Usually my posts are entirely abstract, meant to entertain, inform, irritate or enlighten, but thus far I have avoided practical affairs. For the most part, video games are either enjoyed or they are not; an experience is gleaned, or it is not; but roleplaying games are something else entirely, for the player, certainly, but especially for the man or woman behind the metaphorical, and often literal, curtains. Today I am stepping into the role of the advice-giver, for I have discovered that perhaps I have some practical, serviceable wisdom to pass on in this arena. I became aware of this in a conversation with a friend last week; I sat down and decided to hammer out a setting for my new campaign in one sitting and thought it was going extremely well, and since he was currently in the throes of world-birth himself, he asked me for a few tips.
Below is my answer to him, and I’ll also elaborate a bit on certain techniques that I have found useful in crafting a setting, and include some interesting idiosyncrasies that will probably be less helpful and more curious, as I run through how I generated the wiki content for my most recent setting. You can find that wiki here, and you may want to follow along, since I’ll be referencing it often.
Oh, and sorry, Afh. I totally built a codex.
My mind is a pretty useful organism, and one of the coolest things about it is that it works even when I’m not choosing to think. And one of the most important techniques I’ve discovered has to do with reigning the left brain in before it begins to organize things that don’t exist yet, which can help one avoid certain urges that I’ll get into in a bit. First I needed a starting point.
So I sat down and began by coming up with a name for my city, which I had already decided would be a city with significant links to the Shadowfell, which is basically a mirror-universe born from the shadows of the “natural” world. About that time, I also began looking for appropriate gloomy city art to inspire me and include on the wiki. That’s when I stumbled over this picture in my library.
And that sparked a ton of ideas. It strongly reminded me of Venice, what with the canal in the middle of a city, and what I knew of Venice (pretty much from Assassin’s Creed 2 and Casino Royale, right?) I liked, so I went with it for a framework. But what would I call this dark Venice-like city? I began throwing sounds together until I found something that I liked; I happened upon Threshing, which I liked because of its ‘sh’ sound, like in hush and flush, which evoked the proper feel, and because it involved the separating between worthy and unworthy, the valued and the chaff. I wanted this place to sound like the sort of place where the chaff of both Akana (the “normal” world) and the Shadowfell tended to accumulate, and, because I didn’t want my city to just be a participle, I went with Threshingfall, which both sounds good and has some obvious similarities to the word “Shadowfell.”
I then turned to do some research on Venice, specifically focused on its heyday in the mid-1400s to the mid-1500s, when it was one of the two great city-states of Italy, its art scene was beginning to flourish, and the Medici family was rising to prominence. I was mostly just looking for broad flavor, though; after all, I didn’t want to be overly constrained by Venice, I wanted it to serve as inspiration. And I figured that Assassin’s Creed 2 already represented a great deal of the flavor I wanted in my game, and they’ve usually got their history pretty good, anyway.
Next came a decision; I knew that I wanted the events of the last short game I ran to be important, in which daelkyr had invaded Sigil and forcibly removed the Lady of Pain’s memories, thus taking control of Sigil for themselves, but I also knew that I wanted those events to be background information. Refugees from Sigil would have made their way to prominent “gate-towns.” That meant using the Outlands, and the Planescape Outlands were something that always rang a little hollow to me. I loved the ideas of gate-towns, but the Outlands are consist almost solely of gate-towns and a lot of open space. The open space struck me as fake, boring, and pointless. Instead, I decided to adhere the gate-town idea in the “normal” world, cutting out the mostly empty Outlands altogether and giving the cosmology a solid anchor: Akana, a world I have worked with in the past. But I wanted to tell a new story, with a completely different flavor. The easiest option was a new continent, the south of which was still called the Outlands and was ruled by a series of city-states, much like parts of 1400s Italy. I then decided that Threshingfall, given its planar importance and links to the Shadowfell, would be the capital of the league of city-states, making it a slightly more charged political environment.
