Continuing on with my discussion from the last article, it is time to turn our sights on designing your campaign world starting with the big picture and working towards the smaller aspects of the surroundings immediately used in a given adventure. For the sake of clarity, I am going to separate this method into two sub-methods: geographic and cosmological. But first, a caveat. While there is nothing inherently wrong with planning your campaign setting from the macro-scale and working downward, crafting a setting in this way is far more time consuming than the other alternatives I have discussed or plan to discuss.
Because there is so much to think about when creating the setting, it becomes a veritable rabbit’s hole in no time flat. It is easy to become quagmired in the minutiae of the setting, which can lead to some pretty serious burn-out for the game master. Also, many an ambitious game master have set out to create a campaign setting of his/her own, only to give up when it takes too long. The only advice I can give in this regard is to give yourself adequate time. If you are planning on running an adventure in your setting in the relatively near-future (say in less than one month) this is not the right method to use for planning the campaign setting. Rather, using one of the other methods from these articles will suit your needs better.
Before I get into the two different ways I have found success in designing a campaign setting, it is important to consider the following things. First, draw the world map. This seems like a no-brainer, but if you are going to populate an entire planet (or even just continent) you should probably know what that planet looks like. Who many continents are there? How about major oceans? Is this the only planet of relevance, or do nearby celestial bodies also need to be designed? How about alternate earths or planes of existence? If you choose to have them, how do they intersect with the campaign world? If you do plan on having these, how will you explain the presence of supernatural entities which traditionally hale from these planes/realities/universes/etc.? What kind of setting do you want? Is it a high-fantasy setting of noble heroes; a gritty, pulp noir setting; or something in between/entirely different?
Having a concrete answer to all of these questions will really help you to get off the ground and to focus your ideas. Finally, try to think of between two and six sources of inspiration for your setting (literature, video games, movies, music) and list them out specifically and make sure to write down what aspects of each you intend to pull from to inform your world. The numbers “two” and “six” may seem arbitrary, but I assure that they are not. If you only have one source of inspiration, your setting is likely to feel too derivative and will probably bore players. If, on the other hand, you have more than six sources of inspiration your campaign setting is likely to be far to muddled and confusing to enable you to get your players invested in it. To blatantly rip off Lev Vygotsky, we could call this middle ground the “Zone of Proximal Enjoyment” (I just made all the education and psychology majors groan in unison).
The Cosmological Method
One of the two methods of macro-level campaign setting design I have had success with is the cosmological (or the Silmarillion) method. This method starts with the game master writing a creation story for the universe in which the campaign setting lies. Basic questions such as “are there gods?” and “what is the origin of the different races?” should be answered in this step of the design. Other considerations include: How large is the pantheon? Are the gods involved in the affairs of mortals? Are the gods alone in their power/station? Are the gods omnipotent or just more powerful than mortals? Do the gods have adversaries? Where do these beings (gods, primordials, etc.) reside?
Next, it is time to bring out your map and to start filling in different geographical features. If your world is the result of divine creation, try to be purposeful with the reasons that “River A” is at “Location X”. Surely, if the gods made it, there must be some reason for its existence. After you’ve filled in the physical geography, it is time to turn your attention to the races that inhabit your world. If you want to put your elves in the middle of a desert, you should come up with a reason for that placement. Were they driven there? By whom or what? Have they been there long? How have they adapted to or modified their environment in order to survive therein?
Finally, plan the political geography of the campaign setting, starting with the largest levels of sapient organization and ending with the smallest. For instance, how are the desert dwelling elves organized? Are they a nation, city-states, rival kingdoms, or divided tribally? How is the territory distributed? How are each of these political entities governed? Who is in charge? What is the chain of command, as it were? Once you have figured this out for all of the relevant political units in your setting, it will enable you to figure out what kind of technology is available to the setting’s denizens. For instance, the increased use of firearms in Europe coincided rather nicely with the consolidation of the nation-state, because weaponry of this sort was too expensive for individual nobles to purchase for and outfit their own troops; rather, the national coffers were necessary for covering such expenses.
The Geographic Method
The other macro-level campaign setting creation method I’ve had luck with is the geographic (or the Hyborian Age) method. To begin, fully flesh out the physical geography of the campaign setting. In this case, do not concern yourself with what god would have put what feature where and why, but rather consider the material or physical conditions that would have given rise to certain features. Mountain ranges, for instance, often have deserts on the leeward sides due to orographic precipitation, rivers run from high ground to low ground terminating in larger bodies of water, and areas close to the equator of a planet will be the hottest part of said planet (assuming your world is spherical, that is). If your continents do not exactly fit together like a puzzle, write down a quick explanation for the tectonic activity that caused this. Are there sunken/submerged land masses, for example?
After the physical geography has been taken care of, begin to populate the areas with different races. It is important for you to consider which race occupied which area first, and what conditions caused the other races to move in. Were new races welcomed or seen an interlopers? What kind of armed conflict transpired? Have there been disputes over natural resources, grazing lands, etc.? How advanced technologically are the different races in regards to each other. Once thwsw sorts of questions have been answered, create relevant political units as explained above.
Last, come up with the dominant religions of the area. Unlike with the cosmological method of design explored above, religion is going to vary more from culture to culture in a setting designed using the geographic method. The deities of Orcish culture may be very different from Gnomish deities, and, especially when humans are involved, there may be no definitive religion for any given race. As the game master, it is of course up to you to decide whether or not one, all, or none of these religions are real and how that affects divine spell casting within your campaign setting.
Strong on his mountain (er...at his desk),
Strong on his mountain (er...at his desk),