Monday, April 29, 2019

Settings with Strata: A Quick-Design Method for Historically Coherent Campaign Settings

If you're crafting a campaign setting or designing the adventure locations scattered across that setting, there's plenty of advice online. One good tip, for example, is that the different levels in your dungeons and adventure locations might have historically-sensible backgrounds; a ruined human fortress might be built over the earlier delvings of a dwarven stronghold. Ideally, these pairings should make sense; exactly why was that Fourth Dynasty art gallery built above an ancient kobold torture dungeon? (No doubt it involves some kind of weird performance art; very Fourth Dynasty).

To really make this click, of course, it helps to know something already about your setting's historical background. I've noticed, however, that setting-design advice sometimes advocates the following order of steps:

+ come up with a concept
+ draw a map
+ pick locations for settlements, ruins, and lairs
+ then write a history/backstory for your setting

If you use this approach, and if it works for you, then more power to you; but I'd like to suggest that a different approach could be even more fruitful, and almost as fast.

To me, separating the history and the placement of locations - even more, writing the history after you place the locations - divorces things that belong together, and misses important opportunities for greater cohesion and depth in your setting. 

In reality, settlement locations reflect not only basic environmental geography, but also the continued influence of previous generations' settlement histories. Think of the layered strata that make up an archaeological site; many sites have been reused over periods and centuries. Sometimes this reflects only the recurring appeal of fertile land or strategic chokepoints; in other contexts, however, the cultural significance of an old site may draw renewed settlement (or even provoke furious destruction) from later generations interested in more than just growing food. Ideally, then, (IMHO) placing and designing adventure locations or settlements should reflect the big picture of the setting's history.

But can this be done efficiently, or does it require unrealistic amounts of time? What if you just want to throw together a setting for a short campaign? How many of us really have time to write those 5-page imperial genealogies or 20-page accounts of the Terrible War of Titans From Before the Times That Any Player Character Will Care About? Not me. 

Well, let me walk through an example of the method I’ve been using recently. It can lay the groundwork for a short to medium campaign's setting quite quickly, while adding depth, cohesion, logic, and a lived-in, storied sense to your world in play. As a design method, it’s actually really simple and quite fast, but the fact that so much setting advice online pushes in the opposite direction makes me think that it’s worth me pointing out this approach as an option. Here it is:

+ In just a few sentences, articulate a basic main concept for your setting.

+ Get or sketch a regional map that fits with that concept. 

+ Next, write a very brief summary of your setting’s history; in particular, write a 1-3 sentence description of 3 or 4 eras/periods leading up to the present. 

+ Now, for each of those 3-4 periods, and moving in order from the past to the present (this is important), mark on your map approximately 3-5 locations that were most significant for the history of that period. You can even push it about 7 locations if you want, but don’t think of this as a comprehensive map of all features from that period; just identify the main places of most interest. They can be new sites just built in this era, or there may be continuity of some important sites across periods - but they should make coherent sense in the developing story of your setting. As you do all this, take brief notes narrating the history as you add locations to the map. 

Again, the key idea behind all this is to start in the past, and narrate forward to the present; to build your locations from bottom to top (thinking in terms of archaeological strata). Some sites are created from scratch in every period, but there are often important reasons that old sites are continued, rebuilt, destroyed, and/or commemorated. Let your setting embrace that range of interactions with the past; build from bottom to top. 

Below, I’m going to walk through an example of this process. In terms of creative brainstorming time (and not time spent making the map a bit fancier for the blog), it took me a little under an hour to come up with a narratively-coherent setting with over a dozen places for hypothetical PCs to explore.

CAVEAT: As reader Jorunkun has astutely pointed out, there's a problem with the way I drew my rivers here! I stand by my method for imagining a society's history, but don't be like me, kids ... don't split your rivers! See the comments for more details, and thanks to Jorunkun for this helpful critique.

Let's walk through my approach.  


Ok, here’s my general idea: at the terminus of an important trade-route in a Bronze- to Iron-Age setting with a swords-and-sorcery vibe, two human societies and an aggressive frogman population are vying for domination. One of the human societies (a foreign colonizing empire), along with  the frogmen, have turned to necromantic sorcery (lately, for some reason, I’m really digging the idea of amphibian or fish humanoid villains…that are also undead). 

