D&D’s Forgotten Realms setting is my all-time favorite campaign world, primarily because it’s packed so full of ideas.
When the latest edition of the setting came out, Ed Greenwood said that you could flip open any page of the book at random, point to any section of that page, and find an idea you could run with.
I think Ed’s right — and I think this approach could be broadened to include nearly any book, for nearly any game. Let’s test this theory.
I see this working best as a quick multi-step process. The goal is to pull together ideas at random and mold them into the foundation of a campaign world, and you’ll need a few different ideas in order to do that.
1. Decide just how random you want your choices to be. For a high degree of randomness, use something like a dictionary or encyclopedia. For a low degree, use a book specific to the genre you have in mind (a fantasy novel, for example).
2. Close your eyes, open your book of choice, and point to a spot on the page you opened it to.
3. Read the sentence or paragraph around your finger. Jot down anything in there that jumps out at you. Remember that in combination with other ideas, just about anything can be interesting in this context.
4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 until you have enough ideas. You could use the same book for every step (just repeat #3, in other words), but I’d suggest using a different book each time.
5. Brainstorm. Make up connections between the terms and concepts you wrote down. Don’t constrain your ideas too soon, but don’t be afraid to go in a specific direction if it seems promising, either.
The goal is to pull togther a set of ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to you on your own, and that may not seem to fit together at first. Making them fit together is the fun part.
Of course, you might get unlucky and pull out ideas that are impossible to string together into a fun premise for a campaign setting. If this happens, start the whole process over with a new book.
This wouldn’t be complete without an example, so I give you the world of Nightsturm (cue cheesy horror music).
I grabbed three books off my shelves: In the Heart of the Sea, the history of an early 19th Century Nantucket whaling ship; Freakonomics, which uses economics to uncover odd truths; and a volume of Sherlock Holmes stories. I deliberately chose three very different books, but played it a bit safe by not choosing, say, a math textbook.
My sentence fragment from Heart was good enough on its own: “…’one of the most distressing nights in the whole catalogue of our sufferings.’” I took an element of darkness from that, as well as a focus on weather.
From Freakonomics, another solid fragment: “innovative policing caused the crime drop.” “Innovative policing” sounds like adventurers or monster hunters to me, so I filed that away.
And lastly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave me: “I sprang from my bed.” Night terrors sounded usable.
So I had:
- Adventurers or monster hunters
- Night terrors
It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine a world where the night is long and terrible — let’s say that instead of 10 hours or so of darkness per day, this world has 20 hours. In a 24-hour day, it’s only light for 4 hours.
And to make matters worse, the night is peopled by horrible creatures, and is rarely quiet because of the cataclysmic storms that rage across the world.
There is a glimmer of hope in this perpetually-dark, monster-infested storm country, however: monster hunters. These adventurers are accustomed to the long night and warded against the fell weather, willing to risk their lives to keep others safe.
And that’s just the basics. From there, I could easily extrapolate things like people with night vision becoming a sort of nobility, houses having few ground floor windows and other details to enrich the world. And I haven’t even touched on genre — horror is obviously a part of it, but fantasy horror, modern horror or sci-fi horror?
I could definitely see running a session or two in Nightsturm, and if my players were in the mood for horror, expanding it into a full-fledged campaign setting. And I thoroughly enjoyed the process — my brain is wired for this kind of directed, semi-free association.
Care to give it a try? Randomly-generated worlds are welcome in the comments!