How to Start a Campaign: Realm Building

How to Start a Campaign: Realm Building

Creating a campaign is a big job, but almost every GM eventually wants to tackle it. How do you get started? The key is to start small and slowly expand over time. The last article addressed creating a city-based campaign. A realm-based campaign can be created either after the adventurers begin to venture outside of the city, or completely on its own


A realm is an area of land that can be as large as a kingdom or state or as small as a county. A realm is not usually an entire country unless the country is relatively small and homogenous. Neither is it usually an entire continent, unless the continent is relatively small. The key is to keep the realm relatively homogenous with regard to government and culture; otherwise, you’re going to confuse yourself when you’re just starting out.

The first thing you need is a realm map. If your realm is based on an existing place, then get a real map to work from; for example, a map of Ireland or Tuscany, California or Iraq. If the realm is made up, then you need to steal a map from an existing source (e.g., other RPGs, works of fiction) or draw it yourself. (The Windows-only software “Campaign Cartographer” is a favorite for this chore.)

If you are using a real realm, then choose one that matches the type of campaign you want to run. A Western probably shouldn’t be set in Iraq, and a cyberpunk game would feel a bit strange set in Tuscany. This isn’t to say that it can’t be done … but unless you really feel like blowing away expectations, it’s usually easier to work within a genre’s stereotypes.

If you are creating your own map, sketch out the outline of the realm. As you do, consider your borders carefully.

  • A narrow country is more likely to be overrun; enemies can occupy the middle to stop supply lines and then take out both ends.
  • Most realms are built using natural borders such as mountain ranges, rivers, canyons or oceans. At least some of the borders of your realm should run along such natural features.
  • Most realms are built along a route that can carry trade goods; rivers and oceans are the most popular. Unless mass transportation is available, strongly consider putting your realm adjacent to a body of water or perhaps a mountain pass or other place where people are likely to pass through and want to trade goods.
  • Successful realms probably need to be self-supporting. Unless you specifically want resource problems to be part of the campaign, make sure the realm is by fertile land.

Once you have your borders sketched out, begin to place natural features inside the realm. Does a river run through it? Do mountains or foothills stretch into it? Does it contain a canyon, a desert, a large forest, or any other significantly large natural feature? Place them. You don’t need to be a geography major, but try to be logical unless there’s a good reason to mix-and-match unusual geographical features (like an isolated forest in the middle of a giant dried-out salt lake). I was playing in a group that was dumbfounded to find a city built of sandstone placed near a stormy sea (in a published module, no less!) … we wondered how often the inhabitants had to rebuild as the natural elements wore the city away! Try not to make a mistake like this; players will never let you live it down.

After your natural features are described, it’s time to begin placing major settlements (cities, tribal lands, castles, etc). Remember, settlements are most likely to appear near natural travel routes … so they’re most likely to be near rivers, lakes, or the ocean; mountain passes and on the edge of natural barriers like deserts or canyons. Settlements need resources to support them, so unless you’re creating a metropolis supported by import, you’ll probably want to place the settlement next to a water source and fertile land. Finally, up until relatively modern times settlements needed to be defensible. Consider putting the settlement on higher ground than the surrounding area or next to a natural defense (such as a lake, sheer cliff, and so forth).

Don’t worry about placing towns and villages or other types of smaller settlements yet; all you want to place now are the largest settlements. As a rule of thumb, premodern games should have settlements (at least waystations) within a day’s walk from each other. Modern or futuristic games can have more distance between settlements.

The next step is to figure out the realm’s culture. You probably already have something in mind, and, again, if you’re using a pre-existing realm, you’re already ahead of the game. But if you’re making one up, you need to make some decisions now. First, what time period are you going to run your campaign in, either real-world or fictional? Prehistoric? Medieval? Renaissance? Reformation? Industrial Revolution? Old West? Contemporary? Cyberpunk? Far Future? Ahistorical fantasy?

