Here's the full article. It's big--but interesting.
Room to Adventure
By James Wyatt
Imagine a world shrouded in darkness -- vast stretches of wilderness untouched by the civilizing hands of humans and dwarves, dotted with crumbling ruins left by the ancient empire of the tieflings or the last great elf kingdom.
Scattered far and wide amid that darkness, like faint stars in the night sky, are the enclaves of civilization; here and there one finds a great city-state or strong barony, but mostly you encounter frontier towns or close-knit villages of farmers and artisans who cling close together for protection against the dark.
Your players' characters will start in one of those points of light.
This idea of the world as a vast sea of darkness, with only feeble, flickering points of light keeping civilization alive, is a core idea of 4th Edition D&D. It's not intended to turn every campaign into a horror game or something laden with dark angst. Instead, it gives space for adventure.
It's tempting for me to design a campaign setting as a world, or at least a continent, filling in every square mile with swamps and forests and nations divided by borders. And sure, I can look at a map like that and say monsters are in the swamp and elves in the forest, and this nation doesn't get along with that nation. That's the sort of thing I've been doing since I was in middle school, inspired by the World of Greyhawk and early Forgotten Realms products. TSR put out hefty campaign worlds -- just as Wizards of the Coast still does -- and my natural inclination was to develop my worlds in as much rich detail.
The trick is, when you work with such a large scale, all of those details are far away from the PCs.
If I were to drop the PCs down right on one of those borders where two nations are simmering at the edge of all-out war, there'd be room for adventure there. That could be a pretty cool campaign. Maybe a city is right on the border. Maybe its people don't really consider themselves members of either nation, and they resent being fought over, but there are also plenty of immigrants from both nations living within its walls. That could be a lot of fun.
But that only works because I've switched from the big map to a very small spot on it. Once I start running that campaign, the forest with the elves and the swamp with the monsters don't matter, at least not until the campaign grows and expands to include them. In the short term, I'm better off putting time into fleshing out the city on the border and the adventure possibilities there, rather than putting another thought into what lies half a continent away.
When you start with the small view, you're creating space for adventure even on that micro level. It's not just about the monsters that live in the swamp a hundred miles distant, it's about the dangers that threaten you where you live. In 4th Edition, the danger is large and the safe zones are small. Adventure is never far away.
Side Note: Greenbrier is a name that popped into my head maybe a year ago, and I jotted it down. Now I finally have a chance to use it! That's a useful habit to get into: When a cool idea comes to mind, write it down someplace where you'll be able to find it when it matters.
Greenbrier is one of those tiny points of light amid the surrounding darkness, but it's more like a flickering candle than a burning beacon. As the darkness grows, the little village draws people from the surrounding area to its sheltering walls, offering what little promise of safety might come from numbers and the fragile wooden palisades surrounding the center of town.
The starting place of your campaign might be the place the characters grew up. It might be a city that has attracted them from all the surrounding countryside. Or it might be the evil baron's castle where each of them, hailing from across the barony, is locked up in the dungeon at the start of the campaign, throwing them right into the midst of the adventure. Whatever you choose, the key thing is that it provides a common starting location for the characters -- a place they have all gathered, met, and decided to put their lives in each other's hands.
For my campaign, I want the players to have the sense that they've known each other for a long time and have some past connections. For that reason, I'm going with the first option: the place all the characters grew up. I'll call it the village of Greenbrier.
Space for Races
Besides creating room for adventure, the notion of points of light gives me an excuse to bring a bunch of different races together in what might otherwise be a stereotypical human farming village. As a starting point, I'm going to flip through the races chapter of the Player's Handbook so that, no matter what race a player chooses for his character, there will be some story ideas in his background.
