Smelting the Setting: Adapting settings and locations into your own

Recently I blogged about how I’m breaking down the preparation for my new campaign. This is a follow up  on how I’m speeding up part of that process by adapting some materials I already have. This has helped me work considerably quicker, and allowed me to focus on the details that make it my world, instead of having to build foundations.

TL;DR – Skip ahead to the practical steps bullet points if you want the bullet-pointed version of events.

My campaign will be taking place at the beginning of the end of a dark age. Civilisation has crumbled significantly, towns and cities have become isolated clusters and travel is difficult. Foul beasts abound, and the world is a bleak, dangerous place. The players will be starting in a forested area, near the coast, with a mountain range to the north. There’s going to be a strong horror theme with lots of foulness and corruption.

In order to quickly create and drop in some locations, I had a browse of my existing collection of materials and also had a look around DriveThruRPG also.

There were four key things I was looking for:

  • Fitting the overall dark/horror setting
  • Being relatively ready to use without significant work
  • Price!
  • Whether it will feature at the beginning of my campaign.

So I was looking for locations experiencing significant problems I could link to the general state of the world, suitable for the forest and mountains biome of my setting’s beginning area. Bonus points were awarded for detail about shops and facilities in the village, and especially for small hooks and quests to occupy the players. I needed what I found to be affordable, and I needed to find two or three locations to get my campaign up and running without confining the players to a single small village.

These four things led me to two series of PDFs by Raging Swan called Village Backdrops and Town Backdrops. These come in PDF and print form and cost just a few dollars each. They’re by no means unknown, and it’s likely plenty of you have some of them on your shelf or hard drive.

I actually wound up with a total of nine of these that were potential candidates for inclusion at the beginning, although I will gradually introduce all of them I suspect. I chose three to get the game up and running, which for anyone interested are Chasm, Trickletrek and Bossin.

I wanted to do a few things to them before I dropped them into my campaign so first off, I printed out copies I could happily scrawl on. I’ll also note at this point these are labelled as Pathfinder compatible products, but the number of stat blocks or system specific stuff is fairly minimal, and shouldn’t be too big a problem for anyone using other systems. Now I’ll go into what I did for each village.

When using existing materials, adopting the existing names into your setting can break immersion when you end up with a hodgepodge of names that use different styles and take their inspiration from different sources. The result can be a toponymical soup that resembles England. That shall not do. Worse still, it could just feel like a cheap, crappy fantasy world like a cheap novel has. It does occur to me you might be going for that. Each to their own.

Practical steps

  • Choose a real world historical setting
  • OR choose a set of letters to define the sounds
  • Find a list of real names, preferably with translations
  • Mix and match your own

My approach to this was to choose a source for names and stick with. I decided that Viking placenames would likely have a nice harsh, dark feel, and the Norse mythology had a lot of dark and horrific stuff in it which these names could help evoke.

In practice:
Bossin became Torpsund (meaning “village strait” chosen because the village often floods)
Trickletrek became Thornvik (meaning “thorn cove” for the cove hidden in thick, thorny forest)
Chasm became Mikilldalr (big hole, named for the chasm in the middle of town)

I just scribbled these on the printouts in appropriate places and moved on. Place name generators are plentiful, but I think it was worth extra effort to find a simple list and make some genuinely appropriate ones.

Good and services
My goal here was to temper what was the to the exigencies of my setting. That meant considering what materials would be hard to come by, and what would be comparatively plentiful.

Practical steps.

  • Increase some prices from the usual (+D10*10% from base)
  • Decrease some (-D4*10% from base)
  • Make some things rare and difficult to acquire
  • Create hooks around that rarity

Onto  specific extra details with Bossin/Torpsund. As is, Bossin has access to a mine, hunters work the nearby woodlands, a herbalist, and there is a general store with a small smithy. I wanted to make it much less trade friendly, but still create some interesting opportunities for the players.

I decided anything metal would be painfully expensive, and recycling/reusing is common. This extends even as far as wanting to recover arrows, or some arrows being barbed wooden stakes instead of metal heads, that do less damage, but are more affordable.

I’ve made the smithy virtually defunct, although if the players can come up with some metal, the smith will gladly work it. Due to the increased danger of the woodlands nearby, the hunters and the herbalist are both poorly stocked, and may well have procurement work for the players to do. The general store is dilapidated, and half-empty. A lot of what is for sale is of poor quality or old. I also added that the storekeeper does have a secret stash of rather more desirable items, but the players will need to show some serious cash or gain his trust in other ways before they can access it.

There are a few named specific NPCs that come with most settings, and hopefully, a story that connects some of them together. Using these NPCs to tell their own story is a great idea, as it gives you ready to go ideas that can keep the players occupied if there is a lull in the main quest, and gives a sandbox feel to the world where the players can easily go off and do other things (perhaps I’ll go into sandboxing and railroading another time). What you need, to help further the setting, is some ideas for how these NPCs will play into the grander story you have going.

Practical steps:

  • Consider the PC backstories and if there is a potential link to an NPC
  • If yes, speak to your player(s) outside the session about creating that link
  • Look at the NPCs allegiances and stories and how they can be tweaked
  • Review the loot or items they carry and make alterations
  • Source alternative stat blocks as needed to meet your player’s level

Looking at Trickletrek/Thornvik, a town where an asteroid has struck the water supply and the resulting corruption has led to the town’s druid becoming aligned with the elder gods I found the single main NPC included with it was a great fit. He was however, far too powerful for my players, so I quickly nerfed his stats down. I’m not too worried about making the maths super consistent and balanced, I just adjusted a lot of stuff downward heavily until he was a bit stronger than any of my individual PCs. I also gave him some a holy symbol that will act as a clue and part of a puzzle the PCs will be called on to solve.

I almost rolled this and NPCs into one section, as the two are inherently intertwined, but separating them was better for clarity. Taking the self-contained plot of a setting like this and building it outwards can be a tough task. It’s quite easy to end up with a plot that has as many holes as a cheese grater and grates almost as much.

Practical steps

  • Try to break the premade plots into general themes
  • Look for connections to the broader theme of your setting
  • Work around the theme
  • Make the smallest change you can

Onto a third example with Chasm/Mikildallr. The village has a chasm underneath that was opened up by the meddlings of a sorcerer, and in the village there is an NPC who is an apprentice of that sorcerer but is hiding themself. This ties nicely into the first NPC faction in my setting, a cult who worship a god that lives underground who seek to expand his underground domain. I only have to make small changes to how I play the NPCs and their stories to tie this in, and allows me to add the plot hooks for my larger setting plot without spending hours populating a village.

I’ve tried to keep this post balanced between specifics of my own campaign and general principles anyone could use. Have you got more tips to add? Type them up in the comments or come chat RPGs on Twitter. Also, considering going wild and spending a whole dollar on one of our super-useful PDFs.


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