Campaign Design Walk-Through 3: Setting

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Since setting is the foundation of most fictons, we’re going to start our design of the Guardians of Shymeria ficton there. Setting, as we all learned in English class, refers to the time and place where the story happens: Civil-War-era Texas, Middle Earth shortly after the Battle of Five Armies, or Earth-That-Was in its final days, for example. Sometimes all you need is the basic setting and maybe a more specific starting point. Everybody has a baseline idea of what (at least the genre version) of late 19th Century Texas was like, and Middle Earth is prominent enough in pop culture that most people know enough to get by even if they haven’t drudged through the books. Original worlds (and unexplored times/places from existing universes; all we know about Earth-That-Was is that it got used up, for example) require more work to get everyone on the same page.

Our ficton’s setting is “present-day Shymeria,” but we don’t really know what either of those things mean. Since this is a fantasy game, we’ll start with “Shymeria.” Since this is a fantasy world, we’re eventually going to need map (it’s the law), but that will come later when I know enough about the world to tell Josh Burnett what to draw. Currently, the map consists of a world divided into three big sections: The Mordor-esque hellscape of Bloodgrave the Demon King, the blasted ruins of the Scarred Lands, and the Saturday-morning cartoon kingdoms where Shymeria is located. I’m picturing that list going from west to east, because I tend to put the frontier lands of any world I’m creating to the west. Maybe it’s an American thing.

The first question we need to answer about the world is “what exactly is Shymeria?” So far I’ve been using it interchangeably to refer to the ficton, the “good kingdoms” (assuming there are more than one), and the kingdom the default PC homeland. That works fine for a Saturday morning cartoon where the main villain’s goal is indistinct “evil-doing” that doesn’t involve geopolitics, but since the over-arching plot of the game involves an army of Evil trying to take over the world, we’ll probably need to define our terms. My first instinct was to keep it simple and make Shymeria the sole kingdom of Good, but that seems boring. I don’t want to force a single culture (even a vague one) on the PCs, and I like the idea of exotic people and places that aren’t inherently dangerous like the Scarred Lands and the Demon King’s realm. Also, the idea several kingdoms putting aside their differences and joining forces to say “fuck this guy” when the Demon King’s armies start moving has more resonance and fits well thematically with all the World War 2 stuff in Wizards.

Of course, if Shymeria is just one country and the PCs are the Guardians of Shymeria, were’ back to PC cultural homogeny. So I’ll hedge a little bit. Shymeria is a distinct country. In fact, it’s the most powerful country on the “Good” side of the map, which is one reason why the King of Shymeria is also the head of the Shymerian League, a loose confederation of mostly-sovereign nations set up to promote peace and prosperity among the enlightened kingdoms of the East. That’s the “Shymeria” the PCs are Guardianing for. They answer to the King of Shymeria, but he answers to the Council of Kings (at least as far as the Guardians and their activities are concerned). The capital Shymeria, Lighthaven (because this is the kind of ficton where names need to be either on-the-nose or nonsense), is a center of learning, art, and culture, the proverbial Shining City on the Hill. The Kingdom of Shymeria conveniently borders the Scarred Lands and probably has a coastline where all sorts of interesting visitors from across the sea mingle with the locals.

That’s probably enough about Shymeria itself to get started. We don’t need to know its imports and exports, political term limits, or most popular sexual positions unless a PC decides to be a merchant, politician, or whore. The rest we can come up with during play (with help from the players) or as we need them. The one thing we will need a bit more detail about is the Guardians themselves. Factions like the Guardians are probably technically genre trappings, but since the name of the game is Guardians of Shymeria, they’re also probably central to the setting, so it makes sense to try to pin them down here. You don’t become a Guardian of Shymeria by being born into it or working your way up from the mailroom. “Guardian” is a title given to those who have fought heroically or done a great service for the Shymerian League (so all our PCs start the game as recognized Heroes of the Realm(™)). Heroes who are inducted into the Guardians take an oath that technically binds them in service to the league, but unless there’s a major disaster or war, each member has a lot of control over their involvement with the group. Some go to the occasional meeting and use the title to pick up chicks, some sign on for missions or garrison duty when they need some extra cash or a place to stay, and others are lifers who spend most of their time working for the Guardians in some capacity.

We’ll need to name some of the other nations in the Shymerian League and maybe come up with a few details about some of them (especially those that border Shymeria). We’ll get to that a little later. For the time being, let’s move the the central section of the map, which I’ve already named The Scarred Lands. Thanks to their location and being littered with all kinds of ready-made Adventures of the Week, The Scarred Lands are almost guaranteed to be a recurring setting for the game.

A Long Time Ago, the area now called The Scarred Lands were the home of an advanced civilization with powerful magic and wonderous inventions (your basic Atlantis-type place, but above sea level). Eventually, the kingdoms and city-states of the area warred with one another, unleashing insanely powerful weapons that destroyed everything and wrecked the land. Now the place is a wasteland dotted with ruined cities, wracked by earthquakes and other natural disasters, and home to monsters, brigands, mutants, and other unsavory types. The ruined cities are of course filled with powerful magic, lost technology, and ancient treasures, including valuable Contrivium (which we’ll get to in the post about genre trappings), making it a place of interest to both the Shymerians and Bloodgrave the Demon King. As with Shymeria, we’ll need some more details before the game starts, but for now we just need a flavor, and that flavor is pretty much “great danger and fabulous prizes”

The third section of our map, far to the west, is the home of our series Big Bad, Bloodgrave the Demon King, and is thoroughly Modor-rific. Since the PCs are unlikey to end up there any time soon (if ever; there’s an excellent chance Bloodgrave will come to them), we don’t need to go into a lot of detail. We just need to know that it’s chock-full of misery and death and there are probably swamps and volcanoes and man-eating monsters everywhere. Otherwise, all we really need is a name. Let’s go with on-the-nose here and call it Nefaria.

We’ve probably got enough to get going, but it wouldn’t hurt to come up with a few places of interest that we can toss out for flavor and use to fill in the map when the time comes. We don’t necessarily need any details, just some evocative names and maybe a few details to give us a starting point. We can develop things more as they come up in the game (or when good ideas strike us). Here’s a quick list of possibilities:

  1. The Plains of Bone
  2. The Forest Kingdom of Arboria
  3. Kargoth, City of Ten Thousand Swords
  4. The Shattered City (Scarred Lands)
  5. The Island of the Sea King
  6. Dalmaria, The Shining Kingdom
  7. Gianthead Keep
  8. Winterhome, land of the Ice Folk
  9. The Spired City of the Sorcerer King of Arcadia
  10. The Broken Kingdom
  11. The Begorian Highlands
  12. Ortellia (commonly known as “The Land of Decadence”)

That gives us a basic overview of the world, but what about the “time” part of setting? Since any Shymerian reckoning of time is going to be meaningless, we have to compare it to known times from our world or other fictons. At first, it seems like a typical fantasy world, but there’s also a post-apocalypse element to the ancient cities of the Scarred Lands. There was obviously a long Dark Age after they fell, but humanity (at least in the east) has managed to crawl back up onto two legs and form a medieval-ish society. There is a lot of amazing ancient (and some more recently invented) technology floating around, but the distinction between technology and magic is extremely vague (thus “science-fantasy’). So it’s somewhere in the “Thor movie Asgard” era, but more influenced by Heavy Metal than Jack Kirby.

Next week we’ll start adding genre trappings.

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