Campaign Setting Design: Putting it all Together

So far, these articles have focused on definitions and theory. This article shows how they can used together to actually craft something.

Summary of Steps

  • Develop the setting, so the campaigns have a place to happen.
  • Develop campaigns, so the player characters have long-term goals and to provide a general direction.
  • Develop scenarios that align with the campaigns, so player characters have short-term goals that take them toward their long-term goals. Not all scenarios need lead toward the long-term goals, there can be benefits (story and otherwise) to scenarios that are not directly related.
  • Develop encounters in the scenarios so the player characters have specific tasks and challenges to meet and complete in achieving their goals.

Each of the steps above gets expanded on below.

Developing the Setting

A setting can be described as a shared milieu for a number of game entities (people, places, things, and so on). Over time, the collection of entities (and thus the setting) grows. The entity definition structure described in Campaign Setting Design – Definitions includes information about the role of each entity, providing thematic identity to each. The definition structure also includes sections describing conflicts (internal or external) involving each entity and relationships each entity has to other entities. This information can be easily mined for scenario hooks. As entities are developed, new entities are identified; a single good idea can spawn many entities that may be of use later. For instance, one of the players for my next planned campaign wants to play a nomadic horse-riding orc. We worked together to outline the Kreshtar Tribes. This one entity led to the creation of more than half a dozen other related entities (describing where the Kreshtar live, the other groups they interact with, and the combat style they favor). As each entity was added, further entities came to mind. It is possible for a single setting designer to create the entities, but I find that working with the players provides several benefits.

  • I can be pretty consistent in my setting design ideas. Involving players early and more deeply in the setting design process can result in ideas that simply would not have occurred to me. This results in greater texture to the setting.
  • Tells me what the players are actually interested in. The nature and detail of the entities they describe gives me a very good clue about what sort of scenarios they would like to play and the setting details they would like to see. Writing scenarios that fit the players’ interests leads to much greater player engagement.

Incidentally, a wiki seems to be a very good way to manage entities. The collection of setting information may not be particularly structured, especially as more entities are added. A wiki’s unstructured nature and ease of editing can lend itself well to setting management.

Developing Campaigns and Scenarios

In this design methodology, campaigns and scenarios can be done in much the same fashion, the difference is primarily in scope and the size of the component elements. Where a setting can be seen as an unstructured collection of related game entities, a campaign can be seen as a structured collection of scenarios. Similarly, a scenario can be seen as a structured collection of scenes (which may be encounters, events, or something else the player characters interact with). I’ve reviewed published adventure design guidelines and found that they tend to focus on plotted scenarios. This focus tends to lead to relatively linear adventures, which are both unattractive because they encourage railroading and fragile because there is so little room for divergence from the plot. Instead, I describe other scenario structures that are both more flexible and more resilient. This can be applied at both levels, arranging not only the encounters in a scenario but the scenarios in a campaign. In developing a campaign, I can map out scenarios that could be played out as part of the campaign. I can use a template much like that I use for entities to document high-level descriptions of the campaign and the scenarios in it.

  • Each campaign has an over-arching theme to it (such as ‘stop the giants that are pillaging our lands and find the ones behind them’), and for each scenario within the campaign it should be known how it relates to the campaign.
  • Each scenario includes a theme (‘stop the hill giants and find their patron’, ‘stop the frost giants and find their patron’, and ‘stop the fire giants and find their patron’) and how the scenario relates to other scenarios.
  • Each encounter includes a theme (‘hill giant chieftain’s hall’, ‘fire giant smiths’, etc.) and how the encounter relates to other encounters.

At this point I also look for links to existing entities. Does the scenario call for a priest of some sort? If so, is there a particular church (or even specific priest) the player characters have experience with that would suit? If there isn’t, perhaps it is time to add another entity to fit the part needed. I am not yet particularly considering mechanics, or necessarily even maps beyond what would suit the theme of the scenario or encounter. For instance, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King each had settings that suited the scenario theme well (G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief did too, but it wasn’t as interesting). Requirements or just cool ideas get noted for later consideration and use. After working out the background structure and relationships I explore how to the player characters might identify the relationships and pursue them. This can be done using the description and signature information for each element. This is where the Rule of Three really comes into play.

