RPG Design Journal #6: Within the City

Previously on this series I started designing a city with a general-to-specific methodology (starting with the big picture and letting that inform the small details). Now I’m going to start moving into some of those details by developing concepts for the specific locations within the city of St. Maluns.

When building specific locations within another location it’s tempting to assign locations specifically based upon social groups and characters. While it is appropriate to consider where characters live in the city, we shouldn’t necessarily build an area around these groups or individuals. People in cities rarely stay in one area. They may live in or associate with one area, but that doesn’t stop them from working in, shopping in, or just walking through other parts of the city. So when we build city locations in conjunction with characters and organizations we should not just find the home locations for these characters, but also build their associations and interactions with other locations.

A good example that’s pretty common is the city guard or other police force. Police are generally  expected to keep an eye on the city as a whole, and in a setting where there is limited data and mobility the police forces of a city have to keep a sharp eye on urban affairs in person. The guard will probably be present in every part of the city, the presence wont be even throughout, but they wont be entirely absent. For example, if there’s a network of alleyways full of illegal activity we should consider that the guard may still be involved: perhaps there are “dirty cops” that are bribed to turn a blind eye, or maybe the guard coordinates with criminals there when they have bigger fish to fry. Even in spaces where this group seems inactive, they can still be involved.

Another lens for building locations is the lens of player involvement: what does this city need to let players be involved? What social spaces will interest player characters? Will players need to shop? Will they need to rest? What can they afford? What kind of work will they look for? I am developing Saint Maluns as a general setting that multiple groups can use, so some of these questions must be answered with guesswork and generalizations, but the city can definitely be altered and tailored to specific groups and their needs. Consider the commonplace trope of the Inn. Players will spend a lot of their time in cities at Inns and Taverns, usually drinking, finding quests, having confrontations, and resting. But a city probably doesn’t have just one Inn. In its heyday, the boom-town and pirate haven of Port Royal supposedly had one drinking house for every 10 residences. We probably don’t need to make that many Inns, but the point is that certain spaces that players take for granted can be quite varied and unique. An Inn near the Docks is probably quite different than an Inn in the Merchant’s District and the Players will be able to do very different things at these locations.

So, considering the needs of the PCs and the associations of the NPCs, and taking into account the layout of the city map, I have come up with the following general locations:

  • The Docks: On the Southernmost side of the City is the Docks. The Docks are built around the City walls and almost operates like a separate city. A legal no-man’s-land, the Docks are a place where shady deals take place alongside the legitimate trade that makes St. Maluns the Gem of Curelsed.
    • The Drowsy Fisherman: An Inn located in the docks. Located in a rough part of town and hardly the fanciest place to spend the night, but the owner, Ailera Zann, does what she can to treat her customers well. The prices are low and more than one sailor is willing to lend a hand to protect the place when the local gangs start stirring up trouble.
  • The Warrens: A winding maze of twisting streets that cuts through shoddy housing and smoke-belching factories. The Warrens are the industrial heart of the city, but that doesn’t mean people want to live there.
    • Golden Phoenix Trading Company: The Golden Phoenix is the largest private business in Saint Maluns and trades in everything from gold and silver to inks, dyes, spices, teas, and even alchemical and magickal goods. While the Company technically operates within the law, the Duke Calsius is certain that the Company is operating to undermine Imperial Authority by profiting local aristocrats and merchants.
  • The Southern Gate: The Southern Entrance that connects the Docks to the City proper, located between the Warrens and the Merchant’s Quarters.
    • The Lower Guard: The barracks and offices of the City Guard for the lower city. Many of the guard here are veterans, equipped with the street-smarts and weaponry to deal with trouble in the Warrens. While they technically are expected to patrol the docks, most guards know better than to incite trouble there. The Lower Guard also examine incoming and outgoing passage of goods between the City and the Docks.
  • The Northern Gate: The Northern Entrance to the city and the primary entrance for those traveling by foot.
    • The Ranger’s Office: While the Rangers don’t technically have any legal power within the city itself, the Ranger’s Office seeks to recruit new Rangers in preparation for the next Migration.
    • The Upper Guard: The barracks and offices for the City Guard of the Upper half of Saint Maluns. Here the guard oversee traffic into and out of the city into Curelsed, and coordinate their movements in the Merchant’s Quarters. Newer recruits often work in the Upper Guard since it usually manages the bureaucracy of the city and minor crimes, but veterans can still be found working as detectives, chiefs, or just in unofficial retirement doing desk work.
  • The Merchant’s Quarters: The Downtown of St. Maluns. Artisans, artists, and craftsmen live and sell their wares here.
    • The Blue Dream: The most expensive Inn located in St. Maluns, owned by the elusive Vax Sarrat. The Blue Dream is also the host of a multitude of vices including gambling houses, drug dens, and brothels; the businesses of Waldamar the Pleaser, all hidden behind the veneer of a respected public house.
    • The Academy: A private University founded by the Scientist (Lilith Havadis). The Magickal Society operates unofficially through the Academy, with many of its members serving as professors. Academy studies are focused on the hard sciences and Emperical magickal research.
    • The Red House: A social club, salon, and headquarters of The Cabal. The Red House is a den of drug use, mysticism, and creativity – home of a thousand projects and a thousand interpretations. While the Artist Erik is rarely seen in person due to failing health, he is said to reside in one of the upper rooms.
  • The Keep: The home of the city’s nobility. Closed off from the rest of the city, most of the nobility lives in secluded comfort and safety that the majority of the populace will never know.
    • The Amontil Estate: The Amontil Family used to be one of the most well respected and wealthy noble households in Saint Maluns. In recent years their wealth and prestige has faded from scandal and misuse, their palace in a constant state of decay, empty except for the Amontil’s and their loyal butler. Rumors suggest that the Lady Amontil is not in her right mind, and that the Lord Amontil is scheming to return to power.
    • The Duke’s Palace: A huge, sprawling castle built like the old Imperial palaces of the Homeland. From this Bastion of authority the Duke Calsius watches the City with disdain, longing to unleash the Iron Fist of the Empire on Saint Maluns. In the meantime the Secret Police keep tallies on the petty nobles vying for the Duke’s Favor and report back to the Emperor himself.

