I have been running a Pathfinder tabletop game for over two years with a campaign setting I have created from scratch as an exercise in world building. I hope to show some of my thought processes and methods for designing spaces that characters will occupy.
The ground rules I set for myself and the players as entry into the campaign are as follows:
- You must play human
- Nations all have their own language, there is no Common
- Wizards or any magic save for that under government control or of great renown are frowned upon after the last great war
- In order for players to freely explore the classes they would start the campaign 5 years younger than their intended age as children of the royal staff and close friends of the princess
Now that the base rules had been laid down I wanted players to explore the options they had and contribute to what they felt would make their play time more unique through character generation. My goal through the whole of this process was to create a world that would continue and have its own localized and overarching stories away from players, who could choose to interact with them or not.
First, I started off with a loose creation of the world as a whole. In the case of this campaign, I wanted a world where a majority of places could be reached non-magically. Having a large Pangaea-like land mass helped in this case and would allow for interesting border relations, encountering many languages, and keeping mystery in the sea if I wished to expand. A sketch is made to place all these ideas onto paper.
With a basic outline of the world done, I begin to think of the land masses as a whole, starting with type of forests and general topography. I simplify the forests into deciduous (red) and coniferous (green) so I can easily imagine the surroundings of that area. I represent altitude with a gray scale overlay. Places with nothing are not entirely flat or treeless just not as heavily populated in those regards.
After I have laid out the terrain I begin to think how these factors work into the territories. Lakes and rivers can be added later to add points of interest and rely on more accurate placement. In the case of this game people have been the sole (as far as the public knew) occupants of the world for a long time. With this in mind, I wanted very clear and defined boundaries. At this point in time, a majority of empires were well established and had held their ground for generations.
I break the land masses up into what seem like clear and interesting borders, assign them appropriate symbols, and think of where might be the best place to start players new to the world of tabletop gaming.
Answering the question of where to start comes from my assumption of what people expect out of a fantasy setting, or in reality, what makes them comfortable. My first thought comes to the adventuring, something most players imagine in the woods, most likely in a fairy tale style forest. A big patch of red draws my eyes towards the nation with the crown symbol, because most fairy tale people tend to imagine right away happen in this kind of setting. The nation with the crown symbol is also interesting because it borders two other nations, the ocean, and with its long shape has good reason for different climates. At this point my mind is settled and this will become the beginning of my players’ adventure.
To make sure that I drive home the comfortableness of the fantasy setting, I base the setting of the nation as a mix of German and British origin and name it “The Crownd Nation of Cleis.” Sounding like the German name Claus, which is the same as Nicholas, which means victory for the people, and with the crowned nation part it has the flair of kings and courts associated with fantasy. With victory for the people in its name, Cleis is supposed to represent the part of the world where the government is good and just, where the people are happy, and losing its innocence would be a perfect gateway to adventure.
Now that I have a focus, I start to think of what kinds of things new players would need in order to understand some of the other systems of the game, such as skills. In order to do this, Cleis must be rich in natural resources that can be used by those with basic skills, making it a very profitable nation. With this in mind, I decide it is time to add in my lakes and rivers allowing for easy transport of goods to the south, opening plenty of opportunities for rich minerals, farmland, and food.
With the bodies of water in place, it is now easier for me to pick the areas people will occupy.
The orange symbols on the map represent some sort of settlement where permanent residences are laid out in size based on the Pathfinder guidelines. Having been a nation for so long, Cleis has many settlements and towns with the castle being protected in the mountains to the north.
Noticing that the mountains and forest split Cleis down the center, I decide that the major trade route from the southern metropolis to the one next to the castle would be a road alongside the river heading to the north with a pass to the east being closer to the northern metropolis. At this point I feel that I have a good idea of how the country is laid out and feel comfortable adding in roads.
The roads and all the surrounding elements now begin to tell me a story about each town. For example, the small town with little access to the northern trade route in the south may have many people crossing over the border as the woods make it difficult to patrol. Making sure to check my personal notes on the human gods, I create names and small stories for each place. Each town gets a description and a small bit of history, leaving room to add as the adventure continues or players choose to delve deeper. An example of a town’s setup looks something like this:
God: Kalibru & Setzoma
Pop: 15,000 (85% Cleis, 14% Other, 1% Super) 25,000 during summer fest. 60/39/1)
Qualities: Insular, Prosperous, Tourist Attraction, Pious, Holy Site
Description: A large city at the southern border of Cleis. The people here are very kind and generous. Benton is known for its unique blends of alcoholic beverages and amazing crops. Legend has told that the city was erected in the spot where Kalibru and Setzoma parted ways, as the forest on each side are different. There is a popular festival held here every year to celebrate the crop and drink, where people camp in the different forests for a week. Since this festival attracts followers from around the world, Fort Saurforme leaves patrol duty to Fort Elwood as heavy traffic on the Saurforme road leaves their small unit with even less manpower.
Now that all the cities have been named and histories formed, I create a map that my players have access to. I have added dots in place of solid roads to indicate a day’s worth of travel on foot (30 miles). With so much content in one nation, players will always have access to interesting and fun adventures even if the main plot is avoided completely.