Campaign Mastery was down for a few hours this week due to a configuration issue resulting from a server restore by our host. This manifested as an offer to download a file instead of opening the site. Diagnosing and solving the problem meant that this article couldn’t be finished in time to upload it on Monday as intended. On the other hand, it’s our first downtime at the site since we first went online, over three years ago, so that’s not a bad track record! I just wanted to take a minute to apologize for any inconvenience.
Last Thursday I posted “One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post” and promised to do a future article on how I use the same techniques to write an adventure. The intention at the time was to show the development of a real adventure from one of my campaigns as the subject and example, but I have since had second thoughts on that count; firstly, since none of the adventures coming up in any of my campaigns are going to be typical in this respect, and secondly, to avoid giving my players any additional OOC knowledge.
That leaves only two options: break my promise (something I try not to do), or come up with a whole new campaign in which to set this example adventure.
To most people, the idea of coming up with an entirely new campaign on just a day or two’s notice might be daunting, but it’s not something that holds great fear for me, as illustrated by my past giveaway campaign ideas here at Campaign Mastery – All Is Three and The Frozen Lands. And, as it happens, the day after posting One word at a time, and coming to the realization that I needed a new Campaign Premise for the purpose, I thought of one. The fact that it came to me while working on ideas for this, completely unrelated, article is an absolute bonus.
The Big Picture
I’m a big fan of implementing bold new ideas into each campaign, giving them a distinctive background structure that makes them different and fresh. The Frozen Lands was about the return of an Ice Age when the world was geared up to fight Global Warming; All Is Three focuses on a hierarchy of Lizardkind evolution and the relationship between three energy types (Divine, Defiling, and Arcane); The Zenith-3 Earth-Regency Campaign is about superheroics in a world where the British Empire never fell; and so on.
I’ve been trumpeting this philosophy almost as long as I’ve been writing here at Campaign Mastery, starting – appropriately enough – with A Quality Of Spirit: Big Questions In RPGs from December 31, 2008. This article talks about questions such as “What is the soul?”, “How Does Magic Work?”, “Does modern Physics apply?”, “What is the nature of time?”, “How was the universe/multiverse created?”, “Are there other planes / other dimensions, and if so where did they come from and what keeps them apart?”, “What are the Gods and where do they come from?”, and so on, and the importance that these questions can and should play in designing a campaign.
Particularly significant is my final comment to the article, where I state:
“…The important thing when considering a ‘Big Picture’ question is working out the implications down to the mundane levels…”
“…One of these days I’ll probably write a post on how to do that…”
…which also tells you how far back my ideas list for Campaign Mastery articles stretches!
The Little Guy
That’s what this article is all about – at least making a start on this very big topic. The ambition is to take a campaign concept as it is being developed and look at how to pursue the implications and consequences of the big ideas down to the level of the everyday world, and why it’s important.
In order to achieve this goal in any reasonable length, it’s vital that the “big ideas” actually be a little smaller and more compact than usual.
The short answer is verisimilitude, believability, plausibility. The longer answer is sustainability.
It is certainly possible to have a campaign in which you have the big ideas but haven’t worked out the implications. The result is that when the players start looking at those implications, they ask “why isn’t this [logical consequence] of [big picture idea] happening?”, and you have to scramble on the spot to answer it.
It’s almost inevitable that you will have to do so occasionally, in any event. But the less development work you have put in, the more you have to improvise, and the greater the chances of a contradiction – which then leads to more scrambling to resolve that contradiction.
On the other hand, if you are at least one step ahead of the players most of the time in your understanding of the game world and how it works, then you can simply sit back, look smug, and reply “That’s a good question. Your character doesn’t know the answer. How are you going to find out?”
In fact, your players can start (in theory) with knowledge zero about “why is it so?” and discover the root premises at the heart of the campaign as they play, while the GM can deliberately salt the adventure path with interesting and enlightening factoids and experiences.
The result is a campaign with inherently greater interest than just another knock-off of the generic fantasy model.
The Serendipitous Collusion Of Disparate Inspirations
So, let’s talk about this new campaign so that we can get into the discussion of how to pursue the implications of big ideas down to the common-man level.