This is a rough draft, of course, but each of these locations already has a purpose and further possibilities. We can create specific quest lines, characters, and encounters for each one, and we can find more ways to tie them together using these additions.

In the next segment on worldbuilding I’ll look at adding specific, encounterable NPCs and plot hooks.



RPG Design Journal #5: Starting a City…

Moreso than any other environment (with the possible exception of the dungeon) the city dominates all other locales as the prime spot to begin adventures. Whether the players meet in a seedy tavern, the hall of some nobleman, or outside the main gates, the city offers more possibilities – and therefore more adventure – than any other realm of the fantastic.

Of course, it is this variety that makes such cities so difficult to design. A city in an imaginary world is a city with an imaginary history, imaginary inhabitants, imaginary lives. The city is not built with the luxury of being new. Most cities begin with limited planning – settlers put their abodes wherever seems most convenient, though some may plan for the sake of putting up walls and fortresses. As populations increase, and engineers and architects move in, cities become a patchwork of impromptu and premeditated topographies.

The 1859 map depicting Ildefons Cerdá’s plans for Barcelona. Note the difference between the labyrinthine buildings of the  Old Town (in black) and the straight avenues of Cerdá’s extension.

For our world we will create the first settlement in the New Lands. We know that the New Lands are North of the Empire, and is across the ocean; naturally, it would make sense for the first Imperial settlement to be a port city. It would also make sense for it to have many defensive fortifications because of the Migrations. Because the first migration occurred thirty years after the founding of Saint Maluns, this might be an event that leads to division’s in the city’s layout. The docks would still grow, but inland parts of the city would develop more like a fortress town. This could also signify class differences: the poor would be more likely to live outside the city walls near the docks, the middle classes live inside the walls of the city, the upper classes inhabit an inner wall – really, a keep from medieval  cities – to be safe, not only from the migrations, but from the commons.

A map for Saint Maluns. Note the different areas that are outlined by the walls and the streets. The docks are kept out by the town walls, the nobility is cloistered in the upper-left corner of the town.

The name of the city (“Saint Maluns”) is also intended to help evoke the tone of the game world. It is reminiscent of the days of Papal Hegemony, the mixing of Religious Rule and Imperial Might. However, the setting’s (anachronstic) time period also suggests that this power may be falling apart. The Renaissance, the Baroque Era, and the Enlightenment all slowly picked apart these superpowers through schisms, technological advancements, and the rise of skepticism. Saint Maluns is a city that is caught in numerous struggles. The city’s aristocracy wants to maintain traditional power structures, the military wants to keep the city (and all of the colonies) in the palm of the Empire, anarchists and rebels want independence, criminals want a profit. In this town we can enact any number of conflicts on a (relatively) small scale; players can find factions to align with or destroy.

Let’s look at some of the factions that will inhabit this city:

Firs off we’ll look at the two political ideologies as embodied by the nobility and the rebels:

The Nobility: The Nobility of Saint Maluns is a hive of privilege, snobbery, and political intrigue. Most of the nobles have very little power compared to the courts of the Imperial Homeland, and try to make up for their political inadequacy through fanciful façades and by enacting their control over the city. The city (and the colony of Curelsed) is officially ruled by Duke Kalsius, who was sent by the Emperor himself to help suppress any dissent. Kalsius is less concerned with the squabbling of the local nobles and is eager to imprison the anarchists and insurgents that he is sure walk the city’s streets. Despite the elitism of the patricians, the Empire does offer the city’s inhabitants plenty of goods and military protection. Many of the inhabitants are content to live under the gaze of the Emperor, even if they don’t much care for the local aristocrats.

