Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ingredients of a micro-setting

Last post, I rambled about micro-settings in D&D: Pre-designed and stocked areas without any particular plot attached.

Making a micro-setting is both similar to and different from building either a standard adventure or a large-scale setting.  It requires the former's granularity of detail and the latter's focus on open-ended potential rather than specific events and actions.

Details which are important to the form are:

Maps: As the name implies, a micro-setting should be relatively small.  How small?  There's no objective limit, but I would say small enough that all points of interest can be explicitly marked on the map.  A macro-setting map, such as a hex map of a kingdom or a continent, only shows the most notable feature in each hex, such as a city or a type of terrain.  In reality, a six-mile hex can contain a lot of interesting stuff, far more than a single icon would indicate.  The hex map might show a village beside a river, but there might be a wizard's tower on a tiny island in the river, a monastery on a rocky crag overlooking the village, a ruined castle in the boggy area by the riverbank south of the village, and a cave where the local youths go for mischief which unknown to them contains a secret entrance to an ancient underground stronghold.  The micro-setting map should be of high enough resolution to show all those things and where they lie in relation to one another.

A base of operations: A complete micro-setting should include a place of relative safety, where the characters can rest between adventures, restock and upgrade equipment, store treasure, gather information, and recruit help.  It could be a fortress, an trading post, a village, a fleet of ships at anchor, a clan-steading of dwarves or elves, or even a lair of friendly monsters.  May be mapped and keyed, a la the Keep from B2.

People: Important, influential, and interesting NPCs, such as leaders and authority figures, mercenaries for hire, merchants and traders, professional services, rivals, mentors, and potential employers. Some bare-bones stats are a good idea; a few personality traits and motivations for each one are even better.

Factions: Organizations of people and monsters, whether formal or informal: guilds, families, tribes, houses, clubs, secret societies, religions, etc.  What are their interests and aims, and how do they relate to one another?

Dungeons: Dark and dangerous places to explore for fun and profit.  The setting should include at least one good-sized dungeon or several lesser ones, each fully mapped, stocked, and ready for play.  (Some published micro-settings make exceptions as a teaching tool for new DMs; the Cave of the Unknown in B2 is an example.  You'd still want to fully map and stock it if you intended to use it as part of the overall setting, though.)

Adventure hooks: Basically any fact about the setting that might lead to adventure opportunities.  Often presented in the form of a rumor list.  These may appeal to the party's sense of heroism or helpfulness (i.e. the needs and concerns of the common folk regarding things dark and dangerous) or to their curiosity or self-interest (rumors of treasure, magic, or just weird things.) 

Of course, what you don't write up in detail is nearly as important as what you do.  Anything that isn't directly relevant to running a game in that micro-setting should be left vague or unspecified, no matter how interesting it might seem.  This allows the micro-setting to be easily inserted into someone's game world, or for you to re-use it at some later date in a different game world without having to gut it to avoid conflicts.  It truly is a "module," plug-and-play.

Focus on the Right Here and Right Now.  No extensive history, no intricate connections to the wider world.  We don't know why the Keep is on the Borderlands, except that it's an outpost of Law that stands between civilization and the forces of Chaos.  We don't know how long it's been there or who built it.  We don't know where the castellan came from or how he was appointed to this post.  Leaving all these spaces blank makes a micro-setting flexible and versatile.  According to the needs of the particular campaign and world, the Keep could be new or old.  It could be pushing back the frontiers of civiliation into the wild, or the last bastion of a retreat.  The castellan could be a humble enlisted man who won his position through grit and determination, or the bastard son of a powerful noble shunted aside with this remote posting.

It's a setting, not a story.  When you're populating your micro-setting with people and creatures, think about motives and goals, not actions.  Actions come later, when the campaign is in motion.  Instead of writing up what a monster or a faction will do, figure out what it wants in the long run.  A typical plotted adventure might have the evil cult kidnap the local ruler.  In a micro-setting, the cult might wish to quietly infiltrate and corrupt the local good church, entice new members to join, and ultimately establish itself as the most powerful organization in the setting.  Broad objectives like this allow the DM a lot of freedom to decide just what methods and tactics the cult will use, and adapt to changing circumstances and opportunities.  If and when it makes sense for it to kidnap the ruler, it will do so.  A lot depends on the actions of the players - they are the wild cards in the game, after all, and their decisions can simultaneously close some opportunities for the other forces in the world, and open others.

I think that wraps up this particular topic.  Next up, thoughts on making adventures in a "plotless" setting or micro-setting meaningful (i.e. plotting on the fly during the campaign.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

D&D micro-settings

When I think of "settings" for D&D-type games, I think of two different sorts of products.