This campaign premise unites elements from a recently-aired episode of the BBC TV series Time Team titled “A Copper Bottomed Dig”, about the Swansea Copper Smelting Industry at Pentrechwyth, Swansea, and specifically the slave trade. Added to that was my recent article on Demographics and Aging, and the impact on the societies of long-lived races by their longevity; and a number of CM blog posts that I had recently reviewed to pick out the ones where I felt the anchor graphic had contributed something extra to the article (refer One word at a time for the results).
The result was a “perfect storm” of ideas that gelled into a concatenation of campaign elements.
Unlike the previous two campaign examples that I have offered here, this particular campaign is not open-ended; it has a specific overall story to tell and it comes to an end after that tale is told.
I started with the concept of slavery, and the notion of “the lesser of two evils” and asked myself under what circumstances would slavery be the lesser of two evils? Obviously, when racial survival was threatened, with enslavement offering an escape.
The next question didn’t really occur to me – for some reason, possibly the influence of All is three or a recent mention on Twitter of them as foes, but from the very beginning I saw the slaves in question as Kobolds.
From there, asking “why” each time knocked down successive dominos. Kobolds enslaved themselves to the various PC races because they were under threat of extermination from Gnolls who viewed them as food.
The Gnolls, who would normally prefer easier prey, faced starvation due to a famine gripping the world – a notion derived from another recent documentary on the collapse of the Egyptian Empire. And what might cause a famine? How about a devastating drought?
That gave me the entire story of why the Kobolds were slaves.
The Campaign Plotline
Next, we need a twist and a direction for the campaign to follow.
What if the Slavery wasn’t simply about survival? What if the Kobolds were in league with someone who had arranged the whole thing simply to put the Kobolds in position to do something more important – like a mass slaughter of sentients?
Perhaps the energy released when something dies, and which Necromancy taps, is proportionate to the lifespan of the creature that is killed. A Necromancer doesn’t have the power to cause a famine, but he can do a deal with someone who does, such as a Devil or Demon.
Perhaps the Necromancer had built some device designed to do something big – make him a god, say. To function, it needs vast amounts of life energy, but it needs to be powered up in stages or the device will absorb more energy than it can store. Each successive wave of murders, in sequence of the lifespan of the creatures targeted, provides the power to use in controlling and absorbing the next stage.
Halflings/Gnomes to Humans to Dwarves to Elves, a hierarchy of devastation. Perhaps it would need to be followed by a Deity or Demigod? That would certainly provide the Necromantic Power to permit the Necromancer to ascend.
It seems an overly ambitious plan for any mortal Necromancer to come up with out of the blue, but what if he weren’t the ultimate evil? What if the being behind the drought had been putting ideas into the Necromancer’s head all along, and rather than simply being a tool of the Necromancer, was the real villain? The degree of planning and organization points to a Ruling Devil not a Demon Prince.
But my players would be expecting a plot twist, and would be looking for it. To surprise them, I need something more – perhaps a second plot twist?
How about if he himself was just an unwitting pawn, the puppet of a deranged Deity, and the real purpose of the Necromantic device was not to elevate the Necromancer to godhood, but to destroy Hades and the other planes of Hell, wiping out the Devils and Demons who abide there? A Deity, tired of the eternal struggle with the forces of evil, might well become desperate enough to consider the sacrifice of 4/5ths of the sentient “good” population of the world, and one of his fellow deities, to be an acceptable price to pay for total victory over those forces.
Putting It All Together
So, what we have is a campaign with the following basic themes:
- Necromancy & Life
- The Price Of Virtue
And with this structure:
- Campaign Introduction – Establish drought, famine, slavery, social impacts, intro characters
- Theme Introduction – Establish the themes of deception, betrayal, insanity, and the price of virtue, bind characters into a team. Introduce the relative life-force concept.
- Gnoll Raid – Establish the Gnoll presence and the Necromancy theme (arm the leader with a life-stealing weapon)
- Halfling Massacre – Begin the core plotline. Halflings killed by Kobolds, Kobolds killed by Gnolls – no witnesses. Humans, Dwarves, Elves begin taking precautions against slave uprisings.
