Campaign Creation: Beginnings and Broad Strokes, Part 2

In the first Campaign Creation post, we laid in a basic foundation for our campaign setting. Today we’ll expand that a little bit, focusing on the people around our characters.

At this stage of the game I’m not looking to build fully detailed non-player characters. In fact, I usually avoid statting out NPCs until I’m forced to do so by the needs of the session. That allows me some flexibility with my NPCs, and the ability to morph them into what I need at any particular moment. While that’s useful, beware turning your NPCs into “swiss army characters”; that is, no single NPC should be the solution to every problem. Once you’ve assigned certain abilities or details to a supporting character, those abilities should be fixed (although they can improve, just like any abilities can over time).

With that in mind, I’m going to drop in some supporting characters that will likely be the characters’ first contacts in the town. Normally I’d let the players tell me which NPCs to develop by seeing who pops up in their character back-stories. But since I’m building without a party in place, I’m going to develop the NPCs I think the characters will need right away. When I actually start the campaign I can still develop extra NPCs based on character history, or modify the ones I’ve already begun.

Last note, I’m going to use the same, “Good, Bad, Ugly” as I did for the campaign location, sketching in one NPC in each category for each of my four imaginary players. At this broad stage of creation it is still a great method for developing the basics of NPC relationships. Also, I think game masters can tend to focus only on NPCs beneficial to the characters, so this method pushes me to think a bit about conflicts that may be present before the characters even leave the village. None of these NPCs are my major villains (maybe), but they come into conflict with one or more of the characters in the course of their day to day.

The Good

Cynria is the mother of one of the characters, and also a member of the town guard. A caravan guard for many years, she married her partner (now deceased) and settled in the village to raise a family. While a supportive parent, she can tend to be over-protective and strict, even severe if she feels the situation warrants. Of late she has requested patrol routes that take her to the very border of the village and The Ruin, though she won’t say why. A good NPC for martial training, and an information contact for rumours and tidings from both the village and merchants.

Beorn, a dwarf, maintains one of the small chapels in the village (we’ll talk about those later), serving as a simple brother of the order. While fearless in the face of violence, no one has ever seen Brother Beorn raise a hand in anger himself. He can be found anywhere in the village, collecting stories from those that have braved The Ruin for a history he is compiling. An obvious NPC contact for any divine oriented characters, and could serve to provide historical information as required.

In addition to the basics carried by any general store, Vidan’s Mercantile carries an eclectic mix of odd items found in The Ruin. An energetic and friendly halfling, Vidan is happy to purchase any truly strange object adventurers bring her. She is even happier to sell these oddities, ascribing them a host of fascinating (and sometimes real) qualities. Brother Beorn and Vidan continually wage a war of words regarding the artefacts Vidan sells, Beorn maintaining they should be made available for study and Vidan agreeing…for a price, of course.

Rahjaq, a long-time ex-patriot from warmer climes, maintains both a local tavern and an apothecary.  While some find it worrisome the two share the same kitchen, there have been no serious mishaps, and most everyone come’s to the tavern to try Rahjaq’s special drink blends. And to see if there will be a repeat of the gaseous form incident.  Cynria seems to have a personal grudge against Rahjaq, and while there is speculation no one knows why. Despite this public antagonism, they have been seen talking together on several occasions, sometimes even amiably.

The Bad

Wenred serves as acolyte to one of the village’s less well attended churches. His tireless proselytizing has become tiresome, and he fails to see that he is part of the reason people worship elsewhere. If one of the characters shares Wenred’s faith, that character is never good enough in Wenred’s opinion. Any time they are together, Wenred will make his disapproval clear. If a character follows another deity, Wenred will insist on debating doctrine in an effort to show why his faith is superior.

Beomond can usually be found in the market, alternately looking for work loading and offloading various caravans or begging for alms. While many look down their nose at him as just another lazy, drunken beggar, the observant note that he never has the smell of liquor about him and never seems intoxicated. Unknown to most everyone, Beomond actually works for an organization intent on securing the best Ruin artefacts for themselves.  His somewhat innocuous presence in the market allows him to gather information on groups set to explore The Ruin (so they can be watched and targeted if necessary), or on caravans carrying artefacts away from the village (so they can be robbed as necessary). He will always be very interested in what the characters are doing, even going so far as to offer to be a bearer during one of their explorations, if his organization deems it necessary.

Too lazy to be an effective guard, but just clever enough to keep his job, Menforth uses his position with the town watch to collect “protection” fees.  These fees, of course, really only protect someone from him, and then only for a short time. Menforth has a knack for ferreting out merchants and adventurers who don’t want their business known, and extorting “reasonable” fees to keep their secrets. His twin knack of only choosing targets too weak or compromised to complain has so far kept him out of trouble, but someday that might fail him and he’ll be caught with his hand too far out.

