Let’s Build A Campaign Setting: The Story Of The Island


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A couple of hours ago I sat down to do some more work on the campaign setting. I’ve been working on it on and off since the last post but – as I said in that post – a lot of that ‘work’ has been me thinking things through and scratching down notes on whatever scrap of paper I had to hand when ideas came to me.

Knowing that I had to write another one of these posts this week, I decided to start writing some stuff up. I figured that I could sit down tonight and hammer out a rough history of this island, and that I’d be able to share that with you today.

I sort of did that and I sort of didn’t. I’m going to keep working on this tonight, and I’ll probably get something approaching a history of the island by the time I’m done, but as I write this it’s almost 1AM. My Friday posts are often late, because Thursday is always a busy day for me and if I don’t get the post done by Thursday night I generally have to wait until I’m done working over the weekend to get something posted. I didn’t want that to happen again this week, so I decided to stop working for an hour or so and write this post up.

I’ve definitely made some progress, but I’m still in a similar position to last time in that a lot of that progress isn’t really tangible. Still, I’m going to do my best to make this interesting.

The Creative Process

The further I get into this series, the more I realise that my initial ideas of what is was going to be aren’t exactly right. I had this vision in my head that each update would bring new, usable things – either ideas and processes that you can apply to your own worldbuilding, or else systems, mechanics, races, etc. that you can lift and use in your own game.

Those things are definitely going to happen eventually, but I’m realising that this is more of a developer journal than anything else. It’s a log of my creative process, a glimpse into the way I work that will – eventually – bear some fruit in the form of the setting and the adventures that go with it. That may not be what you’re here for, and that’s OK. I apologise, sort of, because I don’t want you to feel like you’re wasting your time by reading these posts – but, yes, I’m OK with this series not always presenting content that’s directly useful to you.

I’ve been studying creative writing formally for a long time – since 2004, if we’re just counting my time in higher education studying this stuff. A large portion of studying creative writing is in looking at both the creative process of other writers and taking a critical eye to your own creative process. At both undergrad and postgrad level, every piece of creative work I’ve ever been asked to produce for the courses I’ve been on has also been required to be accompanied by something like a “Writer’s Reflection”, a “Discussion of Process”, a “Creative Journal”, or something else along those lines. A lot of the writing I do outside of this website and my DMs Guild stuff is very much concerned with me looking at my own creative process and analysing it, examining it, questioning it, and refining it.

There are two main consequences to that. The first is that I’m very, very interested in the creative process, not just in the work that comes out of it but also in how that work comes together. The second is that I’ve become quite adept at writing about my own creative process, and I’ve come to enjoy writing about it. Unfortunately that means that I’ve come to enjoy writing essays that, when taken out of context, could seem incredibly self-centered and even self-aggrandising.

I’m going to try to prevent this series going down that route, but sometimes posts like that are going to happen and – if this is going to be a devlog that accurately reflects the way I’m working on this project – they’re going to be necessary.

This is one of those posts. My hope is that you find this stuff as interesting as I do.

I’ve just noticed that I’ve spent close to a thousand words of this post writing what amounts to two introductions to the same post, so I’ll move on. Let’s talk process.

The Creative Process (For real, this time)

One thing that’s always fascinated me when working on large projects like this is how seemingly unrelated things will spark an idea that throws open the door to a piece of work that was proving to be problematic. I love those breakthrough moments – as a writer I live for them, because they make the act of writing much easier and much more enjoyable. And luckily enough, I had one of those moments with this project last week.

I sat down to watch Cabin In The Woods, and I had a breakthrough that has led to me having a decent idea of the story that’s going to be told in this campaign. I know a broad-strokes history of the island and the people that live on it prior to the players arriving, and I know what direction the story of the campaign is going to take. I even know one of the big reveals or plot twists that’s going to take place partway through the campaign – a pivotal moment that is going to turn everything on its head and open the door to higher level gameplay.

When I had this idea I had to share it with people – immediately, because that’s how I am. I wanted to know if this was actually a good idea, or if it was something that just seemed good because it had come to me fully-formed while watching a stupid (and brilliant) horror film and was new and exciting. So I asked a couple of my patrons on Patreon for their feedback. This was what I said to them:

OK, so I’m currently watching Cabin In The Woods and had a thought about this. Making the players colonists taking over the lands of a peaceful people is going to introduce some interesting moral choices that I’m keen to engage with. With that in mind…

What if those peaceful turtle people worship some kind of slumbering god, and as their conflict with the party escalates the players realise they’re engaged in a ritual that seems intended to wake said god. The party obviously foil this, and that can land somewhere around 10th level.

