Monday, June 21, 2010

Building an S&S Setting: Prolegomenon

This post is the first in a series of posts dedicated to the creation of a new sword and sorcery setting for use with Barbarians of Lemuria.  I'm going ahead with this project because I'm not particularly satisfied with Lemuria itself: I haven't read the Lin Carter novels that serve as the basis for that setting, and my sensibilities are more in tune with Howard's Hyborian Age than with Carter's cod-Burroughs approach to Lemuria.

There are two principles governing this process as it goes forward:

1.  Do not invalidate the players' choices for their characters.

I don't want to make my players create new characters to fit the new setting.  This means first and foremost that the plot established in the first session of the BoL campaign remains the same: the heroes are still looking for an ancient library in a fabled lost city, and they are still going to begin the next session on a ship in the midst of a raging storm.  It also means that the new setting has to respect the players' character creation choices.  In Lemuria, Irryn was a prostitute-turned-assassin from the Port of the Sea Lords.  In the new setting, she won't be from that particular location—but she will hail from a pirate-themed city.  The same for Daneel's gladiatorial background: the new setting will have to have a location that sponsors games.

2.  Keep it simple.

In my three-decade career as a gamer, my customary approach to setting creation has been to start working from the top-down (i.e., cosmologies instead of counties, epics instead of short stories). The usual result has been a game that either stalls out after character creation or never even gets started—I always find myself tinkering with the big picture "just one more time" before play begins.  So the ground rule for this session will be "one paragraph per location before play resumes."

In addition, rather than agonize about how many locations to create, I will simply use the categories included by Russell Bailey in his Pulp Civilization Random Encounter Chart as the basis for the setting.  That gives me six basic locations—enough for a start.  New locations can enter play as a result of player action or active scenario creation.

Third, I will try to recycle as many old RPG setting ideas as I can when making these six locations.  There's no reason why I can't put old ideas to new use here.

With all that in mind, here's my initial set-up:

1.  Warring Tribes: Undetermined

2.  Grimy City-States: The Seven Cities of Magic

This setting element is a new one for me: each of the fabled Seven Cities of Magic is governed by a powerful sorcerer (or cabal of wizards or arcane spirit being or . . . you get the idea).  The Seven Cities spend most of their time squabbling with each other or engaging in low-level mischief within the boundaries of the Vital Empire.

3.  Vital Empire: Undetermined

4.  Decadent Empire: The Empire of the Azure Throne

The inspiration here is Azure Orb, an old Everway Realm of my making.  I originally described it as follows: "Azure Orb is dominated by the element of Air. Its inhabitants debate one another in lamaseries clinging to the sides of mountains. The gates leading to Azure Orb from Glister and Rubyflame are marked with sapphires."  I'm going to combine this idea of a fantastic Tibetan realm with Simon Washbourne's Ceruleans from Lemuria: the giant blue people are the specially bred shock troops with which the Azure Emperor once conquered the lowlands.  Now the people of the plateau have retreated into decadent pleasures and abstruse philosophies, leaving it to the Ceruleans to maintain contact with the rest of the setting, this time as merchants instead of warriors.

5.  Monstrous Survivors: Undetermined

6.  Haunted Ruins: The Storm Lands

For this location, I'll be riffing on a recurring element from my various abortive D&D worlds: a land shattered by a mystical apocalypse, dotted with ruined cities, fell spirits, sentient storms, and bold human tribes eking out an existence.

So that's where things stand at the moment.  I need to come up with locations for Warring Tribes, Vital Empire, and Monstrous Survivors.  I suspect that the Warring Tribes will be a cross between the Caribbean pirates of history and the Iron Islands of George Martin's Game of Thrones setting: competing pirate empires with the potential to become something greater.  The other two elements are still hazy as yet; I need to come up with something alien for the Monstrous Survivors that isn't just the usual serpent-men or ape-men trope.


  1. Not to toot my own horn or anything (but I will), but I had a couple of columns on what I call Iconic Campaign Setting Elements, and I think it might be an interesting thought-experiment for your campaign development.

    The articles in question:

    Iconic Elements in Campaign Setting Design
    , and Iconic Elements in Campaigns: Classes and Archetypes.

    Give a read-through if you like and let me know if the ideas might be helpful, especially in a career-based sort of rules system like BoL.

    I think the idea is actually a mix of top-down and bottom-up design; you take both sorts of elements, both big and small, and make them part of your "over-arching design" for the campaign setting.

  2. G'day mate, the idea looks great!
    I did much the same thing when I first picked up the free BoL rules: took one look at the setting and went "ok, but how about this..."
    And created my own world - complete with two competing empires, a decedant alliance of city states and a free city ruled by a powerful temple.
    So far my group has enjoyed it.

    Monstrous Survivors: I'd suggest the half wild remains of a fallen empire that was once the greatest power.
    Warring Tribes: I like your pirate idea, but a "warring tribes" concept always makes me think of deep, dark jungles full of natives - some who will eat you and others that won't. Maybe...

  3. One thing I learned from Harold Lamb was that every element of a good adventure setting is locked in meaningful conflict with something else. If it's a city, or a faction, then it also has it's internal conflicts.