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Designing a Fantasy Campaign

by Paul Mitchener
Sep 15,2004


Methods of Campaign and Adventure Design 3

By Paul Mitchener

Designing a Fantasy Campaign

In the last two columns we looked at one way to construct adventures, by looking at various points in turn. I now want to look at things on a larger scale, namely whole campaigns.

As I did in my first column on adventure design, I want to break down campaign design into several distinct steps.

  • Choose genre and rules
  • How long is the campaign intended to run?
  • Design major cultures
  • Think of a source of conflict
  • Design major characters
  • History and Geography
  • Write a first adventure
As before, let us further elaborate.

Choose genre and rules

This step is almost self-explanatory, and should probably be made in consultation with the players. There are actually two types of rules that can be considered here, namely fairly generic rules that will work within the genre in question (for example GURPS and a modern action game, D&D and a fantasy game) and more tightly focused rules that are specifically designed for the genre in question (for example Call of Cthulhu, Ars Magica). Most roleplaying games fall into the second category. However, rules intended for a particular genre can sometimes be used in another genre. For example, the Ars Magica rules could be used to run a non-historical fantasy game, or the Call of Cthulhu rules to run a non-mythos horror game.

One thing I like to do is add a dash of something different to a genre in a campaign. This something different might be the big idea that makes the campaign work, or it could be merely flavour. To introduce the example I will be working through in this article, I recently ran a campaign based very loosely on ancient Greece. It was not historical, but the gods of the world were those of the ancient Greeks, and the cultures of the game had a fairly Greek flavour. Fantasy races present included centaurs, elves, and half-elves.

The extra detail involved the coming to power of an analogue of the Nazi party, where the racial prejudices are against non-humans. Half-elves were a particular focus. Being a little stuck for names, I decided to call the world Arcarnia, and the nasty organisation the Sons of Arcarnia.

Another piece of advice concerns modification of the rules. This should not be necessary if the rules are specifically designed for the setting. In other cases, the rules might fit the setting imperfectly. Even then, changes need to be carefully considered. Probably the best way to modify the rules is to ignore elements of the game that do not fit the genre.

To go back to my example, I used (more or less) the D&D rules. However, not everything present in the D&D rules needs to be present in a more specific fantasy game. For example, is it necessary for humans, dwarfs, halflings, half-orcs, gnomes, elves, and half-elves all to exist on one given world? Is it necessary for wizards, clerics, sorcerers, bards, and psionicists all to have distinct magical powers? Is it necessary to use every creature in the Monster Manual?

These questions are not a criticism of the D&D rules, but more a comment that a game world can be too busy if all of the available features are used. In my campaign, I got rid of most of the non-human races and most of the monsters, especially humanoid monsters. Most of the magic I kept, however, removing only sorcerors.

How long is the campaign intended to run?

The question of how long a campaign is intended to run affects how much background a GM needs to prepare. In my mania for making lists, I can think of three types of campaign:

  • Short-term campaigns and one-shots
  • Long-term campaigns with a definite goal
  • Open-ended campaigns

The first type of campaign in the above list is slightly different to the other two, in the sense that less background work is needed, but the entirety of the game needs to be at least approximately planned before the campaign can begin.

The other two campaigns need a different sort of planning. Both need a comparatively well-developed campaign world, but not every adventure needs to be planned. For long-term campaigns with a definite goal, the goal needs to be worked out.

In my sample campaign, the long-term goal is quite obvious, namely the defeat of the bad guys who already featured in my initial idea. If I am being honest, the campaign I ran had an additional complexity; the pseudo-Nazi Sons of Arcarnia were supported by a major figure in the shadows, namely an avatar of the god Uranus (who I called Ouranes to avoid obvious jokes) who wanted revenge upon the world that had cast him out. Ouranes had taught the Sons of Arcarnia to summon devils. Thus there was an obvious second long-term goal beyond the first one that was by no means immediately apparent.

Design major cultures

This particular step may or may not be relevant in a short-term campaign, but is very useful to add flavour to long-term campaigns. Cultures can be invented by a mixture of stealing from history and the present day, and looking at science fiction and fantasy cliches. Of course, with a modern day or a historic campaign, less invention and more research is needed.

Most of the cultures in my campaign were partially fantasy cliche and partially ancient Greek. Bearing in mind the ancient Greek flavour, there were a number of city states. The first of the main city states was Tiarna, home of an elected Senate, which had recently replaced a form of government more along the lines of ancient Athenian democracy. The new democracy was still more than a little corrupt and plutocratic. However, despite governmental difficulties, Tiarna was the largest of the city-states, and one that many other city states looked up to culturally.

The second city-state was called Logos. Logos was highly militocratic, and somewhat modelled on ancient Sparta. A third city state was Draxa. Draxa was quite rich, in a surprisingly fertile area at the edge of a desert. Gemstones were mined in the vicinity, but more importantly, Draxa was the home of a number of mysteries sacred to various Olympian gods, and governed as a theocracy. I saw Tiarna and Logos as periodically warring, with Draxa as something of a wild card in these battles.

