Archive for January, 2014

There’s a question I’ve been asking myself quite a bit lately. Not only do I need to come up with a name for this campaign setting, I need to name all of the locations, characters, buildings, deities, customs, landmarks, items… the list goes on and is quite daunting.

Right now my big problem is I need a name for this campaign setting so I can easily distinguish it from others when I’m talking about it in these blog posts. It’d probably also help to have a name for the material world or planet where this all takes place. Perhaps those are one in the same. Perhaps not. More on that later.

When it comes to writing, nothing makes me more self-conscious than making-up names. And on the fly? Forget it. Of course, you know this comes up all the time at the table. My players head into a tavern and want to chat up the bartender or know the name of a random governess sitting with the duke at a ball. It’s up to me to come up with something. I used to always end up with something outlandishly generic like Guinness the barkeep or something outlandishly made up like Princess Buttercake.

Chris Perkins, DM to the stars, has a genius fix for this. He pre-generates a list of names and then puts clips them on the back of his DM screen, so they’re right there whenever he needs them. If you play online through roll20.net or another service like I do you can have a Google Doc open or have one of hundreds of online name generators handy (many of them will ask for a race and a sex of a character as well which is helpful in creating an authentic name. Gorax, Eater of Worlds isn’t an awesome name for halfling jester).

Also, keep track of your names! This will be helpful not only during your current campaign, but for campaigns in the future. I keep a running list of NPCs, places, and organizations that I include in a short, weekly summary email to my PCs. These names often just have a one line description next to them, to help my players and I remember who the person is. For example:

  • Moses Gomer – middle-aged, male, Cyran human who hates The Church of the Silver Flame.

By keeping track of your names, you’ll know what you’ve used in the past so you won’t re-use in the future. My mind often goes back to the same places. I love names that begin with A and end in -ar for some reason. Once you’ve gone through Andar, Alkar, Avar, etc. your mind will want to start back at the beginning. Keeping records helps you avoid the mistake of repeating a name you’ve already used. Believe me, you don’t want to have your players begin referring to NPCs as Andar I, the half-orc paladin and Andar II, the gnome necromancer.

Proper Name Creation

Lists and records are all well and good, but really don’t tell you how to come up with names. Certainly going to online name generators is one way to go. But you’ll find those names quickly repeat themselves (if anyone knows of a really good one, let us know in the comments) and you’ll be searching for a new generator and then another and then another. There’s no one great way to come up with an awesome name for a character or country or secret guild of assassins. Here’s some tricks I use to come up with cool names.

  • Google translate. Often, I will take a word and translate it into another language to help me get name or inspiration. For instance, Axe is a painfully obvious name for a dwarf fighter wielding his namesake. However, according to Google Translate, axe in German is achse. Achse is a pretty cool name on its own, but if you like your translations cut with a little bit of fiction, add a nice hard consinent sound to the front and end, since dwarves are a hardy people. Pachset, Rachser, etc. are all pretty cool dwarf names. I like to use Latin for secret societies and important guilds, Romance languages for Fey races, and Germanic languages for hardy warriors, but you can use whatever you like!
  • Modify existing proper names. Honestly, there’s a lot of proper names out there in fantasy already. Let’s take one that’s common – Bilbo Baggins. We have a halfling, inspired somewhat by our famed hobbit, but we don’t want to steal his name outright. Play with the name. First, let’s change one of the vowels in each to make him Bolbo Buggins. Nice, but still too close. We have a lot of Bs here, let’s replace them with an entirely different letter, like K. Kolko Kuggins. That might be far enough, but I say we take it another step and replace the Gs in his last name with Ss. So now he’s Kolko Kussins. If that’s still to close for you, add a syllable to the end of the name for good measure. Something that you see in a lot of words, like -us, -ar, -son, etc. Kolko Kussinson is unrecognizable from Bilbo Baggins.
  • Fantasy names have objects and actions in their names. Solo. Skywalker. Proudfoot. Took. Give those to your character as a last name. Kixaras Firethorn is just as badass as he sounds, people! What about my old monk, Brother Feldwyr Sigma? Or the simpleton Tummas Roll? It’s simple and easy. To add a special touch of exaggeration to your names, throw a “the” in the middle of a name, like Gandalf the Grey. Tummas the Roll becomes someone else all together, don’t you think?
  • Make a note and save. Sometimes a name will hit you at the strangest time. If you’ve got a mobile phone, open up that note pad app or write yourself a text or whatever and save it. I guarantee you’ll thank yourself later when you’re adding it to your master list of names. Notes on the fly are your friend. So are lists.

