Recently I found myself in a situation where I had to submit an original medieval fantasy TRPG setting for some work. Ultimately I did not get the job, but my submission got me in the door and helped me make it to the final round of interviews. I’m pretty proud of it. The best part about the rejection is that now I get to share my work with all of you.
I only had an hour or so of free time between the time I got wind of the assignment and the time I had to submit. No problem. Creating, outlining, and describing an original world in a short amount of time is exactly what I do. Let me show you how.
1. Get An Idea
This does not have to cut into your designated hour of worldbuilding. Sure, you could sit down and have a quick brainstorm but you could think about it while you go about the mundane. Instead of watching Netflix while you do the dishes or catching up on your favorite podcasts while showering or working out, let your mind wander about the world you want to create. Think of a strong central idea like, “Dragonborn run an evil empire and are more numerous than any other race in my island world,” or, “A century of warfare has changed everything,” or “There are huge blank spots on the map and everyone wants to be the one to fill them.” Feel free to start by stealing an idea from somewhere else to get inspired, and then twist the idea to make it your own. While running a cool five miles I came up with my central idea for this pitch, “Monsters rule the world below, the undead rule the surface, the civilized races are trapped in the sky.”
2. Outline in Bullet Points
Now that you’ve got a good idea it’s time for a rough world outline. If you’re limited on time, just write out your big ideas and any details you’re afraid you’ll forget while writing the rest of the world’s description. Then go back and quickly put the details of your world in some sort of chronological order. My world outline for this pitch looked like this.
- In the beginning humans, elves, half-elves, halflings, and dragonborn ruled the surface in 13 cities.
- 13 cities form a nation ruled by a council of 13 mage governors.
- In the beginning dwarves and tieflings lived together in one massive city underground.
- A mage governor fears death, becomes a lich, makes undead army.
- Undead army takes surface city, many dwarves and tieflings get away, undead have harder time chasing them down in the monster infested tunnels.
- 6 remaining surface cities are lifted into the sky by their mage governors and now float safe above the undead.
3. Come Up With A Campaign Arch Outline
Once your bullet point outline is ready, make another. Think of your campaign’s potential arch within the world. The story might change as your game goes on since it hinges on the actions of the PCs, but it’s good to think about your campaign’s overall arch before you put meat on the bones of the world outline. Why? Because your campaign’s outline could affect the world outline. Maybe your campaign calls for a villain or earthshaking event you haven’t included in the world outline. If you add details to from you campaign outline to your world outline, those details will feel less tacked on (e.g. suddenly wand theory is a huge plot device which shows up in the final book of the Harry Potter series). Here’s what my campaign outline looked like for this pitch.
- PCs start transporting goods for a mage governor and have to fend off sky pirates.
- PCs find sky pirates which attacked them part of some greater plot.
- PCs slowly uncover the secret plot – the pirates and others (including high-ranking public officials) are feeding intelligence about the people living in the sky cities to the undead below, but why?
- PCs investigate plot by exploring the surface world of the undead and are aided by the dwarf and tiefling survivors who have evaded the undead by living a nomadic life underground.
- PCs discover the undead are building their own airships and making dracoliches to attack the sky cities.
- PCs return home to defend against the attack and discover the attack is only half the plan. If the undead get close enough to the cities they can enact a ritual that will crash the sky cities into the ground, killing many. Battle may be won or lost depending on the actions of the PCs.
- After the battle PCs discover the location of the leader lich’s phylactery.
- PCs must go back to the surface to destroy leader lich once and for all.
Once I outlined this possible campaign arch, I went back and added these bullet points to the world outline:
- After being in the sky for 50 years, resources for the sky cities are limited and a large economic gap forms between the wealthy and the poor.
- Some of the poor turn to piracy for money and others enlist to fight the pirates and protect the goods of the rich.
4. Describe the World (and the Campaign Arch)
Now that you’ve got your outlines, that may be all you need to run your first session. If you want to share the world information with your players, post it on Obsidian Portal, or submit it for a job, you’re going to need to flesh it out a little more. With an outline in chronological order, it’s easy to throw down a few paragraphs to describe your world.
There is one main hang-up I have that stops my writing cold – coming up with proper names. I like to keep my flow while I’m writing so I use simple placeholders. Then I go back and replace those placeholders after I’m done the lion’s share of writing. This seems to make everything go a lot faster since I can be focusing on fleshing out the outline and then switch over to proper name mode. I simply write NAME in all capital letters when I need a proper name I haven’t thought of yet. This makes it easy to find later when revising.
Write no more than 5 – 10 paragraphs. Time is of the essence, pitches should be short, and if you’re writing this for your PCs or Obsidian Portal, know that most folks won’t read pages and pages of description.
