We have our Adventurers, and we have Dungeons for them to cavort around it. In describing them we’ve sort of implied a context for the rest of the setting. Let’s run through that quickly.
A setting’s magic and cosmology are usually tightly related. Let’s deal with that.
Miracles are Everywhere
The first question we should concern ourselves with is, “how common is magic?” Let’s say, “pretty common.” Not so much that everybody’s a wizard, but maybe everybody knows one. Everybody has an idea of what magic is even if they don’t know how it works. Powerful magic is correspondingly more rare, but so is high skill in every endeavor. We don’t want it so common that magic isn’t special, but nobody gets burned as a witch for lighting a candle from across the room.
Magic helps a little with the “how do lone communities in the middle of a monster-filled wilderness survive” question, but not so much that they’re living in a post-scarcity magical economy. Everything is still more or less recognizably medieval and feudal.
Do Divine Powers Prove the Existence of Gods?
Maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe divine powers are a matter of the blessed individuals personal faith, rather than a gift from on-high. This has two implications.
- Faith is the belief in the absence of proof, or in the face of contradictory evidence. With absolute proof of divinity, there can be no faith. With no faith, there is no magical divine power. So there must be room for doubt in order for faith to resist doubt. That means the gods are either so subtle or inactive that they don’t really make their presences known on the earthly plain.
- Divine power is untied to rank within the church itself. This fits in nicely with our general attitude towards Adventurers as powerful outsiders, and gives priest characters a reason to be off adventuring rather than in some town giving sermons.
In fact, we can take it a step further and say that our established religions are largely orthopraxic. Modern religions tend to be orthodoxic – what matters is your belief, your faith. In an orthodoxic religion, like that of ancient Rome, your faith doesn’t matter… only your behavior. That makes our faithful priests more the outsiders; rank within the church is about your ability to play politics, and the highest ranks may be outright political appointments.
But what about the gods? Well, they’re distant, if they’re real. We established earlier that the appearance of all the deadly monsters is relatively recent; maybe this is tied to the cause of the gods’ disappearance, or the result of their inaction. Or maybe they were never real to begin with.
Despite the ambiguous nature of divinity itself, morality is an objective force. There are spells and magical effects that target “good” and “evil.” And everybody has an alignment.
In Dungeons and Dragons and many other systems, this Alignment is a defini
te part of your character’s stats. You are good. You are evil. You are lawful. You are chaotic. In some interpretations alignment is fluid and based on your behavior and attitudes.
Not here, baby.
No, we’re going to say that Alignment influences your choices. It’s not absolute. Good characters are not incapable of harm, and Evil characters are not unable to be compassionate, but these tendencies are strong, known, and taken into account by the people who live here.
What is ‘Alignment?’
Alignment is a concept within the context of the setting, as are its variation. If we’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, that’s Lawful Good, Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, Neutral Evil, and Chaotic Evil. These alignments aren’t choices that you’ve made, the result of devoting yourself to good or evil, but accidents of birth.
You were born that way. This is this setting’s astrology. The time of day, the position of the stars and planets, a lot of tiny astrological circumstances determines your Alignment. It’s not a definite thing. It’s not a divination. But it influences who you are, and who you will become. You’re not doomed to a life of evil for being born Chaotic Evil, but it might be a constant struggle against your nature.
So, Alignment is not what you have done, but what behaviors you tend towards. It’s not a compulsion, it’s an affinity.
- Good characters feel altruistic.
- Evil characters are selfish.
- Lawful characters prefer order, structure, and hierarchy.
- Chaotic characters find such restrictions stifling.
But in all cases, characters have free will, and can make conscious choices to resist (or play into) their instinctual drives.
Attitudes towards Alignment
Most people don’t know their alignment. The process to chart it out is complex and requires specialized training. But it’s an accurate enough statement of character that people do judge one another. As a result, most people are close-mouthed about their alignment except around very close friends. To ask someone about their alignment is one of the rudest things possible, and “proper” people refuse to discuss such things in public. “Are you Neutral Evil” is the same kind of question as “Are you a liar?” and “Are you Good” is like “can you be trusted?”
Are all orcs evil? No. Just as with every other sentient creature, they are born under an Alignment Sign. Their culture and society may reward different behaviors and encourage different attitudes, but that just reinforces the fact that alignment is not an absolute predictor of attitude and behavior.
