If you have been playing RPGs, especially DnD, for a while (or maybe you just started) there is a good chance you have at least considered creating your own setting. I started work on my personal setting back when 2E was the DnD of the day, and through the years it has undergone some permutations and tweaks. Sometimes the new rules have helped make the setting better (the 4E cosmology was a huge boon), and sometimes they have made things harder (the changes from Themes to Prestige Classes to Paragon Paths and the return of Themes). Now there are many solutions to these things, most obviously don’t change system (and truth be told I have enough 2E material to run it still), make house rules to cover the changes or start new campaigns and detail new parts of the setting expanding the world.
Fortunately for me I have had new groups of players for each edition change, and so I have been able to make sweeping changes to the setting; including completely redrawing the world map and re-defining large parts of the setting. 4E was particularly inspiring in this regard, the suggestion of the last great empire being in ruins and no single power having risen up to replace it solved a problem I had long been struggling with; the conflict between adventure and an over civilised world. With this idea in mind I burnt my major empire to the ground (or at least made it irrelevant to the areas I was starting campaigns in) and set up a great conflict that had spread monsters like orcs, ogres, giants and goblinkin across much of the world. It also let me legitimately have a lot more blanks on the map. I turned prior cities into ruins and they became “here be monsters” sites and removed many villages and generally increased the hostility of the world; in short 4E made my campaign world a place where DnD adventures can happen!
Using Published Material
I use published material for a number of reasons, firstly it is easier for me in terms of time management for the campaign, secondly it is often easier for the players as well than if I use a lot of homebrew stuff (particularly true for 4E). However published material comes with a lot of baggage that can make it difficult to use in a homebrewed campaign, and 4E material was no different from any other in this regard.
However 4E’s lesson of “leave things undefined” has paid off repeatedly over the last five years. After putting my setting through revisions in preparation for 4E campaigns I left large areas of the map only loosely defined, avoiding that temptation to burrow into each element and carefully detail every corner of the known world. As I worked I then looked to the elements of official 4E that related to my setting and looked for ways to connect them so that as player’s read through the WotC material it would be easy to explain the connection between WotC material and my own homebrew setting.
In the rest of this entry I’m going to talk about my plans for my next campaign and how I have filled the “empty spaces” and incorporated published material in developing the campaign. Hopefully by looking over what I have done you will see how you can take published material and easily adapt it to suit your own campaign setting, assuming you cannot just drop it in without change (as I did with my Village of Hommlet campaign).
My next campaign, and indeed my DnDNext campaign is going to be focussed around the Undermountain products initially and eventually tie in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, Night’s Dark Terror (from Basic) and perhaps Against the Slave Lords (from 1E). However as I sat down to plan this my campaign setting didn’t have Undermountain anywhere, it didn’t even have a Waterdeep, but it did have a few places that could be Neverwinter. This latter part was important as much of the original idea of the campaign was to combine Neverwinter with Undermountain. Now I could have done this in the Realms easily enough (many of the Neverwinter Themes are tied to Waterdeep already), but I wanted to use my own setting, and doing so gives me the opportunity to develop it further.
Since the early days of the setting there had been a city that straddled a thin slice of land between a huge lake and the sea. The city was rich, cosmopolitan and perched on top of cliffs near the sea; that is all I really knew about it other than its name Kalatar. Well that matched Waterdeep closely enough, and gave me scope for putting Undermountain under the city. So I started considering the city and the campaign’s history and the seed ideas for the campaign. Waterdeep is huge and prosperous, Neverwinter is a city recovering from catastrophe. Well my history had a huge war 200 years ago, that seemed like a great opportunity to decimate the city and put it on the road to recovery and also introduce Undermountain to the setting. So that is how Kalatar, The Towers of Trade came to be in its current form as a great city with ruined suburbs still inhabited by orcs and such, with a great largely unexplored dungeon whose history is largely unknown underneath it.
Kalatar – The player’s background to the city which shows the clear relationship to Waterdeep and Undermountain.
Theming the Campaign
So I now have Waterdeep & Undermountain in my setting without really changing anything, instead I was able to add detail to an area of the map that was marked but not really explored before. But I still need more for the campaign as a whole, I need to tie in Themes to the campaign and provide hooks for the characters and flesh out some other areas around the starting point so that they can be drawn on later in the campaign as the adventures move away from the Halls of Undermountain starting point and start pulling in other more sinister plots.
The Neverwinter Campaign Guide is excellent in this regard; each theme, and many of its backgrounds are tied to the campaign in ways that seed adventures and motivations for the characters. This idea gives some immediate and obvious choices for the campaign the Noble and Dune Trader (ie Merchant) themes stand out as obvious choices for a Waterdeep like city. Then there were themes that stand out for Campaign reasons; Escaped Slave and Devil’s Pawn both have clear hooks that can be tied into the campaign. Looking at the adventures I was drawing inspiration from and the campaign setting area and the existing theme fluff I was able to come up with a list of 14 themes that with a small amount of fluff change (or even no fluff change) could easily become part of the campaign.
