Stat Boost: Let’s Build A Campaign Setting!

This article was intended to be the beginning of a new series on worldbuilding and campaign design, in which I’m going to build both a campaign setting and a campaign to play in that setting at the same time. It still is the beginning of that series, in a way, but this isn’t the post I wanted to put up today. Part of the reason it’s late is that I spent a while trying to figure out exactly what this post would be before I wrote it. I must have started it 5 or 6 times before I got to this point. (I also wrote a long post that will be going up on Stat Boost in a month or so – but it involves me talking about my next DMs Guild project, and I’m not ready to do that yet, so it has to wait until then).

 

What I wanted to do was spend the week prior to posting this getting a head start on the work involved in a big project like this, with the hope that I’d be able to come into this first post with a good idea of what I wanted to do with the setting and the campaign. Unfortunately, life got in the way – as it so often does – so instead I’m going to talk about what I want these articles to be, what my initial ideas for the setting are (and where they came from), and how I see this series developing.

 

The first thing to say is that this won’t be a weekly post. I simply can’t commit to that. I’ll try to do at least one a month, but it may be less frequent still. I apologise in advance for that – I know it’s frustrating when you’re reading an ongoing series and you don’t know when the next instalment might appear – but I’d rather start this and make some progress on it than put it off until I have the time to do it the way I’d ideally like to do it. That’s simply because I don’t know when or if I’ll ever have the time to do that, and so putting this off until then means putting it off indefinitely.

 

I’ve also been thinking about Friday Fight Night. As I mentioned last time, the journals are rapidly catching up to the real-world game, and there’s going to come a point very soon were I won’t have anything to write about for the weekly post because the game it needs to talk about won’t have happened yet. I’ve got a few ideas for things to fill that space yet – including talking in more detail about building adventures, with the upcoming game acting as a case study – and this worldbuilding/campaign building/whatever-you-want-to-call-it series seems like it would be a good fit.

 

What that means is that while this first post is going up on Wednesday (sort of) as a Stat Boost article, the rest of the series will appear on Fridays, when they do appear. They’ll be an extra Stat Boost for that week – a secret level to go with Wednesday’s normal bonus star. I envision this series as being something akin to Angry GM’s excellent Megadungeon series, though with less focus on spreadsheets and things because I’m just not particularly great at that kind of thing. Angry is excellent when it comes to game mechanics. I’m OK at it, and we’ll have to do some of it once we build adventures for the campaign – but that’s a long way off at this point.

 

What I’m excellent at is story. So for the most part, we’re going to be building this setting and the campaign that goes with it through the lens of story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First let’s talk about where this series came from, and then we’ll get back to what I want to do with it.

 

Buried Treasure

I’ve mentioned a few times recently that I’ve been looking through my old D&D boxes and notebooks and things, unearthing writing that I’d completely forgotten about. One thing I hadn’t forgotten about was the campaign world I built way back at the end of 2nd edition – a world which I spent about 2 years developing, even though I never actually ran a game in it.

 

That’s a weird thing for me to consider these days – that, once upon a time, I had the time to commit to building a world at my own pace, not at a pace dictated by the fact that I had a weekly (…ish) game to run.

 

I imagine most DMs are in the same boat when they start running a game in a world of their own creation. I know that some people go into it with a world that’s already fully fleshed out, but I imagine that for most of us we go in with a starting village and dungeon and very little else – maybe a vague sense of what fills the spaces on the edge of the map, an idea of where the campaign might go, and a bag full of cloth to repair the seat of the pants that they’re going to spend the next six months or a year or whatever flying by. It’s certainly how it always goes for me, anyway.

 

Frankly, I’d love to be able to sit down and put some time into my world. One of the reasons I haven’t continued the world building series I already started is that I haven’t done much actual worldbuilding recently. It’s happened as a natural by-product of the game, of course – if you’ve been reading Friday Fight Night you might have picked up on some of it, and honestly everything that I’ve done in developing that world is included in Friday Fight Night. There’s not much to see.

 

 

That’s my old campaign world. Two binders packed full of notes and drawings and maps. There’s a world map in there, drawn across 16 sheets of A4 paper. There’s a map of every major city, divided into districts and wards, with details about their economy, imports and exports, who rules where, internal politics, factions, all that stuff. There are dungeons, and new classes, and new monsters, and thousands of years of history.

 

It’s all pointless, because I never got it to the table. And it’s rubbish, frankly; it’s the worst kind of generic, Greyhawkian, standard D&D fantasy, the kind of stuff we’ve moved away from since people like George R R Martin and Joe Abercrombie showed us how things could be different. I have a vague memory that when I started building this world I’d recently bought the TSR Forgotten Realms boxed set, and that I wanted to build something similar for myself (and by something similar, I mean something functionally identical). There’s even a sheet in there with a list of what books would be included in a published boxed set of this world, broken down into chapters and subheadings. It’s ridiculous.

