What I Learned While Creating My Latest Thieves’ Guild

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0999

How do you catch a unique bird?

Unique up on it.

How do you catch a tame bird?

The tame way!

In my Hobo Princes campaign, two races of bird people play an important role — kenku and aarakocra.

While world building and campaign planning, I opened up Campaign Logger and brainstormed a list of factions I wanted in play, automagically tagging each as I typed with the ^ caret symbol so I could instantly reference and connect ideas as I went.


Then I picked my favourite idea — a kenku thieves’ guild — and fleshed it out a bit more.

Before I get into the simple steps of doing that, let me share with you my approach for creating Duskfall and prepping Hobo Princes.

We’re Building A Puzzle

Say we’re doing a jigsaw puzzle. You know how you dump the box out and start sorting the pieces into rough piles?

Corners in one pile. Straight-edged border pieces in another. More piles based on colours, textures, or objects.

Then you set the four corner pieces in rough place. Next, you build most of the frame with border tiles. Then you start building sections, often working outward from a corner.

As you assemble the puzzle you spot matches. So you get pairs, triples, or clusters of pieces fit together, ready to drop into place.

My world building is like that. We’re building a puzzle. And we have a strategy to do it.

For Duskfall, I placed the corners of theme, major hooks, and unique aspects.

Next, I started building the frame. Those straight edged pieces are, for my style of game, factions.

And each frame piece has one clear purpose: to set up great gameplay.

What We’re Actually Building

  • All conflict, discoveries, and adventure opportunities in Duskfall begin with a faction. Empires, religions, courts, guilds, cults, gangs, banks, great families, villains, and more come down to faction design.
  • That’s the power map of Duskfall.
  • For example, the gold dwarf empire of four ages ago left behind many sturdy stone structures and pyramids. Some have remained sealed since. Others have been used again and again, leaving layers of dangers, discoveries, and treasures.
  • Gold dwarves as a faction not only had conflicts but they left conflicts that ripple outward to this day. This is how to drive hooks and gameplay forward.
  • Who wants what? What will they sacrifice to get it? Why will the PCs care?
  • And so what we’re actually building here is a framework for stories and adventures.
  • Our puzzle is all about assembling a world of campaign and adventure possibilities.

To Catch A Kenku

  • So back to my fowl thieves.
  • In CL I continued fleshing out the faction with a brain dump. I just typed whatever entered my brain in short sentences.
  • (Sorry, I had to redact some info to guard campaign secrets.)
  • As I was typing, a faction pyramid started to emerge. I grouped the kenku into a larger faction I named the Nekkantii.
  • I used the table feature to break the Nekkanttii into groups with names and quick notes for easy reference.
  • The point here is to get ideas down on paper.

Fast Cycles Between New Ideas? & Fleshing Out Ideas

  • Then move on.
  • After these quick notes I created entries for various items you see linked in the screenshot above.
  • That’s the key. Tag everything as you go. A tag (eg @Skeith, #Badlands, ^Red Cloaks) instantly creates a place in your campaign log for more info.
  • Your ideas pour out and get instantly cross-linked. I click on @Skreith and I see all notes I’ve created about him.
  • For tags I haven’t ideated yet, I create a new log entry and do another brain dump.
  • Soon I’ve got a connected web of factions and other campaign ideas.
  • By giving each idea a quick treatment, I start building out a bigger picture. An ecosystem of powers with agendas and flavour.
  • After experimenting with other methods over the years, I’ve found this approach the best way to go. It really enables creativity by giving you the freedom to create and connect ideas as you go.
  • As opposed to, say, top-down creation. You open Word. Create a long entry. Then write another long entry. And then another long entry. And ideas don’t really connect, because each long entry is written like a silo.
  • Then you have to refactor those long entries to account for new entries so it all makes sense. And then you lose the thought-threads and it all starts to feel overwhelming.
  • There’s a reason world books take months of planning and writing to create. They follow a rigid structure. They are awesome when done, but very messy and time-consuming to build.

In my example I used Campaign Logger. You could use other systems too, such as Trello, index cards, or Google Docs.

You don’t get the instant auto-tagging stuff, but your building strategy stays the same:

  • Brainstorm
  • Create entries for winning ideas
  • Give each entry a couple minutes of flesh
  • Connect entries as you go
  • Revisit and add to entries when new ideas hit
  • Keep cycling organically until you’ve got enough to play

Play Sooner Not Later

That last bullet is key.

We’re not making a months-long book here. My goal is to get to the game table as fast as possible with enough ideas and details to support a great session.

Because I want players and gameplay to start filling in the gaps.

Game your world out. It saves you a lot of time. It’s a fun approach to world building. It gives every person at the table the author’s quill. And it’s all done through the lens of your GMing.

I look forward to the encounter when the Murder Hobos meet the Nekkantii.

…And the moments of gameplay where we get to explore what it means to be a member of the Fisk.

…And how Skreith will react to whatever the hobos do.

…And how both players and GM decide to leverage flying aarakocra paladin patrols.

We’re building the game as we play it.

Just an amazing experience.

Quick Summary

To recap, I’m world building like a jigsaw puzzle.

Create your corners and frame.

Use factions to fill the puzzle in with adventure opportunities.

Get your ideas out fast. Add more later. Improve them by gaming.

What I learned while creating my latest thieves’ guild is it’s a whole lot of fun prepping this way!