Retrospective on Starting Campaign Concepts

Ages ago, in 1993 or 1994, a group of friends and I got together to start up a new campaign using Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e). There were a few people interested in undertaking dungeon master duties, myself included. So I proposed the idea of making the world-building collaborative between the entire group.

We began the process with a blank sheet of letter-sized paper. The game masters were each assigned a quadrant and asked to sketch in their corners of the world. Of course, the process didn’t go precisely to plan. In the end, we had contributions from myself, another game master, and two of the players. The prospective game masters performed their assignments: I sketched what I thought was the northeast corner of a continent, and I named the two land masses The Niraih Commonwealth and their neighbors, the Crymsah Baronies–without any concept of who or what these peoples were. The other game master took the diagonally opposite corner and sketched in his nation: Zirconia. He populated it with place names from his home town—St Mary’s County—and bad puns like Swine Lake and Spud Zone.

One player added a large island nation to the center bottom area of the page. He drew in a few mountains on the island and called it simply “Hardrada.” The final player was the most artistically talented (and determined) of the four of us. He ran with what we had sketched in, filled in the other two quadrants with the areas like The Great Purple Desert, The Oaklands, the Savage Lands and The Jagged Lands. He also flipped the compass rose so that north pointed to the bottom of the page and then inked the whole thing with a black BIC rollerball fine point pen. It was far from a masterpiece, but it had some charms.

The proposed campaign for which we created the map only held together for one adventure— The Lost Island of Castanamir (which is an island adventure ironically not represented on the map, due to it being lost and all…). After the original crew dissipated and went off to other games, there were a few folks still interested in carrying on, so I cadged the map. We have played on that map ever since (and remain forever indebted to our original co-creators).

This re-constituted group set out to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in our own, novel world—a process that had been undertaken countless times, by countless groups before us. It must have been an easy path, yes? Well, the start of the campaign was rough. Each player jumped in with their own rather challenging contributions: Two of the players wanted to employ non-standard D&D classes—the kensai and the bushi from OA—another wanted to play a lizardman priest, one wanted to be a gnome illusionist and one simply wanted to be a hobgoblin fisherman. Oh, and the bushi player asked if his character could also be a cambion demon. None of which was discussed as part of an overall campaign concept. They dove headfirst into the gonzo, kitchen-sink nature of AD&D. You see what I had to deal with back then?! However, despite my misgivings, I ran with all of their requests, though I added in a few wrinkles of my own—mainly ideas on how to unify and ground the gonzo.

(And FWIW, these players and their requests became incredibly influential on the as yet to be designed Burning Wheel Fantasy Roleplaying System.)

So, I want to talk about one of the wrinkles I introduced to help make some sense of the fantastical patchwork quilt we were collectively sewing together: the fantasy religions of this new world. Two of the character choices were overtly tied to religion in D&D: The kensai and priest/cleric. The kensai’s martial arts were fueled by divine might. And, since we were playing AD&D, the priest/cleric was just a spellcaster with a long list of many (many) (too many) options that were vaguely tied to the divine favor of a set of indistinct gods.

I confess that, in my youth, I was obsessed with Deities & Demigods and its many pantheons. But I knew I had to kill this darling sacred cow; I needed a way to ground these characters in the world they were about to step into. As the main dungeon master for this campaign I felt I needed to clarify some of the nebulous aspects of the divine magics—and I wanted to de-Christianize some of the default assumptions about divinity in the world. Our world should feel distinct, new and credible. Laying out the fundamentals of its cosmology seemed the best place to start if—and only if—I could make these forces feel personal to the players and their characters. It’s a common misstep in fantasy world-building to talk about god wars and cosmic forces in big sweeping terms as events that happen in the past or in the remote background. I wanted the powers that governed our world to feel present and representative, both shaping its cultures and being shaped by them.

Even though we were all new to this world in one sense, the characters would have grown up in its cultures, traditions and religions. On one hand, I wanted them to feel like they were from a place that had ideas about how the powers of their world worked. On the other hand, I knew that I needed to get an immediate handle on the madness that unfettered D&D can introduce into a campaign with its kitchen sink aesthetic and blatant power creep. So after we discussed it a bit as a group, I proposed a drastic simplification: This world had only four elemental gods—Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. Going further, to push us away from most religious traditions, I suggested that these forces of nature were not personified in their religions, only represented in symbols. The players agreed that this seemed like a good place to start.