Ok, there’s my concept. Not the most original stuff in the world, but it is more than enough to get started. 


Here’s one I threw together for this exercise. 

Key features include a pass between the mountains at the map bottom and the river-drainage network that runs up to the sea beyond those mountains.  You may notice that this base map lacks the forest regions that are on the final end-state map. That is deliberate; even though I’m envisioning this setting as heavily forested, I’m assuming that settlements and land-clearing may wreak havoc on any forest borders I might ink in at this point, so I’ll adjust at the end and put in blocks of forests where I think they’d still be when I’m done crafting the setting (if a habitat like that matters during the process, one can always add them mid-flow). For now, again, I just assume that many or most of the big river plain areas visible are thickly wooded. 


Ok, since my setting concept doesn’t require me to lay out a 15,000 year history, I’m certainly not going to do that. Here are the periods that I laid out, in just enough detail to get me going:

Period 1: humans coming over that mountain pass carry tin and amber to exchange with a port-town of far-away sailors (NW coast). Human settlement, dominated by the local population coming from the inland pass, intensifies. Vicious Frogmen live in the northeastern river delta and are avoided by all humans. 

Period 2: Frogmen become numerous and aggressive, and expand in force to the Long Lake, cutting easy human trade downriver. As trade falters, a new foreign nation from overseas conquers and administers the port city on the NW coast. They employ sorcerers and necromancers; in uneasy alliance with the locals, they push back the frogmen.

Period 3: an exiled sorcerer from that city flees to the frogmen and establishes himself as a necromantic warlord over their armies. In a long war with the necromancer, the inland settlements are exhausted and weakened but they finally prevail. 

Period 4/Present Day: Now, in the wake of that war a few generations ago, the coastal city is strong (and wicked), and successor chieftains in the south are relying on their trade goods to put together new, rival war bands to fill the inland power vacuum. The undead and the frogs are still a threat, but they are in retreat or in hiding. 


This is the fun part. What I like in particular is how often doing this surprises me; the story of my setting will take interesting turns that I didn’t see coming, and which fit with but weren’t dictated by my initial concept declarations above. 


1 The foreign port city on the NW coast (let’s name it DRAEL). Its ships have trade connections to gold and exotic goods, which get traded here for inland trade goods coming downriver from the mountain pass.

2 A stronghold at the south end of Long Lake is the seat of princelings who control this end of the trade route. Let’s call this inland culture the KOLOVAD. They have inland access to both amber and tin (from over the pass) and copper (in the eastern mountains here on the map). 

3 The Kolovad princes maintain a fortified caravanserai and boat harbor at the first navigable point below the southern mountain pass. Here, caravans coming over the southern pass unload wares into boats which will take goods to (2) and then on to (1). 

4 Farming villages above (2) support the chiefdom/emerging proto-state here.  

5 Frogmen villages in the delta cluster around a central frog-stronghold. Men know not to head this way. 


A: The Frogmen population expands, and the creatures aggressively push inland along the rivers and lakeshores. They found three new strongholds (all labeled “A”) which cut the river trade with Drael, the coastal port. They raid upriver past the Kolovad princeling’s stronghold, harry farming villages, and infiltrate small frogmen bands into the streams and pools of the southern mountains (mainly along the eastern branch; note the Frogmen settlement icon in the western foothills of the mountains). 

B: As trade along the river is cut, the Kolovad princelings respond by opening an overland route crossing the hills to the Northwest. They build a stronghold and caravanserai in the hills to give shelter, security, and oversight. Nonetheless, trade overall falters as the efficient boat transit is threatened. 

C: As trade falters, the prestige of the Kolovad princelings is threatened. Ambitious Kolovad men controlling the southern boat harbor upriver make a bid for power, cutting off all access to trade goods. Civil war breaks out among the Kolovad communities along the river.

D: Meanwhile the coastal port city Drael, weakened by the loss in trade, falls to a new foreign group: the Iron League, named not only for their command of the grey metal but also for their hard, cruel governance.

