Tips for Using Published Campaign Settings

You’ve got the D&D 3rd Edition-era Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, or maybe the Eberron Campaign Setting. Maybe you’ve read every damn one of those Dragonlance novels. Ever check out how many publications exist for the prolific Savage Worlds fantasy setting, Hellfrost? Think of all the folks that have read Tolkien’s novels, all of his letters, own Karen Wynn Fonstad’s Atlas of Middle-Earth and can speak fluent Sindarin! Remember that guy who’s memorized every detail of Star Fleet command and the technical manuals for the various versions of the Enterprise?

Some folks have encyclopedic knowledge of a setting, and others own a campaign setting book that is as big as — and maybe reads as boring as — an entire set of Encyclopedia Brittanica.

How do you use these things? What is the actual value of the word count if you end up setting your game in just one region, covered in 4-5 pages of a 320 page tome? Let’s look at some options!

The DIY Attic D&D Gaming Room by Gregory Han

Which book is the wandering monster chart for the Spiderhaunt Wood in? (The DIY Attic D&D Gaming Room by Gregory Han)

Caravan Guards

You want the characters to visit lots of places, and kill lots of stuff along the way? Give them a caravan to protect, or for additional immersion, give them a caravan company to run. Either option gives the characters reasons to travel long distances and visit many of the settlements that are spread out over the length and breadth of your campaign setting’s map, making use of all that lovely information in there. Strong campaign settings detail the resources and notable trade goods of most points of civilization, so there shouldn’t be a lot of prep-work involved in this sort of campaign setup.

If you go the route of running a full on merchant trading company, you also open a lot more opportunities for different adventuring goals, campaign styles, and character types that can excel in different situations. Exploring new trade routes, establishing connections and communications with new trading partners, and protecting goods are the more obvious things the party will be doing, but there’s also the seemingly un-fun parts like accounting, protecting a cash box, and ensuring payments and interest are all collected properly. This might sound like Paychecks & Paperwork 5th Edition, but the key is to focus on the fun, right? So, only deal with this stuff when it matters: a thief that steals a cash box, or a duplicitous half-orc that is conveniently disappeared when the party comes calling for that loan payment.

You can have the party only track their individual cash and leave the trading company’s larger finances more abstract, applying it only as a general rating or even as simply an instance of advantage (or Advantage, if you’re running 5th edition D&D) when it is brought to bear. Or, it might be a source of disadvantage when the company’s coffers are cleaned out by some unfortunate turn of events! While it may be more “D&D-accurate” to account for every copper coin, it can become arduous. On the flip side of that, D&D 5th Edition very clearly lays out how trade goods are valued in the PHB, and provides costs for siege equipment and all fortified structures in the DMG, so it’s not terribly obscure how the economics work out. Placing the responsibility of tracking money on a player who enjoys such things is a fine way of offloading the work from your more important Dungeon Mastering duties, and you can always double-check their math if and when it matters.

Pro Tip: There are accounting ledgers available for cheap at any office supply store, and even most drugstore/pharmacy-type places, as well as online. Keeps the math clean and easy to reference or verify on the fly.

Airships!

Traveling around is easier with mounts, but if you want to cover a ton of game-world miles, airships are a convenient way to make this possible and focus on something other than the day-to-day survival logistics of covered wagons and how much feed the pack mules need.

If your campaign is going to feature lots of territory but not necessarily focus on mercantile endeavors, this might be the way to go. It’s the same as a pirate campaign, but less constrained by the limits of seafaring vessels: you can land anywhere inland, making maximum use of all those cool territories, dungeons, fortresses, and cities that are described in your campaign setting of choice, without having to worry about double-counting hexes because they are more difficult terrain, or creating a bajillion miles worth of random encounter tables.

Fleet of airships

I want to run this scene in one of my games SO BAD!

Instead, focus on goals that move the players around, reasons for them to land and take part in adventures off their ship, and the occasional aerial threat. Take the time to consider how survivable an airship crash might be, too, because that’s bound to come up. Having a few “you survived, just barely, because…” options will ensure the campaign doesn’t grind to halt when the players inevitable face off against a monster several levels higher than they are that flies and breathes fire on their ship’s air sails.

