Curabel Setting

[A short digression on my preference for custom sandbox settings suggested by the previous post on the Curabel campaign design. My apologies on the lack of updates since the initial flurry of posts. My hope is to get back on at least a weekly posting schedule starting with the next installment of my campaign design series this weekend.]

sandbox

Thematically appropriate and usefully annotated.

I’ve always run sandbox campaigns, even back in the 80’s in school when I wouldn’t have known what that meant. This wasn’t a conscious choice, though, just an accident dependent on my interests and limitations as a DM:

1. I have never been able to run someone else’s campaign or module — they’re the projections of someone else’s imagination and always feel foreign to me. I can borrow a general theme, minor detail, or random table and rework it so that it becomes mine, but that’s about it. For instance, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through Zak S.’s Red & Pleasant Land and David McGrogan’s Yoon-Suin settings recently and could see myself playing in them or even stealing individual ideas for my own use, but those are not my worlds and I don’t have that gut feeling for their ‘reality’ that I get with my own creations.
2. I have always loved creating campaign milieus and explaining how everything got the way it is before the players start breaking/interacting with it. I do this for myself, though, so never feel compelled to ram it down the players’ throats — it’s a largely invisible (from the players’ perspective) web of causes and effects.
3. Determining the why and wherefores of a campaign world has always highlighted for me the underlying concepts that are firing my imagination. Knowing that makes riffing on player choices off-the-cuff much easier. They can yank on any adventure string they want, but I know the thematic ball of yarn to which they ultimately connect.

So, to run through the process backwards: I’ve always had a knack for improvisation based on player choice (the bedrock of sandbox play) because I have a good sense of my campaign worlds’ themes and history. I have a good sense of those themes and history because I only use my own material and spend a good bit of time rationalizing the components of that material. I only use my own material because I delight in creating it for its own sake and suck at empathizing with or ingesting the finished ideas of others.

[This is the third post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts.]

Geography is Destiny

Deep Jungle by lyno3ghe

Deep Jungle by lyno3ghe (http://lyno3ghe.deviantart.com/art/Deep-Jungle-177097879).

The next section of the campaign bible document consists of a high-level summary of the islands making up the archipelago of Curabel, broadly divided into major islands with centers of civilization, second tier islands with smaller populations of note and/or adventure locations, and small islands with some special claim to fame. This was not intended to be an exhaustive list, with my thought being that this area would have countless small islands (many uncharted) that would make introducing new adventure locations on-the-fly without breaking the players’ suspension of disbelief easier.

More important than the geographic thumbnail sketch, though, this section of the bible is where I first decided some of the finer details of Curabel’s history, invented some (hopefully evocative) bits of its peoples’ languages, and introduced the small tweaks to the standard demi-human races that would set them apart (somewhat) from their fantasy archetypes. Many of these ideas were suggested to me by the geography of islands and how that would practically impact the development of different populations and any attempt to govern them — whether by a native empire or colonizing force. Besides pointing out the practical/gaming rationale of the islands’ layout, I will be calling particular attention to these socio-political points in the following commentary.

Geographic and Linguistic Overview

Isles of Curabel

Curabel is the imperial name for a chain of islands in the tropics of a world called Meidia. While the imperials were driven out centuries ago, the isles split into city-states following independence and no new human or elven name for the entire chain was adopted. In imperial common, the name meant “Beautiful Islands” (Cura = islands; bel = beauty). The native dwarves called the islands Weland’Khel (Water Fortress; Khel = fortress, Weland = water) and ruled the islands sometime before the arrival of the imperials – leaving behind many ruined cities and strongholds. Native humans adopted first the dwarven then imperial names.

Jungle Ruins with waterfall

Jungle Ruins by Electricleash

I suppose it goes without saying that, like many RPG players of my generation, J.R.R. Tolkien was a major influence on my early life — and, eventually, my decision to get a PhD in medieval literature. This first little bit strikes me as reflecting that early influence, with the pseudo-linguistic investigation of place name derivations. Looking at this now, it seems like my idea of “imperial common” is partially indebted to Latin (noun preceding modifying adjective; third declension plural form) and the Dwarven seems a bit Germanic — specifically Afrikaans according to Google translate (which is weirdly appropriate if totally unplanned). While my work on Curabel’s fantasy language is not terribly complex or extensive, I do try to be consistent in the few words and phrases introduced to the campaign and this has paid dividends during actual play (link to come when I start posting play reports).

Most of the islands in Curabel are covered in tropical rain forests, although there is also a chain of mountain peaks running north-south through the islands. On some of the largest islands, like Curmidden, Curanost, Curasur, and Crescent Isle, open land has been reclaimed from the jungles and is cultivated by civilized races to supplement their mostly seafood diet.

