In Shadow, Sword & Spell: Basic we introduced The League of Merchants. this “setting” if you will was designed to serve as the proving ground for heroes. the region is ideal for earlier adventurers and offer many opportunities for Gamemasters to set their own adventurers in, as well as expand to their hearts content. however, over time heroes grow powerful, and they begin to wonder what lies beyond a small region. their desire is to explore.
The pulps, from which much of Shadow, Sword & Spell’s inspiration comes from is rich in the tradition of exploring the world. Think of Howard’s Conan, or Kull and the stories where his heroes explore the larger world and discover adventure. Even in more “modern” works such as Moorcock’s in which Elrich wanders the Young Kingdoms in such of his lost love (Cymoril), his peace (Tanelorn), and for opportunities. World spanning is important, especially if the hero is searching for land to claim as their own, a throne to take, or new markets to buy and sell goods.
Unlike SS&S: Basic, Expert has a setting. Unlike Basic, Expert’s setting is larger and offers many opportunities for GMs to use. LikeBasic this setting is only barely detailed. A lot is left blank so you can take it and create what you want. Where we describe aspects of the setting, this is done in broad strokes. We do this for a few reasons.
First a fantasy game without a setting is not useful. A setting helps give context to the rules, but also serves as an example for Gamemasters when creating their own. In addition a setting helps give a tone to a game. Think of Game Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, TSR’s Greyhawk, Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, or even Judge’s Guild City State of the Overlord (as I type this I realize I have just dated myself). These settings stand the test of time, because of not only the tone, but the hook. The hook for a setting is important, and should be summed up in one succinct sentence. For example, let’s use Warhammer Fantasy Role Play. What is the hook? A grim world of perilous of adventure. That hook is a perfect descriptive element and when kept in mind, helps you create adventures and other items for your players.
Another reason a setting is useful is that it helps set a baseline that players ad Gamemasters can use in their games. This baseline provides not only inspiration for players in creating their characters, as well as for GMs in creating their own adventures.
Finally the other reason to provide a setting is that it is fun top create a world, no matter how large or small it is.
Before diving into the setting let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of setting design. Setting design is easy, as well as offers numerous rewards. However when faced with a blank piece of paper, many world builders fall into two groups:
1. World builders with stage of fight
2. World builders with too many ideas
There might be other groups, but over the years these are the two groups that commonly appear. What follows are the guidelines and lessons we’ve learned over the years. There might be other ways to approach setting design, and our methods are not the only way to follow, but through the years this method has worked for us. Before writing any history, drawing any map, or naming any feature, you need to ask yourself a simple question: What type of campaign do I want?
The answer to this question is important and the answering of it helps guide you in the building of your world.
Is your campaign going to be centered on exploration? if so is it trekking across massive landmasses like some fantastical Marco Polo or Lewis & Clark?
Is this going to center on oceanic exploration where new lands are discovered?
Is war going to be the focus?
Are two kingdoms at war? Cities? Tribes?
The answer to this help guides your in the creation? How? For two kingdoms, you need to come up with the bare bones of who rules, why they are fighting, and what the two kingdoms look like geographically. For two cities, these same questions are useful as well, but you are more confide to the area. For tribes, the area is even smaller.
With the answer to what type of campaign you want, the process of creation begins. Often this is seen as a daunting task. It isn’t. World building is just as enjoyable as creating adventurers, running a weekly game, and devising clever encounters to pit against the player’s characters. where the struggle comes in, is the type of campaign you create. when you boil all the advice down, all the options, and the possibilities, you are left with two types of settings: encyclopedia and sandbox. each has their plusses and minuses, and both are very rewarding.
Encyclopedic settings are setting where you strive to detail everything. Encyclopedic settings are the one that show off the creativity of a Gamemaster and the thought that goes into one often serves as a springboard for other ideas. Another advantage is that the Gamemaster is ready for any question a player asks, and creates a richness of detail that makes the world seem alive. The downside of this is that often the bulk of this material never comes into play.
Though nothing goes to waste, per-say, the details do go to waste if they never leave the confines of note filled notebooks. Players might not even care to ask what the lineage of a certain ruler is. Their concerns are more primal like who is paying them, how do they afford a new sword, or how they can learn a new spell. Examples of Encyclopedic Settings are found in sprawling multi-volume fantasy epics such as Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Raymond E. Feist’s work, andTSR/Wizard of the Coast Forgotten Realms (originally created by Ed Greenwood). These settings are rich and brimming with detail, however, most of this detail is not needed. So, should not create a setting like this? No. Go for it, but keep in mind that often the bulk of your creation is for your own enjoyment.
So if an Encyclopedic Setting is one of the spectrum, a Sandbox is the other.
What is a Sandbox Setting? It is a setting where you purposely leave areas empty. Instead you think about the area where you plan to have your adventures take place, and you flesh it out in broad strokes. One example of this is The Merchant League found in Shadow, Sword & Spell: Basic. That is a sandbox. Only the bare minimum is written up and as your adventurers explore details are figured out. Growth is more spontaneous and details are created as players ask question, or as you need them.
Sandbox campaigns are rewarding in that everyone has a hand in shaping the growth. However some GMs find them daunting because they often have to “wing it.” This is a good thing, because some of the best creations are the ones you make up as you go along. The key to a sandbox is that all you need are a few notes, as well as a notebook which you can jot down what you create.
Shadow, Sword & Spell is a sandbox. It is designed this way to serve not only as an example, but because we want you to make it your own.