Then, later in the campaign, they learn that the ritual was really to keep that god sleeping, because if it wakes it will have world-shaking consequences. Now the party have to try and repair their relationship with whatever survives of the turtle people in order to complete the ritual and put the god back to sleep. And it may or may not work, because we obviously want a massive end of campaign confrontation.

The feedback I got was pretty positive, and having now sat with this idea – and done some work fleshing it out – for the past week or so, I’m happy with it. Even if it’s not the most original idea in the world, it’s something that a) I like and b) I feel I can work with. It’s the seed of an idea, and that’s what I needed.

Then, earlier today, I had another one of these moments. Well, sort of. I didn’t so much have an idea that presented me with a chunk of the world/storybuilding already done. Instead I came to a conclusion about the way the first few sessions of the campaign will work.

Shipping Up To Boston

This afternoon I played Assassins Creed 3 for the first time. I’ve played the first two – the first one bored me, the second one amazed me – and I’ve played a little bit of Black Flag, but I’m not hugely familiar with the series and hadn’t played the 3rd game before today.

For those of you who haven’t played it, the 3rd AC game begins with the player undergoing a weeks-long journey by ship from England to Boston. I really enjoyed that section of the game, and I realised that I’m basically going to steal it for this campaign.

Well, that’s not strictly true. But I am going to start the campaign on a boat.

Last time we discussed the idea of the players as colonists, new arrivals to this island who have travelled thousands of miles across the ocean to be here. I wasn’t sure whether to actually have the players experience any of this journey, or whether I should just dump them on the island from the first session. After playing a couple of hours of AC3, I now know that I absolutely have to write at least one adventure that takes place on the ship. Let me try to explain why.

There were a few things about that section onboard the ship in Assassins Creed that I really enjoyed, from a game design perspective. From a storytelling perspective, I liked how this section of the game left me feeling like my character had undergone a long and mostly boring journey. I wasn’t bored personally – the game only lets you actually play the days of the journey where interesting stuff happens – and that section of the game took less than an hour to complete (and would have been much shorter had I not spent time playing the boardgame that I can’t remember the name of that you have the option to play while on the ship). But by the time the game reached Boston I was ready to get there and excited to see it. I felt relief that I had reached the end of my journey. That’s a feeling a want the players in this campaign I’m building to experience, because it will go a long way towards keeping them on the island over the course of 20 levels of play. They’re much more likely to explore the place when they remember how good it felt to arrive. If I just put them there from the word go, I lose that.

The other thing I liked is that this section of the game is where you really get to grips with controlling the game. (As an aside, I can easily tell you the names of the main characters in both the first and second Assassins Creed games. I can’t do the same for Black Flag or 3 – and I played AC3 less than eight hours ago). I wrote an article last week about writing introductory adventures for new players, about how it’s important to teach the game in manageable chunks without overloading them with rules. One thing that’s needed to do that effectively is for you to railroad them a little bit. Well, maybe not railroad, but certainly have a firm hand in pointing them in the right direction. I like to make my introductory adventures location-based – a small, enclosed dungeon is perfect – and to drop the players as close to the entrance to that dungeon as possible. All the really deep roleplaying and storytelling stuff can come later; the first session is mostly for teaching mechanics.

I realise now that putting the players on a ship is the perfect place to do this. I don’t need to explain why, really. Let’s just point out, for the sake of clarity, that a shipis a nice, enclosed environment to teach the players the game (if they’re new) and to let them get to grip with their characters and the idea that the campaign has something of a story and purpose already. This will hopefully help to keep them focused once they reach the sandbox that is the island and begin to explore. Plus – as I’ve already said – if this journey is suitably dramatic, I won’t have to narrate to them how relieved they are to reach their destination – the players themselves will feel it. AND, as a third bonus, we can level up once or twice on the journey, so that once the players make landfall their characters are a bit more equipped to tackle to dangers of the island.

Asking Questions

With this information and these ideas to hand – plus everything I’ve written about already in this series – I spent half an hour simply writing down any questions that I had about the setting and the campaign. This is what they look like – unedited. If I’m going to document my process, I’m going to document my process, even if it sometimes makes me look dumb.

