Monthly Archives: March 2016

Roleplaying 107 – Every Blade of Grass

Having populated the urban centres of your setting, you now have a world to fill with monsters, travelling rogues, nefarious cults and the odd planar entity.

At this point, you should have a world and a handful of places. It’s time to get a map. Draw one, find one, ask a friend to make one for you. Whichever you choose, a map will help you keep track of things. This is mostly true for fantasy campaigns, but I feel that if you’re playing a game set in a real place having a map can enhance the atmosphere.

Regardless, after somehow getting a map, you should put your urban centres on it. With that done, you should realise that there are large areas of empty space. Most of this space will likely never be explored. Some of it can be filled with new urban centres but the rest….. the rest is where you get to make your setting come to life.

If you’ve been following these guides, you should already have a rough idea of what lives where. If you haven’t been reading these articles, that’s fine. The main purpose of this article is to expand upon my advice from Roleplaying 105 that “[w]hen populating the world, the people and monsters living there should make sense.”

I feel that I cannot repeat this enough. Nothing that you control will break the immersion of the game more than the player characters coming across a monster or an NPC that is so incongruously out of place that there is no reason for them to be there.

I’m not saying you can’t have creatures and NPCs in odd places, just make sure to have a good reason why they’re there, and do not it too often. Sure, finding an Ifrit from the Plane of Fire living at the polar ice-cap might lead to an interesting quest-line (maybe it was captured by a powerful wizard who seeks to harness its power and open a portal to the Planes) but the more of these oddities the players encounter, the less they’ll pay attention to the ‘normal’ things.

Which isn’t a good thing because a) it detracts from the importance of the oddities and b) if the events surrounding the characters are of a more normal nature (relatively speaking, of course), there is a higher chance of the players themselves becoming invested in what’s happening.

While, again, I’m offering brushstrokes guidelines rather than explicitly detailed rules, it’s worth splitting the map into different terrain features. Work out where each area of terrain ends and the next begins, work out what the prevailing weather is for that area. You might even want to divide an area of terrain up and have two goblin tribes with different cultures occupy a small range of hills.

At the end of the day, you should have a good idea of what the geography and climate of each area roughly looks like, even if it’s just a sentence or two. With this knowledge, you can throw some monsters into the mix. There are lists in books and online that arranges monster lists by environment, don’t feel ashamed or scared to use those.

More importantly, don’t fill the area in detail. As a rule of thumb, know what two or three creatures the player characters are likely to encounter. If they go somewhere and you need more creatures, look at those lists. If you don’t have those lists handy, ask for a short break and look at what monsters you have available. If there are any that fit, throw them into the mix, if not, are there any you can adapt to suit your purposes?

Much like all the other advice in these articles so far, keep it general enough that you have the most flexibility without being unprepared, but detailed enough that the players don’t realise you haven’t accounted for every possibility. You can plan as much as you want, but if the players never go somewhere, you’ve wasted time that could be spent honing the plot they’re following. Alternatively, if you do plan everything in great detail, you can repurpose the inhabitants of one area for another.

If you are to take anything away from reading this, I suppose it is that whilst you should have a general idea of everything, it’s worth delving slightly further into detailing the areas the PCs are likely to visit next, even if it’s just for your peace of mind.

This applies for NPCs as well. Adventurers are likely to meet other people on the road, or in tiny little places you’re forced to invent on the spot. If you know roughly the type of person who would live/be travelling in each area, you’re more likely to feel comfortable with this level of improvisation and your players will feel immersed in the world because, as far as they know, they’re meeting people who have existed in this area since before their characters started adventuring.

Really, as with most things in life, the rule of KISS applies here. Keep It Simple, Stupid. And honestly? You can make everything as detailed as you want, plan for every contingency, populate every dungeon, and the players will still throw a spanner in the works.



Pearl: The View From On Deck

Another piece of fiction today. It’s the first of four vignettes leading into a piece of serial fiction set in a world of my own creation but using the 5th Edition D&D races and classes.

