Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Articles of Dragon: "The Making of a Milieu"

When I think of under-appreciated writers from the hobby, one of the names that comes immediately to mind is Arthur Collins. Collins wrote a number of articles in Dragon that I adored, because they seemed to provide the kind of detail and immersion that the Silver Age craved while still being firmly rooted in Golden Age obsessions. They offered a kind of media via between the two eras of D&D and, as such, greatly appealed to me during my teen years, when I wasn't ready to abandon the kinds of games I played as a younger person, but still hoped for something "deeper" than "mere" dungeon crawls. Plus, Collins was a good writer: clear and easy to understand but not simplistic, either in style or content. He wasn't a hugely prolific author -- perhaps two dozen articles or fewer -- but his stuff was almost always of great interest to me.

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.

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.
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.


  1. You've motivated me to pull out that excellent old article and re-read it. That alone is worth a thank you!

  2. I disagree.

    World of Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Harn, etc. are wonderful campaign settings for a DM to use as his own game world.

    Besides, once the PCs start interacting with that world, it becomes unique unto itself.

    They are not a "poor substitute" as the article suggests. In fact, many of us have very little time to devote to creating their own game world. Some of us have lives beyond the gaming table (GASP!).

    And I'm not knocking anyone who can devote the time and energy to create something of their own. Kudos to you...

    If you can make it work and it doesn't suck.

    Because in my experience, most of the "home-brewed" game worlds I've encountered were monumental loads of crap.

    Which is funny, because the DMs who created these worlds were soo in love with them that they couldn't see the sh*t from the good. Because no matter how much you polish a turd..It's still a turd.

    I can only think of one or two home brewed game worlds that was cool to adventure in...and that's from over 30 years of gaming.

    1. Curiously, I think running a pre-packaged setting takes a lot more time and effort than doing it yourself. Learning a campaign setting sufficiently well to run it is similar to studying for a major exam or something, whereas doing it yourself can't possibly be wrong, so as long as you make a few notes as you go to keep from contradicting yourself later, you can literally make stuff up right on the spot if needed. No prep time necessary.

      Or at least very little.

      Nice job on the passive aggressive suggestion that homebrewers don't have lives, by the way.

  3. One of my biggest problems as a ref was world building. Not that I couldn't or didn't do it but I became too obsessed with it. I'd develop a world, its history and map it out and then run it for some weeks. Then some new idea would wallop me and I'd find myself drafting a whole new campaign world. I can't remember how many times I started new campaigns just to scratch some sort of creative itch.

  4. and that's from over 30 years of gaming..."

    Mine isn't one of the ones you think of, but the D&D gameworld I still use goes back 35 years to my childhood. Began as a dungeon with a tavern nearby, and grew from there. Stuff I added, stuff players added through character background or action. It grows. So not everybody has a lifetime to grow it, but by the time I was 20 years old the world was full, brimming, and fairly sketched out. History made up by both GM and players cannot be beat for immersion. I'm thinking the collaberative worlds of fantasy authors are the only things that come close to that.

    If anybody plans to be playing D&D for at least 5 years, no matter their age, I suggest start with that tavern and dungeon and work your way up.

  5. That is a great article. Lots of clever ideas in there. Years ago, I photocopied that article and put it in my big grey DMs binder. I too, am more of an improviser now, but how I loved creating the foundational content of my world years ago. Thanks.

  6. I keep photocopies of his Dragon articles in a binder, too. "What
    Not to Include" should be required reading for DMs.

  7. That article had a huge impact on my gaming over the years, all good, I think!

  8. I'm also very fond of Arthur Collins's articles. I make it a point to include Great Stony and the Order of St. Raphael in most of my campaign settings, in some form.

  9. > Interminable Series of Ponderous Tomes

    That can't be a real series. It doesn't have 'Chronicles' or 'Saga' in the name.

  10. So, if there are managers and world builders, and this article is meant to help us grow as world builders... what articles were good to help DMs grow as managers?

  11. This article was very influential on me, and it still affects how I think about my campaign elements to this day. I don't do all the work he did, but I like how small of a scale he works on, I like the continuing characters idea (and I still use it), and I like the photocopying maps bit. I still do that, to this day, for everything from area maps to dungeons. I don't advance time like he did but I sure like the basic concept.