  1. Who are the turtle people?

    1. Are there more of their kind?
      1. If so, tell me more about the ones on this island. How did they come to be here? Do they have any contact with the rest of their people?
    2. What is their culture like?
      1. What do they eat?
      2. What is their relationship with the natural world?
      3. How long do they live?
    3. What is their religion like?
      1. I’ve already decided they have a relationship with the elder god that slumbers beneath the island. Is this their only god, or is there more to that story?
  2. Tell me more about the elder god.

    1. Why does it need to be kept asleep?
  3. Who else lives on the island with the turtle people?

    1. What are the politics of the island? Are the other things that live on the island intelligent?
  4. How much contact have the turtle people had with the outside world?

    1. How much do they know about the outside world?
    2. Conversely, how much does the world know about them?
  5. Is there anything binding the turtle people to this island other than their responsibilities with the elder god?

  6. How do I present the island to the players? Maybe part of the game is in finding and naming places for themselves. Do I present them with a partially filled out map – what is known of the island by the colonists who arrived before the players – and ask them to fill in the blanks? Do I even provide a full map of the island to the DM? (The answer is “probably”.)

  7. Turtle or tortoise?

    1. What is the actual difference? It’s probably important that I know that.

The idea here is that I go through and answer those questions for myself, while making a list of any other questions that occur to me as I’m answering them. Then I answer those questions, which themselves prompt more questions, which… you get it. I still haven’t actually answered all of these, because in order to answer the simplest – and most stupid – one (that’d be question 7, specifically), I ended up doing a ton of research about tortoises, turtles, and sea turtles. I now know more than I ever thought I’d need to about these animals, and I think they’re fascinating.

That was the point at which I realised I was going to have to set everything aside and write this post, before I spent the night reading about turtles and didn’t actually get some work done. I did answer some of them, though, and as a result of those answers I now have a decent idea – in broad strokes – of the history of this island and these people, and some of the geography of this place. I haven’t actually written any of it down yet, though, because I set it all aside to write this post. Remember? (I’m sure you do, because I’ve said that a few times now already).

At this point I can either take the easy way out of this post or I can make things hard for myself. The easy way out is to copy and paste my answers to those questions, tell you again that I haven’t had a chance to write any of the fun story stuff out but that I do know sort of where it’s going, and bid you a good day. I’ll admit it’s tempting – it’s now nearly 2AM, after all. Plus, I’m closing in on 3000 words with this post already. I know that a lot of you will have stopped reading already. I really should wrap this up now.

But I’m not going to do that, because some of you haven’t stopped reading, and I appreciate that. I want to give you something resembling progress. Something resembling a story.

Instead, I’m going to write up some of what I know about the turtle people and the island for you. I’m literally typing all of this into WordPress as I write this post. It isn’t edited; it may not even be coherent. I don’t know yet. Let’s go on an adventure together, shall we?

And we will call it… This land!

The turtle folk have called this land their home for thousands of years. They were not always confined to just this island; once, nearly a millenium ago, this place was the northermost land in an archipelago of hundreds of islands. Though their ancestors had lived lives similar to whatever creatures they and normal turtles have evolved from – lives mostly confined to the water, coming onto land mostly to nest – their increase in intelligence led them naturally towards a more terrestrial existence. They still have a strong affinity with the water, but building a civilisation is much easier on land than it is in water. Building is much easier on land.

The turtle folk as a race (in game terms) are divided into two subraces – the ‘land’ turtles, and the sea turtles. The land-based subrace resemble humanoid turtles who can retract their limbs and heads into their shells. They are sturdy and strong, and though they swim well, they are more at home on land. The sea folk, in comparrison, can’t retract their limbs or heads. Their shells are thinner and more streamlined for swimming. They can hold their breath for much longer – at rest, in the range of 4-7 hours – and tend to be longer lived than their terrestrial brethren.

The turtle folk never built boats. Being so at home in the water, explorers of their kind tended to get around under their own power. Finding no land near the archipelago for thousands upon thousands of miles, they naturally began to explore the ocean floor below their own homes. For this reason, they have had no exposure to the other people of the world – they are an undiscovered people (of course, to them, humans and elves and the other humanoid races are undiscovered people, too).

