Building a Fantasy Campaign World I: The Hook
The is the first part on my series on world building.In the introduction, I discussed Top-Down and Bottom-Up design, as well as some of the pros and cons of each.
Table of Contents
This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below
Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous
Every new campaign world needs a “hook”: a concept or theme on which to base the world and differentiate it from every other cookie-cutter fantasy world. The hooks is what makes the world stand out and be unique, and establishes its tropes and conventions. It’s how you sell the setting and explain what makes it cool and fun. The hook is your setting’s tagline; if your campaign setting was a movie trailer, the hook would follow the announce declaring “In a world where…”
A Hook can be as simple as “D&D meets film noir and pulp fantasy”, which describes much of Eberron. Or it can be as dramatic and busy as “post-apocalyptic D&D where magic has destroyed the world, evil has won, and psionics are common” like Dark Sun. Both settings have very solid Hooks that make the settings what they are.
Using Dark Sun for a related example, much of it could be removed from the wasteland. The story of the sorcerer kings, The Dragon, and the slave uprising in Tyr – along with all the dangerous wilderness – could work just as well in a metal-heavy world with dark primeval forests and all familiar fantasy tropes. What makes Dark Sun special and memorable is its Hook.
Hooks can be social or physical. Physical Hooks are where the world is visibly or structurally different. Dark Sun is one example of a physical Hook, but so is Hollow World where beneath the ground is another world on the inside of the planet with a magical “sun” overhead, where the core of the planet would be. A flat world, a water world, or a world of floating island and sky pirates are all based around their physical Hooks.
A social Hook is where the world is physically the same but it is the cultures, themes, or inhabitants of the world that make it different. Eberron is one example being defined by its Last War, use of magic, and the like. Dragonlance is defined by the struggle of good versus evil and its various organizations. The default 4e world of Nentir Vale is defined by its fallen empires and wilderness. A campaign world focused on squabbling noble families and rival nations, a world where gods fight an endless divine war through mortal proxies, or even a world where dwarves are horsemen and elves and sailors all have a social Hook.
What Makes a Good Hook?
A good hook creates ideas and inspires the imagination. It paints a picture of the world, but does so in as few words as possible. A good hook should almost be a sound bite: a quick description no longer than a sentence or two that instantly grabs the attention. You shouldn’t have to preface the hook with too much explanation or exposition.
The tightness and simplicity of a hook is important; you want to grab your players’ attention as quickly as possible. There are a lot of distractions in the world – even at the gaming table – so you need to get your point across as soon as possible, before minds start wandering and people start checking their e-mail, stacking dice into little towers, or playing Angry Birds. You want to get your players excited to play, with the hook alone firing imaginations and generating character ideas. You want them asking questions and engaging and listening to what you say next.
Too much work also shouldn’t be involved. If the hook requires you re-writing the basic assumptions of the game, such as the planes or how magic works, or even the mundane realities of life then things get complicated. For example, in the Game of Thrones world winter comes every few years but also might last years, so there are multiple growing seasons for crops which have to be stockpiled for the winter. Cool hook, but questions are raised: how did life survive without stockpiling, how do wild animals survive, etc. This is doable, but the more changes a hook makes to the default assumptions of life the more thinking that has to be done in advance, and the more answers a DM has to have prepared.
Of course, the hook alone is not the be-all, end-all of world building. Once it’s been established you should build on foundation of the initial hook, adding other ideas that can grab and inspire. Less of a singular hook and more of a meme coat rack.
Eberron is a good go-to example as its hook is so small and tight, yet you can expand on the initial “pulp fantasy and film noir” with extra descriptions: interwar period, magic as technology, draconic prophecy, and guilds of magic families. These are secondary but no less important to the story. And most the secondary descriptions complementary to / influenced by the initial hook; the interwar aspect of Eberron mirrors the world in the noir era sandwiched between two World Wars, while the magitech emulates much of the innovation of the ‘20s.
Do I Need a Hook?
Yes, there are many worlds without a “hook”. TSR published three or four campaign settings that were essentially hook-less. The “generic fantasy” worlds that, in many ways, are more or less interchangeable.
With so many existing generic worlds already out there, making another generic world feels, well, lazy. It’s certainly a viable option for those uninterested in world building, whose setting is a backdrop for adventure and don’t care much about the setting itself. Or those who plan on dropping in published adventures and want to keep their setting generic so as to avoid having to change too much of the published modules.
But for anyone interested in actually creating a world, a true setting, then some kind of hook is needed.
A hook doesn’t just separate the world from Greyhawk or Mystara but also provides consistency. The hook acts as a framework for the setting, the design conforms to the hook for a more uniform feel to the world. With a solid hook in place, elements that do not work with the hook are easy to notice and can be avoided or downplayed. The world feels more interconnected, slightly more uniform, and thus more real. Any places that are different are deliberate, created for contrast and thus also emphasising the hook. It’s the common element, the plot thread or theme or event, which connects places and races across the world.