After my proposal, we examined each character’s relationship with the cosmology. The player of the lizardman priest decided he would follow Water and cast all of his cleric spells in the idiom of water. The kensai player liked the idea of the God of Wind fueling his leaps, kicks and furious blows—though we soon discovered that he had an odd theological stance for Wind. I proposed to the player of the cambion/bushi monstrosity that demons were servants of Fire. He agreed that this seemed sensible. The hobgoblin and gnome players made it clear they were not very much into this god bullshit. They asked if they had to worship a god. After pondering a moment, I said no, they did not. However, I was careful to note that there were no atheists or modern cynics in our nascent world. The gods and their powers were real, whether they prayed to them or not. They seemed satisfied with this middleground.

So off we went, now with the characters tied into the cosmological fabric of this world—and with a culture taking shape behind them. Four elemental gods added to the choices the players were making. For example, they implied that this land had four great religions, which we declared to be the Temples of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind.

When starting this campaign, we made simple, bespoke choices that many of us encounter at the beginning of a game. But for us, we inadvertently set up a fundamental structure that continuously invited us to explore powerful ideas and collaborate on their meanings.

The kensai player very much wanted to play a righteous fighter, in the mold of many of Jet Li’s on-screen personas. He insisted that his god was an arbiter of order. While I had some trouble marrying the wind + order concepts, I didn’t argue or shoot him down. I let him kick the crap out of the bad guys in the name of order…though I planned a theological reckoning for later in the campaign. He claims now that, in retrospect, he watched Conan the Barbarian too many times back then and was obsessed with the character Subotai’s philosophy.

The lizard priest player decided very early on that his Water god was a different aspect of Lord Water than the one venerated by the Niraih Commonwealth. He decided that his lizardman was a wanderer and not from the area in which the campaign began. So, we found a place to the north for him to call home, a city named Sif. And then he declared that in addition to the magical aspects of water that one might expect—summoning rain, walking on water, breathing water, etc.—he was also a priest of luck. He insisted that luck was a domain of Lord Water. I recall being floored by his suggestion. I did not expect this, but I fucking loved it. This inclusion opened up that character, transforming him from a trite holy figure to a gambling, drinking, risk-taking, impulsive, complicated bad-ass. In fact, I’ve incorporated this type of priestly posture into the fabric of the religions of Water as we’ve developed them.

For the demon-bushi, I decided we needed to ahem turn up the heat. While he was not a priest or fueled by D&D-esque divine magics, a demon child must by its nature be tied into the cosmological forces and laws. So I proposed a longer, more cultural arc to bind him in: I declared that the religion of Fire was banned by the Niraih, due to accusations of demon worship. Thus he had to keep his nature secret lest he be persecuted by priests of Earth and Water. In doing so, I inadvertently set up a history of the Niraih peoples, implying many questions: When was this religion banned? By whom? Was demon worship really the reason? The implied answers, in turn, created the hint of a culture of suspicion with the potential for real consequences for those caught up in it.

Within the first half dozen sessions of our campaign, these divine powers began to take shape in the following ways:

  • Water: Lord Water, Hai, Hossar—seas, oceans, rivers, rains, sea travel and luck. Holy number: 3
  • Wind: Lord Wind, Taepoong—wind, clouds, breath, order, justice. Holy number: 4.
  • Fire: Lord Fire, Abzu (The Lake of Fire)—fire, purification, vulcanism, forges, healing, health and sorcery. Holy number: 5.
  • Earth: Lord Earth, Cley—paths, gates, stone, earth, wood, fertile land. Holy number: 6.

Simple and perhaps even a bit awkward, but full of potential. These concepts of natural elements, their associated emotions and folk beliefs accidentally provided us a structure for our world—or at least this corner of it. Crucially, as we played our sessions, I believe we explored and added to these concepts using two unwritten precepts:

  1. We did the minimum work. We only answered the questions directly before us. We didn’t try to flesh out the whole world in one go. If we needed to know more about the other priests or the other religions, etc. for an event in an ongoing or upcoming adventure, we added the new detail then as we needed. But beyond that we didn’t concern ourselves about what was happening outside of the action, for example, in the far-off Great Purple Desert, The Jagged Lands or Zirconia.
  2. We collaborated. In the default power structure in AD&D, the game master has total and final say. I find this stance exhausting. So when the players expressed interest in a part of the world, I would ask them questions about their peoples, their traditions, their religions, etc. and invite them to add new details to the world. Of course, I reserved the right to challenge those beliefs (!) in order to create dramatic adventures, but I never overrode them outright. Gradually, it became clear to us all that this world was (is) a shared creation, even if our contributions differed in scope and timing.