Same goes for every other race.Universality
Alignment is a literal moral force within the setting, but of course, not every culture views it the same way. Maybe they think about it in other terms, or ascribe different reasoning to the reason for these attitudes, like blood type or time of year.
But Alignment itself is a spiritual reality, and magic can and does reveal its truth.
The tradition of the Dungeon Keepers is an ancient one, at least as old as Adventuring itself, grown out of the tendencies for communities to grow around serving the needs of Adventurers.
The Role of the Keeper
Dungeon Keepers’ ultimate goal is to maximize the income Adventurers spread around their communities. Generally this entails:
Attracting Adventurers to the Site
The simplest way to attract adventurers is to simply send word to the local Adventurers’ Guild. The Guildmaster will generally work with the Keeper to make sure that the company sends Adventurers suited to the task. Skilled, but not so capable that they clear the site in one trip. The more they have to come up to heal and resupply, the more the town makes off of them, but if it’s too dangerous and they don’t make it out, nobody gets rich.
Vital to this process is the ability to accurately assess a given dungeon’s danger level. Different Keepers have developed different processes for this, from careful and systemic checklists of observable qualities, to subconscious ‘gut feelings’ developed over long careers. They evaluate potential adventurers in much the same way.
Once a Dungeon Keeper knows a dungeon’s relative danger, he can estimate, roughly, how long it’ll take Adventurers to clean it out. More powerful Adventurers may handle the dungeon more quickly, but they’ll also have more coin to throw around. This lets the Keeper manage the Boomtown’s population and makeup, so that there’s enough commerce to go around.
The Keeper also does what he or she can to maintain order within the boomtown itself.
The New School: Dungeon Cultivation
Those are the traditional duties of the Keeper, but in recent years a new philosophy of Dungeon Keeper has been evolving, one that takes a more hands on approach in making sure that a Dungeon experience is suited to the Adventurers who meet it.
These Keepers go so far as to enter the Dungeons to make whatever small changes are necessary, replenishing them with guardian creatures and traps.
In extreme cases this becomes a form of Dungeon tourism, where wealthy and terminally bored aristocrats can pay for the “Adventurer” experience. They fight trained beasts, contend wih dangerous-seeming but non-lethal traps, and find specially placed trinkets, often with the assistance of a professional adventurer as guide.
Needless to say, professional adventurers and more traditional Dungeon Keepers alike don’t look upon the practice very kindly.
Adventuring is big business, dealing routinely in sums otherwise the province of small nations and nationwide merchant companies. This can have an inflationary effect on communities as adventuring companies pass through, spending more in a fortnight than would otherwise be spent in a season.
Places where adventurers congregate develop specialized economies catering to the needs of adventurers with goods and services not generally required in common society.
One industry that has grown up in the periphery of adventurers is that of the hireling. These are individuals who lack the stomach, skills, or will to be adventurers themselves, but who are brave enough to accompany them on their excursions. Hirelings act as porters, wilderness guides, torch-bearers, cooks, servants, valets, and groomsmen, as required.
The work is dangerous and many hirelings do not return, but a commoner can earn as much from a single expedition than he or she could earn in a year at an honest trade. Even more are attracted by the reflected glory of their patrons, hoping one day to join them as partners, as equals.
These hopes are rarely realized, and many Hirelings end their careers as lost bones in the bottom of some fetid pit.
Types of Hirelings
- Valet: An adventurer’s personal assistant. They care for any horses, clean their master’s (or mistress’s) clothing, polish their armor, clean their weapons, cook for them, and see to minor arrangements in town. The equivalent of a Lord’s gentleman’s gentleman, or a Lady’s personal maid.
- Cook: Prepares meals for the entire camp of adventurers and their hirelings. Will handle food procurement from the budget allotted by their employer.
- Jack: Handles logistical matters for Adventurers. Will hire other hirelings, manage them, arrange for lodging, plan routes, handle the treasury, manage camp, purchase equipment and provisions, find buyers for recovered treasure, and act as liaison with local business and authority. May accompany adventurers, or simply offer his services when they come to his town or city.
- Link Boy/Torch Bearer: Hired to accompany adventurers into dark and lonesome places, carrying a torch or lantern to light the way. A derogatory term is “trap finder.”
