Village Idiom

July 21, 2016 at 10:58 pm

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education.”

— H.G. Wells

villageFollowing the conversations across Facebook and the web, it seems that those who don’t carve out complete continents and ages of history before they unleash players into their creations like to keep it small. So let’s do that.

The idea here is to create a ‘starting point’.  Like a player who comes to a first session with a fully fleshed out backstory featuring years of adventures, great deeds, and tragic mishaps; you don’t want to create a starting village that is already at the end of its story. You want just enough to fire the players’ curiosity and encourage them to explore further.

[su_expand link_color=”#8c2723″]Its like the description of a dish on a menu rather than a recipe — giving you an idea of what it might be like and making you eager to taste it for yourself.

There are certain parameters you should always have. What kind of community will it be? A bustling caravan crossroad, a keep on the borderlands,  or a remote fishing village will all have very different flavors. How large is this community? What are its major activities? Why is it located in this particular place? The answers to these basic questions can lay the groundwork for more detail added later on.


Size matters

The population of your starting community is often a balancing act. You want it to be large enough to accommodate a broad range of player types (a lizardman shaman, a bookish hedge-mage, and a fast-talking noble walk into a bar…) but not so large that you don’t have an image of the whole thing. Fantasy literature and gaming supplements offer huge metropolises (metropoli?) with mythic architecture, legendary characters, and deep mysteries, but it would be very easy for players to get lost against this kind of background. Even if you were to base your campaign in such a place, I would suggest focusing on a small area within the city to start — rather than plopping your characters down in King’s Landing, you could bring them together in Flea Bottom over a bowl of brown.

This is one of the times when it is helpful to have pre-game conversations with your players about what kind of characters they are considering. A powdered dandy might have difficulty living in a frontier military base, and a devout priest will probably need at least the basic infrastructure of their religion. You want your starting point to have what they need to get started, but not enough to keep them there.


No place like home

While many fantasy campaigns are done as road shows, with the characters ever on the move, I like to try and give them connections to their starting place. A lot of RPGs have systems for creating character backstories, and there are several generators online. If that’s what players like, that’s fine. But I like to be a little more organic about. Was a player born here? If not, why did they come here? Are there people they count on here? Or, people who would like to see them fail? Just a few quick questions can go a long way to grounding a PC in their new environment.

And give them value for that connection. If a merchant took them under their wing when the PC was a homeless orphan, then allow them a discount when shopping for supplies. Or, if they made a fool of a guard captain in a prank, have the local ruffians treat them like a hero. Even letting them know where the ale is sour, or a short cut through alleys to reach the swamp gate can help them feel more connected to a place.


All under one roof

It is also important to have the themes that you want to explore included in the starting locale. If you are looking to play an intrigue-filled back-stabbing courtly campaign, you probably don’t want to start it in a forthright farm community. Or, if your concept is set against the invasion of an army of orcs, you might want to start players near a border. Even if you don’t know where a campaign might be going, you want to give yourself the the tools to build on when you need them. If your setting has gods, make sure at lest a few have a foothold in your community. Wizard schools or warrior gyms, don’t leave them out. Even if the PCs do not stay in this community, you want it to feel like a sensible part of the wider world, and a meaningful introduction to it.

That said, it can be fun to start a campaign in a place that contrasts with your themes. Going back to the orc invasion, it could be dramatic to start in a small village surrounding a pacifist monastery. Sometimes its the opposition that highlights the idea.


Dark streets

As much as you want to create a starting locale feel like ‘home’ to your players, you definitely want to build in secrets and mysteries. There is no drama without conflict, and those things can be found in abundance in most homes. The wise old man that treats you neighbors with home remedies— did you ever wander what happens to those poor victims he fails? Or why has the lord been raising new taxes lately? Is he planning a war?

These don’t have to be major secrets (the potion merchant doesn’t need to be a transformed gold dragon), just rumors to be investigated, or risks to be navigated. These might even be just diversions between larger adventures, and provide more connection to a community.

When is a home not a home

Another aspect that is fun to explore to making the community not a rooted location at all. It could be a military order that the characters belong to, or the pirate ship they crew. It could be an organization that they belong to, or even a race or tribe within the wider populace. The goal is to simply give them a place to start from, and provide some kind identity or haven to return to.

So where is our bronze age “village”, and who are it inhabitants? And what secrets does it hide? Let us know below.