Campaign Setting Worldbuilding: Kings and other major NPCs

One very common approach to creating campaign settings for a roleplaying game is to start with a map, define the countries, place major cities, and then create all the kings, other rulers, and any other big names of global/regional importance. It’s something people do without really thinking about it, because that’s how everyone is doing it. Which is good enough for quick ad dirty, single use and then throw away settings, but when making a setting for a longer campaign and possibly even beyond that, it’s a rather poor approach to the work. To make a good setting one does not just have to know what to do, but why it is done and for what purpose.

Whenever the question is raised “Why is it always done this way?” in a fantasy context, the answer is almost always “because Tolkien did it”. (If not that, then it’s because D&D did it.) But Tolkien had a good reason for it, which in most fantasy games inspired by Middle-Earth is not present. I argue that creating kings and other movers and shakers is not only irrelevant to most settings, but actually obstructive. So why did Tolkien do it? Because Middle-Earth has always been a setting that is about Kings and the conflicts and cooperations between them. That’s in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarilion and even in The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins might be the protagonist of that story who is going on an adventure in the Wilderness, but it is not his story and it is not really about adventures. In the end it really is all about Thorin reclaiming the rule over his families land and a lot of the problems they run into really are power struggles for control over the region and its economy. Bilbo is looking for treasure, Thorin is making a grav for power which gets him into conflict with the other regional rulers. Similarly, The Lord of the Rings has two stories; one about Frodo going to Mount Doom and the other all about the shift in political power in Middle-Earth. And that’s why so many characters are kings and princes and we get to know all the rulers while hearing almost nothing about the common people. Similarly, the Song of Ice and Fire series is a story about powerful politicians fighting for control and dominance. It’s necessary to know all the royal courts and all the kings and princes, because that’s where the action takes place and who are the main players in the story are.

But almost no campaign setting that has been created for a roleplaying game has really been intended to have the player characters as major participants in global politics. And as such players are very unlikely to ever meet anyof those people and when they do it’s usually as generic quest givers. Kings and high priests are adventure characters, not setting elements. Take a look at fiction in which the protagonists are more like typical adventurers. Conan sometimes have encounters with other kings when he rules Aqualonia, but these are created for each specific story and then again immediately discarded. And I am not even sure if there is ever any explanation how government in Lankhmar works. Because it’s irrelevant.

There are exceptions, of course. Dark Sun has the Dragon Kings who rule over the city states and we have complete lists of all the cities and all the kings, with pretty detailed descriptions. But in the world of Athas, the kings are not just rulers. They are immortal sorcerers of unimginable power and often seen as close to gods. They are indeed so powerful and reclusive that few player characters are likely to ever meet them or have any sliver of hope to survive against them in a fight. However, the kings all have their templars, who are not only administrators and police, but also priests of their kings. And players are going to run into templars and have dealings with them all the time. In this respect the kings themselves are not so much NPCs, but religions and ideologies which the templars enforce within their cities. Who exactly are the kings? GMs don’t need to know and players probably shouldn’t know. All we need to understand about them is what directions they are giving to their highest templars. In Athas, the identity of the king is the identity of the city. Take a city like Baldur’s Gate or Shadizar, and it really doesn’t matter. If there is a war, there is a war. Unless the players are playing generals, they never will really know what’s going on in the back rooms. Spending too much thought and attention on those things is generally a waste of time.

And very often useless information is not just irrelevant, but actively obstructing. Because all that stuff has to be written and later it will be read. And both writers and readers will concentrate on those elements that get the most detail. But unless the setting is meant for player characters who are kings and generals, it is something they should not concentrate on. If you set up a big sign that says “This is important!” and “This is iconic for the setting”, GMs will try to shoehorn it into their campaigns. That even happens when you create the setting to use it only yourself. But is that actually good for the players? Generally not. It often means that they are part of a story which they neither have control over, nor contribute to in a meaningful way. So I say, if it’s not the focus of the setting, leave it out.

I went through some old notes again, from all the way back four years ago, checking if there was anything I’ve forgotten about in the meantime before throwing it away. And I came upon a list and description of the twelve most important ruler for the Ancient Lands setting. Some really good ideas there, but it is meant to be a setting set in the vast wilderness for wandering warriors exploring ruins and encountering spirits. What do the great rulers of the city states have to do with that? The cities themselves are mostly meant to add flavor to descriptions of objects and people who come from there and perhaps places where the players can catch a boat. Not places to be actually visited and explored. And the way the internal politics works are even less relevant. So I specifically chose to not write any descriptions for regular rulers who are easily replaceable. The leaders of the secret societies whose agents are also digging around in old ruins in the wilderness are a different matter, but just like the kings of Athas, they are more to explain the goals and actions of their minions rather than bein meant to appear in person themselves.

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