- Gnoll Scouting – PCs are sent to scout a Gnoll encampment in an attempt to figure out what they are up to. Outcome: The Gnolls report to a mysterious ‘Master’ who is pulling the strings.
- Human Massacre – The PCs return to report what they have discovered only to find that what happened to the Halflings has now been done to Humans. Due to the precautions taken, there are survivors, but all is chaos. The PCs have to rally the survivors and bring order from that chaos.
- Necromantic Spillage – The cleanup detail (one of the jobs that the PCs will have to organize) is disrupted when some of the workers turn cannibal, seemingly die from some form of poisoning (negative energy suffusing the corpses) and rise as ghouls.
- Gnoll Invasion – The PCs come to the hard realization that there are not enough people to survive as an independent community when the Gnolls take advantage of the collapsed defenses to launch an invasion. They have to lead their rag-tag band of survivors to the nearest safe refuge, the tunnels of the dwarves, under repeated attack from Gnolls.
- Refugee Underground – The Dwarves are suspicious and reluctant to accept the refugees. They are having internal problems of their own – their citizens have been vanishing. The PCs have to solve the mystery or they will be turned away. They find evidence that the missing dwarves have been captured and enslaved by Drow, but things don’t add up. Digging deeper, they discover that a Dwarf has been eliminating rivals for the affection of a popular female dwarf.
- Zombie Apocalypse – The Dwarven crypts crack open in an earthquake, releasing Dwarven Zombies with added powers that no-one can explain.
- Dwarven Massacre – The Kobold slaves working the mines for their Dwarven Masters take advantage of the chaos caused by the Zombie Apocalypse to turn on their masters, weakening the defenses against the Zombies. The PCs and the tatters of the Dwarven and human populations are cornered and fighting for their lives as wave after wave of uber-zombies attack. They are about to attempt escape Through an act of sheer desperation, when….
- Elvish Intervention – …a rescue party of Elves arrive. They lead the party and the other survivors back to their camp, where they reveal that they had come in search of the PCs specifically, because they had detected a funneling of the life energy liberated by the slaughters leading to something Necromantic going on in the Gnoll lands – and the PCs are the experts in conditions there. All the Necromantic problems they have experienced have just been leakage, a side-effect of something bigger. The discussion is then interrupted as a band of Demons erupts from a hole in the sky. Their gloating and shouts during the ensuing battle describe the combatants as “the ones who know too much” – referring to the Elves as well as the PCs.
- Raid – The Elves lead the PCs back to their community, only to discover that while the Demons were attempting to destroy the PCs and their Elvish rescue party, Gnolls had set fire to the Elvish Forest (distracting the defenders) while Demons had freed the Kobolds that had been imprisoned following the PCs warning, trapping the Elves between flames and a violent death. The Elves are sure that some of their kin will have survived; they will take charge of the survivors and lead them to safety, but they need the PCs to mount a secret raid into Gnoll Territory in search of whoever or whatever is responsible – and stopping them. The Elves don’t know exactly where it is, but they can point the PCs in roughly the right direction. And so they set out…
- Necromancer – When the PCs finally reach the tower of the Necromancer (the only structure still standing in the right direction), they have to get into it. Inside, they discover that a High Priest of [deity to be sacrificed] had survived the massacre and is being tortured by a tall figure with very small arms until he summons his deity’s avatar. The PCs interrupt and fight the Necromancer [species?] to an apparent victory, rescuing the High Priest. Afterwards, they learn about the Necromancer’s foul creation, the Ascension Crystal, and the purpose behind the Kobold Betrayal. They also learn that leakage from the Ascension Crystal is responsible for the Undead Traumas that have added to civilization’s recent woes, and that the problem will only get worse if the Crystal remains intact. They are considering ways of destroying it when [Demon’s Name], a Balor, appears and reaches for the crystal…
