View Full Version : DM Help Neknoh's Guide to building a living open-world campaign on a coherent theme

2019-01-10, 05:45 PM
Or: "How I learned to stop shoehorning and love causality."

We've all been there, looking for a way to get our BBEG or cataclysmic event into the story without feeling like we are shoehorning it into an ongoing storythread or dropping it in cold.

Sometimes a campaign will have The One Ring, but you will be forcing players to carry it somewhere and do something with it that they might not be interested in to begin with (see Matt Colville's video on Open World vs Closed Narrative for more on that).

Sometimes you start from the back and create this intricate line of events from the ultimate villain down to the players and they jump straight off the rails.

And sometimes you start with a series of loosely connected quests, trying to figure out how to connect it all together without suddenly telling them that "now you have a singular goal."

Here is my advice on how to create a world that feels alive to explore, but that has a somewhat hidden, singular force that is driving everything in one way or another.

You pick a theme, an overarching theme of something that runs through everything you do.

For instance, this latest season of Critical Role has been hunger. Everything can be connected to hunger (famine of war, the monsters in early encounters, Fjord's consuming hunger and hunger for power etc.).

Picking your theme and watching it ripple through your world

When picking a theme, you can start trying to figure out where this thing originates from (at the highest level) and what major ripples it might cause.

Game of Thrones had the Return of Magic as the major theme that is touching in everything, we don't yet know what caused this, but there is a surge of Magic in the world that caused the white walkers to finally move south, the dragons to hatch and a lot of other places of Magic to start blooming out and setting their plans and manipulations in motion.

Once you have picked your theme, it is time to figure out why something is happening on a level 15-20 encounter scale (pick a big bad early that either fits your theme or comes with a theme), you can then just hop down the line and go "how would this affect everything?"

For instance, either you can have something arriving, plotting, weaving spells, waking up or generally affecting the world around it, what happens with dragon migrations, kobolds and subterranean civilisations and creatures if a Tarrasque is waking up underneath a mountain? How does this ripple out and affect the surrounding world? You have now picked a massive, end-game level monster that needs no real reason to be waking up, but can have a huge effect on the game world.

Or, much like in Game of Thrones, what is going on might be on a divine level where the players cannot directly interfere. The Great Other and the Lord of Light seem to be somehow responsible for the rebirth of magic in the world and they are mustering their armies. This means that magical things and chosen ones and the white walkers and such are all afoot, all the while humans are caught in the middle, causing great unrest and civil war. The end-game enemy of Game of Thrones would be the Night King rather than The Great Other, but the theme is the return of magic, as is the event that causes the ripples

As such, you can have either something directly responsible for the end-game, or you can have something more esotheric.

Examples of running with your Theme: The Tarrasque Rises

The Tarrasque stirs in its sleep, it hasn't woken up yet, we're not starting the campaign by blowing up a mountain and pulling up the Tarrasque from underneath (although a Tarrasque walking across the landscape would most certainly affect the world in a lot of ways, but let us save that for later, right now, it has not yet woken up, but it is getting there, the oldest creatures of the mountains have taken notice

A pair of dragons leave the mountain range in anticipation of the awakening, this in turn causes kobold tribes to uproot and follow their deities, and we suddenly have this massive movement of creatures from the mountains into the lowlands as the dragons search for new places to roost (together or far away from one another is entirely up to you, it depends on how much you want this movement from the mountains to affect). The Kobold tribes will most certainly come into conflict with gnolls or goblins and humanoid settlements (elves, men, caravans of travelers or merchants etc.) and maybe they will start driving game away, forcing wild beasts to move or causing people to starve. Remember, this will continue to ripple through the world, the players won't wake up one day and see two dragons and a kobold army outside of their house for no reason. This is a large migration level event, and they will feel it long before they see the dragon.

(Dragon moves - Kobolds move - Kobolds hunt and make predators move - Kobolds and predators make goblinoids move - goblinoids start raiding villages and caravans - increased flow of people to cities for protection - Increased tension in cities. And this is just dealing with the kobolds themselves, what about the dragons? What effects are they having on things?)

All the while, a dwarf kingdom starts suffering earthquakes in the mountain range, first something small and inconsequential, maybe a tunnel collapses and the dwarves slow down their mining, diminishing the flow of metals and gemstones to cities where the players might be doing something completely different. Weapon and jewelry- prices go up.
Eventually, dwarven towns and cities in this kingdom starts to collapse from the shaking or are swallowed up, they need help, they need food, maybe they send a messenger on a caravan, or maybe the kingdom goes quiet? Too proud to ask for help. The players could then be sent there as part of a wealthy merchant's attempts to revitalise the dying trade-route. Once there, they find themselves needing or wanting to help the dwarves, as reports come in of another city, farther into the mountain being crushed.
Perhaps old caverns are unearthed by the earthquakes that are taking the dwarfen kingdom down, and monsters and ancient creatures spill out, or lost passages/kingdoms are found? After all, the players are in the dwarven kingdom now (dealing with the falling cities) and this might well give them more reason to stay and explore. Or perhaps a goblin or orc horde hears about the waning strength of the dwarves, and since there are no longer dragons in the mountains, they decide that now is the time to attack.