A rather pithy statement of the geography of the islands that also inspired a bit more elaboration of the imperial language, which continues to show a Latin flavor (-midden/middle, -nost/north, -sur/south).

While most of the smaller islands are uninhabited, all but a handful of the larger islands have several layers of civilization both modern and ancient. First, there are the current cities and towns of Curabel. These include the larger city-states as well as innumerable fishing villages. Next, there are the abandoned imperial outposts from the colonial era, many of which were erected in remote areas after the rebellion started. Some of these were never completely cleaned out and many have been taken over by monsters and wild creatures. Finally, there are the ancient ruins of the dwarven empire, which range from the thoroughly looted and well-explored to the untouched and mysterious (the exact state often depending on proximity to later settlements).

This is probably the key paragraph in this section of the text, setting up the framework for typical adventures on the islands of Curabel. The significant detail here is the idea of there being layers of civilization from various eras, making Curabel a “graveyard of empires” as I eventually termed it in the advertisements for prospective players. These layers are as follows:

  1. Current fishing villages and city-states of Curabel
  2. Remnants of the imperial occupation, including outposts built during the rebellion in remote areas
  3. Truly ancient dwarven ruins either picked clean by previous adventurers or still undiscovered/untouched

The first layer of villages and city-states provides the relatively safe locations that could serve as bases for the PC party and adventure site for more investigative/intrigue based scenarios involving imperial spies, political and mercantile rivalries, and tensions between the native islander population and colonists.* Surprisingly, this has been the main focus of the majority of the current campaign’s forty-five sessions (to date) — my assumption at the beginning was that the players would concentrate on the exploration and treasure-finding opportunities provided by the other two layers of abandoned imperial installations and dwarven ruins.

[This section is a little too long for a single post, so the discussion will be continued in the next installment with a look at political exile elves and Mormon dwarves.]

* I was delighted to see Arnold K. discuss the advantages of city-states on G+ the other day given how inspiring his work was when putting together my campaign house rules. While my cities are not as gonzo as the ones he describes, the basic point he makes about smaller political entities allowing for more variety in the campaign setting is very correct. It has already come up in the Curabel campaign with the party only having visited two cities, a metropolis serving as the center of human political and military power largely controlled by the descendants of the rebel leaders and a center of mercantile activity ruled by a council dominated by competing guilds.

[This is the first post in a series dissecting the campaign ‘bible’ document I drafted while planning my AD&D 1e campaign. See here for an introduction to this series of posts.]

Temple Ruins

Ta Prohm in Cambodia was built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university

Many of my original scribbles in the margins of notebooks about the Curabel setting are lost, but the most important bit of early planning survives as the first section of the campaign bible. Entitled Basic Design Notes, this section consists of a short numbered list of setting features and a paragraph fleshing out those points. These two items were copied verbatim from my earliest notes in order to focus my thoughts while drafting the other sections of the bible with the expectation that they would be deleted before sharing the document with prospective players. I eventually changed my mind about that, though, after realizing that they provided a perfect statement of my expectations and goals for the campaign.

Quick Summary of Campaign Design Goals

  1. Sandbox-type game
  2. Distant “enemy” – no imperative to deal with larger issues
  3. Tropical island setting (Caribbean, Pacific archipelagos)
  4. No big continents nearby
  5. Lots of ruins in jungles (ancient technology)

This list can be conveniently divided into two parts: the first two items describing the structure of the campaign, and the final three items that define its content.

Campaign Structure

The first two items on the list highlight my intention to make the campaign reactive to the self-defined goals and motivations of the players. As a sandbox, for instance, the campaign would need to offer a long list of adventure hooks from which to choose and locations to explore; this choice front-loaded my preparation work and required a broad but shallow treatment of a large number of campaign elements along with in-depth preparation of a short list of high probability adventures (e.g., a introductory mission geared to low-level characters easily discovered near the starting location). It was equally important to me that the campaign not degenerate into a nominal sandbox in which a particular course of action was obviously correct or necessary. This concern informed the second point about avoiding an in-game imperative to deal with some larger issue or enemy, an insidious type of railroading in which players are offered a host of choices but then feel compelled by the logic of the setting to deal with one particular existential threat. Any player agency in those circumstances is illusory since the immanence of the threat, whether its an archetypal dark lord or impending apocalypse, will necessarily cause conscientious players to favor actions addressing that single element of the campaign setting to the exclusion of any other goals. This is not to say that having a few potential long-term nemeses is bad, since they can create excellent motivation and tie a long-running campaign together, but these threats should be designed so that they build slowly and don’t demand the players’ constant attention — in other words, a distant and long-simmering threat that is part of the background noise of the setting rather than its focus.

