Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Small Setting

For some reason, the idea of a small setting has long had some appeal for me. Something like the British Isles or any other single country, sure, but also even smaller, like an single province of a country (Averoigne, Poictesme)--or smaller still, like an immense Gormenghast-esque castle and its environs.

Obviously, hexcrawling has limited to no utility in a setting like this, and it's probably not grist for a long term campaign, if you do the usual D&D activities. But you know, most campaigns I play in or run don't seem to be long term enough that that would create into a problem. My Land of Azurth campaign will be 7 years old this month, and while the players have now ventured beyond Yanth Country, I feel like we could easily still be in that terrain (roughly the size of the state of Georgia), allowing for the brief planar, time travel, and underground other-realm excursions they've done.

What's the appeal to me of the small setting? I'm not exactly sure. Perhaps it's the thought of accreting a lot of granular detail in one part of a setting in a way players will actually find interesting versus that detailed city supplement approach where most of it never gets used. There's also the possibility of developing more of a robust "supporting cast" and layering in mysteries big and small. It also makes adventure locales less likely to be one-offs, encouraging the portrayal of them as living, changing places.

In short, maybe, it's bringing some of the aspects of the megadungeon to a setting that isn't centered around a megadungeon.


Dick McGee said...

I've always liked fairly constrained settings myself. Easier to get a grasp on whether you're playing or running the game.

Scifi arguably does this better than fantasy, at least high-magic fantasy. Very easy to build adventures or whole campaigns on a single generation ship, isolated space station, asteroid mine, or drifting wreck of a gigantic alien space ship - although those last two can often feel like actual megadungeons. High-magic fantasy tends to have a few too many "fast travel" spells and effects to keep the party stuck in one geographic location for long. Low-to-no-magic games can stick to "realistic" historical norms more easily - like the adventurers being noteworthy partly because they haven't lived their whole lives inside a twenty mile radius of where they were born.

Urban campaigns are also good for this even with travel options. If the campaign is focused tightly on what happens in a single city, leaving to go elsewhere effectively takes you out of the game till you get back. Blades in the Dark is a good example of that. So is Runequest's Pavis/Big Rubble setting - you can leave to go adventure in the river valley, help the Duke clear his new holding, ride the Cradle, but the whole time stuff is happening back in Pavis and its giant neighboring ruin and you're falling out of the loop.

Jack Tremain said...

Small settings allow for maximum comfy-ness. There is a lot that can happen even in a in a 30x30km square. I think about Moomin Valley, Twin Peaks or Cicely, Alaska. You can fit a whole city in there, and plenty caves, mountains and lakes. The tone of the campaign changes automatically I guess. You can even have random encounter tables with named persons in them instead of all being random anonymous monsters

Jose Kharlos said...

I've been running a hexcrawl campaing for some 40 sessions and the thing is that it is a small region (only slightly bigger than Maryland), but it has almost 2000 modules (one for every 3 mile hex) so it's super dense. That, in addition to the fact that random encounters are common and travel is perilous, makes it seem waaay bigger than it really is. That's why I think that, usually, what really determines the perceived size of a sandbox is not the real area it represents as much as its content density.

Deadtreenoshelter said...

I've been running my Thurstle Island game for more than a year on an island that's small enough to be traversed in one day. It has 10 "hexes" and my players still have tons left to do.