Creating a setting for an RPG is a quite different thing than creating a world for a novel or a movie, or even a TV show or video game. In a normal story, the writers control what characters will be appearing and what places they will visit and what kinds of people they will meet. Everything only has to be consistent with the rest of the story and you can make up new things as you go along. A writer can even go back and change things during editing before the final work is released. Creating a campaign setting for an RPG is different, especially if you write it not only for use in your own campaigns as a GM, but might make it available to other people as well. You don’t know who the characters will be and only have limited control over what places they will be visiting because everything can still change as the story develops. To make a good campaign setting, you always have to think of a larger world, even if it is only the size of a single country or city. (Though in my experience, most new setting creators go for entire planets or at least continents, which I think is actually too grand a scale.)
But where do you start? There are a couple of guides out there, mostly online but also in print, that attempt to provide a good overview over the subject of worldbuilding and hand the reader a kind of step-by-step checklist. The AD&D Worldbuilder’s Guidebook is probably one of the most well known, but once I got the opportunity to give it a read I found it rather lacking. Yes, first you start with a globe (or other type of body), then you decide what is water and what is land, place the mountains and rivers, forests and deserts, kingdoms and towns, and so on. But unless you really have no clue at all about the creation of a new fictional world (in which case you’re probably not the main audience for such guides), these are things you all already know. The real questions are how you create a world in a way that it is exciting, unique, and has real traction, and avoid it just being generic, inconsistent, and overly exotic to the point of getting silly?
Earlier this year, I stumbled upon The Kobolds Guide to Worldbuilding, and it turned out to be just the kind of book that adresses exactly these things!
One of the reasons to start Spriggan’s Den was to have a place to post updates on my work on the Ancient Lands, and I also plan to use it as a label to publish my RPG related material in the forseeable future. So I guess a short introduction would be in place.
Ancient Lands is a campaign setting that goes back to 2005 when I was working on the setting for a larger online project that never really got off the ground, but from which I learned a lot of things about the creation of campaign settings and my personal preferences. Work on the Ancient Lands began in earnest in early 2011 when I was dabbling in creating a revised version of the generic character classes variant rules of D&D 3rd Ed. for E6 and I really started to like the idea of a low-level setting as in the worlds of Conan or The Witcher. While I eventually abandoned the plan of using the E6 variant in favor of simply establishing a sort-of level-cap at 10th level (on which I might elaborate on in a separate post), and switched to Pathfinder over D&D, the basic premise remained the same and has seen significant development over the last two years.
One of the primary reasons to consider creating a setting myself was my dissatisfaction with the fact that most “high fantasy” or “generic” fantasy setting portray a world in which dragons, giants, elves, and dwarves do exist, but they are all way past their prime and fading into obscurity in the face of a rapidly spreading humanity. Now, in the Lord of the Rings this is an important plot element; the whole story is about the end of an era and the transition from myth to history. But there really is no reason to make this the standard for all fantasy settings. Also, settings like Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or Eberron portray worlds that are actually emulating the Renaissance and early modernity, while I personally much favor the early Middle Ages and Iron Age. When reading sourcebooks on other campaign settings, there is almost always lots of references to the old kingdoms of elves and dwarves and their wars against dragons, giants, and massive hordes of orcs. These sections always intrigued me much more than the current age of these settings and so the basic idea of the Ancient Lands was born: A wild and barely explored world of the Bronze or early Iron Age, where humans are simply one of several races of “barbarians” and ancient nature spirits still possess great power of the lands and their creatures.
This isn’t the first website I started, but once again I am facing the same somewhat paradoxial problem:
To get my site known, draw in visitors, and show up on web searches, I have to have some quality content to show. However, if I am writing large post on the greatest ideas I have now when I still have barely any audience, almost nobody is ever going to read them and spread the word about them. RPG Bloggers won’t even list your site until you’ve been writing for at least three months. But if I just stick to writing trivia, I am never going to get a major audience.
So yeah… paradoxical.
Inception is a movie about many things, but primarily it’s a movie about telling stories. And for both GMs and game designers, what I consider the most important scene in the entire movie is the one where Cobb hands Ariadne a block of graph paper and asks her to show him a demonstration of her creative abilities as an architect. And none of the mazes she draws for him are satisfactory until she flips over the block and uses the plain backside instead of the graph paper.
If you are playing on a battle grid and want to be able to exactly determine the number of squares in any given room, you can still copy or trace the map onto graph paper. But other than modern houses, the world is not arranged along neatly places squares. Trying to create maps for forests or caves, and even villages or castles along the grid of graph paper never really gets you anything that looks really good.
But once you ditch the grid all kinds of new possibilities become open to you. Which can result in such awesome maps as the ones made by Kevin Camplell presented at Dyson’s Dodecahedron.
This is my new site dedicated to my work and thoughts related to RPGs of any kind. As you can see, I still need to set up a good theme for the page and figure out a propper name and adress.
Update: If you are looking at the site now, you see that it looks quite pretty, has a name, and a real URL. This is now the finished site for the time being and you can bookmark it if you want to.