 

So if this is pointless, why am I bringing it up? Well, I’m glad you asked, because that’s a really easy question to answer.

 

I’m bringing it up because this world represents everything I don’t want the campaign setting we’re going to build in these articles to be.

 

What Am I Doing Here?

So, let’s talk about what that world is. What did I do 15 or 20 years ago that I’m going to avoid here? Is there anything I did – or wanted to do – that I still want to do now. I’m going to lay out some design principles that are going to guide us as we build this setting.

 

The first thing to note is that this world never saw play. Because I wasn’t building it with any particular adventure or story in mind, it’s massive. Like I said, it’s the size of something like the Forgotten Realms. That’s just ludicrous. That’s too much for one party to explore, and I want this setting to see play and be discovered by the players in the course of their adventures. I’ve got an opportunity here to design something coherent. The world I’m currently playing in is a lot of fun, and I think there’s a lot of potential there. But I’m building it week by week, fleshing out the parts that the players see. I’d really like to be able to start again and build a section of the world properly before they get to play in it.

 

I could, actually, just use the world of my current campaign – a setting I’ve been calling The Nine Towers – and build that. But I’ve already done a lot of it – Tarnswood, for example – and if I’m going to keep up any kind of momentum on these articles then I need to be building something new. That’s just how the creative part of my brain works, and rather than fighting it I’m going to embrace it.

 

We might keep some of the Nine Towers work. I might decide that this setting exists on the same planet as Tarnswood and all the places the Friday Fight Night party have explored. But I want as little baggage from that world as possible carried over into this setting – and I’ve run two campaigns in the Nine Towers setting. There’s a lot of baggage. When it comes time to think about gods and things like that I might steal from the Nine Towers. We’ll see.

 

So. The first design principle is simple.

 

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.

 

I don’t know how big that makes it, exactly. That’s something we might not find out until much later in the process. But it’s a good starting point, and it’s a good thing to keep in mind when we’re designing this thing. It tells us that locations should be fairly close together, and that we should look for opportunities to reuse existing locations in new and exciting ways whenever we can, rather than building a lot of space just for the sake of it.

 

Now, you’re probably thinking that this could easily be accomplished by just building a city. Waterdeep, Neverwinter, Baldur’s Gate – all of them contain enough to keep a party busy for a long time. Paizo’s Shackled City adventure path did this brilliantly with the city of Cauldron – and Paizo’s Adventure Paths are going to inform this design process quite a bit, because that’s essentially what I’m trying to emulate. There are two reasons that I want to go bigger than that while still building something constrained, though.

 

The first is simply that I want to. I actually just wrote a whole paragraph justifying myself on this point, but I decided I don’t need to. I want to build something bigger than a city, so I’m going to. Unless I build the D&D equivalent of Megacity One. But I probably won’t do that.

 

The second reason is to do with player agency and the way players affect campaign settings. We could easily ‘just’ build a city, but eventually the players are going to want to venture outside it. That’s fine – we can build a city and develop the immediate area surrounding it – but, players being players, they’re going to keep pushing out and exploring, no matter how tempting you make the city itself. Unless we build something they can’t possibly ever explore fully (or feel like they’ve explored fully, at least), there’s going to come a time when the DM is forced to build a part of the world on the fly. And I don’t want that. In fact, it’s explicitly something I don’t want.

 

This actually illuminates what our second design principle will be. It’s related to the first one, and tells us about how we’re going to implement the first one. In fact it could exist as a clause of the first principle, an indented bullet point beneath it. But I think it’s important enough that it should stand alone.

 

So. Our second principle looks like this:

 

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

 

There’s probably a clearer way to word that – it’s nearly 1am as I write this – and I may revisit it in future, but for now I’ll let it stand. Basically, if we put the players in a city, at some point they’re going to look out of a window at the hills beyond the walls and ask what’s there. We need a way to stop that happening.

 

The obvious answer to that is to make the setting an island. It’s a varied geographical space with very definite edges beyond which it isn’t easy to explore, and we can control exactly how big or small it is. It works as a nice way to limit us geographically, too – we can’t make City A a thousand miles away from City B if we’ve already established that the island is only 400 miles across. (And 400 miles across is probably too big, too. That’s half the length of England. But we’ll get to that later on in the series, when we know what we’re building.)

 

Obvious answers usually have obvious problems, in my experience. The obvious problem with it being an island is that people have historically looked at the waves and the horizon and asked what lies beyond it. Isn’t one of the most iconic lines in the first Pirates of the Caribbean Jack Sparrow’s final line, right before the credits roll? “Bring me that horizon!” It’s no “Why has the rum gone?”, but it’s a great line nonetheless.

 

But anyway. We’re getting off track. That will be fine later, when we’re doing creative work, but right now we’re doing what is essentially technical work, and I want to stay on focus. The island is a workable idea, probably, but it’s not a design principle. We can stash it for later.

 

Let’s get back to defining what we’re going to build before we build it, shall we?