I’ve applied the first technique to name the world in which my campaign takes place. Since the morality of the world’s people isn’t perfectly black and white, I’ve decided the name of the world should reflect that. I’m going straight, uncut Latin on this one and calling the world Canus, which means gray in that wonderful dead language.

Title Creation

Titles are almost something else entirely. Many campaign settings have a title that describe them, which helps make them marketable. Forgotten Realms takes place on the planet of Toril. Dark Sun takes place on Athas. I want to do the same thing for Canus.

In my day job, I write a lot of marketing copy and often attend brainstorms to help think up the titles of television shows. I think the name of a world should follow a lot of copywriting rules. Keep it short, memorable, and have it reflect your central idea. You don’t want a whole phrase to be the title of your campaign setting, unless you’re getting very experimental. Good lord, the internet needs to abbreviate Forgotten Realms to FR, what would they to do A Gilded Era of Discovery and Diplomacy?

Looking back over the world, exploration and the times seem to drive a lot of what’s taking place on Canus. The time period is just as important as the place in this (or really any) setting. I want to open up the feel of adventure and excitement. Who knows what you might uncover as you delve deep in Verda or some ruins? How might you handle diplomacy in a time when everyone is both competing and dependent?

I’ve decided to call my setting Exploration Age. It evokes the Age of Discovery in our time, but exploration is a more adventurous word to me. Discovery can happen by accident. Exploration is work and adventure – it’s something one chooses to do. This is a time where folks are out there making their own names and fortunes. Let me know what you think!

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Straight-up theft. I confess. That’s what I did, people. I stole an idea right out of the Scales of War adventure, “The Last Breath of Tiamat,” in Dungeon Magazine #175 by David Noonan.

You see, since 2008, I’ve DMed two Fourth Edition parties from level 1 to level 30. That’s huge. We did it twice in six years. You know how many things you could accomplish if you did them for three hours once a week for six years? You could learn a new craft or musical instrument. Bake a whole bunch of pies. Take your significant other out on many fun dates. Watch many different TV series on Netflix. Play through all of Skyrim. Get buff at the gym. You get the idea.

Anyway, that’s not to say you should do something other than create a totally unique story with your friends. That’s the best way to spend time, in my opinion. However, at the end of all things, when Orcus the Demon Lord of the Undead’s corpse lies crispy and headless upon the ground or when you’ve saved all of Eberron from rakshasa princes planning the return of Bel Shalor, you want to feel like your character’s actions and story are lasting. You want a legacy.

So I stole. And I have no bad feelings about it. Never feel bad about stealing a great idea, folks. It saves you time and it’s a form of flattery. Game designers have been stealing from each other since chess and checkers. I assume you’re reading this blog because you want to steal from me. Do it. Please. It would honestly make my day.

Anyway, for my purposes, I stole a cool idea that happened at the end of the Scales of War adventure path, which was a series of Fourth Edition adventures designed to take PCs from level 1 to 30. The final adventure’s last words were options for the impact Scales of War could have on your next campaign world. Here’s the option I stole.

Screen Shot 2014-01-27 at 11.56.06 AM

So I had an other-worldly entity invite my players to throw objects into the Well of Heroes. I did it twice, actually, once for each campaign. Both times, stuff got chucked and fun was had. It was a great way to make the PCs legacy feel like they had an impact that wasn’t going to fade away once the campaign was done. Or so I thought…

Crap!

Some of you are already shaking your heads. I know, I know. David Noonan even says, “This option breaks the fourth wall a bit.” Now I have a 12 items, some from the Nentir Vale campaign setting and others from an Eberron game, that I need to work into a story and I don’t want it to feel forced or cheesy. Will it cheapen the world I’m building to have the players find objects that tie into other heroes from worlds unknown? How would their new characters know the history of the old characters in-game? Will their new characters even need the same kind of equipment? What about the avenger who dropped her holy symbol of The Silver Flame down the Well, how can I justify that in a world without The Silver Flame? Oh yeah, and one player who was in both campaigns went abstract with it. In the Nentir Vale campaign he played a star pact warlock and whispered the true name of his star down the Well. In the Eberron game, he cried a single tear into the Well for his lost love. Really cool at the time, but… what am I supposed to do with that now?

I was in a rough spot. If I didn’t have the objects show up, it would cheapen our previous games and those PCs would lose a piece of their legacy. If I did include them in the new world, they run the risk of cheapening that game. Also, to make matters worse, I recently recorded a podcast with a few of my players. We were talking about connecting the material plane cosmologies of different D&D worlds. For instance, Forgotten Realms’ material plane would have a portal to Eberron’s material plane and visa versa. For the most part they all thought that material planes should stay away from each other. They didn’t want to travel from Eberron to Forgotten Realms to the Nentir Vale or anywhere else. They thought that approached hurt the integrity of both worlds. It’s a safe bet that seeing pieces of their old PCs’ gear show up in my new homebrew world would be equally off-putting.

