From the DM’s Chair: Creating a Setting

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Whether classic fantasy or a steampunk style like Eberron pictured above, every campaign needs a setting. Artwork from D&D Eberron 5e.

You’ve gotten your game group together and, now you’ve got your group of friends all set up, it’s time to start prepping for the actual game. The only issue is you, perhaps like me originally, might not have thought that far ahead.

Welcome to From the DM’s Chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and today, we’ll be looking at the setting of your Dungeons and Dragons game: some possible suggestions for setting, a few world-building exercises and an example of the world I built for my players for the new weekly game.

When I agreed to run a campaign, I soon realised I didn’t really have any ideas with what I wanted to do. There was one thing I did know, which is the same thing I consider every time I come to run a new campaign: my setting was going to decide everything.

The Backdrop: Where is your campaign set

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It doesn’t have to be all green fields and Hobbits as shown in this artwork for the setting Dark Sun. Original artwork by Wayne Reynalds, taken from the DarkSun WordPress page.

In Dungeons and Dragons, the campaign setting is the world where your game take place. At first glance, this might not seen to be too important. After all, fantasy has developed a generic short-hand for geography as far as nations and politics are concerned: Humans live in cities whilst magical races live in nature, the governments are all distinctly medieval or at least feudal in nature and the shape of the continent will usually be modelled off of Western Europe or the British isles, with the coast being to the West and settlements, including evil Empires, being further Eastward. Look at the maps for Middle Earth, Westeros and the world from the Belgariad; any of these settings can be the generic fantasy backdrop you need for a D&D campaign.

However, it’s in the fine details where each of these worlds as campaign settings differ and the backdrops to each define the feel of their respective stories. Lord of the Rings is a story with your classic good vs. evil dynamic, but also has an undercurrent of social decay: the Dwarves are hiding in their mines, the Elves are heading into the West with Man taking up the sword and defending their legacy. The Belgariad is a world of fractured human states in the backdrop of an ancient prophecy. A Song of Ice and Fire is a setting weighed down with realism: a low magic setting with political intrigue, harbouring mature themes like murder, and sex.

If these books were campaign settings, they’d create very precise tones of games. The tone of a campaign defines everything about the setting itself. A world’s geography, whilst important, pales in comparison to the importance of the setting’s tone and how it affects the players that engage with it. Understanding how a setting affects the story you and your players are looking to make functions as the first step to choosing what kind of setting you want for your campaign.

By the books: Pre-published Settings

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The Sword Coast, part of the world of Faerun, the default setting of D&D. Art from Storm King’s Thunder

If you’re still thinking on setting for your own campaign and you’re a short on ideas, have no fear. There are a variety of pre-published settings for use. Faerûn and the Forgotten Realms are the current main setting of D&D 5e and all new adventure modules support that setting primarily. It’s a good example of a standard setting with small city-states and a vast wasteland ripe for adventuring. Of all the D&D settings, it feels the most generic and happy to cling to fantasy tropes, even when compared to the original settings.

 

Blackmoor and Greyhawk were the original settings for D&D: both having been relatively ignored in recent years, but the pair do feature in older modules available which explain the details of the setting far more than I ever could. From my basic understanding, it’s a setting similar in theme to Faerûn with a focus on civilisation and law vs the wild and chaos.

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A classic D&D setting first invented by Laura and Tracy Hickman, focused on epic wars and great battles. Image from Wikipedia.

Another classic setting is the Dragonlance setting of Krynn, which is rife with material, including multiple novels. It’s probably worth checking if you’re interested in following an epic warfare focused fantasy. For something more pulp with a darker tone and emphasis on lower magic, Eberron might be worth a look, focusing on steam-punk tech and a more grounded approach to a fantasy world. I would also re-missed if I didn’t include Paizo’s Golarion in this segment. True, it’s not technically a D&D setting but Pathfinder’s default world setting is arguably more interesting and varied than most of the D&D ones with so many countries and a wide range of setting ideas and themes.

 

Other settings are available, such as cosmic realms of Planescape and and the post-apocalyptic world of Dark Sun. Even third party publishers have gotten in on the world-building, with Kobold Press publishing their Midgard campaign guide and, Critical Role’s own Matthew Mercer releasing the guide for his own homebrew world, Tal’dorei, just the other year. There is a truly bountiful amount of settings and all of them have something unique that’s sure to entice the curious reader.

Use what you know: Where to look for inspiration

That’s a lot of settings to choose from, and all of them have their own strengths depending on the campaign you’re looking to run. However, on a more personal note, I don’t usually use pre-established settings in my campaigns, unless I’m running an adventurer module. This isn’t out of any spite for the material, but more out of a desire for just more creative control of the setting and the ability to craft my own world with its own history, cultivating an experience unique for the players.

