Friday, March 4, 2022

Your Campaign Goals Dictate Your World Design Tools

While I was doing my first piece of writing on World Building a couple of weeks ago, it was happening real time in my head.

In my last article, I detailed how looking at the artwork of Yoshitaka Amano inspired me to create a world called Xen. In it's original inception, this was going to be a world designed for games played less than 2 hours at a time that drew on some of the weirder fusions of Science Fiction and Fantasy that appear in the best of Appendix-N lit. 

I wanted the strange sci-fi technology of Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom, the complex and mystical politics of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, the psychedelic fantasy qualities of Abraham Merritt's Ship of Ishtar and The Face in the Abyss.  I wanted the strange and highly pervasive magic of Jack Vance's Dying Earth.

And for good measure, I thought it might be fun to add in some of the Gain mysticism and high concepts of peak Final Fantasy.

The more I created this world, the more I fell in love with it.

I had been building Aldrune with the idea that it might be a world I can spend quite a few campaigns in. Generally speaking, I make a new world every campaign or two because I always want to try new things. The only exception was a world called Astraea, which I ran five campaigns in back in the mid-naughties. Intentionally building a world that I feel like I could stay with for a while felt like it would be a great way to help grow my abilities as a Dungeon Master.

And here was Xen. A high-concept weird kluge designed for play in short bursts after the kids have been put in bed and my wife had finished your planning for the next day. I'd made it weird, because that way I could toss whatever oddball sword and planet trope I wanted to into it and it wouldn't feel too out of place.

It was as alien to the idea of the high chivalric fiction I wanted as I developed Aldrune as you could imagine. And it was something I wanted to play suddenly far more.

And so, I decided to develop Xen further and produce a document like Aldrune's. Something that has details about where the classes fit into the campaign world, what races are available, appropriate house rules, and enough lore to work.

I also got it into my head that I wouldn't mind those weekday evening shorts in the one-to-one game with my wife to tie in to whatever I played with my usual Monday night group... and any other campaign I chose to form with it! And that meant I needed to structure things a little differently still. Namely, I needed a calendar so I could keep strict time. And I needed multiple regions developed to a certain level in order to spread events out.

This was also a world where lore was lost, religions came and went, and the gods were not trustworthy or active in the events of The Campaign World in a meaningful way. Well, at least the good ones weren't.

It was intended to be a setting where the world was clearly less than it was before. Where a great Empire with 6,000 years of history was in decline. That meant approaching the lore in a very different way.

Sweeping vs. Granular

In Aldrune, I have a lot of specific discussion of the gods and religions. The codes of ethics and the political tensions that go on in the Northlands. I'm trying to create a particular moment in history that captures three disparate moments in European history. That mean he's getting down to the nitty gritty details about particular components of the campaign world.

After all, if you want a story of intrigue, noble knights, and blessed heroes, you need to have an idea of what constitutes heroism and nobility.

Xen is a different deal. I want a world where almost anything can happen, and the characters are living by their wits. In other words, I want something where players have an idea of the sheer scope of Possibility in the campaign. That means broad strokes that give a feel of the campaign rather than specific details.

Snapshots of Detail vs. Artful Vagueness

Dungeons & Dragons is essentially a post-apocalyptic and Gothic game, much as Robert E. Howard's Hyperborean Age or Jack Vance's Dying Earth: the Heroes uncover lost treasure, forgotten wonders, and unspeakable horrors from a previous era.

In a game where the characters are heroes trying to rebuild a lost society, or where the characters are caught in a particular moment of history where nations, economies, or Zeitgeist is changing, History has to be a known quality. The setting guide has to tell you about what was grand - or terrible - about the past. This is why Lord of the Rings spends so much time discussing the golden age of Gondor and Armor and the Old Kings: Tolkien had to establish what Aaragorn could bring back to Middle Earth.

This was the case in Aldrune. We are seeing a long and wondrous history where humanity has lifted itself up after terrible disasters and heads towards apotheosis. But there is confusion about the way forward.

For that reason I provide lots of specific events in Aldrune's history, each designed to give a thematic picture of the era around it.

In a game where the characters are discovering lost secrets from a better age to help people survive an impending disaster - and where the degeneracy of the campaign setting is important - History ought to be vague and confusing.

For Xen, I created an empire that claims 6,000 years of history, but has crumbled multiple times, reckons it's time by self-aggrandizing dynasties (the number of which is uncertain,) and where the culture defines itself by language, but shares almost nothing else in common with its past: religion, ideology, even species has changed 

The history of Xen is built for confusion and vagueries. I even designed my calendar with an eye for mild confusion, with wordy poetics rather than simple time-tracking.