Thanks, buddy!

During my recent brainstorm with Andrew, he threw another idea out there. What if the objects from the Well of Heroes landed in this new world when it was just beginning to form? Rather than remain objects, they were absorbed into and morphed the world around them. Andrew, like David Noonan, had his idea straight-up thieved by me. Well, he offered it. I just took him up on that.

To me, this seemed more acceptable, and frankly, way cooler. The items didn’t land in a pile at the end of a Well of Heroes. They traveled through the Well into the place where worlds are made and influenced what happened there. The old items aren’t shoehorned into the new world. They’re a living, breathing part of the world that have been there from the start.

For instance, a lightning staff thrown down the Well of Heroes by a dragon magic sorcerer becomes a perpetual storm of arcane lightning that defends a nest blue dragons. Here’s a list of what my players threw down the Well of Heroes and a musings on what each might be.

  1. Staff of Ruinous Lightning – a perpetual storm of arcane lightning that defends a nest blue dragons.
  2. Ritual scroll of Raise Dead – an altar within a cavern that can restore life to any remains placed on it as per the true resurrection spell. Once it is used the altar disappears and reforms somewhere deeper in the dangerous cavern.
  3. Healer’s Brooch – a special hot spring where a character may bathe once per day and receive the effects of the heal spell.
  4. Staff of Time – a tree with purple fruit, when consumed, gives the creature an extra action once per turn for a minute. During the duration of this effect, the character is also considered intoxicated.
  5. Shield of Barrier Sentinels – becomes a grove of oak trees that prevents creatures from attacking each other unless they make a DC 20 wisdom saving throw. Once one creature saves it can attack others and others may attack it.
  6. Holy Symbol of The Silver Flame – a small mountain from which a precious silver can be mined that is particularly devastating to lycanthropes.
  7. Magic twin bastard swords – enormous, twin cacti that grow needles which can be turned into magic arrows.
  8. Armor of The Silver Flame – a swamp under a perpetual Protection from Evil effect.
  9. Dawn Warrior Dagger – a canyon where fire, lightning, cold, and acid have no effect.
  10. A portal gun – An Underdark cavern with a portal that may teleport six creatures anywhere they’ve been with a DC 20 Intelligence check. An unsuccessful check results in random teleportation.
  11. A single tear, shed for lost love – a waterfall that when gazed into will reveal an individual’s romantic future.
  12. The true name of a star – thousands of diamonds line a canyon deep within the ocean floor. When thrown these diamonds explode with starlight on impact, doing radiant damage.

Just some thoughts, but I’d love to hear what you think these things could be. Leave me a comment. And hey, if you’re liking the blog, please share it, follow me on Twitter, or check out my podcast on The Tome Show.

My last post got me psyched to start fleshing out this world in more detail. There’s two gameplay guidelines I want to have in my world to help make it feel full and complete.

  1. Every country should have enough ideas for adventure that a party could spend an entire campaign (levels 1 – 20) within its borders and not be bored or run out of quests to discover.
  2. Every country should be interconnected to the rest of the world in enough interesting and complex ways that a party could spend an entire campaign (levels 1 – 20) running all over the world in way that’s not-forced and organic to the story.

This way if my players want to have an entire campaign where my party is helping warforged ex-slaves organize a rebellion in Bragonay and getting into the nitty-gritty details of the caste system they can do that. They can experience an intimate story with some epic challenges even if they stay local to one area the entire time. Or if they want to experience every corner of the world as they battle evil cults in Verda while trying to recover artifacts spread all over the world for a mercenary guild, we can create a story that’s massive and sprawling, but feels just as compelling and intimate as a localized campaign.

Brainstorming Rules

All this is to say you need ideas and lots of them to make compelling, intimate stories and tie places together. There’s no better way for me to generate ideas than to sit down and brainstorm. It’s old-fashioned, but it really works. My incredible day job, working as a television promo writer/producer, involves brainstorming creative ideas every single day. Here’s a few basic rules I like to follow when throwing out ideas.