The Rebels: The “rebels” of Saint Maluns are not so much a unified force as a political ideology shared by some of the city’s inhabitants. Since Saint Maluns is so closely tied (economically, geographically, and politically) to the Empire there are fewer rebel cells compared to some of the other cities further inland.

Another couple themes of this world are Enlightenment vs. Romanticism and Harmony vs. Discipline. Inspired by the magicians of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as well as the rivalry of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebniz (especially as portrayed in Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle) I created two groups of magic-users with different philosophies.

The Cabal: An organization of magicians run by an individual known as The Artist. The Cabal believes that magic is powered by emotion and creativity; they mainly focus their energies on the arts, honing their magic through their creations. The Cabal’s headquarters is akin to a bohemian retreat – a cross between a club and Andy Warhol’s Factory – where magicians collaborate, debate, brag, and indulge in hedonistic pleasures.

The Magickal Society: An organization of magicians run by The Scientist. The Magickal Society believes that magic obeys certain natural laws that mortals cannot break. The Society uses a process (similar to the Scientific Method) to determine and catalogue magical discoveries. They work out of The Scientist’s Academy, an educational institution dedicated to the magical and scientific disciplines.

There are also a few other organizations that have their own conflicts, or serve as neutral parties.

Criminals: Saint Maluns is a port town in a land of monsters, its bound to attract some sketchy individuals. There are numerous small gangs and individual criminals, but everybody knows that the real king of the city’s underworld is Waldamar the Pleaser. Waldamar’s criminal network deals in everything from drugs, to magic, to slaves. Duke Kalsius sees Waldamar as his foremost adversary in his war to control Saint Maluns. Waldamar doesn’t seem too worried, so long as the profits keep rolling in.

Rangers: A paramilitary force shared among the colonies, the Rangers were formed after the first migration to protect the colonies from monsters. While Knights represent the force and morals of the Empire and civilization, the Rangers serve as the warriors of the wilderness. Simultaneously monster hunters, soldiers, and law enforcement, the Rangers serve as the penultimate guardian of the frontier. Saint Maluns doesn’t have many active Rangers – most are further North, near the Forest – but there is a Ranger’s Office where young hopefuls can sign up to join the ranks.

The Spirian Church: The official church of the Telurian Empire. The Spirian Church has strong ties to the Imperial military through their Order of Myr, which hosts knights and Paladins. These holy warriors serve the will of the Gods and the Emperor, which sometimes leads to conflicts when the Church and the State’s orders conflict.

The Imperial Military: Saint Maluns has its own military base for colonial soldiers, but sometimes the Imperial Mainland sends in troops directly. Recently, the Empire has been sending a great number of troops lead by the war hero Sir Arran, but nobody in the city (not even Duke Kalsius) knows what their mission is.

These different factions offer plenty of plot hooks; some of which are explicit, some of which can be built upon out of these descriptions. There is also the possibility for sub-factions to exist within these groups, providing additional opportunities for characters who join organizations. As we continue to build this city we can consider the influence of these organizations to determine how Saint Maluns has developed.

Next time we’ll look at specific locations within the city that players can visit.






RPG Design Journal #4: Heroes, Villains, and the Morally Ambiguous

I don’t actually talk about this character in this post, but I think it looks cool and I haven’t drawn any of the others, so I’m including it anyway.

Now that we have a very basic history sketched up for our setting, lets add a few inhabitants that the players can learn about and interact with. As I’ve mentioned before – the strength of a setting’s lore is in its interaction. NPCs are useful because they can both impart lore onto players passively (through gossip, providing quests, bequeathing important items, etc.) and by being part of the lore themselves. Effectively used NPCs help orient the players in the world. A no-nonsense sheriff with a secret soft spot for orphans paints a very different picture of the law in a city than an easily bribed magistrate who imprisons anybody who slights them. Is the villain a well-respected businessman who controls a criminal network behind the scenes? A mad scientist dabbling in hideous eldritch acts? What about a mother driven by a desperate attempt to save her children by killing on the orders of an anonymous kidnapper? Each one of these villains has a different tone and a different place in this world, and each one can be connected to the setting in different ways.

I’m going to describe three NPCs below, each is intended to represent something about the setting to help orient the players.

[[I’d like to remind readers that this is a setting that I’ve been working on for some time. Some of these NPCs draw upon established lore that I haven’t expanded upon yet in these posts; some of them are from scratch, some of them I already created in advance.]]