- Guard: Literally hired to guard the adventurer’s camp, expedition, or less physically inclined members of the party. Better as sentries than monster-killers.
- Entertainer: A musician, poet, jester, or acrobat present to liven up otherwise dull moments and take Adventurer’s minds off of the grimness of their business.
- Healer: Trained in nonmagical healing techniques to keep wounds clean and provide care after battles. May also be a barber.
- Groom: Hired to feed and care for adventurers’ mounts. Will take care of them while their bosses are down in the dungeons.
- Guides: Locals who know the area Adventurers are expected to be traveling in. May also hunt to provide fresh meat for the expedition. May be capable woodsmen, or may just know their way around.
- Laborers: Take care of the heavy lifting. Will carry supplies and recovered treasure, dig holes, set up camp, any other nonhazardous and unskilled work required of them.
- Armorer: Commissioned to make field repairs of adventurers armor and weaponry. May be a bit of a luxury.
Hirelings come in a range of competency for their skill-sets. Few will willingly accompany their masters down into a dungeon, and even fewer will be effective there. Except link-boys, of course. That’s basically their only job.
Generally speaking a Jack can be hired to assemble any other desired hirelings, and once they’ve done so, will cheerfully manage them as part of their other duties. Valets (and sometimes Jacks) may be long-term employees of adventurers, but the rest are typically commissioned for a single expedition.
Here’s a little video about the method I use to create maps using hand-drawn line-art and photoshop.
When a new dungeon is discovered, merchants and craftsmen who specialize in providing goods and services to Adventurers will flock to the area, followed by merchants and craftsmen catering to the first group of entrepreneurs. These men and women will either swell the population of an existing settlement in the event that one exists within a day’s travel. If not, they will establish a semi-permanent camp of their own.
Both cases are generally referred to as ‘Boomtowns.’
What a Boomtown Offers
There are, generally, two classes of service offered in a Boomtown; those geared towards Adventurers, and those provided for the entrepreneurs. Prices are generally higher than they’d be elsewhere, as Adventurers tend to carry more wealth than the rest of the population. The exact degree of inflation depends on how much money Adventurers have withdrawn from the local dungeon.
Services for Adventurers
Prices for goods and services of primary use to Adventurers range from twice to ten times as expensive as they might be elsewhere, based on current inflation and how specialized the goods are for the adventuring trade.
- Arms Merchants: While the boom and bust cycle of the adventure site is generally too short to have a complicated suit of armor custom made, armorers who specialize in the sale of well-made weapons and armor can make a brisk trade. More in demand are repair services and the manufacture of expendable ammunition like bolts or arrows.
- Appraisal: Those with the skill to accurately value gems, art objects, and even magical artifacts can earn a good amount of coin, moreso if they can also act as moneychangers to buy gems, precious metals, and foreign and ancient coins at a premium.
- Henchmen offering various services to Adventurers are a common sight, both those hoping to replace the fallen, and to convince new adventurers that they could use the help.
- Provisioners provide the unglamourous but necessary supplies of torches, pitons, and rations to adventurers interested in long-term trips into the dungeon site.
- Taverns provide adventuring companies with the entertainment, dry beds, and perhaps most importantly, drinks they need to unwind. In more established Boomtowns they make double as brothels. They may partner with or operate alongside stables.
- Temples may offer worship space to the servants and faithful of various deities. These temples may be non-denominational. They may offer magical services, or simply absolution.
- Healers, Apothecaries, Herbalists, or Barbers can offer medical care to Adventurers who manage to escape the Dungeon without the aid of magical healing.
- Guides who know the area between the boomtown and the Dungeon, or who simply know what the boomtown itself has to offer. They may also be interpreters for obscure local languages.
- Teamsters offer their services to transport treasure-laden and often exhausted adventurers from the Boomtown to whatever other civilization lies nearby. If the town is along a river or coast, they may instead be served by Boats for Hire.
- Fence to handle any recovered treasure not legally traded in the host country. This is more or less an open secret, but it’s not unknown for the authorities to crack down on Boomtowns believed to trade in illegal treasure as a display of force.
- Linkboys and Torch Bearers
- Entertainers of various sorts to take the Adventurers minds off of their traumas.
