Building a Fantasy World XIII: Starting Zone
Anyone who has played a videogame, especially an MMO, should be familiar with the term “starting zone”. This refers to a newbie friendly area where you begin the game, typically populated by weak, inoffensive monsters – often ones that will not attack until attacked first – which allow a new player to get a feel for the game. This allows the player to learn the controls and gameplay, but also introduce the story or world in a controlled fashion. To some extent, campaign and fantasy worlds also have starting zones. These are typically small towns in isolated area far enough away from a central authority that they need to rely on a band of mercenary adventurers for simple tasks. As such, making a starting area can be an important step in worldbuilding.
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
Tabletop Roleplaying Games have easier learning curve than most video games in that there’s a thinking human being running the monsters and adapting the difficulty & complexity based on the skill and knowledge of the players. So, on paper, tabletop games don’t need a firm starting zone; any area can serve as the starting zone, the GM just chooses not to send the neighbouring the elder wyrm red dragon to squish the rookie party of adventurers. However, establishing a starting zone provides a number of benefits.
First, it offers the aforementioned justification for the player characters being hired to perform assorted task. It gives them the opportunity to get started and develop their reputation. If there’s a strong and kind king ruling nearby he’d just send the army to squish the pesky goblin tribe disrupting trade or task the local sheriff with hunting down the band of outlaws hiding in the local woods.
Having a convenient starting area also provides a safe place to rest and recover between adventures. This is especially important in games where healing is slow or PCs are fragile. Similarly, a nearby town provides a location for adventures to resupply, replace equipment, and sell found treasure. The town also allows offers a change of pace from adventuring. Without a nearby town, adventuring parties just spend day after day hacking their way through a dungeon for session after session never speaking with NPC beyond interrogating survivors. A nearby town gives the party the option of interacting with NPCs through means other than the tip of a sword. (They don’t have to, but it’s nice to at least offer the option.)
The hooks provided by a starting zone help propel a campaign into motion. Even if the game is a giant sandbox, the party needs to have some idea where to go first and what areas sound interesting. When the campaign begins each players is still getting a feel for their character: personalities, motivations, and reactions might still be in flux. And all the players are still working to understand and learn about the other characters – or even getting to know the other players at the table. It helps to be able to be able to give the party a quick shove and some instant motivations with short-term solvable problems
From a worldbuilding perspective starting areas provide another benefit. They allow you to ease the players into the nuances of world. Just like using a newbie zone to ease a new player into the the mechanics and gameplay, the region eases players into the setting by explaining the convention and differences of the world.
A starting zone is also one of the few areas that needs to be developed for a Bottom-Up world. Even if the rest of the world is unknown or painted in the broadest of strokes, some effort should be made to detail the starting region. It is the launchpad of the campaign, the location from where the rest of the world is explored and expanded. The hooks and ideas provided by the starting zone will not just drive the initial adventures but feed into the creation of the entire world.
Sample Starting Zones
There’s a number of good examples in the hobby. First and foremost is the Free City of Greyhawk, which served as the launchpad for innumerable delves into the catacombs beneath that city or its castle. It established the convention of a metropolis built atop ancient dungeons that has since been copied by Waterdeep and Ptolus. But these cities are perfect examples as they can be employed by high level groups as equally as low level, always being destinations worth reaching.
A better example is the town of Solace in Dragonlance, which serves as the starting point for the world’s premiere adventure path and its quick destruction emphasises the horrors of the war while establishing the story as one where you don’t have quick adventures before returning to a safe home. You’re there just long enough to get the basics of the world: there is no central authority, there are no gods, there are no dragons anymore, and dangers are so present people built homes in trees. Then the story kicks you out.
The Forgotten Realms often presents the Dalelands as an ideal starting area, specifically Shadowdale. They’re presented as small semi-rural areas lacking a singular leader (and thus no army) making them friendly to adventurers. Problems come from the nearby drow, neighbouring dales, Cormyr’s attempts to annex the land, evil Sembian merchants, the Zhentarim, and more.
Moving to classic adventures, there is the village of Hommlet and the Keep on the Borderlands. Both of which are great examples of small areas that are launchpads for greater adventure.
4th Edition really embraced the idea of the starting zone, having one in the first adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, and a second neighbouring location in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. There was also the town of Loudwater in the 4e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. Similarly, the very first issue of Pathfinder also introduces the town of Sandpoint that serves as the starting point for a couple adventure paths and numerous home campaigns (and the comic book).
