Let’s Build A Campaign Setting: What Am I Building?

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Let’s Build A Campaign Setting

Last time I laid out the design principles that I’m going to be working to; these are going to be driving the entire design process, so it’s important for me to keep them in mind while I’m hashing out ideas and starting to build things. Let’s review them:

  • The campaign setting will be big enough to accommodate a full 20 levels of adventure, while being small enough to be mostly explored and discovered by a party during the course of those adventures.
  • The setting should be constrained in some way that prevents the players exploring outside its bounds without encouraging them to push at those boundaries.
  • The setting is to be designed concurrently with a series of adventures that encourage exploration and discovery of the setting over the course of 20 levels of play.
  • The setting and the campaign that goes with it will form a published product for other DMs to use.

A lot of people (on Twitter and Reddit) told me that I should just build a world and not worry about whether the players explore all of it, or that I should decide on a start point and end point for the campaign and let the players build the rest of the story. Other people said that I should build lots of varied, interesting ‘zones’ – which could be countries, or cities, or whatever – to give the world variety and stop the players getting bored. One person informed me that all I needed was some locations and a villain with a goal that the players could thwart, and I had a campaign.

The rest of the advice was about ways to fulfil the second design principle – that of constraining the setting. There were suggestions about islands surrounded by endless ocean that is obviously empty and pointless to explore (which we addressed last week), or countries that fade to literally nothing as you reach the edge (which is stupid), or countries surrounded by huge, impassable mountains (impassable until the characters can fly, that is), or simply not providing plot hooks outside of a specific area. I addressed all of these concerns last week. People have always explored, and if you show your players a horizon, at some point they’ll head towards it.

I am not going to take that advice, because it misses the point of what I’m trying to do here. Rather than just dismiss it, though, I want to address the reasons why none of this advice applies here, and then talk about some of the decisions I’ve made over the past week and a half.

Why Everybody But Me Is Wrong

The first point – that I should build a world and not worry if it goes unexplored – doesn’t really need addressing, because I addressed that in the first article. If I build something that I think won’t ever get seen, then I might as well not have built it. One of my intentions – my explicit intentions, spelled out in the design principles above – is to reduce the amount of work required of me by ensuring that the setting is limited to a scope that the players could realistically explore. I spent thousands of words last week explaining why that was important to me, so I’m not going to repeat it here.

The second suggestion – pick a start and end point, and let the players build the rest – is how I run my current game. That setting is fun, and interesting, but – and again, I went into this in the first article – it means building as you go if you want to run an adventure in that setting. Even if the setting itself is entirely fleshed out, a GM running that game still has to build adventures every week. Again, that’s directly contrary to my intentions.

We’ll come back to the third suggestion – that of zones – in a minute because I have more that I want to say about that and it leads me nicely into talking about the setting, so we’ll get to that.

The fourth suggestion isn’t a terrible one. D&D is, by nature, an adversarial game – the players are the heroes, and the setting is filled with enemies for them to defeat and plans for them to foil. There probably will be a villain in this campaign, but I’m not at that point of design yet. Starting there isn’t really possible without knowing anything about the setting – any characters I could come up with now would exist in a void, and I would end up building the setting to suit their aims. That leads to a setting that feels constructed and contrived, in my experience. What I want to do is have the setting drive the story; a villain’s goals must make sense and exist as a result of the setting, not the other way around. Likewise, the player’s goals must be a product of the setting that they find themselves in; there must be a reason for them to adventure and quest that is driven by the story, and the story must be driven by the setting.

You may disagree with me on that last point. That’s fine. But that’s what I want to try and achieve, so that’s how I’m going to design this thing. Things like storylines and character motivations will come much, much later in the design process – they won’t be there from the start, and the setting won’t be built to accommodate them.

Which brings me back to that third suggestion – the idea of building varied locations to allow the feel of the campaign to change. Now, it goes without saying that players will get bored fast if the setting they find themselves in is always the same. At that point, you might as well build a featureless void. On the surface, this advice looks good.

