Another day, another new series! Today I’ll be starting up ‘Man, My Campaign is Awesome’, a series dedicated to discussing campaign tips and tricks. I’ll be pulling a lot from my home games (past, present, and future) to give examples and material on things to do to spice up your games.
For this inaugural entry, I want to talk about the starting point in a campaign; specifically a settlement of sorts, where the players will be based out of, or return to on a frequent basis.
In my upcoming campaign, I’ve been working on the starting settlement (AKA, an ‘insertion point’), so I thought this was an important point to touch on. In previous games I’ve run, I’ve found that the strongest were those that had a solid anchoring point. In Pathfinder’s Rise of the Runelords, the PCs spend a lot of time in the settlement of Sandpoint, and even Gary Gygax created the lovely town of Hommlet to start the players off in. Basically, a strong insertion point is important, and a settlement accomplishes many goals when starting a new campaign.
#1: Have a Concept
This sounds like it should go without saying, but having a core concept for your launch point is important. Is it a large city with tens of thousands of people? Is it a caravan at the crossroads between larger settlements and dungeons? Is it a planar metropolis filled with hundreds of thousands of exotic and strange creatures?
A concept helps ground every other decision you’ll be making about your insertion point. It should give you a theme to build off of.
Thursty’s Example: For my upcoming Darklands campaign, I wanted to start the PCs off in the upper layer of Nar-Voth, which left me with a handful of settlement options. In the end, I went with a new creation—a Duergar city in a large cavern complex off the main ‘underground highway’ that the Duergar use to travel Nar-Voth. After some Google-fu and meshing random words together, I came up with the name of Mabbryn for the settlement. It would be situated under the relatively undocumented lands of Molthune; somewhere in the vicinity of the Molthuni capital city of Canorate.
#2: Make a Map
Even if your insertion point is nothing more than a caravan, it’s important to have a general idea of layout. Making a quick sketch to keep the topography straight in your head will help immensely as you breathe life into your creation. For larger settlements, a map is a must. Making up a city on the fly can be a fun mental exercise, but leads to tons of frustration if the players feel that there’s no consistency in the place they’re travelling.
One important tip to map design for larger locations, is to break the design into sections. These can be literal sections, particularly if the city has walled quarters or natural barriers, but can also be imaginary borders you define for city districts. If you don’t have a defined barrier on the map to divide your sections, I’d highly suggest using a tool like Photoshop to create layers you can toggle on/off to show where a district begins/ends.
Thursty’s Example: I put together a quick sketch of Mabbryn, which I went on to color and ink. I admit, I’m not an amazing cartographer, but this sketch gives me enough information to place important locations or tell the PCs where they need to go in town. As mentioned above, I’ve sectioned off the settlement in two major areas, which I’ve dubbed the Lower and Upper city. A series of fortress walls divides these sections.
#3: It Should Make Sense
“Oh man, I’ve got this great idea for a flying city filled with atheists monks who adhere to a vow of silence.” So… where do they get their water or food from?
In a world of the unbelievable, there’s a thousand reasons why this flying city could work, but you should have those reasons prepared. When creating an insertion point for your campaign, realize that the location will be the first site to be torn apart by inquisitive PCs. Having a solid concept is one thing, but make sure you have details on why the settlement exists and how it continues to exist. Make sure you account for questions the PCs have, like what kind of trade the community does and where outside goods come from. If the settlement is located in a remote or inhospitable region, be sure to include methods for gathering food and water, and remember that a cleric with access to create food / water can only make so much. In fact, basing a settlement around a handful of providing divine casters could become a huge liability if they’re ever killed…
Thursty’s Example: As I pondered my seedling Darklands settlement, I ended up thinking a lot about food and water sources. Food was reasonable with fungal farming, animal hunting, and—given it’s populated by duergar—raiding. Water proved to be a more tricky proposition and one that ended up determining much of Mabbryn’s background. Having a large body of water in the north-eastern section of the city, I decided that it was partially siphoned from the a river that runs through the surface nation above. This led to Mabbryn’s prominent attraction being that it’s a sort of underground oasis, as well as a rest stop, along the Nar-Voth highway.
#4: It Should Have Flair
With a concept and some common sense behind it, your insertion point needs some enhancing elements added. What makes the starting point of your campaign interesting? What are the little things that characters should take note of when they explore? This is your opportunity to add some spice to the meat and bones that you’ve been building. Pick some defining features that can be easily identified with and latched onto or rejected by the PCs. Here’s a quick list of random thoughts and avenues to explore:
- How do the locals dress?
- Does trade affect how the people act?
- What is the leadership of the settlement like and how does it impact the people?
- Is it an important holiday or approaching a holiday?
- What is the prevailing smell of the settlement?
- What if there’s no people; how does the insertion point work as a place for the PCs to spend time?
- What’s a common door like in this area?
- Do the people have any odd dialects or accents?
- Are there any days of the week when people stop working?
These are just some examples of things you can think of to give your insertion point that added flair.
Thursty Example: As I’d mentioned earlier, Mabbryn is situated on a vital water source for Duergar society. Because of the importance of the water, I realized the settlement needed a strong military presence to protect it. So, the dividers between city districts became military fortresses, which the people would need to pass through to access other areas of the city. The military generally disregarded the Lower City, which is filled a large number of non-duergar traders or visitors. In fact, the Lower City is effectively considered a killing ground in the unlikely event of an attack on the city. This created a class divide between those of the Lower and Upper City, as well as a difference between the Duergar military and regular citizens of Mabbryn.
5: It Should Have Character(s)
Since I enjoy going off of the Pathfinder settlement statblock (as found in the GameMastery Guide) as a base starting to any settlement, I ended up needing to create a cast of NPCs. Obvious candidates include NPCs who the PCs will be sure to interact with, or whose presence will be felt indirectly. The leader of the community should have some kind of basic concept fleshed out, while other NPCs should be detailed with some precision. If the player includes characters who will have weapon needs, a blacksmith with access to magical arms and armor is a solid choice. Skill focused characters may frequent a local tavern or inn, so having an established NPC who also frequents that locale adds some verisimilitude to the area. Any of these NPCs should also be given defining qualities to make them stand out. Sure, people remember “The Blacksmith” but they cling on to things like “That fellow with the odd stutter” or “The beggar who lost his leg and is collecting coppers to buy a wooden replacement”.
Another useful tactic when designing ANY settlement, is to create a list of names. You’ll thank yourself for doing this when your players decide to find a random shop and ask the owner their name. My suggestion would be to figure out the various races and ethnicity that populate your settlement. From there, create a list of ~15 names for males and females of those groups. Keep this in a text file, or a print out while gaming, and you can reference it when needed!
Thursty’s Example: For Mabbryn, I knew that the theme of a Duergar city would in itself offer lots of character. I’d looked into the leadership of the city and compared it to other Duergar settlements detailed in Paizo products. I’d found references to ‘King’, ‘Margrave’ and ‘War Marshal’ as existing leadership roles for Duergar. This seemingly random research led to the creation of Daguda Urgadan, Margrave of Mabbryn, AKA “The Would-Be Queen”. Plotting that into the settlement statblock I’d been working on, it immediately gave my settlement a thematic element of a leader who’s trying to expand her power base and become a bigger player in Duergar society. This gave Mabbryn a background that supported trade and general expansion, making it the perfect place for a bunch of Darklands wanderers to come and make a name for themselves.
Do you have any tips or tricks for designing a campaign starting point? Agree or disagree with anything posted here? Please, feel free to leave your comments below!