This article is a follow-up to my earlier Campaign Setting Design article. It expands somewhat on the idea of entities (there called ‘features’; I have formalized the structures somewhat).
I will be providing some greater description of the techniques I use to develop settings and scenarios. In order to do that clearly, I need to provide some definitions. There are other terms that will come up later, but these ones will be common to all articles in this series.
- Entities are any story elements significant enough to document, but not purely mechanical elements.
- Scope Levels define and limit how ‘big’ an entity is. An entity with encounter scope (the bandits mentioned below) is unlikely to have impact on the setting as a whole, while an entity with setting scope (such as a god) clearly can.
I now try to design everything using ‘entities’. An entity is any game element significant enough to document relating to setting, campaign, or scenario design. Purely mechanical elements such as ‘feats’, ‘classes’, and so on are not themselves entities, though entities may be defined in part by mechanical elements (an organization’s description may identify a prestige class often taken by members of the organization).
An ‘entity’ is anything significant enough to document for my game. This is most often a person, place, or thing (which might be a physical object, or a concept, or an event, or some other thing that is not a creature or place). Thus, almost anything can be an entity.
In defining entities, I have three general sections to each entity. There is also an optional fourth section that defines the entity mechanically.
Campaign or Scenario Role
What purpose does this entity have in the campaign or scenario? Why do we care about it?
- ‘Theme’ is a very brief description of the entity, usually one sentence or so.
- ‘Threat’ is how the entity might either change or maintain the status quo.
- ‘Reward’ is what you can get from the entity or why you might seek the entity out.
The first element is a story-level description of the entity (“ambitious prince with rigid ethics” or “massive wall of ice, growing larger by the year”). It is perhaps one of the shortest and simplest elements, but may be the most important.
The second element might outline the entity’s goals (“succeed the throne as soon as possible, without usurpation”), approach to his goals (“gain enough political power to force his father to step down”), or things he works against (“prevent the formation of a constitutional monarchy” – he wants all the power himself). Even non-sentient entities might be a threat to something. The Icewall glacier is moving south and grinding entire counties down without reason or mercy (hey, it’s what a glacier does, sometimes), or has blocked a critical mountain pass and prevents trade between neighboring kingdoms. This element might be best described as identifying why other entities in the campaign or scenario care about it.
The third point is awkwardly described, but loosely it identifies why someone might seek this entity out. The ambitious prince is a potential path to power if he is successful (and may be able to provide an introduction to court if it suits him), the Icewall has at its heart Everfrost (special ice that has unusual benefits regarding cold magics), and so on.
What entities does this entity connect to?
An entity that is unconnected to anything else really doesn’t have much role in the campaign. A wizard who spends all his time in his tower researching a spell is little more than a curiosity. On the other hand, if he’s a senior member of the Academy of Ter Liatri (relationship! He might be a link to the Academy, or vice-versa) researching a spell at the personal request of the Emperor (relationship! Might be a link to the Emperor here, or maybe he’s the power behind the throne) to drive away the armies of Trollskov (relationship! Trollskov would greatly like to see this wizard dead, if they know about him) he’s of rather greater significance. In my opinion, he’s also now rather more interesting.
Relationships can probably be categorized as ‘ally’, ‘enemy’, and so on, but at this point I think it difficult to quantify all the possibilities. For instance, a deity might have relationships to religions (organizations), heralds (high-level representatives), allies (lesser, normal, and greater, per the planar ally spells), enemies (deities who he opposes or who oppose him), and so on. I usually leave the Relationships section fairly freeform, but where there are common relationships I may explicitly mention them to remind myself to populate them. I may formalize other entity relationship types later as I get a better feel for them.
In the examples above, the ambitious prince clearly has a relationship to his father the king (trying to get him to abdicate, after all), presumably has allies in the court (and enemies who oppose his bid for the throne), and so on. The Icewall presumably doesn’t care about anyone, but might be growing as part of a mighty wizard’s plan, be the home of a horde of white dragons, be somehow held back by a circle of powerful druids, or be about to crush a significant town.
Description and Identification
This section indicates how players can know or identify the entity.
- ‘Description’ is a physical description of the entity.
- ‘Signature’ is common signs of the entity being present or involved in something.
- ‘Location’ is where you might generally (or will) find the entity.
‘Description’ is the simplest one. What does the entity look (and smell and sound and taste and… etc.) like? Not all the senses need be present (remember, three is a good number) but in the entity definition may well be just so they may be consistently presented.
‘Signature’ is how you can know the entity is present or involved in a situation without necessarily directly observing it. For instance, in one scenario it was easy to tell that particular murders were involved because the hearts of the victims were all removed in exactly the same way. In another case the mere presence of a particular other entity might be seen as a signature (in The Elenium trilogy by David Eddings, seeing Adus meant that Martel was almost certainly somewhere nearby because Adus was too dumb and unreliable to be trusted on a mission without close management).
‘Location’ is where you could expect to find the entity. In the case of places, this is usually almost a definition (the Ship and Siren is a dockside tavern in Northport; barring tectonic shifts and the like it doesn’t move around). With more mobile entities it could be almost as static (the wizard mentioned above can most likely be found either at his tower, at the Academy… but might be visiting the emperor, in transit between one of these places, doing some field research for his spell, or just out for a night on the town). In other cases the entity’s location might just be a general description (Telwas the artificer can usually be found either near a crafter broadening his education, or in a high-end brothel… broadening his other education, as it were).
