9 Worldbuilding Lessons Learned (So Far)
I originally wrote this article for Johnn Four’s free roleplaying tips newsletter you can and should sign-up for over at roleplayingtips.com.
There is no task for a game master more daunting and gratifying than worldbuiding. Creating a universe in which a group of PCs can romp around in is very gratifying, but the seemingly Herculean effort it takes to get there can be miserable especially if you have many life commitments outside of gaming. For the last decade I’ve been running Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs in published campaign settings, but it was always a dream of mine to create a new world. I mean a full, rich world with a huge history. We’re talking original rules modules, big honking maps, new monsters, intrigue, dungeons, rivalries, and more open-ended story than the closing chapter of a Goosebumps novel. The kind of thing I had the time to do as a kid but could now tackle with the wisdom of an adult.
Last year I finally embarked on creating that new world. With the impending release of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons I set pen to page and began creating a world from the top down. With so much going on in my own world and the promise of an Open Gaming License from Wizards of the Coast I’m still working on my 300+ page campaign guide that I’m preparing for my first self-publishing venture. I’ve been chronicling my efforts on this blog since January of last year. During that journey I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that can help you build a RPG world of your own, no matter how fleshed out you want your own campaign world to be. Your world might be built top down or bottom up or half off the top of your head and one session at a time. If your world is an original (or modified from an existing) creation these tips will help you out. Here they are in no particular order.
You are going to have ideas for your campaign. Lots and lots and lots of ideas. They might come at work, during your commute, during dinner, or another time a pen and paper aren’t handy. If you don’t write ideas down, they’re going to fade away. Your phone is your friend. Most mobile phones, even those of the non-smart variety, have a notepad feature. So when you get a great idea jot that sucker down and you’ll have it as long as you have the phone. If you want to backup your ideas copy and pasting them into an email or text message is super easy. When you sit down to flesh out your world you’ll know exactly where to find your awesome ideas.
Know Your World’s Central Idea
What makes your world special? Does it feel like a Lovecraft story? Is it recovering from a recent war? Is it in the middle of one? Does one oppressive (or benevolent) ruler have absolute power? Do the gods come down in person and give decrees to their worshippers? Is it a whacky place where every natural landform is made of candy?
Your world should have a central idea which sets it apart from the rest. In Exploration Age, the central idea is that there are unmapped areas of the planet that the civilized world is racing to uncover and colonize. I hold onto that idea and wonder how it affects everything else happening in the campaign world. How do the “uncivilized” peoples react to the colonization of their home by others? How do competing countries negotiate different land grabs? How will the new resources discovered in the new world affect the old? What struggles do the colonists have? Let your central idea permeate through all aspects of the world. Whenever you’re creating a new place or person within your world as yourself how it relates to your central idea.
Have A Map
I’m not an artist, but good lord it helps so much to have a map. Being able to visualize the world is not just a help to players, but to you as well. Everything becomes so much clearer and the world feels more real once you have a map. This is because most people are visual learners and need to see something to understand it. You can start small, just what you need for your first session, or build out your whole world at once. Knowing how close a city is to an ocean or orc infested mountains can help you discover what is unique about that settlement. If you’re like me and can’t draw freehand I recommend checking out some software. For free there’s Hexographer (which I use and is worth buying a few extras) and Stone Sword, or you could be fancy and buy Fractal Mapper, Campaign Cartographer, or Mapdiva.
Have A Timeline
Even if it’s very rough make a small timeline of your world’s history. Think about how major events would shape your world and adventure sites. How do these events tie into the central idea of your campaign? In my world aberrations used to rule the land before they were wiped out by dragons. Their magic technology can be salvaged within the ruins of their former empire, many of which are hidden deep in the uncharted wilds. These ruins are blank spots within blank spots! The events of my timeline inform the current world and relate back to the central idea. The rise and fall of nations and rulers, the birth of races, the discovery of new lands, the creation of important technologies, wars, treaties, and the like are the sort of events to consider adding to your timeline.