The populace is mostly human. The Player's Handbook suggests that the last powerful empire before the fall of the present darkness was a human one, and I have no reason yet to change that. I'll make a lot of settlements human-dominated, though none of them will be human-only. The humans of Greenbrier are mostly farmers, which means that the lands of the village spread far out from the palisades. So some residents of the village don't have the protection of the walls -- those farms are vulnerable to attack. That's useful for providing adventure hooks.
I don't want to stick elves off in some distant forest. Let's say there was such a forest where the elves lived, but some enemy burned the forest down several years ago -- long enough ago to explain any half-elves in town. The elves moved into the smaller, tame forests closer to Greenbrier, and their camps and roving bands are as much a part of the village as the scattered farmsteads. I don't know yet who burned the forest down. I'll come back to that.
Eladrins are a new race in the Player's Handbook. They're akin to the elves, but they more often make their homes in the Feywild. I'm not positive what I want to do with them yet. My placeholder idea is that the forest where the elves lived was a "thin place" where passage between the world and the Feywild was easy, and an eladrin town stood near the elven community. The Feywild is unharmed, but some of the eladrins lived among the elves and have relocated with the elves.
Hmmm... I'm not sure I like that. Maybe the Feywild isn't unharmed. I could say that whatever enemy burned the forest also invaded the Feywild and drove the eladrins out. Or maybe that enemy came from the Feywild, driving the eladrins into the world before them. I'll come back to that when I'm ready to give more thought to the nature of this enemy. Some dwarf merchants and artisans are settled in the village, and others come through in caravans from time to time. Dwarf caravans link Greenbrier to the big city and a few other nearby towns. Caravans on the roads are another easy target for bandits and monsters -- more adventure hooks!
A group of halflings, like the elves, has moved in close to Greenbrier in response to danger -- some threat up the river drove them to move. They live on a raft of small boats lashed together, ready to pick up and float away if danger draws too near.
I like the tiefling race presented in the new Player's Handbook, but I don't see them fitting in to Greenbrier. I think I'll tell my players not to make a tiefling right out of the gate -- as the campaign goes on, perhaps they'll have the opportunity to bring in a tiefling to replace a dead character, once they've moved into more cosmopolitan areas.
Humans, elves, eladrins, dwarves, and halflings make Greenbrier a fine melting pot. But it needs one more ingredient race-wise. What about shifters? They're my favorite race from the Eberron setting, and I want to use them in my game. They're not in the Player's Handbook, but they are in the Monster Manual, so my players could make shifter characters if they want to. I'm going to say that these shifters used to wander the plains where Greenbrier is now, and in the early days of the village there was a lot of conflict between the shifters and the humans with their expanding farms. At this point, some shifters still live in the wild, but they're evil. The ones in the village have been pretty well assimilated.
All I've done so far is to flip through the Races chapter of the Player's Handbook and think about the role I want each race to play in my new campaign. Shifters aren't in there and tieflings are, but I'm using a little creative freedom to put in a race I like and leave one out that's not working for me just now.
That simple start sparked a lot of story ideas, and I'm getting a pretty clear idea of the village in my mind. The plight of the elves emphasizes the danger of the world beyond this little point of light, but I haven't decided yet what force of evil destroyed their home.
Heart of the Village
I don't really need a map of Greenbrier -- the simple idea of a village grown up around a crossroads will do fine for now. A wooden palisade stands around the center of town, offering feeble protection against the encroaching wild.
There's a common house in the middle of town -- it serves as the classic D&D tavern, sure, but it's also where the villagers gather for meetings to handle the sorts of things a town council would handle in a larger settlement.
The temple is the other main gathering place, where people come together to celebrate and mourn the many passages of life. I'll need to give some thought to the temple and the religious life of the village.
Turning to another chapter in the Player's Handbook, I run down the list of gods. I don't get very far before Bahamut's portfolio jumps out at me: He's the god of justice, protection, and honor. These people fear the encroaching darkness, so it seems natural to me that they would pray to Bahamut for protection. I'll say that Bahamut's altar occupies center stage, as it were, in the temple.
