It’s interesting how things happen sometimes. After talking about creating settings last post, I thought it might be nice to talk about Harseburg a little, and explain how a goofy idea became an awesome place to play. To explain how I turned my hometown into a game setting, let me start by telling you a little story.
Many years ago, a girlfriend (now ex-) of mine went away for a summer and she asked me to write her letters while she was gone, telling her a story. She wanted a fantasy story, so I wrote her letters that followed the travels of a bard who was traveling through a land she would recognize…
…Also, towards the end of that summer, a friend of mine began seriously agitating for me to start a D&D game for him and one other friend, just the three of us. He wanted something fun, simple and different – but still D&D. Well, 3.0 had just come out, we were all learning it together and we wanted to run that. Thus began the adventures of Targus and Valin, the most famous heroes of Harseburg.
Behind the curtain, Harseburg is really Harrisonburg, VA. Harrisonburg is a small city surrounded by farming and poultry counties. Harrisonburg is also a multi-college town, home to James Madison University and Eastern Mennonite University. Another important fact about Harrisonburg – it’s in the Shenandoah Valley, and steeped in Civil War history. It’s also a place with really, really cool names.
And those are my two best pieces of advice. First, learn about the history of where you live – it might surprise you. Second, pay attention to the names – some of them might be pretty interesting to you. With that in mind, let me illustrate how I turned my tiny little city into a mighty and fantastic kingdom.
I started with names. Shenandoah is a very, very important name here. We are in the Shenandoah Valley, we are on the Shenandoah River, we have Shenandoah’s Pride… You see that word everywhere. So, I thought about it and decided that if I shortened it to just “Shen” I had a pretty good fantasy word. I kept that in mind and moved on to other names.
In Harrisonburg, one distinguishing feature of having a college student population that is nearly equal to the city’s resident population is the prevalence of student housing. This translates into a lot of apartment housing complexes with interesting names. The two friends I was playing the game with, for example, lived in housing areas called Sunchase and Stone Gate. I thought about some of the other places around and looked at signs – Fox Hill, Squire Hill, Ashby Crossing, Old Mill, Chestnut Ridge… One set of streets around the complex where I lived were all these hilly streets where the street names were all precious stones, Ruby Street, Emerald Lane, etc. I took all these names and started building history onto them.
Squire Hill became a powerful fort owned by the foremost order of knights in the kingdom. It was called Squire Hill because before the dark times caused by the Shen Civil War (yeah, that’s right) it was originally just a training base where squires were brought a few times a year before becoming knights.
All those crazy streets with jewel names became a region called the Jeweled Hills, a rocky region riddled with mine shafts where fantastic hauls of stones were found long ago, but no prospector has pulled anything out of since before the fall of the Shen Empire.
There was a lot more at this stage, but I realized that I was starting to suggest history, and I still needed to understand who or what the Shen Empire was so it could have a Civil War. And here I strayed a little bit from purely my home town. Two of my favorite periods of history to read about are the Late Roman Empire/Byzantine Empire and the time of Charlemagne. One of the places around my hometown I haven’t mentioned yet is a place called Port Republic. Now, we’re pretty firmly landlocked in ol’ Harrisonburg, no port here. But Port suggested an ocean to me, and Republic sounded like a great segway to a Roman-like society that was once a Republic but turned into an Empire. But the people in Harrisonburg are of a decidedly Germanic/Celtic bent for the most part… so, Harseburg was actually not the native land of the Shen… they came and conquered the native tribes that lived here. Tribes that I called the Har Darig (Har for Harrisonburg, Darig for another idea that I might explain another time).
But if the Shen aren’t from around here, where did they come from? Across this new sea I was creating of course. And the only body of water anywhere near Port Republic Road? A lake on JMU’s campus called Newman Lake. Well, Newman Lake quickly becomes the New Man’s Sea and the landing spot of the Shen Empire becomes The Port of the Republic (which after the civil war was remembered as Port Republic).
I won’t bore you with all the particulars of how EVERYTHING became EVERYTHING, but that’s pretty much how it started. I looked at names in my area, started attaching history to those names, tying the histories together and building a whole picture. I drew in real world history of the area (the Civil War) and a bit of history from outside the area (a little bit of Rome) and started putting it all together.
To give the whole area even more of a sense of being part of a fantastic world, I also looked a little farther afield in my area, to see if I could come up with anything even wilder. I did. About 20 minutes drive from Harrisonburg is a town called Elkton. In itself the name is not so very remarkable, but in Elkton is this weird little mountain called Giant’s Grave Mountain. I don’t suppose anyone has any trouble figuring out how easy that was to turn into a spot on the map and populate with a Cloud Giant guardian watching over the bones of long dead giant heroes and lords? Not long.
Also, if you hop on the Interstate and run south a little ways, you’ll also run into the town of Arcadia, Virginia. That being far too good to pass up, to the south of Harseburg I created a kingdom of exiled fae, living fully in the mortal world, but hating their lot and forever scheming to return to glory (even if glory only meant conquering the pitiful mortal kingdoms around them). Instant adventures there too.
And speaking of the interstate, I also made a jump that even though I had a semi-Roman empire here in my world, that perhaps when they were conquering the land (and since the Empire fell) the roads may not have been all that great, but I wanted to represent that sense of travel. So I combined the Shenandoah River and Interstate 81 to create the River Shen, a mighty river traversing the whole kingdom and emptying into the New Man’s Sea at Port Republic.
Finally, no detail of what is going on in your hometown is insignificant. About a year or so (maybe two) before the birth of Harseburg, I was walking in the woods (Harrisonburg used to have some pretty significant wooded areas right in the city) and I came across a place where crews were clearing trees to run a big road through. It was just this huge field of tree stumps and torn up ground. I was stunned by it, and when I began creating Harseburg, I remembered it and included an area called the Dark Heath, a massive disaster area caused by ambitious sorcerers during the Shen Civil War. A dangerous place for heroes to enter, the land never grew back and was full of undead monsters and Shen ruins.
So, that’s my advice… I know I “told” more than I “showed” but I hope it’s helpful to someone out there. World building is a big task, but with observation, inspiration and imagination, you can make a fantasy world that will feel fantastic and familiar at the same time. And that, for me, is the best part. When players who live in Harrisonburg (even just to go to school here) hear the local names and local places it helps to make the game feel familiar, close, personal. I mean, if you live in Fox Hill Apartments and you find out that the Barony of Fox Hill is in danger, well, saving it is just that little extra bit cool, right? Harseburg is one of my longest surviving campaign settings, and it was built from a few cool names and just a glimmer of an idea. Try it where you live. Let me know how it turns out, I’d love to hear.