One is the sort in which an entire campaign may take place, detailing in broad strokes a fairly large geographic area.  Many settings of this type have been published, and you probably know at least a few of them by name if not more intimately: Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and the Known World (a.k.a. Mystara,) among many, many others.  With this type of setting, you generally get a map, a description of the various regions, the nations and cultures, major NPCs and factions, history and legends, and probably some adventure hooks and a few new character classes or sub-classes.

It's the second kind that I want to talk about today.  Exemplifying this type of setting is B2: The Keep on the Borderlands.  While it (and most other examples of the type) was published as an adventure module, it's really a mini-setting, without an explicit plot or any of the other common trappings of most adventure modules.  Instead, we get a very detailed base of operations in the titular Keep, a small-scale wilderness map and a few outdoor encounter areas, and a sprawling map of the Caves of Chaos.  All areas of Keep and Caves are fully stocked, with stats for all inhabitants.  Each area is described in detail, with furnishings and treasure.  Relationships between the factions of monsters are described, with hints on how they might interact and how the players can manipulate them to their benefit.  A table of rumors provides adventure hooks, which the players may pursue or not.  There is no predetermined goal, no "win" or "lose" conditions, nothing expected of the player characters but to go forth and explore something.

In a way, a micro-setting is like the fabled megadungeon in that it's meant to be visited again and again, changing with time and the characters' actions instead of appearing once and never seen again.  Unlike the megadungeon, the micro-setting isn't meant to sustain an entire campaign on its own, though a phase of a campaign may center around it.

There's a lot to love about these little settings.

Having pre-mapped and stocked micro-settings without plots means I can run whatever I like, or whatever the players want to pursue.  A good mini-setting has the potential for a variety of different kinds of adventures.  The Keep, for instance, has opportunities for scouting, rescue, search-and-destroy, and exploratory missions, service to good and noble causes, and treachery and betrayal.  It's all there, and my group can pursue whatever they like.  I won't have to scrap some elaborate adventure I've written up for the night's session nor improvise something more to their liking completely off the top of my head.  If the players decide they'd rather investigate where those skeletons and zombies are coming from instead of searching for the merchant's wife, I'm prepared and ready to roll with it.

Re-using familiar locations gives a campaign continuity, which makes it more believable and gets players more invested in it, in a way that making new locations from scratch for every adventure doesn't.  Having recurring locations, characters, and factions figure into each new adventure makes the world feel real and organic, not just a series of vignettes unconnected by any common thread but the same protaganists.  Instead of inventing a new mercenary outfit to support the next villain in his plot to overthrow the castle, you can use the goblin tribe the players ran out of the cave complex three sessions ago.  The goblins have a reason to hate the PCs, and the players have an emotional stake in proving that their first victory was no fluke.  Plus, they get to use whatever they've learned about these goblins' strengths and weaknesses, which makes their past encounters meaningful to current events, instead of just war stories to tell around the tavern.

You can build a campaign world from the bottom up by stringing together several micro-settings.  It's a process of discovery from both sides of the screen.  Players discover the world by playing in it, and you discover how each micro-setting relates to others to form the greater world.  All the bits in between micro-settings can be fleshed out as-needed rather than set in stone in advance.  Without the overarching plan that a detailed macro-setting imposes on the campaign, you're free to build your world on the fly for the greatest enjoyment of your group.  What's beyond the dark forest that they players have declared their intention to cross?  Not some generic village that you put on a map because it looked like there should be something there, but another micro-setting bubbling with adventure potential!

You can use a mix of your own micro-settings and published ones.  I don't know about anyone else, but it can be creatively liberating for me to drop a micro-setting ready-made by someone else into my game and figure out how to put it to use.  Because it's sprung from a different mind than my own, it forces me out of unconscious patterns, but because it's a micro-setting full of possibilities and not a story with a predetermined plot, my imagination is set free to fly on new courses rather than simply put in a different straitjacket. 
Using other people's micro-settings in your campaign also reduces prep work for you while still allowing maximum detail.  If the players decide to explore that ruined keep looming on the hill, you've got it all mapped and stocked, and if not, you haven't spent a ton of time writing it up for nothing.  With a mixture of your own creations and published works, you can have a ton of very detailed areas with a fraction of the effort it would take to do it all yourself.

Unfortunately, the supply of micro-settings available seems to be a lot less than that of macro-settings and plotted adventures.  If you know of any other good micro-settings, feel free to post titles and links in the comments.

Next up, I talk about the ingredients that make a good micro-setting.