In this episode we’re talking about the differences between pre-planned games and sandboxes, along with some of the pros and cons of each:
Continued planning for my current Midderlands Game
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I’ve fallen heavily for the OSR side of the Force (it even replacing my once-beloved Fate in my affections). I’m also much enamoured when people talk about how they’ve run D&D for a million-years in the same campaign setting – okay, I exaggerate slightly but you get the idea?
I also think that have a long-running campaign world offers some more tangible benefits, these being:
- You get to know the material better over time.
- Your world builds up a personalised history with it’s own heroes and villains you can pull on for inspiration.
- The actions of earlier groups can become legends for later groups.
I certainly known that my friend Rob Davies has run an awful lot of D&D games in his own campaign world and–as a result–has developed it a great deal, adding more nuances and material as time has gone on. I’ve always fancied doing something similar, there’s just one problem though:
I get bored easily
Here, the sage example provided by Rob comes to the rescue, I know from my experience of games he’s run, that Rob often–when dealing with a new group–will turn them lose in a previously unexplored region of his game world. This has the benefit of allowing him all the good stuff listed above, whilst also giving him license to expand/tweak that area of his world to try something a little different.
Well I was thinking about this recently in terms of the OSR and all the various different source books that I’ve got, and it occurred to me that I could do the same thing but by using the different sourcebooks for different areas of my campaign world.
This is what I’ve got so far:
- Main World – Principle Game Area: Midderlands by Glynn Seal of Monkeyblood Design
- Main World – Ireland: Dolmenwood by Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome
- Main World – Eastern Provinces: Yoon-Suin by David McGrogan
- The Middergloom/Underark: Operation Unfathomable by Jason Sholtis of the Hydra Collective, Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom by Matthew Finch and Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart.
- The Moon: Carcosa by Geoffrey McKinney
I’m planning to start working on collecting some material shortly for creating the Middergloom in my game (because that’s where my PCs are at the moment) and will be collecting the information on the blog as I go forwards.
If anyone has any cool suggestions for other sourcebooks I can use please let me know.
In this episode of the podcast I talk a little about why it’s important to maintain a sense of mystery when it comes to the history of your campaign world:
It’s Tip Tuesday here on the Red Dice Diaries blog, and for this post I thought that I’d give you a tip for campaign creation.
A lot of GMs make the mistake of trying to detail out their entire campaign world to the nth degree. What tends to happen with this approach is that it takes a lot of time and can be very frustrating as a lot of the information doesn’t get used or is ignored.
In order to keep a sense of logic and verisimilitude to your campaign world I wouldn’t recommend just making everything up as you go along, this can lead to contradictions and a patchwork feel. I stead, sketch out the very broad strokes of your setting.
For example: You might decide that there are two kingdoms in your world, in the north and south separated by a mountain range. One is a theocracy lead by a Priest King the other s feudal kingdom ruled by a hereditary monarch.
In this example we’ve got enough detail to give the players the broad strokes of our setting and can expand parts of the setting as needed. But crucially we’ve not exhausted ourselves nor have we boxed ourselves in, there’s plenty of room to incorporate new ideas.
Once you’ve decided where your player party is going to begin the campaign (normally a small settlement or something similar), zoom in and detail that place more thoroughly. The PCs are going to spend their first few session there between dungeons, buying provisions, drinking in taverns, etc it’s worth having a few NPCs, some encounters and other bits and pieces prepared in advance.
You can use this time to determine what you’re going to need to detail out in future, bait your hook with hints about the wider world (using your sketched out world outline) and see which ones the players bite.
When your players bite into one of your baited hooks, use your world outline to improvise more world details, make sure to take notes so that you can portray the world (and any NPCs, locations, etc) consistently.
As I’ve mentioned in my main campaign page, our Rose of Westhaven campaign is heavily influenced by Monkey Blood Design’s Midderlands OSR campaign setting and bestiary, I wanted to jot down some notes about how far that inspiration goes.
The Rose of Westhaven first started germinating as a campaign idea after I picked up a copy of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the OSR game written by James Raggi. I’d steered clear of it previously because–every time I saw people talking about the game–they had either one or two reactions, it was either “Ewww, no, it’s obscene and weird” or people going “Yeah, it’s so metal and extreme, wooooo!”