My aim is to release a piece of fiction related to this project once a month.

The wind tore viciously at Pearl’s cloak, the salt-stiff fabric snapping audibly as she crossed the deck. The stars above reflected off of the brass telescope she carried in numb fingers. It was the third day of the storm and even she, with her heritage and magic, was beginning to feel the effects.

She passed the bosun and nodded in respect, her shoulder smarting from where the belaying pin had hit it earlier. She knew she’d deserved the blow, but that didn’t lessen the pain. The man gave her a stern look before nodding as he passed her, heading for the relative shelter below the deck.

She glanced around and then sighed quietly, stowing the telescope in the case hanging from her belt.

“Your turn in the nest?” A voice from the air next to her hip caused her to jump. She glanced down, noticing the gnome sitting in the pool of darkness cast by the hull.

“Yes, Briar. It’s my turn in the nest.” She said, eyeing the little woman carefully. Out of all the crew, it was Briar Lightfinger that was reprimanded more than her for ‘finding’ personal items. She liked the little gnome, enjoying her irrepressible optimism and near constant chatter, but she’d learned to hold her hands close to her pouches.

“Need any company? I can’t sleep on nights like this. It’s not that I’m scared, it’s just downright uncomfortable.”

“I’d appreciate it, but I don’t think Davak would. He drew the short straw for tonight’s watch.” Ever since the incident with the bird last week, the captain had insisted that the night watch be stood by a pair of crew members in the crow’s nest. Most of the crew were able to choose who they stood watch with, but Pearl wasn’t so lucky.

She’d signed up for service on board the Industrious Mermaid without declaring her magic, only for it to manifest during a nightmare. Since then, none of the crew trusted her, with the exception of Briar and the captain, and she had been reduced to handing out a collection of lengths of string to the crewmembers not already scheduled for watch.

Davak, the first mate, was a quiet, studious man with a quick tongue. Their few conversations usually ended in an awkward silence as Pearl made a joke that the dragonborn didn’t understand. Having grown up in Shearmouth, she was used to far more down to earth people and didn’t quite understand his quiet nobility, or his aversion to crude jokes.

The gnome nodded and flashed Pearl a grin.

“Enjoy your watch then. I’m off to see what’s cooking in the galley.” Pearl watched her leave for a moment and then turned to the rigging next to her, reluctantly grabbing the frosted rope with stiff fingers.

The climb itself was a relatively easy one, the sea was calm and the only real danger was the strong wind threatening to throw her off at any moment. She paused halfway up before dropping onto the spar that would take her to the ladder secured to the mast.

From this vantage point she could see the entire ship and the starlit ocean around it for miles. She would often come up here alone and hang from the ropes in the dead of night. It made her feel like she had come home, like she was closer to the father that had abandoned her long ago. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, relishing the bitingly cold sea air.

This is where I am meant to be. She thought, opening her eyes. Not on land. She turned back to the mast and crossed the spar swiftly, her feet sure on the slippery surface. The ladder was no more difficult to climb than the rigging and, in minutes, she was pulling herself into the crow’s nest.

“You’re late.” Davak rumbled, glancing at her momentarily. She shrugged and crossed the nest to stand opposite him, her back to the mast. “What’s your excuse this time?”

“I was busy entertaining Gunthar and his cronies. Like you asked me too.” Davak had approached her a few days prior, worried about mutiny among certain elements of the crew. Knowing about Gunthar’s gambling problem, she had been only too happy to help the first mate.


“Nothing. They were as close lipped as usual.’ She paused. “Save for the insults, of course.” She’d heard worse, but she was willing to put up with insults for the few days it would take them to reach Scour. “If there is a mutiny brewing, Gunthar isn’t leading it. He’s not smart enough, for one thing.” She paused and shrugged. “There was this though. It…. fell out of his pocket when he stormed from the cabin.” She reached backwards, a slip of parchment in her fingers.

Davak grunted as he took it. She heard the surprised inhalation of breath as he read the message.