My problem with it is that it leads to a ‘kitchen sink’ approach to design. If I decide on cool things I want to include in the setting, build them, and then throw them all into the setting and call it done, things will be an unholy mess. That’s how you get glaciers bordering deserts that turn into swamps before below floating islands populated by bird people who are obsessed with dairy farming and build epic games of Tetris in the clouds. (OK, so that’s extreme, but you get what I mean.)

At this point, I don’t want to decide on the cool stuff I’d like to include. I don’t even want to think about it yet.

Here’s an example of why. I love Dark Sun. I love adventures in deserts; hostile terrain, weird magic, weirder monsters, the constant thirst for water, strange ancient ruins buried in the sands… the list of things I love about desert adventures goes on and on. I could start building desert encounters now and never stop. At some point I’d throw them all together, tie them off with a plotline designed to show off all this cool stuff, and I could call it done. And it probably would be pretty good.

The problem is those design principles I laid out last week. Specifically, I’m talking about that third principle. Remember?

  • The setting is to be designed concurrently with a series of adventures that encourage exploration and discovery of the setting over the course of 20 levels of play.

Now, you may be sitting there thinking, “Aha! But you’ve contradicted yourself!” Didn’t I just say that I wasn’t going to think about plot and characters and story until after the setting is built? How can I do that if I’m going to design the campaign and the setting concurrently?

Well, let me explain.

The Difference Between Worlds and Settings

Have a quick look back through everything you just read and tell me how many times I used the word “world”. I’ll wait.

Done? Good.

The answer was 3, and every time I was referring to something somebody else said. I’ve never said that I’m building a campaign world. I’m building a setting – a location for adventures which exists inside a much larger world, the majority of which will never be defined.

Think about the Forgotten Realms. You may think of it as a world, because it’s huge, but it isn’t – it’s a setting. The Realms – the setting – is the continent of Faerûn; the world is Abeir-Toril. Toril itself also contains Kara-tur, Maztica, and Zakhara – all of which are settings in their own right.

Generally, there are two things that prevent players in the Realms from wanting to explore Maztica; the first is the sheer size of Faerûn. It’s enormous, and you could play games in it for decades without seeing all of it. But we’ve already decided we’re not building anything that big, so we can’t rely on that to keep our players in the bounds of our setting.

The second is the simple fact that most DMs never mention the other continents on Toril. The players – or the characters – just aren’t aware that anything exists beyond Faerûn. And the size of the Realms makes that easy to achieve; many groups will never come to a hard border in the realms, a place where nothing is known about what lies beyond the line of the sky. They will never think to question what else might be out there.

We’re building a small, constrained setting, where borders will probably be quite visible. We want to encourage the players to explore the place that they find themselves in without being tempted to venture beyond it. It’s a big ask.

So we need to find a way to address this issue, without relying on the Ravenloft-style mist or a land that fades into literal nothing. The main reason is that I think it’s stupid and cheesy. But there’s also the fact that a literal void at the edge of the world is way more tempting to explore than an endless ocean, by dint of being completely outside the realm of what is normal. Players are going to question it and probe at it, and they’ll get frustrated when you don’t have answers beyond “you can’t go there because I said so.”

And that’s all that the mists of Ravenloft are, by the way. They’re a lazy way to keep your players inside the sandbox you want them to play in. And in my experience, players don’t really that aspect of the setting.

Remember that John Cusack film, Identity? Right at the beginning, Cusack’s character runs away from the motel, only to find as he crests a ridge that he was somehow come full circle, and that he can’t get away no matter how hard he tries. He’s initially confused, but quickly becomes frustrated and angry that he’s being held here against his will.

That’s been the reaction of every party I’ve ever DMed or played in in the Ravenloft setting. It may not be your experience, and that’s fine. But it is my experience, and it’s not one that I want to repeat.