Campaign Content

Jungle by HeavenlyDeamonic

Jungle image by HeavenlyDeamonic (http://heavenlydeamonic.deviantart.com/)

The three items on the list that define the broad outlines of the campaign’s content reflect my desire to try something new as a Dungeon Master and, in my gaming experience, somewhat less common in fantasy role-playing settings generally. That is to say, the default AD&D setting in my experience is pseudo-European, located on a single major continent, and most often draws on popular conceptions of Celtic or Scandinavian (i.e, Viking) culture when defining its more exotic elements. A campaign set on a tropical/equatorial archipelago covered in ruin-infested jungles and distant from any major continents or kingdoms struck me as the opposite of this vanilla setting, offering plentiful opportunities to play around with under-utilized rules (weather, disease) and monsters (dinosaurs) while also allowing for the reinterpretation of old standbys (dwarves, humanoid monsters). Finally, this type of setting fit well with my proposed campaign structure since the distant and long-simmering threats could easily be located on a distant mainland or confined to overgrown ruins lost in the jungle interior.

Bringing it Together

Once I had the five points listed above, it only took a bit of brainstorming to draft a short paragraph fleshing them out into a very high-level setting summary. This summary combined some of the ideas that have appeared in my previous campaigns (e.g., exiled populations, exploited outsiders) with new thoughts suggested by the particulars of the setting (slave rebellions, colonization, imperial expansion):

Main Idea for Campaign

Centuries ago, colonists from a distant land settled on a chain of islands in the tropics. Using their empire’s might, they enslaved the native peoples and exploited the area’s natural resources. Over time, the empire also began using the islands as a penal work colony. Eventually, these prisoners formed an alliance with some native groups and a disaffected imperial naval commander. They declared independence, drove out the imperial loyalists, and defeated the armada sent to quell the rebellion in a legendary sea battle.

This was by no means an exhaustive description, notably leaving out any mention of the ancient ruins of a technologically advanced dwarven empire or current tensions between colonists and native islanders that would end up playing a major role in the campaign, but it did help me decide that imperialism and slavery should be the key influences on the development of the setting going forward.

Photo of Curabel campaign setting notebook

My notebook for the Curabel campaign setting.

My decision to get back into role-playing games was made gradually over the course of two years. This process began with my backing of the Tabletop Forge Kickstarter virtual tabletop (VTT) project in July of 2012, the funding of which was transferred to the Roll20 VTT project shortly thereafter. Around the same time, I discovered the entirety of my first edition AD&D collection while clearing out the attic of my childhood home. The combination of seeing the possibilities inherent in the Roll20 platform and rereading the core 1E rule-books was extremely inspiring and I went to work programming various random generators and drafting a new campaign setting.

Without a gaming group for whom I needed to deliver adventuring content by a set date, though, I worked at a rather leisurely pace on these endeavors. While a couple of months late-night coding led to automated scripts for generating weather, random encounters, and NPCs, the campaign setting that these tools would help bring to life came together much more slowly. In fact, it would be March of 2014 before I felt prepared enough to advertise my new campaign publicly via Roll20 and various G+ RPG/OSR communities.

What I developed over the course of those two years was a sandbox style home-brewed sword-and-sorcery campaign (with a dash of science fantasy) set on a tropical archipelago named Curabel (pronounced Kur’-a-bell). The initial campaign materials included the following:

  • A ‘bible’ document detailing the general features of the setting with some more specific information about the starting area (a major city located near the center of the archipelago)
  • A world map showing the entirety of the archipelago, first drawn by hand on graph paper and then transferred to a hex map using Inkwell Ideas’ Hexographer program.
  • A detailed hex map of the central island of the archipelago where the campaign would begin
  • A key to the detailed hex map with high-level details and adventure hooks for all 80 12-mile hexes
  • A rumor document for use in the starting city referencing adventures both in that location and elsewhere on the archipelago’s central island
  • A general map of the beginning city (Midmark) along with detailed maps of a couple of key neighborhoods
  • Lists of NPCs for the key neighborhoods and the city generally
  • Maps of key locations in the city, including two possible adventure sites (a wizard’s tower and bathhouse/tomb complex hidden beneath the sewers)
  • Randomly generated weather information for the first three months (in-game time) of the campaign
  • A house-rule document based on my reading of various OSR blogs and previous experiences as a DM
  • A document to advertise the campaign and recruit players

My intention is to post these materials here under a Creative Commons license for others to use, providing commentary on each that will clarify my creative process, inspirations, and intentions. My next post will begin this exegetical process with the campaign ‘bible’ document.