Elven and centaur cultures were also needed. The centaurs were nomadic warriors, sometimes acting as mercenaries in human conflicts. The elves were Fey and distant. The half-elves, however, were heavily involved in human society. Most trade in the campaign was handled by a few trading houses, in which the half-elves were dominant. The trading houses were organisations with bases in several city-states and considerable resources. I saw most half-elves as being descended from other half-elves, rather than unions between humans and elves.

Think of a source of conflict

The idea behind thinking up a source of conflict in a campaign is to answer the question: what are the PCs meant to do?

Sources of conflict include wars, business rivalries, personal ambitions, and survival in a hostile terrain. Many published campaign worlds, such as anything in the World of Darkness, have built in frictions between different groups that can be developed.

In my campaign, there is an obvious source of conflict, namely the issues represented by the existence of an organisation such as the Sons of Arcarnia. It is easy to see how adventures that directly or indirectly oppose the Sons of Arcarnia can be constructed.

Another related point is to decide which culture the PCs should initially come from, or at least be in at the start of the game, and how the conflict is manifested within that particular culture. I decided that my campaign should begin in Tiarna, where the Sons of Arcarnia were recently able to seize control.

Design major characters

At this stage it is possible to start designing NPCs. Important and more typical individuals within the most important cultures can be designed, as can individuals typifying the conflict in the campaign.

This step is probably best explained by looking at our example campaign. As we mentioned under the above heading, the plan is for the campaign to begin in Tiarna when the Sons of Arcarnia have just seized control of the Senate. Characters we need are certain definite leaders within the Sons of Arcarnia movement, and other Senators and possible resistance leaders within Arcarnia. Another good idea is to have some slightly less senior member of the Sons of Arcarnia movement as a personal foil to the PCs.

As for major cultures, it was quite good fun to come up with a few random characters scattered around, including a Logosan mercenary wizard and a Centaur working for a trading house. The leaders of these other cultures were sketched rather than fully detailed; I reasoned that I could develop the details later on as they became relevant.

History and Geography

The history and geography of a campaign world can be determined. In a fantasy game, a world can be designed, perhaps by beginning with coastlines and mountains, then adding rivers, forests, swamps, and deserts, and finally looking at likely locations for the major cultures we have already designed. In a space opera campaign, the planets in each important solar system could be briefly described, along with travel times between stars using whatever method of interstellar travel exists in the campaign. In a campaign based upon the real world, real world maps can be used, with additional relevant fictional locations added on.

As for history, perhaps the easiest method is to make analogies with real world history, with a small addition of the fantastic. In a campaign based upon the real world, real history can of course be used unchanged, although it can be important to note relevant fictional historical events, and what is really going on if there is any sort of `secret history'.

In my campaign, much of history involved petty wars between Logos and Tiarna, with the occasional intervention of Draxa, and a larger empire far to the east that I decided to add called the Kingdom of the Lion. The analogy with the real history of ancient Greece is obvious.

More recent history needed more detail; the rise of the Sons of Arcarnia had to be somehow explained. I decided that Tiarna had recently lost most of its territories in a war with both Logos and the Kingdom of the Lion. I called this war the Three-Sided War, mainly because as well as fighting Tiarna, Logos and the Kingdom of the Lion also had smaller conflicts. During this war, the trading houses continued to trade with all relevant sides. After the war, which was about 10 years ago, many Tiarnans blamed the trading houses for losing the war, and the Sons of Arcarnia invented a half-elven conspiracy.

Write a first adventure

The first adventure in a campaign should introduce the characters to the setting, and perhaps one or two of the major elements of the overall plot. The methods of adventure design in the previous two columns should be helpful here.

However, there is one more factor we need to consider, namely that the PCs do not have well-established characters, and it can be hard to tell how they react to situations. Further, depending on the ideas used in character creation, some situation may have to be invented both to launch the PCs into the setting and to get the characters together. It is probably easier if the players are willing to be cooperative, and create characters within certain (broad) guidelines depending on the needs of the setting.

If a campaign has strong enough ideas, it should be fairly easy to come up with ideas for a first adventure. Other adventure seeds for long-term and open-ended campaigns should also be considered at this time. In the case of campaigns with definite goals, adventure seeds should be considered at this stage that further the overall plot. Hints about these future adventure seeds could even be dropped into the first adventure; they do not all have to be taken up.

In my sample campaign, the initial adventure was quite simple; the Sons of Arcarnia were just elected to power in Tiarna. Certain laws were passed, effectively putting half-elves and their property outside of any legal protection. Due to Sons of Arcarnia-led groups, the city exploded; any businesses believed to be half-elven were attacked, and any half-elves around had a significant danger of being murdered. The goal of the adventure was basically survival, and saving victims of the Sons of Arcarnia if the PCs felt so inclined (fortunately, they did).

Wrapping Up

Well, that's about all for this week. Next week, I want to look at something a bit less lofty than the design of whole campaigns and adventures.

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