This is an optional section that defines how the entity is implemented by the game rules. This might include environmental effects (for places), race and level for characters, and so on.
This section is optional because it is perhaps the least useful in design in general, and really only relevant when the entity is going to come up in play.
An entity may be defined as being associated with a particular scope level described below. I will use the Forgotten Realms as an example.
In many cases, instances of the scope levels below may themselves be entities.
A setting consists of a common set of entities. Multiple campaigns can take place within a single setting.
Toril, the world of the Forgotten Realms, can be considered a setting. It is important to realize, though, that a setting need not be at the world level. If everything happens in Waterdeep and nothing outside the city is important, Waterdeep could be considered the setting (stuff might happen outside, but it doesn’t matter).
The gods are shared across all stories in the Forgotten Realms, and thus can be considered entities with ‘setting scope’.
A campaign is a set of related scenarios, taking place in a particular setting. A campaign may itself be an entity (have a theme, cause change to the setting, have links to other campaigns, and so on). Campaigns are often presented in a linear fashion (the GDQ series of modules may be considered a campaign where the PCs are expected to move linearly from one module to the next), probably largely because of the work required to prepare each scenario. I can see ways this need not be so, though.
In the Forgotten Realms, Shandril’s Saga (Spellfire, Crown of Fire, Hand of Fire) could be considered a campaign, as could the Elminster series (Elminster: Making of a Mage, Elminster in Myth Drannor, The Temptation of Elminster, Elminster in Hell, and Elminster’s Daughter).
Assuming Shandril and the Knights of Myth Drannor are only encountered in the “Shandril’s Saga” campaign, they would have campaign scope.
A scenario is a set of related encounters. These can be the equivalent to published ‘adventures’ and ‘modules’.
This is probably the most cohesive and least coupled level to consider scope for. It usually has well-defined start and end points. The entities within a scenario tend to be more tightly coupled than at higher scope levels.
In a game sense, the individual books of the campaigns mentioned above might document individual scenarios that were played out.
Characters that exist only for a single scenario would have ‘scenario scope’. I honestly don’t remember the books well enough to come up with specific, detailed examples. I think the dracolich in the first book would be one, since it gets obliterated at the end of the book.
An encounter is an interaction between the PCs and one or more entities, where the result is resolved during play. It is the lowest level of detail that I design to (mechanical representation of entities is a different matter entirely).
Nameless Bandit 1, Nameless Bandit 2, and Nameless Bandit 3 (who showed up long enough to try to mug the party before getting left dead in a ditch) might be entities with encounter scope. They might not even have an entity definition, though I would question the need to include them at all if I can’t define them as entities. More likely, I would define them as a group to justify their existence (perhaps they are scenario dressing making it clear the woods are dangerous, or have a relationship with and can provide a clue to a mastermind behind them).
Generally an entity has scope equal to the lowest level that can encapsulate everywhere that the entity is relevant. Elminster shows up in many Forgotten Realms campaigns (as defined above), and thus is an entity with setting scope.
As shown above, entities can exist at multiple scope levels. In fact, a particular entity may take part in things at many levels. Elminster is a character with setting scope, and is a significant character in the “Spellfire scenario”.
Note that an entity might have links to entities outside their own scope, without leaving scope themselves. For instance, Shandril might ‘appear’ only in the “Shandril’s Saga” campaign, but clearly has links outside it (Elminster for certain, and the Cult of the Dragon can probably be considered one as well).
As a general rule, play at a particular scope level might affect the next larger scope level. For instance, the culmination of the Avatar Series “campaign” resulted in some major changes among and to the gods themselves. Entities at a particular scope level can be expected to be able to directly affect each other and certainly affect entities at lower scopes.
However, entities at a particular scope level generally don’t get involved more than one scope level lower. For example, Mystra may well be a significant entity in a campaign relating to her or her interests, but is unlikely to play a major role in an arbitrary scenario that is not part of that campaign. Her clerics or other followers may well be significant (the scenario might be to cause a new Magister to be chosen, which in this case might have relevance at a campaign level but not setting level), but Mystra herself is unlikely to be involved.
Game design happens at many levels, depending on what specifically is being worked on. I use the levels described above.
It is possible to work at just about any scope level described above. I have designed encounters for people (including one involving a fiendish ogre mage and his devilish minions), scenarios (entire ‘adventures’ for my players). I’ve spent a fair bit of time on setting development. I’ll be honest, in the past I have conflated ‘campaigns’ with ‘settings’ (by the definitions above) and really didn’t get designed so much as happen… but I can see their place in this structure.
I try hard to avoid linear design now. All of the levels above (except perhaps setting, the ultimate container for this structure) can be developed using similar techniques and tools. This can and should be able to produce a setting consisting of non-linear set of campaigns, each consisting of a non-linear set of scenarios, with a non-linear set of encounters. Because of the size of the higher-level items it might not be practical to actually design all the possible PC activities, but since the techniques can be applied at varying level of detail it may be sufficient to do the high-level definition and drill down as needed.