A HERO: It’s good to have other characters in the setting that aren’t the players that represent goodness and virtue. The goals and actions of these characters can help the players understand what is perceived as “good” in this world. It should be noted that the “heroic” NPC’s views don’t necessarily have to align with the conventional understanding of “good.” Perhaps a hero is corrupt and has good PR, or maybe the people they represent have a culture so far removed from the player’s that their perception of morality is fundamentally different. (A good rule of thumb: A culture will usually develop its morality based around the necessities of survival. This is, of course, an absurdly simplified formula, but it works well when developing fantastic civilizations). So, in this setting we have strong Imperial government that looks upon a colony from afar. These colonies are constantly under threat by the environment around them, and the people are superstitious. We want a hero that helps represent this world.

There are two options that really stand out to me here: a hero that represents the will of the Empire, or a folk-hero that represents the survival and independence of the colonies. I’m going to go with the second. I think the Empire might have greater opportunities for our third type of character. One idea that I’ve been playing with is changing the nature of the nature of the Ranger class in this setting. Rangers are usually represented as loners that live outside of society. I’m interested in the idea of Rangers being like marshals in the old west. In this world, Rangers are part of an organized paramilitary organization that help protect people out on the frontier from the monster migrations. We can make a hero that represents this organization and its goals. Below is a description for Sarah Carroth. A high-level Ranger of Neutral Good alignment.

Sarah Carroth will be the leader of the Rangers. She is a character of legendary exploits – at least out on the frontier near the Forest. Every village has a story about how Sarah saved them single-handed from an onslaught of undead, or rooted out a cabal of werewolves, or destroyed a cult of Elf-worshippers. Most of these stories are exaggerated, if not made-up, but Sarah uses her reputation to seed hope in the dark frontier, and has inspired more than one adventurer to sign up with the Rangers through her tales.

The real flesh-and-blood Sarah is a woman with strong ideals, but an even stronger sense of practicality. While she resents the tight hold the Empire attempts to hold on the colonies, she is more concerned with protecting its residents from the onslaught of monsters. She encourages Rangers to work independently – roaming the countryside to assist towns and travelers. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to rally Rangers to fight as a united force, and the growing numbers of monsters makes Sarah fear that her Rangers might not be enough. Some Rangers have suggested that they might need to call upon the Imperial military for assistance. Sarah is reluctant to concede, but she also knows that she is running out of options.

A VILLAIN: On the other side of the spectrum, we have villains. Villains show the forces that the players need to face. Sure, players know that they have to kill zombies, or marauding goblins, or whatever goons you throw at them, but true villains represent the greater threat of these standard enemies. This setting is supposed to be bleak and dark – there’s a sense that the forces of evil are always about to get the upper hand. We need a villain that helps represent this sense of dread and doom. This is Ilras the White, a Chaotic Evil anti-paladin (perhaps a Blackguard) to serve as a potential boss villain.

Ilras the White was  one of the greatest Paladins known to the world. His compassion, dedication, and sense of Justice made him beloved by all – from the anonymous commoner to the King himself. Ilras’s piety and honor blessed him with unnatural strength and longevity. While the Spirian Church which he served hailed his immortality as a miracle and a blessing, it soon became his curse. After the discovery of the New Lands, Ilras embarked upon a pilgrimage to the new mysterious continent, where he believed his true duty lay. Ilras entered the Eternal Forest on a mission to purge the source of evil himself, he did not return until the next Migration – fighting alongside the Elves.

Nobody knows transpired in the Forest that corrupted the Empire’s greatest Knight. Some say that the Elves captured and tortured him – his immortality preventing his death, he was driven to madness. Others say that in the Forest he saw the darkness that lays in all beings, and descended into despair with the realization that, even in his deathless state, he would never be able to end the tide of evil. No matter what the cause, every Migration the forces of the Coalition fear to see Ilras the White – impaled with numerous spears and arrows,  his once pristine armor smeared with the blood of many generations – emerge from the Forest on his never-ending crusade against the people he once sought to protect. 

A THIRD OPTION: Alongside our champions of good and evil are the third parties. These are the antiheroes, the neutrals, and those who just see things differently. These characters can help provide information on more specific or esoteric parts of your world, they can help shake-up player perceptions by offering a “third path” in an otherwise black-and-white world, or sometimes they just add a refreshing taste of something different. This world is definitely one that attracts eccentrics as well as fanatics – it takes a special kind of person to want to risk life and limb in a continent that wants to kill you. With this character I’d like to expand on the moral ambiguity of the Imperial Government. This is Zacharia Quinn, a Lawful-Neutral Inquisitor that can serve as a random encounter, a potential ally, or an enemy.