The reality–as if often the case–was somewhere between the two, yes LotFP does have some artwork that’s risqué and a lot of the supplements tend to really ramp up the gruesomeness or the weird horror vibe (which I don’t mind TBH), but the actual corebook itself is a well written and tidy OSR game. Without getting into the system details, LotFP posits a fairly brutal version of old-school D&D with a streamlined skill system and a slightly darker background, more akin to the old WFRP than more traditional D&D. As someone who started roleplaying with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay I found this style very appealing, the game also contains optional rules for blackpowder firearms, with many of the supplements being set in worlds that have a more renaissance vibe to them than the traditional pseudo-medieval worlds used in a lot of OSR games.
I’m a big fan of this book, so it didn’t take me long to start looking around for a group of players and thinking about what sort of campaign I would run with it, I’m lucky enough to have a group of people who were enthusiastic to give it a shot.
Creating the Campaign
Originally when I sat down, I had loads of ideas racing through my head so I grabbed my trusty notebook and jotted down a few things I definitely wanted to be in the world that I was designing:
- A slightly later time-period than normal.
- Black powder firearms.
- Some sort of large-scale conflict as a backdrop.
- A conflict between modern and ancient religions.
- A rationale for dungeon-crawling.
- A world with ancient mythology.
- The Mythos.
After taking a short while to look at this list and mull it over I decided that–whilst not impossible–creating all of this stuff from scratch was going to be a massive investment of time for a game whose lifespan was (at the time of creation) uncertain, I’ve seen lots of games where the GM has spent ages creating a world and the campaign itself never really gets of the ground or folds. Of course you can always recycle stuff and use it in other games, but I also didn’t want to have to be making loads of stuff up entirely on the fly.
I often find that–if I want to create a campaign but not make it up whole-cloth–taking inspiration from a film, a book series or the real-world can be a great shortcut. You just file the serial numbers off it, and it can serve as a great source of inspiration, and if you do have to make up something you can refer back to your source material for guidance. I decided to go for using a fantasy version of Great Britain and Ireland, since this gives me a wealth of folklore to draw on and is also quite familiar to myself, originally I decided to start the players on the coast (since I’d been reading Alas for the Awful Sea) near a small made-up village near the coat of Wales (originally referred to as Fada Siar in our campaign).
Research & Decisions
It was about this time that I started considering what sort of time period I wanted to run it in, since I’d already decided that I wanted to run the game in a slightly later time period than the standard medieval and wanted a background conflict, I started looking at the English Civil Wars and the Tudor Period. I decided to take inspiration from both of them, creating a setting torn apart by a conflict between staunch Royalists and freedom-loving Parliamentarians. Previously the countries had been ruled by a strong royal dynasty, but a leader amongst the common(er) folk had arisen and was leading a rebellion against the old ways.
I grabbed a number of books from local shops at this point and watched a number of BBC documentaries to supplement my historical knowledge (since I’m no history buff), and found that I was enjoying reading about history far more knowing I was going to be using the information to inspire a project rather than simply reciting them at school or similar.
Whilst creating the campaign I had noticed the kickstarter for Monkey Blood Design’s Midderlands campaign, I originally backed it because it was set in a fantasy version of the Midlands in England, which is where I live. When I received the book I was blown away by it (as you can no doubt tell from my review) and was surprised by just how neatly the material in the Midderlands book dovetailed with the game that we’d already established. I decided to start overtly using information and ideas from the Midderlands book in my campaign, after letting my players know I then started to move some of the campaign information (which had originally been in a PDF for the players) to this website (you can see it by clicking on the Rose of Westhaven link).
One of the potential issues with importing a lot of the Midderlands wholesale is that my characters began far to the south of the area that has been detailed thus far in the Midderlands book. Luckily Monkey Blood Design are releasing a second book for this setting soon (as of time of writing) that is going to expand the setting to cover the rest of Britain and Ireland, Glynn Seal was kind enough to send me a low-resolution copy of the map that will be in the second book so I have a vague idea what sort of stuff is going to be covered. However, if my players decide they want to go somewhere before I get my hands on the book then I’m just going to have to create a version of the area myself (taking inspiration from the real-life source material) and then either ignore or reconcile the “official” version when I get my hands on that sweet, sweet second book.