  • Every idea is worth writing down. This is the brainstorming golden rule. Even if it’s “every dwarf should own a spirit monkey.” When you have those more far-out ideas, get them down, out of your head, and see what other ideas they lead to. Let the trail of ideas take you to crazy places and worry about editing yourself later. Brainstorms are all about idea generation. Quantity is king. Write down all your ideas and there’s bound to be at least a little gold in the pan.
  • Go down the rabbit holes. Some ideas in brainstorms are short and that’s cool. If you simply write, “ancient city swallowed by sand,” that could be it. Maybe you haven’t fleshed out the idea and you just want that as a starting point. But if you there is something more there that excites you, write it all down. So that idea might become, “ancient city swallowed by sand after evil cult performed a ritual to kick up the desert winds.”
  • When possible, have a partner or team. Collaboration during brainstorm can build huge ideas you never would have come up with on your own. Remember to build off each other’s ideas and when you think something is cool or interesting, say so. Don’t shoot ideas down and apply the brainstorming golden rule to others’ ideas as well as your own. Let someone finish a thought before you say, “Yes, and…” to build on his or her idea. You can get caught up in how cool something is and want to jump in before he or she has completed the thought.

The Process

So I got together with my player and life-long friend Andrew to generate some ideas about Bragonay. I picked Bragonay simply because I was excited to work on it and already had a few ideas I wanted to bounce around. Since we both have day jobs, we did the brainstorm using gchat. This was great because not only did it mean we could walk away to do work and come back to the brainstorm more easily, it also means there is a record of our entire conversation saved within my email now. Andrew is a good choice, because he offered to help, I’m already very comfortable kicking around insane ideas with him, we’ve been playing D&D together for more than ten years, and he’s got an academic background in classical studies. Andrew is able to think of a lot of real world allegories for our ideas.

We began by going over what we knew about Bragonay. I had made a list of some specific categories for which I wanted ideas.

  • Caste structure
  • Government
  • Culture
  • Religion
  • Adventure sites
  • Foreign Affairs

When we began to wane in one category, I’d keep the momentum going forward by switching to the next. It didn’t matter if we were in one category and had an idea for another we’d done or hadn’t discussed yet. The whole idea is for everyone to be comfortable. If you’re comfortable your best ideas will come forward. By keeping the train rolling and accepting every idea that comes up, all involved will feel at home sharing.

Results are in

So after about an hour or serious brainstorming, Andrew and I generated a little over 18 pages in Google Docs of gchat. I’d put all the ideas in this post, but it’d be overwhelming. Instead let me give you some of the highlights. This is the stuff I am most excited. Please note, these ideas are by no means complete or final, just the seed of something that I’ll have to grow into the world.

  • The dwarves of Bragonay live in a strict matriarchal caste system, however one can climb through this caste system by switching stations with a dwarf above him or her in an official process initiated by the person of the higher station. This station switch may also be ordered by a dwarf of a station higher than the two dwarfs who are switching. Thus dwarves play out their games trying to blackmail and backstab one another into switching stations.
  • Bragonay’s recent attempt to conquer Findalay ended 100 years ago when their warforged slaves rebelled. Bragonay might have succeeded had they not had to quell the uprising, which destroyed parts of Bragonay’s settlements. The dwarves are recovering and rebuilding, but their economy has taken a huge hit as the other Findalayan nations are wary of trade with Bragonay.
  • Violent warforged rebels live in the desert, attacking caravans and plotting acts of terrorism.
  • Bragonay’s empress has clan chieftains who report to her. Each clan has a specific industries for which they are in charge such as weapon making, armor forging, warforged creation, farming, herding, etc.
  • As Bragonay races to claim lands in Verda, they find they have the least amount of resources to dedicate to that cause of any other Findalayan nation, since their war has impoverished the nation.
  • In an attempted to magically terraform the desert to grow more crops, a village of venerable artisans was swallowed by violent, sentient plants. The plants now covet the artisans’ greatest creations and have scattered them deep within their insane jungle.

That’s just a few of the ideas. You can see how many of them are interconnected or built off one another, thanks to our established brainstorming rules. We went off on some long tangents at some points and at others discussed ideas for the world beyond Bragonay (all of which I’ve written down). More cool stuff to come just from that one hour of gchat.

By the way, if you’re liking the blog, please share it with any of your friends who may also be interested. If you’ve got feedback, leave me a comment. You can always follow me on Twitter @JamesIntrocaso, where I tweet out new posts for the blog and the D&D News Podcast I create – The Round Table. Thanks!

So now that I have a central idea for my campaign world, it’s time to get just a little more specific. My first goal is to outline the continents of the world with just a few general ideas to help guide me as I start to write down the specifics.