Reading that, you must think it’s odd that I took the effort to list all of those setting materials if I was just going to throw them out for my own home-brewed world. However, I think it’s essential as a DM and even more so as a writer to look for inspiration everywhere. Researching campaign settings is a great way to get ideas for your own world and as I was crafting my own for the coming campaign, I made sure to flip through my copy of Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and the Tal’dorei Campaign Setting to get some extra ideas on my new setting. I also took inspiration from recent games, books and TV series. Never be afraid to look back at history, either. Incorporating elements from other fictional worlds and even ideas from our real world helps to create a sense of fully realised setting and can provide some great inspiration for factors later on in the process.

The Pitch: Tone and Setting

Now, as a DM, first and foremost, I am a storyteller. This means that when I work on designing campaigns, I approach the subject from the method of a writer. As such, the first thing I always consider, and something I’d consider you aspiring DM’s to consider as well, is the campaign’s ‘pitch’.

By pitch, I don’t mind as in writing a full-scale advertisement for the setting, (though that can be helpful for some), I mean a phrase that functions as a campaign’s mission statement, what that campaign is all about. I find, once I have that idea down, developing an understanding of the tone and themes of the world I want to run a game in.

For example, one of my current campaigns works on the pitch of ‘dragons and pirates’. These words perfectly conjure up the swashbuckling adventures on a high seas heavily featuring draconic lore. For another campaign I ran, the main pitch was ‘new frontier’, as such the setting was of a newly colonised continent with a story set around finding new purpose and setting up a life in a foreign land.

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Curse of Strahd and the setting of Ravenloft proved a key inspiration for the campaign’s darker tone. Image taken from Gameology.

For my new campaign, the pitch I came up was a phrase I noticed going around the internet: ‘Darkest Timeline’. This phrase conjured up vivid images of my mind of a world falling to pieces, through war, disease and crippling moral decay. I’d run a Curse of Strahd campaign for Joey and Lukas before, so I knew they were fans of gothic themes and an overall darker tone than the regular D&D campaign. Dion and Beth were also keen on the idea, especially since no-one seemed to be playing a character that knew any healing magic and the idea of a grim world where such things were healing magics were limited appealed to them. The idea of this ‘darker timeline’ also gave me a few core concepts I could develop and apply to the new setting: civil unrest and political disputes, wars and chaos on a grand scale and omens of doom cropping up across the world.

The Map: Getting an Outline

With an overall pitch created for the campaign’s setting, the next thing I started work on was a map for the campaign to take place in. Creating a map is already a very complex process. Usually, I’d suggest simply outlining a starting town or area but, I love world-building and find it difficult to start small with any projects I work on.

For me, a map can give not just a basis of where the story takes place, but also a kind of political landscape. Which places are where, who inhabits those places and how do the settlements of a given area interact? All of these questions are answered, in part, by the layout of the setting on a map. Plus, in a game where (in theory) your players could go anyway, it’s nice to have a vague idea of where it is your players are possibly able to go.

Now, I am not a cartographer by any means, but maps aren’t inherently all too difficult to create. There’s no reason why your map should be accurate, nor why it can’t be a flawed product. The map, after all, is just a guideline for you and your players to know what is where and how to get there. I usually use the classic pen and paper approach but for those who are uncertain on their own skills, or those wanting to make a map that looks nice but lack the ability to do so, there’s no need to fear. There are a lot of programs out there that exist to help create fantasy world maps.

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An example of the Hexographer system, taken from Inkwells Ideas/Myshopify.

The software I usually use is Inkarnate, a free map making program with an optional fee to download a more complete variant, but this isn’t the only choice. Hexographer is a software that creates classic Hex style maps and I’d recommend it to any Dungeon Master who wanted a retro feel to their campaign or someone who wanted to customise their setting but lacks the artistic know how to do so.

Of course, before putting pen to paper or mouse to program, there should always be some prior planning involved. I find it’s much easier to design a map when you’re keeping in mind your plans for the setting. If you want a group of Hobgoblin pirates, for example, your campaign map has to include something to fit that plan: a coastline and several island states where such conflict can occur.

Personally, I also like sketching a map before I work on the setting in detail because it gives you, as a world-builder, an initial framework to place your ideas around. Just like our real world, the people of your D&D campaign will have to have settled where they could to get the most out of their setting: logging towns against forests and fishing villages on the banks of rivers, for example. From the initial map, you can probably see where a few of settlements would have risen up and why, gradually developing and fleshing out the geography more as needed.

