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Author Topic: Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General  (Read 402 times)

PeaceRibbon

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Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General
« on: January 01, 2020, 06:40:03 PM »
Realm of Succor is a personal campaign setting I have been drawing up ideas for over the course of last year, intended as a way for me to have an established world in place to set the tabletop games I GM for in the long term. I confess as an amateur member of the hobby however that I'm unaware of how such a project is properly written and organized. From simple questions like "what needs to be written?" to more slightly more nuanced questions like "what elements are better written on a campaign-to-campaign basis?" I find the prospect of creating a v1.0 of the setting highly difficult without some feedback and direction from more well-versed writers.

With that in mind, I'm going to share the general contents of my writings here to give an idea of what I've been working on, and after a little discussion hopefully create an outline for everything I need to write to make this a functional tool in my GM's toolbox. As a thank you, all ideas I share here a free for anyone's use in their campaigns. Also keep in mind I'll be using First Edition Pathfinder as the system I designed it from if any talk of specific mechanics arises (though I'm sure it's perfectly adaptable to other systems), but know that I only own the core rules and the first bestiary to so there's no need to worry about super advanced alternate rules.

Feel free to look at these writings as more "tone" establishing rather than hard facts about the setting, albeit I don't foresee the finished product being too off from them either. Most of the names I gave locations or other original creations are just words translated though Google into various languages, mashups of two translated words, or outright gibberish so I apologize if y'all cringe but I'm open to changing them.

[SPOILER]
When I set out to make a setting all my own, I knew it needed to lend itself well to particular kinds of stories to be told, and that it needed to do things different enough to justify not using the rulebook's core setting. Fortunately, this idea came pretty easily to me. Most tabletop RPGs seem to focus hard on the most fantastical of scenarios and the most dangerous of threats. In light of that I wondered what the game might look like if it was set in a world not fraught with cataclysmic dangers, but simply harried by smaller scale threats. A world where the stories aren't about the epic stand of the heroes to barely hold together the world as they know it, but the more intimate stories about bands of adventurers who face threats to protect the homes, people, and ideals they cherish. That's not to say major threats couldn't arise, but if the party died the aftermath would more be neighboring countries needing to run damage serious control rather than the doom of all that is. The other big goal was to make the setting approachable, as I know it'd likely see use with casual non-gamers based on my friend groups

The setting itself takes place on a world with four continents (or at least four discovered continents), and the design was heavily inspired by the spirit of the Age of Exploration and my own need to keep things manageable. In the eastern hemisphere there are two continents. The northernmost continent of Einheit is essentially Europe, with 9 countries crammed onto a single land mass and overall the most known area of the world in terms of what's where. To the south east is the continent of Leben, a land defined by the duality between the gently rolling hills and plains where people flourish, and the vast deserts rife with hardship and old ruins with clues about the fate of those regions (this one was inspired by the Starfinder planet Verces). In the western hemisphere there is one large continent called Neuwald, whose thick forests have yet to be penetrated and explored by civilization. Linking southwest Leben to south Neuwald is a vast archipelago called the Miriam Isles, which has its share of settled islands and complete mysteries, with the former becoming less common the further west one sails. By this setup, I've aimed to have Realm of Succor support multiple kinds of campaigns and writing styles, depending on weather the story needs a more detailed base to go off of for intrigue, or a deliberately underwritten area for more discovery based narratives. This also gives the layout of the world a pleasing U shape which I find easy to picture in my head.

The setting currently has a total of 16 countries written. As I mentioned Einheit has 9 of them, and I do have some reservations about how well I've managed to differentiate them, but I am fairly satisfied with most of them. It includes two racial capitals, a large country which admittedly needs a little more fleshing out for one so large but essentially functions as a mini United States in terms of structure, a kingdom that proudly and stubbornly survives despite bearing the brunt of the trouble that comes from the one major unclaimed area on the continent, an altruistic kingdom, a kingdom of the arts, an insular but well-meaning military state, a feudal state, and a small dukedom trying to gain wealth. Leben has 4 and feels perhaps a bit underdeveloped at present but I'm confident that something's at least there. It has a holy land, a nobleman's getaway, a country with lots of martial traditions, and a kingdom valued by others mostly for its proximity to the Miriam Isles (this one I'll definitely take another pass on at some point). The Miriam Isles is a bit more experimental in than the rest in that conceptually the biggest island near Leben (Nue Larum) is a heavily urbanized island lead by four noble houses who sponsor new settlements on other islands in exchange for having governmental oversight, essentially making Nue Larum a seat of ever expanding power, kept in check only by the shared authority of the houses. Finally Neuwald has 2 countries, both on the southern edge of the continent. I like these ones because each culture can look at the other and peer through time in doing so, seeing either where they came from, or where they are working towards. One is a country of mainly entrepreneurs and adventurers that has recently come into its own despite its relative youth, and the other is barely a country at all and feels more like a frontier or a colony.