Anrich can be found in any of the village’s taverns, swapping tall tales for cheap wine. No one believes any of his stories of a life spent adventuring, but none can deny he spins a great story; the drunker he gets, the greater they become. In truth, folks are right not to believe anything Anrich says. The drunken lush persona is just one more mask he has worn pursuing his greatest love: murder. Unknown to any in the village, many of the disappearances attributed to monsters or misfortune are the result of unfortunate meetings with Anrich on the hunt. Someday soon the village might discover his secret, or the special location where he keeps his trophies. But for now he enjoys making the rounds of the taverns and selecting his next target.

The Ugly

For this category, I’m sort of breaking my “no swiss army NPC” rule a little bit. But I’ve already thought ahead to who and what I want in the major villain of the campaign, and so I want an NPC to serve as the major foil to that villain. Because this NPC is going to be a major player, I’m just creating the one, but he/she will come in contact with each party member in a different way. Not martially powerful, this NPC will have to use cunning and guile to oppose the actions of my main villain, and will not be known to my player characters right from the beginning.

Aldmuel has resided in the village since its founding, though he was a local even before that event. One of the original mage-architects of the city (now The Ruin), Aldmuel’s power waned as the city crumbled; while still fairly powerful by mortal standards, his/her power is a fraction of what it once was. Aldmuel has remained, both to discover what laid his beloved city low millennia ago, and to oppose the darkness he has sensed beneath The Ruins. Aldmuel never appears as his/herself, instead adopting any number of guises to suit the situation. The player characters may well encounter Aldmuel early and often in their adventuring career: as the stable boy looking after their mounts, the tavern girl serving their drinks, the wealthy merchant or inquisitive sage commissioning a delve into The Ruin. In what he sees as a war fought in the shadows, Aldmuel will not hesitate to use the characters as he sees fit. Eventually, he may even resort to the truth as a tactic, and reveal him/herself to the party.

Okay, that’s it for NPCs for now. This gives a good mix to start with, and as you can see, developing NPCs leads to fleshing out more bits of the setting. For instance, we now know there is a town guard, a general store, multiple taverns, at least two chapels or shrines, a blackmarket, and at least one criminal organization. Those details will be the first to get fleshed out when we turn our attention back to the setting later. But next time we’re going to turn our focus to The Ruin, and decide what creatures make it a dangerous place to spend time.

It also occurs to me, it’s about time to give this village a name. If you have an idea of what to call our little town perched on the edge of The Ruin, drop it in the comments. I’ll go through and pick the one I like the best, and the name giver may even win a prize, because I’m swell like that.

Campaign Creation: Beginnings and Broad Strokes, Pt. 1

Recent posts in the 30 Days of GMing Challenge got me thinking about campaign construction. Specifically, about how long it’s been since I built a campaign from scratch. I only have so much time in the day, so in recent years I’ve fallen back more and more on the use of pre-written campaign material when I start a new campaign. While I usually (okay, always) tweak it to better suit my players, it isn’t the same as building the campaign from scratch. So I thought it might be interesting to create a campaign setting, much as I would if I were starting with a new group of players. I also thought it would be helpful if I talked through this creation here, so you might pick up ideas on how to build your own campaign from scratch. I’ll post once a week or so on the topic, and go through the steps I use to get a home-built campaign player-ready.

And so it begins…

As I mentioned before, I usually tweak or build the campaign to suit my players and their characters. Since I’m building this campaign without an actual group, I’m going to lay down some base assumptions to get started. If you have a group and are working along with me, feel free to adjust as needed for your own table.

First, this is going to be a fantasy setting. While I enjoy other RPG genres, I have the most fun in a fantasy setting so that’s what I’m going with. Second, I’m working with the Pathfinder RPG in mind, though that will only really start to matter when I begin writing stats. Third, since I don’t have a particular group, I’m going to build with a “standard” group in mind: four characters, fighter, rogue, cleric, mage. I can always adjust the particulars later, for instance if I have a bard as opposed to a wizard I can change some NPCs to better support that class.

With all that in place, lets rough in the village. It doesn’t have to be a village, of course. I could start them off in a city neighbourhood or as part of a nomadic tribe. But if you’re just starting out, a village is a very manageable chunk of world to create. For the first little while my party will find adventure close to home, so it means I can worry about detailing the rest of the world later, and only as needed.

