Owning Your World #1: Having and Eating your Cake
When designing your own campaign world, life can be made easier by incorporating elements from pre-published sources. As we get older, time to sit and plan becomes hard to come by. The plethora of products available for RPGs (d20 specifically) makes this job easier, however it can be just as time consuming trying to make it all fit the flavor of your world. How can one bring together the ideas from these various products without watering down the feel of your own world?
We've all felt it; that creeping feeling that somehow the world you've spent so much time and energy building has become Dragonlance...just with different place names. Perhaps in the d20 era of D&D, your world has become Forgotten Realms, or (cringe)...Eberron. It's common, and sometimes seems unavoidable. When I first started designing my world 15 years ago I lived at home, paid no bills, and had nothing to worry about beyond next weekend's session. Time was plentiful and I would sit for hours on end building cultures, personalities, and places to populate my world with. As I got older, outside responsibilities began to take precedence in my life so I began to increasingly rely on pre-published material to help me out. Then, one day I woke up and realized that my game world had been taken over by several others.
This problem stems from one thing in my opinion...implied setting. For those that don't know, the implied setting is what the designers had in mind when they wrote the product that you're itching to incorporate into your homebrew world. In the 3.0 edition of D&D, that implied setting was Greyhawk. In 3.5ed, it was Forgotten Realms or Eberron. In almost any D&D product, from any edition, by any publisher, there is a hint of the writers implied setting. Often, incorporating one thing results in incorporating a bunch. A prestige class for example may look like an easy fit; but once all the necessary schools of magic, organizations, feats, etc. have been added in to make the class work in your world, you may have just watered down your vision.
Designing your own campaign world is no small task, and can be quite time consuming.
There are a few ways to lessen this invasion of your campaign world by outside sources. Simply replacing flavor text is the same thing as writing your own material from scratch, but is one of the only solutions to the problem. So how can you have your cake and eat it too?
1) Think Big
The bigger your campaign world is, the easier it is to add something in after the fact. Maybe that obscure religion or tyrant king is from another continent than where the action in your campaign is taking place. If you already have all the cultures and regions of your world planned out before you begin play, you've limited yourself in what you can add in later. All the action may take place on one continent, or even in one kingdom, but there has to be more of the world left over for later. This is likely not the only campaign you're going to want to run in this world.
2) Plan for Flexibility from the Start
It's easy to fall to the temptation of making a list of allowable classes, races, etc. at the beginning of the campaign and sticking to it. In fact, that's exactly the advice you'll often find in the "Gamemaster" chapter in many popular roleplaying games. You're far better off in the long run to make a short list of what's allowable right at the outset and adding to it later. Trying to think of every possible scenario right away is a dead end in building your world. By putting more initial limitations on what you have to choose from (for your players and for yourself), you'll save valuable planning time and still leave yourself room to maneuver later.
3) Involve your Players
If one of your players comes to you with a really interesting class or race (or whatever) don't just disallow it arbitrarily or worse, do all the work to incorporate it yourself. Have them flesh out the background and flavor the text themselves. If you left yourself some room in your world as per the previous tips, they should be able to work it in without stepping on the things you've already established in your world. Consider giving the player a list of ideas you'd already been playing around with but haven't had time to fully render, and see what they can do with it. It isn't enough just to add the material verbatim into an undeveloped part of your world...make them tie it to something that already exists, whether the players have encountered it yet or not.
4) Narrow the Religious Scope
Figure out what you'll actually be using, and stick to that for awhile.
Unless your goal is to have a very populated pantheon of gods in your world, consider carefully anything religion or cult-like that you add. By having a limited pantheon that does not grow as the game progresses you'll establish a more believable religious theory for your world. If something strikes your fancy at the game store, find a way to tie it to the existing religions in your world...resist the temptation to add a new god. It's far more realistic for your players, and more satisfying as a gamemaster, when that adventure you bought helps build your world rather than add someone else's to it.
5) Don't Forget about Architecture
The shaded flavor text boxes in pre-published adventures can ruin your game. Often, they make mention of the architecture in the dungeon/city/castle...whatever. Architecture varies widely from one region to the other in the real world, and your campaign world isn't (or at least shouldn't be) any different. Take a few minutes while you're reading through the material you're using to build your world or plan for the next session and make some notes in the margins of the books about what will be different when you use it. Tie the look and feel of your source material to the region you're using it in.
6) Develop Your Own Races
You don't have to create whole new races from scratch, but a little time spent switching a few racial paradigms around, or changing the names and appearances of the familiar races goes along way towards separating your campaign world from all the ones that inspired it. All my players for the last decade or so will tell you that there aren't any elves in my world, cause "Scott hates elves". Sadly, this isn't as true as they think. The Elu, a starchy race of near-immortals much akin to the Melniboneans in Michael Moorcock's novels, are basically elves. On paper they're no different at all. In fact, there are regional variations of Elu stock to coincide with all the different types of elves that can be found in a standard fantasy campaign. But again...my players would disagree.
7) Keep it Fresh
The bigger your campaign world is, the easier it is to add something in after the fact. .
I try to add a new idea to my campaign world every few sessions, depending on how often we play. By fleshing out ideas and tying them to your setting one at a time instead of all at once, you can fully realize your ideas as they come up. It's not necessary for all that background material to be seen by the players or their characters, just so long as it's there when you need it. Using this technique you aren't just adding a new NPC/city/spell, you're world building with every stroke of the pen. It won't be long before you have players asking if their next character can be "whatever that guy we met on the road three months ago was".
8) Plan Small
Figure out what you'll actually be using, and stick to that for awhile. This may seem to contradict the first two tips, but by thinking big and then planning small you can spend more time focusing on the things that are right in front of you without worrying about how they'll affect the bigger picture later. You may have a great adventure that you purchased and are itching to run, but by changing some of the NPCs or creatures to types that are currently prevalent in the region the adventure is to be used in you'll be reinforcing your own setting by running it. It won't be that much extra work either because you've been focusing on fleshing those things out anyways...in the end it's easier than learning all about something new and trying to find a way to make it fit.
Designing your own campaign world is no small task, and can be quite time consuming. With each installment in this series, I'll try to break the process down and go into detail on different subjects, with the focus being on the flavor text rather than the crunchy parts. Hopefully these articles will make your lives easier, while still allowing you to develop a rich world for your adventures to take place in...your world.
Next installment...Owning Your World Part 2: Cradle to Grave; Creation Myths and the Afterlife