Baby Steps In Campaign Setting Design
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #308
- Baby Steps In Campaign Setting Design
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Baby Steps In Campaign Setting Design
From Mike Bourke, Sydney, Australia
Designing a campaign setting is one of the most daunting and rewarding tasks a referee can undertake. For a novice GM, an established setting is probably the best choice, but there will come a time when a GM wishes to create something original.
Following are tips on how you might approach the challenge of setting design.
Set Your Minimums
The first step is simple. Decide how much you need to do, and do no more. As you proceed, ideas about the rest of the world will come to you. Take notes (and by Odin’s beard, keep them organized), but stay within your minimum boundaries.
My minimums look like this:
- The Home Base: Where the characters start their adventures, and where they will return to.
- The Adventures: Are they hack and slash? Political intrigue?
- The First Adventure: Where is it, and what happens?
- The Path(s): Between the adventures, and anything the PCs find along the way.
- The Context: How and why things are the way they are.
- The PCs: How much do they know? How do they fit in?
- The Players: What they’ll need to make characters.
That’s it. With this framework you can move on and flesh things out, one baby step at a time. As you do so, keep your framework in mind.
- The Home Base: A small town? A village? The capital of a kingdom? You don’t need to design it yet because we haven’t decided what the campaign is going to demand it include. As an example, let’s choose a fortified stronghold.
- The Adventures: You can choose a theme, a high concept, or a style (or all three). As an example, let’s specify high- fantasy with few traditional dungeons–all the adventures are wilderness and urban.
- The First Adventure: You’ll need to be specific on this one, but it’s still just an idea. As an example, let’s choose a monastery that sunk beneath the seas, which I think fits the high-fantasy setting we’re going for.
- The Path(s): It’s easy to get sidetracked and bogged down here, so keep it simple. Ask yourself, how can the players get to where they are going? What will they need? For our undersea monastery, they’ll need some means of surviving underwater, or of changing the underwater environment. And that’s it. Don’t worry about the specifics; just have your list of requirements ready for later.
- The Context: This is where things get meaty, and what I deal with for much of this article.
The Baby Steps Technique
There are two ways to develop ideas into a campaign. You can try to create everything out of whole cloth, imagining a complete world all at once, or at least conceptualizing major pieces of the puzzle that way.
The alternative is to proceed by baby steps, repeated over and over, until the seeds sprout with enough content to get the campaign underway.
Those baby steps are:
These eight simple steps are all you need to create an inherently self-consistent and original campaign world.
Before we start examining each step, though, one caveat: worlds generated this way tend to grow beyond the control of their creators, taking on a life of their own, and a tone that was not at all what was envisaged at the start. Without the guidance of big-picture choices and restrictions, the imagination is unfettered, and the outcome is anyone’s guess.
Step one is to have an idea relating to the first thing on the list of requirements, the home base. It could, and should, be something defining, but even if it’s insignificant, the idea and its analysis provides “sprouts” leading to the broader campaign.
As an example, let’s consider the following passage, and look for inspiration:
“A 3rd level wizard with a 14 Intelligence can cast continual flame three times a day, which means that, over the course of a year, that one individual can produce 1,080 permanent magical light sources. With that coming from a single low-level character, to my mind it again becomes a question of why continual flame lamps aren’t a standard part of any large fantasy city, unless magic is so rare that a 3rd-level wizard is a miracle.”
— Designer’s notes, Eberron Campaign setting.
Eberron takes the perspective that it is illogical in a typical D&D setting for magical light sources not to be a standard part of the architecture. Since we aren’t making Eberron, let’s look at the alternative, and see where that takes us. The alternative is that continual flame lamps aren’t as viable as they seem.
So that’s our first idea – it’s illogical or impractical to light cities magically.