There’s also the “fall back” for creativity. When in doubt you can default to the baseline assumptions of the hook. You don’t want the hook to become a crutch that you rely on for all your ideas, or a straightjacket that you cannot escape from. But when other inspiration fails, the hook is there.
For example, let’s discuss shardminds for a second. They’re a new race created for 4e, and as such have not been detailed or included in any published campaign setting (although, I believe there might be an article in Dragon on this subject). If playing an Eberron game with a player who is considering a shardmind suddenly the DM has to consider how this race fits into that world, especially as the default fluff doesn’t mesh with Eberron ‘s flavour – the Living Gate seems a poor fit withEberron ‘s rotating and mobile planes. The DM can fall back to Eberron ‘s hook: D&D meets film noir and pulp fantasy. Looking at the common ideas of both reveal lost civilizations and mad scientists to be common. Edgar Rice Burrows also did a lot of work for pulps, especially his John Carter of Mars series. With that in mind, the DM might pitch the idea of Eberron shardminds as either experiments (the next generation of warforged), a lost civilization from a distant continent (say Sarlona) or alien beings from a different a plane/planet. Alternatively, instead of a different planet, they could be from the Ring of Siberys, fulfilling the role of moon men in Eberron.
As I mention in the first part, during this series I’ll also be creating a new fantasy world at the same time to demonstrate related points.
In a blog over on the Wizbook site I was feeling creative and tossed out a few possible ideas forcampaign settings, but I also considered a few other ideas such as Sky Pirates raiding cloud castles, fantasy super heroes ala Battle Chasers, and a world where the standard D&D arcane magic is brand new.
The first seemed a little too much like the Astral Sea or generic aquatic campaigns (only where being knocked overboard is more serious). Fun but a lot of challenges. It’d be neat to sail between mobile islands where charts are only good for weeks and include motion look like a meteorologist’s map. Plus it would make later articles harder to do.
The middle idea is fun, but is really focused on players and characters more than the world. It’s a character driven world, which is not something D&D as well, unless there’s a strong DM/player partnership. Gotham and Metropolis are both generic urban locations that fit the needs of their protagonist’s genre.
The last seemed awkward, since it changes so many of the base assumptions of the game, which means a heck of a lot of work. If arcane magic is new, where do magical creatures come from? Like the owlbear. Could dragons and the like use magic? Without magic, where so all the improbable dungeons of the world come from?
Instead of a new idea, I’m using one of the simple ideas from the above linked blog: War World.
The hook behind the world is simple: the main continent of the world has been caught in a war that has been raging for generations. Like many good hooks, this isn’t exactly a new idea (and there’s a TV Trope for it, but it’s fairly untapped territory for D&D.
This is different from Eberron‘s Last War in two key respects. Firstly, the war is ongoing. There’s not many D&D worlds with current wars; most campaign settings begin with war looming or war ending (or both in the case ofEberron).Second, the war has been raging much longer. So long that it’s generational even for such long-lived species as elves and dwarves. Using the 5e playtest documents, this puts the duration of the war at over 700-years. If the war has been raging on-and-off for 850 years that means an elf child born at the start of the war would have died of old age before the current era, so few living things remember a time when there was true peace. For the short lived races like humans, inevitable and eventual war has become their culture and peace is just a time to rebuild armies and prepare for the next offensive.
Imagine it: a world where lasting peace is unknown and no area has been spared the ravages of war. Statues and monuments have been melted down to make weapons and there has been no time to rebuild damaged cities and regions. Every nation and city bears the scars of brutal magical and mundane warfare. Art is unknown. Music and culture are seen as decadent at best.
With that established as the central key hook, I can start adding other elements. These will be kept generic for the moment as I’m trying not to work too far ahead (to keep the design focused on the article topics).
The standard element of the Forever Wars trope (referenced in the link) is that the origins of the war are long forgotten. I.e. the trigger point of the war has become irrelevant and only the war matters. I think I’ll avoid that for this world, as a way of twisting the trope into something slightly more unique; after all, in the real world we can trace back the seemingly endless wars of the Middle East (such as the continual Iraq/Iran hostility) back over a thousand years without too much effort.
Because of the myriad races of D&D it’s also possible to expand the war outward from the standard “us versus them” of most Forever Wars – or the human kingdoms versus human kingdoms of most fantasy worlds’ continent-wide wars. The War might have started as several smaller wars and conflicts – some potentially much older than base thousand years – that became interconnected through alliances or territorial overlap. And over the years alliances have shifted in a series of betrayals and reversals, dragging more and more races and regions into the conflict.
The above is handy for a couple reasons. By spreading out the conflict, there can be areas of relative peace if needed, where there is a ceasefire going on, or open warfare has moved elsewhere for a time. It also helps enable some of the standard fantasy assumptions, such as the elven/dwarven rivalries while still enabling parties to work together. It’s easy to say that elves and dwarves were at war for much of the past millennia but are currently uneasy allies, justifying both the fun role-playing animosity yet allowing an excuse for the party to work together.
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