So these details gave me a solid basis to work from. Usually, I would have begun structuring the city, deciding what races lived in which districts and wielded influence, and balancing it all in my mind. I went with the opposite.
Using the Sub-conscious
Whenever you’re working on big mental projects, it’s not hard to get discouraged at the daunting amount of work you have to do, to get lost in specific themes and details, and to start missing the forest for the scree. While preparing for a D&D campaign is probably not the most strenuous activity you’re going to be putting your mind through, you can easily be overwhelmed by its conceptual size and spend a lot of time spinning your wheels and brute-forcing your way through its creation.
I wanted to try a very different technique. Once I had Threshingfall, and had written a little poem expressing the mood I wanted the city to express, I sat down and started to write.
Instead of focusing on the needs of a city and approaching this creation from a standpoint of structure or realism, I elected to let my mind wander and just float past names and images. I recorded each idea that had some potential. I did focus on themes I wanted my city to express, but I wasn’t yet caught up in actually fitting anything together; I didn’t need to, all of that would happen on its own. In that way, the Crimson Academy, Bleak Alliance, Villain’s Market and Den of Drakes was born. I had some rough images for what these organizations or places were like, but I wanted to hold everything loosely so that I could keep on coming up with diverse ideas.
I had never used this technique with setting generation before, but I found it exceptionally productive, primarily because when you’re holding everything loosely you don’t have to commit to anything right away. If one constructs a full “thing” in one’s campaign setting, then it starts to limit other possibilities for the setting. For example, say if I sat down to work on Threshingfall and decided that there was definitely a group called the “Lurking Shadows,” and proceeded to spell out how they were famous thieves led by a dwarf named Gary Oldman, but Gary was actually interested in eventually building a giant superweapon from the gems the Shadows were stealing. Where would I go from there? Well, I don’t know if this is universal, but my left-brain would kick in; I’d be thinking of organizations that oppose it, and any other group or image I came up with that involved thievery, gems, a dwarven leader or a superweapon would be discarded pretty much immediately.
However, if I have loose images of what this organization is like (say, they are thieves, but what is more important is their elusive-yet-famous nature, and their goals extend beyond simple thievery), then those specific elements that might shut me off from other possibilities stay safely unformed until I have a whole mess of ideas that I am simultaneously working with.
Of course, with some of the names I come up with, I don’t have any images at all. I just attach it to a theme (such as order or corruption, anything that I want to have a role in the many narratives I could string through the city), and let it sit. Those are actually my favorite, because my mind works better when its solving a puzzle than when it’s just trying to “produce” something, and trying to figure out why a police force would ever be called something like the “Severed Legion” is pretty much just that. Approaching it like a puzzle makes a game out of world-building, too; if setting creation becomes tedious, then trying to figure out a “solution” to a self-imposed puzzle makes it refreshingly fun again.
Basically, the roots of my proposed method are this: sit back and allow the right-brain to play and tinker without getting too emotionally invested in anything but names, themes and images. It allowed me to come up with natural structure with no traces of artificial balancing and in which no power-group was obviously a response to another. I think that Threshingfall appears more organic because of that method of initial “play” and corresponding refusal to hold anything tightly.
As for actually filling in details, there’s no reason to stop “playing.” I strongly encourage you to avoid creating a hard-and-fast method of exploring the details of such organizations or countries (for instance, if you always started by determining the name of it’s most prominent/powerful leader and recording its goals/population). That makes your creativity run through specific channels, and you’ll be missing out on the possibility of startling insights and wasting time on details that, while significant for some of one’s creations, might not be significant for each.
I’ve covered the techniques that I used to generate this campaign setting, and so now I’d simply like to touch on a few specific goals or themes that I explored after the majority of the setting was built and talk about how I’ve decided to implement them, partially because I think they’re damn cool and want your opinions on how to pull them of as well as I want to.