That needn't be the end of it, though. In any polytheistic religion, people offer prayers and make sacrifices to different gods for different occasions. As the sun god, Pelor is an important god of agriculture. He'll get a shrine in one wing of the temple. In better days, he was more important than Bahamut in Greenbrier. In fact, there might still be townsfolk who resent the priests of Bahamut for usurping Pelor's place in the center of the temple.
That story has some interesting possibilities -- but I'm not sure where I'm going with it just yet. It might be a seed I plant that doesn't flower until later in the campaign -- maybe much later.
Bahamut is often closely associated with Moradin and Kord -- they say that the three gods share an Astral Dominion, called Mount Celestia. So those gods will also have shrines within the temple. That ought to be enough for now -- four important deities, with some room for stories in the relationships among their most devoted followers.
Drawing the First Circle
From the starting point of the village, I need to fill in a circle around it -- just enough to give me and my players about as much knowledge of the surrounding world as the characters and the other people in town would have. These aren't world travelers -- they know their village, the road that links it to other towns, the river the halflings came down, and the burned forest. And that's all I need to know right now.
So I sketch out a map with Greenbrier at the center. I've said it's a crossroads, so I'll give some thought to what lies down at least three roads.
The big city appears on the map as an arrow pointing north and labeled "to Silverymoon." I've stolen the name from the Forgotten Realms, and later on when the PCs find their way there, I might steal more than just the name. I like Silverymoon as a good example of a city situated in the midst of dangerous wilderness.
The southern branch of the road points "to Tower Watch." That's the next nearest town. Its name (pulled out of the air) suggests that it might have been built in or near an ancient ruin with a prominent tower, either crumbling or still standing, mysterious and unexplored.
Oh, I like that. I think my PCs will explore the tower of Tower Watch before too long.
The halflings live on a river. I don't know yet what lies upriver to the northwest (except whatever made the halflings move) or where the river flows -- presumably there's a big lake or an ocean down that way somewhere, to the southeast. That sparks an image of Lake Town from The Hobbit, which might be another cool thing to steal. So the third branch of the road runs along the river, with an arrow pointing to Lake Town.
The last touch on the map is an ancient road running off to the west, branching away from the river. The bricks laid down to mark its course in centuries past are broken and worn, choked with grass and weeds. It, too, runs off the edge of the map, with an arrow pointing "to Harrows Pass." Why? Because my son came up with that name one day and I really liked it.
And there's my campaign setting.
No, not really. But it's the start of it. It's where my players will have their first experience of 4th Edition -- their first adventures as novice characters just beginning their heroic journeys. And it hints at what lies beyond: Tower Watch, Lake Town, Harrows Pass, the burned forest, Silverymoon.
The only thing it lacks is a dungeon.
The frightened little village of Greenbrier needs a dungeon -- it needs space right nearby where player characters can answer the call to become heroes. The darkness encroaches, and heroes must push it back.
So right at the edge of the burned forest (which I should probably name at some point), a chasm named after the village opens up. I imagine Greenbrier Chasm as a deep cleft in the ground, choked with the prickly weeds that gave the village its name when settlers first cleared them away to make room for their farms.
Greenbrier Chasm opened up when the forest burned. I still don't know why, but that means it's a relatively recent arrival on the scene -- the latest evidence that danger and evil are closing in on the little village.
And when Greenbrier Chasm opened up, it revealed a dungeon -- the long-buried ruins of an ancient city or stronghold. By scrambling down through the briers to the bottom of the chasm, characters can gain access to these ruins and search them for treasures. Note for future reference: There might be a deeper point in the chasm that leads into another layer of dungeon, or some event might make the chasm deeper as the campaign progresses.
This will be the dungeon where my PCs gain their first few levels, letting their characters grow and mature into budding heroes.
Next month: The dungeons of Greenbrier Chasm!
