11 Campaign Settings

Creating your own campaign setting is one of the most rewarding parts of being a GM. You get to create fantastic lands, interesting locales, cool NPCs, and more. A good campaign is like a living and breathing world. Not only is it a place with history and character, it’s also a fantastic backdrop for your epic adventures.

Creating your own campaign setting is one of the most rewarding parts of being a GM. You get to create fantastic lands, interesting locales, cool NPCs, and more. A good campaign is like a living and breathing world. Not only is it a place with history and character, it’s also a fantastic backdrop for your epic adventures.

Most GMs will create their own campaign setting, some will look to published volumes for ideas, and still others couldn’t care less what the campaign setting is in favour of just having a blast creating adventures. Whatever your style, you can’t really have too many good campaign settings up your sleeve. You can use them for one-shot adventures, mine them for ideas, or just laugh at how inferior they are to your brilliant ideas.

What are some of the most useless campaign settings ever invented, you might ask? Which campaign settings have been done to death? Let’s find out.

1. The Village and the Dungeon. Arguably the most basic campaign setting ever, there is a village and a nearby dungeon in the hills. Your brave heroes have decided to buy gear in the village and trounce monsters in the dungeon. It’s possible the king of the land actually exists somewhere, but you’ll probably never get more than 20 miles from the village unless it’s directly downwards into that dungeon. The dungeon, of course, is infinitely large except when you get past the point the GM created.

Typically, the village will contain absolutely everything in the universe at some point. This will include: ridiculously priced magic items, a healing temple, a shop with infinite stock of everything in the rulebook, the town guard, some kind of mayor, and at least 50 different farmers who’ve lost their daughters somewhere in the dungeon.

A GM with a twisted sense of humor is likely to follow the ‘progressive’ approach to adventure design when using this setting. This will mean you’ll first be rescuing a farmer’s pig from the dungeon, then a farm girl, then possibly the princess of the land. After that, the GM will be stumped and throw in some sort of villain or wizard to cover up his lack of new objectives for the party.

2. The Kingdom at War. This kind of campaign will always include a castle which will be stormed at some point. Almost always, your party will be defending the castle because the bad guys always have way more forces and will always be the ones doing the attacking. Given that there are a few castles you can explore, you’ll probably be able to meet the king of the land. This will cause your poor GM no ends of trouble when you win the princess’s heart, steal the treasury, or make fun of the king with no repercussions.

It’s likely there will be several villages because the GM will need some way to explain where all the food and taxes in the kingdom come from. All cities will contain thieves’ guilds in the sewers.

Given the nature of kingdoms and castles, at some point there will be a war. There will be sieges, massive numbers of enemies, and likely a lot of gibberish which the GM thinks is political turmoil.

3. The Wild. In this setting, everything is exactly the same except the whole world is nothing but rugged terrain, forests, mountains, swamps, deserts, and so forth. You might find the occasional fort with about five humans in it. This fort will be made of huge logs hewn out of the bush. Nevertheless, some wild beast will have undoubtedly destroyed it by morning leaving the party to once again rely on their near infinite supply of iron rations.

While you might find the occasional dungeon or human being, most of the time you’ll just be trekking around places and being feasted on by the local wildlife. While savvy characters might be able to hunt, you can be sure that most creatures in the woods are 30 ft. tall slobbering beasts with magic powers who want nothing better than to eat adventurers who’re off their guard.

4. The Dungeon. This is essentially ‘option one’ taken to extremes. The GM has finally given up his useless pretext of having only one village and opted instead for nothing but one huge dungeon with merchants scattered around at strategic intervals. No matter how powerful, insane, and dangerous the denizens of the dungeon; a 0-level merchant will always be around, alone, and perfectly safe from all dangers and death traps. Further, he’ll have little clue how he got there, where he got his stock from, or how to escape. On top of that, he’ll have infinite stock of everything in the rulebooks and also any magic items the party happens to be looking to buy.

Not only does a huge dungeon save on the paperwork of actually building a valid campaign world, but the GM can feel perfectly justified in having the party attacked by any sort of weirdness he wants at any time for any reason.

The party’s mission will be to escape this dungeon. If this was ever to happen, the campaign would end. Thus, it’s nearly impossible and the game is more likely to end in the horrible death of all PCs involved or with a general lack of interest.

5. Underwater City. Clever GMs will always come up with some sort of underwater city at some point. Never-mind that none of the party can swim or breath underwater, that can be solved in about 20 seconds by the nearest wizard as soon as the GM hints that most of the game will be taking place under-seas.

At the start, the GM will have great fun allowing the players to drown and fight pathetically underwater against giant sharks. After that, the surviving PCs will all have harpoons and water breathing at which point the GM will decide that the inside of a volcano is a better campaign location.

