Jordan's Page of Useless Babble

So, you've run games in the Forgotten Realms, you've gone through Greyhawk and you've eviscerated Eberron. Your players are tired of the same old worlds and you want to give them something new, something different, something exciting!

You decide to write your own campaign setting.

But where do you start? There's just so much to do. There are cities and cultures, there are civilizations both dead and alive, there are dungeons and forests and oceans, and then you get to the custom stuff and it becomes all too much. You start stressing over minutia and soon you've abandoned the whole damn thing and gone back to the old reliable settings you were using before.

Well, there's nothing to be ashamed of. Short of writing your own rules system, there's little in roleplaying that's as difficult as writing a campaign setting. The problem is, it's vast. However, with some proper planning and a few solid rules, you'll be able to start running adventures in a world of your own design in no time.

Now, without any plans or thought, you could easily do just the same, but you'll be missing something. A well-thought out setting has a depth to it that becomes tangible to your players. They'll start learning and identifying and overall, they'll come to know the world you've created and think back on it fondly. If you're just piecing together ideas at the last minute, you'll have inconsistencies and logic holes that will drive your players crazy.

With this series of articles, we'll go through the process of creating a campaign setting together. Now, most of this will not include actual rulesets, but they will come up from time to time. In my examples, I'll be using the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 Edition for my ruleset, but you're free to use whatever you're more comfortable with.

In each article, I'll go through a few concepts, using examples to illustrate what I've been explaining, and then provide "homework" to help keep you on the right track. You're more than free to work slower or faster than the homework or even to ignore it altogether, but it will be there for you should you need it.

So, let's begin:

Step 1: Identify your Campaign Setting
This doesn't mean to give your campaign setting a name, but rather to give it a concept. The secret behind all the successful campaign settings out there is that they all have one central idea that drives all the rest of the world. The idea doesn't need to be particularly original or flashy, it just has to be a single sentence that sums up the overall concept that the world you're building follows.

Let's look back on some D&D settings and examine their concepts:

Forgotten Realms: A high-fantasy setting where magic has shaped history and deities take an active role in the world.

Eberron: A noir-style setting where magic is commonplace and the world is recovering from a devastating war.

Dragonlance: A high-fantasy setting where dragons take an active role in shaping history.

Legend of the Five Rings: An asian-inspired setting where feudal clans constantly vie for power and the sinister force of the Shadowlands constantly threatens their way of life.

Kingdoms of Kalamar: A historical-inspired setting where magic is rare and social structures are heavily inspired by real life.

Ravenloft: A gothic setting where mystery, darkness and evil pervade every facet of life, yet true evil is tormented eternally.

Dark Sun: A high-fantasy setting where psionics take the place of magic and every day is a struggle to survive.

Take a look at those concepts again. Notice that nowhere is any great detail fleshed out. A good concept should be generalized enough that anything written on one topic won't undermine the work done on another.

For example, let's take this concept for a setting: A high-magic setting where the village of Ithaca stands as a crossroad between the Material and the Faerie. Any campaign setting written around that setting will now need to be focused on the village of Ithaca, and it will be mostly inspired by faeries. While that's all well and good, it's probably too narrow a concept for most.

Now compare that with this one: A low-magic setting where plant life has grown rampant and is threatening to extinguish civilization altogether. In this example, no specifics are given, so it's broad enough that many different approaches can be given. It also provides a hook that can both draw players in and immediately presents opportunities for designing unique cultures, cities and adventures.

Step 2: Identify your Setting's Genre
Most campaign settings are going to be set firmly in the realm of fantasy. Others may be science fiction, or noir, or realistic. It's good to begin thinking about what kind of flavor your setting will have now. Putting it to paper is even better, as that becomes a visual reminder to you to not get too far off topic at any time.

The following are just some examples of different genres to get you thinking. If you wish, come up with a new genre for your campaign. Just try to keep it generalized enough that you don't pigeon-hole yourself later on down the road.

Low Fantasy - A low fantasy setting has little or no fantasy features. The dominant race tends to be human, and other races are rare, or non-existent. Classes tend to be more mundane, with little or no 'flashy' effects (such as a soul knife's soulblade). Low fantasy settings are normally low-magic settings.

