Let’s Build A Campaign Setting: Thinking Story

This article is part of an ongoing series, in which I’m trying to develop a campaign setting and a level 1-20 campaign to go with it. If you haven’t read any of the other entries in this series, I suggest going to the series’ archive and starting from the bottom.

Last time we talked a lot about scale, and developed a means of bounding our play area and giving a rough size and shape to the setting. We even started drawing some maps.

This week will not be a mapping week. This week will be writing, and talking, and thinking.

There comes a time in every creative project where you need to stop thinking about things and just start doing. In fact, in most projects, that time doesn’t just come once. It comes often – you plan, and plan, and plan some more, then put all that aside and do. And then you hit a wall, and you go back to planning, and thinking, and crossing things out and starting again. And you repeat that process, either until you’re ‘done’ or – more often, in my experience – until you can’t bear to look at it anymore, and you either declare it finished or abandon it forever.

We’re not at that stage yet (and we’re not going to abandon this. I’m determined to see it out). We’re at the first “let’s just build this” phase.

The hard part of keeping a design journal of a written project is that there isn’t much visual material to show people. Artists can show off in-progress works – sketches, line art, colour experiments, and the like – but for writers it’s a bit trickier. Nobody really wants to look at a page of illegible scrawled notes. Nobody is interested in loose flowcharts, with boxes that read “Turtle?”, or “Floating volcano base”, or “Think of something to go here!” (two out of three of those things were written on one of the many, many spider diagrams I’ve drawn up for this project).

For me, at least, most of my creative process goes on silently in my head, probably while I’m staring dead-eyed into the drunken visage of whatever argumentative customer I’m having to deal with on a Saturday night in my regular meat-space job. The actual writing part is usually quick and efficient, simply a matter of putting down what’s been rattling round in my head for weeks or months or, in some cases, decades.

I’m going to do my best to talk you through the process I’ve gone through in the past couple of weeks since my last update on this project, but you’ll have to accept that there are a few leaps and decisions here that I can’t fully explain.

I can tell you where I started, though. I started with two things. One was the idea I briefly mentioned in the post where I talked about islands:

“Arrive by boat; colony town, half built. Unexplored.”

The second thing was actually something I stumbled upon while reading things for this month’s DMs Guild roundup, and which I included in that list. That thing is J.L. Brandfas’ Tortun race. I’m not interested in the lore that he provided for the race (although it’s cool, and worth reading). I just really liked the idea of a race of turtle people that’s executed well (i.e. there’s no bandanas, and no ninjas).

That’s literally all I started with. A colony, and turtle people.

Let’s talk about the colony first.

There’s a reason I like the idea of the players being colonists, and it ties directly to (and may well have been informed by, though I can’t say for sure) the design principles that we laid out in the first article in this series. Namely, this one:

The setting should be constrained in some way that prevents the players exploring outside its bounds without encouraging them to push at those boundaries.

I’m not going to spend ages trying to recreate my thought process here, because frankly that’s impossible and I’d be making a lot of it up. Instead I’m just going to show you what I came up with. This is still early days, broad strokes stuff, but it’s a start, and it’s progress. That’s what’s important – maintaining momentum. But I’m rambling. I’ll show you what I’ve got, and hopefully you’ll be able to draw some idea of how I got there from those design principles and those sources of inspiration.

From The Smallest Seed

The party begin the campaign either on a long sea voyage to reach this newly discovered land, orelse having just arrived from said voyage. The reason for them being on the journey isn’t important, and can be worked out between the players and the GM during character creation (unless it becomes important later, once we begin developing the actual overarching campaign story): maybe they’ve got a thirst for exploration; maybe they held positions of elected office and were chosen to go and help build this new colony; maybe they were criminals, and transportation and forced work in the colonies is their punishment. Whatever the reason, it’s made clear to them that there’s no going back from this. They won’t see home again in their lifetimes.

Broadly speaking, this mostly solves two problems. (‘Problem’ isn’t the right word, but it’s late as I write this and I’m sticking with it. You know what I mean.) It means that the setting can be easily imported to any campaign world a DM would like. It also mitigates the desire to look to the horizon and go exploring beyond the waves. They come from beyond the waves – they already know what’s there, and there’s no reason for them to go back.

Now, at higher levels characters have access to all sorts of things that let them hop around the world at will. Even if this island is thousands of miles away from the land that they came from, even if it took months for them to get here in the first place, there’s going to come a point in the campaign where the players will have the option to return. And I’m happy to acknowledge that making the players criminals, for example, might give them the impetus to return to their home once they’ve proven themselves, or whatever.

