The Fog

When Venger asked me to write an article for Draconic Magazine, I thought, “Sure, why not?” then, as I sat down to write, my ADD kicked in and the jumble of ideas and to-do lists created a fog so thick I couldn't see the ideas right in front of my face. After the creative fog broke; however, land was in sight.

What was this new land that I could just barely make out, though? Was it fraught with peril? Did it contain vast treasure and ancient alien technologies? One thing was certain, I could only see a small part of it—just enough to let my imagination wander and once again get lost in the beyond.

Lost in the beyond is exactly the place I want my players to be when I create the setting for my campaigns. By using some simple ideas to mask the edges of the world and keep them out of player’s sight, I can keep the illusion of mystery and suspense. Fog is a great tool for that. It confuses the mind, as well as, any sense of direction. I like to use fog in my campaign worlds either as a physical reality or as a metaphor to keep the world small. I have found it much easier to control the worlds I build and be better prepared on game day when I keep things local.

I often start with the ground the PCs are standing on and radiate out from there. In the last campaign I ran, for instance, kidnapped PCs woke up to find themselves tied together on the doorstep of a tower in a forest clearing and suffering from amnesia. This was my first layer of "fog." The amnesia was my way of avoiding the typical "you meet in a tavern" opening session. I also had a group of complete tabletop RPG noobs, so asking them to create a backstory was a bit difficult since they really had no context. Instead, I created a rumor table of things each PC might remember, such as “you awake remembering the blurry outline of a giant-sized humanoid walking off into the forest." This prompted a player to create a story of an ogre who was working for a slave trader and had kidnapped the party. Other interesting things: a frozen corpse tied up to a PC, waking with a sudden uncontrollable urge to loose your bladder - roll a constitution check (that was quite humorous). Starting the game with that kind of clean slate allowed for the unexpected.

During the first few moments of play, a second layer of fog was added when a light snow soon turned into a blizzard, obscuring the boundaries of the setting. This approach allowed me to more comfortably prepare the world around at a much slower pace; it also meant that I spent less time preparing monsters, locations, NPCs, etc. - encounters the players might never come in contact with. I used to spend countless hours building Tolkien sized worlds that only I would know. Because the scope of creation was so vast, an average group of players would need countless hours of playtime to reach every far corner. While this was and still is fun, our busy lives often constrain us to only a few hours a week for prep and play.

One of the hardest things for me about campaign and world building is keeping myself from getting too big and too far out in my plans. As I mentioned my ADD kicks in and a million ideas all come to me at once and they all demand center stage. At one point I started to get so over zealous for my campaign world that it was hard to keep them all straight; every idea was the most important idea and I wanted to share them all as soon as possible! It's easy for creative types to get lost in their creations and that's exactly what happened. I had created four different storylines that each character was a part of and two major story arcs that no one even remembered. I had unexplored cities and ruins and I spent hours carving out minute details of long lost civilizations without paying attention to the current setting and plot.

At one point, I was spending time creating parts of the world that no one was ever going to see when I should have been prepping for our weekly game. As the "guide to the realm of Dungeons & Dragons." I was lost; so lost that the players didn't even remember where they were or why they were on the adventure that they were on in the first place. I needed to regroup. Up until then, "just-in-time" adventure and world creation was something I did out of necessity. I was flying by the seat of my pants most of the time. When time and ideas were in short supply I would resort to “last minute” adventure prep. After realizing how lost I was in my own creation, just-in-time became more than a last minute resort, it became a tool that I would refine and use throughout the campaign.

An enjoyable aspect of working small and just-in-time is seeing how a story can evolve organically. I've written before about the nature of an adventure being a character that the Game Master “rolls” up. The campaign world is no different. By using random tables, a brief outline of the major setting landmarks, a core story arc, and player cues the GM can "play" the campaign like a player does his character—adding layers of interesting people, places, legends, relics and history... leveling up as the player characters do.

I came up with the idea of the PCs being kidnapped by an ogre or giant of some sort, but not the slave trade. That little bit of information provided by a player's contribution was like the GM finding a magic sword +1 or a ring of invisibility. The player was giving me treasure while I, as GM, hastily scribbled down what he said.

My notes gave me the details of the PC's current location, conditions, what landmarks were immediately visible, the possible encounters in the immediate areas, and a rumor table of half-remembered details. We ran a year-long campaign, playing for a couple hours a week with only about an hour of prep each week. What started with that initial vague encounter seed eventually grew to include several gods, a new race, a small village as home base (they eventually all went in together and bought a tavern), a legendary city that was often talked about but never actually visited, several legends, a "borrowed" reptile cult, legendary artifacts and more. By keeping the world small, creating the story parts just-in-time and playing the campaign as a character, the sense of mystery was always just over the next hill (staving off GM burnout as well). By not knowing exactly what might happen, keeping physical and psychological borders just out of reach, you can greatly increase player buy-in, spend less time prepping, and add a greater sense of wonder and discovery. After all, isn't that why it's called an adventure?

Once the fog has cleared enough to have landed on that distant shore, I battled a plethora of competing, long-range ideas. Now, the campaign world can be wild and unfamiliar while inside I'm on sure footing and feeling pretty confident about what's going to happen. Let's roll a d12 and go from there!
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By Frank Turfler

Readers' Rating: 

5