At some point in their history, explorers came across the ruins of an even older civilisation at the bottom of the ocean. There they unearthed something ancient and twisted, something that rose up out of the water and threatened the survival of their entire people. The turtle folk turned to their god (or gods?) for help, and for a century a great war raged between the turtle deity and the elder horror from beneath the waves.

Eventually the war ended. The archipelago was ruined and sunk, the turtle gods were dead, and the elder horror was sealed beneath the last remaining island. The population of the turtle folk was ravaged, and those who survived knew that they must do everything within their power to prevent the slumbering horror beneath their home from ever waking. The initial sealing had required a huge blood sacrifice, and the magic that held the horror in stasis required yet more blood to remain functional.

As generations passed and the turtle folk slowly rebuilt their civilisation, one thing remained a constant – each year (or decade, or generation – I haven’t figured out the specifics yet), as the ancient magic began to wane once more and the elder god began to stir, the most powerful magic users in the society completed the ritual of sacrifice that renewed the bonds and ensured the continued survival of their people. That work must never be stopped; to do so would result in the end of the world.

What’s Your Game?

That’s what I know about the history of the island. It’s enough to work with for now, though it obviously still needs development.

I also know a few things about the geography of the island, and some of the story beats in the campaign that will take place here (though I don’t know yet exactly where they’ll fall in the story in terms of levels etc.).

One of the interesting things I learned about turtles is that they lay hundreds of eggs in sandy dunes, then simply leave them there. Newly hatched turtles are left to fend for themselves. They hatch under moonlight and use the reflection of the moon on the waves to navigate to the sea – which I think is really cool, and it’s definitely something I’m going to incorporate into the culture of these people. I think moonlight will be important. Once they reach the sea, turtles live a solitary life until breeding season happens again, when they return to the same beach on which they hatched.

Now, my turtle people are civilised and social, but I think they still held on to some of this evolutionary, biological history. They still lay their eggs – because their young are hatched from eggs, by the way – in the sand dunes, and they still leave their young there to survive or perish on their own. And that serves them well, because they’re engaged in a constant war against an angry elder god. They’re a culture built around a group urge to survive. Only the strongest need apply.

But, because they’re social, they don’t leave their young completely. They don’t lay their eggs then vanish, swimming thousands of miles away. Instead, they lay their eggs in the nesting grounds – the northern beaches and dunes – and then return to their home on the more verdant southern face and waters of the island.

From a geography standpoint, I know that the northern side of the island is sandy, and the further south you go the more verdant it becomes. The reason I picked north and south is because it really works with the story that’s coming together here.

You see, the colonists are going to land on the northern shore of the island. They’re going to find beaches that aren’t really usable as a place to build and farm, and they’re going to head inland a little. They probably don’t even know about the turtle folk who live on this island – and they might not learn about them until the next nesting season, when the female turtle folk arrive on the beach to lay their eggs. That means that I can introduce these people and their ritual sacrifice a little later in the campaign, so that it doesn’t have to stretch out for too long before I drop the twist on the game.

And there’s another possibility, one that’s really going to drive conflict in the campaign and make the reveals hit home a little harder. The players themselves will see the beaches first – and they’ll see them covered in thousands of large turtle eggs, because the first colonists got here not long after nesting season. They didn’t see the turtle folk laying their eggs. They just saw turtle eggs. Delicious turtle eggs – and turtle meat, because why do the turtleborn (that’s a provisional name that I just came up with, and it’s stupid) young look like anything other than normal turtles?

So when the players get there, the main diet in the colony is the turtle meat and eggs that are in abundant supply here. The players will do some exploring, and then they’ll meet the turtle people. And they’ll realise that ever since they got to this island, they’ve been eating the young of the turtle people.

They’re going to feel bad about it, probably. And then they’re going to find out about the sacrifice, the ritual, whatever. I don’t know how that’s going to work, because there’s no common language – maybe I’ll build a low-level dungeon, and ancient ruined temple with a large mural on the wall that shows the ritual being performed. The players are going to be led to form the wrong conclusion – that the turtle people, angry at the colonists for eating their young, are attempting to summon something that will kill the colonists. And we want the players to thwart that attempt.

And then the second reveal. Not only have we been eating their young – we may also have just woken the thing that killed their god.

That’s all I’ve got so far, but I’m excited by it. I’d love to hear any feedback you might have. In the meantime I’m going to work on this some more – and by next time, I might have a rough map of the island.

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