When you try to look for advice on how to create a campaign setting, the most common answer you get is to start with drawning the coast lines. The possibility that the creation of a setting might not start with the geography is not even considered. My own opinion is that you should always start with a design concept that outlines themes and style and thinking of a map doesn’t come until step four or five, but that’s a discussion for another day.
For the last week or two, I have not been feeling really creative and so I turned to spend my time thinking about the theoretical aspects of the worldbuilding process. The initial spark to work on this setting has not really led to a full ignition yet. And after some pondering I found that all the work I did so far was really about creating a style, but this did not automatically lead to the emergence of something that feels like an actual place. I have put together a toolbox and constructed a lot of prefabs, but these are not yet assembled into actual structures. I actually do have a number of notes for settlements and places, but these feel more like tables of content than actual content. Intentions to make things but not actual things.
And this is something that I actually find in a lot of published campaign settings. They give you lots of things that are interesting to look at, but fail to give you any impression of what you could do with them. Just this week I was reading a discussion about Planescape. And pretty much everyone involved agreed that it is a wonderful setting but they have not yet found any good ways to actually use it for playing. I think that a good campaign setting does not actually consist of places, or even of specific people, but of things to do. You can describe a place with lots of details on the many buildings and their inhabitants. But if you describe a static place, then there is not really a reason for players to go there. Or if they get there, to stay there.
Perhaps it is actually much more useful to create gameable material by conceptualizing a place as a conflict first, and then creating the involved people and buildings second. As a GM, what I really want from a campaign setting book, or my own prepared notes, is to hand me material that I can use as the base to build my next adventure on. This had me thinking back to the Kobold’s Guide to Worldbuilding, which has its best pieces in the introduction. A good campaign setting isn’t an execlopedia, but a precarious stack of boxes of dynamite that you hand to the GM whose players are already fidgeting with matches. I had always though of this on the scope of whole worlds, applying to charged conflicts between contries or global organizations. But now I think it might really apply much more to the very small scale of individual villages. Because that’s where play does take place. That’s where players are personally involved and able to influence things. A big global conflict can be nice to have to tie individual adventures in different places together with a shared theme and common continuity. But it is not a substitute for adventure potential right before and around the PCs. You can have a perfectly fine campaign without a global conflict. But not one without conflict where the players are.