Worldbuilding 1: The Signature and the Big picture

This is the second part of this series of articles on how to create a campaign setting for fantasy role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons. In this part we will develop the big picture of our world.

The Signature and the Big picture

1. The Signature

The most iconic element of your setting probably fits into a single sentence, and it’s what your players will remember about it the most. “Oh, yes, I remember, it’s that setting where the good-aligned knights fight that evil dragon queen…”
This element doesn’t need to be original, but it will most likely be, and it’s probably one of the reasons you’re making a new setting altogether. For the purposes of this article, we’ll call that element the signature of your world.
Some examples of a Signature might be:

  • A magic item that is truly special; for example, a lance that lets mortals slay evil dragons. A ring forged by a Dark Lord that gives you powers, but that slowly consumes your soul.
  • A quality that the characters have: Everyone is born with a mystical animal that is the physical representation of their souls.
  • The world on itself: A floating, ring-shaped city in the exact center of the multiverse.
  • A kind of magic: People can do magic, but it costs them their health, their age, or their relatives’ integrity.
  • An event: A war between angels and demons has taken place on the material plane since hundreds of years ago.

Keep in mind that these are just examples. A signature can be whatever you want.

Example: In the world I’m creating, I believe there are three main elements, but I must focus on one and I’ll explain why later. 1) The world is in an ice age, 2) Monsters dominate the world, 3) The races of the world will not be the Standard D&D Races.

From these three, I’ll choose the Ice age state of the world. I think this answer suits my tastes, and also, I want my players to remember this campaign as “that one game in which the world was frozen”, although the other options sound cool in their own ways as well.

Art property of Wizards of the Coast

2. The Big Picture

Now, we need to turn your signature into the Big Picture, which is the mix of the most important elements of your world. The big picture is also the base upon which all other details of your setting will be built.

It’s always good to begin to build our metaphorical house from its foundations. For this, we can use the GRAPES method: Geography, Religion, Achievements, Politics, Economics, Social Structure.
However, while the GRAPES method is a useful guide, I’ll tweak it a bit so I can develop some other areas that are, I think, important to my setting. These will be:

Geography, religion, politics, social structures, magic, and inhabitants.

I think it’s impossible to separate politics from economics, while religion could or could not be directly connected to it. I’ll also put everything related to Achievements into Socials. I added two more elements, Magic and Inhabitants. Magic is self-explanatory, while inhabitants refers to the different creatures that populate this world.
The magic of a fantasy world is very important, particularly considering that the rules need to be adapted to it in a roleplaying game.

Usually, when people use the GRAPE system, they create the elements in the order that the acrostic suggests. However, that’s not really what I want to do because I do not consider it the best option for my objective. This is where our signature comes into play. We need to understand which of the elements that I described above belongs to our signature. We also need to consider that the signature might be one of those elements in its entirety.
Then, we should start by developing the world from the elements related to our signature; this way, our worldbuilding will contribute to the style of game that we want to have.

  • If your signature is a magic item or spell, then you probably want to start by developing the magic system.
  • If your signature is about people, then you want to start by developing the inhabitants.
  • If it’s the world in itself, then start from the geography.
  • If the signature is an event, then it depends on the kind of event. A war will inevitably lead to politics or economics. A cataclysm sent by the gods? Religion. A technological discovery? Socials.

3. The Main Element

Now that we know the elements that we want to develop, we must start the actual worldbuilding process. Here are some tips to make it less of a challenge.

3.1 Our main element must be the most described

Since it’s our most important element and the core of the story, we need it to be the most detailed element there is.

3.2 Elements in the big picture may remain in the big picture (for now)

Once we have developed the aspects of the world that have come into direct play, we don’t need to immediately develop all of the other elements from the world. It’s better to go one step at a time and create things one by one as they become important for our game.

Art property of Wizards of the Coast


Here goes my description for my main idea:

A world setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition.

Late medieval low-magic world was hit by an ice age. Monsters much more powerful than humans walk the world, and humans are about to become extinct. But I will add some playable races of demi-humans, which will not be the classic Dungeons & Dragons races. Still, those demi-humans will be very rare.

Survival horror. Life in the world is very hard already because of the ice age, and the monsters make it even harder.

The signature of this worldbuilding example is:

A world that was hit by an ice age.

I didn’t put the “low magic” part into my signature because, although it is important, I didn’t want it to distract me from the most important point, which is the frozen setting.

Art property of Wizards of the Coast

Now, I go on to develop the elements that will shape the world:

Geography. The world is a flat disc whose center was struck by a glacial era. There are zones in the world, right at the borders, where there isn’t that much cold and the climate is warmer, but the farther you go from the center of the world, the more powerful are the monsters, and the farther away is civilization. The monsters seem to come from the borders of the world, perhaps even from an underworld.

A sea of cold clouds covers the world in darkness, turning even the brightest of noons into a gloomy day. The nights are long and frigid. The rivers are frozen, but they’re still vital for obtaining drinkable water. Vegetation is still present, but trees are larger and their roots crawl out of the floor. Monsters stalk the depths of the forests, having shown up with the coming of the ice age.

Religion. Gods are the cause of the clouds. I’d personally rather have fewer gods. Thus, in my world there will be two superior gods, who are good and and took over the world. There will also be other three underworld gods, who used to control the universe before the good gods expelled them from their domain. The underworld gods sent the clouds as vengeance to destroy the good gods’ dominion.

Inhabitants. The races of this world will be the gods’ creations. Apart from humans, I want there to be three other humanoid races: A strong and tall race, a shorter, more slender one, and a more spiritual/mystically-oriented one. However, these races are not alone. The monsters, who were here before the good gods arrived, are taking back their ancestral territory, destroying everything in their wake.

Magic. I want there to be two types of magic, which will be reflected in the game system: The one for the playable races, and for the monsters. The magic for the humanoid races will be nature magic, while the one for the monsters will be blood magic. Both can be destructive or peaceful, but the way in which they’re used is different. The requisites and consequences for the use will be different as well.

Socials. This part will be rather light since civilization is on the brink of extinction. Both humans and humanoids have problems surviving. There are some parts of the world with small humanoid groups that try and preserve civilization, but the farther one goes from the center of the world, the smaller, rarer, and unsafer the settlements become.

Politics. Even in these problematic times for humans, there are political factions that want to make a profit out of the situation. Some military groups protect some zones from the monsters, but they force people to work for them and take the strongest individuals to join their armies, which ends up with those individuals getting killed. Currently there are no ongoing conflicts between those groups, but peace won’t last forever.

Art property of Wizards of the Coast


The world is now shaped. While its form is still kind of blurry, it’s something, and we’ll give it more detail as we go along. In the next entries, we’ll introduce more details to make the world feel more alive.

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