Short of artificially bounding the setting – like with Ravenloft’s mists, as we’ve previously discussed – there’s no way to stop that, and I’ve explicitly said that I don’t want to do that. So I’m just going to have to accept that it will always be a factor. If groups want to head back to Faerûn or Ansalon or wherever for a one-shot (or even to start a new campaign), there’s no way for me as a designer to prevent that. All I can do is provide a setting with enough things to discover, enough excitement, enough mystery, that the urge to return will be minimal. I’m just going to have to be OK with that. I could spend a long, long time trying to solve this problem, when what I really need to do is get to a point where it’s solved enough, and move on.

So I’m moving on.

So, we’re dealing with a colony here. I really like the idea that it’s in its very early stages. We’re talking a few simple wooden buildings, a crude wall. Possibly it’s on the edge of a sprawling forest or jungle or swampland or something; I like the idea of the settlement taking the space of the trees that were felled to build it, slowly creeping out into this hostile new land populated with indigenous people or creatures who are intent on stopping the progress of these new arrivals to their home. I like the idea of seeing this settlement grow or wane over the course of the campaign, of the actions of the players having a direct, tangible effect on the place they now call home.

And that brought me to something else that I thought would be an interesting addition to the campaign. And, in this case, I know exactly where this idea came from.

It came from two places: Pillars of Eternity, and Jan Sielicki’s Homeward Bound (which I reviewed for the Best Of back in March). In Pillars, the player is given access to a stronghold called Caed Nua, which you restore and expand over the course of the game. It’s something of a mini-game within the main game itself, but it also functions as a source for new adventures and storylines. Homeward Bound takes the idea of a player-owned base that can be expanded and used as a source of story elements, and adapts it to an easy-to-use system for D&D.

I want the main colony settlement to grow over the course of the campaign, and I want the players to have a hand in that. It might tie into the larger story; it might just be a source of intrigue and side-quests. I haven’t decided that yet. All I’ve decided is that it’s going to work in this manner; that’s good to know, because it identifies a system that I’ll have to build. At some point I’m going to have to decide how growing the base works, how it interacts with the main story, and all of that stuff.

At some point. Not now, though. Now, all I need to know is that this is a thing I’m going to include.

Turtle People

What I really loved about the Tortun was that such a potentially cheesy, stupid character concept was executed so tastefully. The Tortun feels like a race that could easily fit into the right game without making that game patently ridiculous. Now, I don’t intend to steal it. If, by the end of this process, I’m still including turtle people, I’ll probably stat up my own creatures – because it won’t be a playable race, it’ll be a ‘monster’. (Probably. I just had an interesting thought – literally, just had it as I was typing that sentence. I’ll come back to it in a moment.)

So. Turtle people. Stick with me.

This island is lush and verdant, and ringed with beautiful white sand beaches. It has been a home to the turtle-folk for millenia. I’m not sure what level of industrialisation they have at this point, but I know I want them to be intelligent, cinvilised, social, and peaceful. The island is dotted with sites of historic and cultural importance to these people. Perhaps they are deeply religious (I still like the idea of a volcano that is worshipped as a god, though that’s potentially piling cheese upon cheese). Whatever the situation, these people have existed in relative harmony for a long time.

Then the colonists arrive and begin defiling the land, turfing the turtle people out of their homes and generally making life difficult for the indigenous people of the island. Cue conflict, and the beginning of a campaign.

Initially, the main conflict of the campaign will lie in the tensions between the colonists and the people whose lives are being uprooted. I don’t know what the deeper story will be, what the ultimate secret of this island is yet. But I have a place to start.

Where To Go From Here

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what my next step is. I think probably I’ll work on developing the turtle people’s culture a little bit, figuring out some landmarks on the island, and generally developing what this place looked like before the colonists arrived. We’ll see where that gets us.

As a final thought, here’s that idea I had a few hundred words ago. It’s probably stupid; it’s probably over-ambitious, and something that I won’t end up doing. But coming up with ideas that end up being stupid and getting thrown out is a large part of this process.

I’ve got colonists, and I’ve got a peaceful race of turtle people who have suddenly found their homes being uprooted. I’m intending for the players to take the role of the colonists. But just as interesting – if not moreso, possibly – would be for the players to take the role of the people facing diaspora. I’m building one setting, and one campaign – but the events of this campaign are going to affect both sides. Is it possible to build both campaigns, and to allow GMs to decide which side of it they run?

The answer is possibly, but we’ll put that on the backburner. First, we need to see where this thing goes from here.

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