So it would seem there's a layer to the Points of Light model that hasn't gotten addressed. It's Module-World. You have small settlements with some adventurey stuff right on the doorstep. There's no worldmap to speak of because the premise is most folks don't know that much--or care. So you have this strangely decentralized core setting where everything is precisely "points of light", little mapped areas that share a common world but the developers go to pains never to map it or even name it. In anonymity it can remain public domain. Your core campaign and mine could be just across the river from each other--or across the world and no one can tell us different.
I have to tell you. I really kinda' like it.
An enlightening read. I've seen ideas in this vein in the past, but time will tell. I don't know how it'll be applied to established game-worlds, though. For example, one of my group's complaints about the Realms is that each and every square inch seems to have already been mapped out and detailed. Not quite true, but the premise isn't all that far off either, if you consider the decades of material we have for the FR. The other side of the coin, however, is that characters there might come from all over the continent (or further) to one point (whatever town we're in). The points-of-light idea makes me then ask how such a party might form. Need to think about this a bit . . . .
I'd argue that the Points of Light is mostly a way of having an open-ended core setting. In other established settings it will probably have less of an impact. I'd imagine a general darkening of the shadowy places. Cloakwook is creepier. Candlekeep is more remote. Chult is well...Chult.
I think the biggest impact is going to be that individual "generic setting" adventures that previously felt frustratingly disconnected from everything, will become like little worlds your characters can adventure in for long periods of time--rather than being weird grafts of places that don't belong or one shot bon-bons. Well gee Hommlet was fun--so what's over there? Instead you'll stay a while. Presumably start to care about the little towns and villages instead of just beelining for the capital city. The places become the important thing--like characters in their own right.
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Well, it was obvious that was the goal - easy to stick in any scenario. But I don't like it so much and here's why.
In early 3e, I was forced to do something similar with all the third party scenarios that came out. All of them, due to designer laziness, were set in some little town surrounded by 100 miles of trackless mountains. It really begged the question of why are the PCs there. Unless you pick one "town", like Sandpoint or whatnot, and decide you're going to host a whole campaign there, you have a lot of trouble getting PCs from place to place. What I did was give the campaign a pirates theme and convert all the "lazy maps" from the modules so the isolated town was on an island, which means easy access for the PCs but constrained environment for the adventure, which was the goal of the "middle of nowhere" maps. But I found that players really reacted a lot better to having more of a "real world" to be playing in; once I added in Freeport and its (light, admittedly) surrounding world, they enjoyed it a lot more.
Even with something like that, after PCs get to level 5 or so they start to become "big dog" enough that they want/need to have larger scope - big cities, regional impact, etc. This feeds into one of the complaints I have about changes since 1e really - in 1e, once you got to 9th level you were considered a billy badass "Lord" or the like, and were likely looking to set up a keep, have retainers, and phase into some larger scale stuff. Now, it seems, twentieth level characters are still considered errand-runners.
The Adventure Paths have realized this, and though they may start in a little hamlet, they know at some point PCs are going to (plot related or not) say "screw this, let's go to a big city."
Sometimes it seems like a lot of adventure designers would be much more happy in a milieu like the original Star Trek - exploring the unknown, where you have writerly justification to have the next plot location be a unusual as you want and the PCs have no claim to ever have heard about it before. Which would be interesting, but most of the time it's hard to concieve of that being possible in a normal D&D campaign world - ok, it's pseudo-medieval, so the peasant in the field may not know anything except the name of the town the next link down the trail (although that's quite a disservice, as most D&D worlds are more pseudo-Renaissance and even the average French peasant had a good bit of political knowledge). But the innkeepers, merchants, etc. all know "yeah, that city over there, it's all green-skinned people and they put you to death if you sneeze" or whatever bizarre conceit the writer's cooking up.
Anyway, a "points of light" could be done well, but I have no confidence that there's enough thought being put into this that it is.