Maybe there’s a strong guild structure that does not want to trivialize a high art. Magic might be outlawed, or seen as blasphemous. It might be unpopular. Perhaps there is a finite amount of magic to go around, so it is reserved for more important and spectacular actions, which fits our previous emphasis on high-fantasy and magic. Let’s go with that.
So, how is magic limited? We don’t want to introduce new rules to complicate things, and magic is a big part of our campaign, so what we’ll do is save this for later on our “hard questions” list.
If magic is known to be limited, then who can cast it? Maybe those who can be trusted to only use it when necessary, those who can’t be trusted and do it anyway, and those who are inherently magical. So, we have a magic licensing authority, we have a criminal class, and we have magical creatures.
We could ask when it became “known” magic was finite. We could ask when magic became finite. We could ask when magic became regulated.
Instead, let’s ask, “when is it permitted to use magic?”
- Not in self-defence, because if magic is in short supply then those who can use it are almost certainly well-paid for doing so, which means they can pay for other means of protection.
- In defence of the realm? Probably, especially if the military action takes place well away from the kingdom. That means magic would certainly be treated as a military capability and its secrets zealously guarded.
In general, the more trivial the application, the less it would be tolerated, to sum up the direction our thoughts are taking.
- In defence of the world, or the plane of existence? Absolutely. So, magic has been militarised. However, by the rules it is generally only useful by individuals, not by armies.
What sort of people within a military infrastructure operate independently and not in legions? Intelligence officers. So mages are James Bond types, and instead of “Q” giving a new piece of tech, he teaches a new spell. The evolution of our campaign world has definitely begun, and our simple idea has begun throwing off all kinds of sprouts already!
If mages are spies, they need someone to spy on. Where do they do it? We have already stated “away from home.” So, let’s ask where are these agents based? It would need to be somewhere well protected. How about the home base for the party? It’s a fortified position, from notes we’ve already made, so why not make it the headquarters for the mages?
We started out with a simple list of requirements for our campaign: a fortified stronghold as the home base, wilderness and urban adventures that emphasize the fantastic, an underwater monastery, some means of breathing underwater, and some means of overland travel. One single idea about the nature of that fortified stronghold, inspired by a single passage of text, has added a whole heap of ideas to that list. Magic is believed to be limited. It has been militarized as a valuable resource. It’s used by intelligence and covert operatives, and so on. We have put aside one question for later: how magic is limited.
The next step is to go through the rest of our initial list of requirements and look for any implications relating to what we have now. The 2nd item on the list is the type of adventures, and I came up with three possibilities:
- The party is a special forces team operating under the command of the military HQ.
- The party is a group that’s opposed to the military use of magic.
- The party are bystanders that aren’t involved either way.
If the latter, any mage that joins the party will have to come from the criminal subculture, or be inherently magical. Each possibility is valid, and each will have a strong influence over the campaign’s style. The GM doesn’t have to decide yet, but should note the implications.
The first adventure will take place in an undersea monastery. If the PCs are a special forces unit, the monastery is a military target. Maybe there’s a magical treasure there to be retrieved, or maybe there’s someone there who is using magic that the party has to drive off.
Remember, baby steps. We’re mapping out the potential scenarios, and once you have the basis for the adventure and its context, you can move forward, adding with each step and deciding how the party is going to fit into your design, or how your design can fit the party.
Another benefit of looking into all the scenarios is you come out of it well-stocked with alternate adventures, hooks, and NPCs. In our case, any opposition the PCs meet must be water-breathers themselves because we’ve defined the setting. Baby step, detail. Baby step, detail.
Our fourth listed item was some means of breathing underwater. This becomes a piece of cake under our campaign concept–they represent a magical high command, so they get something from “Q”. If we don’t want the party to have the items permanently, we can specify that they have to return the items afterwards. What about overland travel? The only consideration here is that it will have to be non-magical to blend in with the populace.