Steal and Twist
When it comes to stealing ideas for your world, don’t be afraid. Let literature, video games, film, television, art, and other campaign settings inspire you. When you do steal an idea go one step further and twist it. Add something to the idea or turn it on its head and see what happens. That idea is putty. Play with it until you’ve made something you think is interesting and original. Let’s take the giant spider infested Mirkwood of The Hobbit. Maybe you want to add a similar forest to your realm, but instead of spiders, it’s crawling with giant snakes, or undead animals, or enormous bees. Maybe falling into its rivers and streams doesn’t induce a magical slumber, but rather the waters keep people awake, slowly driving victims insane with deadly exhaustion. Perhaps instead of a forest it’s a desert, swamp, jungle, or arctic wasteland. Stealing is just step one. Challenge yourself and twist the stolen goods. It’s far more rewarding for everyone.
Ask Your Players What They Want
Before you embark the incredible worldbuilding task before you, start by asking your players what sort of game they want to play. I sent my players a brief email asking them about their preferred genre, tone, magic level, intrigue level, and play style for in D&D. Even though I’ve been playing with my groups for years some of the feedback was surprising. Have a chat with each of them, give them a quick questionnaire, or lead a more organized group discussion. It matters what your players want since they’re going to be playing in the world with you. Your gothic horror game could cost you some friends at the table if they’re not really into undead and lycanthropes.
Let The Players Do Some Work
Like I wrote above they’re playing in the world too, so let players shoulder some of the worldbuilding responsibility. I give my players a basic description of the world and then they create their PC backstories. In the process they’ve created cities, fantastic locations, artifacts, and even rules modules for the world. Encourage your players to do the same once they have a good idea of the tone and central idea of your world. Anything they add will just make the game and story richer and more interesting. Don’t worry. As the GM you reserve the right to nix anything that doesn’t make sense in your world. (e.g. The Kingdom of Bubblegum in your post apocalyptic zombie game)
Share Your Stuff
Don’t keep all your information too close to the vest, especially if you’re building a world from the top down. Share it with your players and other gamers you trust. Since a lot of worldbuilding isn’t game rule specific sharing the information with people outside of your gaming circle who appreciate fiction. My girlfriend has never played D&D, but she reads a lot of what I create. Having her outside-the-industry perspective is invaluable. All she cares about is story which should be the focus of a RPG world. The more input you can get, the better. Just remember that all feedback does not need to be taken to heart. Listen to those who are kind enough to offer feedback, but only implement the ideas they provide which sound good to you. I often link this blog in gaming forums and various social media sites and solicit feedback from strangers. I’ve gotten some of the best insights into my work this way.
Having people provide feedback can also keep your worldbuilding on schedule. It’s my mission to share updates twice a week on my blog which keeps me writing and worldbuilding. You could keep a similar schedule with whomever you are sharing your world. Maybe it’s the first of each month, or every Wednesday, or every day. Giving yourself a deadline and having others hold you accountable will keep you writing.
Write Everything You Ever Wanted
Put anything in the world you ever wanted to create. Stuff that thing full of all you ever wanted in a campaign world. You’re not going to run out of ideas. Take it from a man who has been a GM for 20 years. More ideas will come so don’t save anything. You might never use it if you keep hanging onto it. If you write what you want to write the work is worth. That’s sort of the point, right? These are games and are supposed to be fun. Let your imagination run wild and get a little crazy. Happy worldbuilding!
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March 11, 2015 @ 11:15 am
It is such a chore, but such a labor of love. I applaud all you’ve done (and continue to do) with your world. It’s been fun to watch the process as it’s come together over the last year or so.
March 11, 2015 @ 3:13 pm
Thanks, Joe! Your advice and comments have been super helpful!
March 15, 2015 @ 6:08 pm
These lessons about making a campaign, I feel also apply to science fantasy writers like myself. Half the time I imagine I go through at least half of what DM’s do.
March 15, 2015 @ 7:53 pm
That’s true! These lessons apply to a lot of worldbuilding, not just RPGs.
March 15, 2015 @ 6:08 pm
Reblogged this on jdtcreates.
March 15, 2015 @ 7:54 pm
Thank you for reblogging!
Inspiration in the Right Places – World Builder Blog
August 1, 2019 @ 11:04 am
[…] know I’ve said this before about GMing. You should feel free to steal (and twist) ideas from other stories you love: adventure modules, video games, comic books, novels, movies, tv, […]