Here’s the description of the world I created for the pitch.
Six floating cities hover above the darkness of Enora in Bound Sky. Once a prosperous nation, Enora was home to humans, elves, halflings, gnomes, and dragonborn. The country was run by the Dordune, a council of mage governors, each acting as the leader of one of Enora’s thirteen major cities. Beneath Enora’s surface, the nation’s dwarf and tiefling allies lived happily in the kingdom of Drakefire. Except for the occasional marauding gnoll pack or angry dragon, all was well in Enora. Any threats which appeared were dealt with swiftly and efficiently by the Dordune.
Fifty years ago Governor Kira Vae, an elf wizard, was nearing the end of her long life. Some say fear of death gripped the governor, others say it was an unsatiated lust for power. Whatever the reason, Vae transformed herself into a lich. The transformation warped her mind, seeding a dark hatred of all life in her heart. The lich declared herself Empress of Enora. Empress Vae turned the citizens of her city, Cambor, into an undead army. The rest of Enora tried to stand against the threat, but so sudden and severe did the undead strike that seven of Enora’s cities fell to Vae.
Every victory added more soldiers to her undead ranks. Messengers were sent to Drakefire, asking for military against the undead legions, but the underground kingdom was already over run by Vae’s minions. Any survivors from Drakefire had already fled even deeper underground by the time the messengers arrived.
As the armies of Empress Vae closed around Enora’s six remaining cities, the Dordune made a decision to enact a powerful ritual which raised the cities and their people into the sky away from Vae and her undead. Away from a fight they knew they could not win. As the cities rose, Vae swore to eradicate the rest of Enora’s living. She is eternal as is her hate for all people who defy her.
Now the six floating cities of Deldoroth find themselves safe from Empress Vae’s undead, but they have their own troubles. With limited land to produce resources, the six cities have begun treating each other more like separate countries than one cooperative nation. The Dordune have disbanded and each governor acts as a city’s monarch. As competition for food, water, and shelter grows each day, many less fortunate turn to a life of crime or legal savagery to survive. Airships transporting goods from one city to another are wary of pirates, and many make a killing or die trying in the cities’ gladiatorial arenas (which were introduced by the governors to help control population growth).
Beneath Deldoroth, dead Enora can no longer be seen. Thick layers of black clouds hang between the floating cities and the surface. The undead built massive stoves and constantly pipe ash into the sky to blot out the sun they hate so much. Sometimes at night the victorious howls of the undead can be heard through the blackness by the people of Deldoroth. It is an unsettling reminder that Enora is no longer their home and what drove them out long ago still hungers for them.
If you have the time, go ahead and flesh out your campaign outline too. I wanted to do this for the pitch to give an idea of the adventures I’d create, but even if you’re not pitching it will be helpful to have a fleshed out description of your potential story to refer to. This is less necessary for home campaigns since you won’t be sharing it, but still helpful to you as the GM.
Over-the-top action and sprawling mysteries will be the hallmarks of Bound Sky. The campaign opens with a massive airship battle. The players, hired as merchant guards, encounter pirates and battle for their lives. After the battle the heroes discover a mysterious message to the pirates from a higher power. These aren’t your normal pirates. They’re part of something much bigger.
The story unfolds in Deldoroth’s soaring cities as our heroes uncover a conspiracy. The first learn that some of the pirates and then that some of the officials in Deldoroth have been working with the undead armies of Empress Vae. She’s planning something big, but to learn what will require closer investigation.
The heroes journey down to the undead-infested Enora and navigate the dangerous territory by disguise or by stealth. Diving into old ruins, gathering intelligence from enemy-infested cities, and aided by the nomadic survivors of Drakefire, the PCs discover Empress Vae has begun building airships of her own and converting dragons to dracoliches. She is planning an enormous attack on Deldoroth.
It is up to our heroes to convince the people of Deldoroth to work together to defeat this incursion. As they work to negotiate with various leaders, the PCs uncover another mystery. Empress Vae has discovered the source of the magic which keeps the cities of Deldoroth afloat. She plans to disrupt this magic and crash the cities. If she succeeds, the death toll will be catastrophic.
The heroes stop Vae’s forces from destroying Deldoroth, but the victory is costly and the empress could return at any time with more forces. Thanks to a captured dracolich lieutenant, the PCs learn the location of Vae’s phylactery. The heroes must make another perilous journey into Enora, this time into Vae’s stronghold in Cambor. It is up to them to destroy the phylactery and slay Empress Vae once and for all to save their homes.
Check it out! I’ve even got a description of my first encounter in there. There’s enough information I could improv my way through the first session or possibly the entire campaign if I have no more free time to dedicate to preparation.