 

Must Construct Additional Pylons

The third thing – which I’ve already touched on here – is that I want to build this setting with play in mind – which, again, ties into the first principle. We want the players to explore this setting, so we’re going to build it alongside adventures that encourage and guide that exploration. I’ve already mentioned Paizo’s Adventure Paths. I want to build something like that. A setting that is also the dungeon, on a large scale. All of our actual dungeons and adventures will simply be areas within the greater macrodungeon. (That’s a term I just made up, and shouldn’t be confused with ‘megadungeon’. I’m not building a megadungeon. Not here, anyway.)

 

The third principle, then.

 

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.

 

Again, there’s probably a nicer, clearer way of putting that. But it was 1am before, and now it’s later than that. Forgive me.

 

Those three principles are pretty much all we need at this point. I still don’t know what the setting looks like, what the story of the adventure path will be, or anything else (although I have a vague idea that it will be an island). And those principles won’t really help us come up with that. But what they will help us do is develop whatever ideas we settle on, and that’s exactly what I need them to do. I’m setting constraints on myself, but I’m not shackling myself to hard and fast rules.

 

Oh wait. I forgot something. Something that was included in the original world I built all those years ago that it makes sense to duplicate. Remember when I said that I was building my own Forgotten Realms boxed set? That’s it.

 

We’re going to build this for publication. It may take a very long time; I don’t know how or if it will ever actually be published. But we’re still going to build it with publication in mind. That means that, at some point, we’ll have to think about how to put this information together into a product. (And that post I talked about – the one I wrote but can’t use yet – actually touches on this a little, weirdly enough). But we’re not there yet. We’re not even close. But we have a fourth principle.

 

Let’s look at them all together.

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.

 

 

I’m happy with those principles. We may add to them as we figure out exactly what we’re building, but those four rules should stay with us in more or less their current form throughout this process.

 

I’m going to leave this here, because my next step is to start brainstorming ideas and if I do that now I’ll be here forever. I’ve also got the idea of an island fresh in my mind, burning away, telling me all the things it could be. I know that if I try and gather ideas now, I’m going to prefer anything that looks like an island – which means I’ll do more work on those ideas, so that even when I put them all to one side for a while and come back later I’ll still think an island is the best bet. It might still be the best answer, but I don’t want to find out halfway through this process that there was something even better staring me in the face all along.

 

I might build an island. But I don’t have to build an island. And if I start now, I know that I absolutely will build an island. So we’ll leave it for now. I don’t know when the next post in this series will be, exactly – knowing how my brain works, the next one will probably be fairly soon, and they’ll get gradually more and more spaced out until I have a breakthrough of some kind, at which point they’ll pile on top of one another. I know it’s a pain, and hard to keep up with, but this is going to be a design journal of sorts, and that’s how my design process works unless I’m working to a deadline. (We may find as we get further in that we have to enforce a deadline or else I’ll never finish, but for now we’ll leave it open ended).

 

I know this was long and kind of rambling. If you stuck with me this far, I want you to know that I really your time and attention. And I’d also like to hear from you about this. I’m writing for publication, so it makes sense that I should listen to what my audience want (even if I ultimately make the decision to ignore some of it). And if you read all of this then, like it or not, you’re my audience. So, talk to me. Is this a series you’d like to read? Do people still want Adventure Paths and new campaign settings in 5th edition? Is this purely a vanity project? HAVE I GONE STARK RAVING MAD? Tell me, in the comments or via email or carrier pigeon or however else you like.

 

Thanks again for reading. Join me next time – whenever that is – when, knowing me, we’ll probably be building an island.

 

  1. Building my own world/story/campaign also. Feels like a huge endeavor but approaching it one piece at a time. Being a new DM, I’ve started with just a couple scenes I had in mind, but then I realized I needed something easier to start with. I’ve built a couple more “chapters” with a number of scenarios/encounters that are much easier. As I’ve tried to build a cohesive storyline, I’ve been able to build the world mostly around the storyline. I’m pretty excited about my newest “idea” which includes using a pentagon to determine the placement of some of the major cities. This fits into one of the major plot lines I’m building out. I guess that’s the only principle I’ve got so far, “The world should support the storyline/plot”.

    Very interested to follow your development and see if there are any ideas I can pick up from it! Good Luck!!

    • It is a massive undertaking – that’s largely the reason I’ve decided to limit myself in certain ways. I actually don’t think I’m going to think about the story of the actual campaign at all until I’ve designed the setting where it’s all going to take place – but that’s mainly because I want to let the setting drive the story rather than the other way around. In fact, I think that will probably be what I write about in the next post in this series. I’m always interested to hear how other people approach these kinds of things though. I think you’ve definitely got the right idea in breaking it down into small chunks – it’s similar to any big project, really, in that if you don’t break it down into manageable tasks you’ll get overwhelmed very quickly.

      Thanks for reading. Hopefully you’ll like where this goes!

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