Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Campaign Design Diary - Days and Nights, Maybe

Continuing on with designing my floating islands campaign setting, now that I have decided what the terrain will be like, I have to figure out some of the elements that surround that terrain, starting with the very basic elements that are taken for granted in many game worlds: day and night.

In most campaign settings, these sorts of elements are simply taken for granted as being more or less identical to the standard in our world. The sun rises in the morning, shines all day, and then sets at night, when the moon and stars come out. The moon has regular phases, just like Earth, which take about a month to complete. After twenty-four hours elapse, the sun rises again, and the cycle starts up again. This is probably the easiest way to set things up, and because it is what players expect, it is simple to get them to go along with it. A setting that accepts these default parameters will be familiar for most players, or at least most players so this is a factor that must be considered.

Player expectations are a powerful force that a DM must account for when designing a setting. The first lesson that a DM must learn is that players will frequently ignore what you tell them and assume the world works the way they assume it should work. If you tell players that each day is 45 hours long, or come up with some complicated pattern involving five moons that takes 126 days to complete, or some other quirky arrangement, then the players will nod along . . . and probably completely ignore you. This is especially true if you put this sort of information into a written handout that you pass along to the players. In my experience, players almost never read background setting material that a DM creates, and unless you repeat something to them verbally a dozen times, they will almost never remember it. If you are lucky enough to have a player who reads your material and pays attention to the background, treasure that player, they will be your best ally in your campaign sessions, because they will actually know what is going on. But the side effect of the typical player's expectations is that you, as the DM, are fighting the current. Even if players nod along with you when you describe your odd world elements, they will frequently forget and revert back to assuming that their characters inhabit a world with a 24 hour day, a month long moon cycle, and four seasons every standard year. Creating a world in which these sorts of elements are different that sticks in the players' heads will require persistent effort.

One critical question that must be answered is the exact parameters of the day and night cycle in the game world. Does the relative length of the day and night vary during the year, as ours does?  Is there even a day and night cycle in the world to begin with? I've already established that lands that float higher up get more sun, while those below are shaded by those above them, and the world ocean that lies underneath it all is shrouded in almost perpetual darkness, so one might suggest that there is no need to have a day and night cycle in the game world. I disagree, for a couple of reasons. First, if the game world has no nighttime, then the areas that are always in daylight become decidedly less potentially hazardous for the inhabitants. Creatures that suffer a penalty in daylight (such as goblins) would probably tend to be disinterested in moving into those areas, and creatures for whom sunlight is dangerous (such as vampires) would be effectively barred from those areas. Put simply, nighttime is where most of our nightmares reside, and removing a day/night cycle from being a feature of a campaign world will remove that (or make it pervasive if you eliminate "day" and have perpetual night).

Another reason to have night as a regular feature of a campaign setting is that without night, you don't have visible stars, and although you can still have a visible moon, it will only show up as a pale daylight imitation of the nighttime moon we are familiar with. And without visible stars, you can't have astronomy and its magical cousin astrology. Astronomy is useful for a lot of reasons, one of them being that observing the regular transit the stars make across the sky is one of the ways that we how we figured how long a year is. But in a fantasy world, unlike our own, astrology is also an important consideration - possibly more important than astronomy. The patterns of the stars and planets can be used to provide signs, portents, and prophecies that serve as adventure fodder. The regular cycles of the moon, the planets, and the constellations can affect magic in the game world, making certain schools of magic, alignments, classical elements, or other aspects of the world stronger or weaker at different times.

While none of these considerations make it absolutely necessary to have a day and night cycle in the campaign setting, they do highlight some of the implications of getting rid of the night. But even if there is a day and a night, there are still other decisions to be made. Even if there is a day and night, there does not necessarily have to be a moon, or even a sun. Because this is a fantasy world, there are any number of possibilities that could be considered for providing light, and a sun and a moon are only one of them. For example, in the Silmarillion the world is first lit by enormous lamps atop giant pillars, and then later by the glowing fruit of the two silma trees. It is only after Melkor destroys both of these light sources that a single fruit from each of the silma trees is coaxed forth and set in the sky as the sun and moon. In a fantasy world, any number of explanations for how the world is lit could be true, and even if there is a sun, it could actually be a hot ball of brass carried across the sky in a chariot. There doesn't even have to be a specific source of light: the sky could simply brighten during the day and darken at night. Or one could choose a science fiction kind of solution, as in Ringworld, where everyone lives on a star-girdling ring and "night" is the result of massive shades that orbit closer to the sun than the ring. Note that the arrangement described in Ringworld would result in a "night", but it would still have the drawback of preventing star gazing. This sort of arrangement would also require a world that is substantially different in shape from our spherical Earth.