Now we have things going on in the background as well as the foreground.

As metal prices (and tools and weapons and jewelry) are going up, with people complaining about it, maybe the players complaining about it (but getting better deals on short swords they sell etc.), the players are out dealing with crime, being hired for hunts (since there's an influx of game in the immediate area, it's where the wildlife fled to), being tasked with killing man-eating beasts that have (unbeknownst to them) been forced closer to humanity and possibly investigating increased goblinoid or gnoll raids.

From there, the flow of iron might stop completely, whilst they come across signs that the goblinoids/gnolls are fleeing from something (the kobolds and dragon) as well as any other ideas you might have surrounding how a tarrasque slowly waking up might affect the world (is there a mage in a far off tower that has some sort of alarm set to go off as this starts happening? Does he need help re-sealing the beast? Are there other things or humans trying to seek it out to hasten its awakening? etc.)

Basically, as the Tarrasque slowly stirs, all of this reaches far across the land and gets our level 1 or level 2 adventurers involved in something that normally would not have happened locally.

Examples of running with your theme, as well as early adventuring: Death

What if Death is the thing? Either a lich wanting to become a god, or something nigh divine attempting to kill a god or godess of life? From this, a slow, creeping death could be spreading across everything, there are more portents, wars and duels are more lethal, sickness could spread, there is no immediate signs or hints of an apocalypse, just a general sense of "bad times", all the while, something is going on, being set in motion or starting to stir.

What happens in a city because of this? Is there perhaps a feeling of unease and nobles and guild masters and merchants all trying to buy diamonds. Not for any immediate reasons, but people are just getting a bit worried about death.

If the nobles are getting diamonds, they will either need heroes to get he resurrection diamonds for them from places in the wild, or maybe from a rival noble?

Now you have players hired either by a rich, upstanding member of society to steal from his rival or find a tribe of Kobolds to track down an old, hopefully abandoned dragon's lair and see if there are any large enough diamonds in the old, half buried mound of treasure.

Perhaps it is guarded by creatures more commonly associated with death than with dungeon crawls?

Maybe the players are all associated with a thieves' guild and trying to steal a diamond from the temple on order of the King of Thieves?

And again, all of this isn't because people realise they need diamonds because something terrible is coming, it's all just an effect from somebody important dying and maybe people just get a bit more glum and think on death more than they usually do? Maybe there are more ravens? Perhaps the god/godess responsible for shepherding the dead is absent and her clerics are getting worried, looking for portents and can give the players some quests to follow?

You then have people outside of civilised society, like a bandit Lord, also afraid of death, perhaps he has increased his raids on caravans in order to try to get his hands on a diamond for resurrection? Because he can't go into the city to buy one, and he can't trust his men to carry hundreds or thousands of gold into the city, survive, buy the diamond and want to come back.

Meaning that you could have:

People stealing from each other or richer people or temples in the city.

Nobles hiring adventurers to track down a tribe of Kobolds and get into about an abandoned dragon's hoard, and then do some dungeon diving.More ravens on the trees and houses.

Clerics of the Grave either holding extra mass or isolating their temples.

Maybe more undead where they should not be due to temples dedicated to controlling that shutting their doors? Maybe this happens in a village where the church loses faith and the village falls apart around the quiet belltower?

After having now:

Stolen from a temple or mansion (successful or not? Up to you)

Tracked down kobolds, interrogated them and Dungeon crawled (maybe there wasn't a diamond pure enough here either and the Noble sends them on further quests?)

They can now start to notice or hear about other things going on in the world around them that ties back to the overall theme.

Perhaps somebody in a bar whispers about a village slowly crumbling from zombie attacks. They need help and the church won't open the doors or ring the bell or bless the earth of the graveyard.

Maybe there are rumours of increased bandit attacks on the roads. Maybe a caravan is looking for caravan guards to act as the plot hook? Or you can keep this as stories until later, with the bandits as background noise until the players run into a pack of them whilst on a completely different quest further down the road?

Maybe somebody important died in another town and somebody is hosting a festival in their honour? Maybe something could happen at that festival? Maybe it's not a festival at all, but rather a rich person offering one gold to each personwho shows up at the funeral to appease his grieving mother who fears the father won't get any mourners? Big crowd there, what if something happens? Somebody shows up wanting pay but is turned away only to turn out to be a witch or wizard or maybe a group of thugs gets turned away and start a fight which eventually leads to the players defending people against a band of mercenaries to which these thugs belonged?

