Let’s Build A Campaign Setting: Story Time

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Last week I talked about hex crawls and point crawls. My plan for this week was to go away and start actually building some things – laying out the points in the point crawl, the beats of the story that we’re going to attempt to tell. I started on that process, but I’m not entirely finished at this point. Still, I think I’ve got a few interesting things to talk about, so let’s get into it and see where we end up.


This is the first time I’ve ever tried to plot out a full campaign in advance. I don’t tend to do a whole lot of prep for my home games, preferring to let the choices the players make drive where the narrative of the game ends up, but that isn’t an option with this project. I’m writing an Adventure Path, which means writing a story; the players will create most of the drama and tension themselves, but I need – at a minimum – to place the main beats of the story. These will form the actual adventures that the players go on, as well as what they discover about the larger story of the island.

Since I haven’t worked on this scale with an RPG before, I had to think about how I was going to approach this. My initial thought was to simply just start writing a synopsis of how the story is going to develop, but to do that I have to take into account the fact that I still don’t know what the geography of the island is. It’s hard to know where adventures will take place when I don’t know what the geography of the setting is like; similarly, it’s hard to know what kind of locations to place on the island without knowing how they’re going to serve the story.

Luckily, I have a thing for this. Or, to be more accurate, Holly Lisle has a thing for this. I’ve mentioned before that I used to write a lot of fiction. While I only ever published short stories, I’ve always aspired to write novels. One of the most valuable tools I ever came across for generating the plot of a novel quickly is Holly Lisle’s ‘notecarding’ technique, which you can read more about at the link at the beginning of this paragraph.

The long and short of it is this: you make a list of all the exciting stuff you think could happen in the story; you write each of those things on an index card; you lay all those cards out on a table, or the floor, or whatever, and start moving them around (and getting rid things that don’t work) until they’re in an order you like.

By generating ideas without worrying about how they link together, you open yourself to possibilities that might not have occurred to you if you tried to plot chronologically. And once you put all those disparate ideas together, you start to see that some things already link in interesting ways. Your subconscious does a lot of the work for you without you realising it. Then all you need to do is write the damn thing.

The Story So Far

I already know a few things about the story I’m going to tell. If you’ve been following this series then you already know them, too, but in case you’ve forgotten, let’s recap.

  1. The players begin on a ship travelling to the newly discovered island, where they are tasked with exploring and charting the island (as well as aiding the growth of the new colony).

  2. The players set up base at the colony town, which was established a few weeks prior to their arrival by an earlier boat. The town is situated just off the northern coast of the island; the coast is lined with luscious white sand beaches that provide an excellent supply of turtle meat and eggs.

  3. The players discover that a race of humanoid turtles inhabit the south coast of the island. They also discover that the beaches are the nesting ground of these people, and that the eggs and meat the colonists have been eating were the offspring of the turtlekin.

  4. There is an escalating series of conflicts as the turtlekin try to drive the colonists from the island.

  5. The players uncover information that indicates the turtlekin have begun a ritual intended to raise an ancient evil from somewhere inside the volcano at the centre of the island. It is understood that this horror will be used to destroy the colony once and for all.

  6. The players somehow interrupt the ritual, averting the coming disaster.

  7. The players discover that the ritual was not intended to wake the ancient evil but instead to keep it sealed. By interrupting the ritual, they have ensured that it will almost certainly wake and unleash hell on the island.

  8. The players must find a way to keep the monster sealed. This may involve somehow forging an alliance with the turtlekin in order to learn more about the ritual.

  9. There is an epic finale where the players attempt to seal the waking eldritch horror.

That’s not a bad broad-strokes plot, all told. There are gaps, though. And I have to make sure that whatever story I settle on, it’s going to be enough to fill 15 levels of adventure (and I’ve settled on 15 now. That’s the standard for Paizo, and it gives me room to build in optional encounters to allow the players to potentially overlevel themselves a little and make the final encounter more survivable).

Part of the ‘notecarding’ technique I mentioned above involves figuring out how many scenes you need to write. The formula for this when writing a novel is simple; you take your desired word count and divide it by the average length of the scenes you tend to write. There’s no real way to estimate how long each adventure is going to be in terms of words, but that’s fine. I’m adapting this technique, and this is part of it.