- Life Is Hell – In an attempt to drive off the Balor, [The High Priest] summons the avatar of [Deity to be destroyed]. Balor Gloats, fires a bolt of energy into the Ascension Crystal which blasts the Avatar. Reality is briefly disrupted, revealing the connection between Avatar and Deity. As the PCs watch in horror, the Necromantic Energy erupts up the connection, turning the Deity into a greasy spot. [Demon] Gloats some more, exultantly proclaiming that the Ascension Crystal is now fully charged, a theological bomb capable of destroying the Heavenly Planes in one fell swoop – or perhaps he will employ it to destroy the Archdemons of the Nine Hells and ascend to dominion over all. He gates out with the Ascension Crystal. The Gods show up to investigate what had happened to their fallen brother. They reveal that they cannot enter the Abyss – if it’s bad for mortals it’s even more deadly for Deities – it is going to be up to the PCs to save Divinity from extinction. Succeed and eventually the survivors will repopulate the world, fail and the Demons will assume dominion over all. But they can assist the PCs by giving them superior equipment – the best in the world, in fact. When so armed and equipped, they open the Gates Of Hell long enough for the PCs to enter. Once there, they have to follow the trail of the Balor responsible until they recapture the device. This quickly leads to a confrontation with the first of the Archdemons who rule the Nine Hells…
- The Council of Nine – I’ve always felt that the Lawfulness of Devils would translate into a firm hierarchy, and there is no use in having a position within that hierarchy if it doesn’t get flaunted before your lessers every now and then. That implies that the ruling Lords of the Nine Hells would have regular gatherings for the airing and resolution of grievances and the addressing problems affecting the entire group – a conclave or council of some sort. It should also be clear that no Balor could get away with the things [Responsible Balor] has done without the tacit approval of one of the Ruling Lords. As soon as the PCs reach the uppermost layer of Hell, they should find themselves enmeshed in a lawful-evil bureaucracy through which they have to fight there way in order to present their case to that Council. (Members of the council are detailed in Fiendish Codex II, Tyrants Of The Nine Hells). As a result, the PCs will find themselves enmeshed in the ongoing dominance games of the Council, but will eventually get to present their case to the most powerful of the Ruling Lords, Asmodeus. Of all the Lords, Bel would seem to be the most likely to be behind the events, but Levistus would run him a close second and either Baalzebul or Mephistophiles a distant third. Asmodeus would seem to have the most to lose, and is capable of compelling the cooperation of the others, so if the PCs are convincing, they will win permission to play detective in the Nine Hells.
- The Face Of Evil – The PCs discover that none of the Nine current Archdukes Of Evil are responsible, the culprit is one who was cast down from the council in “recent” times – The Hag Countess (refer Glasya in Fiendish Codex II), who has forged an alliance with Belial. Confrontation by the Council results in confusion as both first attempt to lie their way out of trouble and then blame each other; Asmodeus will verify that neither of them actually thought of the idea, the Balor [Responsible Demon] who acted as their instrument and go-between approached each in the other’s name. A search of the records of Hell has meanwhile established that the name of the Balor is not recorded on their infernal rolls. But if he’s not a Balor, then who or what is he? And how long do the PCs have left before he uses the power of the Ascension Crystal? For that matter, why hasn’t he done so already?
- The Axe Falls – The Epic Conclusion. As the nearest thing to “Neutral Parties”, equally mistrusted by all, the Council Of Nine set aside their enmity (briefly) in the face of a common and unknown enemy and invest the PCs with command of a small army of Hell. The Ascension Crystal is located in the centre of the central layer of the Nine Hells, right next to the entombed true body of Levistus. Clearly, he has withheld vital knowledge from the Council. Confronting his Aspect reveals that he was challenged to a duel of honor – and lost. Had he won the duel, he would have been freed from his prison; since he lost, he was compelled to assist in the creation and empowerment of the Ascension Crystal, and the manipulation of Balial and the Hag Countess who caused the Drought. He is somehow blocked from naming the other party to the duel, but Asmodeus sets to work unbinding him from the compulsion – at which point an Army of Archons invades the council chamber and Hell generally. Although they don’t have the power to defeat the Lords of Hell, they can delay them – which leaves the PCs as the only independent force that can stop whoever is ultimately responsible from triggering the Ascension Crystal. Asmodeus forces the aspect of Levistus to open a portal to his true body, where his servants continue their unceasing attempts to cut their master’s body free of the ice that entombs it. The PCs, pursued by and under fire from Archons themselves, travel through it to confront the true architect of the untold misery, the Mad God [Identity to be determined].