First of all, I wanted a way to both encourage participation in the wiki (so that my players were actively contributing to the world, as well), and encourage them to take a hand in the altering the narrative. I did these through ESPs, which you can find on the wiki and are a blatant rip-off of the Serenity RPG’s Plot Points. ESPs offer players the chance to actively change the story in minor ways (either to throw a little bit of chaos into the mix, benefit the character, or instigate a whole new sub-plot), as well as give themselves a little mechanical advantage, by producing material for the wiki or making interesting character-choices in play. I’m confident that these things can only make the game better.
My second idea, which I am quite excited about, occurred to me while I was pondering how to write the Adventure Log recording each session’s activities. I like being a little creative in such records, simply because it allows me to continue fleshing out parts of the world that the players may never encounter in-game but can still add to their understanding of how the world works, or even where their characters fit into the world.
I decided that it would be fun to present the Adventure Log as the attempts of a scholar over thirty years distant from the “start” of the campaign to determine the truth of the stories surrounding the player characters, whom he refers to as the Emissary and the Emissary’s companions. This means that the player characters have undoubtedly had a strong enough impact on the city that a slew of exaggerated stories will eventually be told about them. This also means that I get to play with a few ideas, such as examining just how distorted and muddy the work of history can be (especially in a 1500s where magic runs rampant), and examining how people become the heroes and villains of the future. It will also allow me to foreshadow in interesting ways and create doubt in the player’s minds regarding the actions of their heroes.
It then occurred to me that I could extend this trope by actually incorporating it into the game. What if, at the beginning of the first session, I handed each character a name, race, and occupation, and we role-played through the first delivery of this accumulated historical/truth-parsing document? I thought this was an excellent idea for a couple of reasons: First, it allows me to re-cap the events of the last session at the beginning of each new session in an interesting way that involves player participation. Second, it allows players to comment on the actions and ideas of their own characters and others’ characters outside of the game proper. Third, it allows me to create an interesting tale of intrigue that spans over thirty years. Oh yeah, did you really think that I would stop myself at just handing out names and occupations? I intend to slowly give them more information about their “modern” characters that starts to connect in odd ways with things that are happening in the “actual” campaign. Now admittedly, this is risky as hell, but if I can keep my wits about me it very well might be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in a game.
It THEN occurred to me that I could validate the ESPs given the lens through which the campaign is being told; specifically, if the characters that the players are playing in the “modern” time-period are experts on the “heroes” of the tale, then they can occasionally interrupt the reading with their own insights into the story. Perhaps that’s why our intrepid scholar is reading his account to these people first; so that they can offer corrections or challenge his conclusions. For instance, if an ESP is used to alter a character’s attack roll, then I, the DM playing this “scholar,” has gotten something wrong. One of these other noblemen or women (players) will step in and say, “No, that doesn’t sound like something Cyril would do. In fact, I have heard about this battle; I know for a fact that he burnt out the man’s brain with a single spell. I remember that detail quite clearly.” And I, the humble scholar, will acquiesce. If it’s a story modifying ESP, then it is an excited addition: “And of course, this is when the Queen of Adders could not find it in herself to kill Tolderoy’s brother after all, because Tolderoy had awakened the last spark of love that her fetid heart could muster.” At which point I, the scholar, would say, “That’s a romanticized version, but close. The Queen had a moment of indecision, and finally acted to slay the brother, since he was, after all, stealing affections that were meant the Queen.”
I think that these storytelling techniques will be fun on their own, but will also serve to illustrate just how tangled and complicated Threshingfall really is. I don’t think that these methods would work with a setting that was larger and less contained, nor in a campaign that wasn’t built to facilitate politically-charged stories.
I’ve covered quite a bit in this article, and, as always, I’d love to hear your opinions on the techniques that I presented and the ideas I’ve got to make this campaign unlike any other! You’re also totally welcome to steal any of these things, so long as you give me credit when you post them anywhere public, online or off. Well, until next week, ciao!