One benefits of designing a starting zone is the ability to pre-build a supporting cast. Adventuring parties are going to visit certain places and interact with certain people so its handy to know who said people are and what they want. This allows you to portray the NPCs consistently, which helps make them more than just names or professions, more than just “the innkeeper” or “Joe the guy who buys our treasure”.
It’s a good idea to create more NPCs than needed, to have some redundancy and overlap. Players will pick and choose which NPCs they like (and dislike) so it helps if there are extra characters to provide this choice. NPCs that do not become friends and allies can become rivals, enemies, or just vanish into background.
Creating NPCs can be slow. Names often do not easily spring to mind when needed (and those created on the fly have the annoying tendency to be eminently mockable). Likewise, personalities – preferably with complex motivations – take work and forethought. So it helps to do the work ahead of time, to not stumble over a name and description when a player spontaneously decides to visit the tavern and get drunk. A town populated by interchangeable flat characters is not inherently bad if the PCs just want to quickly sell treasure, rest, and return to the dungeon. But it’s not particularly memorable or interesting, and it isn’t giving them an excuse to do anything but quickly sell treasure, rest, and return to the dungeon. A strong supporting cast helps differentiate roleplaying games from a dungeon-based board games. You can fight monsters and gain treasure in any number of tabletop games, but you can only have spontaneous dialogue with the blacksmith about the unremarkable weather in an tabletop RPG.
Like in video games, a supporting cast can provide adventure hooks, giving PCs clues on where to go next or possible directions for the story. They can offer both quests and quest rewards. If the players or player characters care about an NPC this can be used as motivation. Imperilling a beloved supporting cast member (or the entire town) is a cheap yet effective means of motivating a party.
The supporting cast is also a great window into the world. They are quite literally the Voice of the GM, and through them the setting can be detailed and expanded. As an NPC speaks and explains something to the characters, the GM can also explain something to the players, but without just being the person hiding behind a cardstock screen talking at the players. This makes it less of an infodump and more a part of the story: it’s the difference between a character in a movie explaining something and the narrator of the movie explaining something.
It’s also a great way of introducing an unreliable narration. If the biased old shopkeeper says the elves in the northern woods are diabolists the players don’t know if he’s telling the truth or just being an old bigot. This also establishes people might not view elves favourable, providing some world flavour at the same time as a story hook and some character interaction.
NPCs can provide PCs information on the world via their backstories. The grizzled war veteran tells that there was a war within the last generation, and a family of elven refugees speak to problems in the elflands. If the town wizard is open and trusted or secretive and feared it establishes how people view magic.
A Place to Call Home
It’s nice for an adventuring party to have someplace to serve as a base of operations. This might be a house one of the party owns or, much more commonly, the local inn. This is someplace to rest and recuperate, to engage in crafting or other downtime activities, to listen to local rumours, and even display trophies of past battles.
It works best if the players choose their home. They might claim some abandoned location or seizing control of structure from their enemies. But the PCs should feel in control of their choice. However, a good worldbuilder can seed potential locations, giving their players a few choices of home base. This might be as simple as a having two different inns in the town or as complex as seeding a dozen different adventure hooks tied to monster infested locations that could be cleared out and refurbished.
The Hook & Conflict
When designing a settlement, remember the world’s Hook and to include Conflict. Both are important to making a good starting zone that is both interesting and introduces the world as an interesting place to adventure.
As the initial location that eases the party into the world, the starting locale should embody and reflect the Hook. It should be emblematic and representation of the world at large, a microcosm of the most important elements of the world.
Conflict is even more important. Firstly, because it’s where the party will be sent on its initial quest. But also because deeper conflict can drive and inspire future stories and influence how the NPCs react. Conflict should include ready sources of monsters, wild places with threats that only adventurers can solve, and hazardous locations that are a challenge to move through.
Even for a story on the rails it’s preferable to have multiple problems going on at the starting location, giving players an initial choice of which problem to deal with, or at least the order in which they deal with the local problems. These problems can also provide small side quests and additional tasks to be completed while engaging on a larger quest. And each problem solved should create more problems or future stories unless the intent is to “solve” all the conflict and move onto a new area. It’s very easy to forget to establish replacement background problems, letting the town become too peaceful for adventuring.
However, adding more conflict should be done carefully. If there is a continual torrent of problems it will seem like nothing the adventures do is good enough and something will just come along and undo all their hard work. There should be some triumph and feeling of lasting change. And the actions of the party should not regularly make things worse unless the PCs are acting rashly or the GM wishes to establish a tone of hopelessness and impotence.
