RPT#103 – 8 Ways To Make Your Campaign World Come Alive
A Brief Word From Johnn
Holiday Publishing Schedule
Just a reminder (and as an announcement to all the new subscribers) that the next issue, #104, will appear in your Inboxes around December 30th.
I’ll also be away from email until the New Year, so please do send in your comments and feedback–I’ll respond in 2002. 🙂
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Guest Tips by Julia Pope
Send your feedback to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
You wouldn?t believe how fast players can snap out of the fantasy mind-set when the enemy prisoner says that his people will attack “next Friday, the 6th of March”. So, take the time to devise names for days of the week, months, even hours of the day if necessary. After all, what does 5 o’clock mean in a world where clocks are unknown or uncommon?
If the enemy will invade “Windday at the hour of Prime, on the half-moon of the month of the Serpent”, it adds a lot of flavour to your game. Be sure to provide players with a hand-out explaining your calendar, so that they can interpret what you’re saying and also use the expressions themselves.
Month names could be based on seasons and weather (Frostfall, Harvestmoon), on events (Moon of Popping Trees, The Month of Shooting Stars), or on the names of gods, planets or constellations (Venus, Aries, Gemini).
For simplicity’s sake, I prefer to make my years and months roughly the same length as those in the real world ? it is easier for people to relate to them that way, and it prevents certain problems from arising (if years are 600 days long, then someone we would see as twenty years old is really only 10 or so, for example). But if you want to go for a very different world then indeed, radically altering the length of a year or a month is one way to accomplish that goal.
This ties in with the first point but I think it merits some separate discussion. All cultures and religions in the real world have particular days that are holy, festive, or commemorative. So should your imaginary cultures and religions. Such details can tell players a lot in a few words, and often they can serve as interesting hooks or settings for an adventure.
For example, a small farming village might have an annual “Applegin” festival, which is an occasion for consuming the produce of the local orchards and brings people from miles around to dance and celebrate.
Another example: a cult of pain that celebrates the “Glorious Sun-Staring Day”, during which worshipers attempt to blind themselves by gazing intently at the sun, seems that extra bit insane.
And Saint Glennifer’s Day, on which believers make a pilgrimage to bathe in a sacred spring, could be an opportunity for travel and adventure.
Other examples of holidays can be easily adapted from real- world examples: Children’s Day (when children can tell the adults what to do), Carnival (a great big party before a month of fasting), a Day of the Dead (for remembering those who have passed away), the commemoration of a great battle (when patriotic stories are told, perhaps by the veterans themselves), or the king’s birthday (maybe all loyal subjects must give the king a small present).
As a rule of thumb, I try to make each culture or religion in my world have at least 3 holidays a year, and the main culture will certainly have many more, perhaps one a month. This not only adds detail but also structure to your campaign. Players love it when they can anticipate a holiday, or recall what happened at the last one: “Remember at last year’s Imperial Music Festival when that arrogant jerk defeated me by bribing the judges? This year, I’ll be sure to get my revenge…”
- Other Cultures
Whenever I start a new campaign, I give my players a hand- out describing not only the culture they come from, but also the cultures around them. This will not only make your world seem much bigger (without the additional work of creating dozens of fully detailed cultures, if you don’t want to or have time to do that), but will give them ideas about travel and probably present lots of other plot possibilities.
Also, it’s only realistic in most campaigns that the PCs would know at least a little bit about the surrounding nations and peoples (although I’m always careful to specify that they might be misinformed about particular details, due to prejudice or simply distance and lack of contact).
Things I usually include about each nation or people are: location (high in the mountains to the south, in the desert a hundred leagues to the north-west, etc.), relation to the PC’s culture (allies, friendly, indifferent, or hated enemies), what the people tend to look like (short and pale- haired, tall and freckled), any personality quirks they may possess (hot-tempered, stoic, or practical jokers), and any other details that may be of interest (this country provides most of the iron for the surrounding nations, its inhabitants are known as great archers, and it has a famous college for training bards).
