Saturday, February 29, 2020

Campaign World Design: Two Different Approaches

As I mentioned, I'm getting ready to start up an RPG campaign for my 10 year-old daughter and her friends. I've decided to use B/X D&D (via the very cool Old School Essentials set, which faithfully restates the original Moldvay/Cook/Marsh Basic/Expert D&D, but with much better layout and organization). As I've been preparing, I've thought a lot about the world in which the campaign will take place. 

After much thought, I've decided to start the group off with B2: Keep on the Borderlands, as part of the fun of this for me is having my daughter experience some of the same adventures I did when I first started playing. While the module itself doesn't offer too much in the way of detailed background in terms of where it existed in the wider world, for the 1987 B1-9: In Search of Adventure super module, it was set in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos in part of the world of Mystara (or what I would call the "Known World"). 

I briefly considered using the Known World as-is for the backdrop for my daughter's campaign, but part of the fun for me as a DM is world-building. I enjoy creating cultures, political entities, faiths and religions, orders of knighthood and various other fantasy-world trappings, and being inspired by a variety of different works of fiction and non-fiction, comics, TV shows, movies, other games, and real-world history. I've written about this quite a bit over the years here on the blog as it relates to my long-running World of Samoth campaign and various sources that inspired portions of my world-building. 

I mentioned in my 9th Anniversary post that I had recently found an old "recipe box" full of index cards that most people would use for writing recipes, but on which I had created different NPCs back in the mid-1980's. This box has been through seven different moves and has been sitting in my office for the past ~10 years but I hadn't really looked at it because I'd sort of just forgotten about what was in it. 

When I recently opened it, I found 111 different NPCs, one per card, with stats for 1st Edition AD&D, and in addition to the race, class, level, stats, alignment, and equipment, most of them also included a name, title/profession, a country, and a one or two sentence "History/Aims." 

I recall using the different country names I came up with for the NPCs as the start for developing a world way back then. I had a very rough sketch of a map (that I've shared here before), but that was it. The development of the different countries didn't go much beyond whatever few sentences I made up on-the-fly as I created the NPCs. There are characters with History/Aims such as "Country: Remali. It is rumored he has sailed to the Orient," or "His main interest is acquiring as much territory as possible. Of late, he has become chief of three different, powerful tribes, which he wants to form an army with. His eye is now on the Esteline Palatinate," or "He recognizes that Rathmund will naturally dominate the political and military aspects of Samoth, so he has turned to magical research and attempts to raise the intellectual ability of the citizens. He has a zoo of strange and exotic creatures." 

One of my favorite cards reads, "He and a few companions are investigating a giant in the area, and are making their way toward the King's Graveyard." Who is this giant, and what is he doing? What's the King's Graveyard? I have no idea, and I didn't know then, either. I just wrote it down because it sounded cool. But, I remember back in the day that many RPG products would include imagination-inspiring statements like this that were often not further defined or developed. They were just thought-starters for DM's to take and run with. 

It was from reading these short descriptions a few weeks ago that I began to realize that way back in 1985 or so when I made these NPCs, that, without necessarily realizing it, I was creating a campaign setting. I had written the short summaries for each NPC to help bring them to life a little bit, but the interconnections between the characters were helping to define a world. 

It's these small details that I want to use as the basis for creating my campaign world for my daughter's game, but my thinking is that I won't do much more than what I have written down on these cards until I see where in the world they want to go. I may pick one group of NPCs from the same country and use them to help add some details to the area where the PCs start out, but leave the rest of the world vaguely defined and only add details to other countries as necessary. But, I can use the histories and aims on my NPC cards as hooks to intrigue the players, and then take their lead as to which things sound more interesting for them to explore. 

Long-time readers will note the use of "Samoth" in one of my descriptions above; these NPCs were created before I developed my current World of Samoth campaign setting, but the seeds of that campaign can be found in some of my NPC cards. However, the majority of the world depicted on my NPC cards is very different from my current campaign. I'd say it's almost more fantasy-like, and has a much stronger tie to both the world of Hyboria from the Conan books as well as the World of Greyhawk. While both of those sources were inspirations to my current World of Samoth campaign, I also used a lot of other sources when building that world, including the world from Warhammer and a variety of different eras of earth history. 