Of course, there’s also another option if you want to make a world but don’t necessarily want have the map-making skill: take maps from elsewhere and simply restructure them. Now, the spirit of this may scream of plagiarism and dis-respect, but the thing about D&D is that as a DM, you’re trying to build an experience for four players, not a published book going out to hundreds that you hope might make you money. It is perfectly acceptable to take a setting from somewhere else, change all the details and twist things to suit your vision. In my first ever campaign, I did this to the Golarion setting in Pathfinder. Riddleport was meant to be a pirate-town but I turned it into a respectable city ruled by an honest man. It’s easy to take a previous setting and shape it to suit your means, which is another reason why I was promoting the pre-published settings earlier. If you want to set the game in Faerûn, but don’t like the setting names or the city structures, they’re free to be customised and changed. You, as the DM, have the power to shape the setting you want for your campaign and entertain your players.

With this in mind, the map I created for my campaign borrowed a lot from the ‘fantasy short-hand’ I mentioned earlier. In all honesty, this was out of an initial laziness on my part. I wanted to run D&D and though I had the pitch for the campaign in mind, I had very few ideas on other setting details. I knew that I wanted the campaign to be based on an island off the coast of a great continent that was falling under threat, so I simply sketched in the western shore of a great land and the island that the world was to be set on. From there, it was just a matter of filling it in.

Population: Fuelling the Fires

With the basic outline of our campaign setting now built, the next step is to populate it. A world without points of interest would be a pretty boring one for players to adventure in. Even if you’re going for an apocalyptic or wasteland setting and don’t want numerous settlements, there have to be sites of interest that the players can engage with. Now, it’s not necessary to push in everything at once, you can have lots of small caverns or villages off the beaten path, but as an overview of your world, it’s important that your setting has homes for all the people you want within in. Big capital cities and smaller towns with even a few famous dungeons or other sites settled about. It’s also important that each settlement reflects the race that inhabits it or, at least, that every race and culture does have a place available to it. The Eladrin of my campaign world are a main focus and thus I gave them a series of stolen cities in the North on the continent, whilst Orcs have a camp on the borders of civilisation from which they press hard against defending forces.

A Rose by any Other Name: Naming your Setting

Naming a person or place is probably one of the most hardest things about writing a story, never mind creating a campaign world. Looking at our own world as an example, each village, town and city in the world has a name taken from centuries of development, mis-translation, language disassociation, political climates and a whole number of other factors. New York was originally New Amsterdam and Istanbul was once Constantinople, which was once Byzantium. Names change, evolve and shift overtime and have such complex roots that we feel our names have to match up to them, or otherwise, so simple and basic a reason for their naming that it’s become iconic in a way that we as creators fear our own naming conventions will never become.

With all that concern for names factored in and put aside, the beauty of a campaign setting is that the names only have to matter for the immediate players who are in the campaign and there are a lot of sources out there to help world-builders come up with names. From numerous name generators, to old languages and google translate, there are lots of ways to come up with good names for a setting and the people within it.

Dorvine Map
A Map of the finished campaign setting: the island of Dorvine and the Western Continent of Ustegard, created in Inkarnate.

A trick I am prone to using within D&D is to, admittedly, re-use names that work. Dorvine, the name I chose for the island off the coast, was based on the name Dorwine, which was a fantasy setting I planned for a D&D campaign before really knowing what D&D actually was. From there, it was just a matter of inventing a naming convention for each of the cities within it. The results were varied but ultimately, worthwhile from the clear names such as Eaglepoint to the more stylistic and fantasy sounding names such as Caswinn. I tried to lace ideas for NPCs and settings in each city, basic seeding for the rest of the adventure, establishing Duskport as the capital of the West and Solace as the capital of the East and developing various factions and types of town. Again, for extra ideas, I raided the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and the Tal’Dorei campaign setting and both served to inspire a lot of new ideas, combined with the setting of Velen within the Witcher 3.

 

When developing the names for the setting, the main thing I learned was that it didn’t matter too much what names I used as long as I kept the player’s invested and didn’t use anything they would be too familiar with. I pillaged old modules for village names, invented new organisations and towns where they could live and developed an overall sense of culture by taking inspiration from both the history of past civil wars in Britain, as well as the Imperial/Stormcloak war in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

That’s a lot of talk on setting already and I’m only just done with giving examples and talking about vague world stuff. I haven’t gotten onto how I incorporate NPCs, politics, and overarching villains into my settings to make them feel more alive. For now, I think we’ll take a quick break on that.

I’ve covered some basic settings for D&D, and how to start making your own using the one for my campaign as an example, with the island of Dorvine and the distant continent of Ustegard.

That’s going to be it for this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as I discuss populating your setting, enticing your players and the all important ‘session zero’.

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