Some people like to begin working on a new campaign with a map. They’ll start small, with a starting village and the surrounding countryside, maybe plot out where a dungeon or two can be found. Others pull way back and sketch out an entire continent or maybe even the entire world.
I prefer to start with themes. If I can come up with a theme that intrigues and inspires me, the rest tends to come rather easily. Even if the players never really interact with the theme, it serves as a seed from which inspiration for monsters, treasures, locations, and conflicts can arise.
At first, I was thinking about something a bit more high fantasy for my Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord hack. My most successful games have been high fantasy, and that style has a lot going for it. It’s the default of not just D&D, but most fantasy RPGing in general. Everyone knows it, and they can jump right in with little effort.
But my interest in high fantasy has waned over the years. My heart lies elsewhere. A lot of my reading lately has been in the swords-and-sorcery genre, or tended in that direction. I’m less interested in knights and the Renaissance and gunpowder and more interested in barbarians and the Pliocene and magic as something dangerous and not quite tamed. More “Conan the Barbarian” and “Scorpion King” than “Excalibur” and the “Princess Bride”. More (NSFW) Frazetta and Daren Bader and (NSFW) John William Waterhouse, and less Sir Frank Dicksee and Scott Gustafson and (NSFW or your SAN score) Hieronymus Bosch. Not that I don’t like those other things (I maintain that “The Princess Bride” is one of the greatest movies ever made). I’m just not interested in running a game on those themes this time.
So I’m thinking a young world, still mostly untamed, wild and warm and in some ways unfamiliar. This opens up a lot of possibilities. For instance, a common theme in sword-and-sorcery literature is a time before Man ruled, when the great civilizations of the world were other than human. While I prefer to keep the humanocentric feel of Moldvay/Cook/Labyrinth Lord, that doesn’t mean I can’t have the remnants of those old civilizations heavily dotted across the landscape. So I’m going to have the waning lizardfolk empire still in evidence, struggling to hold on to their waning power in the face of waxing human dominance. And I’m going to steal a page from Jeff and replace horses with freakin’ giant birds and lizards like the ancient terror birds that made a cameo in “10,000 BC”. I can have (NSFW) mastodons in the north and populate my jungles with saber-toothed tigers. Dinosaurs? Probably not, or, at least, not in common profusion.
A common theme in mythology is a time of conflict among the gods, or between the gods and primal forces (the titans of Greek myth and the frost giants from the Norse myths). The gods at this time are not metaphysical abstractions, but flesh-and-blood creatures who wander the world and have their own adventures. From Isis’ quest to resurrect her beloved Osiris to Ares battling among the mortal armies clashing beneath the walls of Troy , the gods were people you could meet on the street and who took an active part in mortal affairs. Nor were they untouchable superbeings, as Diomedes driving Ares from the field proves.
The gods, then, are going to not be in some distant Outer Plane, but living and dwelling within the world. When people say that the ruler of Nius is a god-king, they’ll mean that quite literally; the ruler of the city is, in fact a god.