Yeah, that's one big problem I've been mulling over since reading the Wyatt example. He says "don't worry about the macro map--just fill in the spaces where the characters concievably would go".
This guy doesn't know my players. My players are of the sort that love to explore. They'd head north, run into another small hamlet--bleah and head north again in the morning. They'd march right off your cool little arrows and roads map and start exploring all the stuff "out there". There's no hedging our group onto a railroad track and figuring they'll play nice and stay there. You'd have to abort to the tacky "wall of ogres" model to try and hedge them in--where the environment becomes so artificially hostile beyond a certain radius that the players are kept from moving through or around the obstacle. But really how many of those can there concievably be?
I don't see the POV of the game as being "farmer" in nature so much as "Dark Ages". People tend to wall themselves into cloistered settlements. They tend to only travel the roads in the daytime and only then to visit their neighbors. Everyone is in fear that if they travel too far they'll run into everpresent bandits--or worse, who will torture them into revealing the location of their homes and families. So at that point even the innkeepers would have a pretty narrow window into the world's fog of war.
I've been tinkering adapting a module--one of the few ones I own, into a 4e style gaming environment. Basically you've got a small city called Dragondown at the center--a magiocracy run by a cabal of mages who once destroyed the dracolich that had oppressed the area gave the city it's name, and the tumbledown ruins of the caverns that were this abomination's lair still lie unremarked in the nearby Dragondown Grotto. About a day's journey following the stream that provides water to the town will take you to the Forest Cliffs, a region of verdant forest that locals will not go near--for it is the lair of the green dragon Sekkatrix, a cowardly creature by nature but with designs of learning about and dominating the surrounding world. Beyond the forest is a gray ask waste, called the Dragon Graveyard. Of course that's beyond mosts folk's ken, since they never go anywhere near the forest in the first place--much less anywhere so overtly ill fortuned. The odd adventurer has swung through town with the odd story offered in exchange for some food or a free night's stay at the inn. Usually the stories are just accounted as outsider lies. There's also a hidden dragon egg nursery out amongst the sprawling caves that dot the hills beyond the fertile plain of farmland. Nobody knows about that though--and those that do, only heard about it from a handful of adventurers claiming to have already cleared it out.
If most of the world hasn't been mapped out...won't it be rare for ...say..a dwarf...to travel as far as to meet an elf? Or the other way around?
If it is rare...how are adventuring parties, which usally have a wide vareity of races going to work together?
"Whoa, an elf all the way out here, hey, won't to come adventure with us?"
"Sure, never seen an elf out here before?"
"Well...yeah actually we have, he went off with another adventuring group...which also had a dwarf in it...and a gnome...and a were-wolf..oh and a half-dragon...even though we all live on completely different corners of the world..."
Previous versions of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk etc work as settings because seeing a bunch of different races in one area wasn't an uncommon sight. If just venturing outside your doorstep is hazardous to your typical non-adventurer, how are all these races going to meet? I can understand one group of different races meeting up by coincidence, it'll get stupid after it happens 4 or 5 times.
The take I get is that the setting happens just after the fall of some great near-world-spanning civilization (think the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome). Things were a lot more cosmopolitan. Races lived together and understood each other a bit more than even what you'd see in games like Forgotten Realms. While the recent disasters have caused some races to pull back a bit, I get the feeling it's a relatively recent development (last couple hundred years or so)in response to the fall of civilization. For the most part, most communities have some elves, dwarves, halflings, etc. living among humans as part of their society. That's the impression I get anyway. So while there are mysterious elven forests, and dwarven mountain fortresses--there are also elven bartenders and dwarven blacksmiths. That sort of thing.
I get the idea that the new part here is that rather than making some game setting open-ended enough that you can add whatever you want to it, or churning out tons of "generic" adventures that you have to plunk somewhere yourself, that they're making the settings (hopefully) well-defined and all mapped out, keeping the core setting open for modules and home campaign worldbuilding.