in the world from session one.

For The Nine Towers campaign**, I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be about gods in some way. Ever since I read TSR’s incredible Rod of Seven Parts campaign box set – which I never had a chance to play – I’ve wanted to run an artifact campaign. Now, obviously artifacts are not to be handed out willy-nilly to first level characters – they’re world-shaping, epoch-defining magical items. I wasn’t planning to drop a load of artifacts into my world and send the players on a fetch quest for 20 levels. In fact, I wasn’t even planning to include or mention the existence of the artifacts – whatever they turn out to be – until much later in the campaign.

So why is this relevant? Well, as I said, artifacts are world-shaping. Even if they haven’t appeared in the world for centuries, some remnant of their last emergence should exist in the world. So, my first step in building this world is simple. Artifacts exist in this world and, at some point in the distant past, shaped the physical landscape in some way. This feeds directly in to…

The Small

I know that some great magic has shaped the world in some way, and I know that I want to signpost this from the very beginning – even if the players don’t know that’s what’s happening. The obvious choice is to include evidence of these artifacts in the first place the players will visit.

When you read about bottom-up world-building, you’ll generally be advised to start with only the town the players begin their adventuring careers in. That’s what I do next – but it’s much easier than it could be now that I’m armed with the knowledge of the themes and ideas I want the campaign to explore.

I want the starting settlement to exhibit some evidence of the last time the artifacts were here. So I start brainstorming. Maybe magic behaves strangely here? Maybe people have visions of long-dead residents? Maybe once a year an epic wizard battle rages across the sky, a silent and harmless flashback from a distant age? Or perhaps the ground is scarred in some way, blasted and torn by something nobody remembers?

I think I filled three A4 pages with ideas. Then I went through and started knocking them out, either because they weren’t cool enough or because they introduced too many complications. Here’s a little example of my thought process here.

  • Magic behaves strangely here.

In theory I like this idea. Wild Magic tables are an old favourite of mine from 2nd Edition, when Spell Failure was a thing and low-level adventurers were made out of glass and hope. My concern was that my players were all new to the game, and the first few sessions were going to involve teaching them the rules. It didn’t seem fair to them to introduce the complications of Wild Magic and Spell Failure at a level where they have so few resources and don’t fully understand how to play the game. For that reason, this is out.

  • People have visions of long-dead residents

In all honesty, I wrote this down and immediately didn’t like it. It’s a nice idea for a one-shot game or even a small campaign arc, but as a signpost of things to come I don’t think it works. Players will see this and immediately latch on to it as a mystery to be solved – at which point there either needs to be a mystery to be solved, and once it’s solved it’s gone; or you need to tell the players that there’s no mystery here, at which point they feel silly for having latched on to the “wrong” thing. It’s a great plot hook, but it’s not doing what I want it to do. It’s too obvious.

  • An epic wizard battle rages across the sky once a year, and the players are there to witness it

Another one that, frankly, I just don’t like. It suffers from a similar problem to the dragon attack at the beginning of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, in that the players aren’t going to want to go towards the giant magic fight in the sky that’s obviously way beyond their abilities to compete with, and when they do go to it (probably because you forced them to in some way) they’re going to be disappointed to find that they can’t interact with it in any meaningful way. I like the image and the idea – it certainly worked for Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time series – but I’d prefer to save it for later in the campaign. I store this one away in my notes, and forget about it for now.

  • The ground is physically scarred in some way

Although it’s a little bit trite, I actually like this. While it’s still a mystery that the players might want to investigate, it’s not an event in the same way as wild magic or a magical sky battle. It’s something that can simply exist, something that NPCs can explain away as simply a feature of the landscape or a curiosity.

In fact, the more that I think about it in those terms – a curiosity – the more I like it, even though I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve never questioned whether tourism exists in a fantasy world – but why wouldn’t it?

At this point I start thinking about cool things that would attract people from all over to come and see for themselves. I make another list – which I won’t dissect here, for the sake of brevity – and eventually I settle on a tall, bone-white monolith or tower that rises out of the ground towards the skies. Its origin and purpose are a mystery, and people come from miles around either to study it or simply to see it.

I decide that it has been there longer than anybody can remember, and that researchers have begun excavating the ground around the tower to try and find an entrance of some kind or an indication of its purpose. That’s all I need to know, because that’s all anybody knows. Later in the campaign I can tie this in to the artifacts in some way, and it will seem like I had everything planned months or years in advance. Yet all I did was stick a tower in the ground and shrug my shoulders when people asked me what it was.

Building the settlement itself is easy at this point. As more people came to investigate this strange monolith, traders and the like came to the site to supply the researchers. Over a few decades a bustling market town arose, centered around this giant tower. Alongside the mercantile aspects of the town, there is also a great interest in scholarly pursuits, and in magical research. Temples sprung up around the tower as various faiths tried to claim it as a relic of their own god. At some point there were far too many people scrabbling around the tower, fighting with each other for space to dig and trying to sabotage each others’ research – so it follows that there’s a Guild of Researchers, or some such thing, in the town. The whole economy of this place revolves around an interest in magic and the unexplained, so there are also plenty of merchants here dealing in trinkets and minor magical items – nothing powerful or game-changing, but just enough to get a flavour of the place.

At this point I sketch out the bare bones of an NPC or two. I put a gnomish merchant called Barnum Rekel in the town. Being that he’s a gnome, he’s been here for a very long time. I decide that he’s an old travelling merchant, something of a snake oil salesman, who saw an opportunity in this place and began to sell his useless baubles and potions dressed up as mystical artifacts of the tower. At some point he transitioned into the role of a more traditional merchant – he wouldn’t last long conning people – but he still has a sharp sense of profit vs. Loss and isn’t averse to massively overpricing relatively inane items if he can get away with it.

Putting it Together

Now I have a settlement – I decide to call it Standing Rock, because that’s what the tower was known as before the excavations start – and an NPC. I still don’t have an adventure for the players, but I have an interesting location that signposts some of the things that will happen later in the campaign and an NPC who can provide information and, maybe, quests. My next step is to have the players build their characters. Once I know who is going to be adventuring in this world, I can move on to the next step.

Check back on Friday for part two of this series, when I’ll introduce you to some of the characters my players created and show you how their backgrounds helped to develop the world and kick-start the adventure.

*Note that I said the kind of story I want to tell, not the specific story I want to tell. Going in to a new campaign with a set plan of what you want to happen is, in my eyes, a recipe for disaster. I’ll talk more about that in a future post.
**To clarify – because I know some of my players read this site! – I’m not talking about my current campaign here, but the last one I ran. They both take place in the same world.

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