In terms or races, the setting is currently written with four big ones, Humans, Dwarves, Half-Elves, and Half-Orcs. Now this spread is definitely odd so let's take it slow. Humans are obviously the simplest to understand and don't really need an explanation so I won't bore you. Half-Orcs are mostly unchanged from their origins as being born of orcish atrocity against humans, but as a major race one can assume the human parents of these children have acted significantly more ideally towards them than another setting might assume. I get that's not particularly realistic, but I figured I'd just embrace it. With the half-elves, I saw an opportunity where it could be that true elves were one of the major races in antiquity, but some event caused them to die off or disappear, leaving the half-elves as the remaining evidence of their existence. I thought this could give them a unique paradigm, with elements like their racial capital being an inherited country rather than something of their own making, and culturally really stand out. I should mention though that between the humans, half-elves, and half-orcs, I envisioned them to be overall more of a cultural unit rather than three completely separate entities, which I think allows them to be played more flexibly than the usual fantasy concept of "race." After all, they share a common ancestry in their humanity. The game calls them races, but in practice I see them as more distinct variations of human rather than totally different things. This leaves the dwarf race, who I've also written with respect to the disappearance of the elves. I imagine elves are seen from an archetypal standpoint as the wise guides for their shorter-lived contemporaries. In a setting where they disappeared, I thought that it would be interesting if the second longest lived race would rise to fill that role. Effectively, the dwarves as written did exist in the setting's history, but upon winning the title of longest lived race they had a cultural shift where they trimmed their beards and watched how much ale they downed per night. Obviously their words of wisdom are different from what the elves might have said, but the point being they take up that role for the other three races where they otherwise may never have. I also included some minor races in Tengu, Aasimar, and Tiefling for those players who really want some extra options but their overall prevalence is appropriately small so I won't detail them here.

This next section I think I would normally scribe later down, but I think I'll need it for context in the Classes section. This is also the point where most people are going to write me off as a loser and I lose my credibility but here we go. When it comes to cosmology, I have elected to just use a fantasy rendition of Catholicism for it. I know, its really silly but hear me out. I meet a lot of people through church communities and if I run a game with some people from them, I'd like to make jumping into the roleplay as easy as possible for them. From personal experience, trying to assume the role of an adherent of another faith while having strong convictions in real life can feel super awkward and the last thing I want to do is make my friends uncomfortable by telling them they can only play cleric or paladin if they pretend to worship some nerdy deity. I know I'm a lot more comfortable in those roles if I can just play as a Catholic. Admittedly, this is an element of the setting I'm willing to essentially reskin based on group needs, but when detailing the setting this is just what I really wanna write, and you are 100% allowed to think less of me for it. In any case I'll only really mention this wherever it was a hard influence on the design of the setting like in the next section so I promise I tried to make it a part of the setting rather than the whole foundation of it. Besides I just really think monotheism helps the project stand out.

For classes, the setting narrows it down to just 6. Barbarian, Cleric, Fighter, Monk, Paladin, and Rouge. The setting felt more internally consistent if the faith was the only way to produce caster abilities, so that is why the arcane classes (though put a pin in these) and the nature casting classes were removed (I know there's magic-based rouge talents but I figured those would be easy enough to re-flavor as gizmos or techniques so I gave it a pass). The classes themselves haven't changed much in flavor, just the cleric having more limited options, and the monk's ki points making more sense as something less mystical, such as representing their stamina to perform their feats. I will say though, I am totally going to reinterpret barbarian rage as simply "a burst of emotion" and encourage players to enter the rage state through whichever emotion sounds the most fun for their character (sobbing berserkers anyone?).

