I’ve been interested in making my own campaign setting for probably 10 years or so, originally starting with the idea of detailing the elven realms of Eaerlann and Illefarn from the Forgotten Realms as they would have been 4,000 years in the past. I had been playing a Neverwinter Nights campaign online, which was set around the High Forest and involved some 100 regular players. I also became one of the assistant DMs and main map builder for the forest areas. My own character belonged to a gang of elven and half-elven rangers and druids (which had a bit of a nonviolent feud with another group of elven wizards and clerics that was much more LG high elves compared to our CN scoundrels), and since then it’s always been my goal to make a true wilderness campaign that deals entirely with druids, rangers, spirits, and monsters.
And I have to admit, in all these years I never really found an answer to the question how one would actually pull that off well. Now I feel that I’ve reached the conclusion that the actual answer is: You don’t.
The wilderness does offer plenty of challenges and obstacles to overcome, but it’s really poorly equipped to provide the players with goals. The wilderness is something you move through, but neither the source of adventures nor the destination. There might be ways to actually pull it off, but for the kinds of heroic activities I have in mind, each adventure needs to start in the frontier. It would be very difficult to have an ocean campaign without ports or a desert campaign without a single oasis. No matter how interesting your wilderness is, it does not create adventures. People create adventures. Anything that happens in the wilderness isn’t really of any concern to the players until it starts to affect people. The forest is on fire? The whole valley drowned by a flood? Move out of the way, crisis averted, threat overcome. Nothing to see here. Move along.
I’ve been of the opinion that good settings are not defined by their environment, any locations, or their history, but entirely by the people who currently inhabit it and the way they interact. You could call it the Mass Effect paradigm, as that’s usually the example I give as a perfect execution of this principle. You don’t know anything about the planets you visit and almost no specifics about their history, but you pretty soon figure out what makes the people tick and that leads to the best videogame RPGs I’ve ever come across. It’s obvious in hindsight, but if this is what interests and fascinates me the most about settings then it obviously should also be part of the approach to adventures. If the world is about the people, then the adventures also need to be about people. And the next closest place to the wilderness that has good numbers of people is the frontier.
Usually the frontier is thought off as the border between the civilized lands and the wilderness. However, with the Ancient Lands I want to focus on adventures that move back and forth between the frontier and the wild, and create a world inspired by pulp adventures, Greek myth, Viking sagas, and the Bronze Age. So it’s not actually having any civilized lands at all. Great empires did exist in some places in the Bronze Age and they dominate our perception of that period because they invented writing and build stone monuments. But they were few and limited to small regions. And while Greek myth is full of kings living in big cities, those are most often more like castles ruled by a very minor lord. The big battles against the Persians were much later and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Persians thought of them as some minor embarasment on one of their outermost borders. While calling all settled areas in the Ancient Lands frontiers might not be technically correct, I think it’s a good method to focus my own thoughts. The most frequent and annoying problem I tend to run into with this setting is focusing way too much on the port cities and unconsciously turning them into generic civilized kingdoms. Calling the whole setting a frontier setting will hopefully help me to keep my sight focused on the sources I want to actually draw inspiration from instead of turning towards the more familiar and common archetypes in fantasy.
So, what actually makes a setting a frontier setting? One of the best codifications of the paradigm comes from probably the most unlikely source one would imagine: The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. During the development process, the writers decidet to first establish an assumed generic setting and then have the actual game rules trying to emulate that kind of setting. (Which is a very good policy for all game design.) When they presented this vision to the public, they described it as “points of light in a dark world”. I disagree with almost every single design choice of that game, but in this one case I think they really did something great. And in the past 8 years, “Points of Light” has become established as a pretty commonly used term among worldbuilders. The idea behind it being that there are a few reasonably civilized towns or clusters of villages where people live for mutual protection and support, and which each opperate almost entirely autonomous without any overlord in a distant capital city. And as soon as you step outside these small patches of land patrolled by the local guards, you’re instantly in the deep wilderness. Bandits and monsters everywhere, free to do as they please, and nobody coming to get you if you run into trouble. However, sometimes it is necessary to leave these relatively save havens. Either to trade local goods with other similar communities several days travel away, or because there is something lurking on the edges of the worked fields but staying outside the reach of the guards. In either case you need someone capable to go out there and deal with anything that might threaten the community or the carts with goods on their way between towns. And that’s where adventurers come in.
