Developing a New Campaign Setting - Broad Strokes

Previously I examined some of the early TSR D&D adventures which effectively doubled as settings. In this installment I'm going to begin constructing my own in broad strokes. The goal isn't to design everything about the world but rather to think about the world at a high level, enough to properly place the local setting.

As I'd mentioned, I'm a big fan of nautical elements to campaign settings. I'd given some thought to a water world like Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea or a Pacific setting inspired by the Aubrey/Maturin series and Polynesian history and legends. However, while a campaign setting should engage its creator, I do want to be careful not to overdo it with extreme detail - the Judge's hobbies should not interfere with the enjoyment of his players. ("Wait a minute, what time is it when it is seven bells?") There is something to be said for a certain amount of familiarity. I know there's some controversy on George R.R. Matrin's Song of Ice and Fire Series. I myself fall on the side who enjoy it. One of the strengths of his series is, in my opinion, how grounded it is "reality" - it has fantastic elements but it also feels like a real world. The use of magic, the appearance of a legendary creatures... all these things feel special when when they happen.

This brings me to the idea of starting the game in an equivalent of the Aegean Sea, a large bay within the Mediterranean, with gazillions and gazillions of islands. The Aegean is the setting for most Greek mythology, one of those things that I've found most gamers run into in their youth.

I'd mentioned previously how much I enjoyed The Secret of Bone Hill and will be using Lendore Isle as the inspiration for the starting point. We are looking at an island small enough to be mapped in its entirety at a fairly small scale and large enough to be a good starting point for adventure. If the mood of the game makes nautical adventures seem the way to go we have a location for which that works well but we also have a mainland available to us. In the World of Greyhawk, Lendore is the Suel god of time. While I'm not setting this game on our Earth, I am aiming for a pastiche liberally borrowing from sources such as our own history, the World of Greyhawk, the works of Lovecraft, C.A. Smith, Tolkien, and Leiber. With that in mind Chronos Island, named for the Greek god of time, seems a nice homage to The Secret of Bone Hill's Lendore Isle.

But while grounded in reality I want some elements of the fantastic. Dungeon Crawl Classics is designed to emulate Appendix N of the 1st edition Dungeon Masters Guide. My own favorites from that list are Leiber's Lankhmar tales and the Middle Earth stories of J.R.R. Tolkien. Though he's not on the official Appendix N list, I've also been greatly enjoying the tales of Clark Ashton Smith and I feel his exclusion was an oversight.

I really like the tone of the Lankhmar stories. Fafhrd and Grey Mouser would fit in well within a D&D campaign. They like treasure and adventure. I also want to note that while it won't be where the game starts, a city like Lankhmar in the vicinity seems like it would be a good thing.

One element from Tolkien I'd like to emulate is the dangerous wildernesses and the emptied out feeling of Middle Earth. Consider Aragorn's lost Northern Kingdom - people still live there though there is no longer a king or even a nation and the ancient cities of Arnor and its successor states lay ruined and abandoned. Tolkien also gives us an interesting mix of fantasy races, one of the few works in Appendix N to do so.

From Clark Ashton Smith I really like the idea of borrowing his wizards. They feel to me a lot like the wizards of D&D. I also enjoy the "weirdness" he injects into his tales. He's got a lot of Lovecraft in him but his heroes seem a bit less intimidated by the horrors they face.

So let's try our first pass at combining all those elements. Islands. Creepy wizards. A lot of empty lands and ruins. Lots of races. Big city. So we've got our starting island, so where to go next?

I'm going to start with the ruins. What happened to civilization? Where is everyone? The answer lies with the fall of a local empire. If I'm basing the game on the Aegean and the rest of the Mediterranean we've got some powerful empires that have been there. Rather than the traditional Roman Empire I'm going to think more about the eastern Empire. They considered themselves the Roman Empire as well but they are more commonly known as the Byzantine Empire. They endured throughout the entirety of the medieval world that D&D invokes for much of its feel. But I'm not seeing this empire fall the same way the Byzantine Empire did - by the time the Ottoman Empire finished them off the Byzantine Empire was pretty much a city-state centered around Constantinople. Rather in our setting it was that evil wizard and his damn orcs.

One of the scenes added to the Lord of the Rings films was showing the orcs being bred by Saruman and his talk of how the first orcs were corrupted elves (YouTube clips of those two scenes below).

I think in this setting I like the idea of orcs and possibly goblins and other nasty humanoid creatures not being "natural". Dungeon Crawl Classics suggests as much and similarly Adventurer Conqueror King has rules for wizards making their own critters. The orcs are bred by wizards, using some source material as their starting point. We'll need to think about if they can reproduce naturally and how long they live barring accidents. I have this vision of orcs returning with prisoners to their creation pits to be used as the raw material for new orcs.

So we've got some evil wizard who bred himself an army of orcs in his effort to conquer the empire. He was partly successful - the empire did indeed fall, with entire cities and nations being destroyed by his orc hordes. But there was little to rule over after this and his orcs quickly fell into infighting, greatly reducing their numbers. I want orcs and similar creatures to be things to be feared, at least by the commoners of the setting, in a way that brigands and human or demi-human barbarians are not..

This devastation was probably a while back - a few hundred years ago at the least. Long enough for tales of the empire and its fall to be dominated by legends as opposed to facts. It does sound a little like D&D 4e's "Points of Light" concept but then again Middle Earth, Greyhawk, etc. all fit within such a model rather well.

Now what about a big city? It is possible that the capital of this big empire did technically survive these "orcwars" but was reduced to being little more than a city-state, much as Constaninople became in our own world. Indeed just like Constantinople, large portions of the city might be empty, making the city itself a possible location for dungeon crawls - but that will be in the future. Nearby will be a more settled city for urban adventures. My first pass of a name for this is Miklagaard, the name the Vikings used for Constantinople. Though I'm not even remotely a Glorantha scholar, I am aware that they did something similar, having a huge ruined city near the city of Pavis.

There's a lot of ideas here but these are more for background, ideas that I believe will work well with the smaller setting I will take on creating next. If this smaller setting demands some of these larger elements change then, assuming the game hasn't kicked off and made use of them, those elements will change. What I'm trying to do is a hybrid of top-down and bottom-up design. I'm not all that comfortable designing a setting that is just a small area in vacuum without having broad strokes of what the world is like. But I don't want to overdo the design to the point that it winds up restricting adventure opportunities rather than create them.

Being a bit of a map geek I've drawn up a map to help me in my creative process - it is of medium scale, 1000 x 800 mile. To the south of the map we can see Chronos Isle. I've added a Mordor-like region called "The Scar" - I'm thinking this is where bad ole wizard created his orcs. I used Campaign Cartographer 3 to create this map, representing my first real effort with the Herwin Wielink overland style, designed to evoke the feeling of a "dark fantasy". With an empire in ruins that seemed appropriate. You should be able to click on the image to see the map in greater detail.

Next up will probably be an examining Chronos Isle in more detail, as that is where we'll be starting the game.

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