As a Dungeon Master, worldbuilding is one of my most time consuming jobs. I spend considerably more time writing stories, developing systems, creating monsters, imagining scenarios, and planning factions, than actually playing Dungeons & Dragons.
Every time I’ve done worldbuilding for a campaign, I do it differently. I don’t think that’s bad. When I started playing D&D, the first few years I always created my worlds from the most general parts to the most particular ones, beginning with the creation of the universe, and the gods themselves, all the way down to the cities and towns that the players will visit. Then I tried to do it from the most particular to the most general, and also combinations.
Several years later (around the times of D&D 3.5) I started trying to make worlds based on the game mechanics I wanted to try, which has worked surprisingly well for me.
To be honest, I’m writing this mostly because I know it will be useful to me in the following years. But if it can be of use to someone else, then all the better.
I have three main intentions in writing this guide:
- Organize a bit of my ideas and knowledge on the subject to have them at hand when I’m working on worldbuilding.
- Point out some aspects of worldbuilding that I sometimes let go and that other people probably also forget when building a fantasy world.
- Create a worldbuilding system that I might only use once and then I’ll want to create another one (because that’s what I like to do), but if it works for someone else too, it would be great.
So, I want to divide this guide into several sections. This is my plan:
- Introduction: Why to write a new setting and How to start?
- The Signature and the Big picture
- The details
- Tools, Inspirations, Resources
- The Process
- The Maps
- The Development
Of course, these sections can change as I write the guide.
People with common sense know that this is inconvenient. It doesn’t make sense to spend more time preparing the game than actually playing it. But that’s not my case, I just like to do it, I did it before I knew about D&D, I’ve done it ever since for the fun of it, and I love doing it now that it’s part of my job.
I think the best analogy would be cooking. Many people love to cook, they spend a lot of time preparing a dish, sometimes days or weeks, which in the end won’t last half an hour to be eaten. But that doesn’t mean they don’t love to eat, everyone loves to eat… I think.
But I don’t like to cook, and I do love to eat. I don’t feel it’s worth spending so much time cooking if in the end I’m going to eat in five minutes on my desktop. But that’s me, I don’t like to cook and I’m not good at it. And I imagine that the people who give the advice “don’t do a lot of worldbuilding before you start playing D&D” hate worldbuilding as much as I hate cooking my own food.
Aren’t there enough fantasy worlds already? Why make another one?
The world you want to play in may already exist. For example, if you want to play D&D in the world of Dragonlance, and exactly in that world, then just do it. In my experience that is very difficult to find. Almost every time we like a fantasy world, we would change a few things… about 90% of it. At least that’s my case. Maybe I like the concept of a world, but apart from the concept, the rest could be filled with elements from many others.
Good reasons to make a complex worldbuilding for your D&D (or any other RPG) campaign
If you still need specific reasons to start writing your own super complex and detailed campaign setting, here are a few:
- Labor is never wasted. Even if in the end, your campaign was only played for two sessions. You can always use everything you wrote for other campaigns. You can even play in the same world in several campaigns at the same time.
- You are the person who knows your setting best. I think it’s always better when the Dungeon Master knows the world better than any of the players. Your players could know all the secrets about all the official D&D campaign settings, or any game you play, but yours will be something new.
- You can play any style. I mean if you want to play a railroad, or a sandbox, you can. How about a West Marches style campaign? or just a one-shot? You have a world that you know perfectly well and you know which story is the right one for the occasion.
- Consistency. Maybe not always, but most likely the world you built in such detail is more consistent, in tone and theme, than one you build session by session.
Where and how to start?
You can do worldbuilding without thinking too much about the goals, and see what comes of it. But it is much more effective when you have goals in mind, because planning can solve most development problems.
Before actually getting started with worldbuilding, it would be good to answer these three questions (which I explain in more detail below).
- What system will you play?
- What is the short description of your world?
- What is the tone of the adventures in your world?
After answering all three, go through each one again to make sure you do know what your goal is with this worldbuilding.
What system will you play?
Perhaps the least important of the questions, especially if you don’t know which system you’ll be playing yet, or if you want to use it on multiple systems. However, if we’re writing a fantasy world for an RPG, we need to keep the game system in mind. So, when is it important? It will be important when you have in mind a game system that you are going to use to the letter and you do not want to make modifications to it. Some game systems are geared toward a specific world type and others are more general.