Of course all these character options are fine as they are, but as the power is scaled eventually the characters are going to reach a point where the only thing that will challenge them is those battles against extinction or similarly over the top situations, which is why my most significant change to the rules will be the setting by default capping at level 10. This has some other ripple effects such as creating a limitation on what magic items and enchantments can exist (which is already limited by what spells are on the cleric spell list) but ultimately those effects don't bother me in the face of weaving the kinds of adventures the setting strives to achieve.

Now to finish up with some smaller things I made notes of in no particular order. The bestiary, aside from having high CR monsters that just won't work in lvl10 max setting, is definitely at the mercy of weather or not I think any given category of monster makes sense in the setting, but I am thinking of ways of applying into the world in new ways. For example to gives entities like zombies precedent without introducing arcane necromancy outright, I came up with the gems of dark power called Blightstones which could essentially act as cores for them, or "hearts" if you will. In fact maybe these buggers could be responsible for all kinds of phenomena like corrupting people who hold on to them for too long and giving them eldritch powers at the cost of their sanity, which would give the arcane caster stat blocks and Spell Immunity something to do. Additionally I do plan to make original monsters for the setting too. I've been working for starters to make my own monstrous races so I do not have be obligated to put Goblins in the setting for example, though at present they are aggressively under powered and I have some anxieties about their physical descriptions feeling too amateurish.

You may have noticed a few moments in my pitches where history seems to play a big part in the current state of the world, but honestly when I tried making a timeline of world events I found myself having a hard time to come up with stuff to plot out and how to space it out so the progression of time felt natural, so I wonder if making a timeline specifically is really all that important.

I also tried writing up a few international factions to give the world a collection of organizations that felt relatively omnipresent, but other than the church I couldn't think of anything that really called for it so I may rework what this category actually refers to so I can write about more globally shared things easier.

Finally I did write up some "iconics" to get a feel for how player characters might look in my world, but this was done mostly for fun and they felt bare bones anyways.
[/SPOILER]

Go ahead and share any ideas you have about what a good setting has detailed in advance, some thoughts on my writings, or anything else you'd like to share. This took way longer to write than I thought but I'll get back to any questions, comments, or requests as soon as I can starting tomorrow. And if you all really like my ideas, I could periodically give updates on the project or share other applicable content here in the future too.
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Winterblight

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Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General
« Reply #1 on: January 02, 2020, 09:16:53 AM »
Hi,

My first question is who other than yourself will be reading this?

If you intend to share it in any way, be it with friends, forums, blogs, or even self-publishing, it needs more structure than if it is for your eyes only as a GM.

I find one of the best ways to figure out what is needed is to look at existing published settings and note down their structure. You normally don't have to go much further than the contents page. Most settings use broad strokes to highlight the major areas of importance and then focus a little more detail in one specific area. This is normally the default area of play where the adventurers are likely to begin. More detailed setting information comes later in the form of sourcebooks.

When I write a history, I write the history, then add the timeline of events as a consolidation of that history. Don't get lost in the history and don't write anything that has no importance to your game world. Going back to the point of creation is usually worthless, as is writing pages of creation myths unless they impact on how the game is played and impact on the lives of the player characters and inform what they do and see in the game. In addition, your history probably shouldn't be full of bold earthshattering events and near-apocalyptic-misses as these are not the kind of events your players are going to be getting involved with and you don't want to overshadow their achievements from the outset.

The history is always the place I start writing. I let the history inform the setting and shape the land and people. Resist the temptation to make each country or city radically different just to be different. This can be jarring. Borrow from history, but try to avoid recreating it out of context.
If your player characters are going to be focusing on smaller scale threats, perhaps you don't need to start out with multiple continents and countries, just acknowledge they are there, but focus on the small stuff, factions, criminal organisations, small towns, isolated communities, mysterious, but not overly dramatic events.

I don't have much to say on religion other than unless the game is going to focus on it, it's probably not worth getting into in great detail.  
If the setting is for your eyes only, there is no real need to go into a lot of detail anywhere, unless you simply want to do it for the fun of it. I have a number of homebrew settings that are consist of a decent map, lots of bullet points and notes, but little else. I know the world, so I don't need to write it down in a way that others need to understand it.

