As strange as a landscape for a role-playing game might be, I don’t feel this is best for opening a campaign. Players need to ease into their surroundings. Selecting a theme that is sedate, familiar and traditional helps to promote a comfortable, unthreatening atmosphere that will enable the players to settle, find their bearings and adapt, getting their feet wet before diving in.
The contrary point of view, where the game begins amidst intimidation and menace, can work for a one-off running where the players have no expectation of ever investing in characters they will have to discard at the end of the adventure regardless. This is not our intent here. We expect that Fallow will be a lot more work than what might be required to sketch the layout of a dungeon or series of mounted plot-moments. Fallow might become the established setting for dozens of adventures, intertwined and similarly based upon recognizable, features that the party could come to know as well as their back yards.
Therefore, we want a land the players can relate to yet is nonetheless vital, active and optimistic with regards to the party’s future. Ultimately, it should be by no means ‘safe.’ Risk is a necessity for a good campaign. Our goal is merely to make Fallow comprehensible.
We want to provide the party a set of broad brush strokes about Fallow. This is knowledge we give to the party in order to arm them, to engender ideas and to give them images that will capture their imaginations. We want them to visualize – not to rely upon a map, but to see the setting we provide inwardly. For that, we must imagine that we are describing our neighbourhoods to someone blindfolded (or, in fact, blind), concentrating on distance and direction in ways that the party can instinctively relate.
Remembering that we are atop Argus Tower, what does the party see? Shake off what the party could actually discern or identify with detail. At these distances, it is probably that a real person would barely make out that the sea was blue or the mountains white and grey. We must be their DM; the party must see everything through our eyes. Thus we are free to describe the land as precisely as we wish, presupposing that the party has hearsay they have collected in the time they’ve had to wander about the land before ascending this tower and starting the campaign.
Let us start with what is immediately below, five miles to the south, surrounded by the forest that fills the south side of Fallow. This is the city of Augustus, capital of the domain and sometimes called ‘Grandfather of Gifts.’ Augustus is a highly educated city, with four universities, a gathering of some of the wisest and most able people in the world. It is where the King of Fallow dwells and where the Electors of Fallow meet – but for now we will minimize our description to saying that it is large, walled, strong and to our eyes isolated by the forest. There are fields inside the city walls that we can see, but outside the walls there are only trees. After a time we will come down from the tower and walk the streets of Augustus – but for now we will turn our gaze outwards.
To establish a sense of direction, let us envision a timepiece, laid flat upon the land, with the numbers at the horizon. The tower is the center; twelve noon is straight north. The edge of the southern forest bisects the clock from approximately three-thirty to nine o’clock. This will absolve any need to think of direction in terms of left and right, east or west. When I refer to direction, I will use the clock face.
Fallow is a stumpy peninsula shaped like a fat thumb, extending outwards from mountains that form a circle from noon to five o’clock. The furthest extent of the peninsula is at eight o’clock, reaching into a deep path of water about forty miles wide, crossing the clock from eight to ten-thirty. This is Loaving Strait, earlier mentioned as separating Fallow from another domain, Dawdling, Fallow’s dearly hated enemy.
At eleven o’clock there is a small, deep bay into which empties the two rivers also mentioned earlier. The Sorrow, wide and shallow, useless for navigation, swings furthest to the south, beginning in the mountains at two o’clock and emptying into the south edge of the bay. The Ruth is faster and deeper, commercially useful, rising in the mountains near twelve-thirty and flowing first south, then west. The two rivers are typically one or two day’s walk from each other, but at one point, fifty miles from the sea, they venture to a distance of merely five miles between banks. The land between the rivers and on either side is intensely cultivated in field crops.
Loaving Strait connects the Fleet Sea, between ten-thirty and noon, with the largest and deepest body of water adjacent to Fallow, the Widden Main. Also called the ‘Great Bounding Ocean,’ this body of water stretches outwards from the south shore of Fallow to the furthest horizon. It is as wide and deep as the south Atlantic. There are some notable land masses to the south, but they are more than a month’s journey by ship. The people of Fallow call them the Reeklands, for the coastline that has been explored consists of quagmires and sinks, where fetid air lingers. These are not of much interest to us now, so we will let them fester unelaborated in the midst of their tropical vapour.
We will deal with each of these in depth, both now and in the future. There is really no limit to the amount of detail we can add, so long as we apply our attention to it. Each broad stroke, as I have called it, lends itself to the applications of little strokes of the brush, as needed – so long as we keep the details of each entity, or element, of the general scheme in order. That is the trick; seeing things in the big picture is easy, particularly if we never need to magnify our gaze upon any part. Once we do begin, there, the number of details multiplies quickly, challenging our ability to manage them all.
Yet the devil in the details is the devil that interests the party – so details we will add, however often we will stumble and fall keeping them in line.