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© 1998-2001 Dru
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How to Start a Campaign:
Creating a campaign
is a big job, but almost every GM eventually wants to tackle it. How do
you get started? The key is to start small and slowly expand over time.
The last article addressed creating a city-based campaign. A realm-based
campaign can be created either after the adventurers begin to venture
outside of the city, or completely on its own
A realm is an area of
land that can be as large as a kingdom or state or as small as a county.
A realm is not usually an entire country unless the country is relatively
small and homogenous. Neither is it usually an entire continent, unless
the continent is relatively small. The key is to keep the realm relatively
homogenous with regard to government and culture; otherwise, you're going
to confuse yourself when you're just starting out.
The first thing you
need is a realm map. If your realm is based on an existing place, then
get a real map to work from; for example, a map of Ireland or Tuscany,
California or Iraq. If the realm is made up, then you need to steal a
map from an existing source (e.g., other RPGs, works of fiction) or draw
it yourself. (The Windows-only software "Campaign Cartographer"
is a favorite for this chore.)
If you are using a real
realm, then choose one that matches the type of campaign you want to run.
A Western probably shouldn't be set in Iraq, and a cyberpunk game would
feel a bit strange set in Tuscany. This isn't to say that it can't be
done ... but unless you really feel like blowing away expectations, it's
usually easier to work within a genre's stereotypes.
If you are creating
your own map, sketch out the outline of the realm. As you do, consider
your borders carefully.
• A narrow country
is more likely to be overrun; enemies can occupy the middle to stop supply
lines and then take out both ends.
• Most realms
are built using natural borders such as mountain ranges, rivers, canyons
or oceans. At least some of the borders of your realm should run along
such natural features.
• Most realms
are built along a route that can carry trade goods; rivers and oceans
are the most popular. Unless mass transportation is available, strongly
consider putting your realm adjacent to a body of water or perhaps a mountain
pass or other place where people are likely to pass through and want to
• Successful realms
probably need to be self-supporting. Unless you specifically want resource
problems to be part of the campaign, make sure the realm is by fertile
Once you have your borders
sketched out, begin to place natural features inside the realm. Does a
river run through it? Do mountains or foothills stretch into it? Does
it contain a canyon, a desert, a large forest, or any other significantly
large natural feature? Place them. You don't need to be a geography major,
but try to be logical unless there's a good reason to mix-and-match unusual
geographical features (like an isolated forest in the middle of a giant
dried-out salt lake). I was playing in a group that was dumbfounded to
find a city built of sandstone placed near a stormy sea (in a published
module, no less!) ... we wondered how often the inhabitants had to rebuild
as the natural elements wore the city away! Try not to make a mistake
like this; players will never let you live it down.
After your natural features
are described, it's time to begin placing major settlements (cities, tribal
lands, castles, etc). Remember, settlements are most likely to appear
near natural travel routes ... so they're most likely to be near rivers,
lakes, or the ocean; mountain passes and on the edge of natural barriers
like deserts or canyons. Settlements need resources to support them, so
unless you're creating a metropolis supported by import, you'll probably
want to place the settlement next to a water source and fertile land.
Finally, up until relatively modern times settlements needed to be defensible.
Consider putting the settlement on higher ground than the surrounding
area or next to a natural defense (such as a lake, sheer cliff, and so
Don't worry about placing
towns and villages or other types of smaller settlements yet; all you
want to place now are the largest settlements. As a rule of thumb, premodern
games should have settlements (at least waystations) within a day's walk
from each other. Modern
or futuristic games can have more distance between settlements.
The next step is to
figure out the realm's culture. You probably already have something in
mind, and, again, if you're using a pre-existing realm, you're already
ahead of the game. But if you're making one up, you need to make some
decisions now. First, what time period are you going to run your campaign
in, either real-world or fictional? Prehistoric? Medieval? Renaissance?
Reformation? Industrial Revolution? Old West? Contemporary? Cyberpunk?
Far Future? Ahistorical fantasy?
Second, what country,
if any, do you want to use to provide a particular ambiance to your game?