That way, when the PCs meet an NPC from elsewhere, they’ll have some notion of what to expect from that person, and also a better idea of how they might react themselves. Also, if and when the PCs decide to travel to another land, they (and I) will already have ideas about what they might be in for when they get there.
It should go without saying that worlds have histories. However, this is an often-neglected aspect of world creation. Nations that were long time rivals but are now at uneasy peace will have a different present-day relationship than two nations that were united, but recently split in a dynastic power struggle.
How much detail you put into your histories will depend on how cultured the civilization is you are creating (do they keep accurate written records going back hundreds of years, or is their people’s story recorded on twelve great stone tablets in simple pictographs?), as well as on availability of information (were all records about the reign of the sorcerer king destroyed by his successor? Are books on most any historical subject commonly available in the local library?)
Some historical information which I would consider a bare minimum for any culture would include questions like:
- Who founded the nation, and how long ago?
- Have there been any major wars in the past century or so?
- Any religious conflicts or heresies?
- Any important discoveries (new continents, technologies)?
- Who are some of the great historical figures of note (generals, priests, monarchs, traitors)?
- Why are they famous?
Whatever other details you do decide to add beyond the bare minimum, they should be interesting:
- Were mages once put to death for witchcraft?
- Was the ancient royal family overthrown and replaced by a new dynasty at some point in the past?
- Did this people once make a great journey full of hardships to arrive in their ‘promised land’?
- Was the nation once conquered by a greater empire?
Any of these ideas might have great bearing on the tone of the world you create, and would certainly give rise to some interesting plot ideas.
In the examples I gave above, further elaboration could include:
- How do people view mages now?
- Are any members of the old royal family still alive?
- Was there already someone living in the ‘promised land’ when the settlers arrived, and if so, how did they deal with them?
- Why did the great empire eventually fall?
Some players can get very interested in this sort of material and will want to know more, which can often necessitate a whole series of adventures. Finding out the truth about a particular historical incident (particularly if it’s very different from the commonly-accepted version of events) can be a great accomplishment for the PCs.
- Legends And Myths
As opposed to history, which ‘really happened’, these are stories that may or may not have any basis in fact, but are nevertheless important contributions to a nation’s identity. They can help establish the general tone of a culture even better than history, I have found.
Great heroes of the Age of Legends who did deeds beyond the abilities of modern folk make a campaign world seem to have more depth and character, not to mention lending a real ‘fantasy’ feeling to it. Think of a culture like the Spartans, who glorify warfare above all else ? what would their legends be like? What about a nation of peaceful, nature-loving halflings? The warlike culture would certainly have legends about illustrious fighters and epic battles, whereas the nonviolent race might tell stories of quick- witted tricksters who defeat enemies through riddles and cleverness rather than brute strength.
Some other ideas for legends (which might give rise to a whole series of adventures, or might just be interesting background material) could also include tales of vanished civilizations (Atlantis, the Lost Cities of Gold), great weapons (Excalibur, Thor’s hammer), strange beasts (the Phoenix, the Midgard Serpent), prophecies about the future of the world (Ragnarok, the Book of Revelations) and so on. Books on the mythology of various real cultures are very numerous and available at any library, if you want some quick inspiration.
- Slang And Colloquial Expressions
I know that many people have mentioned how useful slang can be for adding character to NPCs, but I think it’s important to note that it can also be used to add flavour to a culture or world.
A world with many wizards, for example, will be likely to have slang terms for many things to do with magic (rather than saying she “teleports”, a mage might say she “pops” from place to place), a very pious culture could have lots of expressions based on gods, saints, or other religious figures (“By Jove!”, “The Devil take you!”) and a land with lots of monsters may have nicknames for the various beasties (“bloodsucker” for vampire, “fetch” instead of doppelganger).