- Laborers and Porters and other unskilled workers offering sweat for pay.
- Freelance Wizards offering the sorts of spells useful to adventurers. They won’t usually accompany them into dungeons, but if you need something cast quick, you have options.
Services for Merchants
Establishments designed to cater to non-adventurers will often also offer inflated prices, but not to the same degree, depending on the prosperity of the town. Without the benefit of supply chains, everything in the boomtown is imported, so prices can range from fifty-percent more to double normal.
There will be some lower-end duplicates of the services available to Adventurers — and while Adventurers won’t be forbidden from visiting, say, the laborers’ tavern, they will be strongly encouraged to drink in the more upscale (and expensive) taverns provided for them.
Many of the merchants will work in their own shops, others will build temporary housing, live out of carts or tents. There may be a hastily constructed boarding house or two.
Hunters will work the land around the area to provide any taverns or restaurants with fresh meat. They will also sell to grocers, who distribute to other merchants who do not themselves have foodstuff distributors.
Some towns will appoint a marshal to keep the peace between the different merchants and their families. In other cases, a strong willed Dungeon Keeper may act as judge or moderator.
What You Won’t Find
Boomtowns seldom last for more than a season, meaning that they usually won’t support farms or crops. Supplies used in the manufacture of goods will be shipped in from afar, which means that intermediate steps in a good’s production cycle are less likely to be found. While there will be a tavern, it is less likely that there will be a brewery or alehouse, as no grain is produced locally. While there will be a smith, there will not be a smelter, and he’ll do more repair work than manufacturing.
Dungeons in Practice
Contrary to expectations, Adventure sites – Dungeons – are very rarely discovered by Adventurers. Most of the time they’re stumbled upon by some hapless hunter, or livestock start disappearing, or the local wizard stops coming into town for supplies. Whatever the cause and whatever the nature of a Dungeon, Adventurers typically encounter it late in the site’s lifecycle.
Commoners are usually the first point of contact, for good or for ill. A farmer turns up a strange cave in their field, something tunnels into the basement of an inn, a woodsman discovers a tower that wasn’t there last season. Sometimes investigation of a problem like missing livestock or strange lights can lead to the discovery of something worse.
At this point a community will typically have one of three reactions:
- The first is an attempt to resolve the situation themselves, but commoners infiltrating dungeons seldom works out for the best.
- The second is trying to ignore it and cover it up, either by simply avoiding the area or more directly sealing it off somehow.
- In the third case, the locals prepare for the inevitable arrival of the Adventurers.
If the dungeon is near enough to town, this involves various merchants shifting their inventories to feature goods designed to cater to Adventurers, the sending away for tradesmen offering services not typically needed in the community, and the establishment of a market for hirelings. An adventuring party passing through can spend more coin in a few days than the locals see in a year, so nearby entrepreneurs will flock to what quickly becomes an ‘Adventure Boomtown,’ both to serve the needs of the adventurers, and to take care of the attracted tradesmen.
If the Dungeon site is farther from the local community, an impromptu shantytown will spring up, populated by the same tradesmen. This may be within sight of the Dungeon entrance itself, but it’s more likely on the edge of the dangerous wilderness region that surrounds the Dungeon. Such communities often fade away after the Dungeon has been played out.
In both cases, matters are often organized by members of the ancient Dungeon Keeper’s Guild, men and women skilled at knowing how best to cater to Adventurers to quickly and efficiently relieve them of whatever treasure they recover down below.
The Adventurers Arrive
Inevitably word will get out to the Adventurers themselves, possibly via runners sent to inform the closest Adventurers’ Guilds of the opportunity. The Adventurers arrive to find a community or camp set up to cater to their needs. Depending on the depth and the scope of the Dungeon, it may support only one such company on a few delves, or it may persist through multiple companies’ attempts to conquer it.
Knowing how big of a Boomtown a Dungeon can support is one of the primary duties of a Dungeon Keeper.
As Adventurers return from the depths, they find money-changers to sell their gems to, magic item vendors to buy their surplus, and taverns to quench their thirst. Once they’ve rested, the Adventurers can prepare for another dive down into the depths, or move on if they’ve had enough.
