When modern archaeologists excavate a site, they don’t dig everything up; they take samples. They do it because they have limited time and resources, and because they want to leave something for future researchers to examine.
That’s something I should remind myself while doing DM worldbuilding.
A complete archaeological excavation determines what’s present at a site, but it also determines what isn’t. A complete excavation would kill some of the magic of a site – strip it of its last mystery.
It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn. I’m the kind of person who feels the impulse to map out the whole D&D world, and determine where each monster lives – and which monsters don’t exist in my campaign.
Instead of that, I’m trying to switch to a core-sample approach, using the PCs as the core drill. We learn a lot about the PCs’ immediate area. Beyond that, there’s a lot of room left for future excavation.
The Chekhov Model
Years ago, I had the idea that everything had to be planned before you started a campaign. If your 3e campaign has a race of highly intelligent creatures who masquerade as ceilings (Cloaker, average Intelligence 14), surely a few Cloakers would have moved to the city and work as university professors or something. Like Chekhov’s Gun, every campaign element has to be introduced up front.
The He Man ModelI’ve moved from Chekhov to a more appropriate literary model: He Man and the Masters of the Universe. He Man didn’t start with a huge cast of characters: it introduced new characters whenever the writers (or toymakers) thought of one. Where was Man-E-Faces before he was featured in an episode? Offscreen somewhere. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars chronicles follow a similar model. Burroughs introduced a new continent, complete with a color-coded humanoid race, every time he needed an idea for his next book.
I’m trying to He-Man it from now on. I’m not banning dragonborn, for instance, but I’m not killing myself to detail their location in the world, either. If someone wants to be a dragonborn, maybe we’ll figure it out.
Halflings are a different story. Those little bastards are GONE.