The Solution

So I’ve done a lot of talking about the things I don’t want to do, but not much about what I do want to do. And honestly, I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week. I said quite flippantly last time that, because I’d had the thought of making the setting an island, I’d come back here this week and start designing an island.

And, what do you know, all I’ve been thinking about are islands this week. And while it’s probably the right answer, I’ve been hesitant to embrace it for the reasons I listed about deserts a few minutes ago. I feel like I need to think about it more.

But then, I know me, and I know my tendency to overthink things. I’m of the opinion that I can usually trust my gut when it comes to things like this, and that I don’t need to spend too long justifying it to myself – but I usually do spend too long, to the point where I tire of thinking about it. I don’t want to do that with this. So we’re going to do an island.

I didn’t just decide that on a whim, though. As part of trying to figure things out this last week, I went back through the notes on my old campaign world (not setting – world. That was definitely a world). And what do you know, but I found something I’d completely forgotten about.

There’s one very slim folder of notes in and amongst those two binders I showed you photos of last time. It contains the most incomplete section of that world – the piece I was working on when, for whatever reason, I put the project aside one day and never went back to it.

That piece of the world was an island. It was small, self-contained, and contains a small piece of writing that I think might be the key to this whole thing.

I’d built this island off the south coast of one of my big sprawling mainland empires, hundreds if not thousands of miles across the ocean. I think I intended it to be a late-game target for whatever group eventually played in this world. I had this whole history written about how it was discovered and exploited and who controlled it and who fought wars over it and blah blah blah.

I’m scrapping all that. I’m just keeping one fragment. It says this;

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

That’s it. Besides the history and all that stuff, that’s all I have for this island. That fragment, a coastline, and one X on the map showing where this frontier settlement would be, plus a mountain range in the middle of the island.

I’ll probably scrap that coastline and the mountain range, too – what I’ll keep is the idea of a half-built colony settlement, and the island being unexplored.

This is the campaign hook, and the reason that the party aren’t going to look across the waves in search of new adventure. For whatever reason, they’ve left their homes thousands of miles away (in whatever world we place this in – and that’s a nice bonus of an island, we can put it anywhere with ease) to spend months on the ocean, and they can never go back. Maybe there’s a reason they can’t go back – are they all convicts, being transported? Or maybe mappers and explorers sent to settle and chart this land. That detail isn’t important at this stage.

What is important is that we have a self-contained area that we can resize to fit our needs as we build, a reason for the players to be there and not try to leave (because there’s a clear goal built into the campaign – chart this island), and a reason for them to explore every inch of it (which is the same reason they aren’t going to head back over the sea any time soon).

And with that, a campaign setting – and the campaign to go with it – is born.

The Next Step

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what the next step is at this point. At some stage I have to build the island – and although I said I’d do that in tandem with writing the campaign, I think I’ve done enough on the campaign side of it already (believe it or not). The next thing I need to determine are basic details of the island – stuff like the kinds of terrain that will be encountered, but also some kind of pre-colonist history of the island. Who was here first, and where did they go? More importantly, why did they go? What kind of structures did they build? What history can be found here?

That will help me determine sites of interest – crumbling ruins, underground lairs, whatever, things to act as your traditional ‘dungeons’ – and all of that will inform the current state of things on the island, which will inform the shape the story of the campaign takes.

That’s going to take more thinking, because at this point I’ve done a lot of thinking about why it should or shouldn’t be an island and not much else.

I have this vague idea that it was once populated by elves – because with elves comes weird, ancient magic – but that they’ve devolved into a feral subspecies that communicate through clicks, whistles, and bird-like chirps. That can be filed away in the ‘kitchen sink’ folder until I know whether it fits where I’m going or not. I might decide this is a desert island, after all.

Join me next time – two weeks from now, in theory – when we’ll possibly get around to making some bigger decisions. Possibly.

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  1. Let’s Build A Campaign Setting: Distance, Travel, and Size – Loot The Room
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