Transforming the Earth for your Campaign Setting

The other day I was driving home with my girlfriend after a day of frivolity and was contemplating my current Swords and Sorcery game.  I’ve createda small area for my players to explore as they see fit.  I’ve begun compiling info on cool location, cults, ruins, etc that they can discover or hear about as they play.

The Land of Hubris

But what about the rest of the world?  I’m certainly not going to build that up.  When I first started gaming 17 years ago I made that mistake for my first several campaigns.  I would build a full world and was ready for my players to go anywhere… and 95% of it never got used.  All fruitless effort.

I started pondering about a quick and dirty way to create a world and just kick off a campaign.  You could use Bat in the Attic’s awesome Sandbox creator if you have time to delve into it deeply, or Zak’s quicker version which gives a damned good layer of depth as well, but what if you don’t have the time to really delve deep down into world creating?

There is also the other problem: The players.  I think most people really don’t want to be bogged down by a huge amount of world/history information for a world that they are not yet invested in (or hell even when they are they don’t need that baggage.

When looking at most of the people I’ve played with in my gaming time, MOST are casual players.  They are there to have fun, but they don’t want, or have time, to delve deep into a game world aside from when they are playing.  Which brings me to the next point..  How do you do that then if you are limited to one session a week, month, etc?  Info dumping is boring.  Show your players, don’t tell them.

Zak puts it succinctly:

“When I’m GMing, though, I am trying to make a world that is good at letting people in–that my players can grasp quickly and easily. And my players are often not only new to D&D but to RPGs entirely. “Seen Labyrinth? Good–that’s a goblin, alright” I don’t want to explain the baseline assumptions of the world, I want to play. “

I really try to approach world building in this manner because it doesn’t overload the players with information and allows them to grasp what the hell is going on.  Most of my players are the casual type I mentioned above.

So all this was rattling around in my brain and I started thinking about Jim Raggi’s take on world building (Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Referee Guide, Pages 34-35).  Jim recommends using our Earth as a ground for world building.  There is quite a bit of wisdom here.  I recommend taking a gander at it.

I think that using the Earth is probably the quickest and dirties way you could create a campaign world, not to mention the mass amount of benefits that come with this method.

Power to the People..  er..  players!

Zak has stated numerous times (here, here, and here) that knowledge is power in a Sandbox and I agree with him.  If a player doesn’t have knowledge about the world and situations they are in, then they are just bumbling around in the dark and their decisions really mean nothing.

With using the Earth as your base building block so much of the work is done for you.  You can change the shape of the continents if you’d like, but keep them where they are.  The climates, topography, zoology, etc are already done for you and in this day and age readily available for you on the web!

Next let’s look at information and history.  Rather than coming up with a complicated (and possibly convoluted) history just use Earth’s, but change it for your world.  This build off what Zak said above.

If you keep histories and cultures linked to the Earth’s then you just build and change as you see fit.  Side note: I am not talking about an alternate history of earth where Lee one the Civil War or anything.  I’m talking about using the Earth and changing it for your world).

By staying in line with this it gives your players a type of knowledge that they might not have otherwise (yes it is meta, but it’s about fun and their desire to lead the game, not the GMs).  The players decide that they want to go to the Ah’ Ru Empire (based off of ancient Egyptians) because they like that time period and think it would be interesting to see what is there.  Excellent!

Here’s a quick example of how it could work:

I’ll be basing this off of Ancient Rome.  And I’m stealing some inspiration from Disorientated Ranger, because I like the idea of the Drow. 


The proud and ancient Empire of the Elves occupied much of the known world at its height.  The Elves were a proud race that set themselves apart from all others.  Their ability to manipulate magic was second to none as was their bond to the gods, who blessed them with immortality.

The Elven Empire lorded over the world for millennia, taking in thousands as slaves and servants, and assimilating their cultures, technology, and customs into theirs.  Eventually the Elves arrogance reached a peak when they began to see themselves as equal with the gods.  Angered by this outrage, the Gods removed the blessing of immortality from the Elves and retreated from the mortal realm.  The Elves were completely disorientated by the sudden departure of their deities and were left to fend for themselves for the first time in several thousand years.

War broke out across the land as the Empire splintered and fractured.  A sorceress by the name of Lolth claimed that she could restore the Elven immortality; she was branded a heretic and she and her followers were exiled to the depths below.

Eventually the Elven Empire toppled and crumbled under the constant onslaught brought by the barbaric Dwarven tribes of the east and the hundreds of slave revolts within the empire.

The Elves have been dispersed now for several centuries and the area that the Empire once occupied as the capital is a land of untamed wilderness and ruins with forgotten magic, artifacts, and riches.

This can go on and on, but really this is all I need.  You don’t even need to write it out, bulleted points work just fine.

Obviously in actual Earth history after the Roman Empire fell the Dark Ages began andItalypicked itself back up and eventually flourished with the Renaissance.

For this history and for the sake of keeping that fantasy feel of ruins and treasures untold, it never did pick back up.  Maybe the Gods cursed it..  Maybe the big baddies of the area, titans, Cyclopes, medusas, etc, which were held at bay by Elves and their magic overtook the land once the empire fell.

The same can be said with any other area if you are using Earth as your model.  Each area has monsters and myths that can be brought to life easily and all somehow fits into our collective human psyche.

I won’t go into as much detail as the example above but a game that uses the early 16th century as a reference point could deal with the discovery of the new world.  The old world has monsters and ruins and etc, but much has been catalogued or at least has a folk lore about it..  Hell maybe it hasn’t and people fled the old world in the hopes of finding a place that is safer.  They get to the new land and there are new monsters, people, and dangers!

From a historical point, the settlers of the New World were shitting their pants every other day (and not just from dysentery) from seeing new cultures (Native Americans), animals so strange and new it was not to be believed and amazing structures (Inca, Aztec, and Myan)!

I have that small map area and already was basing the territory on England/Scotland…  So I think I’m going to keep that and I’ll use Earth as a model for the rest of the world, if they ever want to branch out.

As I said, it’s easy and honestly most of the work is already done!  What about you?  Thoughts?


About wrathofzombie

I am a History major attending a community college until I can get more financial aid and attend a four year school. I am living in NJ with my girlfriend who is currently wrapping up on obtaining her PhD in Toxicology. I love Star Wars, Role-playing, video games, working out, reading, writing, and hanging with my girlfriend, dog (Perfect), and two kittens (Birch and Brambles). My main focus on this site will be my discussion of Role-playing games and ideas and hopefully contribute something worth a damn. View all posts by wrathofzombie

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