Zacharia Quinn doesn’t much care for the New Lands. As far as their concerned, the whole place is awash with sinners attempting to escape the Empire and, even worse, unholy monstrosities that must be destroyed. Quinn is an Inquisitor of the Church. Their job is to root out “sleeper agents” of the Elves – the Changelings, lycanthropes, and Undead that hide among the unknowing townsfolk. However, not even the will and dedication of a holy agent can be untainted in the New Lands, and Quinn has been experiencing disturbing dreams.

Inspired by these nightmarish visions, Zacharia seeks to discover an object called the Gospel of Turos  – a document written heretical prophet who once worshiped the Elves. This quest weighs heavily on Zacharia, who has begun to doubt his own faithfulness. Though they tells themselves that they seek the Gospel of Turos in order to better destroy the forces they hunt, they fear that they may be falling into the arms of some unholy force. In their desperation Zacharia has become increasingly neurotic – they flagellate themselves, mutter holy scripture of dubious origin, and perform “unorthodox” protective rituals. They are suspicious of all strangers, but will gladly assist themselves to anybody who can aid them in their quest.

I haven’t included specific stats for these characters for a few reasons. One reason is that I’m lazy, the second reason (and the one that I like better) is that I don’t think the stats are really the important thing here. I can quickly determine if there are some specific spells, abilities, or items that these characters can use to make them interesting for an encounter or that fit their purpose, but it’s a bit early to be thinking about that anyway. This is a big world, and I’ve got dozens of  characters to add to it. These are merely three potential characters for players to learn about, but since this is a setting and not a campaign or adventure, we need to keep in mind that there’s always potential for one more character that can provide motivation for the players. Good settings don’t have one good guy and one major villain. If you create a setting where the only major villain is a brutish warlord, then it might be a bit difficult to make a good game with a party of players who want to try their hand in political scheming, or just want to loot some dungeons.

Variety is the spice of life, even made-up enacted lives.

Next time we’ll hone in on one specific city in the setting to sprinkle in some plot hooks.






RPG Design Journal #3: History is a Nightmare…

This might be too much history for a game…

The land is mapped, the course is clear – the time has come to delve headfirst into the past so that we may define the present of our world.

History building can be one of the most dangerous parts of world building. Its very easy to get wrapped up in the details of a setting’s past, but the more information present in a world’s history the more difficult it will be to implement it into the actual gameplay so that its palatable for players. You can try writing a “history book” for the players to read before hand, but that’s even more time consuming and not all players will want to read that. Plus, how are you going to determine what information players are familiar with and what information is unknown? When I make a world’s history I try to come up with a list of major events that have directly influenced this setting in a way that affects the players. Smaller, more “bite sized” events can be built out of NPCs, locations, monsters, spells and other elements of the world. This way the big events build the history in a visible manner, while the smaller bits (the parts I would say constitute the “lore”) are built into parts of the world that can be interacted with and discovered. So, let’s start with the keystones of the world’s history.

We know that the game setting is a colony, so that’s an important event: the Empire moved north some time in the past and then “discovered” a new land that they began colonizing. This is a good starting place. But, instead of moving forward towards the present, I’m going to go backwards just a bit more. The Empire is an important presence in this world, and now is a good time to give it a little more flavor. The founding of an Empire is an important event, and a world-spanning Empire often has a big say on how it determines its own history. We’ll say that the Empire is founded in year zero of this world’s timeline (the Empire started its calendar at its founding). The Empire is also a useful tool to say why all the character races (human, dwarf, gnome, etc.) can be found together and why they work together (maybe some don’t work together, but we’ll get into that later). Of course, people don’t usually just submit to being assimilated peacefully. We’ll say that the Empire underwent a long period of warfare that ended with it assimilating or destroying most of its surrounding neighbors that ended in, say, year 500 of the calendar. Finally, we’ll say that the Empire discovered the New Lands (what would become the colonies) in the year 1000. Yes, the dates are a little too neat and even to be realistic, but they’re easy to remember and we can put in other events as needed.

So, the colonies begin in the year 1000. The first city – St. Malun’s – is probably made that same year. As the colonies expand they slowly begin to move East. In 1020 the colonies split into Curelsed and Yûevellin. In 1025 Harthkatha is formed. The Coalition is a military territory formed in response to the monster migrations. If we say that the migrations happen, say, every 30 years then we can say that the colonies face the first migration around the year 1030 and the Coalition is formed shortly afterwards – say 1033.

So here’s our calendar so far:

  • Year 0: Empire is founded.
  • Year 500: Empire reaches current borders in homeland.
  • Year 1000: Empire explores North, founds St. Malun’s.
  • Year 1020: Curelsed and Yûevellin separate.
  • Year 1025: Harthkatha becomes separate colony.
  • Year 1030: First monster immigration encountered.
  • Year 1033: The Coalition is formed.