Dungeons Never Die
Eventually the Adventurers will clear a dungeon out and move on, and the merchants of the Boomtown move on as well, seeking out the next opportunity. Life returns to normal in the community, for a time, but a large unoccupied underground complex is a tempting home for many beasts and secret societies. Eventually, the Dungeon ecology will replenish itself, and the call of Adventure will go out once more, the grand cycle starting anew.
We’re building a setting where Adventurers mount expeditions into dungeons. Last post in this series covered who Adventurers are and how they fit into the world. This time we’re going to take a look at where they’re going.
What is a Dungeon? For our purpose, it’s any place a group of Adventurers might go to have an Adventure. Dangerous places inhabited by fierce creatures, filled with fiendish traps, and, ideally, some kind of treasure. The treasure might be monetary, or it could be information, or just anything else the PCs want.
There’s room for unlimited variation in what form the Dungeon can take, from literal dungeons filled with prisoners, to floating sky castles reachable only by airship. There are a few common characteristics we can define, though.
- Isolation. Dungeons are, typically, far from civilization, requiring a potentially arduous journey to reach. It would be difficult for such a place to arise and be left to fester someplace highly trafficked, though not impossible. A dungeon whose dangers were well contained, at least to the point where life can go on uninterrupted around it most of the time, might persist until someone bothers to do something about it. Most reside in places that are inconvenient and easy to ignore.
- Dangerous. Fell beasts are either produced by the dungeon, created it, or are prone to moving in and taking residency. Often said beasts will claim the territory around the dungeon site itself as a hunting or raiding ground, emerging to look for victims as the need arises. While the area around the dungeon might be risky to travelers, those who actually go inside cannot help but confront its inhabitants and guardians. Additionally, explorers may encounter mechanical or magical traps that are still active and hazardous.
- Potentially lucrative. Something inside the dungeon is valuable enough that it makes expeditions inside worth the inconvenience and danger. Classically and perhaps most often, this is treasure. The inhabitants either accrue it, it was built to protect it, or fallen adventurers leave their gear behind. Alternatively, there might be some ancient lore hidden within, or a valuable prisoner might be sequestered there, or some vile enemy uses it as a headquarters.
Dungeons in Heroic Expeditions
So why does our setting have all of these Dungeons scattered all over the place, enough to support an entire economy of Adventurers?
Some Dungeons are just natural caves and caverns, opportunistically used by various creatures or socially maladjusted wizards as lairs. Others are abandoned keeps, mines, and other works appropriated for much the same purpose; all this requires from a worldbuilding perspective is cultures capable of building such things. Others were built recently for whatever purposes they serve; wizard towers, warlord palaces, goblin dens, that sort of thing. These might be the most common sort of Dungeon structures; they’re also the most straightforward. The only worldbuilding required is to acknowledge that yes, These Things Happen.
Digging deeper, we say that yes, our setting has a history. Civilizations gone by left their marks in terms of ruins that still contain monsters, treasure, and traps. Maybe there was some ancient civilization that was particularly prone to leaving these ruins behind… maybe the world is only now crawling out of some Dark Age, and these ruins we keep finding have more advanced magic or technological artifacts.
Okay, so, we have the equivalents of real-world ancient Greece and Rome and Sumeria and Egypt and Kush and whatever else we want, but we also have something older and more powerful. Pre-human. Let’s go elven, and give say that they practiced some form of powerful magic that’s basically so far beyond us as to be incomprehensible. We’ll go into greater depth when we talk history, but for now just keep in mind impossibly ancient ruins with strange sigils, shattered crystals, all built on a ridiculous scale.
And then, of course, there’s the weird stuff. Extra-dimensional labyrinths. The innards of dead gods. Pet projects of eccentric wizards and sadistic noblemen.
You know. The usual.
So, here we are, designing a setting to accommodate dungeon crawling with a bit of a spin on standard FRP tropes. Let’s open it up with our protagonists.
In the default scenario, the players are professional dungeon crawlers. Adventurers. Let’s start from the mechanical assumptions that Dungeons and Dragons (and other similar FRPG systems) implies about our characters.
- They start out more capable than the average peasant and only become more powerful with time.
- They routinely deal in sums greater than those dreamed of by most merchants.
- They kill more creatures in a single adventure than most non-adventurers will ever see.
- They have unprecedented levels of social mobility in a traditionally static Feudal environment.
- Many routinely and nearly carelessly handle powers the average person would find horrific or terrifying.
