Wars of Worldcraft 1

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.

The Concept

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.

Storytelling Post-build

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.

In Conclusion

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!

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/

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