The final parts of this campaign completely (and temporarily) invert the loyalties of the PCs, as they go from compelling the reluctant aid of the Archdevils to being their allies against the Mad God. At some point in that final battle, they will experience a reality check in which the irony of their situation will be emphasized to them, when their enemy attempts to employ Reason against them. The PCs hold the balance of power – they can turn the Ascension Crystal against Heaven and the Mad God (wiping out the Gods in the process) or permit the Mad God to wield it against their temporary (reluctant) allies – justifying all the evil that has brought them to this point. Of course, the price of doing what’s right means giving the Devils unchecked superiority over the mortal world. They may even fight amongst themselves! Ultimately, they get to decide the fate of the world.
It needs a name
Even when a campaign idea is only in initial development, it needs a name, if only to provide a label for use in discussing the campaign. This can be the final title, or just a working title. Based on the apocalyptic events of the outline and on the environment (for reasons that will become clear shortly), I have decided to give this campaign the working title of “Arignoza”, an unrecognizable blend of “Arizona” and “Ragnerok”. This will be the name of the human kingdom from which the PCs, as a group, will derive, giving it an obvious meaning for the players to comprehend immediately. It also has a second layer of meaning since “Arig” sounds very like “Arid”, which describes the drought-stricken premise of the game world. Only the GM needs to know that there is a third, even more obscure layer of meaning – and yet, knowing the derivation of the name, the GM can never help but be reminded of the overall plot every time he mentions the name of the campaign, a useful mnemonic.
Big Changes for ‘the little guy’
None of this will be all that credible if the initial foundations of the campaign are not plausible. There are two things that whose impact should be felt, and displayed, by every member of society, in everything they do. Those are the drought and its consequences; and the “Slavery” of the Kobolds. A third element, the threat of the Gnolls and reactions to it, will also need careful integration. Finally, the connection between lifespan and the strength of the life force liberated and utilizes by Necromancy will need to be established very clearly. These are all requirements of the first two adventures in the campaign. Later, the society and bureaucracy of Demons will need equal care in its preparations, but a lot of that effort is carried out for the GM in Fiendish Codex II.
The Effects Of The Drought
Urban populations need food to survive, and food needs water. Civilization will necessarily contract into those areas where water is still available – along the banks of the major rivers, the sources of natural springs, and mountainous valleys. Entire villages and towns will be necessarily abandoned, or starve. The ruins will provide shelter for undesirable neighbors of all types – provided that they, too, can survive on minimal water supplies.
Cattle and Horses need grass, and grass would not fare very well under the impact of a decades-long drought. Large livestock would be a luxury that few can afford, and the prices and upkeep of such creatures would become prohibitively expensive. Crops that require a lot of water like wheat, cotton, and rice would also fail over wide areas. Access to potable water would be the determining factor in land values, and wars would no doubt be fought between those who have and those who want.
Inevitably, famine would result, and as much as nine tenths of the population would die off within the second or third year – there would be a small grace period while people survived on stores. For some years, ruined towns and cities would be havens of disease, entered only at great risk and greater need.
Animal products would also become much more expensive, and be much less common. Cloth in general would be reserved for the rich (wool would be too hot to wear except in the mountains). Dried and woven reeds would become the common clothing. It would become more common to travel by night, when cooler temperatures would reduce hydration needs. Similarly, hard labor would also be a nightly activity.
Humans require light in order to work at such times, and the combination of torches & lanterns with the naturally dry conditions would cause a number of devastating fires. Buildings would be made of adobe, clay bricks, or stone, not timber. In fact, forests would shrink and deteriorate. For a while, there would be abundant dead wood for furniture, but as the drought entered its second decade, this commodity would also be becoming more scarce and valuable.
Overall, a continental climate would more closely resemble that of Arizona or Mexico.
The depopulation would also have its effects on the price of labor. Less time could be spared from the needs of survival for any form of higher education, and skills would necessarily be far less broad. It would be worth considering a house rule reducing the number of skill points available to characters, or perhaps many class skills would become cross-class skills.
