This is a guest post by the wonderful Chris Lockey – content creator and tabletop writer for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, and Critical Role! We’re thrilled that he took the time to write such a FABULOUS article for the World Anvil blog! You can find more of his insightful advice here.
How to write dark campaign settings – 5 tips and tricks
Sometimes a story is only as good as its setting. And when it comes to roleplaying games, in particular, the setting itself is quite often the starting point. It’s almost as if RPGs only truly come to life once the worlds they occupy become fully realized for everyone invested in those shared narrative experiences.
If you’re anything like me, you probably enjoy a fair measure of the morose in your storytelling. The dark fantasy and horror genres excite me in a way like no other—by challenging my mind to explore the grotesque and tenebrous aspects of humanity that my body dares not. You can see this portrayed in my work on projects like Empire of the Ghouls from Kobold Press or the Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount for Critical Role and Wizards of the Coast. Even when we consider a lot of classic fantasy settings, like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Howard’s Hyborian Age, Leiber’s Lankhmar, and such, we find them riddled with oppressively dark scenarios and maniacally perverse villains who all-too-eerily echo the more dreadful aspects of the real world.
When creating your own dark campaign setting, you may or may not find yourself struggling to walk the line between truth and trope. How dark is too dark? And how does one establish an oh-so-necessary, yet elusive, mood? With so much inspiration and intent, it can be hard to know where to start. But don’t sweat it—we’ve got you covered with five easy* tips on how to create your very own dark campaign setting.
* Disclaimer: nothing is easy. Just ask any 12-year-old who tried to read Lovecraft without a dictionary.
Fear lingers. Fear goes unforgotten… your dark new world [will] remain in the hearts and minds of your players for lifetimes to come. — Chris Lockey
Tip 1 to write a Dark Campaign Setting? Write What You Know.
If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or studied your favorite author’s words of professional encouragement, this tried-and-true axiom may feel a bit hackneyed. But the simple fact remains that your personal experiences—in both life and literature—are the most vital resources you have at your disposal as a storyteller. Do not shy away from your own story. Instead, I urge you to embrace, examine, and exploit those details from your past that can effectively inform your narrative decisions today.
What scares you? What kinds of creatures, conflicts, and characters push your own panic buttons? Once you’ve gathered a few answers to these questions, you might be surprised by how cohesively the themes and threads of your personal fears begin to manifest themselves. This kind of reflective approach to storytelling can be particularly moving at the tabletop. Since RPGs offer players participating roles instead of regulating them to spectators, you can effectively run players through a gamified gauntlet of your own anxieties. Your fears, your concerns, your villains… they’re not imagined. And with a little development, these can become the details that populate your dark new world. Because—when it comes to worldbuilding—the sense of verisimilitude that comes along with that kind of authenticity is worth its virtual weight in platinum.
Tip 2 for Dark Campaign Settings: Study the Classics.
Aside from your own experiences, there are centuries of dark fantasy and horror storytelling at your disposal to learn from. Whether you turn to literature, cinema, or song, the variety of inspiration can be downright staggering if you open your eyes wide enough to see it all. Don’t shun what you’ve learned so far—even if your early exposure to terror is timid compared to your end goals, that’s the foundation you’re building upon. Respect it. Maintain it. And start looking for the bricks and mortar you’ll use to build your new and nightmarish creations.
I mentioned some of the sword and sorcery genre’s old guard, and their worlds—with places like Mordor, Stygia, and “The City of Sevenscore Thousand Smokes”—are certainly a magnificent starting point for anyone looking to expand their dark fantasy worldbuilding language. But don’t stop there. Consider your favorite fireside ghost stories, the movies that shocked you to the core, or the video games that made your blood pump. Inspiration lurks around every dark corner; you need only look for it.
Tip 3 (useful for ANY tabletop RPG campaign!): Understand Your Players.
An extension of Tip 1, this suggestion serves to not only remind you that roleplaying games are a collaborative form of storytelling, but to highlight exactly how important the contributions of your players can be to your own worldbuilding efforts. If you’re creating a campaign setting for a group of players that you have the privilege of knowing intimately, their tastes and predilections should be apparent to you—and you should embrace their impulses and reactions as much as possible.
On the other hand, if you’re a professional storyteller, you’re likely aiming to create a campaign setting that can (and will) be populated by more than one table of players. So how do you account for the instincts of people you’ve never met? How does one predict the unknown? The unknown itself can be part of the solution, but there is a more sinister element to specificity.
As Stephen King posits in Danse Macabre, his novel-length love letter to the horror genre: “The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to the room you believed no one but you knew of…” An apt analogy for our dungeon-delving stories, and an applicable one if you consider distilling the wealth of your experiences with other players into actionable environments and situations.
The setting itself need not be as dark as the stories taking place within it… Simply put, there is no dark without the light. –Chris Lockey
Tip 4 for creating dark campaigns: Atmosphere is Paramount.
Once you’ve done some research and reflection, it’s time to start layering on your setting’s overall themes and moods. Answer the question for yourself: what does this world feel like? How does it make its inhabitants feel? If conquering a blank page is your quest, consider 3–6 powerful adjectives that describe the world you’re designing and spiral out from there.
A key understanding is that the setting itself need not be as dark as the stories taking place within it. The very dichotomy of “light and dark” and the juxtaposition of these two extremes is what allows us to contextualize horror in the first place. Simply put, there is no dark without the light. And this fuels our fear of the unknown. Keep that in mind when building your worlds, and this unshakable truth becomes an essential narrative element. We can take our cue from another quip in King’s Danse Macabre: “The work of horror is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives.”
Tip 5 for dark campaign settings: The Devil’s in the Details.
This clever idiom is one I learned from a screenwriting teacher during my freshman year of film school at NCSA, and it’s proven time and time again to be one of the mantras of my storytelling career. After you’ve brainstormed some broad strokes for your dark new world, it’s time to hone in on what makes it special. What are the characteristics, the inhabitants, the locales, the monuments, and the mysteries that will make it truly memorable?
Fear lingers. Fear goes unforgotten. And like any good story, you want the tales of your dark new world to remain in the hearts and minds of your players for lifetimes to come.
And how about you? What are YOUR top tips for creating dark or horror world settings? Share in the comments below!
If you want to see these tips put into practice like a pro, make sure you check out Empire of the Ghouls by Kobold Press, also available on Roll20! Chris Lockey (writer of those great tips above) actually wrote large swathes of it. After all, reading dark campaign settings from the pros is a great way to learn how to create your own!
Creating a dark campaign setting or horror world on World Anvil? Check out our Eldritch Horror visual theme!