In Defense of Outlines

I’m a big fan of outlining before I write anything for D&D. In general before I even begin a campaign I outline the major story moments I think could happen, revising along the way based on the actions of the players. Then as we get into those beats, I outline the smaller story arcs associated with them. And then before each individual session I write an outline of what I want to plan before I start writing flavor text, encounters and the like (it’s actually very helpful here because if I don’t always have time to get into detail with my quest prep, but a quick skeleton takes about 5 minutes and can help keep a session on track as I fake it until I make it with improv).

Creating this world won’t be any different from preparing the story for a campaign. I’ll outline the continents and then outline each country. Maybe I’ll even get into outlining the major cities and landmarks. If I just dove in to writing detailed description, I could get caught up in one continent for hours and forget the ideas I have that I’m planning for the others. Sounds crazy, but that’s totally a thing that happens.

I should mention, my outlines are living documents. As I write the detailed descriptions based on the outline, I will move things around, add ideas, and take out things that aren’t working. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s good to keep a document of inspiration and ideas, so anything that doesn’t work you can save in there. Just because an idea isn’t working right now doesn’t mean it won’t be great for something else later. You’ll be glad you did it rather than scratching your head trying to remember what that awesome idea you deleted 18 months ago was.

This is me more often than I care to admit.

The Outline of My Continents

Ok, enough English class, let’s get to the good stuff. While my players wanted a lot of history, they didn’t want too many nations because the game can get bogged down trying to keep track of all the different country relationships and names, so I kept the number of nations lower, but I tried to make them all feel different and relevant.

Since the Age of Discovery is our inspirational time period, I  thought about how racially segregated our world was at that time. Similarly, I have segregated some of the playable races into their own countries while expanding on their cultures. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t find a dwarf living amongst humans and visa versa, but it is to say that these countries are majorly populated by the races with which they are paired.

1. Findalay – European Feel
Four countries and a blank spot:
Aeranore
  • A feudal country, of mostly humans ruled by a king.
  • A nation mostly of farming folk.
  • The king has dukes answerable to him, who have earls, etc.
  • Some are good, some are corrupt.
  • Gnomes also live amongst the humans, serving as teachers, scribes, and advisors. They are few in number.
  • Polytheistic pantheon of gods.
  • The culture feels influenced by medieval Britain.
Taliana
  • Ruled by the elf council – a group of elders elected every 100 years.
  • This country is a land of magic and secrets guarded by almost xenophobic elves.
  • The elves are in a constant religious war with their kin, the drow.
  • Nomadic halfling tribes also populate these lands and are tolerated by the elves, staying out of their way.
  • A nation of skilled artisans.
  • Duotheistic religion.
  • Culturally Taliana will be influenced a bit by the Ancient Roman Empire
Bragonay
  • This nation of dwarves is led by an Empress and The Noble Families.
  • Part of their daily existence and political structure is a harsh caste system.
  • Everyone from the nobles to the poor peasants are in a constant game of subterfuge that the long-lived dwarves play out over centuries.
  • The dwarves are ever building bigger and better war machines, including warforged who serve as slaves in their armies.
  • Polytheistic pantheon of gods.
  • Vast desert that gives the dwarven culture here a bit of a Middle Eastern influence.
Marrial
  • A democratic republic made up mainly of dragonborn though they are accepting and encouraging of other races becoming citizens.
  • This nation is a collection of islands, full of sea-faring folk.
  • Center for trade and commerce.
  • Dominated mainly by a monotheistic religion.
  • Culturally influenced by Viking culture
The Damned Lands
  • South of The Deep Orc Mountains, the world grows cold and dark.
  • It is said that all manner of beasts walk these lands…
  • The ruins of an ancient civilization, its magic, and knowledge also lie somewhere beyond the peaks.
2. Parian – Asian feel
  • This entire continent is ruled by an Emperor citizens worship as a god.
  • They trade with the nations of Findalay.
  • The continent is mostly humans though other races have been sprinkled throughout.
  • Currently, one of its provinces has rebelled and it’s citizens are engaged in a civil war that takes place in crowded cities, swamp lands, mountains, and deserts.
  • Some areas are culturally influenced by ancient Chinese culture, while others are influenced by ancient Indian cultures
3. Verda – The New World
  • A huge body of land just discovered.
  • Many other nations race to claim land and colonies for themselves.
  • Tieflings are native here and live in cities that look like huge spires.
  • Packs of gnolls run wild.
  • The orcs here lack the blood lust of their Findalayan kin, and live amongst the native human tribes and even procreate with them.
  • Though primitive, it’s not all log cabins and tepees. Many tribes live in ancient ruins and some races have cities of their own.
  • Much of this land is uncharted and there are rumors abound about cities of gold, deadly monsters, ancient ruins, magic fountains, etc.
4. The World Below
  • A huge Underdark exists beneath these nations with many of the usual dangers.
  • However, the civilized Underdark dwellers are not as evil as they classically are. Drow and duergar have a basic moral code and get along with each other and even the people of the surface. They often come up to trade with the various nations.
  • The drow are constantly at war with their elf kin however, due to the different gods they favor in their shared duotheistic religion.
  • Many see this underground world as a potential way to make trade routes and spy on enemies.
  • Due to a large underground ocean, the dwellers of the Underdark have just learned about Verda as well.
  • The natives of Verda warn travelers from across the seas to not venture below ground because entities known as The Sleeping Ones dwell there and devour any who come near.