I'm excited at the notion of making a more non-standard fantasy world this time around, that seems more magical and less of a retreat of standard campaign setting tropes. While thinking about this, on the same day, I came across two different social media posts that have me thinking about campaign setting design and what people like or don't like, about different types of settings. 

The first post I saw was from popular RPG and OSR artist Luka Rejec on his "Wizard Thief Fighter" twitter feed. He posted this: 

"I'm going to make a wonderful and innovative new setting, with four major regions locked in feudal power struggles with extra grimdark and a dash of magic. I'll call the regions Northos, Southos, Eastos, and Westos. My creativity will blow everybody away." 

Later in one of the replies to his tweet, someone wrote this:

"How about making them based off our own world's cultures, but only the stereotypes!! I think that hasn't been done before at all"

The implication of the thread, while very tongue-in-cheek, is that so many fantasy worlds all boil down to basically the same theme re-used over and over, and that can be boring and predictable. A few people replied that, after reading his tweet, they felt the need to go back and revise and change their campaign worlds.

Only a little bit later the same day, I came across this Facebook post by Andrew Collas over on the Old School Essentials Facebook Page (it's a community site that you need to join to see the posts, so I've posted pics of the relevant post; however, if you're on Facebook and like Old School type RPGs, I highly recommended joining the page):

"So after hours of Mystara research I am just done. I can't do anymore. The illogical nature of the setting has driven me to distraction and as such I am officially picking up my setting of Aegos again."
Later, in the comments, someone asked:

"So I have little experience w Mystara. What are the issues, in your thought? I am genuinely asking... I like Greyhawk, have no FR experience (other than video games like Baldur's Gate). Looking to develop my own world, but new at the big picture stuff..."

Andrew replied:

"Flying continents, Gnome air force, the Brokenlands having places called "Trollhatten" and "Gnollistan", endless lame "in jokes" and the topper is the island called "Safari Island" that is an amusement park for adventurers. It is silly, and if you like silly, it is for you. Me, I prefer a little more seriousness myself. the Known World as presented was good, even though Yalarum makes NO SENSE, but the Gaz. expansions really killed it and made it too weird for me." 

I found all of this fascinating, especially on the heels of another player and creator (known for some really creative and different stuff like Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, described as being "inspired by psychedelic heavy metal, the Dying Earth genre, and classic Oregon Trail games.") basically decrying the prevalence of boring, vanilla fantasy worlds, and then another OSR gamer in a completely different forum, with no relation to Luka's tweet, essentially said that he prefers "vanilla" fantasy settings that are "more serious."

I can see both sides, and while my own worlds I've created for my games have tended a bit more toward Andrew's viewpoint of less crazy, more grounded fantasy, what gets me more excited these days is reading about stuff like what Luka's doing. I think there can be a happy medium between the two, which is what I'm going to strive to do with the world that I create for my daughter and her friends. This will be their first time playing a role-playing game and I want them to experience the magic and wonder that makes fantasy so fun, even if that means including some flying islands or gnome air ships, or some ideas from the One Page Dungeon Contest like cursed salt baths and frogling mayors, or some of the creative things from Trey Causey's Weird Adventures like "giant mosquito minions of the vampiric Mosquito Goddess" or "An illustrated children's book where a little girl and a sinister looking stuffed toy discuss the murder of the book's finder. The last two pages are missing."

I've never run a long-term campaign with those types of fantastical elements in them, but lately, those kinds of ideas fire my imagination more then just another set of faux-Western European countries. I want my world to be at least somewhat recognizable and allow the players to relate to the setting, but also be creative and different enough that it generates excitement and surprise from my daughter and her friends.