Finally, are there any other implications from what has been decided so far? One that comes to mind are the social state of magical beasts. Are they enemies of the state? Does that make beholders and dragons, regardless of deed or affiliation, enemies of the PCs? What about extra planar creatures? Suddenly, the opposition to the Magic Authorities is far more sharply defined!
One of the great strengths, possibly the greatest, of the baby steps technique is you aren’t doing everything at once. Instead, just make a note of the fact. Just remember that every time you go through the Implications step hereafter, examine each of your new campaign elements for what they do to your campaign.
Remember, it’s your world. You can change it. Is the campaign heading in a good direction? Are the players excited? Are you? It’s time to review and approve your campaign. Replace what you don’t approve of.
Making A Second Pass
There has probably been enough information generated from one pass through the system to run a successful campaign, but why stop here? Put real depth into your campaign world. Start over at the top of your list of requirements with a new idea and take it through the paces.
You will find you are generating items on the list far faster than you are examining them for new sprouts. The task will quickly seem never-ending! So, when is enough, enough?
There is a number of criteria that should be fulfilled before you stop:
- You should have a clear understanding of the local politics, geography, and recent history.
- You should know who the important populations are and how they fit into things – certainly, each of the races available as PCs should be covered.
- Once you know all that, you know enough to start running adventures, and should do so as soon as possible.
- Before you can do that, you need to take what is a wildly disorganized mess of ideas and notes and put them together in some coherent format. Be organized. Use your computer, if you can. Number and title your sections for easy referencing. Make a table of contents. Take all those great ideas and make turn them into campaign canon.
How much do the players know? How much can they discover? It’s a complex issue, but for now make the most reasonable decisions you can.
The easiest guide is the “need to know” basis. What do they need to make characters and make good character choices? Campaign world fundamentals should be treated as such, and made available to the players. In particular, (and I’ve learnt this one the hard way) will not knowing something mislead the players about the nature of the campaign?
Organizationally, it’s easiest to simply change the colour of the text. Undecided in blue, hidden in red, known in black. The alternative is to highlight the handwritten notes with symbols, coloured highlighters, or whatever.
Briefing Your Players
Once you’ve decided what they need to know, make a copy of the document and cut out the red. Then cut out the blue. Then read over what’s left. Does it make sense? There will be obvious holes – you can plug them with a common belief, a rumour, or a simple, “this is so far unexplained.”
Copy (from your GM master document) anything in blue that needs to be explained. Above all, emphasize this is what the players need to know right now. By the time you’ve finished, you will have a player’s document and a GM’s document. What’s more, the GM’s version has been colour-coded to remind you of what the players don’t know and what they might be unclear about. Print up copies and invite players to start generating characters, because you’re ready to go adventuring!
Take another look at your GM reference of the campaign background. Anything in red is a potential scenario source. Anytime you feel the need, take your original list of items and generate some more, using the same eight steps, to expand the campaign world.
The main reason to start adventuring as soon as you have done enough background generation is to stay focused and keep your ideas fresh. Remember how that list of sprouts was starting to grow out of control? In the course of play, you’ll find yourself making things up off-the-cuff. The players, and their characters, will have questions that you should know the answers to, but didn’t think of. And every answer you give is locked in, so it’s important to be consistent.
This technique works. I have used it successfully to set up multiple campaigns in multiple genres, twice generating off-the-cuff campaigns (one of which has lasted for over 20 years), and once with deliberate pre-planning (after almost 5 years of adventuring, they are close to uncovering the last of the original “red” sections and the secrets it contains). It’s simple and effective.
I hope these tips lead many more GMs to design successful and unique settings for their campaigns, and gives the novice GM the answers he is looking for. This is not the only way. But it’s one way, and that’s better than none.
A Brief Word From Johnn
GMail Forwarding An Option
Thanks to Gregg for a tip about GMail. For whatever reason, Yahoo continues to filter and block e-zine issues. Gmail seems to be receiving them just fine, and according to Gregg, you can use a GMail account to forward issues to your Yahoo account, if desired.
