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
- Sandbox-type game
- Distant “enemy” – no imperative to deal with larger issues
- Tropical island setting (Caribbean, Pacific archipelagos)
- No big continents nearby
- 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.
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.
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.