6. The Seas
. Most GMs will use oceans at some point in their career. While the entire campaign might not be at sea, some GMs will make every effort to keep their players on the water. While technically the heroes could just burn their ship and head for the mountains, quests will probably demand they head out to sea again. Once on the water, the GM will often hit them with a storm and chuckle evilly. So much for all those nice charts and a compass, you’re now hopelessly lost on open water with basically no chance to find land. But wait, there’s a small island there…

GMs love adventures at sea because: all the party is forced to stay together, they can sink and drown, undersea adventures are a nearby option, storms can wreak everything, and small islands are known to exist in conditions contrary to all laws of physics.

When the crew dies by some means, the ship also becomes even harder to run. And, of course, there are always pirates to deal with. Most GMs have a hard time maintaining a campaign at sea because the players will get so frustrated at not finding land that when they do, it’ll be dang hard to get them back on a boat again. Players are also fond of passing right by haunted islands in the middle of the sea which will tick off the GM no ends.

7. The City. Most of the adventures in this sort of campaign will take place in urban areas. It’s likely that there are some castles, villages, and dungeons. However, most of the action will be going down in the local pub and the back alleys. Despite the unusual amount of vile creatures attacking the PCs on the streets, everyone will still always act surprised and run away when something like this happens. Most of the public will generally get in the way of the group, and at times of lesser danger will treat the party as a bunch of pathetic weirdoes who aren’t unusual at all.

Instead of riding about the countryside and heroically slaying dragons, your group will be confined to getting mugged by weird creatures and then ridiculed by the public for not dispatching them sooner. After that, the public will just go back to window shopping.

8. Space. At some point, your GM will run a campaign set in space. It doesn’t really matter if you’re playing a sci-fi game or not, the space game will come. If your GM has never run a game in space, this is a good time to suggest it.

Unless the GM really likes Star Wars, he probably won’t run too many games set in space. The reason for this is that space is a bit like an ocean campaign except with way too much interesting technology that the players can get their hands on. At first, it might seem like a great idea to run a game in space. Not only can the players get lost in it, but they can also fall into time warps and get sucked into black holes.

Unfortunately—for the GM—the players can also steal huge battle-cruisers, blow up annoying planets (which took a lot of work to create), and use bizarre hyper-drives to get wherever they want in five seconds. Not only that, they’ll probably have really huge laser guns they can use to fry just about anything.

9. Horror Campaign. Sometimes the GM will get the idea that he wants to run a scary campaign. This is strange, seeing as dungeons filled with monsters are supposed to be scary anyway. Apparently, mansions filled with ghosts are much scarier. You can expect to run into infinite amounts of: zombies, werewolves, vampires, and other undead. Most of the game will be played at night or in darkened areas. Doors will creak, and there will be mysteries. Regardless of what you do, the game will be dominated by a combination of investigation followed by complete havoc. If not, count yourself lucky.

This kind of campaign can be fun. Because the GM thinks he’s being scary, you can win double points by proving him wrong and trashing the baddies. Not only that, but to maintain the aura of fear, all the NPCs will be completely in awe of your heroes for going into the ‘haunted’ mansion. That is, provided, they’re not all dead by this point in some mysterious way probably having to do with vampires.

10. The Funny Campaign. This game is intentionally meant to be funny. Really, most campaigns are pretty funny if you think about it. Trying to make it even funnier shouldn’t be much of a problem. The real difference is that the GM won’t kill your character with a lightning bolt for making fun of the strange NPC name he just invented.

11. A Mix. Nearly all GMs who are being remotely serious will try to create what they feel to be a ‘good mix’ in their campaign settings. There will be dungeons, villages, castles, strange regions, frigid wastelands, and other dimensions to explore. There might be the occasional adventure back in time or in outer space.

Generally, a mixed campaign either ends up being really cool and unique or a complete mess of random geographic locations and peoples. Basically, most GMs will figure you’re wandering about in a pseudo-medieval England with the addition of loads of magic and monsters. Because of this magic, you’ll also be able to find rainforests and deserts next to the local wormhole. Also, it’s likely you’ll go overseas to some foreign land based on some other culture.

Whatever the campaign setting, good players and a good GM will result in a great game.

What were your favorite campaign settings? Did they fit into a broad category? Were they totally unique and cool? Any tips for new GMs in creating their first campaigns?

Bonus Setting (courtesy of @TerraDave)

12. Planar: This is an amped up version of all the other campaign settings. In the planar campaign, your mighty heroes are traversing the multi-verse and stomping on all kinds of strange bad guys. Given the magical nature of traveling between worlds, the GM can have no ends of fun including all sorts of weirdness in his campaign.