5. Got a Little More Time? Map it Up!
If you have some more time, maps are great worldbuilding resources that help make your setting come to life for both you and your players. They’re also a good tool for judging travel obstacles and distances from one place to the next. I created the two maps below in less than hour using roll20.net, but you can checkout any number of easy to use resources to create a map quickly.
So there you have it! One-hour worldbuilding. Simple stuff!
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March 12, 2015 @ 9:09 am
I really want to play in this world, now. Great idea.
The fastest world-building I ever did was on the way home from the D&D movie. My friends & I were so upset about how they’d turned dragons into fighter planes that we started tossing ideas around in the car about how we’d do it better. When we got home (we were living “the dream” of 4 gamer guys living as post-college roommates), I said “Damnit, we CAN do it better. Roll up characters right now!” and we started a world around the idea that super intelligent & powerful ancient creatures (dragons) had been influencing the rest of the fantasy world throughout its long history. That first night was an adventure in a town where a well-meaning dragon had helped surface Elves & Dwarves try to make a half-way neutral-ground city underground to trade with the Underdark, but other deep dragons had worked against her… and centuries later she was sending the party underground to retrieve some of her things from this now ancient fallen city. The world expanded from there, but that central idea: that the major plot machinations of the world were the work of dragons, was key in the following 5 years of campaigning we did in that world.
March 12, 2015 @ 10:23 am
Thanks, Joe! That is awesome. I’m glad that movie led to something good…
March 12, 2015 @ 9:38 am
Wow, that’s a very cool campaign outline. Hmmm, I dig your ideas, thanks.
March 12, 2015 @ 10:23 am
Thank you very much!
March 13, 2015 @ 10:31 am
So this is a really interesting idea for fantasy, but I have a problem when I try to world build like this…
I am chained to verisimilitude.
In your example, the first thing I thought is “How do the people eat?” Cities require a lot of farmlands for support. If the countryside is over-run with undead, the cities will starve.
Then I thought — if the governor mages are powerful enough to lift whole cities, can’t they easily wipe out the marauding undead? Seems like they could lift legions into the air and just drop them…
And other thoughts along those lines.
This has nothing to do with how good the idea is. This is definitely a me thing. This is how I ruin unique ideas of my own. I start thinking about the economics, or the politics, the food chain, etc… All those things that you should sometimes just hand wave for the purpose of having an interesting play setting and I get bogged down by the details.
I don’t know if anyone can offer advice along those lines — it may just be a part of my personality with which I must live… but has anyone else faced these kinds of mental blocks of worrying about the “hard/realistic fantasy” part of the fantasy world?
March 13, 2015 @ 10:46 am
As a funny aside, I’ve been doing this in the current campaign as a PC… Not to the DM — I know what it means to develop a game for the enjoyment of all at the table and I would never critique in that way — but afterward, I’m always saying things to my wife (who is also in the game) “That would never work that way!” or “Why would XX even exist?!?” or similar…
I guess I’m just a low fantasy kind of guy. 🙂
March 13, 2015 @ 11:00 am
Well nothing wrong with being low fantasy! Everyone likes different stuff and that’s what makes the world a cool place. Asking questions isn’t a bad thing – the answers you get could make for a richer campaign.
March 13, 2015 @ 10:58 am
Well I think you answer those things as the campaign unfurls, right? That’s the plan in my outline above. The pirates due to the fact that economically there are not enough resources. No one is sure what keeps the cities afloat (for security reasons) other than the governors, but the undead have figured it out and are going to make those cities crash. Whatever that technology or magic is, they couldn’t use it to lift the undead army, maybe because the army was too big or too spread out or maybe because the undead could survive a fall and keep on shambling.
Ultimately that truth will come out. You gotta embrace the mystery and trust that answers will eventually come. No one likes a huge expository dump that explains everything that’s going to happen.
March 13, 2015 @ 12:20 pm
Oh, I am totally aware this is a me thing. 🙂 I have an intractable need for explanations. It does sound like a fun campaign.
Andrew "That One GM" Y.
March 25, 2015 @ 1:17 pm
This is very cool stuff. The method is simple, which is probably why it works so well for you. I really like the setting, and the campaign reminds me of The Red Hand of Doom (in a good way). Shame your pitch wasn’t the one picked, but I’m glad you shared what you learned.
March 26, 2015 @ 9:52 am
Thanks for the compliments!
June 25, 2015 @ 1:26 pm
Great article! This is a nice simple and quick technique to come up with a game. This would work perfect for https://fyxtrpg.com/ since it is designed to be used with custom campaigns and lore. These tips would make it real easy to create something. At least enough to start playing. Then just use these techniques to expand on the world you have.
June 25, 2015 @ 2:51 pm
This is cool. I hadn’t heard of fyxt. Checking it out now.
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