Smaller conflict is equally important. This is conflict too insignificant to drive an entire adventure but that acts as a motivation for role-playing or NPC actions. There should be people who hate each other, competing business, friendly rivalries, failed romances, old grudges, unrequited loves, and more. These should not revolve around the PCs but simply exist, which helps give the appearance of a living town that continues to exist and change outside of the gaze of the PCs.
Potential conflicts can also drive PC backgrounds. If a region is presented as having problems with ogres it might inspire a player to create a character that is the survivor of a vicious ogre attack. (Or vice versa with the background establishing local conflict.)
Designing a Starting Zone
The first step is deciding where you want your campaign to begin and what you would like the starting area to be like. Small towns are fairly universal and a little modification can make one fit almost anywhere, so a sly shortcut is to keep the starting area generic in terms of region allowing it to be socketable into various nations or places as needed. This allows a GM to have a starting area ready for the game while still allowing the party to pick the prefered nation, region, or otherwise have some influence in where the campaign begins.
While the starting area should be generic enough to potentially fit in a couple places, a good village and starting area should have landmarks, memorable features, or just something interesting in the local geography. This might be a local ruin, a curious rock formation, a mysterious site, an ancient battlefield, or area of weird magic.
Decide how big of a starting region you want. If it’s going to be a small town or a full-sized city and how much of the surrounding terrain will be included. A large starting area might encompass several small towns, the connected farmland, and some wilderness.
Most adventurers are invariably going to frequent a few choice businesses: a tavern, an inn, a blacksmith, a general store, a healer or cleric, and possibly a magic shop. These businesses should be prepared in advance with the relevant staff named and assigned some manner of personality or quirk. When possible the businesses themselves should stand out in some way. There should be some unique feature such as a large mural, several roaming pet cats, decoratively carved beams, cramped shelving, or a unique odour.
There should also be a few wildcard NPCs that can just be encountered about town. Because these are just flavour, the quirkier they are the better. Westerns are good sources of inspiration for these, as they frequently have the protagonists entering a small town and quickly encountering some memorable (but plot irrelevant character). The token crazed senior citizen, grizzled prospector, town drunk, obsessive gambler, village idiot, and the like.
Once the basic area has been established begin thinking of problems affecting the region: mundane, magical, and monstrous. There should be problems the adventurers can solve (bandits, an angry troll) as well as problems they cannot (a drought, a swarm of locusts). Problems should have layers. There might be increased goblin raids in an area because the goblins are being pushed out of their territory by ogres or flooding. The cause-and-effect help make the world feel real while the staggering conflict helps maintain potential stories and conflict without negating the PC’s successes.
A Starting Zone in War World
I want the starting area of War World to convey the sense of perpetual warfare. It should drive home the point that wars are being waged and have been for a very long time.
I’ll take some inspiration from Cybertron of Transformers fame. The area was once home to a great and glorious city that has been blasted all to heck and is now a giant crumbling ruin, a sprawling skyline of broken blackened towers, urban decay, and large swaths where nothing lives. The city was blighted, salted, and burned so thoroughly that little greenery has reclaimed the city. It has been destroyed so often that attempts at real restoration have just been abandoned.
People live on one edge of the city, having built new homes out of chunks of old buildings, or hastily repaired less-ruined structures in an impermanent fashion. Nearby buildings and works of art have been scavenged for materials. The settlement itself is near the edge of the city (rather than the center) to have access to nearby farmland, so many areas of the central ruins are filled with monsters and monstrous humanoids. I’ll say the city used to lie on a semi strategic point. Because of shifting and shrinking borders it’s no longer worth heavily defending, but once was a place troops regularly passed through and armies fought over, such as an old trade route, a mountain pass, or exhausted mine. There is a large battlefield nearby that has been the site of innumerable battles. The dead of the most recent battles were never buried or collected, but left to rot where they fell (after the bodies were picked through for valuables of course), and there are a number of mass graves from previous wars.
The town proper is a quiet frontier town. At the edge of a nation, it attracts those who no longer wish to be a part of the country yet do not want to become complete hermits. In addition to those born in the region there’s an assortment of foreign refugees, criminals, and deserters.
As an isolated town, there’s little to do but drink and fight so there are a number of taverns, none of which being particularly nice. I’ll name one “The Butcherous Barber”, jokingly named for a statue appropriated to serve as a roof support column; the statue was too tall so the head was knocked off. The other will be the “Drinking Hole”. The Hole is built into the deep basement foundation of what was once a massive tower, so you go down into a circular hole to reach the bar.
