Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Build Your Own Campaign: Avoiding the Setting Smorgasbord

If you think creating your own campaign world from scratch is too much of a hassle, consider the alternative.


I first observed the phenomenon in the back of The Riddle of Steel. The combat system is unlike anything else out there, which is kind of refreshing. But in the back of the book, where they discuss home settings for characters, they have what I can only describe as a "crazy quilt" of cultures, mashed together in a melange of uneasy bedfellows that really shouldn't get along as well as they (supposedly) do.

(A possible explanation is that conquest is harder in that world, where armies both declare "attack" and decimate each other in the first round of any given war.)

And that would have been that, a curiosity in history. I'm not even sure TROS is still in print; their website hasn't been updated in over four years.

But no, I reopened that old wound when with exploratory talk of running a Pathfinder campaign.

Everything New is Crazy Again

I bought the Pathfinder book The Inner Sea World Guide because I thought I might be making extensive use of it in a future campaign. (And I might, but not in the way I anticipated.)

There are cultural callbacks to the Americas, revolution-era France, ancient Egypt, Arabia, Persia ("Arabian Knights" remix), Viking-era Scandinavia, gothic horror, Russian folk tales… and what isn't stereotyped is general unrest. I'm almost afraid to unfurl the map, for fear of actually seeing what cultures abut which others.

Taken individually, each could provide a fair setting, but when you start traveling, who knows where you'll end up?

How did we get here?

Despite the obvious nuttiness of the problem, the steps required to get into said problem are, by some metrics, coldly logical. Follow:

System needs setting.

Technically, characters can exist in a void. Items of characterization, mannerisms, and personal history can be compiled, attributes assigned or generated, and skills trained up without reference to an outside world. But none of that stuff will mean anything.

The setting does more than throw obstacles at a character. Setting gives those quirks and peculiarities of a character context. Setting provides a backdrop for the character to contrast to. The character may have its own internal logic, but that will only take one so far. If a character's motivations, for example, are not reflected in the environment, then they'll seem silly or disjointed.

People who design games like it when their systems work in multiple settings.

There are some content to make their systems work with just one setting, but that alienates anyone that doesn't like that one setting. By producing a game that works in multiple settings, the designer can attract people who likes several different settings, and with time the system may be adapted to work in settings that the designer didn't think of.

But how do we know they really work in multiple settings?

People who design games want to demonstrate that their game works in multiple settings.

This just kind of follows, doesn't it? It's one thing to make a game that works with multiple settings, but it's another to prove it. And that's why…

People who design games attempt to put every kind of society they can onto the campaign map. QEPOOMA.

And there it is. The need for the designer to show that a system will work with many different settings is the number one reason that he or she might build a setting which contains every conceivable society he or she can shoehorn in. The result may look sane close-up, but trust me, the characters, the players, and even you the GM will feel the seams when the wheels of their caravan roll over the pucker they make on the world map.

And building our own is the solution?

It's one solution. The other is holding your nose and running with the campaign the designers have presented. And while I admit The Inner Sea World Guide is a very pretty book, sooner or later you as the GM will have to come up with a suitable response for "An ancient Egyptian, a viking, and an African warrior enter a bar during the French revolution…"

Celerity Begins at Home

Let's start with whatever book you're using for your system. Bearing in mind that first point I brought up, "System needs setting," odds are good that whatever system book you have in your hot little hands will have some guide within it on building the campaign. Odds are good that it'll be in the core rulebook, or perhaps one of its volumes.

Or not. It might not be there. It might be in a section of the book you didn't think to look in. It might be there, where both you and logic think it belongs, but it might suck.

In Pathfinder, look in the Gamemastery Guide at p. 140. This is the start of the chapter on creating a campaign. It has a lot of useful questions in it. And in the back of the book, there is a fine-looking Campaign Planning form. Right across from that Campaign Planning form, however, there is an equally fine-looking Settlement Planning form which is referenced nowhere whatsoever in the campaign-building chapter of the book.

It turns out the Settlement Planning form is referenced in the chapter on creating adventures, not campaigns. Do you know what this reminds me of? The Traveller Problem. It could also be a throwback to Dogs in the Vineyard, which features one particular adventure in each town the Dogs pass through, but no, if there's a home town somewhere, it's likely to need far more than a single page of stats.

Design and organization? A Venn diagram of those two things wouldn't have 100% overlap. Sometimes one holds while the other slips a little.

Looking for City Creation in All The Wrong Places

Let's say for the moment that the campaign book you're using doesn't include a very robust city building system. You get some basic factoids about a future destination for the characters, but not really enough to satisfy you.

You have other game books, right? And you know what they say: To steal from one source is "plagiarism." To steal from twenty is "research."

Your game shelf could be your greatest research asset, as other games have covered this task to varying degrees of satisfaction.

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