I have prepared (most of) a campaign reference document for each, all of which are radically different from one another. And they are so different because I'm looking to create different experiences with different groups with different expectations and needs.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to talk about three stages of campaign development for each:
- The Campaign Goal: this is where I talk about the experience you want to offer your players. Gathering inspiration, etc.
- Player Data: after you know what kind of experience you want to offer, the next step is to figure out what you need to tell your players about the world to get them making characters, giving you ideas to work with, and building excitement.
- DM Data: Once you have your players making characters, asking questions, and possibly "front-loading" campaign material for you, you need to figure out what else you as the GM need to know to run the first couple of adventures.
Ultimately, some of your most important world building has to happen after the second adventure, but that is a topic for later.
Gorzeh: The Trainer
The Gorzeh campaign setting is meant as a training setting for my son. It doesn't need a lot. The goal is to be able to "just sit down and play, already." And that is going to dictate how I build the world.
When building a world, your second step after you know what kind of experience you want to create, is to figure out what your players are going to need to know to get their imagination revving up in tune with yours.
In this case, my son needs to know that he's going to be in a desert with a lot of mysterious stuff going on. He needs to have some contacts and some bad guys to oppose. And he needs a reason to think he's the good guy. Having a shining Kingdom off in the distance that has not been able to keep the law on their frontier, and now is trying to bring peace and order back to it is all he really needs to engage with the world.
No matter what experience you are offering, once players know what you are going to offer them, they can give you feedback, build characters, and run a first adventure.
So , I have enough to strike while the iron is hot. The next step is making sure that I have enough material to keep the campaign going and generate more hooks.
What I need is essentially one town, some hooks, and answers to questions PCs are likely to ask between session 1 and 2, like "Where can I recruit more allies? And where can I buy loot?" More than that is a waste of time given my purposes here. Fast, loose, and low-effort are my keywords.
Jeff's Gameblog has a fantastic article: twenty quick questions for your campaign setting, that is perfect for this.
Because my son wanted to play a Flying Knight character, I didn't need to worry an awful lot about how clerics, paladins, druids, etc fit into the campaign. Where I needed a cult of weirdos and a cleric for healing, I offered the bearish bone. Fire cult. And a goddess of order. One for my own purposes that I just stole from the Aldrune campaign.
Aldrune: The Big Campaign
Aldrune is in many ways Gorze's opposite. Aldrune is a 60+ page document that has a detailed cosmology, a Pantheon of gods, the setup for intrigue, and one specific location, and roles for every class and race that make the campaign feel unique.
Why go through all the trouble? Because it's a campaign world I want to do a lot with. When I set out to create Aldrune, I wanted to create a heroic fantasy world that I could run multiple campaigns in, with multiple groups of players. Often ones with diverse interests and tastes.
I wanted something that captured chivalric romance: a blend of Arthurian legend and Medieval fantasy, and faerie tales. The Chronicles of Narnia, La Morte d'Arthur, Return of the King, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and "Hearts and Armor" were all guideposts.
I also wanted to catch both the melancholy of the period when Europe was struggling with Christianization as it is captured in Beowulf, as well as the tragic turn in the Early Modern period when nobles started to see knighthood as an aggravating burden, rather than their reason for being - and the corresponding shift from seeing their vassals as lives to protect to resources to exploit... Especially as it makes the heroism of the PCs feel rare an heroic.
Capturing those dynamics means creating a world where something like Christianity and like Celtic and Nordic Paganism were both possible. Where there was a Roman Empire analog, whose collapse necessitated feudalism and an attendant chivalric code. And where the dynamics of the current politics and religion offered lots of opportunities for intrigue.
For a campaign world of a multi-campaign scale to work, I need to let the players know what their choices are and how they will fit into the world. That means providing them with clear ideas about how each race and class that I wish to offer the players figures into the campaign .
When I play, my goal is to be an immersive DM both in the style in which I narrate events, and in the world I present. I find that a little strangeness helps. When you depart from the norm of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, players tend to lean in to the campaign more: they become curious about the game world and start engaging with it differently. That is so long as you stay within most of the conventions of the genre: if players feel like they have to read your mind to understand how the world works, they will disengage, instead.
Most ground-up advice on building worlds works well here. I started with the gods when building Aldrune using some of the articles on pantheon design from Russ over at Yum/DM in D12 Monthly Issue #5. After all, religion is important to Aldrune's structure.
With the dynamics I am looking for I needed to present a handful of gods. I like the number five when setting up a human pantheon based on this fantastic article from The Angry GM. Beyond the five to create dynamic tension I find it necessary to create more if I want demihumans to stand out. I also needed religions that create tension between several different ethics and ideals.
- The Divine Feminine that Chivalry aspired to (a holdover from Celtic goddess-worship.)
- The Monotheistic, Lawful, Patriarchal ideal that drove Feudalism.
- The darker, colder, war-hungry side of European Paganism that gave the common-folk a reason to embrace an alternative.
- A powerful outside religion to serve as a unifying external threat.
