Five-point Foundation

August 2, 2016 at 3:45 pm


“We need the tonic of wildness…at the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things.”

— Henry David Thoreau


Probably following the arc of expanding power in many zero-to-hero role-playing systems, most GMs have said the scope of their adventuring world grows as a campaign continues. This is commonly called ‘bottom-up’ design, where you start small and build up as the players explore further and expand their knowledge.

This is probably the most time-effective way to go about it. There’s only limited value in detailing the lands and cultures of the reptilian swamp satraps when the players’ immediately set off for the mountains. This also lets you react to your player’s individual interests and gives them input into the shape and color of the world.

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We discussed a number of aspects of a starting village in the previous post, but I wanted to add a warning to avoid two cliches. The first is the pastoral village that has been protected from the wider world. From Hobbiton to nearly every computer RPG, heroes start in a safe environment and need to travel to improve themselves. While it is expedient, it won’t encourage your players  to build any attachments or relationships. They’ll look at it more like a spawning place, or a safe location to hide their treasure.

The other overplayed option is the opposite end of the scale— imminent destruction. It works in movies or games because it get the hero moving, and forces them into the plot. But by the same token, its cheap. In the same way a GM cringes when he hears that every PC is an orphan with a tragic past, don’t build them a home and then come in like the big bad wolf and blow it all down.

World building can be fun, and digging into the detail of a single location can be obsessive. You can diligently draw out every alley, and note the shadowy characters that lurk in each corner. And if you have the time, go as deep as makes you happy. I know I have notes on the family of the rope merchant in a small fishing village in mayhem campaign somewhere. But if you don’t have that much time, let me offer a quick construct to help you build a community that is both reasonable and intriguing to your players — the five Rs.


1.  Reason to be

It might seem obvious, but so many locations in fantasy games and fiction are placed where there is no reason for people to be there. In ht3 middle of trackless deserts or frozen wastes, on treacherous, lonely shores, or (for that matter) iso;ate planets on the far rim of galaxy. Give your village a reason to be. Perhaps this is one of consistent wells in the desert, or the place on the lonely shore that the valuable Anu-fish return to spawn. Not only does it add a touch of reality, it can inform so many other things about the community.


2.  Rulers

Once the determine the reason for your community’s existence, its often a simple matter to determine who is in charge. If its bulwark on the edge of an orc-infested wasteland, chances are the military is calling the shots. A crossroads of a valuable spice trade? Perhaps a car of merchants holed all the real power. The extent of the rulers’ power, and how far that power extends into the populace, can have profound effects on the populace and the players.


3.  Region

In the same way you want a community with a reason, you also want it to have a context. That stalwart border keep is defending something from an orcish incursion, right? And someone needs to buy the catch of Anu-fish that the brave fisherman haul out of the cruel sea. These questions build on each other and give you a basis to build conflicts and stories.


4.  Rivals

Speaking of conflict, who is working against out communities interest? It can be as obvious as an enemy army across the plain, or as obtuse as a competing world-view competing for adherents against a monastic center of worship. These enemies may not necessarily be in violent conflict, but merely another choice competing for the community’s reason-to-be.


5.  Risk

This last element may arise from the previous aspects, or could be a completely underground element. It might not even be immediately noticed, but just a feeling of growing danger to the heart of the community. Perhaps a cabal of wizards are collaborating with the orcs to tunnel under the keep. Or, the spice can be used in demonic rituals to attune people to the fiendish realms, and the dark powers are beginning to be felt in the oasis.

Our experiment in progress

The starting community of our bronze age TFT setting is called Mesus. It is near the shore of the great central sea and built along the banks of an ancient canal that once connected the sea to the vast lake that is now the polluted Bitter Sea. It stands on the ruins of a pre-cataclysmic civilization that once controlled this canal, and is now a trading center between the inland communities and wider world of sea trade. It is far enough (up two now non-functioning locks) form the shore to be safe from raiders and close enough to support a bustling trade center.

The official rulers of Mesus are an oligarchy of the oldest families, many claiming descendance from the city’s founder Syron. These Syronides have their fingers in all of the city’s mercantile activities. It is a loose confederation of competing interests, and central control is loose at best. Recently, the Syronides has embraced the sea and have expanded their trade contacts throughout the nearby shores.

Mesus is one of many city-states in a region known as Ikara, bordered on wide side by trackless forested wilderness and on the other by the massive towering cliffs of the Veil of Mitera that lead to heat-blasted lands ruled by war-like god-kings.

The southern borders run along lands controlled by Mesus’ long-time rival Lykanae. The proud warriors of the wolf god Lyka have long dominated the region surrounding the Bitter Sea and led Ikaran politics. The recent expansion of trade by the Meseans has broadened their influence and brought new energy to the city-state. The Lykanae are determined to maintain their leadership position in the area.

But there are other forces at work here besides trade. New arrivals bring new ideas, and occasionally very old ones. Many believe that the great canal was a gathering place for the gods before the cataclysm, and that great power can be plumbed from their depths. Mysterious wizards and shadowy cults have descended on the small city-state and who knows what terrors they might exhume from the deep trench that bisects the community.

This is merely a skeleton, and has lots of holes that need to be filled in, but it does show answering five quick questions can give you a solid basis from which to grow a campaign environment.

Would you venture out from Mesus, or dare to explore the depths of its ancient canal? Or is there something missing? Or maybe you have an idea of what could make our starting village more complete? Let us know below: