Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Building a Sandbox Campaign Part One: Setting the Tone

Because I'm not participating in a campaign at present, and because I'm spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about running a campaign, my energies are naturally diverted to setting up the kind of campaign I'd like to play. World-building has been a hobby of mine since I was very young, but not wishing to fall into the traps which have derailed my efforts in the past I've been reading up on the advice of one or two more experienced DMs.

The three articles (or series of articles) that have caught my eye are to be found at Giant in the Playground (home of the impossibly good Order of the Stick webcomic), Bat in the attic and The Hydra's Grotto. I've selected these three because the run the spectrum of approaches to setting up a campaign, with Rich Burlew's articles focusing more on a building rich background, Hydra's Grotto is more about setting up an out-and-out sandbox, and BitA lurks somewhere in between.

Both Hydra's Grotto and Bat in the Attic advocate starting with a map. Burlew, on the other hand, begins his first post by talking about purpose and style. Now, perhaps I've fallen at the first special-snowflake hurdle by adhering to the latter path, but I've already started to set the tone for the campaign in my previous post. It would be disingenuous of me to start sketching out a map without acknowledging that I've already approached the task with some presuppositions. Besides, things like climate and geography determine the tone of the setting to a great extent. So I'll begin with the idea that this is a campaign setting designed for an (as yet undiscovered) gaming group, rather than a publication, and take things from there.

Looking down on the civilised lands.
Seeing as this is to be a sandbox setting, I don't want to impose a grand narrative or over-arching story. The idea is to avoid rail-roading PCs along to some ultimate goal. Instead I would like them to establish their own goals, to explore and interact as they see fit. I would like to incorporate some of Chris Kutalik's ideas about player driven mystery.

Because the proposed sandbox takes place outside the mundane realms, it is intended that the politics of that realm do not generally interfere with event within the campaign world. This is not to say that NPCs don't have plots and schemes, but that these manifest in line with the interests and goals of the PCs.

Having previously established that most of the campaign action takes place in an area of desolate, highland moors and the occasional soaring peak, I was inspired by some of the landscapes of my home country, the United Kingdom. Taken this inspiration a little further, I think a celtic flavour to the campaign setting would be fun to explore, especially given the idea of the magical fells (like the realm of the sidhe or the fey). That said, I don't want to get too bogged down in fleshing out the mundane world, and seeing as most RPG mechanics suit a medieval setting, I'm picturing a world much like early medieval Ireland: an insular culture with some connections to (a perhaps more sophisticated) continental culture. Seeing as the magical realm is in the highlands of The Fells, I'm going to locate the mundane realm in the lowlands. It shall be known as the Valley Kingdoms.

As well as dividing the world into the mundane and magical, I'd like to establish a hinterland between the two. These three distinct zones have an effect on the performance of magic, including magical items and creatures. 

Taking Burlew's advice, I'm now going to look at eleven assumptions about a fantasy setting, and see which of these I would like to keep, discard or subvert. This list is lifted directly from Burlew's article The New World: purpose and Style.

  1. Humans dominate the world
  2. Gods are real and active
  3. Magic is real and can be used by anyone who learns it
  4. Opposites alignments fight each other
  5. Arcane and divine magic are inherently separate
  6. The wilderness is separate enough from the cities to justify three wilderness classes
  7. There are hundreds of intelligent species, but 99% are monsters
  8. Arcane magic is impersonal, requiring no "deal" with a supernatural being/force
  9. Beings from other planes take an active interest in the mortal world
  10. Magic items are assumed to be available
  11. Magic is consequence-free
For brevity's sake, I'm going to deal with each item sequentially and in an identical format:

  1. Humans dominate, but campaigning largely take place in a non-human setting, 
          1. This non-human setting is The Fells
          2. It abuts the known world yet is avoided by most humans
          3. The human lands are known as the Valley Kingdoms 
  2. Gods may or may not be real, but are impersonal and archetypal
  3. Magic is real but...
          1. It only functions "normally" in The Fells
          2. It requires sufficient learning or devotion to harness
  4. Alignment is more to do with personal philosophy than allegiance
  5. All magic emanates from the supernatural energies of The Fells, distinctions are aesthetic
  6. Potentially... though I may begin with the most basic set of classes
  7. There will be many humanoid species, but...
          1. Most of them will be treated as "fey"
          2. They will have more magical abilities (even kobolds)
  8. There will be many routes to obtaining arcane power, some may involve "pacts"
  9. Other-worldly beings inhabit the planes, and have their own motives and desires. They are not godlike, though they are supernatural.
  10. Magic items are rare, and function differently in each of the three zones (mundane, borderland and magical).
  11. Magic manifests in different ways in each of the three "zones", and may have different additional consequences in each. One idea I'm toying with is that if someone is able to harness magic in the mundane realm, it summons a random magical creature...
I think that's enough to be getting on with. Before I settle down to drafting a map, I'm going to look at a few more of Rich Burlew's stages of world creation, and continue posting at this site.

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