Now obviously these themes are all 4E ones, and so if I end up using this campaign for DnNext those theme elements will need to be reduced to back story for the characters (at least initially). Now a list of 14 themes may also seem restrictive and the truth is I’m open to the player’s choosing other themes, but I’ll work with them to create appropriate connections for the theme to the game (both this campaign and the setting as a whole).
The idea of building themes as needed is also one of the things I’m most interested in seeing how well it works for DnDNext; the idea of crafting a back story and using that to build a background and theme mechanic for a character can be a major boon for players and DMs in homebrew settings. It reminds me very much of Backgrounds from the Dragon Age tRPG and how easy it is to craft them for homebrew.
Night’s Dark Terror Themes – The 14 Themes and their campaign connection/fluff.
With my last few campaigns I have developed a method of ordering races to express my preferences based on the expectations of the campaign. With this campaign I broke Race down into 3 tiers; Primary (Human, Halfling, Dwarf, Elf), Secondary (Deva, Dragonborn, Drow, Genasi, Goliath, Half-Elf, Half Orc and Tiefling) and finally Others (anything not on the list). The ordering has more to do with the DnDNext play test than the ideal ordering for the campaign. I want players to think first of ideas that will tie into the DnDnext play test so if they choose to follow through with it this will make things the easiest while we work through the play test. When the first two groups are combined they are the ones that make the most sense in the setting as a whole and this campaign in particular, and so if this was intended to just be a 4E game they would be one grouping.
The Deva and Drow are two races that the campaign setting changes around significantly in terms of their back story, while keeping familiar elements of the race mechanically. In the setting Deva have an entire kingdom, so they are quite numerous compared to normal DnD, yet they are also still the descendants of angels trapped in the Prime Material Plane millenia ago. They keep the reincarnation concept but it is reborn as a child, not reformed as an adult (except in special circumstances). Drow on the other hand are the descendants of elves that lived in a land that was devastated during the settings’ version of the Dawn War, their appearance etc relates to that rather than any connection to Lolth or curse by Corellon. They are desert dwelling nomads whose honor is stained by a group who turned to the worship of the settings’ major evil deity. The changes don’t remove or change the racial mechanics of either race, just their background to tie them more into the setting.
When dealing with races I find this approach to be the simplest, the less you mess with a player’s notions of the race from that presented in the WotC (etc) material the easier it is for them to get the differences for your setting and roll with the punches. If you change things too much then the players will constantly be pulling in DnD Lore that doesn’t apply. Clearly my drow run that risk, but that is why the istathi exist – “that is true of the istathi” is an easy correction to make as needed.
Like Race and Theme gods are another area where there is a lot of mechanics that is tied directly to various elements of the published settings from WotC (et al), and thus creating your own pantheon can be problematic. In creating my pantheon (done in late 2E through 3E) I did not worry about the official pantheons. At the time the mechanics were such that it didn’t matter significantly and it was easy to work around with domains etc. When 4e came this was very different. I have kept my gods and solved the mechanics issue by focussing on my gods’ portfolios/domains. For example Kelamar is a significant deity in my setting as the God of Justice (and Husbands) and to solve the mechanics issue the players can choose any deity related mechanics that tie to a god associated with Justice. In any given campaign this then sets the parameters for Kelamar and the powers he grants. This gives my player’s flexibility and options while also meaning the only thing they really need to remember is that he is called Kelamar not Bahamut or whatever they use as their WotC base.
In addition to this my setting started with 3 major dieties one of whom betrayed the other two leading to the settings’ Dawn War and her being chained by physically and magically away by her sisters. As I have read through 4E mythology I have been able to readily use many of the elements of the story that WotC uses for Tharizdun for my chained god. So now when WotC releases more content for Tharizdun I can choose to either adopt it or ignore it as I want for my campaign purposes. (I could run a campaign based around the Abyssal Plague storyline for example because that idea of Tharizdun trying to escape and some other horror being let loose upon the world works just fine, but currently I am ignoring it as I have enough other stuff happening at this stage in the campaign world with multiple parallel campaigns.)
Over the years I have learnt the following lessons for using “official” material with my setting:
- A highly detailed map restricts your ability to improvise new setting elements when needed so leave as much of the map loosely or undetailed as you can.
- Keeping broad concepts in tact is more important than minor details. For example drow appearance and racial abilities are more important than drow as servants of Lolth.
- Associating villains in your setting with “official villains” makes things far easier. A lot of published material, especially adventures, is about the villains. So if you ensure you have analogs for the usual DnD suspects in your campaign (Vecna, Tharizdun, Asmodeus, Orcus, Demogorgan, Lolth and their associated followers for example) makes adopting material from official sources much easier.
- Sometimes the easiest and best thing to do is change the names and run with it.