Applying the Rule of Three

The Rule of Three applies here in several ways.

  • When you want the players to learn something, it is a good idea to provide three ways for them to do so. Themes are not usually meant to be secret (unless secrecy is actually part of the theme), so provide ways for the players to learn it. Knowledge of the theme gives them context for play and good decision making that suits the campaign or scenario – they’re less likely to go pirate hunting if they know the campaign is actually focused on temple politics. If it is important that the players know how to get somewhere, provide multiple ways for them to get a map, a guide, or other mechanism for getting there. G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief actually did this to some extent (map and teleport chain) but not very well (both are in the same place, and I didn’t notice any significant backup.
  • Any time there is important knowledge such as what the next step might be, provide several ways to learn of it. In G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, the two best-documented clues to the next adventure are a map to G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magic chain that will teleport a dozen characters to a place near the Rift… both well-hidden in the same place. I would provide more clues. Of the top of my head,
    • the Fire Giant smiths might be willing to talk in exchange for their lives and a head start;
    • the party might recognize the name on a note they find;
    • other visiting giants might be willing to talk.
  • Provide some meaningful choices. At the end of G1 the player characters talk with the ‘nobles supporting them’, who tell them to continue to the next adventure site and look into things there. Or else. They can choose to go overland or use the magic chain (if they figure it out), but that’s it. Instead, they might
    • go to the frost giants, since that is theoretically the easiest one to learn of (failing all else, “other avenues of investigation by the kingdom’s nobility have found this link”);
    • go to the fire giants, if they know enough (the fire giants talked, or the party decides to investigate the matter and learns of the Hall of the Fire Giant King);
    • go to the stone giants (no module for this one, but there was an envoy from the stone giants in the Steading);
    • track down the origin of the note instructing the hill giants in their actions;
    • investigate the altar (“Weird Abandoned Temple”) they found below the Steading.

    Some of these choices are less likely than others, but would result in markedly different campaign results. These certainly make for more meaningful choices than “follow the map or use the chain”, but don’t necessarily mean more actual work.

I like to draw graphs (I use a package called GraphViz to do the actual layout) outlining the relationships. Note that in this case relationships actually go outside the containing structure. There are links to the frost and fire giant scenarios in this campaign, but if the note can be correctly deciphered it could lead directly to the Drow (warp past the other Giant scenarios and the first two underdark scenarios directly to D3 Vault of the Drow), and the altar could do much the same or go sideways to a different campaign entirely.

Wasted Effort

The ability to change direction so dramatically is a good thing. The ‘derailing options’ should be unlikely to come up (except that players manage to so often do the unexpected), but the benefits of allowing the players this degree of control are huge. If scenarios are designed a high level and detail only gets settled when needed, there is minimal wasted effort. In fact, not all the high-level details need to be settled at the beginning. I usually do about one layer of detail before drilling down to the bits that are currently being used. I map out the campaign at a high level (based on entity information gained from players), identifying the themes of the campaign and initial scenarios, and relationships between the scenarios. As time allows (and player interest demands) I can flesh out ‘next steps’, the options they have learned about and might choose from. Given knowledge of their next chosen direction I can do the design work on the next scenario (encounter-level stuff I haven’t already done – usually when I start designing a scenario I have ideas for key encounters and note them). The design work usually happens as and when I get good ideas, the tedious mechanical part only comes up when I know both what I’m looking to do and that it will be needed and used soon.

Fleshing Things Out

The above suggests that everything is linked to everything else, especially above it in the structure. All scenarios fit the theme of the campaign and all encounters fit the theme of the scenario. I think this would lead to dissatisfying design. It is important to know what is relevant and important, but I think it important to have additional material that isn’t so tightly linked to the core of the story. ‘Filler arcs’ can help with pacing, illustrate other things that aren’t so closely related, and allow for the acquisition of additional resources.