The Kolovad march to war? European Bronze Age minis from Foundry.

I’ll end here and add an Era 2.B as this is getting pretty involved.


A: Fighting with iron and sorcery, the Iron League pushes up-river and razes the frogman strongholds that block riverine trade. Leaving those loathsome structures in ruins, the Iron League build their own forts on the opposite bank to hold each disputed river-mouth (both labelled “A”). 

B: In exchange for major concessions, the Iron League arms and aids the Kolovad princeling, helping him crush his rivals upriver to the south. This leaves major bad feeling among the Kolovad but restores order and (forced) unity for now. In exchange, the Kolovad prince surrenders the hilltop caravanserai (B), which the Iron League convert into an academy for their sorcerers. 

C: A rival school of Iron League sorcerers opens their own monastic academy, too, in the northern hills at (C).

D: Finally, the Iron League insists on leaving a garrison to “help” the Kolovad prince at his chief settlements. 


A: Rivalry between sorcerous Iron League factions breaks out into vicious fighting at Drael; the sorcerers’ academies in the hills are both burned and abandoned during this disorder(A). 

B: The chief instigator, a sinister necromancer, is outlawed and flees inland. He gains the loyalty of the inland Iron League garrisons - except at (B), the stronghold on the east shore of Long Lake, which he leaves in ruins, and at (C), the Kolovad upriver boat-harbor.

D: The necromancer then seizes power-behind-the-throne via the League’s garrison at Kolovad (D). This is the last straw for the embittered southern Kolovad, who renounce their loyalty again to the line of their princes. Aided by the Iron League garrison at (C), and sending overland messengers, they make common cause with the main Iron League force at the port city; meeting, their forces confront the Necromancer in battle. Kolovad (D), the old seat of princes, is burned and destroyed as the Necromancer flees northeast to the frogmen. (Remaining Iron League garrisons surrender to their city’s main army). 


The Necromancer fled a generation ago into the swamps of the northeastern river. There are reports (or speculations) that he now leads the frogmen, who draw strength from his dark sorcery. The Iron League, in its port city, has been battered by their own civil disorder, but they probably are the single strongest player in the land - for now. The people of Kolovad have lost their own chief stronghold; a new house of princes is emerging in the south, but leadership remains fraught and uncertain. The land is now dotted with ruins; some are empty save for whining winds; others are places of hungry nightmares. 


So there we are. If you ignore the time I spent gussying up the map to get pics ready for the blog, the actual creative time coming up with that narrative outline took me a bit under an hour. If I had been in a hurry, I likely could have done it in closer to half an hour. In other words, one can come up with something like this from scratch in a fairly short period of time. What do you gain from this sequential, narrative approach to setting design?

Well, for one thing, we now have a mini-sandbox with over a dozen diverse places for PCs to explore and get themselves into trouble. PCs might be Kolovad warriors, Iron League minor nobles, or foreign merchants arriving by ship or mountain-caravan to seek fortune in this strange land. There are ruined academies of sorcery, fallen towers, razed frogmen strongholds, and a burned Kolovad capital city that I imagine is still crawling with the dark and unclean energies released there by the Necromancer - who is himself, no doubt, stirring up unspeakable things in the swampy forests to the northeast. Alternately, if we favor a bit more social-political intrigue instead, there are ambitious prince-wannabes among the Kolovad successors who need strong arms to help them rise - and probably rival Iron League merchant houses in Drael hiring competent muscle to guard and advance their interests. 

Moreover, if the PCs head to any of those dozen-plus locations, I as DM would already have some sense of the general history of the place. Off to dungeon-crawl the ruined sorcerer’s academy in the hills between Drael and Kolovad? Great; it started as a fortified caravanserai, so I should map a ruined structure with animal stables and granaries and barracks - as well as arcane laboratories and archives. Exploring ruins on the east side of Long Lake instead? The razed Iron League fort was burned just a generation ago, so there hasn't been much time for it to be picked clean, or for ancient horrors to set up studio apartments there. On the other hand, when it comes to the ruined frog-stronghold across the river…who knows what awful, older things live in the muck-filled (and maybe gold-filled) tunnels beneath the ruins? 

