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Making a campaign setting, part 1

Today’s article is the beginning of a series of articles with advice on creating your own homebrew campaign setting. That is to say, a homebrew campaign setting that isn’t “Generic Fantasyland”, where everything is sort of medieval, but not really, and if elves have a culture beyond “wearing green and liking plants” it doesn’t really matter, anyway. My advice is designed to help you create rich, engaging worlds that will leave your players entranced. If you’re happy with a setting that doesn’t really affect the game in any substantial way, that’s fine, and I respect that, but this article probably isn’t your cup of tea. In most of my examples I’ll be discussing Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy campaigns in general, because that’s what I know best, but there’s absolutely no reason that these tips can’t be applied to another setting, such as a superheroes campaign or a space odyssey.

The first, and perhaps most important tip when it comes to building a campaign world is this: take your time. I really can’t stress this enough. The number one cause of shoddy campaign settings (and shoddy campaigns) is being rushed in order to get it “on the shelves”, so to speak. As an aside, this is also the reason you should never buy a D&D-based game published by Atari until the gold version at the earliest, unless of course you enjoy bugs.

There are several reasons it’s important to take your time when building a campaign world. For one, if you want to make it a good world, it’s going to take a fair amount of time to fully flesh it out. Even if you have some hazy ideas floating around in your head, a general outline even, you’ll want details. And though I hate to break it to you, your “first draft” is almost certainly in need of revision. In fact, near the beginning of the process you may find your campaign setting looking very different from day to day as continents are added or subtracted and entire pantheons are re-written to suit a new idea. Assuming you eventually settle down, this is a good thing, but it’s definitely a stage you want to be sure you get through before the campaign starts: either your players are lost in a whirlwind of retconning, or else you feel trapped and wish you’d had that great idea about dragon-riders just a couple weeks earlier.

The other reason is that you want to have something to show your players before they start making their characters. By having a handout (or, better yet, a nice shiny website with well organized information in an easy-to-digest format, like you can find on Obsidian Portal) ready to show your players, at or before character creation, they can make characters that are tied in to your campaign setting, and, when the game starts, they’ll know things about your world. The sorts of things their characters should know. Because, ultimately, your goal in creating a campaign setting is to share that world with your players. Now, that isn’t to say that you want to do all that sharing through campaign packet, but that is where you lay out the basics and show your players the ropes, so to speak. Of course, making this packet takes more time (I know some DMs who spend more time on their packets than they do on actually making their setting), all of which you’ll want to do before your players even start rolling dice (or assigning points, as the case may be).

Now, if you have a regular gaming group, this can be a hard tip to follow. Whether DM-ship is passed around in your group, or you’re the only one, often the campaign idea you had barely begun to ferment is suddenly thrust out into the spotlight when the previous campaign spectacularly concludes on the business-end of a few natural 20’s. All of a sudden the pressure’s on you and your fledgling world, and all you know about your world is “it has a lot of factions and intrigue”.

Luckily, there is a trick to help in this situation: start your players off small. You can buy yourself a few weeks of time by having all of your players come from the same small, backwater town. Have the first few adventures stay local and keep them in the area, and in the meantime you can build the world out around them. Ideally this small town isn’t that different from “generic fantasy world”, but even if it is, at least you only have to give the players a campaign “packet” (you could probably even get away with a speech, if the town is small and generic enough, though the packet will let them reference it later) on that town. Later, once they’ve expanded out, to the capital and other nations and the like, it’s to be expected that farm boys (and girls) from a little backwater town wouldn’t really know all there is to know about far off and exotic lands. And once your world is fleshed out, you can have packets ready for players whose characters kick the bucket, and need to come back knowledgeable about the greater world.

By Alex Riggs


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