For the current year we’ll jump a bit ahead and say the players are playing in the 1300s. That gives us 300 years of distance and a bit more room to add recent events.

This seems very bare, and it is, but that’s not bad. This gives us an idea of scale of the world’s history, and tells us how the colonies were developed. Now we can start sprinkling in some other ideas that pertain to this calendar.

Let’s look a bit more at the Empire. Even though its a clichè, we’ll say that humans were the main force that began the Empire. Humans are adaptable and industrious, but we’ll also say that they’re more single-minded and aggressive than most other people. I think the Dwarves will also be an early addition to the Empire – Dwarves are rather similar to people, they’re industrious, they live in permanent urban environments, overall they mesh well with humans. So the Empire probably began with a human-dwarf alliance. The halflings and the orcs were later conquered. The halflings in this world care a lot about personal freedom, and they’re not the kind of society that will take lightly to being conquered. The orcs feel similarly, but also have their own aggressive expansionism. So between the Halfling tribes and constant Orc uprisings we can see why it took 500 years for the Empire to reach a period of stability (albeit a stability built upon violence and cultural suppression). But wait, what about Elves and Gnomes? Where are they in this history? Well, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the Eternal Forest and how I want this world to be darker and more dangerous than usual settings. The Forest as an unknown has an almost Lovecraftian feeling to it – a mysterious location of untold power, impossible to comprehend or explore, but I don’t want to just throw in the tentacles-and-slime style of the usual Lovecraft horror. Instead, I’m going to make the Forest draw upon the idea of the Fey and Faerie as seen in ancient folk tales. This means that the Elves and the Gnomes aren’t going to be your average, everyday D&D stock creatures. Elves and Gnomes are dark reflections of humans and halflings from the faerie realm, armed with great power and utterly incomprehensible to mortal minds. I’m also including the Calibans from the Ravenloft setting to reflect the orcs. Right now the Duergar are seving as the usual dark-dwarfs, but I’ll see if I can find something more fitting later.

So Humans and Dwarves have a relatively friendly history. The Halflings and the Orcs are a part of the Empire, but they’re not big fans of it. Elves, Gnomes, Calibans, and Duergar are dangerous denizens of the Eternal Forest that other races don’t understand and rarely encounter.

An early sketch for the elves of the setting

We should also determine the actual technological setting for the game. D&D is usually a mix of high-medieval and renaissance tech which occasionally borrows from the Enlightenment and the Victorian periods. This setting, being so heavily focused on colonialism, exploration, and superstition, seems closer to the Renaissance, maybe spilling a little bit into the age of Exploration. We’ll say that this world is closer to the Renaissance. Armor still exists (especially in the less developed colonies) but is on its way out in the mainland where gunpowder is beginning to be developed. This world may also borrow from the aesthetics of the Age of Exploration and Victorians to get that gothic feeling as seen in Solomon Kane and Bloodeborne.

As we develop the world more history will come out of it: why did the Empire go North? Who first met the Elves? Do any Fey live outside the Forest? Do dwarves, orcs, and gnomes have their own religion? Or is there a state religion? The important thing is to develop an experience. The history isn’t important if it doesn’t interact with the players. If we know who discovered the New Lands then we should make that character have a footprint: did they leave behind an artifact? Are their descendants important npcs? Is there a mystery surrounding them? Did a player’s ancestor serve with them? These are the things that make the world matter. Only once the history becomes tangible to the players is it lore, otherwise its just a bunch of words on a page (or even worse, a bunch of words in your own head) that they have no reason to care about. So as we continue we’ll need to start creating and answering questions about the specifics of this world within the basic history we’ve just laid out.

Next up we’ll begin with the creation of some important NPCs.



RPG Design Journal #2: Mapping the Land


So, we’ve created a skeleton on which to hang our world. Time to start developing a space for the world to inhabit. Yes, its that lovely process that all DMs obsess over, its time to draw some maps!

Admittedly, map-making doesn’t necessarily have to be done this early in the design process, but I find it very useful to have a visual representation of the world to help contextualize ideas.

First, I’m going to need to decide what kind of map I want to make. No map can contain all the relevant information about the game world, so by deciding what kind of map to make, I decide what information is conveyed to my players.

Many fantasy maps structure themselves after Christopher Tolkien’s maps for his father’s Middle Earth.

Click here for image source

Tolkien’s maps are pretty remarkable in their detail – they show mountain ranges, coastlines, rivers, forests, national borders. There’s a lot going on here – which very much reflects the world of Middle Earth. But I don’t know if this is quite right for the world I’m trying to represent. My world isn’t one that’s well understood. I need a world that’s only beginning to be explored and understood by the players, a world that gives them only just enough information to get by on.