I have found that when everything is related to the campaign, the players can get burned out. They are always trying to work toward their goal. This can get tiring after a while. A scenario that isn’t closely related to the campaign can feel like a break. I usually look for relatively short scenarios for this, but this is not a requirement. The other side of pacing, you might want things to feel like they are ‘far apart in time’. In the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series, The Laughing Man shows up only in small ways, sporadically, from early in the series until that story arc really takes off. It can be reasonable to have ‘lots of filler’ between the key scenarios to provide this effect.

Illustration of Unrelated Things

As much as a campaign is about the player characters, if everything is related to what they do it can lead to dissociation with the world itself. Having an occasional scenario that isn’t related to how they are saving the world can allow them to see aspects and elements of the setting they might not otherwise, and therefore gain some greater context of their position in the world. This includes not only reinforcement of their relationships to other entities (such as the noble lord they work for) but illustration of how they have changed over time. The obvious and simple one is an encounter that was previously hazardous now being trivial, but even the nature of their relationships changing. Where they were previously aliens in the court, a side scenario might have them called to court to be rewarded for their work to date. This can also be a good time to lay groundwork to take things in an entirely new direction. It isn’t necessary for each campaign to lead to another (though they can). Campaigns might be less directly linked, and ‘unrelated scenarios’ can be a good time to make the players aware of other options.

Acquisition of Resources

If all encounters in a scenario (or scenarios in a campaign) are ‘to the point’, there is likely to be little opportunity to gain resources, whether it means cashing in loot, using downtime to craft items, or gain knowledge or take care of other tasks that would make further effort more effective. If there is a specific effort to acquire useful resources (such as a dragon bane sword when the party expects to face a dragon) I would not consider that ‘filler’, since it is still quite related to the current effort.

Developing Encounters

As with software design, if the high level is done correctly and accurately, the detail work becomes much easier and should almost fall out of the design. Given a developed scenario, I should know enough about the significant entities to readily identify the encounters that must happen (including their themes and relationships to other encounters) and the mechanical elements that will be needed. When it comes time to actually develop the mechanical aspects of the encounters, much of the decision making has already been done. I have a good idea of what the encounter is about, and can gauge the level of power to the theme of the encounter and its role in the scenario. I have found my biggest problems in encounter design lay in deciding what is needed, not how to model it in game.

Closing Comments

The techniques I use to develop settings, campaigns, and scenarios let me work at a high level as long as possible. I spend my time ensuring the situation makes sense given the setting and themes and keep the tedious mechanical work down as much as possible. Identifying the major entities and themes of major game elements makes it easier to build a coherent, consistent setting. Involving the players in this effort makes it much easier to identify areas of interest held by each player and identify the hooks that will increase their engagement with the setting and the campaigns in it, and can help identify areas that will not require as much effort.

Summary of Steps

  • Develop setting entities, preferably working with players in order to identify what they are interested in. Include conflicts and relationships, since these will drive many campaign and scenario hooks.
  • Develop campaigns based on the hooks provided (using player-provided hooks should increase player engagement because they have already said they will be interested in such hooks). Describe at a high level so you have something to design against when you get to higher-detail levels. Identify relationships between campaigns (if there is more than one; I can imagine a setting in which a party works through more than one campaign concurrently… even if they don’t know it yet) and entities (existing or newly-created).
  • Develop scenarios for active campaigns. Lean on hooks to increase engagement, tend to have the scenarios align with the theme of the campaign they are a part of. Again, describe at a high level so the design of each can be fairly consistent. Identify relationships between scenarios, identify meaningful choices for moving between scenarios, and provide adequate information to make good (if not wise) decisions. It is not necessary to fully-define the scenarios, but it is good to have scenarios prepared if they are likely to come into play soon. You may include some scenarios that are not aligned to the campaign to help with pacing, illustration, or acquisition of resources.
  • Develop encounters that align with the scenario being played, you will likely have thought of potential encounters while describing each scenario. Include links between encounters in the scenario so the players can make meaningful choices within the scenario, remembering to provide enough information for good decisions. Include also links to other scenarios (should have been largely identified at the scenario level), so the players have a choice of direction when they complete the scenario. May (and perhaps should) include encounters that are not particularly aligned with the scenario, if it makes sense – not everything is directly related to what the party is doing.

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