So you want to create your own campaign for your players? You want to craft adventures with thrilling action, compelling characters, and rich plot hooks? With cliffhangers and twists, treachery and redemption, complexity and surprises around every corner? A living, breathing world to explore with your friends? We want to help you do just that.
First and foremost, finding your inspiration!
One of the most cited pieces of writing advice is that, to be a better writer, you have to read. It’s solid advice, and in this case, it’s advice you can use for homebrewing your own worlds.
Does your homebrewed world pull directly from real life human history? If so, then your options for books to read are much wider than just textbooks. Those options break down into two general categories: what I think of as “historic” and “contemporary.” For those historical sources to pillage for ideas, you have surviving archives of newspapers and magazines, cookbooks, fiction published in your era of choice (or carved into stone, depending on era), sheet music, surviving art, diaries, recordings of music or film if applicable, and non-fiction from the era. For contemporary sources, there’s historical literary fiction set in your era of choice, written by modern authors, academic journals, websites, documentaries, non-fiction books, movies, critiques and analysis texts of the art and people of the time.
Now, when looking at contemporary works, you’re getting a top-down look at the past from the present. It can be very useful, though it doesn’t always convey the language and feel of a previous era, whereas raiding historical sources gets you a more inside feel of that segment of human history. Even if you’re only winding back the clock to an era you yourself lived through, contemporary sources can give interesting food for thought. For the historic materials, your own closet or hard drive likely has a plethora of old movies, music, and notebooks to provoke your memory.
Details are something I love, and it’s easy to get lost in a rabbit hole picking them up. Write as much detail as you like, getting down what’s most important to you (for instance, does your version of San Francisco execute people for walking on the grass?), but be conscious of how much detail your players can take in. If you and they thrive on painstaking detail, then go wild with it. But if you love detail more than your players, present them (of the details you’ve put down) with the ones they’ll find the most useful and intriguing.
When it comes to homebrewed worlds that are clearly cousins to our own, we break history at some point, even if that break is something only PCs become aware of. Basically, by making a homebrew world based on our own, you’re a bit like a wizard. Wizards know the natural world before they go breaking the laws of physics, so as you brew your world that shares DNA with this one, buffing up a little on human history makes you like a wizard. You know history, which allows for you to break, drift, and rebuild it in new and meaningful ways.
One last source of inspiration for you: television, movies, and books set in alternate histories or “secret worlds.” (For this, I’d say a secret world could classify as much of urban fantasy, some fantasy, and some horror; a world where the impossible exists underneath the noses of real life humanity.) For instance, Dark Skies, a 60s-set show about UFOs and shadowy conspiracies, is arguably a secret world. There is a bevy of places to pluck and remake history from. The sources of the world are your oyster, so to speak.
This is probably the easiest to tailor source material for inspiration. Our own bookshelves, those of our friends, the local library, and bookstores are good places to start. If you’re making a world of high adventure and epic fantasy, you probably know (and likely own) a number of books that snugly fit those genres. Reading in genre is an excellent first stepping stone.
While you read, note the things you love but also the things that didn’t work for you and why you think so. Did the monarchy make no sense? Was the magic forgettable? Do the elves feel like pointy-eared humans? You’re making a world for players to crawl inside, so anything that doesn’t work—whether breaking with genre conventions or disappointing expectations or something else—can break our suspension of disbelief. If can be helpful to define your own expectations for any given genre to help you make conscious, informed decisions on your execution of your homebrew.
Memoirs, how-to, “pop science”, retrospectives, photographic essays, coffee table books, trivia: the chances are, if you go through your home, a friend’s, a bookstore, you’ll recognize the iconic moments referenced in 20th-century coffee table books. Perhaps, you own a few guides to interesting hobbies. Inspiration is, as much as anything, what captures our interest and sparks our ideas. When you walk through a bookstore, what captures your attention on the shelf? Why? Taking a few of those intriguing moments where your attention was captured, you may have something potent on your hands. Perhaps, chemists and seamstresses in your world often share commercial space, or the men who pulled the Golden Gate cables pull through more than just air but aether. Just start with those two questions, what captured your eye and why, and the details may just write themselves.
Music and Theater
Reading everything else we’ve covered so far aren’t the only places to draw from to inspire and fuel your world. Music does incredible things to set the mood of a party, a movie, a montage. We’ve internalized things about how the story will go in the next few beats from music. With theater, we have a sense of what a three act (or more) performance will do in term of the arc of the tale. Ideas for creation myths, red light districts, or the recent politics of your world can be found in music and theater. Whether it’s the lyrics, the sound, the way Act II makes you breathless. There’s a reason a lot of people think of Shakespeare when they think of theater. His plays have become icons, the characters familiar.
Now that we’ve touched on where to find good source material, next time, we’ll look at some specific narrative elements.
TO BE CONTINUED…!
For even more insights on on how to run your game, check out the many wonderful voices in Kobold Guide to Gamemastering.