Following through on the idea of colonization, I took a look through old maps form the British Empire. Eventually I stumbled upon a map of South Africa from 1885.

Click here for image source

This map still has quite a bit going on, but it seems much less focused on the natural world of Tolkien’s maps and more focused on the urban world. There are rivers and mountain ranges, but they lack the sweeping grandiosity of a Middle-Earth map. The borders are emphasized with color, regional names and city names take precedent over natural landmarks. This is a much more empirical map than the previous, but its still a “sketch map,” as the title implies. Whoever made this map was much more concerned with creating a realistic portrayal of the land, but seemed to know more about the urban regions. This seems like a good map to build off from.

My first finished map

When creating my map I began by thinking about the placement of the forest. We previously decided that the forest would be a point of major conflict – a mysterious source of monsters and villains. Therefore, it seems only natural that the forest should remain unmapped. I could put the forest somewhere in the middle of the map, but I take issue with this for two reasons: 1) Putting the forest in the middle will take up a lot of space that I don’t know if I can afford to waste, 2) Putting the forest in the middle will make it possible for the players to get an idea of how large the forest is. I want the forest to seem to go on forever (Hell, maybe it actually does go on forever!), so I’m going to use it for the Northern border. Since this is a colony, we’ll make the southern region of the map a coastline. Much like our example map, we’ll mostly have cities along the south of the map (which makes sense – this is a colony with connections to an overseas Empire so there would be plenty of cities by the sea. The North is also hostile territory, so they’ll avoid settling up North unless they have a barrier like a mountain range to provide protection.) I separated the inhabited regions into three different colonies, with natural barriers of mountains and rivers separating them. I’m thinking the one to the west will be the first colony. As travelers moved further east different cultures developed as they were geographically separated, creating different regions. This will also help set up the political conflicts we talked about before.

A second, much larger, version of the map

I’ve also added a fourth inhabited region, and two uninhabited regions. Because the forest is such a threat, I imagined that there would be forts outside it, trying to keep an eye out for any unexpected monster activity, and maybe dealing with the first waves of monsters when the siege season came. It seemed a bit cumbersome to try and make a full line of forts (where would these colonies get the materials and men for such an undertaking?) so I added some mountain ranges/hills and created a trio of northern forts. This region – The Coalition – will be a conglomerate of the three colony’s military forces, a sort of paramilitary alliance. Now we have a way of further connecting our colonies as well as added political tensions, all three colonies need each other to keep the monsters from overwhelming themselves. The western and eastern wilds are left mostly blank. These can be unexplored regions with occasional wandering monsters and bandits, stock questing lands that aren’t as foreboding as the forest.

Finally, I don’t want to expand too much on the geography of the overseas Empire, since players wont be going there, but I did do a quick map showing the two landmasses relative to each other.

One is North, the other is South. Easy for players to remember.

These maps are even simpler, intended to show that the game world isn’t isolated.

Obviously there’s a lot that I skipped over. How did I name things? How did I decide to place the cities? How were the borders decided? There’s plenty more to talk about, but I don’t know if I can go into detail with all of it. For those who are interested I would recommend taking a look at Rich Burlew’s notes on worldbuilding. It covers a lot of similar info and goes into detail on some stuff that I’ll be skipping.

Now that we’ve mapped out a basic space for the game to be set in we can start developing some history to build lore with, develop some characters, and make a city.





RPG Design Journal #1: Ideas & Themes


There are many places one can begin when building a world for a game, sometimes you can even start many places at once. Some designers may build around a theme, others begin with a map, characters, or historical period of interest. When I find something that interests me – something I feel would be worth exploring in a game – I usually make a note of it somewhere, in a notebook or online. This way, when I begin working on a new setting, I can look at the various topics, ideas, characters, and sources I’ve already compiled beforehand to see what pieces fit together to build an interesting world.

Often I find that other DMs (or writers in general) try and avoid directly taking inspiration from other works. I do not recommend this approach. You’ll likely end up being frustrated, and I guarantee most of your decisions will have some resemblance to another work whether you want them to or not. Remember: originality does not exist, ideas are not born from nothing. The best artists are those that can steal from other artists without being caught. Take something you enjoy and then make it your own – that’s true innovation.

For this world I drew upon a myriad of sources to come up with the ideas I want to explore. One of the first elements I knew I wanted to include was “monster migration.” While flipping through the 5th edition DMG one of the tables of example adventure ideas suggested having the adventurers deal with a herd of monsters migrating into a populated area. In most of the games I’ve played monsters are usually encountered as solitary creatures, maybe with a few humanoid handlers. The concept of a monster migration – a world where people knew that dangerous creatures would come and go seasonally – was very interesting to me.