If you need a GMail account, I’d be happy to send you a sign-up invitation.
A Plea To Palladium Fans
Amidst controversy, Palladium is going public with a plea for help:
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Elevation Map Tool
From Sam Ra
First of all, big thanks for the great newsletter. Though I don’t have a gaming group right know I enjoy reading it.
Here’s a link to a map drawing tool.
It’s used for drawing elevation maps. No install needed. There’s lots of other freeware to be found here, some of which could be very useful for DMs.
Keys Of A Great Campaign
From Mike “Capt. D” Dockery
The other day I was rummaging through my D&D stuff and came across “The Campaign.” You know the one; the game that was the high-water mark everyone remembers. This was not only what I consider my personal best campaign, but the most requested by players. It has been revised and played numerous times throughout the years, but the pinnacle was the very first time. So, why was this “the” campaign?
The premise for The Five Towers was actually fairly simple. The players, each from a different dimension, were plucked from their everyday lives by a group of multi-dimensional elders. Their task was to find five keys, each located in a different dimension. Then they had to find the corresponding tower, which were also in different dimensions.
Throughout the course of the campaign the players traveled to numerous dimensions, some of which were already established (Forgotten Realms, The Wheel of Time, Ravenloft, Dark Suns) and others were my own creations. I think mixing my creations, from previous campaigns, with established worlds the players were already familiar with not only helped make it more real, but also more entertaining. Traveling, as they did, they ran into NPCs they were familiar with as well as their own PCs from other campaigns.
The players created some of their best and most well-played characters for this game. I would like to think it was simply because I am such a brilliant DM, and while this may be true, I can’t take all of the credit. I laid the groundwork, the players made the details. Almost all of the events that everyone remembers were the results of players’ decisions. My main villain was the typical power-hungry sorcerer, and the original storyline was full of holes. Yet this became one of our most cherished games.
I learned a lot from this campaign:
- Even the most faulty campaign can be saved. If you screw up, just react to your players and magic can happen.
- It’s not always a great main villain that makes a great campaign. My villain’s minions were more memorable than the main antagonist.
- Don’t plan too much. I had created countless encounters that were never touched because the players went in a completely different direction. Most of the time this only improved the game and kept me on my toes, as some of my best ideas came on the fly.
- Remember it’s not just your game. As DM you may create the adventures, but without players you’ve just got a stack of lifeless paper. The DM is the plotter, and together with the players, you write the story. I have played with many DMs who will force you into following their script.
- Don’t be afraid to mess with the PCs. Some people may not like it, but I found it can bring incredible gameplay opportunities and PC character development. During the course of the campaign the PCs switched bodies with some of the villain’s minions. One of the characters was put into a situation where they had to choose between killing their “real” body or saving their comrades. The player chose to finish the game in the body of a goblin while the rest of the group returned to their original bodies. Never once did I hear a complaint.
- Bend the rules. While I think the rules are important, they shouldn’t hold the game back. If a rule will interfere with the flow of the game, bend or break it. If you do this, be consistent–that rule is broken for the rest of the campaign.
- Most importantly, have fun. After all, that is what it’s all about. Don’t get so wrapped up in creating or playing a perfect game that you lose sight of why you are playing. Even the simplest of games can be great if you have fun.
Modern Buildings Resource
From Johnn Cinq
If you GM modern games, here’s a great resource: Apartment Guide
Select a random State and Metro and click on one of the results. The entry should have some great stuff you can use:
- An exterior photo for inspiration or to use as a player handout
- Interior photos to help you visualize and plan combats, scenes, and descriptions
- Floorplans. Instant maps!
- Amenities and furnishing – instant dungeon dressing. 🙂
- Prices – great for calculating PC rental expenses
Music To Game By
From Dave McKay
There have been some great Reader’s Tips in previous issues in regards to music for playing during gaming sessions. I’d like to share what I’ve been able to come up with.