“The capt-“ Pearl cut him off with a gasp of her own. “What is it?” Behind her, she heard the nest creak as the dragonborn turned around.

Her hands flashed to the case at her belt and she pulled the telescope out, extending it with a practiced flick of her wrist. The metal was icy cold as she pressed it one eye, scanning for the flicker of movement she had seen.

“Sail to starboard.” She said quietly, handing the telescope to Davak and pointing. He glanced through it quickly and grunted, cursing in harsh draconic.

“Sound the alarm,” he said, handing her the telescope, “and prepare for boarders.”

Roleplaying 106 – Brick by Brick

Last time in this series of articles, I explained my process for brush-stroke world building. This time around, I’m going to go into more detail when it comes to making cities and urban centres to populate your world. As ever, the content here is intended to be taken as guidelines or suggestions rather than hard and fast rules about how you should do things.

This article is intended for use with games that don’t take place in the “real” world, but it can be used to influence the creation of micro-societies such as Freeholds in Changeling: The Lost.

I’ll start with cities and then shrink in scope to towns, villages and hamlets. You should already have decided upon a distinct flavour for your world if you followed my suggestions in the previous article. You should let that flavour direct your choices from this point on.

I think it’s fair to say that most adventuring parties spend a lot of time in cities, certainly as they grow in power and influence they will spend more and more time in them. As such, building a city you are satisfied with should translate into the game as building a living, engaging setting for your players.

The first things I usually decide upon are the system of government and population make-up.

If you’ve decided upon a social intrigue campaign, the government might lend itself better to a collection of scheming nobles in a royal court as opposed to a benevolent mayor, whereas a more dungeon delving style campaign might have one ruler who is being manipulated by an evil vizier.

If you don’t know what direction to take with the system of government, feel free to take ideas from elsewhere. I freely admit that I use ideas from novels, comics and video games. If you like it, and it suits your plan, there’s no real reason you can’t adapt it for your game.

Want a ruling council? Roll a die and have that many members. Want just one person? Are they a figurehead, or do they truly have all the power? Does the government really want to help the populace? Or couldn’t they care less?

Whatever you decide upon, try and work out answers to these questions:

  • Will your players interact meaningfully with the governing body?
  • If so, how do they feel about adventurers?
  • How fair is the governing body?
  • Does the populace approve of the government?
  • Is there any civil unrest?
  • How will your players feel about this government?

An important thing to consider about the fairness of the governing body and public approval, is how the governing body treats members of other races.

Before you decide that, it’s worth working out what races make up the population, and the percentage of the population that each race makes up. With that established, you can work out how the government behaves.

Not only should you think about how the government treats members of other races, but you should also consider how the races themselves interact with each other.

With that established you can then think about the physical geography of the city. If the races intermingle freely, then perhaps there are large open areas full of people where you can buy anything and meet anyone. If not, perhaps there are still large open areas but they all have a different cultural feel, and are unwelcoming to members of any other race.

A city with a stark poverty barrier might have a clear line between the rich and the poor, with crime rampant in the lower city and a heavy police presence in the upper city. A government with a hard-line judicial stance might flood the streets of the city with police or soldiers.

A city, unless it is brand new, should reflect the people and ideas that inhabit it.

It might also be worth thinking about inter-city relations after you’ve built two or more cities.

For towns, villages and hamlets, the process is largely the same but with one major addition. Before doing anything, you should consider what the major threats to that particular place are. What you decide should influence your decisions regarding the governing body and its behaviour.

A village under regular attack, for instance, would probably have an ex-soldier in a position of authority and have a martial way of life. Somewhere at frequent risk of drought, on the other hand, might have a group of farmers who determine the direction of the town’s resources, digging irrigation ditches and building silos.

At the end of the day, if you think that your city, town, etc. would make a convincing setting in a television show, book or game, odds are your players will enjoy it as well. By necessity, I can’t provide an exhaustive list of how to build cities and whatnot, but I hope this has at least been useful and given you some ideas.

As ever, feel free to comment or send me an e-mail with any questions.


– Bubbles/Ryan