As for some of D&D's historical campaign settings, the World of Greyhawk, to me, adheres a bit more toward the "serious" or "plain" variety of fantasy, and these days doesn't seem as popular with games (although that could be because it just doesn't get enough exposure). Then you have worlds that are quite different from standard fantasy, like Dark SunSpelljammer, and Planescape, all of which have their die-hard devotees, but none of them seem to have the staying power of the Forgotten Realms, which one could argue is somewhat of a middle ground between standard vanilla fantasy and more magical, fantastic elements, but without getting too crazy.

What are your thoughts on world-building? Do you prefer to keep things more serious and straight, or do you like crazier ideas? For those of you who drift more toward "weird and wild," what are some of your favorite setting ideas?

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Singlecut "Desert! Double Dry-Hopped IPA"
Listening: "Blade Runner Blues" by Vangelis, from "Sunetul Original Al Filmului Blade Runner"



  1. B2 is a great choice. I like to place it on the eastern edge of the Phoenix Barony (free on, in the Gloomwood right above the Goblin River. Every page of my Cave of the Unknown megadungeon is free to preview on drivethrurpg (where it is entitled "Mike's Dungeons"). I hope that either or both of those freebies might give you further inspiration. :)

    1. Thanks for the tips and mentions of those other sources. I've bookmarked them and will be checking them out. Cheers!

  2. I zig-zag between serious and wild.

    I have always played a fusion of D&D/AD&D because when I started, there wasn't an internet to let me know what book was for what thing. I have characters that are "just elves" from basic D&D right along side monks and assassins from AD&D. That is a little farcical.

    On the other hand, my current campaign is based on ancient Rome, so it's played straight and serious.

    The problem I have is the different races are emulating the varied neighbors of Rome. The players have a hard time see elves as antagonist towards humans, or humans being terrified of halflings or dwarves who are mean to everyone.

    1. Thanks so much for commenting (both here and on Facebook... or was it MeWe? I know it was one of them!).

      I, too, played a fusion of Basic/AD&D since I learned about them nearly simultaneously, and over time I'm going to incorporate a few of the Advanced Fantasy Rules from Old School Essentials to help emulate that.

      Your Rome campaign sounds really interesting - do you have a blog or other place where you write about it more? I've always liked the classical period and in my current campaign I'm running, I have a country that's based on the early Byzantine Empire that was striving to live up to the past of a great empire that fell a few hundred years ago after a "magical accident."

      As for your racial representations, I have a very similar problem in my campaign. I decided that the elves, dwarves, etc., weren't actually those races, but rather completely different races (although mechanically they use the rules for elves, dwarves, etc.). However, the "names" come from human mythology - the first time they saw a thin, tall creature with pointed ears, they said, "Oh, that must be an elf..." and the name stuck because humans are the dominant race and basically over time and through their rapid migrations, have brought their terminology and way of viewing things to the majority of the world. The other races actually hate this, but over time they have either accepted it and become "assimilated" to where they somewhat try to fit in to human culture, or they have resisted and tried to remain pure to their roots, and are thought of at oddities at best, or terrorists at worst. The humans usually treat un-assimilated races as second-class citizens, which makes for a very racially tense campaign world. At least, that was the idea.

      The players didn't really get into the racial politics as much as I'd hoped, but I didn't force them since it wasn't something they seemed interested in. Almost all of them are playing humans, with the exception of one half-elf.

    2. My blog is There is a tab for The Peninsula of Plenty, which is the campaign. There are also maps and pre-genned characters.

      The campaign has been put on hold for a couple of months, but I hope to start it up again. School and college is tying people up.

      Most of the pc are human but they only recently got the fact that there are slaves running around in the human Empire and the other races are trying to beat slavery out the Empire. They are loyal to the Empire, but didn't get the fact the Emperor is promoting slavery. I had expected them to get in a fight with some pirates and join them as a band of Pirate, Robin Hood type abolitionists. It didn't happen that way. Now they are gearing up for some sort of insurrection rebel action. That is where we left off.

    3. Fantastic - I just added your blog to my Feedly updates and I'll dig into it in more depth later. The campaign sounds interesting - I've actually found that some of the best storylines in my long-running campaign have emerged because the players did something I hadn't prepared for, which is really what RPGs are all about. Cheers!