Some campaign ideas:

  • Airship pirates. (Hint: You can find books covering airship rules or you can just handwave most of it, but either way, make sure you give the appearance of a couple small bonuses or minor abilities that players can fidget with in the form of ship upgrades.)
  • Cartographers; once they have an overland map, they land and deep-dive to map out some dungeons or settlements. (Hint: Purchase/print hex and square grid paper and talk with your players about mapping accuracy and style — flowchart maps are easy, but highly accurate maps or artsy maps may be fun for some players — and make that a big part of the campaign, with suitable in-game rewards in the form of money, mapping contests, titles, renown, and so on.)
  • The ultimate bar-crawl: fly from town to town and sample the local brew! (Hint: The Volo’s Guide series specifically concentrates on noteworthy inns, taverns, shops, and other places germane to this sort of campaign, and even if you don’t use the Realms as a setting, they’ll provide lots of flavor and ideas.)
  • Monster hunters: since monsters are spread far and wide, and you’re trying to collect new and interesting pelts (or capture and train monsters for a traveling circus), you need to fly off to plenty of new deserts, tundras, forests, and jungles…all inside of a week! (Hint: Metal Weave Games has released two volumes of Baby Bestiary books you can use for monster-training or even Pokemon-style monster-collecting games, and Game Natural just held a successful Kickstarter for Hunters Mark which is concerned with monster-hunting and crafting new items from harvested monster parts.)

A Game of Journeys

Ryuutama is a game that focuses on the journeys that characters take; it’s described as “Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films meets Oregon Trail” — yeah, the game where everyone dies of dysentery! The One Ring RPG takes a similar approach, with a great hex-based movement system that generates encounters and hazards like spoiled food, lost pack animals, terrain-based delays, roving monsters, and more. Both games make travel interesting and fun when you have a campaign setting that promises lots of cool stuff to look at and walk through to get to the destination’s the characters seek. With just a few minutes work, you can take these games as inspiration (or even rip out their mechanics entirely) and create some fun lists that will translate into hours of fun. And, potentially, into random tables that you can refer to time and time again to make journeys just as surprising and interesting for you, the GM, as they are for the players.

Here’s what you need to think about:

  1. A reason for the party to go on a journey.
  2. Climate and geography, with a particular focus on weather or features that will generate either (1) hazards the players have to deal with in some mechanical or strategic way and (2) “encounters” where they interact with the environment to learn something important or useful about the campaign setting.
  3. Sub-regions along the route of the journey that can easily support a handful (or more, if there will be many journeys across the area) of random encounters.
  4. A destination that leads the party to undertake subsequent journeys, either in the same general region or to new places.

Let’s dive into each part just a little bit more.

A sample journey route in The One Ring RPG

A sample journey route in The One Ring RPG

Motivations

Motivating players to go on adventures shouldn’t be new to anyone at this point, but in order to make the journey the focus, it pays to consider a couple extra points in more depth. If you don’t, players may want to skip the “boring part” of walking around the wilderness and get to the “real adventure.” You have to make the journey seem like the real adventure:

  • Foreshadow some of the features and sites that will show up along the way.
  • Avoid using a “timer” when possible, so players don’t feel rushed to skip ahead to the destination.
  • Give the players tools to better understand what they will experience on the road, whether it’s a guide, a book of lore, an evocative in-game map, or by creating player handouts with interesting lore ahead of time, to be handed out when they arrive at a specific site.

Hazards & Interesting Features

Making the various sites along the road worthy of description and — better yet — interaction is key to making the journey interesting. The obvious answer is by figuring out weather options and terrain features or sites of import that hold danger: mudslides, sudden changes in the weather, quicksand, monster dens, ruined settlements that feature collapsing foundations, and so on will provide interesting action sequences or puzzles to solve if they bar the way forward.

But danger isn’t everything. Some terrain features or even weather events can be made to seem unnatural, or may hold information about the campaign setting that can prove useful later. You have to make it interesting, though, and that means foreshadowing its appearance or its value, giving it interesting features to interact with, or providing lore via handouts or other means that aren’t just info-dumps or boring speeches from the GM.

Depending on the game setting, these things might be easy to do because you can rely on magic or supernatural features and spells that will catch the players’ attention. But if it’s a lower-magic setting or mundane world, it’s all about placing things that will beg the characters to interact with it. Some ideas

  • A ruined stone monolith, with bizarre writing etched upon it.
  • A tree with glowing lights emanating from just beneath its gnarled roots.
  • An obvious animal den, but one that smells of baked sweets.
  • The wreckage of a crashed airship.

Striking a balance between danger and lore, mundane and supernatural, and finding things to interact with will help make each waypoint on the journey feel like its own thing.

Encounter Regions

Way back when, we talked about splitting up random encounter tables by “encounter regions” on a campaign setting map. The short of it for an expansive campaign setting map is this:

  1. Determine the general region of the map (which might be “all the regions!”) that you like the most.
  2. Divide it up into a handful of “chunks” by geography, political borders, or whatever makes the most sense (this might differ by region, or stick solely to geographical features), but hold off on actually drawing lines yet.
  3. Consider how long or how often the party will be stomping around each particular region: if it’s a lot for one specific region, consider cutting up into smaller sub-regions, and if it’s not much (like trekking across a grassland maybe once or twice during the entire campaign), consider bundling some into one bigger region.
  4. Develop a list of encounters for each region, stuff that’s indicative of the themes, people, climate, and monstrous denizens of the region.
  5. Draw your regions on a DM copy of the map, build your encounter tables. Regions that get used more often or for longer stretches of time should have bigger tables (i.e. think in terms of die sizes, and a region that’s often used should get a 1d20 encounter table or even 1d100).
  6. Don’t forget that you can always add more to each table later on, add more sub-regions, and zoom in on any region and create a table for a specific location within it whenever you need to, so don’t use up all your ideas at once!