As noted before, no matter what daylight arrangement a DM decides upon, they also have to answer questions about the moon. Or, because this is a fantasy world, whether there is one moon, many moons, or no moon at all. The answers to these questions also have implications for the game world, both "realistic" ones and magical ones. The most obvious consequence of having or not having a moon is the tides. Our moon is mostly responsible for the ocean tides that rise and fall on our beaches (the sun has a smaller effect). If the game world has no moon, or if it has multiple moons, but the tides work in exactly the same way they do on Earth, you will inevitably have some player asking how this is possible. Because we are dealing with fantasy, the DM could easily hand-wave the problem away citing magical causes, but that is a fairly unsatisfying answer, and the more answers that are hand-waved away in this manner, the less engaging the world is likely to be. If all the answers are "just because" or "its magic", then there is less in the game world for the players to figure out, and less to hold their attention. You don't need to give the players the explanation for why things work the way they do unless they go to the effort of trying to figure it out, but the DM should have at least thought about it so they have some idea of what the answers might be. Another mundane effect of having a moon is that it helped define our month. If you have a moon with a lunar cycle that is substantially different than ours, or multiple moons that each have their own orbital periods but still have a thirty day month, it will seem odd to anyone who notices.

But in a fantasy world mundane effects like tides and calendars are not the only considerations. The supernatural influences of the moon must also be taken into account. One of the most obvious questions involves lycanthropes. In mythology (and in most fantasy role-playing games) the moon has a strong influence on lycanthropes, so if you eliminate the moon or add in multiple moons, a DM needs to figure out how this will affect such creatures if he wants to include them in his campaign. There are also religious considerations, and in a fantasy game world, this can have significant consequences. In our history there have been multiple religions that associate a divine figure with the sun and another with the moon. If the game world has no sun or moon, this will obviously not be the case. If the game world has multiple suns or multiple moons, that will have a different implication. And so on. Even if you only have a standard single moon, the phases of that moon can be fodder for campaign material: I recall that in the module Return to the Keep on the Borderlands one of the non-player characters was a priestess of a moon deity and her personality (and alignment) changed throughout the month as the moon went through its cycle.

So how am I going to answer these questions for my floating islands campaign setting? I don't want to make things too odd because the game world is already a little quirky due to the layers of floating islands and the fact that they hover above an apparently endless ocean. I'm going to say that there is a fairly standard day and night, with a single sun that rises to give light during the day, and sets to reveal stars and, because I want things to be at least a little different here, two moons at night. I'll say that one moon is giant, appearing about twice the size of Earth's moon in the night sky, while the other is tiny, maybe half the size of ours. The smaller moon is unusual in a different way - it glows a reddish color, while the larger moon shines more or less white like ours. Both moons have phases. The larger takes exactly thirty days to complete its full cycle, while the smaller takes only ten. Every now and then, the smaller red moon will pass in front of the larger moon, creating an "eyeball" effect when this happens and they are both full. Having two moons should create complicated tides, but since the world ocean has no known shore, this isn't something I need to work out right now. I'm going to rule that none of the bodies of water that sit on the floating islands are large enough for tidal effects to make more than a minor difference. An interesting question arises when one considers that the islands are free-floating, and thus might be affected by tidal forces themselves, causing them to sway back and forth in a daily pattern. I'm going to rule that the same magic that holds them up also keeps them from being pulled about by the gravity of the moons, just because it is simpler.

Next time, I'll tackle the seasons.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Campaign Design Theory - Top Down, or Bottom Up?

When setting out to design a campaign setting, a prospective DM is confronted with the question of where to start. Although most DMs that I have met mix and match to some degree, there are two broad ways to design a campaign which can be described simply as "Top Down" and "Bottom Up". I believe that no campaign setting is ever designed by a writer who strictly adheres to one of these two structures, but in broad strokes, I think these ideas are widely applicable. Neither method is "better", each style has its uses and what may work for one DM may not work for another. Although I generally adhere to a "Top Down" approach, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to both methods of campaign design.


"Bottom Up" campaign design is probably the original form of campaign design used in role-playing games. The classic method of building a campaign setting was to lay out a dungeon and some sort of nearby "safe haven" and let the characters delve deeper and deeper underground fighting progressively deadlier foes while taking brief breaks to rest, recover, and reequip in the nearby village conveniently equipped with a tavern to find rumors and mercenaries in, a blacksmith to make weapons and armor, and a priest to dispense healing. The original Greyhawk campaign appears to have started in exactly this way: a giant dungeon that player characters would explore and a nearby city for the weary adventurers to spend their non-adventuring time in. Eventually the characters left the dungeon and began to explore the world around the city and new towns, rivers, forests, countries, and so on were progressively added. For many DMs who began playing in the olden days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth like I did, this was how their first campaign (and in some cases, first several campaigns) was developed. In my case, my first campaign setting began with the Caves of Chaos and the Keep found in the classic module B2: Keep on the Borderlands, and then expanded from there.

