Of all the articles Collins wrote, the one that most affected me was "The Making of a Milieu," which appeared in issue #93 (January 1985). Its subtitle was "How to start a world and keep it turning." The article is basically a lengthy discussion of how to build not just a campaign setting but a campaign itself, which is to say, how to kick things off in such a way as to ensure that play continues for months or years afterward. Nowadays, a lot of what Collins wrote might be considered old hat, but, back in 1985, it was nothing short of revelatory, at least to me.
Up until that point, I'd largely run my campaigns either in my beloved World of Greyhawk setting or else in some nebulous, vaguely defined setting. In neither case did I give much thought to "the Big Picture." And by "the Big Picture," I don't mean a plan or a script for the players to follow in their adventures. Rather, I mean only some notion of how all the various pieces of the setting interrelate and how they might be used to serve my purposes as a referee. Prior to reading this article, my campaigns were just random collections of "stuff that happened" somewhere and that was usually good enough.
By 1985, though, I started to think it wasn't good enough. I'd become so thoroughly immersed in fantasy literature, especially of the Interminable Series of Ponderous Tomes variety and I wanted my campaigns and settings to mirror that. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 1985 also marked the beginning of the period during which I actually played less and less. I went to a different high school than all my neighborhood friends and I became distracted by other things. But I was still as interested in D&D as ever and devoting my time to world building seemed an adequate substitute for actually playing the game.
Collins gave me lots of food for thought about how to build a setting, stuff that kept me thinking and creating for years to come. For example, he suggested creating several maps of the campaign area, each one depicting the area at a different point in history. In this way, names and settlements can be altered to reflect the rise and fall of empires, the migrations of people, and other such events. So I spent a lot of time at the library making photocopies of a blank map of my new, original campaign setting -- the first I'd ever come up with -- and then adding details to it, so that I eventually amassed a lot of information in pictorial form about how the setting evolved over the centuries. It was a fairly simple thing but quite effective and it gave me a lot of pleasure as a teenager.
These days, I'd never go to even the meager lengths Collins suggested in planning out a campaign or its setting. I'm much more of a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy; indeed, I embrace it as the best way to play the game. At the same time, I retain a great deal of fondness for this article, in large part because it broke me of certain other bad habits, namely my dependence on published material for ideas. As Collins so aptly put it at the conclusion of his article:
When I began playing the AD&D game six years ago, there were very few playing aids on the market of the type that are now so abundant. There was no WORLD OF GREYHAWK Fantasy Setting, no Harn, and very few canned modules in print. Very nearly all of our adventuring had to come out of our own heads. And I still think that's fantasy gaming at its best. I now meet players, especially young ones, who think that, in order to play the AD&D game or some other such activity, they must invest megabucks in someone else's ideas. It shocks many of them when I suggest that it's more fun to make it up yourself.I was one of those young players about whom Collins speaks, at least to some degree, which is why I owe the man a debt of thanks. I may no longer build a campaign the way he suggests in this article. However, that I build my own at all is in large part a result of what he says in it.
Alas for them! No canned module, no playing aid, no set of rules, no list of NPCs can quite become your very own. As enjoyable and thought-provoking as all the published material may be, it is a poor substitute for creating your own campaign milieu, designing your own castles, and exercising your own brain. Creativity is what the game is about. It would be a shame if the success of fantasy gaming contributed to the stifling of creativity in its own enthusiastic adherents.