Finally, of course, I'm free to keep adding as much further detail as I want, including new locations. But everything moving forward would be grounded by the context already established; I have a framework that new puzzle pieces fit into.

Again, in one sense this is a very simple method that you may not find  remarkable. But so many setting-design advice pieces separate history from location design, and I wanted to advocate for the benefit of treating the two together. The other way isn't wrong, but I think this method offers real benefits. Let me know what you think, both of this method and of this impromptu setting! 

Best wishes - ‘Gundobad’


  1. Interesting. A lot of good stuff here.

    1. Thanks - let me know if it proves helpful at some point! :-)

  2. Thank you. This is a good tool to keep in mind.

  3. Once again, great work. I like that you both outline a process and provide a worked example.

    That said, let me be THAT GUY and lecture you on hydrology . As a general rule, rivers don't split and lakes don't have more than one outflow. There are exceptions (bifurcation lakes, river deltas, temporary outflows when it rains a lot), but they are rare.

    Harrumph :)

    1. Hah! Thanks for keeping me honest!!! :-)

    2. Jorunkun, my quick comment last night was en route to bed. Taking a moment for a more full reply - thanks for being "that guy!" You've identified something that is important and easy to fix; I appreciate the critique. As I think about, yeah, duh - water seeking escape downhill is unlikely to find multiple paths of least resistance at the same plane of elevation ... (except on quite flat grades where sediment drops, I suppose, thus deltas and braided streams?).
      Your comment/critique is a great illustration of the value of having lots of different perspectives involved in these conversations. Thanks for helping me make my stuff better. I've added a caveat in the blog post right before the first map warning folks away from my mistake. ;-)

    3. Haha, I didn't want to be that guy! But yeah, river deltas will lead to sediment deposits and then islands may form as sand banks turn into larger islands. But I think this only works close to the sea. But then I looked at the Ganges river delta...

    4. Don't worry, no offense taken. Just don't let me catch you splitting your rivers again, son.

      Seriously though, I know I was being a smartarse - but folks like us who obsess over the finer points of world-building don't often get a chance to show off, so I just had to pounce.

    5. Yeah, no worries at all. :-)

    6. It's clear why the narrative reason for the fork is there, the frogmen need access to cut the tradelines between the human civs. The easy map fix would be to make the frogmen ocean an inland lake or enormous marsh and reverse the direction of flow on your river.

  4. For my setting I had made the decision that the ancient past is almost completely unknown to the inhabitants of the present day. They see the many ancient ruins but are left to wonder how they got there and who made them. So there is not much in the way of history.
    What I did instead was to outline six very distinctive architectural styles that are not simply about decorative elements but also a consistent logic about how structures are laid out and what building sites were chosen. This also extends to the types of artifacts that are commonly found in chambers that have remained unopened to this day. There is no way anyone could possibly mistake the ruins of the Tower Builders, the Rock Carvers, the Tree Weavers, and the Glass Makers.

    Chronologically, some of these lost cultures overlapped, but usually there is a very strong order which ruins can be found on top of others. Glass Maker ruins are always at the very bottom, while Naga ruins are always at the top.

    No clue how long a campaign it would take for the players to even notice the patters, and then gaining any useful information for their future planning from them. But I still feel that the effort is very much worth it.

    1. Very cool. Particularly useful for integrating 'prehistoric' cultures without writing (or without deciphered writings) in your setting. Of course, you could ideally combine both approaches for a setting with historical texts, too - material culture is also important for distinguishing past settings. Great ideas!

  5. This is super helpful, thanks a lot.

  6. Great idea! I think the aspect of having the players walk into a new place and having a history already prepared is really handy.

    I wrote out a few tables for anyone needing inspiration for cultures to introduce:

  7. Good stuff ! Being an (ancient) historian myself, I can appreciate the effort. I looked at the other post on your blog on the subject and they are very interesting.

  8. As someone raised by 3(!) archaeologists, this blog is a great resource, and it gets me excited to see history applied to RPGs in a way that adds to the game


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