Outside of Lord of the Rings, hobbits have never really done the trick for me. In every game I’ve played, a halfling is just a character who is short every rare once in a while when people remember (and only then when it’s convenient). That said, when I read about Eberron’s halflings, I fell in love. Halflings and dinosaurs–what a concept!
And thus it was that, even before I finished reading the Eberron Campaign Setting, I started imagining a new campaign world: a mashup of the Talenta Plains and Dinosaurs and Cadillacs. Though it never left my brain (except maybe in a tweet or something), I loved (and still love) the concept of SMG-armed halflings tearing across jungles and plains in Mad Max-rigged dune buggies while being chased by velocoraptors.
I’ve always had a thing for mashups, I guess.
The true power in this, however, is that borrowing from a campaign setting or two while changing one major variable gets some pretty instant buy-in and familiarity from players. Today, I’ll explore how to grow an instant campaign setting from an existing one with a few different tricks.
Go Directly to Steal, Do Not Pass Beg or Borrow
One very easy “campaign setting” to borrow from is our own world. It involves taking a familiar element and smashing it into a different context: historical, fantasy, future, noir, what have you.
My friend Matt has done this in his Pravus campaign setting. This setting builds around a city in the disputed lands between Pravus (a European-Style empire–there’s one stolen element) and the Turanian Kingdoms (an alternate Middle East). This border city is under Pravan control, and the emperor has just opened up the unexplored lands around it to adventurers to claim both new lands and treasures for the Empire (think “gold rush”.). The adventurers get a significant tax break on their findings–provided they keep them away from the other unsavory elements of the city.
The name of the city? Deadwood.
All the familiar elements–nations and ethnicities, historical events, and a city based on a Western TV show–give us, the players, many points of reference to make the Pravus setting feel like home. And the best part is that the DM prep is light–rather than defining every building in Deadwood, we can simply create them on the fly, using what we know about the setting as a template.
Spicy Status Quo
I love taking a very much known quantity and injecting a measure of fiction in it (or sometimes, even stretching a truth of it). For instance, there are many legends of Adolf Hitler’s obsession with mystical arts. Heck, I remember blasting away at both Nazis and zombies in Wolfenstein 3D when I was a kid. That is an example of the “spicy status quo,” where you take a concept that existed, and add a foreign element that redefines most every element of it.
I’ve toyed with the idea of an adventure set in Nazi Germany, where some genetic experiments on victims in concentration camps left a handful of these victims horridly mutated, but with special powers. These mutants use their powers to break out of the concentration camp, and begin to wage a war against the Nazis and Hitler.
If and when I run this adventure, I’m totally using the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG rules for the game.
This is a really easy insta-setting to pull off: just ask “What would happen if X was real?” That can be superheroes, magic, dragons, self-aware robots, or anything else you have ever wished was real. Then imagine what effect that would have on governments, economies, armies, and other power sources throughout the world, and boom, you’ve got a new campaign setting.
My favorite trick is taking a very familiar setting and sending it a few thousand years into the future. That’s essentially the aforementioned Eberron adaption–we just make sure halflings become the dominant race, dinosaurs don’t go extinct, and technology develops in a somewhat similar way to our world (but with dinosaurs!). Hmm… maybe halflings become the dominant race because only they know how to deal with the dinos… see how easy it is to start building these worlds?
I did an example of this with Chase’s randomly generated campaign setting a few weeks ago. He painted a setting in a fantasy genre, and I took the same ideas, motivations, and character concepts and placed them in a similar scifi setting. It looks very different, but it feels very much the same.
The coolest part of running games in these settings is when you drop in a recognizable element. For instance, let’s go back to the future Eberron setting. One could imagine that low-level adventures take place on the modern-day Talenta Plains, where halflings have to zip between heavily-fortified settlements to take on Shadowrun-like missions, while being chased by a good old-fashioned T-Rex. Once the novelty of the setting wears off, turn the dial up by sending the halfings by zeppelin to the ruins of Sharn, which will be exquisitely familiar to anyone who has played in Eberron.
Mix and Match
Of course, all these ideas can work very well together. Take, for instance, the setting for my first FATE game. I borrowed Pravus from Matt, but fast-forwarded two thousand years. Something very much like World War Two had been raging on for the last decade, and the Pravan version of the Manhattan Project had just successfully been completed in both Pravus and their enemy (the Baylor Empire, a pseudo-Germany).
Only thing is, instead of producing nuclear weapons, these skunkworks made monsters.
Pravus sent hordes of trolls and orcs against their foes in Baylor, and Baylor sent dragons to destroy the bi-wings and zeppelins of the Pravian Air Force. Our adventure took place after the mutually assured destruction of these monsters rampaging across the world.
Stealing for stories in games is fun, because players have fun when the recognize stuff. And it is easier to make critical game elements (governments, NPCs, technology, cities) when everyone feels like they already know a little bit about the world. I’d love to hear about your adaptations–tell us about them in the comments!