So far, I’m looking pretty good. Jotting down the ideas as they come in an organized fashion. You can see that some of the countries and continents have similar descriptors that include race, religion, influences, etc. The bullet points don’t get too specific. They get enough of the idea down to help me remember for when I can really sink my teeth into writing out each country’s description.

A History Lesson

I also decided to write down a few historical bullet points that came into my head as I was outlining. I made a separate document for them that looks like this.

Past
Findalay
  • Many of the nations have been at war with one another at some point.
  • Most recently Bragonay had attempted taking over the other countries, which almost succeeded.
  • All have shaky truces currently.
Parian
  • The Emperors of old were noble and kingly, but 50 years ago a general killed the Emperor’s family and took his throne.
  • This is when the civil war began.
Verda
  • Human tribes have warred with one another, but mainly kept to themselves, except for trade.
  • A plague came through 10 years ago and wiped out many of the humanoids living there. 
Very Past
Ancient Ruins
  • Strange ruins from an ancient race can be found all over the world, from Verda to Parian.
  • The ruins seem to have been created by some race of giants that apparently ruled the world at one point and worshipped the Sun and the Moon.
  • Some of these ruins hold magic items, spells, runes and rituals.

So that’s the outline for my continents and countries. It’s pretty basic in its overview of things, but again, it helps me narrow the scope and gives me a good place to start as I get into detailing histories, economies, political structures, cultures, religions, flora, fauna, and the like.

Shameless Plug

Hey, if you’re enjoying the blog, please do me a favor and share it with any friends you have who might be into tabletop RPGs or leave me a comment to let me know your thoughts. You can follow me on Twitter @JamesIntrocaso and check out my podcast on The Tome Show called The Round Table.

All right, I have a neat, little list of things my players want in this campaign world.

  • They like a world with high magic.
  • They like a world with non-interventional gods.
  • They prefer more than one religion or pantheon.
  • They like a world with blank spots on the map.
  • They prefer shades of grey in their morality.
  • They want cultures with a rich history and tension between nations because of that history.
  • They want complex relationships between cultures.
  • They want to see competition amongst nations not just on the battlefield, but in commerce, diplomacy, land grabbing, resources, and other areas where real world countries could get into it.
  • They want all races and classes to be playable

I should mention these are all things I am happy to include. If they weren’t that might be a conversation I’d have to have with the players, but that’s another blog post.

Where to begin?

Let’s talk inspiration. I need to create a world that organically has all of these items in it and I still need a good place to start. Ripping off your favorite campaign setting (mine is Eberron) may seem like a good place to go, but why put in all that work if the thing you want already exists? Trust me, it’s worth the money for the campaign guide.

Your favorite movies and books can also seem a great place to start, but for me, I want something more original. If I have a magical order of  knights running around with colored swords, my players immediately think Star Wars. And knowing these guys, they’re going to call it out immediately. I can’t blame them, it’s what I would do to them.

Oh, believe me, I’ll borrow a concept from time to time from another work of fiction. Stealing is where creativity begins. But for my world’s inspirational idea, its central theme or event if you will, I wanted to go beyond genre tropes. It was a challenge. I find it helpful to write all that stuff down if you can so that you can save it for later. It may seem weird, but jotting down a list can also help get an idea you don’t want to use out of your head. Ideas that are somewhere safe make your brain feel ok to let it go, freeing you up to think new things. I keep a google doc of D&D inspirations. Just a big list of things like “super strength minions” and “villain like the Joker” and “mine cart chases are awesome.” When I’m stumped for an adventure idea or the players go somewhere unexpected, it’s a great way to grab some ideas. Sorry, I digress again, but I wanted to drop that advice on you.

So I looked back at what my players wanted – complex relationship between many cultures, rich history and tension between countries, non-interventional gods of more than one religion, competition on and off the battlefield amongst nations, morality that isn’t black and white… this is sounding very familiar. It’s actually a lot like the real world. Our world that we actually live in. Maybe I can find something within the real world.