Over the next 20 or 30 sessions of the campaign, I invested heavily in the framework we created. I used it to underpin the ultimate stakes of the campaign: banned religions, a world out of balance, jealous gods, an epoch ending, a mortal war to decide the fate of the gods, a gate to Hell fueled by sacrificial victims and a demonic desire to cast off the shackles of these petty immortal tyrants and destroy the world they built by summoning…

Ahem

…but, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nearly 30 years on and we’re still playing in this campaign. The Hellmouth is closed and the demonic plot thwarted—though narrowly—and a new epoch is upon the world. Today, a sorcerer, an elementalist, a priest and a newly gifted Forsaken are trying to end an apocalyptic arcane storm that has destroyed the Niraih Commonwealth. And, true to our origins, we’re still discussing the theological and cosmological stances (and actions) of the priests and their gods. Just this morning I wrote to the former kensai-player, our authority on Lord Wind (who is currently playing the elementalist in our ongoing campaign). I mused that:

“I was reflecting today on how the Wind Cult could theologically stand on the side of justice while maintaining their obeisance to Lord Wind.”

He was, of course, delighted and we delved into the nuances of our invented theology.


I hope that this maunder through my murky RPG past might benefit players of Burning Wheel and other games that require world building, so let me try to sum up my thoughts:

  1. When world building, start with a conceptual frame that contains lots of empty space. That’s what our original map was. It gave us the necessary constraints so we could point to squiggle on it and say “I wonder what’s going on here?” And I think a frame is productive because blank pages are terrifying. A light frame does wonders for the imagination.
  2. When introducing new concepts (cultures, religions, traditions, etc.), use the same philosophy as the original frame: make these ideas big and broad and add details as you go.
  3. Go slow. Stop and explore situations in great detail. Play out the consequences. Don’t rush to finish a plot or prematurely fill out the details of a nation, religion or people. In this case, specificity is key. Think deeply about small things.
  4. Develop your world as you go. But build out only what you need for the moment—or perhaps “ink in” is a better metaphor in this case. Ideas on the periphery may be sketched or even just leave big blank spaces to fill in later.
  5. Collaborate…with authority. Collaboration is great. For a long term campaign to truly thrive, invite each participant to contribute details to the corners of the world that they care about. Talk about your campaign world outside of the game. Build on each other’s feedback and reincorporate it into the game itself. That said, I believe there needs to be someone responsible for shepherding and preserving the shared world. That role is usually undertaken by the game master but it can be another player.

I hope you find these memories and insights to be practical and useful in reflecting on your ongoing games or for games you hope to begin soon. Creating this “living,” shared world with my friends is perhaps the powerful creative journey I’ve undertaken. I hope that I’ve provided you with some tools to support the same for you and your friends!

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Bwahahahaha!

There might be something worth saying about attitude regarding world-building – I see, often, a competitive attitude in collaborative world-building, especially when armed with something like Burning Wheel’s wises. It can be easy for some people (i.e. me) to think about what is tactically the best world-building decision for me right now, and gun for that, even if it makes for a worse world over-all.

This may be an attitude burners trend to due to BW’s world-building flexibility and its effectiveness at making players really want to pursue their (character’s) agenda.
Prioritizing making a good and interesting world (to some degree), is something I could be better about…

This is good stuff, Luke, thanks for sharing!

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These are the two most important lessons I’ve learned about worldbuilding in my years in the hobby. Glad to see other people came to the same conclusions.

I’m not going to say anything new, but I also think that Burning Wheel is a game that promotes this type of world creation and challenges characters AND players about it.

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Oh man, wises…some days I have regrets about wises…. I feel like the indie-rpg-collaborative-write-sad-things-on-note-cards-fever of the mid-aughts possessed me to introduce some loose, easily abused rules into the game…

For wises, BWHQ uses them exclusively to ask and answer questions. For example, this was a recent question, “Can I find a tunnel network below Core that connects to the tower’s sub-levels?” It resulted in an Ob 5 Core-wise test (failure result, you encounter the ghost of Mok Marun, a lost soul, trapped in these tunnels).

We don’t use them to directly assert information from a player’s standpoint—mainly because such an assertion rarely if ever results in a genuine intent and task in our games. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How are you doing it? These are questions, spoken and unspoken, that sit near the surface of every single interaction at our table.

In the above example, Priest of Gates Seok was poring over surveys he’d taken of tunnels in the Inner City. He described himself pacing the tunnels he’d mapped with a lantern, investigating areas likely to have connections.

His player, Rich, did not say, “There’s a connection point in these tunnels.” Because such an assertion wasn’t a valid intent or task for the character.

Right, but there’s another side to what you’re saying—when you reach for the dice, you’re considering your contributions to the overall world. And to this I say, YES.

YESSSSS.

This stance is the correct posture for BW play. But here is the trick! This stance is not exclusive to wises. Every test or conflict carries the same weight—every time you pick up the dice, a small piece of the world should be at stake.