Detailed Roles vs. Rough Ideas

In Aldrune, I want to give players a clear sense of where the PCs fit in the world. This lets them engage with the factions, politics and culture. To make that happen, I need to create factions, cultural roles, and culture groups that the permitted classes connect to. In other words, if I want the players to engage with factions religion, and politics in the world, I have to know what those are ahead of time. I need to provide context for player character options.

This is why I explain how the religion of Agyn brought the lure of illusion magic to the world. How I connect the clergy of Brythanwy to the Code of Chivalry an make it inseparable from the feudal system. It is why I created The Loyal Order of Poison-Makers and Inhumists, a guild of halfling assassins who avenge abuses of the smaller races with tacit state approval... Giving an idea of how halflings make their way in a society, and giving a good reason to include the assassin class.

By contrast, Xen is meant to be flexible. I want the players to discover new cults, strange groups, petty power struggles, etc. as outsiders, and become the agents of change (for Law or Chaos at the PCs' choice as they go, much like John Carter, Conan of Cimmeria, or Cugel the Clever. Xen is meant to be a weird place that must be explored to be believed.

As discovery is the name of the game in Xen, I want to only give the players enough to start with a rough character idea and then let them discover the rest. Xen, therefore discusses something about how magic is learned and viewed, gives a handful of religions that are more viewed by their basic ideas than their place in the culture, and some descriptions of how warriors are trained in each culture. The players are invited to front-load.

By giving them a vague setting, they can add their own flourishes during character generation, which I can then make a part of an ever-growing world.

This has helped me learn a lot about Xen thanks to player front- loading.I had a player present me with a monk who was an abductee, slave, and eventually a gladiator. To let her fit in, I had to decide that slavery is not illegal under imperial law... but it is rare and o my practiced in corrupt jurisdictions. That slaves are the playthings of the least respectable aristocrats, or the backbone of the poorest backwaters. 

Also, I learned that the Kooet worshiped characters from a previous campaign that had risen to godhood, which let me integrate some material from a previous campaign, get an idea of what local Terran cults are like, and even plan out at least one era of the empire's history, by basing it on an old Pathfinder campaign where those deified characters had been PCs, and fought a nameless Empire. 

In effect, the idea of including those deities let me take some vague elements from an old campaign and make it part of the history of Xen. Which let me borrow some old character names and factions and make them historical clans in the Terra region.

Play Tools vs. Principles 

Aldrune is built with Troll Lord Games' Castles & Crusades in mind. I picked a game setting with a slightly crunchier set of rules, that combine the best of AD&D2e and D&D3e, which has a very particular feel that matches the heroic vibe of 2e, and has the OSR flexibility that I like, but also has a cruncj and complexity that cuts down on guesswork.

With as thorough a system as Castles & Crusades has, my main goal is just to give enough Ideas to let my players build up characters and get tangled up in local strife as fast as possible. I have no need to make any serious rules modifications or the like My goal was to create immersive narrative tools to help draw players into the game.

Xen is a different. It is meant to be played fast and loose in a setting where anything might happen. Where I wanted the rules the hell out of the way. Which is why I built it on Swords & Wizardry.

Aside from being, simple, loose, and fast, Swords & Wizardry is so easy to adapt and mod, in part because it is designed to be played rather like a Free Kriegspiel: with as much logic and reason - and as few rules - as possible.

I want to recommend a great article by Travis Miller that captures my reasons for using Swords & Wizardry, which he wrote as an amplification of my recent review of S&W.

Among other things, it is very hackable. I have grabbed a few favorite subsystems from The Dozen Dooms, and added tools from my own Over Six Engine, so that I can add in my home-brewed alchemy and minor magic systems without adding a fixed or rigid skill system. This will let me add in a lot of science fiction and manapunk elements to the setting using material I have already made (And let me do a little play testing.)

Ultimately, my Xen campaign document has to be more about how we are going to play rather than establishing particulars. I need to discuss what DMing style I use, where to find inspiration, and what tools will be at our disposal.

Xen's Evolution

Xen started as a few pages in a pitch document meant to be shared only with my wife. The more I have thought about it and daydreamed about it, the more complex it has gotten. I am now running two parallel Xen campaigns, and hope to create a third.

You can see my original "A Princess of Xen" pitch here, or download the current version of either of my campaign primers below.

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