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.)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. That's a good question, and the responses that it provokes as I ponder it would fit nicely into my next post. Tentative answer to "Should I wait until the players have a few dungeon expeditions under their belts to launch a real plot?" is "not necessarily." I can think of positives to launching with a hook like that, and also ways to dangle that thread without diving right in immediately. Stay tuned...