Advantages: The primary advantage of this style of campaign design is that the DM can immediately focus on campaign elements that the players will interact with directly. By starting small and focusing on material that is going to be directly useful to the players the DM can avoid potentially wasted effort and concentrate on writing down stuff that is directly relevant to the adventures that take place during the game sessions. This form of design style usually works well for campaign settings that are developed "on the fly" while the actual campaign is being played, which points to another advantage of this type of design method: you can jump in right away and begin putting people around the table to roll dice and slay villains without needing too much lead time.

Disadvantages: The obvious disadvantage to this sort of campaign design method is that because you are developing your campaign as you go, it is easy for continuity errors to crop up as later designed material contradicts earlier designed material. In that case, you would need to either discard your cool new idea because it contradicts material you already wrote or go back and fix the earlier details that are now contradicted. This can be an especially thorny issue if you are designing the campaign setting while also running actual game sessions in the setting, in which case the players have probably already seen the now potentially invalid material. In some cases this accidental contradiction could provide a potential adventure hooks as the mystery of why (for example) halflings now all have lavender hair could be a topic that fuels investigation by the players. Another disadvantage of this style of campaign design is that long term planning is difficult. Trying to plan a long term campaign plot for the players to follow, or including an archenemy is difficult when you don't have the campaign parameters worked out in advance. This dovetails with yet another disadvantage of this type of campaign design - new elements can seem forced and artificial when they are introduced to the setting. If the first time the characters hear of the nation of Goblivania is when it is revealed that the Duke's trusted adviser is a spy for that nation, then the revelation will probably have little impact on the players. It takes time to build up some ire, and when a DM starts introducing elements on an ad hoc basis they run the risk of having the players react with indifference.

Top Down

"Top-Down" setting design is more or less the exact opposite of "Bottom-Up". When designing his game world with the Top-Down method a DM starts with the "big picture" elements and then works his way down to the more local details. The DM will first paint the broad strokes of the campaign setting - the cosmology, religions, geography, nations, governments, and so on - and then starts filling in the smaller details of the world down to the environment the characters will actually interact with at the outset of the game.

Advantages: The central advantage of this style of setting design is that it provides a comprehensive framework for the game world. A world designed from a "Top-Down" perspective will likely have better cohesion with specific elements "fitting" better into the whole. Because the campaign world has a ore or less fleshed out framework, the DM is better able to create large scale plots and find lots of potential adventure hooks. Because much of the groundwork has been laid down in the setting development process, if the players decide to go off on a tangent, the DM won't be caught flat-footed and stuck trying to fill in the gaps in a hurry. Yet another advantage is that creating campaign setting material is fun. At least I find it fun. And building an entire game world in toto gives lots of opportunities to do just that.

Disadvantages: Even though creating an architectural framework to hang your campaign sessions on is quite useful, there are a number of disadvantages. The first is that when confronted with a blank page and the need to build an entire world, a DM can feel overwhelmed by the volume of work needed to prepare the setting. Knowing when to leave things vague at the edges and avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary detail is an acquired skill. Once a DM starts building an entire world, it is easy to get into the weeds developing material that the players will never see, will never affect them, and which if they did, they probably would not care about. The players probably don't need to know about the price of broccoli in a country a hundred miles away from them, and probably would find it to be tediously boring if you told them. The real danger of this sort of far ranging design is that after a DM has put a lot of effort into defining the number of dresses owned by every one of the Queen's ladies in waiting there is a great temptation to try to wedge this information into the game session in order to show all the work off to the players. A second problem is that this style of campaign design may curtail spontaneity and provide a setting that isn't as able to bend to accommodate the flow of the actual campaign. Because so much is predefined, if the DM has an interesting idea after the setting has been developed and details relayed to the players, there may be no good way to incorporate the idea into this particular setting. Another disadvantage is that this style of setting design requires a fair amount of preparation. Because you are starting the design process at such a large scale, it takes some time to work down to the level where you are actually ready to sit down with a group of players and engage in gaming sessions.

As I said before, there is no right way or wrong way to design a campaign setting, it all comes down to personal preference. I like designing top-down, but I often mix and match, jumping back and forth between large scale elements and tiny details on a regular basis. As I go through the process of designing my new fantasy campaign setting, I'm sure I will do this several times.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Campaign Design Diary - Mountains of the Sky

I'm putting together a new campaign setting. Its been a couple years since I was able to game regularly, but I miss it. There's something satisfying about gathering around a table with four or five friends and playing a role-playing game.However, I probably won't be able to actually play with any regularity for several months, which means I can satisfy my gaming itch by taking the time now and hammering out a new imaginary world for characters to adventure in. And I'm going to document this process here, as I go. At the outset, I've decided I'm going to create a fantasy campaign setting. This dictates the system I'm going to use, because for fantasy my preferred gaming system is 3.5e D&D with some rules drawn from 3.0e D&D and Pathfinder. If I was designing a science fiction or espionage campaign setting I'd use GURPS, or maybe reach back and pull out one of the iterations of the Traveller system. But because I'm designing a fantasy setting here, I'm sticking with 3.5e D&D as my base and working from there.