Building upon this idea, we must consider where these monsters come from and where they go. In order to keep things limited and easier to handle I decided that the monster’s should emerge from an uncivilized area – a huge forest in this case – down into inhabited valleys. This way there is a clear source for monsters (the forest), an element of mystery (the forest is an unknown), and, therefore, the possibility for adventure.

The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition could serve as a potential source from real-life to develop the forest for the monsters.

So we know that this is a world with an unexplored wilderness, and we know that monsters are a seasonal problem. Let’s take a look at the inhabited regions then. These are people who know that they live in danger constantly, so they will probably have some sort of organized force to fight monsters. This could be something to explore for modifying or making new classes and prestige classes. Since monsters are a big deal I really want to play up how dangerous they are, I’m thinking this world should be very dark and mysterious. The worlds, creatures, and styles of Bloodborne, Dishonored, and Ravenloft can serve as other sources of tone and information. To make the monsters more dangerous and mysterious we’ll make their numbers very large – every year more of them emerge – and they’re imbued with keen intelligence and purpose. The cities in the inhabited regions have to spend the safe seasons saving up food, resources, and men to withstand a siege of monsters. The inhabitants are probably very superstitious and wary of outsiders – they fear lycanthropes, shapeshifters, changelings, and undead that can pass as human. They see such creatures as “sleeper agents” that weaken them from the inside.

The Pandyssian Continent from Dishonored is dangerous and unexplored – a perfect stepping stone to build off of.

So we have an obvious external conflict set up – monsters against people – and internal conflicts – people turning against their own out of fear. This society might also have a cultural conflict: modern science vs. folklore. We’ll put this third aside for when we begin to deal with technology and magic.

How does this society manage to survive and grow in the face of such opposition? Its facing constant opposition from outside, and its afraid and culturally suppressed inside. I’m going to say that this land is a colony for a much larger and more powerful Empire. These local states and cities can get extra resources and support from their homeland, but are also out of touch and technologically inferior. This sets up another nice conflict – the possibility of revolution and independence. Some colonies are probably more independent than others, some need the Empire’s support to get by, others don’t. This is our third conflict: colony vs. empire.

So let’s take another look at what we have:

  1. There is an inhabited region with cities and an unexplored forest.
  2. Monsters migrate back and forth between the two in cycles.
  3. The cities are in a constant struggle to survive the siege of monsters.
  4. The fear of these people has made them bitter, xenophobic, and superstitious.
  5. This land is a colony for a larger empire.
  6. Some parts of the colony desire independence, other parts are fiercely loyal to the empire. Some are divided.

This is a good skeleton to begin building off of. These ideas will change, and many other parts are sure to be added, but we have enough to begin designing a world with. As we continue we’ll begin making a map, thinking about the types of monsters in the forest, discussing race and species, and start working on a major city for the players to explore.


RPG Design Journal #0: Lore, Myth, and Worldbuilding

I’ve wanted to do a post about the inclusion of “lore” in storytelling – mainly, but not exclusively, in games – but I haven’t been able to come up with any sort of point to make. I know a lot of these posts are just me rambling on with little rhyme or reason about things that interest me or tick me off, but I honestly couldn’t find anything to say about lore development. For a while I though it might just be that I didn’t have any real experience in developing lore, after all I’m not a professional game designer. Then I realized – I develop lore all the time!

I’ve played D&D since I was about 10 years old, often fulfilling the role of Dungeon Master. The groups I’ve played with very rarely used pre-made campaigns and adventures, so it usually fell to me to make up a new game world for them to interact with – and that means making lore as well.

Considering this, I thought that maybe it would be nice to look at this topic from a hands-on perspective. For the last year I’ve been developing a new game world, one that’s significantly larger (well, its actually geographically smaller, so … “deeper” may be a better word…) than my previous creations. So as I continually develop it I’m going to post about it and discuss my process of development specifically looking at the development of the world history, mythology, and (of course) lore.

A few disclaimers:

  1. This game world does rely primarily on the d20 system released under the 3.5 Open Gaming License by Wizards of the Coast. It also utilizes materials released by Paizo for Pathfinder and White Wolf Publishing’s Swords and Sorcery also released under the d20 system.
  2. This game world is something I’m making primarily for myself as an exercise. It is not being developed for commercial purposes.
  3. It is not my intention to infringe on anyone’s intellectual property with these posts.

Now, I’d also like to point out that I’m not an expert when it comes to game design. There may be things I do in my development process that aren’t the best decisions, but that’s one of the reasons to put this out here. This is also a chance for me to reexamine the kinds of choices I’m making in my own designs.

This was a pretty boring post, but I hope others will find the process of worldbuilding interesting.

That’s all for now.

Thanks for reading,