The whole exercise here is to just have encounter ideas for each region of a map or whatever portion thereof that the party is wandering around in. You don’t have to go hog wild and do this all in one sitting, and some regions that the players won’t get to for a while — or even can’t, based on the barriers of physical geography — don’t need to be detailed and thought about until they reasonably become a potential destination.

You can even refrain from creating actual encounter tables with dice distributions and all that, and simply create a simple list of possible “stuff the players might see/fight/interact with.” Armed with a list — no matter how simple or detailed — gives you ammo to riff off of when the players hit that area and you need something to drive the story forward.

Improv-heavy GMs can use this stuff forever and be done with prep. Prep-heavy GMs can use this as the building blocks for inspiration further down the line, prepping only the region or sub-region table that they need ahead of each session, or for maybe a couple sessions down the road in case you want to work in a little foreshadowing.

Destinations

Meaningful destinations are pretty easy to figure out: that’s the thrust of most existing campaign settings, adventures, sites, and so on. But in this type of campaign, you want to be thinking about how any given destination relates to the next one, or the potential ones immediately surrounding it.

In other words, you want the players to hit their destination and immediately start looking for the next place to travel to.

Consider two things:

  1. Any campaign setting details you’ve provided through the encounters the party faced on the road or the sites they visited on their journey should be useful at the destination, or at the next destination in line. So if the party came across a monolith that has elvish words speaking of the history of The Crown Wars, their destination should include a magically locked door where the answer necessary to unlock it is the name of one of the Elven Kings. Or something, anything, that makes this world-building information immediately useful. This is the reward for snooping around the campaign setting and finding stuff.
  2. What conflict or relationship to another place would be an interesting motivation for the players to move on. You want them to keep visiting all those locations described in your voluminous Ye Compleat Campaign Setting Encyclopaedia™ (I made that up), so make sure to look at the settlements, sites, or geographic features around the destination and create some conflict, mystery, or other thing that will propel the party to go to that new place.

In especially well-detailed campaign settings — ::cough:: Forgotten Realms ::cough:: — do what you can to read up on the history of a region and place some of that stuff, in some form, in the vicinity of the destination. A classic example in Faerun is the fact that it’s called the “Forgotten Realms” and there’s like 20 bajillion words written about 400 kingdoms and empires that have fallen to some magical scourge or orc invasion force or other…use it! Place a ruined fort on the road, or have NPCs make comments about their refugee lineage, or anything else that will put that historical context into the game. Make it useful, rather than just wasted word-count meant to make the setting feel old but otherwise gets ignored by players not interested in reading a thousand years of fantasy world history.

A Clash of Kings

REIGN: Enchiridion presents Company Rules, which are mechanics that provide character-like stats for a kingdom or large organization, and a separate “meta-game” that occurs at month’s end in the game world and establishes what sorts of things might have strengthened, weakened, or changed that organization in some way. This stuff is great fodder for a campaign where you want to use a huge campaign setting, because it gives you a reason to pit countries or factions against each other on a large scale, which almost necessitates journeys and long-distance activities.

For these types of campaigns, you can also look to Dungeon World for how it builds Fronts and Settlements, or look to Red Tide: Campaign Sourcebook and Sandbox Toolkit for much the same: the idea here is that you want lots of ideas on creating conflict on a large scale between antagonistic factions, secret societies, military units, or barbarian hordes. Both of those books provide specific processes, mechanics, lists, and random tables that will give you tons of ways embroil the party in conflicts of a huge variety that are all far too big for them to deal with on a personal level, and thus will propel them to move around a lot in order to deal with whatever small parts they can. REIGN would give you a system for how their individual actions might provide a bonus or penalty to the month-end Company phase, but that’s only if you need mechanics: it’s up to you how much zooming in or out you are doing in terms of the scale of conflict.


If you enjoyed this article, please comment, like, and share! We publish supplements, campaign accessories, and adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at Dungeon Masters Guild. We also write for OSR games and Cortex Plus at DriveThruRPG.

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neuronphaser is an editor, eCommerce consultant, web producer, and analyst living in sunny Hollywood, CA. He’s been playing tabletop RPGs of all kinds since 1985.

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4 comments on “Tips for Using Published Campaign Settings
  1. Some great tips in here, thank you!

  2. flyboy1986 says:

    Just found your blog. Man, great info! I’m going to binge read your posts; I suspect I’ve found a treasure trove!

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