High Fantasy - High fantasy has a lot in common with early fantasy fiction, especially the Lord of the Rings from JRR Tolkien. Races other than human are common, unusual effects as well. The land itself might even be infused with magic and take on abnormal characteristics. High fantasy settings usually have high-magic.

Science Fiction - Science fiction campaigns tend to be futuristic-feeling. Races other than human are normally science-fiction staples like robots, mutants and so on. Technological devices are the norm and magic is usually non-existent. These settings can often easily incorporate psionic powers.

Noir - Noir settings usually exemplify social interaction more than physical interaction. Alignments are often blurred or ignored as characters are given more freedom to act as they need, without worrying about the consequences. Noir settings can usually be incorporated with other setting-types as a combination, like Eberron, which is Noir-High Fantasy.

Realistic - Realistic settings are ones where the physical laws of our world take precedence. These are often the least common setting type as most of these types of campaigns are set in our own world. Consequently, these settings usually have no magic or similar abilities.

Psychedelic - Psychedelic settings are extremely rare as they aren't usually used for more than a single adventure or two. In these settings, the physical laws of the world are usually ignored when it's convenient and the landscape may change illogically or drastically for the same purpose. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is an example of a psychedelic setting.

Step 3: Identify your Level of Magic
While this step seems like it should come later, this is a good one to determine here and now. By working out the level of magic used in your campaign, you'll be able to later help figure out certain other factors that come later.

In High Magic Campaigns, magic is very common and almost everybody either has magic, or has access to magic either by buying magic items or by hiring a spellcaster. Low-level NPC spellcasters are common as well and spellcaster guilds have strong influence. High magic campaigns typically have such a high level of magic, that everyday modern devices such as telephones, trains and elevators are easily replicated and used at least uncommonly.

In Mid-Level Magic Campaigns, magic is uncommon. There may be some discrimination against spellcasters in remote areas, and some people may fear spellcasters for what they can accomplish. Magic items are uncommon, but accessible for a price, as are the services of hired spellcasters. Magical luxuries such as a larder that's always kept chilled, can be seen only in extremely affluent areas, such as the palace of a powerful reagent or king. Mid-level magic is the standard in most campaign settings.

In Low-Level Magic Campaigns, magic is rare and those who can cast it are generally reviled or feared. Magic items are a rarity, and generally those that can be found are artifacts of a bygone era. Spellcasters in these settings either practice their crafts in secret or become hermits, living on the fringes of civilization.

In No Magic Campaigns, there is literally no magic. People in these campaign settings tend to create technological devices to assist in their daily lives, and classes that rely on the powers of science supplant spellcasters.

When you're thinking about magic, think about other magic-like abilities such as psionics. These can be much more or less common than magic in your campaign. D&D players can consider a wide variety of abilities that the above levels can be applied to:

Magic - This is the standard for all fantasy campaigns. Most RPGs contain magic to some extent or another, so this is the one you'll likely want to consider first. Magic can be divided into two major categories: arcane and divine. Both can further be divided into the categories of prepared spellcasting and spontaneous spellcasting. In addition, arcane magic also contains the category of invocation users.

Psionics - Psionics or psychic powers are common in sci-fi games, and less so in traditional fantasy. There are exceptions, like the Dark Sun setting, where psionics are the norm.

Incarnum - Introduced in Magic of Incarnum, this is the ability to create personal-use magic items from soul-stuff. Incarnum is fairly uncommon in most D&D settings. Due to the polarizing alignment restrictions of most incarnum users, a campaign where this is the norm is likely rife with conflict between opposing ideologies.

Infusions - Used exclusively by the artificer class from the Eberron campaign setting; there's no reason that in your campaign, several classes don't make use of infusions. Campaigns with large numbers of infusion-users become a cross between a high-magic and a technology-based world as both are produced in large quantities.