Instead of focussing on word count, I decided to focus on levels. I mentioned very early on in this series that I intended to make use of the work Angry GM did in breaking down level progress into days of adventure. That’s absolutely still the plan here. At this stage, I’m going to generate one exciting thing for each level. I’ll use these to form the basis of that level’s adventures, helping to determine adventure locations and adventure hooks, and I’ll use Angry’s XP roadmap to determine how many individual adventures that particular story element will be split over. This process may change as I get further into it, but for now it’s nice to have a plan of attack.

So, with that in mind, I sat down earlier this week and just started throwing ideas – both good and stupid – at the page. Then I sifted through them, and eventually came up with a rough roadmap for the campaign.

The Roadmap

I’m not going to share all of those ideas, because that’s just silly. Instead, I’ll just show you the rough plot I’ve come up with. There are still a few holes – I’m not sure exactly how some things link together at this point, for example – but that’s fine. I can fix those things when I start breaking down the levels into individual days of adventure. Then I’ll have to do some more juggling when it comes to writing the thing – because I’m going to publish this in either 6 or 12 volumes, so each one will have to cover multiple adventuring days and possibly multiple distinct adventures. (In fact, I may have to define some terms for future installments in this series, just so I don’t keep using ‘adventure’ to refer to different components of the project).

Anyway. Let’s take a look at the basic chart, shall we?

There are a few things I need to explain here. They’ll make sense if you’ve read the Angry GM posts I’ve linked to, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it for those of you not following those links.

Firstly, the horizontal lines represent divisions between levels of difficulty. Take the block of levels from 3-5; each of the encounters will be built as though they were for a party of 4th level characters. This means things will be hard at 3rd level, manageable at 4th, and generally easier at 5th level. (Again, this isn’t my idea. For a more in depth explanation of the reasons behind this, you should read Angry’s post. I like the reasoning behind doing it this way, and I like the fact that it will simplify the process of designing encounters when I come to write this thing, since it will reduce the number of different XP budgets I’ll have to work to).

Secondly, the Encounters per Level column is just a rough guide at the minute. It’s rounded up, so if you do the maths you’ll find that players will be over-levelled if I follow this progression. Once again, if you’ve been reading the things I’ve linked you’ll have a good idea of what’s going to happen next with this spreadsheet and those numbers.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s talk about what’s actually on that chart.

Story Time

You can probably already see that I didn’t really add all that much to the basic story I laid out earlier in this post, the one I’ve been building over the course of this series. The real detail is going to come once I separate each level into the days that comprise it and start building adventures. So – as quickly as possible, for the sake of this not being another 5k word post – let’s look at what might be involved in each level.

Level 1: On the ship coming to the island. Some kind of nautical encounters, and they spot a dragon turtle breaching.

Level 2: Arrival at the colony. There is some immediate threat/task to be done.

Level 3: A previous mission to the island failed, and the ship broke itself on the reefs. The party must travel to it and see what they can salvage, before attempting to circumnavigate the island to chart its shores. This will take up 2 or 3 days of adventure.

Level 4: The party have to navigate the islets and reefs surrounding the island in an attempt to chart it, probably in a small fishing boat. They’ll encounter a couple of sites of interest that reveal more information about the island over the course of 2 or 3 days.

Level 5: The party eventually come to the south side of the island, and discover the turtlekin and their civilisation. This is a chance to interact with the turtlekin, and to realise what the colonists have been eating. It covers 3 days of adventure, and will need to result in the party being forced to retreat to their colony. This may well only be one adventure, with the other two days taken up closer to home.

Level 6: The turtlekin assault the colony, trying to drive the colonists off the island. This should be a series of escalating encounters. This level takes up 3 days, and should occur mostly around the home base.

Level 7: After seeing off the turtlekin, exploration can resume. The party uncover a giant gate in the jungle with no other structures around it. There’s a mystery to be solved, and the solution helps open up the island to easier exploration.

Level 8: The party venture into the wetlands on the west side of the island. There they discover a ruined temple, and a mural/mosaic that depicts the ritual that keeps the evil thing trapped beneath the volcano. They misunderstand it, thinking that it’s evidence of a ritual to wake something up – some kind of weapon. Over these 3 levels they begin to find evidence that the ritual is now underway.