- A tension between business / progress and a functional and moral traditional framework.
That is a lot of front loading, and requires at least an outline of several regions (to have an exterior for threats to come from.) One kingdom specifically detailed, several religions, some history, and enough cosmology to explain why the gods just don't sort each other out.
And I need to do a little more to explain how demihumans fit into it all
If I didn't need chivalry, shifting cultural dynamics, and intrigue, I could have built the campaign of a similar scope but possibly with less front+loading. For example, a setting like Greyhawk required establishing that:
- Humans are holding on against monsters by a razor's edge.
- A detailed community (i.e.: Hommlet) and a basic rundown of its neighbors.
- There were empires that collapsed a long time ago that had greater magic and riches than the modern world could only dream of.
- Diving into ruins to bring back magic and treasure will help the people of the region survive.
- The dark forces seeking humanity's enslavement and destruction lurk in the same ruins, and treasure-hunters might become great heroes.
Building a big campaign like this has the advantage of most of your prep work done in front-loading player Data. I have already set up a whole bunch of conflicts, dynamics and factions. There is a powder keg right there for the ignition.
What I need is a few NPCs to serve as contact points and representatives of factions, and a conspiracy or conflict for the players to get into the middle of, and perhaps a secret villainous faction the PCs don't know about.
The first adventure needs to put the PCs in the middle of a clash between factions and see what side the players take. From there, their actions will change the interplay between the factions constantly.
A system like Fronts or Devastation's Dice to track each faction's progress towards it's goal might emerge later.
In the case of my first Aldrune Campaign, the plan is to have the PCs suddenly be caught in an attack where bandits and goblinoids are being used as mercenaries to kidnap a princess on behalf of a corrupt nobleman who wants to use her as leverage in forcing a change to trade regulations.
If the PCs follow the threads of the conspiracy, they can discover a proxy war being fought between a Torelite Cardinal through corrupt nobles, trade guilds, bandits, and mercenaries against a Viscount whose devotion to high ideals and the old religion stand in the way of progress (and economic development.)
Of course, the players are free to choose sides, and saving the princess, if they do so, will lead them into a hex-crawl that will take a few sessions as they flee the goblins, bandits and corrupt noble's knights... How they keep her safe is going to give us a lot of opportunities for exploration and discovery... So I will need a stocked hex map.
The Golden Heresy: The High Concept
The Golden Heresy is a playful experiment. I was inspired by some Gloryhammer music videos, the movie Wizards, and short stories that I was reading at the time. I wanted a game where machine-gun toting Wizards were exploring an atomic wizards faced man eating plants and killer drones to find a portal to a magical world of Unicorns and Rainbows... Then burn it to the ground.
I figured it would be easy to find players that were into it.
Once I started actually trying to make it all make sense I got this idea about a group of secret agent adventurers that hop planes to help a legion of magic-wielding shock troopers conquer a planet and kill its gods and angels. (I may have had NIN on heavy rotation on Spotify at the time...)
But to do the job they needed to adventure across a post-atomic hellscape in a harrowing Gamma-World style hex-crawl looking for a portal. With a chance of getting caught permanently on the radioactive wasteland.
Meaning, either they land in a permanent Gamma-World style game, or they become the agents of Chaos adventuring to destroy a classic Fantasy world.
And if there was enough PC turn-over, possibly doing a 180°, and trying to defend the world of against the forces the original PCs served.
With world-jumping, this setting was so wide open in possibilities as to be totally experimental.
Player Data here has to be fairly scant. The key points are:
- You belong to an army that kills gods...
- ...and here's why.
- You can't get into the world's with the gods you want to kill, because they protect their world's...
- ...but there is always a way in.
- Your current mission is to covertly infiltrate a world and wreck the holy artifact that keeps the army out
- On the world you are going to, you need to look out for ______
- And to get there you need to use a back door through another dangerous wold... And the scouts report an atomic hellscape.
- You can have machine guns and grenades.
Players don't really need more than these bullet points, but I prettied it up a bit in the campaign booklet with some enriching details.
Part of the fun of this campaign is not knowing what's ahead, and letting each word be a surprise.
I really wanted psionics, though, so I monkey-wrenched together a Dromite race and Psion class that plays nice with Swords & Wizardry.
In Other Words ...
How much effort you put into designing a TTRPG World will very much depend on what you want to get out of it. Long campaigns where you give players a lot of options are going to require more work then something meant as a trainer or a one shot, or something that is experimental.
Ultimately, focusing on the experience you want the players to have in your game is the key. If you know what mood, what tone, what genre, what time frame for play, and whether you plan on using the world multiple times you can use that to guide you in terms of what needs to go into the world.
Start by designing the experience first, and then build only what you need you to give the players what they would need to know to make a character that would fit into that world.
Then, once they start helping you build it by designing characters and asking questions focus entirely on building what you need to build to give them their first adventure or two in that world. And in doing so, make sure you are focused on making that first adventure reflect the experience you are trying to design.