Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Campaign Setting: Making the World

The DCC RPG has been such a refreshing return to the excitement of my earliest days of playing D&D, that I wanted to maintain that feeling as much as possible in the creation of the world that would be the backdrop for our campaign. After many hours reading various old school blogs and a few false starts, I settled on an approach that uses a foundation of randomly generated elements, but relies on my own creative instincts to fill holes and bridge gaps in language, logic or continuity. This combination hits the sweet spot of allowing me the fun of "discovering" the world (by rolling dice to obtain results), and the pleasure of shaping it to suit my personal taste. Also, with my free time at such a premium, I wanted to be able to develop stuff quickly, without getting too bogged down in the details. So building off of a randomly generated framework was the right way to go for me.

The first thing I did was generate the planet by using the world generator at donjon, one of that site's many terrific generators. Two cool things about donjon's generator: it translates the fractal data into a hexmap, and adds names cities, terrain features, and adventure sites. I discarded the first two maps it gave me, but kept the third one, which looks like this:

Then, I chose an area of the map as the starting location for the campaign. I chose one of the smaller continents, since it seemed like a contained area would be easier to flesh out.

Next, I hit up the civilization generator at chaotic shiny, and copied down everything it spat out. I didn't intend to stick hard by this stuff, but it was a great starting point from which I could draw associations and begin to build up an idea of the society. Out of this, in short order, I had a hereditary autocracy with strong political factions, a fairly stable political situation, and good foreign relations; where magic was believed to be "granted by spirits" (nicely in keeping with the DCC RPG), powerful in the domains of weather, illusion, and chaos, and used for travel. This last gave me the idea for a class of mage-navigators employed to safeguard the nation's fleets, but I filed that way for future use. The cultural stuff the generator coughed up was such a random grab-bag of disconnected ideas that I just disregarded them. But I did like the national motto: "Ritual and morality," and the note that the culture was "shaped by religious force." A good thematic focal point.

So: autocracy. An empire? "Empire" is a word that implies great size, and my little continent didn't seem big enough to merit the term. But I decided to stick with it for the time being. I can't remember now where I got the proper name, but I decided to call the place Bramica, or the Bramic Empire.

The next step was to drill down to an area where my group of 0-level characters would be starting play. First, though, I took donjon's fractal map and redrew it using Hexographer:

Oh, did I hunt around for a long time looking for a decent rpg overland mapping tool. I've actually owned Campaign Cartographer 3 for years, but the learning curve is too flippin' steep for me — I needed a world, and I needed it fast. I tried the demo of Hexographer after seeing it mentioned on various old-school rpg blogs, and I liked what I saw, so I paid for the full version. It totally fits the bill. Eventually I will redraw local maps by hand, but this program did the job I needed it to do. I transcribed the donjon map hex by hex, making terrain type calls as needed, and retaining the city and ruin locations. I should note here that for this "atlas" scale map, and the smaller-scale maps that follow, I used the great hex templates created by Erin over at The Welsh Piper, an excellent resource for anyone who wants to develop a campaign from scratch.

After I had the three main cities from the donjon map in place, I connected them with roads that made sense in relation to the terrain, and added a couple of towns at what seemed like appropriate places. I didn't really like any of the donjon fractal map names, so I discarded them and asked donjon's town/city name generator to cough up a few, taking ones I liked, tweaking the spelling, and dropping them onto the map: Pamor, Galeah, and Zarakzund, City of Crowns. That last one is definitely the capitol, right? And it sounds wizardy and it's a seaport, so that's where my guild of navigator-mages will be (must resist tangent). The two towns I named a little differently: Moorford, because well, there's a ford in the middle of the moor there, and Assalom's Rest because it just popped into my head. Assalom is Bramica's god of poetry, ghosts, and feasts, one of the deities birthed by chaotic shiny's pantheon generator. Iffy names, a hodgepodge of details, but a good starting point from which to build a cast of higher powers. I'm actually super-picky about language and names in fantasy settings (thank you Professor Tolkien), but for an old-school hex-crawl, generic vaguely European-sounding fantasy names are part of the fun.

