You have a new campaign on your calendar. Six players eager to get started, roll up some characters, and start adventuring. All that’s left for you to do is create the world.
No sweat, right?
Even if you’re running a pre-published campaign module, there’s still homework for you to do. At the very least, you’ve got to read the campaign–the first several encounters, bare minimum, but ideally the whole thing front to back. Some will provide suggestions for how to tie your characters backstory into the game a bit, a little hook or two to make them invested. Some don’t. But it pays to have some idea of what kind of game world the players are going to have to navigate, otherwise you end up with a ranger who is terrified of drowning and the undead showing up for a campaign called “Ship of the Dead.” (And yes, I’ve actually had this exact scenario happen to me.)
So give a thought to your players, give a thought to what roles would be most useful, and give a thought to what kind of life might have been available to them prior to the start of the campaign. It doesn’t have to be much. Game starts off in a trade city? They could be from anywhere in the civilized world, having traveled there in search of adventure, or they could be raised the children of artisans or merchants, familiar with the ways of city life but not the deep wilderness. Game starts off in remote mountain village? Great. You might get more dwarf and gnome characters than you’re used to, but don’t expect alchemists and pirates.
If you’re building a campaign from the ground up, break out the notebooks because you have REAL work to do.
If you’ve been doing this for a while, like I have, you have a few certain shortcuts you can use. Namely, if you’ve already done the work creating a complex game world, you can easily recycle it or expand on it. This means the pantheon of gods is already in place. The customize flavors of the various classes might have already been defined to suit different regions and cultures. You’re likely to have at least something of a map, some place names, some history. If it’s a big enough world, you can move around in the world a bit and tweak things as necessary.
For example, I’ve run a total of 4 ongoing campaigns in Anwat game world. The first was set in the desert of the Caliphate of Dust with a strong lost mysteries and adventure. The second was in the more European flavored feudal states of the Vale Lands and had a theme of navigating family obligations and nobility. The third was a spy and intrigue game set in the necromantic-flavored city that sat on the border between the prior two nations. The fourth and soon to wrap up game was set in the remote Frost Islands to the north and explored an invasion/survival theme with strong horror elements. Four unique campaigns over a twelve year period, all from the same initially prepared game materials. With each campaign, I was able to expand on the geography, politics, and history of the known world. But none of it would have been possible if I hadn’t done the initial ground work.
So, what do you need to have prepared at the beginning?
If you’re trying to build a game that your players will remember, you will need–at bare minimum–a sense of place, a sense of religion, a sense of purpose.
For the place, it’s not necessary to start big. Whether you’re setting your game in the city or the tiniest of hamlets, prepare locations the players are likely to visit and some people who they might encounter there. A favorite tavern with a familiar tavern master and a regular customer or two. A rival tavern, maybe with a few rough customers. Some center of authority like a keep or guardhouse, the name of the person in charge, maybe the name of a few guards. A favorite shop. Some places where trouble, i.e. ADVENTURE might be found. A local temple or two and the priests who run the place. For each of these people, give them a name and a defining characteristic or two. Personally, I’m fond of using index cards for each location (with a few notes on services and description and people likely to be found there), and half-sized index cards with those people paper-clipped to the back. You don’t need detailed maps, but an idea of where things are in relation to each other is handy, and an idea of the larger world outside of this particular location helps tie them into the world as a while.
For religion, most fantasy RPGs will already that covered. You’ll still want to decide which ones are most prominent in that town and their role in the community. If you want to build up a pantheon from scratch, you’ll want the above information, plus all the other things that make gods GODS: symbols, domains, alignments, role, relationship with other churches, nature of the priesthood. It can be a lot of work, but it’s rewarding. Generally you don’t need more than a few sentences, and just a handful of unique Gods goes a long way to making the campaign stand out. For Anwat, I had Taksara, goddess of love and other hardships, Masewi, the god of oceans with his shark-toothed priests, Qi, the multifaced god of magic, knowledge, & secrets, among others, all of whom helped propell the game forward in various areas.
Finally, you’ll want to figure out a sense of purpose, and this is something the players themselves can help with. If you’ve played with the same players before, you should have an idea what stirs their chili. If they are combat junkies, make sure there are plenty of level-appropriate threats for them to face (and reasons why someone else isn’t dealing with those threats themselves already). If they’re problem solvers or explorers, set up some mysteries for them to begin to poke around, like recently uncovered temples, or strange cultists who suddenly show up dead. If they’re role-players and actors, be prepared with several NPCs for the players to interact with that will help motivate the players into encounters. It’s generally a good idea to have all of these things ready for the first session anyway, and let the whim of the players dictate where you build out for the next session.
Keep it all accessible so you can refer to it between sessions and correct course as necessary, and be prepared to jot down things that come up on the fly–locations, clues, people, or suggestions that players might make about future sessions.
Now, go have fun!