A different approach to campaign design

dnd_group A while ago two of my friends and I sat together to talk about our upcoming Fate Accelerated game. We all had different ideas about what we’d like to play. Several ideas were thrown around. We basically discussed everything from a game based on the Nickelodeon show Legend of Korra to a campaign set in the Mass Effect universe.

Eventually we settled for a campaign set into a world which has gone through an industrial revolution several years ago. Magic exists in the world and magic users have been the rulers of a vast empire for ages, but recently their influence is waning. After we had settled on this premise we talked about the elements we wanted to see in the campaign.

Pretty early on we made the decision to focus on one big city first. This allows the gamemaster and the players to flesh out the rest of the world step-by-step later. We also came up with the idea that there should be a dichotomy between magic and technology much like in the computer game Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magicks Obscura. My friends quickly came up with early concepts for their characters and I was given the task to flesh out our collected ideas into a more concrete setting.

So I took what we have talked about, added my own spin, and eventually created the city of Skalica (I borrowed the name from a Slovakian town). It was one of the centers of the age-old and mage-ruled empire which is now controlled by a council of elected representatives after the people raised up against their mage masters. The setting is rife with conflict: magic vs. technology, mages vs. mundanes, rich industrialists vs. poor workers, etc.

I intentionally left everything else pretty vague. In my opinion one of the strength of the Fate system is that it easily allows players to bring in their own ideas and expand on the setting during play. Focusing on a small area first and then later flesh out the details is a pretty new approach to me. Usually I love to create whole worlds, dozens of nations, with long histories. This time we decided to keep things small and I think this is an approach I’ll follow more often in the future. Planning everything beforehand can easily be overwhelming and actually limit your options. Imagine you want to add a new aspect to the setting you haven’t thought about until then. If the campaign world is already fleshed out to the tiniest detail, you might have trouble to fit it in. But if you focus on a small area first, there’s always more than enough space to expand into. Who knows what’s behind the next hill?

So what’s your approach to campaign design? Do you like to plan everything beforehand or do you prefer to start small and then slowly expand when needed? Please share your thoughts below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

3 thoughts on “A different approach to campaign design”

  1. For most of my GMing life, I’ve used published settings such as Forgotten Realms and Eberron for my games. The couple of times that I used my own world(s), I went with the “kitchen sink” method, until recently.

    I ran a Savage Worlds Supers game a fwe months ago, and I decided to go with the bottom-up approach. The PCs were residents of “The City” (apologies to The Tick). I told the players that it was just a regular, run-of-the-mill modern city with superheroes. I also told them that they were free to make things up as they wished for the city, its residents, industry, etc..

    My players aren’t quite accustomed to this style of game, and the most creative they got was with their characters themselves. One of the players said, “Do you think that Arachnus (his PC) would be the kind of person who would have a motorcycle?” “Sure, why not,” I replied. But he added guiltily, “Um, that’s not too much, is it?” I assured him it was perfectly reasonable, and reminded the players that they had as much power over “building” the city as I did.

    It may take some time for them to get comfortable with their new-found creative license, but I think it will turn out just fine.

  2. From my own games I start with the one location the PCs are starting in, wit a few outline to a city or town that they would have heard about even though they had not traveled to.
    Then as they travel and learn they are open to add or even change places and people. most are generally set but as play progresses the areas and towns will get adapted to play needs.

    I myself used to make the whole world but eventually get fed up with creating ideas that never got used or i had completely forgotten about. Share the creation and players will feel more a part of the world and the towns and places they visit. More likely to remember those places as well.

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