Second, what country, if any, do you want to use to provide a particular ambiance to your game? For example, medieval France, Germany, England or Japan? Renaissance Italy or England? Reformation France or Austria? You don’t need to actually make your realm that country … but you can loosely base the realm on the country to provide a familiar ambiance. Thus, you probably won’t have Northchester city right next to Beausoliel city right next to Skandansk city … you’d try to give all of your cities names that seem to come from the same language (whether or not the names actually mean anything). And if your realm is filled with French-sounding city names, those cities probably won’t be populated by rough Viking warriors or tobacco-chewing gunslingers … again, unless you plan to really blow genre conventions out of the water. Stereotypes are useful in RPGs; they immediately give you and the players a set of expectations. Don’t waste this valuable resource … unusual worlds like Talislanta and Jorune and the Empire of the Petal Throne are very cool and original, but there’s a high learning curve for the GM and player before either feels very comfortable there. If you’re just starting out campaign-building, stick to the familiar and expected.

Third, what customs are particular to this realm? Sit down and brainstorm up a list of at least five interesting customs for the land.

  • Is there a major feast day or holy day everybody observes?
  • Is there a code (chivalry, code of the West, bushido) that a large or prominent section of the population believes in?
  • Are there any unusual laws or curfews that are observed?
  • Is there a typical national “costume” that sets this realm apart from others? (E.g., kilts, kimonos, bearskin shirts, lace ruffles, bodysuits, hairstyles, cosmetic use.)
  • Are there any prejudices or beliefs that typify the realm’s inhabitants? (E.g., racial prejudices, gender prejudices, DNA prejudices, belief in the Faerie, belief in ancestor worship, belief in a state religion, belief in the death penalty.)
  • Are there other customs that stand out? (E.g., siestas, community acts as family group, disregard for strict timekeeping, workaholic tendencies.)

These customs add flavor to the realm and provide a framework for players to work with as they develop their characters. If you’re creating more than one realm, these customs will differentiate the realms and their inhabitants, causing more interesting roleplaying possibilities as characters move from one realm to another.

Now that you’re really getting a feel for your realm, it’s time decide what political divisions exist. You can probably already see some logical groupings around natural features and your thoughts about customs may have suggested a few divisions to you, too. Each political division probably contains a settlement (unless you’re dealing with a nomadic culture, although even then some places will be gathering-grounds). Political divisions are not mutually exclusive and might include the following:

  • Native or aboriginal lands
  • Racial territories (for games that include different intelligent races)
  • Counties
  • Duchies and other territories run by nobility
  • Religious territories run by different individuals within the same religion or by different religious groups
  • Linguistic divisions (unlikely but not impossible, especially if part of the realm was taken over from another realm during a war, or if there are two or more discrete ethnic groups living in the same area).

As soon as you begin working on this step you’re going to need to start taking notes, because this is the point at which (if you haven’t already) you’re going to begin to develop a history of the realm. Why do the political divisions exist? What are they called? Who’s in charge of each? Which ones work together and which ones fight? What is the capital city of each? What is each city and political division named? Slowly you will begin to rationalize why your realm looks the way it does, building up a history to explain its current appearance. Take notes—don’t worry about how neat they are now, you can rewrite them later. Now is a brainstorming session. Remember to:

  • Name the political divisions (and, again, try to keep the names sounding like they come from the same culture as your settlements)
  • Name the major natural features. (Note: Settlements are often named after the geography around them … Boulder, Salt Lake City, Belleview, Eastlake, etc.)
  • Jot down at least one sentence for each political division explaining why it exists—what is the political group’s goal or purpose?

Now you have your basic realm completed. You don’t need to map out each major settlement (of course, if you’re using real realms you can probably get city maps, which will save a lot of time). Just figure out where the campaign is going to start and get that section well-described (see the previous article on creating a city). The rest of the realm will be fleshed out as you go. Remember to always keep a notebook by you as you work on adventures or run a game … you’ll need to keep track of every precedent you set for the realm, because players are often attentive to details and notice discrepancies.

Originally written April 7, 2000

Image Source: Pixabay

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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