Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Iconic Elements in Campaign Setting Design

I just posted a comment over at the Savage Swords of Athanor Blog. The author is discussing what are the unique strengths of the Athanor setting and how he should always keep these strengths in the forefront of his mind while working on the setting material.

The article in question can be found here.

I'll repeat my comment below, as it is what spurred this column:

"What every setting designer needs to consider is; what are the Iconic Elements that define your setting? Boiling that down to a list of 8-12 elements that you always keep in the forefront of your mind while writing your setting material will help keep your setting clearly defined."
Actually, thinking about it, 8-12 might even be too many, or maybe it's not enough. Point being, when you design your campaign setting, there are two ways to go about it. The first is, building the world organically - how big is the planet, what's the population like, what are the continents, the climate, the flora and fauna, the creation myth, the history...essentially the task of what you might call Organic World-Building. I suppose from a business perspective, you might consider this a "Top-Down Process" because you're starting at a planetary or cosmic level and zooming in by degrees to the point where the villages start to populate themselves based on higher-level criteria.

However, something like building your campaign setting based around Iconic Setting Elements is much more of a "Bottom-Up Process" because you're starting from an adventurer's eye view of the world and moving up in scale from there. I say this because your Iconic Elements are going to be those features of the campaign setting that are what define, in a very direct way, the actions of the campaign at the level of the adventuring party. For example, a couple of Iconic Elements of Dragonlance are, of course, the presence of dragons in the setting - not just that, but battles between dragons, dragonarmies, the evil of the draconians, the dragon-likenesses of Takhisis and Paladine - and the epic struggle of Good vs. Evil. Playing a roguish bunch of amoral thugs who are just out for plunder, pleasure, and profit in the world of Dragonlance is possible, but it really goes against the whole point of the campaign setting, love it or hate it as you will.

On the other hand, what are a couple of the Iconic Elements of Dark Sun? There's the lack of any "Gods" and instead just the heartless rule of the immortal Sorcerer-Kings, meaning that most of the "divine mythology" that surrounds a lot of campaign worlds is non-existant with Athas, instead replaced with a harsh and unpleasant reality. Another Iconic Element is the environment itself; a hot, barren wasteland that can kill the unprepared in hours or even minutes as surely as any scimitar-wielding orc. The Sorcerer-Kings and the deadly environment are two elements of an Athasian campaign that any competent GM will never let a party ignore or forget, as they are what make Dark Sun "Dark Sun", just like dragons and the struggle of good vs. evil are what make Dragonlance "Dragonlance" and not just another generic fantasy setting with elves and dragons and wizards.

The idea of defining Iconic Elements during campaign design might seem obvious or an over-simplification to some, but I actually think it helps keep a GM's eye on the ball, so to speak. Your campaign world should be "about something", even if that something is nothing more than "plunder, pleasure, and profit". Even if that's the case though, then you've got three Iconic Elements right there:

1. Plunder: it is a world filled with limitless fortunes, many lost among the sands of time. Ruins and caverns and hoards are everywhere - but there's always a risk to every reward.

2. Pleasure: Those who work hard, play hard. There's lots of feasting and drinking and wenching and carousing to be had, among both the rich and the poor. Fortunes gained can be depleted just as quickly giving in to every lurid indulgence.

3. Profit: Characters can make themselves stupidly wealthy if they have what it takes, but sometimes wealth can be as dangerous as the path it took to get there.

So, past, present, and future campaign setting designers, what are your Iconic Elements? And, gentle readers, if you have no personal campaign setting Elements to share with us, what do you consider to be the Iconic Elements of your favorite established campaign setting?


Anonymous said...

I'd like every game setting to include a ten-word list of Campaign Elements on the back of the book/box. That way you can tell whether it would be a fit for your group.

Let's say you've just come off a two-year campaign with themes of oppression, scarcity, black humor, the horrors of war, and the misery of the peasants. Given that and the current real-world situation, it would be inappropriate to jump right into something just as dour.

Unknown said...

Sorry if this ends up becoming double posted.

I read the same post and was inspired to stay up way too late last night and start another campaign world. I also felt that his idea of iconic elements was a great way to approach campaign design. I've never sat down and deliberately approached design in that manner before.

The first thing that inspired me was that he had dinosaurs listed. That got me thinking that I had never done a setting with ice-age megafauna as key elements.

So, that was first on the list.

1. ice-age megafauna

After that things just started falling into place. I wanted a particular feel to the cultures so I put #2 as:

2. A 'Holmsian' or early d$d feel of a human centric game.

The fact that I re-read Tolkien's essay on fairy tales yesterday probably added to this liking on my part. Particularly the part where Mr. Tolkien mentioned that fairy tales are not about elves, rather they are about humans and what happens when humans interact with faery (I'm paraphrasing).

Another iconic aspect of this setting is where I put the 'Conan rating'. This is for comparative purposes, in this setting I would have Conan as a 6th or 7th level fighter. Along with this is the highest level NPC spell caster. I like 9th level for that.

3. Conan: Fighter-6; NPC Mage: MU-9

The next few things just fell into place based on the above:

4. sword and sorcery vibe

5. limited intelligent races: men, orcs, goblins, demi-humans, ogres, trolls, hags, giants, dragons, and (with #1) neanderthals as big stars.

6. a strong fae presence (as in old folk and faery tales)

And that's what I have so far.

A list of iconic elements that can be easily understood and which define both the physical and cultural world of this new campaign.

#1 and #6 together define the physical world in a way that I think will be loads of fun.

Numbers 2, 3, and 5 together define (in a way) what I am going for with #4 -- a sword and sorcery vibe.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

In fact 8-12 is too many. 7 +/- 2 is the correct number of items.

Jack Badelaire said...

@Norman - I'll split the difference a little and go with six IEs being a nice round figure to aim for...

@DeForest - Looks like you've got the makings of a nice little campaign setting right there. I actually think building using Iconic Elements allows for a GM to very quickly decide on what is most important to the Campaign, not necessarily to the game world, and go from there.