When I need to give a location some flavour, I use what I’ve termed, “the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” method. The Good is some sort of tangible benefit the location bestows. The Bad can be some sort of threat to the location, or the location itself contains some sort of danger. The Ugly is one mystery associated with the location, which could turn out good or bad depending on what the party discovers about it. So using that I come up with:

The Good: The village is a minor trading point, as it is built on the fringe of an ancient and long-ruined city. While the actual population of the village is small, during “dig season” the village almost triples in size, attracting a wide array of adventurers and treasure seekers. While not extensive, resources to support adventurers (healers, magic dealers etc) exist.

The Bad: The village must keep a constant watch against the creatures and humanoid tribes (mostly goblins and troglodytes) inhabiting the recesses of the ruins. While this is easy during dig season, with all manner of adventurers and mercenaries present, it is becoming increasingly difficult in quieter times.

The Ugly: The ancient city is a massive ruin, and generations of explorers have yet to map even a fraction of it’s surface, never mind what lies beneath. The architecture is unfamiliar, and many have speculated the city wasn’t built with humans in mind. Occasionally, runes carved into buildings and monuments glow of their own volition, though with no obvious effects for weal or woe.

Just with those broad strokes in place, I have a location that is both supportive and interesting to my adventurers. The village allows me to narrow my scope at the beginning, while placing it on the edge of a vast ruined city gives me room to grow. And the village gives me the opportunity to weave very personal stories into the adventure, with the proximity of the the characters’ friends, enemies, and family. In fact, that’s what we’ll look at in Part 2.

Does this inspire you to start your own campaign world? Have any suggestions for mine? Tell me about either in the comments!

30 Days of GMing, Day Six

This is the 30 Days of Game Mastering Challenge, coming to you live!

World-building: What’s your process?

The Pathfinder RPG is about 70% of my gaming these days, so not a lot of world building involved. More like “world fleshing out” (a topic for another post). But when I do use my own campaign world, I use something I’ve termed the “concentric circle” approach. You can also think of it as the “fog of war” approach, but I like my first analogy better so I’ll run with that.

Basically, think of your campaign world as being contained within a series of concentric circles, like an archery target. The bullseye is wherever the players are going to start in the campaign, and I mean “start” in every sense; physical location, where their characters fit in society, their community, and so on. Once I’ve figured out where the bullseye is, I build my world from the bullseye outward. The most detail and attention is paid to the parts of the world in the bullseye which is, not coincidentally, the parts closest to the characters. I flesh that out as fully as I can, often with the help of my players’ character backgrounds.

So what is considered inside the bullseye? In terms of physical location, anything of interest within a day’s journey of the characters’ starting point. In terms of community, any family, friends, or contacts the characters might have within that physical location. Social standing, the details of day-to-day life at the characters’ social stratum. So if a character is a noble, I need to figure out details of how the nobility works inside the bullseye (it may work differently elsewhere). If a character is a peasant, what is their life like and how does it affect the story?

The next circle out from the party gets less detail, but still gets filled in. How much is encompassed in each circle is largely up to you, but for the sake of argument let’s say in physical terms it’s 2-3 days travel from the party’s location. I’ll make sure I have names for all the locations, some handy rumours about those locations, main NPCs fleshed out, and so on. Again, not as much detail as the bullseye, but fleshed out enough that if the party suddenly decided on a road trip I could keep things interesting and answer most of the questions the players come up with.

I think you get where this is going, right? Each circle further out from the party gets less detail, until at the outermost circle I might just have names for the locations and that’s it.

Why would I create my world this way? Simple. No, really, that’s it: I like to keep things simple. The characters are the stars of the campaign show, so it makes sense to fill in all the details immediately around them, since those are the details they’ll encounter right away. Take physical location: if the characters start in the village of Homesweethomesburg, why spend any pre-campaign prep filling out all the details and nuance of Nevergonnagothereville, located hundreds of leagues away from the party? Slap a name on that city, maybe give it one or two details you can relate if they ask about it (“Nevergonnagothereville has a thriving doll-house industry and is renowned for Jacobi, a champion throat singer.”) Spend your time bringing Homesweethomesburg to life; give it character and depth, make it lived in.

There are benefits to this approach for both you and the players. You get to cut down on a bunch of prep that might never get used (though see later questions in this series on what to do with extra prep), and stick to campaign prep that immediately affects your group. And the players start the campaign in what feels like a fully developed campaign world. Well of course, because the characters only see what is immediately around them, and that’s what you filled out. Once the characters start to move away from Homesweethomesburg, however, the bullseye moves with them. Now you have new information to flesh out. But if you follow this model of world-building, you’ll only be building the parts of the world that matter to your players. Which is all you need.

What about you? How do you build a campaign world? Leave your thoughts in the comments.