Laidback DM: World Building

Have you ever spent far too much time drawing a map of your world, developing and designing societies, cultures and religions to fill it, creating reasons for its existence, only to find you didn’t need all that for your campaign or the players didn’t care anyway? I guess all burgeoning DMs have at some point or other. So, how can we go about world building for an ongoing campaign in a way that’s time efficient and campaign-friendly?

Here’s some options and tips:

Use an existing setting

There are a host of fantasy settings available commercially. You can buy one that matches the flavour you and your players like and drop your adventures into that world.

Pros:

  • Most of the heavy lifting is done
  • Great maps, locations and adventure seeds just waiting to be used
  • Can be very immersive

Cons:

  • It may not be exactly what you wanted
  • A lot of reading and familiarising to do

Modify an existing setting

Add to the existing setting. Make changes that work for your players and your campaign.

Pros:

  • Most of the work is already done
  • Can use the maps, locations and adventure seeds available
  • Can make small or large changes as needed

Cons:

  • Adding to an existing setting may change context of some areas or affect continuity of commercially made adventures from that setting
  • Keeping track of what you’ve changed might be a concern
  • Depending on how much you change, might be time consuming

Create your own setting

Create a world on your own or with your players.

Pros:

  • An opportunity to flex those creative muscles
  • You get exactly what you and your players want (assuming they’re on board with the creative process)
  • It’s not too hard to modify commercial modules/adventures to fit your setting

Cons:

  • Can end up being very time consuming
  • You may overdevelop, producing more content then is needed

Tips for world building

Here are some tips for world building, whether you create your own new world or add to an existing one.

  • Start small. Your characters are 1st-level? All you need is a village and the surrounding area. Expand on it with your players as they rise in level and explore.
  • Have a theme. Think about why you need a new setting for your adventures, and what sets it apart from other settings. The theme of your world should support the reason for its being and the internal logic behind your campaign. If it’s a standard high-fantasy setting, a la Forgotten Realms, Golarion, Glorantha, Midgard or Middle Earth, maybe you should just adopt one of those existing worlds. But maybe it’s run by evil Gnomish warlords who have outlawed magic, resulting in steam-powered machine technology and an underground resistance of illegal magic users. There’s no limit to your imagination, just the time it will take for you to develop your world.
  • Develop as needed. You don’t need to create multiple world-spanning pantheons of deities, or the social structure of the capital’s ruling elite (unless it’s essential to your ongoing story). Develop the bits you need as you need them.
  • Leave space for future developments. That timeline doesn’t need all the gaps filled in. Leaving space in your world means flexibility to add more later. Filling in every hole now can limit you later on, when you may come up with new or better ideas, and nobody is a fan of retroactive continuity changes.
  • Build naturally. Add things as part of the story. Another country is invading? Time to put together a culture/backstory for them. Leave any other surrounding countries until they play a part in the ongoing story.
  • Use your players. Your players are going to have interesting backgrounds for their characters. Make these backgrounds part of your world. Connect your players closely to the world—they will be more engaged with the setting and their personal stories will pay off big time. Use their imaginations to supplement your creative process. It doesn’t have to be all up to you.

I created my own setting for Shotglass Adventures 1 and 2, which I’ve significantly expanded on for Shotglass Adventures 3. I started off with a small province in a remote part of a large empire. The theme was high fantasy, so the adventures could be easily slotted into any existing world. As I created adventures I added locations to the setting, developed a province capital and a shady regional government that would cause some moral quandaries for my players. A small pantheon of gods, a little bit of history as the games progressed, but only as much as was needed for the fledgling campaign, leaving plenty of room to expand later. I added new races as they were needed, arch foes as they appeared. The next iteration expands the area of the province significantly, adding lots of new locations, intrigue and adventure seeds. Time will tell how large the setting gets, and I already have notions for the rest of the world. But I won’t develop any of it unless it plays a part in the ongoing campaign. My best advice: use your time wisely, and try not to overstep the mark (you will want to—we all do).

There’s nothing wrong with developing a world setting, even if you don’t end up using it. If you have the time to invest and the desire, then go for it. But time is a luxury for most people nowadays, so use it constructively (yep, that’s a pun).

Game on!

Steve 🙂

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