I currently have produced 10 CDs of music for my gaming sessions. My first disc is a mix of music that I was able to put together from some favorite tracks off of soundtrack CDs I own. I was also able to find mp3 tracks available online at no charge from various artists and computer and video game websites.
From that point, I discovered many official computer game sites that offer downloads of mp3s from the game soundtracks.
Simply by going online and going to the links offered on my installed PC games I was able to find hundreds of mp3s and dozens of complete soundtracks. Even today, by clicking a link from your site, I discovered 20 mp3s of music that would suit a sci-fi setting, and many of those tracks will do fine for fantasy.
Here are some tips to for those looking to create their own gaming music library:
- Start with what you have. I have a couple of dozen soundtrack albums on CD. I simply ripped the tracks I wanted into my PC using my media software. Many GMs I’m sure may have their CD library ripped onto their PCs/Macs or laptops. I had also located some interesting mp3s online by visiting websites of computer games that I have. I also found music on the website of a major RPG publisher. You can also find music in your installed computer games. I then arranged those tracks in my media software. From there I burned a CD.
- Find new sources. My online experience showed me that there are lots out there on the web in terms of gaming music. From the sites of games there are links to others. I found mp3s and complete soundtracks available. I also discovered online RPG music radio. They maintain a library, and many of the albums and artists have links to their home sites where you’ll find lots of stuff. From surfing and Googling I was able to come up with hours of music. I have not used everything I downloaded and I produced 6 more CDs with about 440 minutes’ worth.
- Open up the bank vault. One of my favorite game music composers is Jeremy Soule. From visiting his website, I found an exclusive game music site (it’s fairly new, but the music that’s offered is great) that offers soundtracks for popular RPG style computer games. You have to purchase the music but it’s well worth it.
I use PayPal, and even if I didn’t have a credit card, I would simply have to wait a few days while PayPal debited my bank account for the purchase. Once the music is downloaded you download a license (part of the purchase) and you can burn the soundtracks to CD and/or synch them to a device such as an iPod or MP3 player. Some devices can be jacked to play through conventional/portable stereo systems.
- Anatomy of my library. Here is a list of artists, game soundtrack music, and other sources:
- Jeremy Soule – he has produced music for many popular game titles.
- Hans Zimmer – his many movie soundtracks range from modern, ancient Rome, and pirates. Titles include Blackhawk Down, Gladiator, King Arthur, Pirates of the Caribbean.
- Howard Shore – composer of The Lord of the Rings soundtracks.
- Midnight Syndicate – they’ve done several albums including a deliberate album for D&D.
- Za Frumi – very dark
- Kirill Pokrovsky – a Russian composer of much game soundtrack music
- Jon Hallur – composed many pieces for a MMORPG called EVE.
- Radio Rivendell – a great 24/7 online radio with an extensive library. Those that game with a computer in location with their session can simply tune-in. A great resource for links to albums, composers, and game soundtracks.
- Directsong.com – this is the site I mention in Point 3.
- Download.com – there is much free music from amateur and semi-professional artists.
The thing I enjoy about finding game soundtracks and free amateur stuff is that it tends to be fresh and can set a definite ambience for your sessions. It’s all well and good playing the movie soundtracks, the classics, your favorite rock group, (or Irish Celtic stuff in my case), but it does seem to be too familiar, and your players will ignore the possible moods you are trying to set. I’d get comments about “Dave playing his Irish ‘crap'” (this was, of course, a tease) and I got the point that they were tired of hearing music they did not fancy that much.
You can create playlists/CDs of different themes just as they do in computer games. Think of movies for example. Everyone recognizes Luke Skywalker by his theme, the Imperial March, for the Empire and Darth Vader. The Hobbits are evoked when you hear the rollicking medleys that accompanied them on screen. Just set your mind to it and don’t be afraid to experiment. Have fun and enjoy the music, too!