Dear DovahQueen – Campaigns from Scratch

Coming up with an entire world can be an amazingly daunting task. Today, we breakdown one method for tackling it in smaller, more managable, bites.

Dear DovahQueen: What advice would you give to new GMs just starting to make their own content for a campaign (new monsters, items, etc).—Homebrew Novice

Dear Homebrew: First off, congratulations on starting to write your own content. There is little more satisfying at the game table than watching your players have visceral reactions with the story, characters, and locations that you’ve created. Building such intriguing set pieces can be quite daunting, but fear not, I’ll share with you the way I build a campaign. A lot of this sounds like obvious common-sense stuff, but always going back to the basics ensures that you have a strong foundation on which you build.

First, start large and work downward. You’ll get bogged down in tiny details if you begin with NPCs and monstrous denizens. Start with your inspirations; really hammer them down. For my setting, I was heavily inspired by dark, gritty fantasy worlds like Westeros and Hyboria and by the violently suspiciou culture of the Salem Witch Trails. Knowing that, I decided that the populations would be largely distrustful of magic, their would-be factions leveraging political power against each other, and that the governments practices a system of laws that unfairly target anyone suspected of being in cahoots with spellcasters. You’ll want to commune with your players or decide yourself what inspirations you’ll run in your game, and knowing this at the beginning goes a long way to informing the way that you’ll create your world.

So at this point I’ve got a dark, political fantasy canvas that’s mostly blank. This is where it’s best to build the major powers that will define your setting. That could be guilds, families, nations, companies, religions, or any other power you can think of. You probably already have a few more specific powers in mind like a main bad guy or heroic NPC, and that’s great. Use those ideas to build the larger powers in the game. For me, I wrote city-states—each with its own culture, climate, goals, and motivations. Finding a way to make your forces unique doesn’t always come easily, so again, you’ll wanna find something to inspire your creations. For me, each city-state was inspired by some of the favorite characters my players have made in the past. The people of Grovel are hardy mountain folk with warm hearts and a penchant for cheating. Iode is a shady metropolis deep in the swamps, and is the only place in the empire where one can purchase illegal magical goods. Use whatever most easily inspires you: movies, books, real locations, etc.

Now that you have some locations to run your story and the direction you want it to take, you can start making the smaller details like NPCs, unique monsters, and items. Since we already figured out what kind of story we want to run, begin making the specific pieces that you need to tell your story. Write the small town where the game starts. Create the NPC that the players think is their primary adversary. Build the magic artifact that can save the world. For me, this was the conniving Lord Lucas Proder from town “Noble” who knew nothing of the orc threat at everyone’s door and was plotting a violent takeover of the player’s home city. If none of the existing monsters can adequtely plague the city in just the right way, here is where you write it. If your boss monster using a weapon, the likes of which has never been seen, make it a reality.

This should give you enough to that you can inform your players of where their characters are from, finish writing your story, and fill out a lot of the background NPCs like tavern owners and captains of guard. Don’t be afraid to use existing resources. Trust me, if you try to flesh out each NPC you write as their own unique character, you’re going to have a bad time. Use the premade NPCs; Level 3 Warrior will do just fine for “Grendel Webb, Lieutenant Commander of the City Militia.”

And I cannot recommend enough to do this entire process while listening to music that’s appropriate to your theme. Right now, I’m working on a campaign that starts in a desert wasteland solving occult mysteries and will eventually take the players to space. I’m listening to a lot of music that blends electronic styles with western and noir flavors. This music can serve a dual purpose as well. Sometimes you’ll find exactly the right song to use as background music when you introduce a set piece or allow a cutscene to unfold.

Good luck, and remember to start with larger concepts and work your way into smaller, more specific, parts. If (and when) you get stuck on some details, try to see if there’s a way you can zoom out a little bit more and refocus on the larger concept. Everything tends to fall into place a little better when you have a well-defined idea of the grander scope.

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Loren Sieg

Loren has been writing and playing in tabletop RPGs for over 15 years. As both a GM and player, she pours heart and soul into producing new content and helping shape the way tabletops are experienced. She's worked with companies including Paizo Inc., Legendary Games, Swords for Hire, and Encounter Table Publishing to publish material for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Dear DovahQueen began early in 2016, and Loren has been helping GMs and players fully realize their stories and game concepts ever since. When she's not knee-deep in characters sheets and critical hits, she can likely be found studying Biology at Indiana University and/or doing research on different types of marine life.