Level 9: The  party discover the ruins of an ancient city while searching for a way to interrupt the ritual. Most of the city is beneath the inland sea. The party find something of importance here, and they find a clue as to the existence of the mines – and that the mines can be used to access the place where the ritual will take place. Possibly encounter feral elves.

Level 10: The party venture into the flooded mines. An underwater adventure that leads them deep into the volcano, and pushes them towards stopping the ritual.

Level 11: Stopping the ritual.

Level 12: The turtlekin wage all-out war with the colonists.

Level 13: The party somehow discover the truth of the ritual, and must somehow put an end to the hostilities between the colonists and the turtlekin.

Level 14: The party attempt to learn how to complete the ritual, having probably killed most of the turtlekin who had knowledge of it. They must attempt to forge an alliance with the turtlekin before they all abandon the island and leave the colonists to their fate.

Level 15: The final showdown, where the party attempt to complete the ritual they interrupted a few levels ago.

As I said, there are still gaps and things I don’t know, but this is enough for me to start splitting it up into individual adventures and sites. I’ll eventually break each of those adventures down into smaller chunks, determining individual encounters and figuring out when and where to reveal information.

I’ll also have to clarify some pretty important elements – what is the gate, for example? I don’t know that yet. It was just one of the things that I wrote down in the notecarding stage that I liked enough to keep.

That’s true of a few things, actually. The dragon turtle, for example, is just something that I thought would be cool and thematic. It’s a CR 17 enemy, so there’s every chance that I won’t use it – because where would it show up as a realistic enemy to be faced later in the campaign?

The feral elves are another stray idea. I’ve been labouring under the assumption that the turtlekin were the only indiginous people on the island, but I’ve had this idea of a subrace of elves who have somehow regressed and gone feral for a long time. In my head they live in crude treetop villages and communicate through clicks, whistles, chirps – animal noises, rather than traditional elven language. I’ve never really found a use for them, but when I thought of putting a ruined city on the island they immediately sprung to mind. The idea – at the moment, that is – is that there were elves living on the island once, coexisting peacefully with the turtlekin. They lived mostly in their city in the foothills of the dormant volcano.

Then the calamity happened, and their city was flooded and many of their people killed. Whatever magics that destroyed the island also had an effect on the elves, stripping them of most of their magic and reducing their culture to rubble. The elves that remain are a shadow of their former selves, more monster than intelligent race. Whether they stay in the campaign or not, I don’t know, but I like them.

Final Thoughts

I mentioned last week that learning about point crawls changed the way I was approaching this a lot. It actually made this step – which I knew I was going to have to do – a lot easier. In using hexes to design, I’d lost sight of the fact that I explicitly said I don’t want to design anything that won’t see play. Even though I intended to only use hexes for sizing and broad design, once I started working with them I got into the mindset of having to detail each hex.

The second mistake I made – well, the first one really, if we’re talking chronologically – was in using the amount of distance a party can travel in X amount of levels to set the size of my campaign setting, because as soon as I introduce actual adventures to that space I reduce the amount of travel that is possible. If I was to fully detail all of that space – which was what I started trying to do with hexes – I’d end up with far too much material.

By changing to a point crawl style method, I can place only the points that I need – and, therefore, detail only the places that I’m going to use. If players want to explore the rest of the island they can, but there’s little of interest to find there. That’s boring in a hex crawl, but because we’re already getting player buy-in at the outset, we can trust that they won’t go too far off the rails.

Really, I’m not building a hex crawl at all. I’m building one long dungeon that looks like a sandbox. I’ll have to decide whether I still want the players to map the island themselves or not, because asking them to do that may force them to engage with parts of the sandbox that I’m not going to build. I can already think of ways around that, if I’m being honest, but that’s for a future post once I’ve actually put those ideas into practice and seen if they work.

That’s where I’m up to as of this week. Logically, my next step is to break this down into days and start thinking about what’s going to make up the individual adventures. I’ll say that that’s what I’m going to aim to write about next week – but no promises. I may well end up doing something entirely different. We’ll see next Friday.

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