The trigger for the particular campaign I am planning on designing right now was the line "I climb the mountains of the sky" in the Kansas song Icarus: Borne on Wings of Steel. That's all I had to start with, and almost all I have at this point in the design process. I don't even have a pithy name for the campaign setting like Forgotten Realms, Mystara, Dawnforge, Oathbound, or Scarred Lands. Right now, the only thing that the campaign is is an embryonic idea. Maybe it was recently playing Skyward Sword, maybe it was watching The Empire Strikes Back or maybe it was reading Ringworld, The Integral Trees, or Gulliver's Travels, or maybe it was something else, but the basic idea for the campaign is this: everything is floating in the sky. Sure, it is a fantasy cliche, but cliches exist for a reason. And I think I can throw enough twists and turns on the idea to make it seem more interesting than just "floating castles and sky cities".

The first thing I'm going to define about the campaign world is that all of the land is floating in the sky, but that underneath it all is an endless ocean. The second is that not all of the land floats at or near the same altitude - some of the floating landmasses drift at low altitude very close to the world ocean, others float dozens of miles above them, with still more meandering in the regions in between. In our world, near space begins about 100,000 feet above the Earth (the world record for a sky dive is 102,800 feet), but at that altitude the air is decidedly thin and the temperature is extremely cold. If I want an Earth-like atmosphere above the world ocean, then I've reasonably got about twenty miles of vertical distance to work with. I'm going to cheat a little bit and make the atmosphere of my fantasy world a bit thicker - about three times as thick, but the upper twenty miles will be a fairly cold and hostile place, the lower twenty will have a heavy thick atmosphere, and the middle twenty will be the "sweet spot" where the climate is mostly temperate with things colder at the upper end of this range and warmer towards the bottom end.

One major factor in the world setting will be sunlight. The higher chunks of land get more sun, while the lower chunks are often shaded by the lands above them, and the lowest masses of land get so little sunlight from above that they are shrouded in an almost perpetual night. While the masses of floating land come in all shapes and sizes ranging from the size of a country to the size of a single cottage, the larger pieces tend to float lower to the world ocean, and the average size piece gets smaller as you rise. This is not a hard and fast rule: there will be large pieces of land floating thirty miles above the ocean, and tiny pieces that float at only a couple hundred feet, but it will be a general trend. One interesting implication of this is that the higher a piece of land is, the more sunlight it will get, but the colder it will be. The upper reaches of the sky will be washed in bright sunlight, but will also be extremely cold. As one goes lower into the "temperate" zone, there will be occasional shadows cast by the small landmasses above, but there will still be plenty of sunlight and the temperatures will be warmer. As one gets lower and lower, the shadows will increase and the air will get heavier and heavier.

The interesting question is whether the lower region gets colder, because of the lack of sunlight, or if it continues to get warmer due to the thicker air and other factors. I think I'd like it to get warmer so as to allow for large scale evaporation from the world ocean (resulting in lots of clouds and rain rising to the temperate zone), and in a fantasy campaign I can hand-wave a little bit and say something like underwater volcanic activity in the depths of the world ocean or rifts that lead to the Elemental Plane of Fire help heat the lower reaches. This also has the side effect of giving me a reason to have updrafts of rising air that help flyers traveling in between the floating landmasses. It is always nice when a design element has helpful consequences like that. Another consequence of this is that the higher one is, the drier the climate is, from the steamy and warm lower lands, through the cooler and drier but still hospitable middle realms, and then higher to the cold, dry upper reaches.

At this stage there are already a number of elements shaped by this. Several are obvious: the "civilized" regions are likely to mostly sit in the temperate middle zone, which is also where most of the trade and commerce will take place. Some standard staples of fantasy campaigns are likely to have much less importance here - the value of horses is likely to be much reduced, sailing ships are likely to be quite rare. Air travel, on the other hand, is obviously going to be of critical importance. The lower landmasses are likely to be mostly populated by dark loving creatures like undead, goblins, and others. Not only that, there's a reason to have dark-loving races running about the game world, which is also a nice side effect. The lower reaches will probably have to have a fungus based agriculture as well (and probably lots of myconids), or something else even more alien. The ocean that sits beneath everything is an inhospitable place wracked by frequently violent storms and populated by dark-loving aquatic monsters hunted by only the bravest and most foolhardy souls. The title "fisherman" in this world is likely to have connotations of insanity.

However, before we get to those sorts of issues, there are several other questions that have to be answered first, questions that I will take up in my next post.

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