za3k > archive > rich burlew's articles > the new world, part 1: purpose and style

The New World, Part 1: Purpose and Style

by Rich Burlew - originally from

This is the start of a new project to create a campaign setting, from scratch, in full view of you, my loyal readers. The idea is not only to craft a complete setting that can be used by others but to also show the decisions and processes that go into a final product. This will essentially be a sort of "design diary" of my thoughts and choices, written in a sort of semi-stream-of-consciousness format; you will get to see me consider and discard each idea, and I will talk about my reasoning as we go.

So, where to start when building a world? That's a big question, one that I can think be answered by looking at what my goals are. As I see it, there are two main reasons to create a new fantasy RPG world: either to use with your local gaming group, or to publish (however limited that publication ends up being). They are not mutually exclusive; publishing a product does not in any way keep you from running it for your group, for example. But they do tend to suggest different approaches to the problem.

If you are focused primarily on running a good campaign with your actual players, you will be more concerned with the small scale than the large. It will be more important to have one city or nation well defined than it will be to have an overriding theme to the world. Local rumors, individual characters, and adventure hooks will take precedence over other considerations, You can also use a build-as-you-go method, developing a region only as your players move into it.

Building a world for publication, on the other hand, is a whole different thing. You need to look at the large-scale issues early on, because they will define the nature of the world and how it differs from other products. Cosmology, geography, and history are important facets of a published world, even if the players who actually adventure in that world are only going to be tangentially aware of them. You will need to also consider how much you can borrow from other worlds, as well as how close your world is to those already published by companies with a lot more resources than to which you have access. Creating a world defined by the struggle between good and evil dragons is fine for your local group, but a stranger may look at it and think, "Oh, it's a knock-off of Dragonlance."

For my purposes, I'm going to assume this world will be for publication, even if that eventually only means a PDF you can download from my site. Basically, I'm going to start from the top and move down from there. This is how I generally prefer to work anyway, because I have always found that once you have made the big decisions, the small decisions trickle into place themselves. I imagine the information to be like a tree, where the twigs need to grow from the larger branches, the branches need to grow from the boughs, and the boughs need to grow from the trunk of the tree. If you have a solid concept at the outset, you can make sure that all your details flow organically from that original idea, rather than trying to shoehorn odd ideas in at a later point.

The question is, what is that core concept? There are a couple old standbys, chief among them the idea of the "Overriding Story;" in other words, an ongoing conflict that sets the tone and defines the entire world. There is one Big Evil out there that is the source of all the problems. Personally, I don't care for this method for an RPG setting. Invariably, you end up with a situation where the players either achieve victory and thus alter the entire setting, or can never achieve victory and thus are superfluous. I believe that in order to be a compelling setting for an ongoing game, the setting has to support multiple villains with varied goals and unrelated plots. If you create a setting with one villain, you are really making a campaign, not a campaign setting. As a corollary, there aren't going to be any novels set in this world, so I do not need to create any iconic adventurers that might serve to accidentally eclipse the player characters-this would be the "Elminster Problem," which I hope to nip in the bud right now.

Having rejected the Overarching Story, I still need a general sort of plan to proceed. Looking at some of the other successful campaign settings in existence, it's easy to see that those without a strong plotline usually have a compellingly different style. They have significantly altered the core fantasy roleplaying experience in some manner to differentiate themselves from the same old, same old. Some have wildly different climates, levels of technology, magic systems, cosmologies, etc. Without such a stylistic difference, a setting is just different for the sake of being different. If you are working on the theory that a setting is going to be published, you have to accept that attempting to break into the market with "Established Setting X, Only Better" is a sucker's bet. Just adding a few idiosyncratic preferences will not move your world, because any DM could do the same thing. A medieval high-magic fantasy setting with active gods and all of the default races and classes is a sure path to obscurity, because it is the same thing as Forgotten Realms. Make your world a different choice; make sure that no one who flips through it will ever mistake it for another setting.

So I'm looking for style now. And don't confuse "style" with "gimmick." Making your world "Greyhawk, but on a giant tree" is kind of silly. Better to consider what sort of world might really evolve on a giant tree.

Sorry, got sidetracked. Style. Well, I know I don't want to increase the basic technology level; I'm a little tired of steampunk. Not only has Iron Kingdoms done it so well, but Wizard's new Eberron setting has a Renaissance-level of technology anyway. For that matter, so does Illumination, my existing home campaign setting. In fact, I may want to regress the technology a bit-go with Dark Ages instead of high medieval. Cut out the full plate armor and crossbows in favor of chain mail and bows. It's a thought, but not enough to hang the world on. I'll come back to it later.

How about the physical nature of the world? This one is a bit of a trap, because it may lead to the gimmick I mentioned above. When I created my world of Illumination way back, it was a cube. I thought that was unbelievably clever when I was 15. Now, I look at it and wonder how I could confuse a cheap flashy quirk for real substance. So while it may end up that the physical world is not a standard planet, I think I'll let that flow from the core concept later, if necessary.

There's climate, but there have been multiple desert-worlds published already. I already have a world I created, called Steel Dreams, that takes place during an Ice Age, so I don't want to duplicate that work. I've seen at least one third party world (or was it just a website?) detailing a world that was one giant forest. I could do an all-underwater world; it would be unique, but I think ultimately too constraining. Both as a writer and as a DM; committing to 30+ games underwater for a full campaign does not seem like that much fun. Frankly, those are the only climate-based ideas I can come up with, so I guess I'll discard climate.

