One of the goals of the RPG Athenaeum is to provide useful material for readers to employ in their Dungeons & Dragons games, whether these games take place in settings modified from published material or entirely of their own creation. This blog hasn’t, however, addressed the topic of how dungeon masters (DMs) might go about creating unique settings for their players; less experienced DMs may not even know where to start. World Building Week, a five-post series on “homebrew” campaign construction beginning today, is directed toward these DMs in particular.
Throughout this series, the posts will refer to this writer’s most recent homebrew campaign setting. Continually referencing the same setting will hopefully clarify the manner in which the various topics contribute to the whole.
The first post in this series discusses campaign theme.Let us begin by saying that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with using the rules of any edition of D&D as written, and using all officially produced material for those respective editions, especially for players and DMs new to the game. Indeed, one needs to run at least one campaign “by the book” to discover areas of the rules that may need to be modified or ignored by one’s specific gaming group. That being said, it’s also important to recognize that a time will come when players will become weary of wizards with pointy hats, elves that look and act like Legolas and human fighter-types that could pass for Conan. When that moment arrives, it’s time for something more than generic D&D campaigning; in such a case, the DM needs to provide an engaging setting that makes the players want to learn more about it. That type of setting is rooted in having a firm campaign theme, which guides DM and player choices about other elements of the setting.
Choosing your campaign theme
A campaign theme can be loosely defined as a handful of concepts that summarize what the campaign is about. Usually, these concepts are short phrases, like Roman Empire, ice world, city campaign, elves vs. dwarves, bronze age technology, pirate archipelago or thieves’ guild campaign. It helps to brainstorm these concepts with players, since DMs who don’t seek player input run the risk of creating a setting nobobdy really wants to explore, and such campaigns usually fail after a few sessions. It’s important for the DM to bring several ideas to this meeting, that players may build upon or voice their lack of interest in them. Often, rejected DM-generated ideas will spark an idea about what players really do want.
After conducting as much brainstorming as the players are inclined to do, the group needs to narrow the list of concepts to a workable number. Often, reducing the list to eight concepts, then five, then three or four usually works. This handful of concepts will guide numerous future choices, so it’s important to get some degree of comfort from everyone present before proceeding.
For our example campaign, the concepts were:
- Riders of Rohan
- Roman Legions
- Aftermath of a great war
- Scottish Highlanders
The great heresy
At this point, we’re about to do the unspeakable: using those concepts, decide what official material will not be used in this particular campaign. It may seem counter-intuitive to do so, since game manufacturers label every one of their products as “must-haves” for players. However, as the The No Dandelion-Eaters Campaign illustrates, it isn’t necessary to include every official class, race, or monster in the game for it to be fun. Often, the act of selecting what will and won’t appear is what makes a campaign unique.
Since the example campaign was to be our group’s first foray into fourth edition (4e) D&D, we decided not to restrict core player character classes or choices, although we did choose to use only the 4e Players Handbook for the entire campaign (the system was new to us, after all, and there are just under 1,000 different combinations of race, class, paragon path and epic destiny presented in that one volume).
The concepts we chose restricted our choice of terrain a bit. After all, a tractless swamp full of lizardfolk could exist in the campaign area, but nobldy was really interested in fighting or interacting with them, so what was the point of including them in the game? The culture inspired by Rohan would need plenty of plains or steppes for their mounts, the Scottish Highlander-types needed, well, highlands, and the culture with Roman-style legions would probably want the areas of rolling hills between the horsemen and highlanders. As DM, I chose to focus on monsters dwelling in those three terrain types, augmented by subterranean, extra-planar or other-worldly foes.
After deciding what won’t be used, it’s time to do some basic cartography and create a set of central conflicts; those topics will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.