Of course, two bullet points were a problem for me. #1 – blank spots on the map, of which our world has none. Problem #2 – all races and classes available. Last time I checked, the real world didn’t have warforged (yet… looking at you, Apple) and no one is actually a professional necromancer (looking at you, Pfizer), but I’m willing to let that slide. The real problem with #2 – Wizards is going to continue to put out new material beyond this Summer. Those supplements are sure to include new races and at least a few new classes (I’m pretty sure we’re going to see psions at some point or the nerd rage will explode the internet). How can I introduce those newer races and classes post-campaign launch? If we get a new player or someone builds a new character and wants to be a minotaur soulknife, story-wise, how can I justify that? I’m not going to say no after promising all races and classes are available, especially if they’re creating a new character because my monster or trap is the reason their old one perished.

Duh, James. The two go hand in hand. If I have uncharted territory on my map, then I can easily introduce new races and classes. They were living in this jungle or undiscovered continent the whole time. They have their own culture and world to explore. That sounds pretty awesome to me. While it may sound far-fetched, think about when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and ran into Native Americans. He didn’t know there was this whole other race of people and they didn’t know about him and his culture. Say, that gives me an idea…

Eureka!

Real world. Uncharted spots on the map. Deep/complex relationships and cultures. Ability to discover new races. Technological boom to provide fun high magical devices. Competition. I CAN draw from the real world, it just needs to be a time period different from our own. There is a time period in our history known as The Age of Discovery. There were a lot of uncharted places that were just beginning to be explored. Trade routes were being forged to Asia. Russia began to seriously explore Siberia. Australia was discovered by Europeans. And, oh yeah, that was the time when the Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere learned that the other existed. Image if you were living in Europe at the time and you thought the world looked something like this…

Map of the world from before the discovery of the Americas.

But then later you found out the world actually looks like this…

Map of the world now.

That’s a lot more world. Twice as much. Could you imagine if that happened today? Your head would explode.

This hits all my points. New technology brought forth by the Renaissance is equivalent to the neat high magic discoveries that will exist in my world. European countries were trying to make trade routes and relationships with Asian countries while grabbing up all the land they could in the Americas. They had conflicts with Native Americans, a new culture and people. There was uncharted, undiscovered lands galore. Relationships amongst nations were complicated. People demanded religious freedoms. Colonies fought starvation and disease. Artists created everlasting pieces. Wars were fought. The list goes on.

So my world will have many established nations with their own relationships and history, who have just discovered new lands and are doing everything they can to grab land and find resources. Meanwhile these established nations are trying to make trade routes and get the goods and resources flowing in and out of their respective countries. This all sounds like a recipe for adventure to me. There’s already so many places a party could go to carry out twenty levels of awesome.

Take the ball and run… and turn the ball into something else

It will be important for me to remember that this idea is meant only to inspire the events and background of my campaign world. It’s not going to be a copy of our world, but I can pull ideas, tweak them, combine them with others, and sprinkle in entirely new ones. What if one of my undiscovered  lands was crawling with dinosaurs, or a band of marauding sky pirate dragonborn ran havoc on the airways? What if the king of one of the established nations was actually a five-year old girl shapeshifter? What if one of the countries biggest exports was adamantine? What if one of the colonies decided to rebel against its father nation (sound familiar? Looking at you, Thomas Jefferson).

So now that I have my inspiration my goal is to use the central idea (new lands discovered) and turn it into a land my players and I will love. People, we have a starting point!

Next up… it’s time to meet the nations….

Daunting. That’s what the beginning of this process is. Where does one start? History? Geography? Religion? Science? Culture? There’s so many ways to go it could drive a person insane and make him wonder why he’d ever want to do this in the first place. I want to create so many things, but I have no idea where to begin.

But then I remembered, this world is not just for me. This world is for my players. Sure, I’m building the sandbox and turning some of the sand into cities or monsters or gods, but they’re the ones who jump into the sand and play with the stuff I create. So I figured, before beginning anything in-depth, I would ask them what they love and hate about the D&D campaigns they’ve played and what they want to explore in the future. That way, I wouldn’t spend too much time creating a rich world history full of political intrigue and scandal if they would rather play in a world full where anarchy reigns supreme.