And I think all of us at BWHQ play with this sort of creative distance.

Some recent examples…

  • If Seok tears down an ancient, warded gatehouse to recycle the stone so he can build a workshop for his elementalist friend, Baksu. Rich has just committed an act of world-building.
  • If Anhui teaches gifted children at a secret school for young sorcerers…it’s world building.
  • If Baksu builds a cart that can resist arcana element spells…
  • If Zee undertakes a massive research project to reorganize the old imperial archive by chronological date rather than by imperial reign years…
  • If Komun assassinates the Storm King…

It’s all world-building, but perhaps “world-building” is so overused in this context that the words begin to lose their meaning. Perhaps we need a new term for these types of contributions to an ongoing, persistent (living) campaign world.

Regardless of what you call it, the structure of Burning Wheel laid over a persistent world should create a feedback loop of world-building, whether or not you’re using (or abusing) the wise rules.

-Luke

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It’s true! It’s been difficult to work out in places for me and some of my fellows.

One thing I think about is using knowledge vs having knowledge. The Roden in The Sword uses kowledge, testing Below-wise to get out of the dungeon – Intent: I want to get out; Task: I’ll use my familiarity with these catacombs to know the best way out and get walking (something like that). The Trial By Combat-wise example in the Codex is about having knowledge – Intent: I want to get my opponent to drink something so I can poison them before the fight; Task: … It’s tough, “My guy knows about duels and this is a tradition?” “I remember duelling customs I’ve seen where this common?” In the fiction, your character does nothing while your opponent is made to drink. We could imagine the detail is that the challenger has to drink, now the bit of lore only effects your character. I’ll add that the challenger has to do twenty-pushups, run a lap, kiss a pig, and now I make your character do all of these things while my character, in the fiction is just… Hangin’ out? It’s tough.

Conversely… Knowledge skills are handy. It’s not like there isn’t legitimate play for tests about having knowledge. I don’t know.

I feel like it contributes to a culture where GMs don’t contribute as much as a creative force. I’ve seen (and played in!) games where the GM had little agenda or enthusiasm in playing the world, seemingly under the impression that basically everyone does it equally. “The world can be whatever you want; write a Belief about it!” “It works however you want it to; test a wise!” It’s led to a vacuous feeling in games.

This is something I think about every now and then: Burning Wheel emerged from an older-school mileu (pays Gygax a nickel) and is kind of addressed to that culture and to adress some of the issues there-in. So it talks a lot about how to arbitrate and make rolls meaningful and all of these things. A lot of that pushes things more toward the indie-rpg, story-game culture of play. But then if you come from this post-Apocalypse World culture of play, then you’re maybe missing out on some of that Grognard foundation and get pushed too far. I dunno. I’m all twisted…

And that result carries the same fictive mass as the situation pre-test! It’s easy to think only in terms of Intent and Failure as the only change, and that’s an error, I think. Each test tends to produce some world-shape detritus. Soek was seen tearing down the gate-house, he (and probably some other people) hauled the stone across town – you might not even talk about it; you might just say, “you tear the place down and get the stone moved,” and then go about the rest of the game, but the reasonable expectations of those processes still matter (Take that, Baker! (I guess.)). An Intimidation test might get you the same Intent as a Persuasion test, but the victim might hate you later for threatening them.

It’s easy to think that only good consequences should come from success and only bad consequences from failure, but that might not be right. :thinking: I did just read about Ron Edward’s brain damage, so… Again, twisted.

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Well, in our group we call it “campaign”.

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Great post Luke! So nice to hear how your home campaign grew from such humble beginnings. I think you are your group were lucky because, as you mentioned, so many of you wanted to take on the roll of DM in your D&D game. That common desire led you all collectively to draw up a collaborative world map. Revolutionary thinking in 1993! Back in the day, the DM for most campaigns was the head brain trust, and most players just muddled along. I distinctly remember a player in my first campaign blurting out, “We’re in Greyhawk?!?!” How could he have not been paying attention!
Many years later, a collaborative approach to world building, focusing on the local, engaging players to build out aspects of their character’s world view are standards of good GMing that all the youtube pundits talk about all the time.
I am so happy to have learned so much from Burning Wheel, the forums, and your words of wisdom. My games have been so much richer for it.
Sanj

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Also…

:face_with_raised_eyebrow: :thinking:

It’s funny you mentioned It Revolves on This in your other post. I was earlier reflecting that the talk under that heading about making your own world is kind of also talking about play in reference to this post.

There’s the seed if an insight about leaving the world open in the book for the readers to play. :thinking:

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