For example, medieval France, Germany, England or Japan? Renaissance Italy
or England? Reformation France or Austria? You don't need to actually
make your realm that country ... but you can loosely base the realm on
the country to provide a familiar ambiance. Thus, you probably won't have
Northchester city right next to Beausoliel city right next to Skandansk
city ... you'd try to give all of your cities names that seem to come
from the same language (whether or not the names actually mean anything).
And if your realm is filled with French-sounding city names, those cities
probably won't be populated by rough Viking warriors or tobacco-chewing
gunslingers ... again, unless you plan to really blow genre conventions
out of the water. Stereotypes are useful in RPGs; they immediately give
you and the players a set of expectations. Don't waste this valuable resource
... unusual worlds like Talislanta and Jorune and the Empire of the Petal
Throne are very cool and original, but there's a high learning curve for
the GM and player before either feels very comfortable there. If you're
just starting out campaign-building, stick to the familiar and expected.
Third, what customs
are particular to this realm? Sit down and brainstorm up a list of at
least five interesting customs for the land.
• Is there a
major feast day or holy day everybody observes?
• Is there a code
(chivalry, code of the West, bushido) that a large or prominent section
of the population believes in?
• Are there any
unusual laws or curfews that are observed?
• Is there a typical
national "costume" that sets this realm apart from others? (E.g.,
kilts, kimonos, bearskin shirts, lace ruffles, bodysuits, hairstyles,
• Are there any
prejudices or beliefs that typify the realm's inhabitants? (E.g., racial
prejudices, gender prejudices, DNA prejudices, belief in the Faerie, belief
in ancestor worship, belief in a state religion, belief in the death penalty.)
• Are there other
customs that stand out? (E.g., siestas, community acts as family group,
disregard for strict timekeeping, workaholic tendencies.)
These customs add flavor
to the realm and provide a framework for players to work with as they
develop their characters. If you're creating more than one realm, these
customs will differentiate the realms and their inhabitants, causing more
interesting roleplaying possibilities as characters move from one realm
Now that you're really
getting a feel for your realm, it's time decide what political divisions
exist. You can probably already see some logical groupings around natural
features and your thoughts about customs may have suggested a few divisions
to you, too. Each political division probably contains a settlement (unless
you're dealing with a nomadic culture, although even then some places
will be gathering-grounds). Political divisions are not mutually exclusive
and might include the following:
• Tribal lands
• Racial territories
(for games that include different races)
• Duchies and
other territories run by nobility
• Religious territories
run by different individuals within the same religion or by different
• Linguistic divisions
(unlikely but not impossible, especially if part of the realm was taken
over from another realm during a war, or if there are two or more discrete
ethnic groups living in the same area).
As soon as you begin
working on this step you're going to need to start taking notes, because
this is the point at which (if you haven't already) you're going to begin
to develop a history of the realm. Why do the political divisions exist?
What are they called? Who's in charge of each? Which ones work together
and which ones fight? What is the capital city of each? What is each city
and political division named? Slowly you will begin to rationalize why
your realm looks the way it does, building up a history to explain its
current appearance. Take notes—don't worry about how neat they are
now, you can rewrite them later. Now is a brainstorming session. Remember
• Name the political
divisions (and, again, try to keep the names sounding like they come from
the same culture as your settlements)
• Name the major
natural features. (Note: Settlements are often named after the geography
around them ... Boulder, Salt Lake City, Belleview, Eastlake, etc.)
• Jot down at
least one sentence for each political division explaining why it exists—what
is the political group's goal or purpose?
Now you have your basic
realm completed. You don't need to map out each major settlement (of course,
if you're using real realms you can probably get city maps, which will
save a lot of time). Just figure out where the campaign is going to start
and get that section well-described (see the previous article on creating
a city). The rest of the realm will be fleshed out as you go. Remember
to always keep a notebook by you as you work on adventures or run a game
... you'll need to keep track of every precedent you set for the realm,
because players are often attentive to details and notice discrepancies.
originally written April 7, 2000
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