There are two places to stay. There’s a lodging house in the town proper run by an elderly halfling couple renowned for their non-stop bickering. This rooming house has no name and is simply a large home. At the edge of town and close to the main road there is another inn known as the “Fallen Tower Inn” . It is just what it sounds: a once massive rectangular watch tower at the edge of the city that was toppled yet landed mostly intact (good dwarven construction). They built an entrance along the base and have converted the rest of the structure into an inn through copious use of ladders.
The blacksmith also runs the general store, often buying scrap metal that can be made into new metal goods. Good iron is scarce in the region, selling for high prices in the central cities where it can be turned into arms and weapons; local metal goods tend to come from recycled ore. The smith spends as much of her time repairing and fixing goods as she does making new items. The store has precious few “new” items for a smithy and almost seems like a pawn shop upon entry.
In a D&D-style world there needs to be a cleric or two. Someone to patch up wounds, cast rituals or spells otherwise unknown, offer potions of healing when the party is low level and act emergency healer of sorts. Typically to provide limited spellcasting for parties without a cleric of their own (or whose own cleric is the one who needs healing). I’ll have the local cleric be a follower of the god of war who had the ill fortune in battle of losing both his legs. He has a crude wheelchair (more of wagon or board with wheels) he uses to get around town. He’s full of regrets and anger at being denied a death in battle and the opportunity to continue fighting. He’s continually irritated by phantom limb syndrome that makes him even more cranky.
The region now needs a few flavour NPCs.
The local law is the Sheriff. He’s a half-elf, which disqualifies him for military service despite being a born soldier. Instead, he keeps the peace in the town and is very protective of the area, but willing to look the other way for locals: outsiders have to earn his trust. He’s gruff and non-nonsense. As a personality of sorts I’m thinking the perpetual straight man with no sense of humour, who just glowers harder at any attempt at levity and speaks in a swift Dragnet monotone.
I’ll also have a couple “retired” soldiers. These two well into their senior years and no longer able to wield swords, somehow surviving innumerable campaigns and battles. Endless scars and war wounds cover their bodies, which they continually complain about, especially when it looks like rain. The pair were on opposite sides (most of the time) and encountered each other in battle more than once, albeit never directly. They grumble and spend their days making cracks and hurling insults at the other,yet still spend most of their days playing checkers (or the fantasy equivalent). Sort of like Grumpy Old Men if Jack Lemmon was a French ex-soldier and Walter Matthau a retired German soldier.
The region still needs problems. As a forgotten section of a nation it’s all but autonomous, so there might be the usual problems with bandits and monstrous humanoids. In the rest of the city are are feuding gnoll packs and orc bands that occasionally make raids on the village. The war also left numerous weaponized monsters roaming through the ruins, a few being designed to find a lair and sleep for a few decades before awakening, presumably to surprise occupants of a rebuilt town.
I’ll also have a group of refugees living nearby, having fled from other villages and war. They’ve erected a tent city to the side of the village and are asking about building homes (or claiming ruins), but the village government is uncertain and has been delaying the decision. After all, the refugees could be spies or traitors and even if they’re not, the mayor is uncertain he wants a bunch of vagrants moving into his town: arable land around the village is limited. Some of the refugees might be thieves, leading to tension with the town, but others could be innocent victims who are rapidly running out of food and money, breaking themselves paying the inflated prices the villagers charge for foodstuffs.
Lastly, I need a few local landmarks. I’ve already done some of this with a fallen tower as an inn but it never hurts to have a few more interesting places, especially if you can use them as potential dungeons or monsters lairs if the PCs seem extremely hooked. One such structure is the Unyielding Fortress, a small grim keep in the middle of the fallen city that due to excellent construction and potential magic withstood an endless onslaught and is mostly intact. There are rumours that it still contains hidden vaults of treasure, having never yielded to invaders. As it is such a secure structure, it might be claimed by various monsters or bandits. Or perhaps many of the original inhabitants remain in a state of magical suspension.
There’s also the Firefield. A long stretch of ground that was blasted by magical fire that has not burnt out. It’s an angry scar in the land consumed by a perpetual blaze dampened by rain or snow.
Nearby that are the Ghoul Yards, massive battlefields littered by the rotting corpses of the dead. Not all have lain quietly and a number of ghouls have claimed the sites, living in underground warrens lined with bones stolen from mass graves. They eat the carrion and loot the dead, selling what they can to brave souls willing to barter with the hungry undead. It’s rumoured the town has an arrangement with the ghouls, handing over the village’s dead and secretly burying empty coffins.
If I were building a full starting zone for player’s I’d add names to the NPCs and likely add a few others, such as the innkeeper, tavern bartenders, a couple more shopkeepers, and maybe the mayor or officials. Plus more hooks, because you can never have enough adventure hooks. But the above is an adequate start.
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