Insults and swear words can be particularly fun – I still occasionally call a person I’m annoyed with a ‘wether’, a term that means ‘a castrated sheep’…
Other common slang terms might include words for money (royals, groats, double eagles, or thryms, rather than simply boring old “gold pieces”) and nationalities/ethnic groups (such as Canucks, Yankees, or Limeys). Colloquial expressions go along with slang, and can sometimes be just as difficult to understand for foreigners. The “cat’s pyjamas”, a “frog in the throat”, going to “Davy Jones’s locker”, and other similar phrases can add interest to a culture, if used judiciously.
Giving the PCs a short sheet with some common slang terms will encourage them to use them when they speak (and so will using them consistently yourself). Also, I recommend attaching a few frequently-used expressions or terms to each culture or region in your game ? it can be a quick way of identifying a member of that culture through their speech patterns, and the players will come to recognize that people from the high mountain valleys always call young men “lads” and young women “lasses”, for example.
- Superstitions And Traditions
These are the things that people do without much thought, or because custom demands it. Such aspects of a campaign world can tie in with many of the topics discussed above, especially holidays and mythology.
Just about anything can be turned into an interesting tradition or superstition. Common beliefs or customs might involve particular animals (black cats are unlucky, seeing a spider means it will rain), numbers and days of the week (some auspicious and some inauspicious), food (you shouldn’t swim right after eating, finishing all the food on your plate is rude), clothing or accessories (don’t wear shoes inside the house, wearing black indicates that a person is in mourning), gems and precious metals (a diamond signifies eternity, gold rings are worn by married people), and dwellings (don’t open an umbrella inside a house, a groom should carry his bride over the threshold of their new home).
Most, however, centre around particular actions one should or shouldn’t do. Some examples might include throwing spilled salt over the left shoulder, making a wish on a shooting star, saying a short verse or making a particular gesture to ward off the evil eye, not walking under a ladder, or saying “Bless you” when a person sneezes. A couple of unusual superstitions are enough for any secondary culture, while a primary culture could have a dozen or more.
If you want to make things even more memorable, each culture could have at least one tradition that has a large impact on day-to-day life (a prohibition against eating raw foods, a requirement that all people bathe daily). I also suggest (although it is not absolutely necessary) that you develop some rationale for each superstition: “The number three is unlucky because there were three evil demons who once threatened our land”; “We don’t wear green because it is the favourite colour of the fairy folk”.
Of course, there are some superstitions that people follow, but don’t really know why they do so ? such a belief might present an interesting puzzle for the PCs to solve.
- Avoid Cliches
Experienced players (and avid readers of fantasy novels) can quickly recognize a “standard medieval fantasy world” when they encounter one. To keep your world from seeming generic and bland, avoid the major cliches wherever you can. Elves don’t have to live in the forest and embrace nature, dwarves don’t have to be surly miners, and orcs don’t have to be uncultured savages (and they don’t all have to hate each other!).
Mages aren’t necessarily sickly, bookish loners who live in isolated towers. Thieves are not required to organize themselves into guilds. Not all nations are hereditary monarchies ? some could be elective monarchies (where anyone qualified can become king or queen), oligarchies, magocracies, theocracies, or even democracies.
There does not always have to be a pantheon of gods, each devoted to a particular domain (war, love, music, trickery, and so on) ? why not a monotheistic or dualistic faith or a shamanistic religion instead?
There are two simple rules of thumb to follow ? don’t take anything for granted (“My world must have dragons, because fantasy worlds always have dragons”) and don’t do something if you’ve seen it done in at least three other games or novels unless you add some twist of your own, even if it seems like a minor one (maybe your dwarves live in the desert, or your elves are a race of sailors; perhaps your mages are highly religious and thus strongly tied to the priesthood). Of course, you can retain whatever conventional elements you want ? and don’t try to change everything at once, especially if your players are expecting a fairly traditional game. Even mixing up just a couple of the standard gimmicks can make your world much more memorable.
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- Another Goblin Idea
After reading the “Goblin Tips” From Mike H, I had to write in and let you know about something our DM did to spice up part of an adventure for us. We had been on our way to a local wizard’s tower and ran into a single goblin standing in the road with a sword. He said to us “I challenge your strongest”, and stood there defiantly.
