Friday, April 10, 2015

The Fantasy Starting Village - Player Generated Campaign Setting


"The town of Gongberg is nestled amongst muddy green fields of rye and barley.  The seasons have been wet and the grain rust thick of late, and as always the waking dreams of ruin and fire haunt all those who depend on the tainted grain.  A lull in the interminable wars of the border lairds have filled the countryside with grim mercenaries, brigands and well armed madmen."

The 'fantasy starting village' is a cliched element of tabletop games, computer games and even fantasy fiction - some sort of homey place that defines the stepping off point for protagonists into the world of adventure.  While in video games and novels the fantasy village is a wretched and boring convention, it does offer a real advantage in tabletop games, where, unlike video games and novels, the world building must be a collaborative process as the players can both change things through their in game actions, the GM can leverage player creativity to make the world more interesting and an openness to player generated content can promote player buy in.  The Fantasy Starter Village is a great way to set the stage for this, and makes the GMs job easier.

Dragonfly Township will undoubtedly lead to Vanilla fantasy or perhaps something a bit more anime.
The Fantasy Starting Village is a great alternative to building out a setting, and while crafting elaborate setting material and background is a joy for many GMs it has certain disadvantages as it eats up time and encourages railroading (even good GMs want to show off the content they've created).  Worse there's nothing more disappointing then designing the basics of a full campaign setting and having players who only want to play a session or two before moving on.  For me the three sentences above about Gongberg would be almost sufficient to start a campaign. The party can find themselves in this starting village, collect a few rumors about what's going on in the countryside and go from there. 

I wouldn't want to start with less information though, unless I were to start with the other classic "You wake up naked in a cell" campaign starting point.  There are more flavorful variations on this hook as well - slave caravans heading to the temple of sacrifice, characters pulled from the freezing ocean onto a haunted miles long ship, shipwrecked on the shore of some foreign land, but all of these hooks take an extra step to both make the characters completely blank slates and explain why they have in in game world knowledge.  The Fantasy Starting Village  however provides a few clues, and better encourages the players to believe that characters have knowledge of the world around them.  A few evocative clues in the description are almost all one needs to help the players build a world and to constrain player world-building to a degree as well. Using the example of Gongberg above, one can extrapolate a few setting details, but they are hopefully vague enough to allow the players to take the information in a variety of directions.
NAME:  A town name tells a lot about a setting - "Gongberg" for example implies both a vaguely Western European, likely English sort of place, and gong being an esoteric world for dung also implies that the village is not an especially nice place. Changing the name could change the whole campaign setting - call it "Cun-Fen" (google translate for pigeon Mandarin) and suddenly the game world is Asian.  "Kreckdorf" would make the village more German.  Doing this and players are likely to name their PCs appropriately - the citizens of Kreckdorf are going to be named "Karl" and "Helga", while Gongberg likely has a lot of Johns and Dougals.

DESCRIPTION: Description continues to provide clues, but also hooks and quandries.  Here we have rye and barley crops infected with something like ergot.  This suggests (though players aren't likely to know this) European peasant crops of the pre-19th century (change it to potatoes if you want a 19th century game) - meaning that Gongberg might be anywhere from the dark-ages, or Renaissance. The inclusion of the 'grain rust' presents a mystery - if the players express interest it might be some kind of magical curse or color out of space type infestation, if not it's an excuse for the GM to fill Gongberg with howling madmen and prophetic lunatics.  The same with the inclusion of "Border Lairds" who provide a potential for a nearby area for travel/campaign expansion, add a sort of Scottish Border theme to Gongberg (call them Hill Hetmen and suddenly one is in fantasy Byzantium or Russia), offers both a character origin story as out of work mercenaries from the border and sets berserkers and bandits as a likely encounter.

Mepos - It seems likely that there will be minotaurs and a lot of small boats in this campaign
So from a three sentence description we have hooks and a vague sense of setting - a dreary muddy place somewhere in a fictional pre-modern/early modern England or Scotland.  This could be perfect for an LOTFP style game or a classic dark-ages fantasy game, but it also departs enough from vanilla fantasy to encourage players to change their characters to fit the implied setting and depart from standard D&D archetypes. Dwarves can become fey-folk, underdwellers or 'svartálfar' and elves become changelings left in human cribs by the Seelie under the mounds (or foreigners - likely the French?).

Once the basics of the village have been determined, all that's necessary are a few adventure hooks - for Gongberg, perhaps an old barrow in a bog, a rumored unseelie mound out on the moor, and a crumbled tower allegedly used as a bandit outpost.  From here the players will build the setting with their interests and in game decisions, but they will do so within a few constraints and while the setting might evolve into either a grimdark "A Field in England" sort of place or some kind of green and pleasant land where the intrigues of the fey provide the campaign drama, these choices will come up organically - from player interpretation and creation as hinted at through GM created content.


  1. This idea of starting a campaign with detailing a village is a base for a great OSR rpg "Beyond the Wall and Other Adventures" (

    1. I've heard of Beyond the Wall and good things as well - but I haven't picked it up. The fantasy starting village is a pretty old idea. The point I'm trying to get at is how best to use it and minimal evocative description to encourage player generated world building and hooks - also nothing new, but interesting all the same.

    2. Beyond the Wall shifts what you describe in your post to an activity with dice that also allows players to create some village details. It's a great way to do what you describe, tie it to some minor character motivations, and create immediate character investment.

      On another note, I'm trying to convince myself that I'm ready to start making up my own setting and everything else on the fly. I think it might actually be easier than referencing written adventures during play AND create a better experience for everyone. Maybe.

    3. Well I've played in several of my own settings - you can do a lot "on the fly" but planning - especially for dungeons is also very helpful. A map, an idea of what lives there, how it fits in to the rest of the area - plus worthwhile traps/puzzles take a fair bit of figuring out and thinking over to get right.

    4. Agreed. Having a lot of prepped stuff seems necessary before improv + tables and such really works.