Not long ago, Zak posted a great article about describing a campaign setting using more game-terms and less narrative prose. I added my 5 cents in “here’s why it’s good” style, mainly going on about how much time this approach can save.
So, naturally, time to test it out.
For reasons unknown, The Sword tune Barael’s Blade has been knocking about my skull for some time. I think it’s because it occupies a campaign urge I’ve always wanted to explore. A read through the song’s lyrics suggests a Sword-and-Sorcery setting with a lot of background possibilities. It offers little snippets of background that the GM can flesh out however he likes.
This is all about inspiration. You hear the song, or you watch an episode of Firefly or catch Thundarr on YouTube, and you instantly start thinking of how you would play this stuff out on the tabletop.
And this actually says a lot about Zak’s approach. All you need to get creative is a teaser—a name, a lyric, a scene acted out. If you’re a GM, it beats writing four paragraphs of 10-point justified text, then realising that you still need an encounter table anyway. If you’re a player, it definitely beats reading those four paragraphs and being like, “That’s nice...next” when you’re done.
Just as a song lyric or movie scene can be a teaser, so too can an existing map, especially if it shows important RPG stuff like terrain, borders, and settlements. Don’t worry about what the map really represents—just ask yourself if it can support your source material.
Barael’s Blade makes me think of Conan, Hyperborea, and shaggy Germanics kicking civilised peoples’ asses. Your standard lawless landscape, filled with danger, ruins, and treasure—like Newark, but bigger. As it happens, there’s a map for that: The Germanic Kingdoms and the East Roman Empire in 486 (from Historical Atlas, William R. Shepherd, 1911).
Aside from being well-rendered in a useful way, this map shows familiar territory (i.e., Earth-Europe), which helps your players get into the setting more easily. Naturally, your campaign won’t mirror the historical record, but if you’re using an historical map, there’s a good chance that some parallels exist. Feel free to use the same place-names and settlements—again, these don’t have to represent the same things as in the real world, but it helps newcomers dive into the campaign without a lot of preamble.
As a bonus, you’ll note that this map is in the public domain. This is good because you have free license to change and share the original. So by all means include your modified version in the PDF campaign guide you’ll no doubt make available on your website.
So I have a vision (thanks to The Sword) and a map (thanks to Mr. Shepherd and the University of Texas). Let’s flesh it out ever so slightly, starting with my elevator pitch:
The Roman Empire that once dominated the civilised world has been reduced to a fraction of its former glory, and the barbarian warlords who pushed it back are the new masters of Europe. They have reawakened the old gods Christianity put to sleep, but in so doing, let loose powers they had forgotten how to control. Europe is a chaotic realm of warriors, sorcerer-priests, and thief-kings, all vying for power and wealth in the vacuum of Roman stability. Will the PCs seek fortune as mercenaries in the service of a barbarian warlord? Or perhaps they’ll win a name by recovering the treasures of ruined Christian halls. Maybe still they’ll stem the tide of Chaos and revive the worship of the One God to bring order to an unruly land.
The map shows continental Europe packed with Germanic kingdoms—these are the chaotic barbarian peoples who live by might, sorcery, and cunning (and by sorcery, I mean pagan demon-stuff). Each kingdom is a confederacy of petty states who cooperate only to thwart the aggression of neighbouring kingdoms. When not so engaged, they fight amongst themselves. Most states are ruled by warlords, but some are under the control of sorcerer-priests who use demonic allies and minions to enforce their rule.
The East Roman Empire is all that remains of the Roman supremacy that once stretched west to Gibraltar, yet Christianity still holds sway there, and it is far more ordered than Europe as a result. While firmly rooted in the land of its birth, Eastern Christendom seeks to recapture the Holy Lands of Europe, where the great evil of pagan gods was once defeated (I’m thinking “reverse Crusade”). It is the hope of the Church that the Germanic warlords will again bow before the cross (else it is the task of the Christian fighting orders to make them kneel under the sword).
Still, some of the Germanic peoples cling to Christianity, struggling for safety and stability under the despotic rule of brutal warlords and pagan sorcerers. The legendary hero Barael hails from such folk and is rumoured to roam the land today, seeking demons to slay with his holy blade.
The crow-mage is probably some druid guy who, while not Christian, is opposed to the Darkness (capitalisation mine)
The Darkness is a general descriptor of some past cataclysm (and I think I’ll let the GM figure out exactly what that means); somehow, the (literal or metaphorical) shards of this were key to creating Barael’s sword (which also contains pure steel and “fragments of bore,” whatever that is)
Barael is a halfbreed bastard—great pedigree for a legendary hero (I figure one half is human—but what’s the other half? Do I even need to define it?)
Demons have silver for blood. Or maybe it’s something more exotic, like mercury (ahem, “hydragyrum”)
Barael’s legend is based on killing a demon lord, a bunch of spider-priests, and some dude named Lor—three leads for the GM to tinker with right there
I’m reluctant to flesh any of these out too much, as that would defeat the purpose of the exercise. What I’m hoping is that these concepts will take shape during play, as much from my own planning as from the (speculative or certain) input of the players.
The plan is to develop this campaign bit by bit it on the foundation above, but to simultaneously resist the temptation to over-engineer it. I’ll keep you posted.
In the meantime, what do you infer from the above? Is there enough here to get started?
This is kind-of-cheating, since I’m avoiding a lot of background detail by using this map (e.g., climate, cosmology, technology, etc.). Still, no apologies—this exercise is about creating a compelling setting with as few entry barriers as possible.