Developing a New Campaign Setting - Exploring What Has Been Done Before

I'm in the process of getting a game ready for Dungeon Crawl Classics. I've been gratified that my recruitment effort on my young little blog has gotten some interested parties.

In today's post I'm going to begin the process of designing the setting. What I'm going to do is explore the nature of some early adventures which double as settings in their own right. This ties in nicely with the idea of "sandbox" play, an approach to game play that has been rediscovered over the past several years. In this model, the setting is developed and the characters are let loose upon it. There isn't a metaplot or a course of action that the players must take. However, they tend to have super-shiny dungeons which just scream "visit me, I have treasure". And what hero in the mold of Fafhrd, Grey Mouser, Conan, Tregarth, or Shea could resist such gems.


The classic novice adventure, Keep on the Borderlands features a neat little play area. You've got the titular keep as a home base. There is a small wilderness with some designated encounters and a dungeon complex known as the Caves of Chaos. The Caves are a group of semi-isolated cave complexes, each inhabited primarily by a certain type of foe, with caves perched higher in the ravine tending to have tougher monsters. Nothing prevents a party from trying to tackle the tougher monsters first but it is a bad, bad idea to do so.

Another classic adventure, designed to move players from the dungeon to the wilderness, and included with all versions of the D&D Expert Set, is The Isle of Dread. It involves the players finding a map of the Isle of Dread with rough directions how to get there, descriptions of friendly natives, and hints of great treasure in the interior. The characters are expected to buy or hire a ship and adventure to the island. There are suggestions as to how they might get financing if they need it ("please come back with a live T-Rex" being one of my favorites). As with other early adventures, there isn't an overarching plotline but there are hints of lots of them. There are pirates near the Isle. There are friendly tribes to give the characters a home base on the Isle. There's hints of forbidden cults within the friendly villages. A dangerous wilderness with lots of encounters. A big finale dungeon at the central plateau of the island, complete with another friendly, albeit isolated village. Rather than providing dungeon maps for every possible encounter the adventure includes a pair of sample maps that can be used as needed. This illustrates a useful technique that I know I'd lost - don't design more than you need. It is also worth noting the need for friendly home bases scattered throughout the setting. The adventure doesn't force the characters to take certain actions but it does recognize that after a long ocean voyage a trip back home is out of the question. And by the time the characters reach the center of the island the friendly villages on the outskirts of the island are too far to easily retreat to, hence a secondary base.


A third adventure that I'd like to investigate is one that is not, in my opinion, discussed as much, that being the AD&D adventure The Secret of Bone Hill. This is one of my favorite adventures. It occupies an odd space as it is intended for characters of low level, but not first level. However, its setting is perfect for kicking off a campaign. It takes place on Lendore Isle, a decent sized island - ballparking it I'd guess it is the around 6-7000 square miles, though more spread out. It's big enough to have its own terrain regions, rivers, etc. The Secret of Bone Hill details the town of Restenford, the surrounding wilderness, various evil critters in the wilds, and a ruined castle and dungeon atop Bone Hill. Again it makes use of a home base (the town of Restenford) and again there is a "main" dungeon. There's lots of encounters in the wilderness to occupy lots of play. One of my favorite encounters is a wilderness church to a god of luck, called the Church of Big Gamble. Press your luck against the priests. It was kind of a "home base" combined with a casino. One thing I liked about this adventure is it upped the weirdness, with strange forests, talking intelligent skeletons, etc. It did a lot of things not really explainable by "the rules", making for a strange setting.


Looking at this trio of adventures we can see a lot of things in common. They all have at least one "home base" for the characters and some of them have secondary bases that our heroes can use. They all have a "main" dungeon that the characters don't really have to visit, but no group of heroes dependent on treasure and killing monsters to advance in level will realistically be able to resist them. The wilderness areas themselves are filled with encounters, both static and random, for our heroes to encounter. And none of these adventures have any overarching plotline. The DM or players can certainly find one, but they themselves make no such assumptions.


With this in mind, let's consider what sort of setting I think would work well at taking these ideas while also keeping me, who will be the Judge (to use the DCC term), engaged. I'll be exploring this further in detail going forwards, but let's work in broad strokes. One thing that stands out to me right away is two of the samples I've chosen take place on islands. This isn't all that surprising - I'm a huge fan of all things nautical. I love Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels of the Napoleonic Wars. Every Independence Day we make a family outing to Boston Harbor for the U.S.S. Constitution turn-around cruise. I enjoy reading about ships, from Polynesian sailing canoes to ships-of-the-line to dreadnoughts. Going to the fantasy genre, Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea series takes place on a world made up solely of islands with no real mainland. 

This isn't to say that starting off on an island necessitates a world such as that of Earthsea. The Mediterranean has islands that would be larger than Lendore Island or the Isle of Dread. And if isolation is what is desired the Pacific Ocean provides a real-world example of a setting with island chains separated by vast expanses of ocean. We'll explore the details of such a decision going forward, including determining just how much needs to be decided at the outset. But what I think we are seeing is there is something going for making use of a decent sized island. It is large enough that it provides us with a varied environment. We can have a wide variety of terrain with ancient ruins and unexplored areas. It is small enough that we can map it all at a moderate scale - if using hex-maps, using 5 or 6 miles per hex. It includes natural borders to limit where adventure will take place, but it is a soft barrier. With the acquisition of treasure and the call for further adventure characters can book passage off the island or buy their own ship and go off on adventures to the mainland (if there is one) or to other islands.

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