Maybe somebody gets assassinated? There is a hunt and an investigation, maybe the person was dealing with drow or deep-gnomes in trying to source something lethal or life-saving from the underdark?

Perhaps conflict starts brewing between two smaller nations or duchies after a tournament where somebody is killed in the joust or the list field? There's a whole lot of potential skirmishes, foul play (politically and on the field) as well as players taking messages between the children of the nobles, trying to calm their increasingly hostile parents?

Everything is just a bit more lethal, and every one is a bit more on edge.

This also includes the wildlife:

starving beasts could draw closer to villages

fields could wither and die, forcing families to move (perhaps they need help packing up their house and a full evening can be spent in this more defeated setting, getting to know the family, packing up their heirlooms, being offered a meal even if they don't have a lot of food etc)

verdant orchards might turn poisonous because of something the players can solve?

And as the players level up and explore, you will be able to just keep building on all of this.

Not everything has to be heavy on the theme, not at all, but it all should be connected to it through some ripple effects.

Why is a huge dire wolf stalking a trading outpost?

Because the wildlife died.

Why did the wildlife die?

A poisoned stream.

What poisoned the stream?

Something from the core of the mountain.

Maybe old weapons from one of the wars between gods? Something broken now oozing magic or toxic things into a large water reservoir at the heart of a former underground kingdom. Or maybe a massive, dead, water-dwelling creature? What if it was an aboleth? How does that affect the duergar and mind-flayers and oozes living in those old hallways?

Perhaps that will come back later, or the players might not ever even think to explore the forest and figure out the stream is poisoned to begin with.

But it gives you something to work with that lets you keep building and keep finding things that work with it.

Closing Words
What's important in all of this is to simply look for the way something has a knock-on effect on something else, or to keep escalating when asking yourself "Why?", after all, we are setting up an escalation of events in Dungeons and Dragons (or any other RP or even a fantasy novel)

Why is the village sick? - Because the well is poisoned

Why was the well poisoned? - Because something died down there

Why did something die in the well? - It turns out to be an assassinated thief clutching a necklace

Why was he clutching a necklace? - It has a code inside of the medallion

Why is there a code inside of the medallion? - Because it belonged to an old noble family and is the key to an arcane vault

Why does the noble family have the key to arcane vault? - One of their ancestors was the guardian of something ancient and terrifying locked in the vault, but they have all forgotten it.

Why have they forgotten about the vault? - It was hidden.

Where? - Underneath the Cathedral

Why? - The order responsible for the vault were also responsible for building the cathedral, and placing hundreds or thousands of tonnes of stone on top seemed the safest way to keep it shut.

And suddenly you have a multi-step adventure:

Sick village needs help

Figure out poison and cure the village

Fish out the corpse and find the necklace

Decode what it is and start searching for vault

Now they might be hunted by the people who killed the thief who are also looking for the key

Track down the noble family and find out more about what's in the vault

Find the location of the vault

Get into the catacombs of the cathedral and have a dungeon crawl.

Resolve the vault story-line at the bottom of the dungeon. Perhaps it's only one of many? Perhaps they unleash something? Perhaps they manage to fuse it shut and anger the people who were trying for the key? Happy ending? Lots of places to go from here.

And this brings me to my second point in these closing words

Just because you do not want to run an open world campaign with some massive, held-together theme does not mean you can't use this method to craft quests, build villages or link character relationships together.

This entire article is, after all, about ideas and methods for you to take and apply to your own game as you see fit.

Just remember that even in a big, thematic open world adventure where it eventually leads up to something cataclysmical or huge, not everything has to be directly connected through trackable actions (the dead aboleth could well have just died on its own), but rather through the overall theme and effect said theme has on the world.

It is completely okay to have individual storylines that do not all lead to fighting the BBEG or are immediately traceable to it, as long as you are aware of how to reconnect your players to the overall story after they complete such a quest-chain.

It is part of the beauty of what makes an open world open.

And after all, it is your adventure to run.


My background: I might be somewhat newer at DM:ing than a lot of people here, not having started proper RPG's until my early twenties (I am now 29), however, I've been doing a lot of it, whilst also spending the past eight years of my life either studying writing or writing novels. I am not a perfect person when it comes to rules, luckily, I have great players helping me with that. My focus has always been (and probably will always be) on the world and stories that form within it.

If you, as a DM, wants to use any of the above scenarios, themes or plot-hooks for your world, feel free to do so, and I trust that you will make an amazing adventure out of it.