Monday, June 18, 2018

Some Thoughts on Campaign Building

I realized the other day while working on abilities for mystical powers that I haven’t really laid out my approach to developing Starfall into an old-school setting. I can’t claim that my method is particularly unique or that it originated with me, but it might explain what otherwise might appear to be a haphazard approach.

Campaign building is the intersection of two thigs: world building and adventure writing. That is to say, you need to create adventures for people to play, but you need a backdrop against which they are played, too. The world building creates the self-consistent framework within which the adventure takes place, and if done well, it also motivates the adventures.

Personally, I like to have an idea of the kind of adventure(s) I’d like to run when I start world building, but I actually tackle them afterward. This is because running blindly into world building, as fun as that is in its own right, can produce settings that fail to support the kinds of stories you want to tell. For lots of examples of this, check out the many build a setting threats at the GURPS forums. I’m willing to bet you won’t agree with where all of those went. So, I start out with an idea of what I want from the world I build, so I can make sure it meets the needs of the adventures I plan on running.

But even when it comes to world building, there are different approaches, too. Some laud the “outside-in” or “top-down” method and the “inside-out” or “bottom-up” method. Both have their virtues and pitfalls, and while I do enjoy one over the other, I usually use a mix of the two to accomplish my goals.

“Top-down” involves tackling the big questions of world building first: Is there magic? Where did the gods come from? Why are there different sapient races? etc. Once these are answered, the world builder moves from this high-level abstraction downward toward more worldly subjects like, “What countries are there?”, “What ethnicities are there?”, “What does trade look like?”, etc. Eventually, he gets all the way down to the bottom where he described individual localities and people. Conversely, “bottom-up” starts with the localities and people and slowly expands outward to describe countries and international relationships. Eventually, it works its way all the way to deities, cosmology, and other metaphysical topics.

“Top-down” really shines at creating a self-consistent framework to which other elements more readily adhere, but it takes forever to get down to any level of setting where players will operate. Quite often, world builders burn out before producing a usable setting, but those who make it have a level of detail consistency that is astounding. “Bottom-up” excels at producing enough setting to play in quickly. It might not be as deep as a top-down that made it to the locality level, but it works and you have it now. That’s a big plus for gaming. The down side is that it can lead to inconsistencies without extensive revision, and that can really shatter suspension of disbelief.

So which do I use? Both! First, I like to attack a few of the big questions. This might be as simple as saying, “It’s kitchen sink fantasy craziness like D&D” or it might take a few thousand words to describe an idea for a power source. It might say, “The world is relatively well-explored and covered in kingdoms,” or I might not address this at all. I just suss out enough to be able to build off of later on a local level, and if need be, make mechanics for. Then I flip perspectives to the local. This lets me start work on the adventure-side of things while making sure everything stays consistent to the Big Ideas.

Once I have enough world building to call a setting done, I start in on the adventure side of things. I have always played in and run sandbox-type games, so my adventure writing usually boils down to come up with a dozen or so plot hooks to help players find something to do and then writing larger world events to occur in the background of the adventure. I might decide that the nation of Oneia is going to invade Twodonia in four weeks because of famine. The players might influence this by averting the famine, bolstering Twodonia’s defenses, or whatever, and that will have rippling effects on the Big Events I have planned. But the players are also free to ignore everything and go spend eight hours talking to a druid shopkeeper. Both are legitimate and both can be fun.

So where is Starfall in all of this? I’m sure you can guess that I’m in the middle of the “top-down” portion of world building. I’ve sorted out what mystical powers are and how they behave. Now I’m making mechanics so players can make mystic PCs. When I’m done there, I’ll attack magic and miracles. Each of those have a few related Big Questions that need to be addressed, if not answered, but after that, I should be able to gloss over the national-level stuff real fast and get down to the local setting.

I’ll probably spend a bit of time on the local world building, since this is ultimately for a megadungeon game. That’ll mean players spend a lot of time in the area, so it should be relatively deep – or at least have that feeling. This will include creating and placing towns, geography, interesting NPCs, etc. It will also require some monster-making, which is always fun. And when all of that is finished, it’ll be time to switch gears to adventure writing.

That will take the form of creating the megadungeon itself. I will also probably scatter some side dungeons around to provide distractions and places where the players can take a break from the grind, but the main focus will always be the megadungeon. This, too, will result in new monsters, traps, spells, powers, mechanics, etc. So lots of fun to be had there, too.

Overall, I’m really looking forward to seeing this project progress. It’s nice not being under the stress of a deadline with it, but I’d still like to have something people can start playing within a year. Classes and work might interfere with this, but I’m hoping not. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to post weekly progress. I hope you enjoy this and please be free with your feedback. The best ideas come from a diversity of input.

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