Okay, so now I've got a cartographic basis the Bramic Empire, but it's still pretty high level. I need to choose a starting region — one of the squares on the atlas map — for the PCs. In the DCC RPG, all 0-level PCs begin their careers as lowly villagers or common citizens, so I want a humble beginning, somewhere in the sticks. But not too far from the big city, so they can get there relatively easily if they choose to. I settle on the region that contains Assalom's Rest, because it's within a few days' march of both Galeah and Zarakzund, Assalom's Rest itself will provide a good mid-sized town for them to visit, and there is a decent variety of terrain types: sea, inland water, grassland, moor, and forest.

Now I turn to the Welsh Piper again. I read a lot of different blogs about world-building before starting this campaign, and the Piper's approach hits all the right notes for me: clean, succinct, and suggestive, building on the likes of that classic from my youth, The Wilderlands of High Fantasy, but smoothing out the edges and toning down the weirdness a little. Using his excellent 3 part guide to hex-based campaign design, I started by fleshing out the region map:

Click image for a larger view.

After laying in the basic landmass outlines and terrain, I draw in the rivers. The fractal map included rivers, but they're more at the scale of the Mississippi or Nile, so I need to add all the smaller ones, following the simple guideline that water always flows downhill. There are no mountains in this area, just some scattered hills, so all I need to do is steer clear of them on the way to the sea. I make one river flow past Assalom's Rest, because as a rule, for obvious reasons, most settlements grow up around some sort of watercourse.

Now comes my favorite part of randomized world mapping: generating the contents of individual hexes. After tinkering with a few different approaches, found online and elsewhere, I again find myself back at the knee of the Welsh Piper. His guide to generating encounters on per-hex basis was exactly what I wanted. Using the steps outlined there, I go through each individual sub-hex (the hexes that comprise the larger overlay of hexes, not the smallest hexes) and roll for major and minor encounters. I do this for the entire region, but here's what I end up with in the upper left corner:

A) Monster lair. I decide to make this a burial mound with un-dead denizens.
B) Campsite. A way-station for hunters.
C) Religious order (Neutral). Maybe a monastery or nunnery.
D) Battlefield. The site of some historic conflict.
E) Religious order (Chaotic). Eventually I decide to make this the site of DCC Adventures #59: Mists of Madness. In the neighboring hex I rolled another hunters' camp, which I decide to make a covert guard post for the isolated Chaotic temple. 
F) Settlement. The village of Hovick!
G) Sacred ground.
H) Dungeon. This is the only hand-placed encounter site in this area, and I added it after settling on DCC Adventures #35A: Halls of the Minotaur as the first adventure for my players.

I ended up generating several small villages over the rest of the region, but this one near Black Lake (since renamed Blacksalt lake) was the perfect place to start the PCs: on the water, two days' march from Assalom's Rest, and right next to a deep, dark forest. I had settled on adapting Halls of the Minotaur for our first adventure, so I plunked that down in the forest about 10 miles to the southeast of Hovick. And that module gave me the name for the forest: Wildthorn Wood.

And as far as the physical environment goes, that's all I have so far. Much more than I really need, but I like to have some sense of context for the adventures, and I really enjoy random world generation. If the PCs survive this first adventure, they'll have a whole world to explore, and I look forward to filling in the details as we go.


  1. Amazing... Can you explain how you get the hex map from donjon generator please? i can't understand how you do it.

  2. Got it :D

    Again, your article it's really awesome. It makes me want to play your campaign :)

    1. Thanks, Miguel. I hope "Got it" means you figured out the donjon generator. Luka explains it below if you didn't.

  3. Miguel: you have to go visit this link: http://donjon.bin.sh/fantasy/world/

    The Donjon generator switches to the fractal generator when it outputs the map.

  4. How large, in miles, are the hexes?

    1. At the smallest scale they're 5 miles across.

    2. I went on and read The Welsh Piper stuff. They're talking about 25 mile hexes and 5 mile subhexes. That works for me.

  5. Yes Jason, finnally found it, thank you and Luka anyways :)

    Have you consider letting people download the work you have in pdf? is it possible? Seems very cool, really.

    1. Sure, I could do that once I get the whole continent mapped. Really, though, it's much more fun to generate a world yourself!

  6. I have enjoyed the camppaign log, but this post is gold! Thank you for posting about the donjon.