TBH although I’ve called this a potential issue, it’s not really much of a problem. A lot of our campaign was made up wholesale and then fitted around the stuff that I wanted to incorporate from the Midderlands campaign setting, for example my use of the Old Ones from the Cthulhu Mythos as pagan gods worshipped by some of the Fade Siar tribes. In-fact the name of the Welsh analogue in our campaign is a good example, when I originally created the setting I called it Fada Siar, meaning Far Land in the Elven tongue (I used a celtic online translator or something similar for this), but in the Midderlands campaign book it is called Oldenwale. It wasn’t difficult to say that Fada Siar is the Elven name for the country and that Oldenwale is the more commonly used human name. I’m pretty sure that if I continue taking inspiration from the real-world (as the writers of Midderlands obviously do) then I should be able to flex my setting to incorporate other stuff; however, if we do come across bits in the new book that can’t be used as they are then I’ll go with what we’ve already established in the campaign.
My players are already making noises about heading to the nearby Hexenmoor which–looking at the map and similarities of the name–would appear to be based largely on Exmoor (presumably with a magical twist), it’s pretty easy to find some of that areas folklore and customs online so if they get there before I’ve got the book then I’ll take inspiration from this and see where we end up. I’ve already warned them about a devilish beast that is believed to prowl the area.
JosIn-case anyone is planning to point it out, I’m aware that the featured image for this post in Frankenstein’s monster rather than Frankenstein himself 😉
Any of us who’ve created and ran a campaign world–whatever the game may be–you know that it can be an awful lot of work. Not only are you having to put in all the normal amounts of session prep, but you’re spending time between games creating mythologies, drawing maps, not to mention the work that goes in before the campaign even starts, creating the bedrock of the campaign setting so that your players have some idea what world they’ll be adventuring in. This isn’t to say the campaign creation can’t be fun, if–like me–you enjoy creating stories and seeing things scribbled on paper come to life in games, then you probably get a lot of enjoyment from campaign creation, it’s still a lot of work though.
So what can you do about it?
I think that one of the greatest mistakes that some GMs make–when it comes to campaign creation–is assuming that they have to create 100% of the campaign world from scratch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst creating elements of your campaign whole-cloth can be very rewarding and satisfying, it also drastically increases the amount of time you’ll spend agonising over your campaign world notes. We all have non-game stuff going on in life competing for our limited free time, and sometimes it can be difficult to find the time to sit down and spend hours writing up whole swathes of a campaign world.
Now there are a few different approaches you could take to get around this:
- Just wing it
Don’t worry too much about your campaign world prep and just wing the details you need. This obviously cuts down your prep to pretty much nothing and can work, but only if you are confident in your improvisational skills and take copious notes (or have a really good memory), otherwise your liable to find yourself running into trouble as you forget details previously established in play.
- Use a pre-published campaign setting
This has the advantage that a lot of the work is done for you, but you’ll still have to read all of the campaign book and tweak it to fit your specific group. There’s also the potential issue of one of your players knowing the established setting better than you do.
- Frankenstein approach
In much the same way as Doctor Frankenstein created his monster from the stitched together body parts of different people, I suggest doing the same when creating your campaign. Don’t restrict yourself to just using a single campaign, take bits and pieces from different pre-published campaigns, adventure modules, etc, stitch them together and then fill in any cracks with your own creations. Using this method will create a campaign world that still feels like your campaign, but will save you having to create absolutely everything from scratch.
Example of the Frankenstein Approach
This approach is one that I’ve been moving towards since becoming more interested in OSR gaming, since a lot of those systems are broadly compatible it makes sense to beg, steal and borrow maps, pictures and text from the many and various different sources. Currently I’m using this approach for my Rose of Westhaven LOTFP campaign. When I began the campaign I started with the naïve assumption that I’d have enough time to detail every last little thing, health issues and other real-life factors quickly disabused be of this notion.
