Creating a Fantasy Setting: First Concepts

I'm a gamer. This much must be obvious by now; and I've decided that I want to run a new OSR campaign in the New Year; I've decided to use the remaining days of 2013 to prepare the setting I will be using for my fantasy-related projects next year. You should know that I am terrible at putting things down on paper. The 'Triplanetary' setting of Battlecruiser Alamo mostly exists in my head, I fear...I keep meaning to take some time to write it down, but there's always something more urgent. Though I do intend to put some more bits and pieces down next year, about which more later. With a campaign, I rather need to do better – and perhaps give a little window into my design process....

I know this setting will follow the standard D&D tropes in at least three ways – room for all the character classes, room for the demihuman races – so there are Elves, Dwarves and so on – and of course magic will be a factor. Monsters as well, though I intend to use the traditional approach of 'proscriptive campaign creation'. Click on the link; jrients describes it a lot better than I could, and it's something I always follow when I am starting a new campaign. Any role-playing book is a toolkit first and foremost, designed to provide choices rather than constraints.

Whenever I create a setting, the first thing I do is to work out what I want to place in it. Here I'm just going for a list of bits and pieces, settings I want to see. I'll work out where they fit in relation to each other later. I do know that for a very long time, I have seen in my head a book cover where a longship of the Viking style is drifting between icebergs in the frozen wastelands of the north, so there is going to be an ice-swept sea. That's absolute and guaranteed. And people to crew them, so these wastes will be inhabited, as will the coasts.

I want 'barbarian wastelands'. Principally because I'm old-school enough to like the idea of a 'Keep on the Borderlands'. No problem there; wherever there have been borders throughout history, such things have existed, from the Welsh Borders to the forts that dotted the Old West of the United States; and I've often thought that is actually a good model to adopt. Definitely this is a setting for high adventure, so I'm going to establish a string of them along a 'border'.

I know that this is enough of a fantasy setting for there to be some sort of magic, so...let's have them controlled by wizards, and knit them into a loose alliance, independent of the kingdoms they are protecting. Conflict is good, and the more I can throw in, the more seeds I have for adventures and stories. They need to be defending a natural border, so mountains are the obvious choice; these lands now have big natural borders on two sides – icy ocean to the north, mountains to the – let's say – west. (If you want to see what they look like, either watch Lord of the Rings or go to New Zealand.)

Now, what are they defending? I think there need to be two answers to this question, because I want a variety of nation-states here, and it would take some effort to set up the border forts and establish a magical nobility to garrison them, so the original answer was some sort of continental empire. It fell, perhaps in a civil war, and now the lands are in a Dark Age, the greatest levels of knowledge and magic gone, a few tattered remnants surviving. Some sort of 'Magical Roman Empire', though perhaps looking a little more Egyptian. I can keep the details vague for the moment.

As for today, I know that I want a Druidic Kingdom that uses Rangers as 'Knights', so that needs to be a fairly major player. One of my favourite ever setting elements in any fantasy RPG is Port Blacksand, so I need an equivalent of that here as well – presumably once the 'Rome' of this setting. A remnant empire sounds like it might be fun, so that's going to be dropped in. I'd guess they are in conflict with the border wizards. Pockets of barbarian settlement in the northern coast as they slowly begin to settle in a Saxon/Viking style in the north could be interesting places to visit.

I know I want a 'Port Blacksand', and anyone who recognizes the name will know why. A fallen Roman Empire needs a Rome, of course, and this is a nice fit for it; I think the population levels elsewhere are low enough that it's the largest surviving city, and a 'country' in its own right. There will be large areas that aren't really governed at all, as well – lots of space in between the countries. I want a bit of a 'Wilderlands' feel – plagues and other curses have really hit the population here hard.

As for the demihumans? Well, I think they are largely integrated. Elves I think have their own enclaves in the deep forests and high mountains – being a magical race, I can see them being hit hardest by the fall of the Magical Empire. Probably split into several different factions, even sub-races. Dwarves would probably have their own kingdom, isolationist and xenophobic, so let's put that in. Halflings? Well, if you read any set of D&D rules, they're damn ninjas! They live in human settlements as a seedy underclass. Gnomes – see Elves, but probably worse. I need to think of something good to do with them. The half-breeds? Yes. Which means Orcs, but then I need bad-guys, and they are traditional. For the moment – they exist. I will work out what to do with them later.

So, the early stages of a structure have formed, albeit subject to change. I think I've made a good start; more later.

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