Any community which contained a wizard or sorcerer capable of summoning a Water Elemental would prosper in comparison with those without. Such abilities would automatically make one a prominent member of society to be catered to.
A systematic approach
All of the above were determined by free association. For a while, that approach works – but it’s altogether too easy to overlook something. For that reason, when I am assessing the impact of a big change like this one, I use the free association technique to get my thoughts into the correct headspace and then turn to a more systematic approach.
In sequence, I consider:
- Products, Crops, & Foodstuffs,
- Skills, especially Crafts & Professions,
- Social Impacts,
- Economic & Employment Impacts,
- Educational Impacts,
- Social Class Impacts,
- Law-enforcement Impacts,
- Theological Impacts,
- Myths and Legends,
- Government Impacts,
- Race Relations & Lingual Impacts,
- Military & Natural Disaster Impacts, and finally,
- Character Class Impacts.
This list is carefully sequenced in such a way that contributing secondary factors can be taken into account based on earlier findings. The relative availability of products, crops, and foodstuffs determines what raw materials exist for skills to utilize, and hence alters the skill pool. Both of these in turn weigh into the social impact, and those consequences are then reflected in the economic and employment effects on society, and so on. For each item, I use the relevant sections of PHB and DMG (or their equivalents) as a reference checklist.
Once I’ve been through the list once, I go through it again looking for Tertiary consequences, but in general the first pass is usually enough. The goal is to determine the impact on the everyday lives of everyday citizens, because this is the framework into which characters – and especially PCs – have to fit.
I then repeat the process for the next ‘big ticket’ item on the list, bearing in mind the consequences of the first.
For example, and in the case of this campaign concept, the lack of draft animals would mean that slave labor would be a natural substitute. In order to obtain enough food for everyone, this would in fact be an absolute necessity. Kobold-carried litters would also replace wagons. If it is assumed that the Lizard-like characteristics of Kobolds would make them more able to survive on low water rations, they might well be better-suited to survival in this environment. Having a Kobold slave could markedly improve the survival prospects and prosperity of even the lowest and most poverty-stricken members of society, and it would be easy for the numbers of slaves to quickly exceed the numbers of non-slaves. I chose Gnolls because they seemed the type of creature to eat anything – but with their natural food supplies depleted by the drought, they would be forced to turn to some other food supply, something plentiful in number. The Kobolds, under these circumstances, would seem to fit that description.
Grand Concepts and The Little Guy
The power of a grand concept is the excitement of the imagination that it presents, but in order to arouse that excitement in players, it needs to be presented to them in a digestible format. You need a revelatory scene in which this particular secret underpinning of existence stands revealed. When this reveal takes place, it can be under one of two circumstances: either it explains the “why” of things that the PCs have observed in the past, revealing them to be practical consequences of the high concept, or it is contradicted by the absence of those practical consequences.
I’ve used both phenomena in past campaigns and adventures to my – and the campaign’s – advantage. Presenting the everyday consequences as “just the way things are” early in the campaign makes the conceptual underpinning feel utterly plausible when it is discovered by the players, as they gain a new understanding of the world akin to the exultation of a physicist discovering a new Law of Physics. What’s more, understanding this “why” gives the players a tool to use in their planning for the future because it is an understanding of How The World Works that others do not share. It might make new technologies possible, or ways to bypass seemingly impregnable defenses, or simply by excluding the consequences, hint at other undiscovered principles. It can provide motivations and explanations for past events and insights into the history of the world.
A false or incomplete explanation can seemingly explain everything, only to stand revealed as flawed when decisions based on that explanation don’t have the expected outcome – a phenomenon that I used extensively in my Champions campaign, where I had worked out a complete game physics but NOT revealed it to the players. As a result, more than a dozen adventures could be derived from the revelation of parts of that game physics, and some of the most entertaining adventures were simply the PCs in a laboratory trying to figure out why something was happening, or how they could achieve a certain technology that they considered useful. When I started the Zenith-3 campaign, I was able to take the entirety of that original game physics and describe it as the state of the art, superscience well in advance of the general human understanding – since I had been able to expand on it in secret for a decade or so, incorporating new ideas and new real-world discoveries. You can see the impact of this approach in my campaign excerpt, It’s Reality, Jim, but not As We Know It: St Barbara.