Here’s what I did
I definitely didn’t want to wrap up the game, because I was–and still am–having great fun running it and my players seem to really be enjoying it, but I also didn’t want to short-change them by presenting a wishy-washy, sketchy campaign world just because I didn’t have the time to develop it fully. In addition to the hand-drawn maps I’d created I had already started taking different maps from the internet to save me time.
For example: Porthcrawl Village, Salazaar’s Tower and the Church of Peaceful Repose in my campaign are all maps that I found online and then imported into Roll20, Google Image Search is your friend when it comes to finding maps. Even if you can’t find something 100% right for your game, locate something that is pretty near to what you want and then alter it, it’ll still save you a bucket-load of time.
A little while ago I backed a Kickstarter for the Midderlands OSR setting and bestiary, set in a fantasy version of Britain and Ireland, recently I started to notice how well this campaign setting dovetailed with the information that I’d already established for our campaign. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a 100% match, but it was near enough that I could see how I could get a lot of material from the Midderlands and import it into my campaign without having to make too many alterations.
For example: Midderlands comes with a map containing a fantasy version of the Midlands in the UK, since this is on a larger scale than the map I’m currently using, it won’t be difficult–when we zoom out from our current campaign map–to incorporate it into the larger Midderlands world map. An expanded version of the map that shows the Midderlands version of Britain and Ireland is about to drop onto Kickstarter soon as part of a second book in the series, I’m planning to back that and use the maps from it for my campaign.
The book also contains a lot of folkloric information that has been adapted from real-world folklore and information, since it uses the same sources as my campaign setting it will be easy to incorporate, especially since our campaign takes place in a different time period to the default Midderlands campaign.
Advice for Using the Frankenstein Approach
There are a few things that are normally easy to incorporate into your campaign setting:
- Maps: There are loads of different maps and images available on the internet via Google Image Search, these are incredibly easy to drop into a game, just find a map that looks like a tower, town or whatever and then write your own key and details to go with it.
- Adventure Modules: Depending on your choice of genre and games the ease of using adventure modules may vary, however, there are plenty of generic adventure modules out there that could be re-skinned to use in your campaign, even modules that have specific game stats can be altered to work with your own campaign. Make some notes on the book and look up equivalent stats for your system of choice and then run with it.
- Pictures: A picture paints a thousand words, having an image of an NPC or an item found by your heroes can really help to provide visual impact for your game, again here Google Image Search is your friend, but you can also find suitable images in magazines and RPG products, even if they’re not perfect, as long as they give your players an idea then it’s a useful shortcut.
- Campaign details: It’s often harder to convert elements from a published campaign to incorporate into your own, depending on how much flexibility your existing ideas give you to add new stuff in or alter old details, this is why I prefer to paint the broad-strokes of a campaign world and only drill down to the detail as necessary, it gives me more wiggle-room when it comes to incorporating material from other sources.
Joseph Teller mentioned the important point that it is very possible when using this method to create a monstrosity whose flaws only become visible further down the line, I think this is a good point and certainly something to keep in mind when you’re stitching extra material into your campaign. Joseph says that–in his opinion this method only really works for shorter lived games–I think it’s certainly easier to pull off and requires less forethought with shorter games, but as long as you’re careful it shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a longer game IMO.
Well that’s it – my Dungeon World campaign that has been running on a weekly basis for the past few months has reached it’s end, our heroes confronted and defeated two of the great evils menacing the land, the necromancer Jaspar Sirsk and the gestalt intelligence the Thinker, incarnated in the body of a great Apocalypse Dragon. Continue reading “End of a campaign”
I’ve been giving some more thought to my forthcoming Star Hex campaign while I was sat on the train this morning, and have decided a few things about the game in terms of the background and rules. Continue reading “Star Hex Space Layout”
Okay so you’ve done your prep, got the campaign running and have run your first session, surely that’s it for prep until you start getting ready for the next session right?
Wrong. You certainly could run games like this, however, there’s a few little bits of prep you can do after your session has finished that will make your life easier and improve your campaign in the long run.
The main focus of a lot of peoples prep occurs when getting ready for running an actual session, this post isn’t going to talk about the specifics of writing an adventure or creating a story for a session, but rather what sort of things you should get ready and have to hand when you run it to make your job easier.