The Questionnaire

Well, I couldn’t rightly just put my players on the spot and ask them what kind of campaign world in which they wanted to play. Some of them may have never thought about it beyond, “One with my friends in it.” So I thought up some big, general questions that I could ask my players about the world I’m building. I decided the questions should be short in words. Bullet-pointing things makes it easier for folks to answer all your questions. My advice in getting anyone (D&D players or otherwise) to respond to your emails is to keep the questions short, clear, and bullet-pointed. Do that and you’ll have everything answered in a timely manner.

In the case of the questionnaire below, I used Eberron, Dark Sun, and Forgotten Realms to define some of the questions. I picked those three because my players have quested in all of those worlds. You could use anything for an example though, and it can come from outside the world of tabletop RPGs. Video games, movies, books, comics, television, and any other medium that you share with your friends will work. I find people understand better what you’re saying when you ask, “Do you want to play in a world like Lord of the Rings?” as opposed to “Do you want to play in a game with a medium amount of magical technology?” Check out the questions I asked below.

  • High magic (like Eberron)? Mid Magic (Forgotten Realms)? Low magic (Dark Sun)?
  • Do you like your gods interventional (Forgotten Realms)? Non-interventional (Eberron)? Or Dead (Dark Sun)? Or maybe just on God (Christianity)?
  • Do you want a world where most people are basically good?
  • What about a world where evil rules (like Ravenloft)?
  • What movies should it be like?
  • What books should it be like?
  • What genre is should this world be?
  • If you were to give it a place and time period in history what would it be?
  • What is the one thing you must see in the world?
  • The one thing you’d hate to see?
  • What interests you in a game?

Then I threw out some ideas to get their creative juices flowing. I didn’t throw out every idea I had, just a few – some normal and some weird. This was a two-fold strategy, first to inspire creativity and second to let the players know no idea is lame or stupid. I wanted to hear anything and everything they had to say. Here’s what I threw out to them, letting them know these were hypotheticals that didn’t actually need a response from them since they were so specific. Though if they wanted to comment on any of them it would give me some excellent insights.

  • Do you want war to ravage the land?
  • Sea-faring?
  • A world stuck in perpetual night?
  • Hoth? Tatooine? Naboo?
  • Are shardminds a playable race? Are they existent?
  • Should there be dinosaur riders?
  • Should there be volcanoes that spew blood?

The last thing I did was NOT BCC everyone, but rather put them in the TO line of the email. This was also a two-fold in purpose. One, it could inspire some great “reply all” discussions and have my players building ideas off each other. Two, it would remind the players who were straggling to answer that they should do so, as they saw multiple emails of the same subject line fill up their inbox. Any player who didn’t want to reply all had the option of responding to me directly, of course, and I made that clear as well so anyone with any reservations about their ideas had the option of sharing privately.

The Response

What followed the sending of the questionnaire email was another 61 emails amongst ten people. I was in world builder heaven. Many of the emails were short, just someone saying, “Oh I like that thing too and didn’t say it in my initial response,” so it wasn’t overwhelming to read. I also found that the players who initially responded only to me, after reading the reply all messages felt comfortable enough to bring their ideas to everyone. So the reply all thing really paid off.

Here’s what I found out about my players.

  • They like a world with high magic.
  • They like a world with non-interventional gods.
  • They prefer more than one religion or pantheon.
  • They like a world with blank spots on the map.
  • They prefer shades of grey in their morality.
  • They want cultures with a rich history and tension between nations because of that history.
  • They want complex relationships between cultures.
  • They want to see competition amongst nations not just on the battlefield, but in commerce, diplomacy, land grabbing, resources, and other areas where real world countries could get into it.
  • They want all races and classes to be playable

Essentially, my players like a world of high magic that feels real in its history and culture, but is still young and uncharted. That’s great direction for me to have and now I’m looking to get inspired…

That’s how all worlds start right? Well, I guess some begin with two dragons fighting and getting covered by a third, or by a retconned piece of history that splits a large world in two. What I’m trying to say is, hey, this is the beginning.

Last week I took a Fourth Edition group that I’ve been playing with online via roll20.net from level 1 to 30. Meanwhile I was running a Forgotten Realms game using the D&D Next playtest rules with another group. As of right now, we have until the Summer of this year before those playtest rules grow into official D&D Fifth Edition rules during this limbo space is when I’ll be homebrewing the next campaign world in which both of these groups will play.

Now, that 5ish months is going to fly by, but in 19 years of playing table top RPGs, I’ve never had this much time to work on building a world. I’ve spent a lot of time dreaming and thinking, but now it’s time to really put those things into action and create a rich campaign setting where I will want to spend hours of time with my friends.

So that’s it for now. Just a short post to get me started, but there is going to be much more to come in the days ahead.

Please let me know what you think as you read and if I’m creating a world you think you’d enjoy.