World Building – 7 Tips For Designing A World You Love
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #585
Starting From Scratch
From Mike Kohler
Building a world is one of the most difficult things you can do. It is complicated, time consuming and exhausting. It is also one of the most rewarding things you’ll do in your DM career.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about building worlds.
Start Small And Work Your Way Up
Don’t look at world building like you’re drawing a globe and filling in the blanks. Planets are HUGE. There is too much that can happen for you to worry about the entire planet at first.
My first campaign was built around three kingdoms and some free cities. The total area was equivalent to the U.S. west coast. I haven’t even used the entire map, and I won’t come close when the campaign ends in a couple months.
Pace yourself to avoid overwhelm. If you get overwhelmed, you won’t be invested in the world and your games will suffer.
Design A World You Love
Create a world so dynamic, so real, you never want to play in another world again.
Each game you run in a genre should be run in your world.
This builds a living history you continually add to.
It also saves drawing new maps and recreating locations.
And it provides special storytelling opportunities.
For example, I will soon be running an all-dwarf campaign. In the fall, I will run another campaign set far into the future. How awesome would it be to play as the descendant of your legendary dwarven fighter? Now you don’t have to make up a family history, you actually played it!
Another example is when one campaign affects the other. Maybe Campaign A destroys a citadel nestled in a mountain range. When Campaign B walks by the ruins of a citadel, you have a bunch of details you can give them on the citadel for no extra work.
Start With The Basics
What scope will your campaign have? That will determine how much world you need to design.
If your campaign is about an assassination plot, maybe you just need a city. If it’s a war, several kingdoms need creating, and so on.
Next, build a stat sheet. You should have a reasonable description for the following when you start your game:
- Religion – Use your game system’s gods or create new ones
- Demographics – Give rough estimations of the peoples inhabiting your world
- Politics – How are the countries and kingdoms ruled?
Economics – What is the basis of the economies? Use this to add small details. For example, coastal villages (economies based on fishing). The PCs don’t just enter a market, they enter a market smelling of fish and salt water with the sounds of the sellers yelling out the catch of the day.
- Architecture – I find pictures to add another layer of flavor to the world the PCs inhabit.
- Technology – Use a time period from history or an analogy from a movie for inspiration.
- Weather – I use analogies for this. For instance, my mainland in the campaign has weather similar to California.
- Size – Both in terms of land and people. How many people live in a big city, a village? The size of the land gives the world a sense of legitimacy.
- Slavery – Use this decision to help with character backgrounds, flesh out conflicts, work out NPC backgrounds, etc.
- Magic – How rare is magic? This gives players a sense of how special they are if they can use magic. It also provides details about enemies, the prices of items in a store, how a city uses lights at night and so on.
Center Your Campaign On An Event
Base the event on a war, plague, demon invasion, whatever. Then put this event into place by other events.
For example, a plague sweeps the nation because a year ago the corrupt leaders didn’t listen to the farmers about a disease in the crop.
The cause and effect here is the historical scope of your campaign, and you should try and focus your efforts within that scope.
Another example, two countries war because the civil war that split them 30 years ago left them in a tense geopolitical situation.
Don’t add to history without reason. Don’t get bogged down in your own story. Players will just get confused and lose interest.
The history of your world will span thousands of years, so things can spiral out of control fast if you don’t constrain your thinking a bit.
Make NPCs Just As Dynamic As PCs
Picture a campaign with a central villain key to the PCs’ story and development. The PCs have begun to hate this villain. You have spent time working on the NPC, giving him a history, describing his physical features, and making him a real pain in the ass for the PCs.
Now picture another campaign or one-shot months down the line. It takes place 25 years before the previous campaign. How awesome would it be to place the NPC somewhere into the new campaign? He doesn’t have to be a central figure, just play a simple support role. Any player in both campaigns immediately has a good visualization of that NPC and an emotional investment into that NPC.
You can use NPCs that reoccur in your games to build upon something bigger, leading to an entirely different story.
Let Other People Help You
The world is big. It’s unreasonable to think you can build it all yourself. Use ideas, cities, places and structures from other people to help make it bigger.
I once ran a one-shot from Paizo. I read through it, realized I could change a few things and place it into my world, and I did. Will it ever be relevant to my other campaigns? I don’t know. But if the opportunity arises I will certainly make a connection, even if the one-shot took place thousands of years ago.
Additionally, let players build as much of the world as they want. Maybe they hope to delve deep into their dwarf clan, giving it a history, coat of arms, motto, etc. Don’t be afraid to use that material again.
Draw A Map
Don’t be lazy, just draw one. Players love examining it, it makes an amazing reference sheet, and it makes the world that much more real.
Players will also begin seeing the names of the cities and countries they’re traveling to. They will in turn use the names while gaming, saying, “we need to escape Mo’thaal” as opposed to “we need to escape this prison.” This makes gaming feel genuine.
Building a world is a delicate process that never ends.
Stay focused on what is important and use every resource available to improve your DMing skills and the players’ experience.
Brief Word From Johnn
What Blogs Do You Read?
I got into a busy stretch this year and stopped reading blogs, but now I’d like to tune into some again.
I noticed this past weekend that a lot of blogs I used to follow have gone dark, which is a bummer.
If you check out any GMing blogs, please drop me a note about them.
New Campaign Starts In The Fall
I’m super duper crazy excited to get GMing again after a brief break.
We finished up the Riddleport campaign with an epic finale earlier this year. It was a two year campaign and the PCs were pretty bad ass by the end.
I should have stopped the game at that point, but I instead tried to make a sequel campaign.
But I underestimated the energy I poured into that campaign and how it completely changed once it reached its vampire – god – artifact – interplanar – tidal wave – 100 foot long shark eating pirates finish. With a twist.
So I had two false starts at the sequel and then just stopped.
And now I’m ready to kick-off my Chaos Keep campaign. All I can tell you right now is it’s going to be epic (doesn’t every GM say that at the start?).
It’s part sandbox, part nasty storyline. Not much is on rails. If the PCs ignore various story hooks, the world will move on and the PCs can re-enter later or just pursue their own leads and enjoy the living world.
We’re using the Pathfinder rules.
I just setup a Google Community for the players and me to manage comms and campaign details. I like Google Communities, and think it’ll be better than the old Yahoo Group we were using.
Character creation has just started.
I’ll let you know how the campaign goes in future issues.
Meantime, if you have any questions about how I’m creating or prepping Chaos Keep, feel free to ask.