Creating a setting map for a story-driven campaign is fairly straightforward. It can be a lot of work, but ultimately it comes down to figuring out the important locations, and then adding enough fluff around them to camouflage their importance.
(Funny how that also describes creating a setting for a fantasy novel, right?)
For a sandbox campaign, however, that approach won’t work. You need important locations, sure, but you have to accept that what you thought was fluff might turn out to be more important to the players than you expected. That minor town in the middle of the map could become the center of the characters’ spice-trading empire. Or it could remain unvisited.
There are many ways to deal with that conundrum. Given a huge amount time and motivation (or ghostwriters), we could design everything down to minute details. But that’s impractical for my purposes, and not really plausible besides.
Alternately, we could simply improvise everything as the game goes. That would allow the players to shape the world with their ideas and questions… but I know my players, and what will most likely happen is that they’ll fumble around aimlessly for a few sessions, then get bored of the game. Besides… it’d make for a fairly short post series.
Instead, I’ll go with a third option: a setting that’s reasonably constrained in size and scope, at least at first. There will be a manageable number of towns and settlements, and a limited number of landmarks, dungeons, and assorted adventure locations available to the players at first.
Of course… we still need a basic idea of what goes where – which means we need to at least write down a few facts about the game world.
(Warning… the following is a brainstorming summary. It’s not a good example of methodology. Future posts in this series will be more practical, but to get started I must make a few creative assumptions that aren’t really justified beyond “it’s what I want to do.”)
I want a relatively small number of towns and cities, some politics (but not enough that an inevitable world war is coming), and plenty of adventuring opportunities. To me, that screams “frontier-of-civilization setting.”
I also want an obvious delineation on what the setting is and what’s off-map. I can trust my players to work with me and stay within the areas I’ve prepared material for, but it’s best if they’re clearly marked. And the obvious way to do that is with natural barriers – in fact, an ocean would be ideal.
Bang – we’re adventuring in the New World. That gives me politics too – my various town and cities could be the colonies of Old World powers.
I want a twist too – just having not-Europeans colonizing not-America is perhaps too predictable. So instead… this is a “reclaim the Old World” frontier. There was a huge apocalyptic war that ended the Golden Age, and civilization only survived in the boonies. Now, eons later, the new countries are returning to the cradle of civilization (to find it populated by mutated beings, monsters out of myth, and so on and so forth.) This also opens the way for hex-crawling exploration of the world – the PCs could very well mount expeditions deep into the interior, looking for awesome loot.
That’s a pretty good start. Next time: maps. (maybe.)