Friday, March 10, 2023

No Prep Is Wasted

If you run games long enough, higher-order patterns begin to emerge without your direct input. A campaign setting is a thing better divined than made.

I have previously posted about Arctic Death, Infinite Night, my "arctic Ravenloft" campaign. (If you want the basic setup, this post has all the details.)

Well, that section of the campaign has wrapped, and as they say, the slime's coming home. They killed the darklord, did the obligatory bookkeeping, and now the wizard has built a spelljamming helm and they have acquired a vessel in the hopes of returning to the home they fled via the Gardens of Ynn, essentially causing most of the issues in the campaign to date. As for the Domain of Dread of Isiksivik, when they slew the darklord, the whole realm fell back into the world it left centuries ago.

But which world is that?

I've been ruminating on that particular question for months now, but then I remembered What Luck Betide Us. Many years ago, some friends asked me to run a 4e campaign, and I did a lot of work on it before we started. Like, I made a map of a region a million square miles in size and filled in the settlements with procedural generation before the campaign started. (To contrast, the Sorrowfell Plains map for Crux of Eternity is still mostly empty, with landmarks only going on the map as they come up in play.) While a fun exercise, I wouldn't recommend trying to build a campaign setting from the ground-up like in What Luck Betide Us, and I certainly wouldn't have the time to do it now unless someone were paying me.

Well, as with most campaigns where you front-load much of the work, that game died a horrible death after only a couple of sessions. So it goes.

But that just means that there's an unused campaign setting just sitting in my notes, one that I know fairly well because I made it up. Isiksivik can easily sit to the far north of the region from What Luck Betide Us, and what's more, the dwarf's sketchy backstory fits nicely with the overall aesthetics of the dwarven theocracy of the Farhelfik Commonwealth and the elvish magocracy of the Lanirilis Protectorate. She can just as easily be from the same world!

(The characters in Arctic Death, Infinite Night subsequently met the major campaign villain from What Luck Betide Us, because they fit well with her agenda in the service of Chaos.)

Years ago, I also teased The Wizard at the End of the World. I didn't know anything more about this entity than I put into the blog post, but I figured the rest would sort itself out in the fullness of time. In trying to solve this problem, I also solved that problem: The Wizard is indeed the second iteration of a BECMI-style Immortal, originally from the Sorrowfell Plains but now ascended after some time shenanigans, and What Luck Betide Us features the world she made during her first ascension. (I already knew she made a world, I just didn't know that it was clearly this one. But it nicely explains a couple of things I never quite figured out during the course of What Luck Betide Us.)

(The characters in Arctic Death, Infinite Night subsequently met this Immortal in her guise as the elf Archdruid Lueliten. She has ties to the dwarf's backstory and clearly has some future knowledge about what has happened and will yet happen.)

If there's a takeaway from all of this, it's the advice I gave at the start: leave gaps in your campaign creation where interesting things might go. The players don't need reams of epic backstory to jump into a game, so you don't need to make them. However, if during the course of planning or play, you determine interesting connections between your disparate, intriguing details, give them context and make them matter. (Remember: nothing the GM does matters unless it emerges at the table. This is why the other players ultimately have more power than the GM, because every decision they make matters.)

It's the Tim Powers design principle, but applied to one's own writing: in a couple of places (I'm citing this one in particular), he references doing research for his latest book, giving this anecdote, "Half the time, if it's very late at night, I find sometimes when I open some new research book, it'll appear to confirm my fictional theory, and I’ll think, 'Oh my god, Powers, you’re not making this up. You've stumbled on the actual story here.' Except in the morning, I'm sane again." Leave gaps, interrogate those gaps, and then divine your own campaign setting from what you find.

Now the only way to truly recycle all my ancient prep is to find a way to re-use plot points from my aborted Spelljammer campaign from ten years ago...

No comments:

Post a Comment

Print Friendly