In the Ancient Lands, I have decided to go less with cozy English farming villages and market towns, but instead do something with actual tribal societies. I can not think of any popular fantasy setting that uses this kind of social environment to significant extent. Which is of course great for me, as it allows me to offer something that hasn’t been a hundred times before and might appeal to people who’ve never been able to find what they’ve always been looking for. But unlike urban populations, people in tribal society see the world much more as “us” and “others”, and it doesn’t really fit this type of world to have the players play as traveling mercenaries who deal with whatever problems the people might have in the town they are passing through. Every clan has its own expert warriors and does not need to send pleas to an uncaring lord to send soldiers to save them. And of course, they would much rather deal with their own problems themselves than to entrust delicate matters to unknown outsiders. The approach I’ve come up with is to use the default assumption that player characters in the Ancient Lands are all warriors, witches, and shamans belonging to the same clan. And just like the Indian tribes of North America regularly integrated white settlers (and sometimes black slaves) into their communities to replace the members they lost to war and disease, clans in the Ancient Lands don’t have to be homogenous either. Even if a given village would most likely be 99% Falden, there is nothing stopping a player from playing the single Takari that somehow became adopted by a Falden family as a child or was welcome into the clan by the chief as a reward for a great deed. I personally prefer to have at least half or two thirds of the PCs to be of the same race and tribe, but mixed parties are still an option that fits seamlessly into the setting as a whole. One problem I ran into with this approach is that it makes it diffcult for the party to travel far away from their home as they are needed to guard it, and as 1st level characters all the really interesting and important tasks would most likely be given to some of the older veteran warriors. This turned out to be actually very easily fixed with just a little tweak. Instead of being simply warriors, the player characters are also scouts. Of all the warriors in the clan, they have been chosen for the task of leaving the point of light of their clan village and go out into the dark to look out for possible threats, gather news from other communities and maintain contact with them, and also search for new knowledge and magical secrets that could benefit the clan against their enemies. It’s a very important task and one that lets the players work for the good of their clan and represent their clan, and also letting them travel a lot. And while it’s important, it’s a task that can be given to mostly green youngsters who are not much more valuable to keep close to home for defense of the village.
I think one of the most important things about a good Points of Light style setting is that the players really immediately step into total darkness once they are out of sight of their home village. In The Lord of the Rings, the first leg of the journey from Hobbiton to Bockland is reasonably pleasant. An easy hike through pretty fields. That’s the last thing I want to happen in the Ancient Lands. What I want is something much more like Bree. You’re in mortal danger until you make it through the gate, and are immediately back in it as soon as you step out again. The wilderness starting as soon as you’re out of sight of houses seems like a good rule of thumb.
As someone mentioned to me a while ago, another important thing about such environments is that almost no settlement was ever completely isolated. Almost everyone had some degree of regular contact with other communities. However, since most people had to tend to their own fields and herds and overland travel wasn’t exactly safe, the people who got around the most would have been traveling merchants who pick up local specialties from each town and trade them for something else in the other towns down their regular route. And since living on the road in winter sucks, there could often be many months where outlying villages wouldn’t have any contact at all. If something goes wrong, the first person who would notice it would be a merchant in the following spring. And if something got really wrong, he might not even reach the next village on his route to share the discovery. A great environment for adventures.
Merchants are of course also very important for trade. Basic foodstuff is unlikely to be traded over long distances, but preserved food like dried fish could be an exception. Everyone can grow crops, cut trees, and hunt meat. But for more specific crafting materials, it can be very difficult to get the best option locally. Certain minerals, horns, paints, or even herbs might be available only in relatively small areas and people in other places would give quite a lot to get them. If for some reason regular trade is disrupted, people would be unlikely to starve, but might soon run out of other things they need and can’t produce themselves. And if salt runs out and you’re no longer able to preserve meat for the winter even basic survival might be threatened. The salt must flow. And to buy salt you need to be able to trade something else that you have and someone else wants. Disruption of trade is a matter of life and death. If it should happen, it’s another good reason to send out some warriors experienced in traveling the wild and interacting with strangers and figure out what’s wrong. And gods help you when your source of a product that others want to trade for runs out. Then you better find something else and fast. However, odds are the best sources of valuable stuff are already controlled by someone else. Or something else. This can mean war, or potentially dealing with spirits that are not too particularly thrilled about monkey people digging holes into their hills. Look at Princess Mononoke to see how badly that can turn out.
Since every community is pretty much autonomous, with perhaps the exception of farming villages just outside major cities, it also means that there is very little help you could get from outside in times of crisis. Any clan of reasonable size would have more than a single village and could call for help from their kin. But since these also have to ensure the protection of their own villages, the help they might be able to send might be rather small. Which means any local problem needs to be solved by local heroes and there is no higher power to appeal to for help. Or when disaster stikes an allied village, everything the chief is able to send them might be the PCs and nobody else. When things are that bad, the people of that village would even accept help from outsiders, and the PCs would have a reason to help these people. They aren’t stranger, they are kin, even if distant ones.
Given that the Ancient Lands are not actually post-apocalyptic but mostly pre-civilization, there are no old Roman roads to use. Or any roads at all, for that matter. At best, what you get are trails or paths that connect outlying farms to the main town. Something that rarely gets mentioned in fantasy is the huge importance of water travel. Using boats and ships not only allows you to float your heavy cargo, rivers also cut right through heavy forests and the most broken badlands where even traveling on foot would be quite a challenge. And trying to get a cart through outright impossible. On my sketches for the Ancient Lands map, almost all major settlements are either on the coast or along major rivers. If you want to get anywhere, you’d go by boat. If the destination of your journey is not reachable by boat, there is a good chance that nobody has actually has walked your path before you and any place you come across might never have been discovered before. Also a great environment for adventures.
Basically, you have this web of remote villages and towns that all rely on each other to some extend, but are also connected only through extremely fragile connections which are highly vulnerable to disruption by bandits, monsters, spirits, and natural disaster. Even if you have a party of characters whose prime motivation is simply to protect their villages, there is a huge amount of potential to go on all kinds of crazy adventures to very exotic places.