Let's Build A Campaign Setting – Part 1: The Foundation

When you are just beginning your journey down the road of Game Mastering, it is important to keep it simple, stay basic, and build off of that. In that same respect, it's not bad advice for veterans too. Eventually, though, every GM's mind wanders to the strange, unexplored lands of their wild imagination, and they are left to wonder “what if?”

“What if I had my own world?”

 "If it is so pretty, why does everyone try to blow it up?"

Not your personal variation on an already published setting, nor an arbitrary, generic setting where you just make up a couple town names (Not that there is anything wrong with either of these). I'm talking about a unique, original setting that has something that makes it stand apart from everything else you have seen or played (or even a combination of everything). This could be something as simple as militaristic blue-skinned elves running around oppressing the masses, or a steampunk setting where dwarves rule the world. 

"By royal decree, no shelf shall stand over four feet tall, and no ceiling shall be under twenty"

In this series, I am going to build a campaign setting from the ground up showing my hand the whole way. Let it be known that, while I have sold a few adventures, I am by no means a professional designer with years of industry experience. I am but a humble GM, and my methods might not be similar to the way you, or other GMs do their thang. What I do manage to do, however, is provide a simple, step-by-step process for summoning creation from your aching mind-hole (which is a thing, I am told).

Before we get into the meat of this bad boy, there is one subject I want to bring up, and no, it is not the location of my missing pants. A common mistake we GMs like to make is placing out setting in the spotlight. We make the setting the thing that drives the story. In reality, the campaign setting should be nothing more than a detailed backdrop, an environment in which a story can take place.

Yes, you can have things that tie into the larger history of that backdrop, but if you want your setting to live and breath, you need to be able to play any kind of story there, otherwise you are limiting your, and other Game Masters' creativity. This is a mistake I have made many times, and I have learned from it the hard way. Now, onto the fun part.

The first thing I like to do is boil the entire setting down to a word or phrase, like “The Gods abandoned us”, “Zombie apocalypse” or “Magic is dead”. This is the essence of the setting. No matter where you go from here, or how crazy your ideas become, this is your setting's core. It is the one thing set in stone that is not likely to change.

For this particular setting, I will stick to “An evil world full of good people.” 

 "Mine is an evil laugh."

My reasoning for this will be made clear soon.

Next, I like to ask myself three questions:

1, What kind of world will the characters be playing in right now? The present is pretty important in terms of setting. It gives you a level of technology to work with (gun, swords, or just bones to whack each other with). 

While medieval is the norm for most settings, I would like modernize is every so slightly. I want swords, shields, and armor to still be relevant, but I would like to advance technology to somewhere around the mid to late 1700's or early 1800's. Gunpowder is a thing, but because we still want our melee weapons off the endangered species list, its abilities and uses will be a secret jealously guarded by gunpowder masters. This level of mystery gives it an almost mystical quality, and I find it hard to say no to flavor. Magic and technology will have advanced at equal rates, allowing for delightfully flavorful fusions of the two. Arcane engines powered by runes? Transportation powered by magic? Sign me the hell up!

2. How much of the world has been explored or conquered? Knowing how much of your world is known is knowing how many surprises the map can still hold for the players. It is wonderfully convenient to look at a map and say, “Ah, the Webwood! Methinks arachnid menaces may scurry and crawl in yon wood. I shall take a detour through Puppy Canyon!”

But you cannot deny the excitement of looking at a map and realizing that there are things out there not yet marked, or whole landmasses that show up in no one's charts. Your characters could be the first people to set foot in a strange, new land. Or perhaps someone has beaten them to it, and has made sure it has stayed off the maps. Even more ominous is the prospect that its existence has been stricken from all known maps to hide some unspeakable horror.

Because of the sense of childlike wonder, those blank places can evoke, I will include undiscovered countries in out little setting.

3. Has anything catastrophic has happened? This is a big one. Catastrophic can be anything large enough to shape the world and how it works. This could be something like the Earthfall in Pathfinder's Galarion setting, where a massive meteorite crashed upon the planet and began a literal thousand years of darkness. Another fine example is the Forgotten Realms' Spellplague or the entire world of Athas in the Dark Sun setting (Magic kills the already dying world, and sorcerer kings rule the last nine points of civilization... and next to no metal, which is so metal!). The incident need not be a force of nature or a result of magic running amok. It could very well be a man-made problem, such as The Great War in Eberron, which was a conflict so large, and so deadly that large numbers of the population were culled, and the shape of nations was forever changed.

In this case, I refer you to the core concept of this world. “An evil world full of good people”. The great catastrophe that has befallen our happy little world is unthinkable; in the great battle of good against evil, evil was triumphant. This shapes the world like nothing else in this setting. The two armies of good and evil meet on the battlefield for one epic battle to decide the fate of the world, and the good guys gone and fucked it up.

To summarize, what we have is:
  • A world where the bad guys rule.
  • Technology sits around the 1700's, with guns a rare, but available commodity.
  • Magic and science are one in the same.
  • There are corners of the world still unexplored.
How does the evil influence effect the world at large? What kind of government is there? What happens to the common man? Can I get a decent doughnut anymore? These questions will be tackled next time, as we explore the finer points of our yet-unnamed campaign setting, and add some flesh to these bones.

You got the whole world in your hands,

+Ed The Bard 

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