How about a setting that breaks some of the underlying assumptions of the D&D; system? This is another tricky idea because it potentially creates some problems with the players themselves. If you eliminate too many of the things players expect to see when they sit down to play the game, you make the learning curve for your setting much higher. Still, there are so many assumptions made in D&D; that it is probably safe to trash a few of them. I'll make a list of, say, 10 assumptions that are usually true if you follow the core rules.

  1. Humans dominate the world.
  2. Gods are real and active.
  3. Magic is real and can be used by anyone who learns it.
  4. Opposite alignments fight each other.
  5. Arcane and divine magic are inherently separate.
  6. The wilderness is separate enough from the cities to justify 3 wilderness-oriented classes.
  7. There are hundreds of intelligent species of creatures, but 99% of them are considered "monsters".
  8. Arcane magic is impersonal and requires no "deal" with a supernatural being.
  9. Beings from other planes of existence try to influence the mortal world, usually on behalf of gods/alignments.
  10. Magic items are assumed to be available, and game balance proceeds from that assumption.
  11. Magic is consequence-free.

OK, looks like I got 11; hey, it's an experimental process. Looking at these, I like some right away, while others are less certain. I think most players need humans as a baseline from which to proceed when creating characters, even nonhuman ones. I'll keep humans as the dominant (or a dominant) race. The wilderness issue has always bugged me, but I'm not about to cut the barbarian, ranger, and druid from the lineup without compelling reason. Unless I'm creating "Cityworld," where the entire universe is one big urban sprawl, there's not much reason to drop those classes.

Looking at my list, I notice that #5, #8, and #11 are really similar, or at least related. As I think about it, I realize that wizards making dark deals with a supernatural force is a deeply-ingrained part of real-world mythology, but exists nowhere in the D&D; game. That might be in order to deflect claims of devil-worshipping by certain fundamentalist groups, but there's no reason to limit arcane deal-making to evil demons. Perhaps in this world, all magic must come from an external source, and it always comes with strings attached. I like that, it certainly is a departure from the "magic as technology" feel that is prevalent in certain worlds.

I also like the idea of removing the Good vs. Evil aspect of the game, or at least blurring the lines. What if there was still a philosophical clash, but the sides were not so clear cut? What if instead of Good vs. Evil, or Law vs. Chaos, the world has Blue vs. Red? A conflict that is not inherently determined by morality, where either side could be right? It might not even be a violent conflict, just one where the two sides are mutually exclusive and players support either one or the other.

This has my creative juices flowing. I have always like the idea of Zoroasterism, the ancient Persian religion that defined reality as a dualistic struggle between a god of Good and one of Evil. It is a type of religion that really doesn't exist anymore, because their version of Evil was an equal to Good; neither was the creator or chief of the other. Their eternal struggle gave rise to everything, according to Zoroaster. Now, I don't want to base things around Good vs. Evil, but the idea of a dualistic religion is appealing. Further, I don't want either side to be "right." I don't want one god to be the Good Guy and the other to be the Bad Guy; I want there to logically be people of both good and evil alignments following each of the two deities. So I am going to list ideas that are polar opposites without either one being morally superior. (Yes, I like to make lists; it helps me organize my thoughts.)

  1. Male and Female
  2. Light and Darkness
  3. Fire and Ice
  4. Life and Death
  5. Left and Right
  6. Land and Sea
  7. Sword and Sorcery
  8. Truth and Deception
  9. Yin and Yang
  10. Active and Passive
  11. Mental and Physical
  12. Offense and Defense
  13. Sun and Moon

I'm starting to get a good idea here: two gods, the Sun and the Moon. The Sun is aggressive, formal, and slightly lawful; the Moon is defensive, more chaotic, less straightforward. The Sun God is all about being direct and open, while the Moon God is about guile and trickery. The entire world knows and acknowledges these two gods; they are the only choices in town. They are also apparently uncaring; there is no divine interventions or steering the course of mortal events. As a result, the followers of each side are not in some great clash of ideologies; there is no holy war between the Sun and the Moon, they both just are.

In fact, the dualistic nature could apply to the entire setting. Everything falls under the influence of the Sun or the Moon; for players, it is as much astrology as religion. Everyone born during the day is a Sun, everyone born at night is a Moon. The player gets to choose which, of course, but it is as defining a characteristic as race or class. Of course, neither one can be inherently more powerful than the other; we can't have, for example, Sun clerics channeling positive energy and Moon clerics channeling negative energy, because positive energy is a superior choice for a player character.

Stereotypes would dictate that the "passive" Moon God be female and the aggressive Sun God be male. Which is as good a reason as any for that to NOT be the case; I think my Sun Goddess will be a strong valkyrie-type, while my Moon God will be a sneaky trickster. Think Athena vs. Hermes instead of Ares vs. Aphrodite.

That seems like a good start for a world. The dualistic aspect can be played up as much as I want, and the lower technology and potential nature of arcane magic are already giving it a very true-medieval feeling. In fact, the dualistic religion is only a short hop from monotheism, so this world is shaping up to hew closer to real-world history than most others. Whether that will stay true as I proceed remains to be seen.