So powerful and functional is the relationship between high concept and mundane consequences that I frequently use a desired “mundane consequence” to derive a functional high concept that will justify it, as I explained in A Perfect Vision Through A Glass, Darkly and Part one of the Distilled Cultural Essence series.
A practical approach is also the ideal solution
I want to conclude this article by pointing out the virtue of compromising in this approach to campaign design and construction.
Creating a completely-delineated cause-and-effect sequence that proceeds flawlessly from a big idea to encompass all the possible consequences and their interactions takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. It’s altogether too easy to miss something, even when adopting the carefully systematic approach I have described, and which I employ. In order to make this approach practical, you have to establish a hierarchy of needs, derived from the campaign outline – a list of encounter and plot elements that you know are going to appear in the campaign. Working out the impact on those of the big ideas is quite enough work to be getting on with.
There’s absolutely no mention of Dragons or of Demons in the example Arignoza campaign outline. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be affected by it; to the contrary, the Longevity of both would be of great importance, and would probably be the source of their powers. I would even be tempted to make Demonic abilities Arcane in nature instead of divine, an ultimate threat to Wizards and Sorcerers just as Devils are to Clerics. But I don’t have to spend a lot of time working on the impact on these creatures until one of them becomes important in the campaign. (If I were to decide to accede to that temptation, that would be as soon as a Wizard became important to the party, ie if a player chose that class for his PC). I might even use Dragons as an equivalent threat for Druids to combat, just to extend the principle, because it would seem to be consistent.
A better example, perhaps, would be Bugbears and Trolls. The ascendancy of the Gnolls would certainly impact on these other menaces, and they would be equally affected by the drought and resulting famine – but I don’t need to worry about these monsters until one turns up in the campaign.
Aside from making the whole project manageable, this “zone of exclusion” imparts flexibility to the campaign background. If my projections of consequences turn out to be a little bit off in one particular or another, or need reinforcement to enable the players to fully suspend disbelief, I can use one of these other races to provide a correction or that little bit of confirmation as necessary.
Another key question are the identities of the deity to be sacrificed, and of the one who has chosen such a desperate solution. One of the PCs will almost certainly be a cleric; choosing the cleric’s deity is up to the player; making the chosen deity one of these two who are so central to the plot makes the plot especially relevant to the PC in question. If the cleric’s deity is the one to be killed in furtherance of the plotline, he will become bereft of powers until the other Gods step in to fill the breach, and will fire the cleric for revenge, an added depth of motivation but one that undermines the “Players’ Choice” aspect of the big finish. If the clerics’ deity is the one that has gone mad then that insanity can be hinted at in advance of the revelation, and it makes the choice of whether or not to oppose him all the more poignant for the PC. Choosing between these options shouldn’t be done in advance, but should be left until the Player chooses his deity – then adjudged on the basis of the personality and portfolio of the deity in question.
Sandboxing the development of the campaign background to those elements that are needed at the current time within the campaign not only spreads out the workload involved in creating the campaign, it gives the GM flexibility. Until it is actually necessary to do so, I would simply note these ideas and index them by key words. I might hint at them in player briefing materials without giving details, but that’s it.
People generally derive great satisfaction from taking observations of effects and deducing the causes that lie behind them. The more convincing these theories are, the more they explain, the greater that satisfaction. This is as true of gamers as it is to scientists, conspiracy theorists, or the public at large. It is one of the reasons why police procedurals are such an enduring television genre. By determining the consequences for the little guy, the mundane and everyday, and the ordinary inhabitants of the game world, you are offering clues to the end cause for your players to consider. The more fundamental the conceptual change, the more broadly its effects should be (and would be) felt, the more clues the players have as to that point of uniqueness within your campaign, and the more plausible that point of uniqueness will seem when it is finally deduced or revealed.
At the same time, the more fundamental the conceptual change, the more it needs those consequences to make it plausible. Their absence undermines the credibility of the GM and campaign just as strongly as their presence reinforces it. There is nothing worse than the GM revealing the central concept of his masterpiece only for a player to reply, “I’m not convinced.”
The Devil, as always, is in the detail.