So you hear rumors about some hidden treasure in some ancient ruin out in the wilderness, you get your buddies together, grab a weapon, and decide to go get rich. What’s that like?
Well, you and your crew head out into the wilderness for days or weeks or however long it takes to get where you’re going. Maybe you have an extra outfit, but maybe you just have the one, and you wear it, day in and day out, through all kinds of weather. Wind. Rain. Snow. Through mud and fields full of nettles. Mites and body lice get into your clothes, and even if they don’t, you itch. All the time. And that doesn’t even bring the smell into account.
Go far enough, and the bacteria in your food and water aren’t what your gut flora are used to. Digestive problems mount. Every been camping? It’s sort of like that, without the modern conveniences, but the constant threat of violence makes up for it some. Wild animals. Irksome natives. Things that are worse. Maybe you get bit, maybe you get scratched, maybe you get shanked. Maybe you don’t get rabies or tetanus.
Then you get to the place, the dungeon, the dank pit where your treasure is hidden. A dark place in the earth filled with creatures and cultists and deadly traps. Whatever you dealt with before, this is worse. Up above, it’s savage. Down below, it’s unnatural. Your kind was never meant to live like this. Maybe you’ll die like this, alone in some dank cavern, clutching your guts in as best you can while your vision dims and you whimper for your mother.
But the rewards are sweet
But maybe it works out. Maybe you and your crew survive, and you come on out of that hole with a king’s ransom in treasure. In one fell swoop, you’re one of the richest people you’ve ever met. You could retire right now and be set for the rest of your life. Maybe your kids, too. Your kids’ kids, if it was a good enough haul, or you can invest it.
But maybe you can’t stop. Maybe you get greedy. Or maybe the rush is addictive. Or maybe you just need that one big score that never comes. Or maybe you were never in it for the money at all.
The Absolute Power
The experiences you accumulate, along with the treasure, brings you an almost inhuman level of power. Warriors become indomitable engines of destruction. Wizards master arcane forces others can scarcely comprehend. The mundane irritants that plagued them at the dawn of their careers fade quickly, when even death becomes a temporary inconvenience.
The peasant’s concerns of winter and harvest, the merchant’s worries about income and expense, the noble’s worries of family dynasty, these lose all semblance to titanic figures that have slain entire tribes of orcs, who have stared down dragon’s breath.
How can such a godlike force of nature keep in touch with its humanity?
From the Other Side
So we’ve taken a hyperbolic look at what it’s like to be an adventurer. But how do others see them? How do they fit into the social order?
Short answer: They don’t.
Long Answer: The wealth and power Adventurers amass give them a degree of social mobility undreamed of by most. It goes beyond simply becoming wealthy; in a land where most commoners live and die within hearing of the same temple bells, Adventurers fear nothing from plague, famine, or a noble’s displeasure. The only check on their power are social controls.
To the common folk, Adventurers are figures of legend, barely human (or elf, or dwarf, or…) who are held in check only by their own moral compasses, often strange and unusual to the farmer or craftsman, beings driven by ambition. Troublemakers who respect individuality and freedom more than the good of the community. And even when they’re being altruistic, they bring more coin to the area than the local economy can safely handle, driving up prices and creating market disruption.
To the upper classes they’re even worse, wildcards that cannot be fully controlled, only managed, who respect neither blood nor tradition. Even worse, many have a penchant for overthrowing despots.
Adventurers in Heroic Explorations
This give us a precarious position for adventurers in our setting. They exist. They’re a social class unto themselves. We could simply say that they’re outlawed and Adventuring itself is illegal, and maybe in some places they are… but many of the very factors that enable the Adventurer class – dangerous dungeons and wilderness haunted by fell beasts… creates the need for them.
So Adventurers are, as every class is, regulated. We don’t deny them. We acknowledge them and the impact they have. Kingdoms have laws that address them, cities have ordinances, and in return, Adventurers pool their considerable might to petition for a lighter touch.
They form Guilds.
Where do Adventurers come from?
In a historical sense, we’ll say it’s an ancient tradition. There are legends, songs, and stories about them doing all sorts of things. In fiction, they’re often portrayed either as heroes or menaces. The best legends manage both.