However, if you’re willing to make changes to the game system, or you are playing a genre agnostic system, then it doesn’t matter which one you’re using.
Since I want to be as practical as possible in this guide, I am going to give examples of other types of answers that you could give to this question:
- A specific system: like 5th edition D&D, or Vampire the Masquerade.
- Something more open: like “any D&D edition”, or “anything in the world of Darkness”.
- “Any system with a strong combat system”.
- “Any system with a strong social interaction system”.
- “I don’t know yet”
- “I don’t care which system I play as long as it feels the closest to how I visualize it”
For the example World that I’ll create in this guide my answer is:
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition, and I’m definitely going to create a lot of world-specific rules, starting with Kits, and at least a couple of custom classes.
I chose that, because that is the system and the level of customization that I have used the most. I’ve done it hundreds of times.
And yes, this question is the first question, just to put it aside so that it will not cause problems later. The intension of the question is not to limit ourselves.
What is the short description of your world?
This is for me the most important question. It’s technically the elevator pitch of your world. Some people have phrased it as “how is your world different from others?” but I don’t think that’s the point. And I will try to explain it with an example:
You can describe your world as follows:
“Post-apocalyptic world destroyed by magic where good spellcasters are persecuted and killed.”
That may sound exactly like the description of Dark Sun. But how is it going to be different from Dark Sun? Possibly in everything else. Perhaps in your world there are no wizards ascending into dragons, perhaps in your world slavery is not so prevalent, maybe your halflings don’t eat humans, or there are no demi-races. Perhaps the adventurers are more like heroes than survivors.
When worldbuilding, be more concerned with expressing what you really want from your world, rather than trying to make it original. The only way to make original creations is to take a lot of prior knowledge and mix it up.
Your answers can be like:
- The classic book pitch, [Like this series, but]: “Like discworld, but it’s horror.”
- Combination of various worlds: “A combination of Pokémon, Fullmetal Alchemist and Dino Riders”
- Something more specific, some examples from well-known novels: “People get powers by consuming metal”, “People are born with animal companions that are practically their souls and accompany them all their lives”.
Remember that you are defining the characteristics of the world itself. Answering “like Harry Potter, but in an office instead of a school”, describes the situations, not the world itself. Maybe it could work for writing an adventure instead of doing worldbuilding.
For our example my answer will be, “what I hoped the Game of Thrones series would be but it never was”, or in more detail:
Late medieval low-magic world was hit by an ice age. Monsters much more powerful than humans walk on 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.
In this case, the low-magic world and humans as the predominant race blend well with the AD&D system. But it doesn’t have to be the case, especially since I can (and I will) write new classes and kits.
What is the tone of your world?
Another important point of your world is the tone. This is the mood of the adventures happening in your world. For example, your world may be like Pokémon’s in many ways, but if the enemies are demons from the abyss that possess Pokémon to devour the souls of humans, then the tone of your world is different from Pikachu’s.
Sometimes it is believed that all worlds within the same system have the same tone, but it does not have to be so. The comical adventures of Spelljammer are not the same as the horror stories of Ravenloft, or the epic of Dragonlance. Of course,Call of Cthulhu and Big Eyes Small Mouths have absolutely different tones, and it is very easy to identify.
In my opinion this is the easiest question to answer, but a very important one. We haven’t even started worldbuilding yet, and before doing so we must take tone into account, all the time.
It may sound obvious that in our dark ages setting there is not going to be a Mahou Shoujo class, unless we have a very good reason. But you’d be surprised how easy it is to make this mistake, and start introducing elements that take you out of fantasy once you start adding elements in the lore. Even more when you create game mechanics, such as the features of a race, or class, a magic spell, etc. In my opinion, even Wizards of the Coast makes this mistake in some of their books. Many of the elements in Ravenloft’s 5th edition books do not seem like horror to me.
I’m not saying you should never put weird stuff in your world. Just be aware that you are doing it and don’t surprise yourself.
In my example world, the tone will be:
Survival horror. Life in the world is very hard already because of the ice age, but also the monsters make it even harder.
Again, the tone also matches well with the system, but that’s optional.
Thank you for reading
Well, that’s it for today. The next part will be “The big picture and the details”, but probably with a better title. There, we will finally start doing worldbuilding, writing actual elements of the world, instead of general ideas.
Finally, if you have any questions, please let me know in the comments. I’m still writing this guide, hoping it will be useful, and any suggestion is welcome.