Binding - Binding is the exclusive domain of the Binder class from the Tome of Magic and involves summoning spirits from beyond space and time to grant you power in exchange for living in you for a short period of time. Binders tend to conflict heavily with divine spellcasters and campaigns where the two co-exist can have great potential for adventures involving the two factions.

Shadowcasting - Also introduced in the Tome of Magic is shadowcasting. Similar to arcane spellcasting, shadowcasting involves learning mysteries that tap into the Plane of Shadow, and eventually mastering them far beyond what a wizard could do with any spell. Campaigns with heavy use of shadowcasters can easily create a theme of light and dark as the two opposing ideologies clash, or perhaps combine in new and exotic ways.

Truenaming - The final system of magic introduced in Tome of Magic, truenaming involves researching the secret names of objects, places and people and using them to reform reality to your whims. Because truenaming has a heavy theme of control, it is best suited for campaigns where this idea can come forth. An campaign centered around Arabian mythology is a good example, as truenamers could summon forth and control djinn with naught but a few words.

Martial Powers - Introduced in the Book of Nine Swords, martial powers are an alternative to spellcasting and involve impressive feats of skill that can in some cases, replace offensive spellcasting altogether. When used alone, martial powers can easily become the basis of a kung-fu campaign, where the heroes have trained in secretive monasteries to learn powerful attacks.

When determining these levels, you can become as generalized or specific as you wish. For example, you could lump all these abilities under one category and determine them all at roughly the same level of commonality, or you could go the other way and begin rating subgroups of each of these categories, breaking up magic into arcane and divine (or even arcane into prepared, spontaneous and invocations) and so forth. In the end, it all comes down to how detailed you want your setting to be. If you don't like a system, don't use it. You're more than free to say that your campaign will have only magic in it, or that you'll include psionics but not martial powers. In the end, it's these choices that can help shape your campaign.


  1. Come up with at least three ideas for a campaign concept (see Step 1). Try to be as generalized as possible. Now pick the best of the three. This will become your campaign as we work through these articles and build.
  2. Identify what genre your campaign falls into and write this down as well (see Step 2). Once you've selected your genre, consider what would happen if you changed to that instead.
  3. Now identify the levels of magic that you'll be using in your campaign (see Step 3). Do you want to make arcane spellcasting more common than divine, or vice-versa? Figure out just how commonplace you want each type of magic to be in your campaign.
  4. You don't have to give it a proper name right away, but come up with a name that you can give your campaign for now. For example calling it 'the prehistoric campaign' instead of 'the campaign I'm working on' will help you visualize new ideas almost unconsciously. Give it a try!

In every article, I'll be including my work on a sample campaign that will cover the same ground as you do in the Homework section. Once the series of articles is complete, this setting will be packaged together into one coherent piece and made available on the website. The basic-concepts of this campaign were penciled out and based on the results of a website survey that was posted back at the beginning of 2009. The idea for a Dying Earth style campaign won out overwhelmingly against 5 others.

  1. The campaign concept: A world that is slowly being consumed by the Plane of Shadow and will eventually be destroyed as a result.
  2. This will be a fantasy setting with a strong amount of influence from the dying earth genre. The players should have the sense that the overall problem is overwhelming and unstoppable. The world will end, but likely not in their, or their children's lifetimes. For now, there is much to do to ensure the players' survival and the survival of their loved ones.
  3. This will be a mid-level magic campaign. Because the world of the campaign setting is being destroyed, many of the most powerful spellcasters have fled centuries ago. There are still many who can cast spells, but not as much as there had been before.

        Arcane magic will be more prevalent than divine, but several transportation spells will no longer work properly. Divine magic will be focused on a variety of deities that reflect the attitudes of the population, ranging from sullen and depressive to manic and Dionysian.

        Psionic powers will be less common than magic, but more common than in most fantasy campaign settings. Infusions and martial powers will be more or less as common as psionics. Shadowcasting will be more prevalent, at around the same level as divine magic, if not more.

        Truenaming, binding and incarnum will not exist in this setting.
  4. For the purposes of giving this campaign a temporary name, it will be called Penumbra. The term itself relates to shadows (a major concept for this setting), and means partially shadowed.

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