On a personal level, adventuring represents one of the few venues for social mobility in feudal society. Adventurers are wealthy, frequently gain titles and land for service to the nobility, and sometimes form nations of their own. There’s a romanticism attached to the idea.
So, a commoner or young noble sets off to become an adventurer. Maybe they get together with friends or take a position as hirelings to get a taste. Sometimes they survive. Some of those survivors continue on to do it again.
While some people engage in worldbuilding as an end to itself, most of the time when we’re coming up with a new setting we’re doing so for a particular purpose. We might need a setting for a game that we’re designing, or we might be writing a book. The process in both cases is similar.
Decide your worldbuilding parameters
If you’re reading this blog post, chances are that you’re at least open to the idea of approaching your design considerations consciously. The first step is to be aware of what it is you’re doing. You don’t need to decide all of it now, but the more you can lay out early, the more guidance you’ve given yourself along the way.
For this worked example, we’re going to be expanding on the setting presented in the Ibu: The Emerald Canopy campaign. The world presented in the book sketches out the “old world” the explorers come from in only vague detail, so it doesn’t provide us with much structure.
So we brainstorm to give ourselves some more guidance. What is it we want to do?
What Kind of Stories do you want to tell?
This is really the key question that will guide every other worldbuilding element we define. If you’re writing a book then your setting has to enable the story you’re using it to tell, and the more specifically it does so, the tighter your story will be.
The same applies to gaming. What kind of adventures are your characters going to have? This does cross over into campaign design a little, and most settings allow for a wide variety of campaign types, but again, the more tightly we can define what we’re going to be using the setting for, the better.
In our case, we’re going to be using this world to play Dungeons and Dragons. No, step back… for the purposes of this series of posts we’re going to approach things in a system agnostic fashion. So we’re going to run fantasy role playing game scenarios in this setting, whatever ruleset we decide upon.
But what does that mean? In practice, not a lot, because you can still run almost any kind of game in any kind of setting. So we need to drill our definition down.
We’re going to be running typical fantasy role playing game adventures. And what is the typical adventure?
A group of Adventurers mounts an expedition into a dangerous place (a dungeon) to defeat whatever monsters dwell there and recover the treasure that lies within.
Yeah, you can do a lot more in a typical FRPG game and we probably will, but that’s a strong enough essence for this specific world. But let’s go one further; we’re going to create a world where that story seed is not only possible, but it makes sense. Maybe it’s inevitable.
This sparks a second worldbuilding idea: we’re going to examine some typical FRPG tropes and mechanic quirks and expand upon them until they make perfect sense in context.
- Alignment: Morality is objective, and a potent spiritual force. Evil exists. Good exists.
- Gods: Priests can literally perform miracles, and do so with a frequency that makes them nearly mundane. This is proof that the gods are real.
- Languages: There is a common tongue that everybody speaks, somehow.
- Dungeons: Places of terrible danger are scattered about the landscape, within a few days travel of major settlements.
- Adventurers: There are wandering individuals of great personal power who are individually more formidable than armies and are not part of the established social order.
- Monsters: Creatures more than capable of wiping out entire towns wander the wilderness with such frequency that you’re practically guaranteed to blunder into one every few days.
- Vaguely European. Maybe with a vague Asian state nearby. Something that’s sort of Egyptian or Persian. Very Feual.
- Multiple sentient species. In fact, a lot of sentient species, some of which are seen as savage and others accepted as civilized. Human dominated areas are cosmopolitan, those of other species are less so. Nonhumans may even be monocultural, with one language, one country, one set of cultural attitudes.
That gives us some starting points. As we delve deeper into our worldbuilding we’ll reject some of these assumptions, and draw others out to investigate the implications of our assumptions.
What’s in a Name?
You should name your projects. Eventually. If it’s a personal project for you and your group, the name can be whatever makes sense. If you’re planning to write a book or publish a campaign setting, there are more considerations.
When writing this post I’d considered using the name Heroic Expeditions because then I could use the product code HEX to subtly tie it in to my Hexbox series. Unfortuantely there’s an old out of print Judge’s Guild supplement called Heroic Expeditions, and without even getting into IP issues and marketing, we’re going to want to be the top google result whenever anyone looks for our project.
So we’re going to tweak it slightly and go with Heroic Explorations. Still gives us that HEX so it’s good enough for me.