There are many options for adventure: exploring new worlds, getting lost or stuck in alternate dimensions, time travel, and messing with the balance of the cosmos.

The epic 'feel' of a planar campaign gives it an added punch. Players will enjoy it for the unlimited number of options it gives them to travel where they will and do what they want. GMs will enjoy a planar campaign for the massive volume of creativity and leeway it allows them.

It requires a GM of great skill to run a successful planar campaign. Not only must you create one world, but dozens, if not hundreds. I'd recommend reserving this option for experienced GMs or those who know they can handle it. If you think you're up to the challenge, have fun creating the multi-verse!

 

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TerraDave

5ever, or until 2024
Underwater city....I have always wanted to do that.

You could also add "planar" as an amped up version of the others. All of which I have included (well, except underwater city, and subbing sci fi for space) in my current campaing.
 


DancingSatyr

Villager
Somewhere, someone is playing their first fews games in a simple dungeon, near a town in the middle of nowhere....and they are having the time of their lives. Cliche' only happens when you stop having fun.
 


doghead

thotd
I often build my games around the kingdom at war scenario. However, the war is often not yet declared, and the characters are rarely at a castle. They are not at the centre of events in the sense of close to those in power making the decisions. Rather, they are, initially, at the fringe, drawn in by unfolding events. That been said, they are in at a time and place of great potential leverage over the what happens, and as such, can be considered at the centre of events in a way.

The village and dungeon is often a starting point, although I tend to use a 'problem' rather than actual dungeons. The village is often in the hills, and surrounded by forest, with all the 'blooding' opportunities this offers for new characters. Healing temples are rare though.

thotd
 

Challenger RPG

First Post
@TerraDave : Great suggestion! I hope you don't mind that I stole your idea (if you do, I'll remove it). It's a sweet campaign suggestion. I can't say I ever started a planar campaign at first level, but many of my existing campaigns morphed into planar games over the years. It's a unique challenge to tackle the broad scope of such settings. I've always found that combining 'the basics' with such worlds works well. A dungeon can still be a dungeon even if it's on Mecanus.

@DrunkonDuty : Thanks. It's never too late to throw a new campaign at your players. ;) Sometimes I'll even just run a 'one-shot' to see if I like something enough to make it into a campaign.

@DancingSatyr : Well said. One quote which sticks out in my memory is, "Cliches are cliches because they were once so popular that everyone used them." I listed the village and the dungeon first for a reason. Tried, tested, and true. No matter how many games I run, I always eventually get a hankering to play a 'classic' style game.

I hope I didn't come across as saying that dungeons and villages are no good. I do tend to make fun of anything I can get my hands on, but that's usually because I really enjoy the thing.

@LWDLiz : Thank you! It's good to know that I'm not the only one that started out using #1 :)

@doghead : Sounds pretty darn cool. I'm sure your players love having such a rich world to adventure in. I think some of the most enjoyable campaigns are those where the players feel their characters have a real impact on the world.

Also, your game obviously doesn't follow the types 'exactly' which is always a good thing. The more unique a game is, the better.

I also really like your idea of having a 'problem' as a starting point. The potential for 'problems' is similar to the potential for 'conflicts' and I think that's one of the best basic building blocks for a great story. Kudos!

***

Thanks for the great comments, everyone. Some really great ideas in there.
 
Last edited by a moderator:


gamerprinter

Mapper/Publisher
The Space campaign we ran was great. Did the PCs hijack a military space vessel? Of course they did, but that was the plan in the first place. What you seem to consider the negative aspects of a space campaign were the goals of the GM and players in playing it. And yes they got access to "hyper drives" but then space is so immense, it's like fast walking across Asia, the scale of distance meant the "hyper" in hyper drive was almost meaningless.

Well my primary homebrew became my published setting: Kaidan, the setting of Japanese horror (PFRPG). You didn't mention the oriental setting (being somewhat exotic and nothing like most Euro-centric settings.)

It's my attempt at horror using Japanese horror tropes rather than western horror tropes. In my horror setting while you certainly can fight horrible monsters, the horror aspect isn't so much the monsters (well there are a lot of yurei ghosts), but the curse of being tainted by the horror and of death - due to Kaidan's perverse and twisted reincarnation mechanic. It's not the fear of fighting monsters, it's the fear of failing, dying, and being reborn into something bad.

Also, Kaidan has an underwater city, inhabited by an oriental sea dragon, merfolk, samebito (shark men), and some lesser denizens. Here's a look at that city, Ryukyu (literally "sea dragon city"):

View attachment 58944
 

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