Thursday, January 28, 2016

Design by The Seat of Your Pants

               So now that I’ve discussed starting from scratch, it is time to look into what a game master can do if ideas are not particularly forthcoming. Maybe you have an idea of the cosmology, but when you get down to populating settlements and adventure sites, you find yourself hitting constant blocks. Perhaps it is coming up with religious or political institutions that is not your forte. Luckily for us, we exist in a unique time when there is a lot of information we can pull from in order to complete our own homebrew worlds. Don’t worry about things being too derivative, because you can always reflavor anything in order to better suit the mood of you campaign setting. 

Beg, Borrow, Steal

                As any good teacher will tell you, sometimes you just have to borrow what works from others in order to get the job done. This goes doubly so for role-playing games. From early on, Dungeons and Dragons published books adapting real world deities and religions into something that works in the game world. Turning to Deities and Demigods in order to flesh out your campaign setting is simply working smarter not harder. Whether you are going to wholesale import a pantheon into your setting, or just pick and choose gods from several pantheons, this can give you a tremendous starting point.

                Likewise, you should feel encouraged to plumb published settings for ideas for your game. If you want gnomes that operate like the Tinker Gnomes of Krynn, you should not feel like you have make the race yourself, just steal the stat block from a Dragonlance setting book. The same goes likewise for providing monsters for your setting. While a given sourcebook will certainly not have everything you are looking for (otherwise you would probably be using that setting instead), there are bound to be useful bits scattered throughout the text. The most important thing to remember is that it is your setting, so you should be free to create the environment of your choice.

                The same goes for inputting published adventures into your campaign. You want to run T1-4, but center it in your homebrew world? Do it. This can be as easy as just putting the whole kit and caboodle in your game, or as involved as redoing some of the encounters in order to make sure it better suits your setting. Just do not let the pressure of feeling like you have to have a one-hundred percent original world get you overthinking things. There’s nothing new under the sun, so there is nothing wrong with contenting yourself with adapting things to your setting and giving them your own flourish.

 As long as you can create a narrative driven reason for having Beholder star empires a la Spelljammer and using beastmen from Primeval Thule instead of orcs, you should do it. Don’t feel like you need to use any idea as it is presented either. By adding a little different flavor, you can successfully throw off players who may have the same books from which you are pulling ideas. There is, after all, nothing better than watching players lose it over a monster that looks like one iconic monster (or something completely different) but is mechanically identical to a different one. This is also a great way of throwing off the veteran gamer who seems to know how to defeat every monster you throw his/her way. The important thing is two keep in mind these two questions: 1) what do I want this monster to be capable of, and 2) what do I want it to look/act like? You’d be surprised how easy it is to fill in the blanks when you keep these questions central to your thinking. 

I get by with a little help from my friends
                The final piece of advice I can really give on campaign world design is to, whenever possible, delegate responsibility. Being the game master is a difficult and time consuming job anyway, so it never hurts to spread the responsibility a bit. Allow your players to contribute to the design and culture of the world. Not only will they feel more invested, they will be more likely to act in character because they fundamentally understand the conceits of their character’s culture.

 It is usually helpful to provide some parameters for your players in order to make sure you all stay on the same page. For instance, it would really hard to explain the barbarian who comes from a mammoth hunting people of the northern wastes if there are neither mammoths nor a northern waste in the setting. By this token, make sure that the physical geography of your setting is fully set before allowing your players to take the reins of creative control.

                In regard to the map, this is another task that can be easily completed in a cooperative manner. I am going to steal an idea from my buddy Harms for this next bit. Provide a blank map for the players. Have each player come up with one feature (physical or political) and put it on the map. Pass the map around so that everyone (including the game master) has an opportunity to add one feature. Next, have everyone write down some cultural or physical details about the feature placed by the person to their left. Finally, the person to the left of that should write down some relationship the feature has to other features in the world or a point of interest/adventure hook for the feature. In under an hour you can have a fully playable setting.

Strong on his mountain (er…at his desk),

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Appendix N Again and Again

Campaign Creation: Go Big or Go Home


             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 ( his desk),


Friday, January 8, 2016

Campaign Creation: Starting Small

                Let’s face it, building a campaign world is one of the most engaging and time-consuming aspects of being a dungeon master. While there are a number of fine campaign settings in which to play published under the umbrellas of both official and third party, not every setting is going to fit your style of play the way you want it to. The question, then is where to start building your campaign world? There is not necessarily a right or wrong way to begin creating your setting, but having constructed a number of homebrew campaign worlds, I can only advise those actions which I know to be useful first hand. I will separate the creation of homebrew worlds into four distinct categories.

 Like many things in life, you may find that using a combination of these methods will yield your most desirable results. Regardless of your desire to fuse these ideas, each one taken on its own should help you successfully build the campaign world you are looking for. One final caveat: don’t expect perfection. There are far too many variables to consider when you are trying to create just one society, let alone an entire world. Try to keep consistency as best you can, but do not stress about some incongruity. No society is perfect anyway. In this entry, I will focus exclusively on the first method of campaign world creation: starting small.

Starting Small
                The method that I have experienced the most success with, by and large, is to start with the smallest necessary piece of geography, and then to move on to populating the rest of the world only when the events of the story necessitate it. You would be surprised how much you can plan for players to do in just a small, one-hundred to one-thousand square mile section of the world. Assuming you are operating in a quasi-medieval setting, most people will never journey further than twenty miles past their place of birth anyway, so knowledge of what is beyond the next town is going to be rather limited. Starting small can really maximize the amount of adventure per square mile that your player characters experience. Starting small also helps to tell a narrative of characters who come from humble origins and move on to bigger things. 

                The easiest way to get this method off the ground is to pick a settlement type and move from there. Is your game taking place in a city or village? Is it in the desert or amongst rolling, pastoral hills? What sort of shops and services are available? Why was this settlement established? Who is directly in charge of the settlement? What dangers lurk just beyond the borders of civilization? Who (or what) has settled before? Finally, once these questions have been answered you should decide who is the next person on the political hierarchy (name, title, duties) above whomever it is that runs the settlement. 

                After finding out the relative size and nature of your settlement, you need to answer a few more questions to really get the area fleshed out nicely. What is the dominant religion of the region? Are other faiths tolerated? Are demi-humans present? If so, whence do they come? What are the major agricultural products and natural resources of the region? Have there been any blights, droughts, or famines recently? Who are the major families of the area? Are there any familial rivalries? Does the settlement lie on the border between countries/is the settlement a major crossroad? How are strangers treated? Where can travelers stay?

                Once you have your settlement, populate the wilderness areas in a manner which fits the geography, and write down some notes about the history of the region over the last hundred or so years. I admit that at face value it seems absurd that there could be multiple dungeons in such a small region, but history teaches us that this is not so. If we look at the English county of Kent as our example, a serf in the twelfth century may be able to find remains in the wilderness from the ancient Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, and the Danes.

               Each of these cultures, presumably, could have constructed their own settlements that were abandoned or destroyed over the course of hundreds of years. The remnants may be overrun with monsters, brigands, or may sit empty waiting for a brave adventurer to claim as his/her own. There isn’t much of a reason to believe that any location in your world would be any different from the above real world example. This is why knowing at least one hundred years of regional history would be beneficial for the campaign creator, because it helps you decide more reasonably what lies just beyond the town for the player characters to explore.

 Strong on his mountain ( his desk),