  3. Thanks! I just added you to my feed reader and my blog. I can't wait to start reading more.

  4. I understand this tension. If I were to design a setting of my own it would likely be quite loose and "gonzo" and I would favour fun over consistency. That said, I have long had an urge to play a classic, "vanilla" fantasy campaign, because I've never done it.

    1. wow, never! That's surprising! As a player, my longest-running game was in Middle Earth (4th Age) but the DM didn't tell us it was Middle Earth when we started the campaign. He was always very coy about why he didn't have a world map we could look at, and the campaign took place in the East, around a thousand years or so after the War of the Ring, so the names of places had drifted and changed over time. But, other than that, I guess you'd call it "vanilla" fantasy.

      I'm the opposite of you - other than stuff like Cthulhu and Gamma World, I've never played in a "gonzo" fantasy setting, and I'd love to try it!

    2. A secret but familiar campaign setting is a fun idea I've not heard of before! I have seen someone run Masks of Nyarlathotep in Dark Heresy without telling the players what they were playing, but that's somewhat different.

      I haven't played many classic fantasy rpgs, not for any great length of time, so I think that's probably why I've never played in a "vanilla" setting. I've played a lot of Pendragon and Warhammer but both put their own unique spin on Fantasy Faux Europe. I've also played a fair bit of D&D5 and Pathfinder but those have been short, scripted campaigns where plot was more important than setting.

      I would love to play a loose campaign in a basic, coherent faux Europe setting, at least for a few sessions, just to see what it's like.

    3. Maybe you'll have time to fit in a game of classic fantasy this year along with the Cyberpunk 2020 game you're going to run!

      I forgot about Warhammer - I played through part of a campaign in that RPG a long time ago one summer - maybe about 32 years ago! I always liked the way they handled the setting for that game, with very easy to recognize European archetypes but with the weird Chaos and alien stuff tacked on. I thought they did a good job capturing the more "rustic" parts, too, like the Druids and various folks following older traditions and superstitions. That did have a bit of an impact on my World of Samoth design, but it's never really come out during play. It's something I'll ideally add to the game for my daughter and her friends.

  5. Sorry I'm just getting to commenting now! My bad!

    I'm definitely enamored of the "gonzo" fantasy approach - wizards wielding bazookas - ahem, I mean wands of fireballs :P - dinosaur-riding barbarians armed with laser-swords, dragon-mounted sorcerers dog-fighting with Nazi Messerschmidts... these are all dream scenarios for me.

    On the other hand, I also love epic tragedies. There's nothing like the experience of everyone at the game table having to take a break because that last scene moved us all to tears. Or everyone screaming bloody murder when you, the DM, end a session on a cliffhanger. It's hard to get these moments in a game with gonzo elements.

    In the end (for me) it comes down to my audience. If I'm mastering a group that thrives on epic stories, that's the path I take. If the group's a little more lighthearted, I'll bring out the gonzo weirdness and just have some goofy fun.

    Both paths lead to good times, so I'm fine with either!

    1. Thanks, Chris. I definitely like the idea of both, but I've never really played in a "gonzo" type campaign before, unless you count Gamma World. It's something I'd like to try - I think it could incorporate elements from this post about barbarians, zombies on dinosaurs, and time-traveling apes.. It sounds like something you'd like, too!

    2. Oh, absolutely! Over the last decade, I've run games in a world liberally borrowed from the Planet Algol blog ( and other sources (Howard, Ashton Smith, Lovecraft, Frazetta, Korgoth of Barbaria, etc.) where the PCs were from a variety of backgrounds: tragic fantasy warrior, pulp adventure hero, forgotten goddess, artificial human (but didn't know it), and others. They fought mutants, "vanilla" Nazis, Nazi sorcerers, dinosaur-riding grey aliens, and other wacky stuff. What a blast - I highly recommend it if you've got a game group that's up for that sort of high-weirdness!


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