PeaceRibbon

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Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General
« Reply #2 on: January 02, 2020, 12:50:39 PM »
Thanks for the comment! In terms of who is the intended audience, I hope that a formalized writing can be used as universal background reading I can send to a player so they can spend less time asking "is this common knowledge or do I need a history check for it?" during the actual game. Beyond that, I'd like to make it publicly available somewhere like World Anvil or somewhere similar because this stuff takes a lot of time and passion to make, so if making it public helps spark ideas in even one other person I will have made something that benefited more than just me, and that's a sentiment I'd appreciate. If you have any published settings, professional or otherwise, to recommend as study material for structure feel free to offer them here!

Your suggestions on setting history definitely makes the task seem MUCH more digestible so I'll look into isolating the most important events/eras and making some entries about them. This might also help me create stronger identities for the countries as well. Your suggestions about factions and organizations is also great, and I'll see about making greater effort on this front too. On the whole, I think the best approach from this perspective would be to focus in on Einheit as the beating heart of the setting due to its density (I like urban adventures a lot), and touch on the other areas as potential "visits" for a beginner group, with those continents being more fleshed out in bonus articles or as a part of campaigns.
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Winterblight

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Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General
« Reply #3 on: January 02, 2020, 05:03:47 PM »
What I've done in the past is look through DriveThru and pick a handful of games in the genre i'm writing about and look at the previews. The previews nearly always gives you the table of contents, or a good part of it. It's a good way of making sure you haven't forgot something obvious and gives an idea how content is structured.

I've been meaning to check out World Anvil for a while now, but haven't got around to it yet.

Nobby-W

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Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General
« Reply #4 on: January 04, 2020, 12:47:18 PM »
World building is fun, and (speaking as an inveterate world builder) you do need to take it far enough so that your game setting hangs together, but ...

Folks don't really get off on a 'big book of canon' as much as one might think, and the detail also matters less than you might think in day-to-day play.  You might be better off revealing your 'verse on a 'show, don't tell' basis, integrated into your adventures, rather than trying to design it all in a big bang.  This approach has two strengths:

  • If you're planning to publish the material the process of incremental revelation is fun.  As a customer, you read a little with each published supplement or adventure, and it leaves you hungry for more.  By comparison, reading through a big book of canon can be a bit boring or sterile.  To a greater or lesser extent this also applies to your own players in your campaign.
  • It gives you more flex to evolve the setting with the adventures as you're less likely to have already painted yourself into a corner, and the setting work is more focused on stuff needed for the adventures.  This means your setting work tends to be more detailed where it matters and it pulls its weight rather than you spending time on a bunch of fluff that doesn't really get used.  This is also relevant to publishing material as space comes with a finite cost - bigger books cost more to produce.
Note that this is through the lens of doing something for publication, but for your own stuff the principles are still relevant.

That doesn't mean you can't do detailed world building or build something elaborate up front - I have a series of posts on another forum about building a city in lots of detail for a Blades In The Dark/Scum and Villany hybrid game.  Now, the city is intended in the long run to be a reusable resource (although that also applies to most campaign settings) so it's getting a lot of attention.  However, I do expect it to evolve, and I'm not going to do the whole city to start with - just enough to be a starting point.  

What I'm getting at here is that it's not necessarily best to do all your canon up front, not necessarily best to write it up for your audience up front, and you might get better results in the long run if take an approach that gives it some room to evolve.
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PeaceRibbon

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Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General
« Reply #5 on: January 07, 2020, 09:47:26 AM »
Thank you for the comment! I do appreciate the feedback on the writing's potential density, and it's definitely something I've given thought to. In particular I thought it would be fun to release a general overview in one go, but then perhaps writing smaller pages on elements friends and others get curious about, provided they aren't more appropriately written as part of a campaign, and build up a small bestiary incrementally if I can come up with enough ideas. Room to write in context of a specific campaign will definitely be something I work on so as to keep the setting accessible.
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Nobby-W

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Realm of Succor: Setting Design and Writing in General
« Reply #6 on: January 09, 2020, 12:15:21 PM »
It's worth writing a setting guide for players - a map with key features plus some blurbs about lore, key points of interest, maybe some important NPCs and other features.  Keep it brief, though.  Maybe 10 pages or less to begin with or your players are going to glaze over when they read it.

Then you can drip feed the rest of the setting canon to the players on an as-and-when basis.
My imaginary component makes me complex.  This also means I'm allowed to eat quiche.