In the process of putting together the world map for the Eight Arms campaign setting, I’ve also learned about some of the things that make a world go. It’s forced me to learn more about geography and politics than I did before, and I think that’s made the setting more interesting. That is, of course, my focus: I’d rather have something fun and dynamic that lets me set up good stories than something that cleaves to realism but plays drier than a desert. This means if you’re from the Worldbuilding subreddit and you expect me to say something like “I made sure all the mountain ranges followed local arrangements based on my world’s plate tectonics”, prepare to be disappointed.
So far the most interesting part for me has been trains. The Eight Arms campaign take place in a technologically-advanced version of D&D, an industrial revolution where mechanics and other non-magical opportunities are ramping up and nobody has yet stopped to consider whether it’s a good idea. Heck, the entire first campaign started when somebody said “Hey, I bet with a strong enough power source and sufficient gumption we could create a brand-new inner plane”. Nothing says “let’s do neat stuff and handle the consequences as they come” like a big, loud, powerful box belching smoke into the air of a world where we already have teleportation.
In that respect trains are very different from Eberron’s lighting rails, which are relatively clean and some weird hybrid of magic and science. I think they’re neat as anything, but that’s not what I wanted the setting to do. I was looking for something more like Final Fantasy 6 or maybe 5, a setting that’s a step beyond medieval fantasy, but also where nonmagical airships are a thing.
Initially I’d pictured trains as something rare, used primarily for long-distance travel across national borders, and the country in which the first Eight Arms campaign took place was something of an anomaly in that it had more towns connected by more rails than any other. But in looking into actual historical information about railways, I’ve found I was drastically undershooting how connected everything was. I’m still not going to link every little borough with each other, but I can at least connect every major city in most countries without worrying about turning disbelief on its ear.
This actually makes me happier, not because it makes it easier for players to get around but because it makes it easier for everybody else. Trade, and culture can bleed out farther and faster, so it’s not that weird to find people or things far from home. It alleviated one of the big problems I had with the setting, that I, who has frequently railed against race-based rules, built an entire setting around race-based cultures. Now that travel is faster and safer, countries are more like ancestral homelands. A human can say “I’m from dwarf country on my father’s side, and my mother’s is more of a mix” as easily as an American can say “I’m mostly Irish” despite never seeing Ireland more closely than a calendar photo, and both are equivalent excuses to drink.
I’m still of two minds on the “safer” aspect, though. If they’re safe enough for an average person to use them for regular business or personal travel, they’re too safe for a party to expect a combat on one. I’ll probably have to engineer a reason for a fight to break out, and knowing me I’ll split the party so the tough, strong characters are outside the train and the softer ones are inside, each fighting a different wave of bad guys, and the more I think about this the more excited I get.
The point is that railroads started as a bit of window dressing and a potential set piece, but with a little research grew into the most visible example of the setting’s differences from standard D&D. It’s actually kind of alarming how many ideas you can get from the most mundane sources. I could do an entire post on how song lyrics have built campaign villains, and I still have half a mind to run a campaign based on the Year Without a Summer. Of course, mine would have a magical, preventable cause because this is a high fantasy story, not a climatological study.
If I have any actionable advice from this, it’s to always keep your ears open. Inspiration isn’t something that happens to you as much as it’s something you find by looking for it.