This caught the entire party off-guard. Nobody was quite sure what to do. It had to be a trap of some sort. Finally, the barbarian in the party stepped forward to take up the challenge and was slashed by the goblin’s blade for an incredible amount of damage (for a “mere” goblin). When our barbarian hit it, it died quickly. But, we still couldn’t believe how much damage the creature did. The old, rusty blade it had used wasn’t enchanted.
A half hour later we came upon the wizard’s tower and saw a goblin flapping its wings flying towards the tower. Inside the tower we were met by goblins who had different strange powers, from fire breathing to increased ability scores (like Strength) to invisibility.
Later we found that the wizard had died in an experiment and these goblins had taken over the tower…and they found the wizard’s large potion stash. We had a great time, never knowing what kind of enhanced-goblin we’d find in the next room.
- General GMing Tips
From: Jason L.
- Before each session draft a rough outline like you would a term paper (back in the days of yore) with some ideas for what may happen along main plot points — it helps establish a flowchart and highlights key actions.
- For each plot point you expect to encounter, create a list of “five senses” information you can pass along to your group — sights, sounds and smells they encounter to make it more visceral (these senses are really what make encounters stick out to me as a player, so I try to include them as often as possible as a DM)
Here’s an example of an outline from last week’s session with five senses notes:
On the road again
- Before leaving, any last minute requests or “orders” for equipment, etc.
- Head out overland, and weather gets colder as they go. 5 senses: biting cold, swirls and eddies of snow, dripping noses, frozen rivers.
- Encounter a giant Dire Bear; hungry, searching for food (attack or let alone?) 5 senses: roar, fetid breath, musky odor, muscular creature with dark stripings and coloration.
- Encounter several Bloody Hand barbarians fighting an ettin (attack or let alone?) 5 senses: din of battle, rumbling bellows, screams of pain, shattered bodies, a red hand tattoo on the barbarian’s faces.
- Leave 10-15 minutes at the end of the session to wrap things up. I like to allot bonus XP based on “ticks” the characters gain during the session for interesting, creative, well-played, in-character and compelling actions, deeds and encounters. Each tick is worth 10 x the current class level, and they tend to accumulate 4-7 ticks per session. Enough to be a tangible reward w/o overbalancing things.
- Use a small post-game wrap-up sheet to catalog/summarize the events. I hand out a form with the following info that the characters fill out after the session. It helps them remember what they had done and creates a sense of unity and accomplishment, and reinforces the concepts of the “tick” system I use for bonus XP.
How I did:
- Best Class Achievement
- Best Skill Achievement
- Best in Character moment
- Biggest Blunder
- What I learned
How the group did:
- Best group moment
- Best moment by someone else
Also, I’d strongly recommend the following combat suggestions if you find your combats dragging on:
- During combat, limit your conversations to what your character is going to do or use his actions for… The heat of combat is not the time to discuss strategies and battle plans. Beforehand or afterward is fine. Stick to word limits if necessary.
- When someone’s turn comes up during combat, resist the temptation to offer suggestions or a course of action unless it is critical (even if your comments are out of character). If necessary, the suggestion may come at the cost of your turn.
- Need character depth? Have your players write a “mission statement” for their characters. A brief 25-30 word sentence that summarizes their characters up to that point. When attempting an action directly in accord with their mission statement, give them a small bonus. If attempting something contradictory to their mission statement, give them a small penalty.
Further, after several sessions, or upon completion of a major quest or pivotal event, let the characters add another sentence. It helps broaden their scope, reflects experiences they’ve had, and helps chronicle and highlight their progress. Reading back over these mission statements can be quite enjoyable and adds some flavor and variety to a group. Two fighters in the same party could have very different missions.
Bertram the Fighter: “Hone my skills and battle prowess as I search for the man who killed my father — and bring honor to my father by killing that man.”
Fnord the Fighter: “Become a highly trained fighter who attracts the notice of lords and nobles as a mercenary worthy of respect; if something important needs doing, they should hire me.”