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Building A Campaign World – Part 2

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In the last post I talked about some of the broad strokes of my campaign setting, putting together the basics of a starting area for the party and starting to think about the themes and direction of the campaign as a whole.

This time I want to get into something a little more specific. Today we’ll be looking at some of the characters my players created, and talking about how I took the information they gave me and worked it into the campaign world.

I’ve talked about the characters from my first 5th Edition campaign in the past, but one I haven’t mentioned much is Jaciv Scara, a dragonborn druid. During character creation, Jaciv’s player told me a few things that I made notes of to use in worldbuilding:

  • The dragonborn society she comes from is very attuned to nature. Druids are incredibly common.
  • Something has despoiled the dragonborn homeland, and younger druids – such as Jaciv – are sent out into the wider world to seek out a place to settle and tend, as they have tended their current lands for generations.
  • These dragonborn lands are a long, long way from the place where the adventures are going to happen.
  • Dragonborn (or at least the dragonborn Jaciv comes from) hate orcs.

These were all things Jaciv’s player told me off the top of her head as I asked questions about her character, and they are all things that found their way into the world. At this stage in the game, though, I simply noted these down for future reference, picking the piece of information that seemed the most immediately relevant to use in my early development of the setting.

I was interested by the idea that Jaciv was on a quest to find new lands for her people. I’d been struggling to think of other ways to inject the themes of the campaign into the starting area, but it seemed to me that Jaciv had handed me a gift. As well as the monolith in Standing Rock, I could make use of the idea of a huge scar of some kind on the land. What if the land near Standing Rock was filled with a sprawling petrified forest, completely devoid of any sign of life but practically throbbing with magical energy? That seems like the kind of place a precocious, arrogant dragonborn might pick to try and restore to life (Jaciv’s player had told me that while Jaciv is fairly intelligent and well-intentioned, she also thinks far too highly of herself and her own abilities. Why would she simply find somewhere beautiful for her people when she could build something herself?)

With these thoughts in my head, the Bonewood sprung up to the west of Standing Rock. Now I have a starting area rich with mystery – and history – with a site that’s purpose-built to attract curious, foolhardy adventurers right on its doorstep.

The other benefit of this was that I knew Jaciv’s player wasn’t going to be able to make it to the first game session. It’s often difficult to introduce new characters, but here I had a ready made solution. I could start the group outside Standing Rock – not using the standard “you all meet in a tavern” opening but instead going with the just-as-standard “you have been hired on as guards for a merchant caravan” opening and, through a serious of unfortunate events, funnel them first to Standing Rock and then on to the Bonewood, where they would meet a lone dragonborn attempting to bring life back to the land and facing some horrible consequences that she couldn’t solve alone.

As we’re thinking about the characters going to Standing Rock, let’s us go back there for a moment as well. Remember that gnomish merchant, Barnum Rekel? When we left him we knew very little about him, but while Jaciv’s player was filling me in on the role of the dragonborn in my setting, Ash was giving me some information about Manbearpig that proved to be very useful.

You may remember me talking about Captain Manbearpig in my article about character creation. After Ash told me about the pelt he wears – the skin of a real, honest-to-goodness man-bear-pig – I got to thinking about whether this creature actually exists or not. If it did, I wanted to acknowledge it in some way that felt natural. After a little brainstorming, my mind came back to Barnum Rekel. Rather than your standard armour/weapons/healing potions vendor, what if Rekel instead specialised in rare and unusual creatures – both in selling their pelts and other bits, and in outfitting people to hunt these strange monsters?

I fleshed out his shop a little, writing notes about racks of furs and pelts, strings of teeth and tusks and tails hanging from the ceiling, about the musty, animal smell in his store. And, importantly, I decided that he knew about the man-bear-pig, a creature that he knows as the Mantiboar. Now he’s gone from a paper-thin, cookie-cutter shopkeeper to a character with some depth and purpose, and a built-in connection to one of the characters that that character – and, of course, the person playing that character – will have no idea about until the group meet this NPC through the natural flow of the game.

Look back over this post and the one that preceded it. Think about how little work I actually did here. And yet I’m already starting to flesh out this area of the campaign world, injecting cool imagery with hints at a deep history of the world (whether that actually exists yet or not), NPCs who react to the characters in interesting ways that don’t feel forced, and all while wrapping it up in the stories of the characters that the players developed.

In order to stop this post going really long I’ve had to cut it in half. In the next part I’ll talk about the role of mythology and the gods in your setting, and whether you actually need to bother spending time developing them. We’ll also take a quick look at another character’s background, and how combining it with the information I had about Jaciv spawned a part of the setting that even I didn’t know was going to exist until it appeared in my head.

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