Mid-size Campaigns (Part 2)

Building the Campaign Framework

In Part 1, we introduced the idea of the mid-size campaign, which provides the macro approach's potential for expansion without wasting time on detail that won't be used or appreciated. The goal is to create a campaign area big enough to contain all the ideas you have, localise those ideas, then inject a bit of detail with adventure hooks in the area that's most heavily saturated. In this installment, we'll explain everything up to the final step.

Sketch Out the Campaign's Boundaries

Like an artist who develops the portrait as he paints it, you need a canvas to work on. When you're building a campaign, that canvas is a map, and it will hold every brush stroke you apply, however wide or detailed it may be.

Start with a campaign map, scaled big enough to contain the setting's boundaries. For most fantasy campaigns, this is probably a continent or large sub-continent. For modern campaigns, this will be a world map, and for sci-fi, you'll probably want a map of several star systems. Starting with a map this size sounds a lot like the macro approach, but you're only defining rough boundaries and general shapes, which you'll ultimately refine as your campaign matures. In other words, draw your coastlines and terrain, rivers and lakes, and maybe even a few obvious settlements, but be prepared to revise the landscape later. The point is to establish the campaign's likeness, but not its features. The reason is because when you start localising your ideas, their arrangement will create patterns and connections that suggest further change.

I usually start with a random map. For single continents and sub-continents, you can use the Greenfish Relief Map Generator; for entire planets, I suggest ProFantasy's Fractal Terrains, which lets you cycle through customisable worlds. For star systems, NBOS' Astrosynthesis works well, as it creates whole sectors of space in 3-D. Regardless of how you create it, though, the finished product should be a map of the campaign's basic shape that you can either write on or edit electronically.

Your Idea List

Create an index of campaign idea categories: monsters, classes, races, NPCs, gods, religions, cults, secret societies, cities, fortresses, governments, ruins, character races, spells or powers, artefacts, adventure plots, adventuring locales, etc. Now add all ideas you've been cultivating. Don't worry if they're too small or embryonic--they need to make the cut. If you're a nerd, a tabbed index or even a spreadsheet does the job.

Each category is a colour on your artist's palette, and each idea is a particular tint that you can blend and combine to paint your campaign picture. Keep the list handy so you can add more ideas when they strike you. Finally, don't be afraid to tweak existing ideas if a new or exciting twist comes to mind (I keep a small notebook on my nightstand, nearby when I'm watching TV, and (especially) on the train to work everyday—you never known when inspiration will strike).

Find Homes for Your Ideas

Next you'll localise your ideas by placing each one somewhere on your campaign map. Start with the most compelling idea on your list (i.e., the one that excites you the most). It may be a monster you just saw in a movie, a ruined city, or a magic hammer for fighting undead. Find a place on the map where the idea makes sense and mark it.

Continue placing ideas in order of most appealing to least. As you progress, you may want to draw a rough circle around certain labels to show a government's borders, or how far a religion has spread, or even the extent of a monster's territory. Keep adding labels to your map until you reach the end of your list or get stuck (and I stress this last bit—there is absolutely no value to placing an idea half-heartedly; if you can't place a particular concept, skip it and come back later—I promise you'll find a place for it, eventually).

At this early stage, resist the temptation to inject any detail—that way lies the full macro approach. Instead, just assign a location to each idea. If you have an idea for a fur-covered snake, place it somewhere cold and move on—don't worry about what it eats or how big it gets or what kind of treasure it has. If you want a sprawling dictatorial empire, sketch some borders, but don't worry about its laws, currency, factions, or insurgent hordes. The goal here is to start connecting your ideas to the campaign's geography--as you continue to add ideas, a macro-type picture of your campaign will start to emerge.

There is no right or wrong place for an idea, but consider factors such as climate and terrain, local population size, and the distance from–and possible connections to—other ideas. Make sure that an idea's location suits your vision of that idea. For example, a ruined tower in a desert wilderness has a different story than a ruined tower a few miles outside a bustling city. A mineral-rich planet just past the neutral zone presents different adventuring opportunities than the same planet in the federation's core.

Making Connections

When you've gone through the list, take a step back and look at all the ideas on your map. I guarantee you'll begin to see connections that didn't occur to you before. All sorts of creative possibilities present themselves at this stage, and there really is no limit to how you end up cross-referencing different ideas. What about that tribe of Snow Elves you thought of? Maybe they live in the same place as the furred snakes.

At this stage, make a list of connections or draw lines between them on your idea list. As you devise these connections, you're likely to come up with new ideas--add them to your list. Then, when you're done with the first round of connections, go back and add your new ideas to the map. Then go back to connections. Rinse and repeat.

It's through this iterative process that certain areas of your campaign naturally develop. Or, more accurately, areas suggest themselves for development, which is our next and final step toward building the mid-size campaign, covered in Part 3 of this series.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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