The most difficult part of world building or campaign building alike is writer’s block. Realizing that you have a blank in your setting that needs to be filled, but having no idea what to fill it with can be a brutally difficult experience to overcome. Often, flipping through your RPG library will be able to provide you with something cool to use, but sometimes that’s just not the direction that fits best.
Another suggestion often offered is to take ideas from popular movies or books. While these can provide ideas or influences, they can also be very derivative. One frequently overlooked source to tackle for ideas is heading to your local library and picking a topic to research.
Research is often associated in people’s minds with tedium; it is seen as a chore to be done at the behest of professors or employers, not for its own sake. However, nearly all fantasy fiction can trace its roots to folklore and mythology of various cultures, and draws on history for ideas quite often. Going to the source, then, for any aspiring world-builder, can be fertile ground for all sorts of ideas:
- Characters — Your players would probably recognize Legolas or Aragorn if you dropped them into your campaign, but history and folklore are full of characters at least as interesting as any found in more modern fiction. Dracula, the most iconic of vampires, was based loosely on the historical personage of Vlad Tepes—there are any number of other historical dictators or tyrants who might make suitable villains for your campaigns, or heroes to aid the party in opposing them.
- Magic Items — Named weapons are quite common in old tales, and properties attributed to them quite varied. Most people have heard of Excalibur, but it is only the most famous of the legendary swords. Magical garments and jewelry were fairly common as well, and who could forget the Genie of the Lamp? Plumbing the depths of legends and folk tales can provide a wide variety of ideas for magic items at all power levels.
- Locations — While there are plenty of interesting legends of places like Camelot or Atlantis, many real world places would work as excellent foundation for locations in a campaign world. Port Royal during the 16th Century could be a magnificent inspiration for a party of freebooting adventurers looking for any work, for example. Taking real world cities and adding fantastic elements can be a great way to add lively backdrops for adventure to your campaign.
- Cultures — Placing every campaign in the same basically Western European fantasy setting can lead to a generic feel. To spice it up, consider adding elements of other cultures. Even in the era that Western fantasy is supposed to represent, few cultures were completely isolated from outside influences. You can represent this fairly easily in a campaign, whether you do so with well-grounded research or by picking the most interesting passages out of Herodotus with little regard for accuracy—it’s a fantasy you’re creating, so the wilder the claims, the better!
- Adventure Hooks — A potpourri of the above categories, adventure hooks can be hiding anywhere. You might decide to create an adventure based on the depraved predations of a character inspired by Elizabeth Bathory, on the disappearance of a frontier town, inspired by the Roanoke mystery, or on a cunning treasure complex loosely based off the Oak Island treasure in Nova Scotia. You might loot Herodotus for ideas of strange and fantastic things to include, or go digging through myths for tales of heroism to let your players duplicate or surpass.
Even learning more about mundane aspects of life can help you weave a better world. Studying weapons and armor will give you a sense of who might use a given type of weapon, or what cultures might produce them. Something as simple as an examination of what crops might grow in a given climate can lead to in-depth knowledge of the kinds of alcohol that might be available, or the colors of dye that could be produced in a specific part of your campaign world. At the end of the day, even if you do not include the details into the campaign documents for your player, every bit of information you learn can add depth and detail to the campaign world that you might otherwise lack.
One key point here is that proper research techniques are not necessary. Wikipedia works just fine. Heck, some of the wacky fringe sites with “alternative” histories are gold mines. After all, you are looking for inspiration, not fact.
There also was an awesome series of articles in Dragon a few years back. They took one ancient city each month, gave some details about it, and then gave some adventure hooks. Extremely useful stuff.
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