A fan, friend of mine and fellow dungeon master Rob has asked me to go over world building in D&D so that he may more easily create an awesome setting for his players. Building your own world, and adventure within it, is incredibly satisfying, a whole lot more work, but ultimately the more true roleplaying experience, in my view. Especially for the dungeon master. There are some boxes you need to tick, some decisions to be made, but don’t worry! This is what makes it really fun, and makes it your own.
Here’s 5 steps for some real good world building.
Pick your setting
So when deciding on what your world is going to be like, you don’t necessarily have to follow 5th edition convention and stick to the Forgotten Realms. You now have Ravnica, Eberron, Ravenloft (in the Curse of Strahd adventure), but you can also create your own. You could just take Forgotten Realms and add steam power. Or remove gnomes – a common move by DMs. You could rewrite the society of your world to be darker fantasy or more swashbuckling, making races or classes more rare and unique, limiting players to them. Maybe it’s in the Underdark, or maybe humans are the minority and universal villains.
Pick your type of adventure
Deciding in what way will your players interact with your world will help you decide what part of it to focus on. For example, if you want it to be a traditional dungeon delving campaign, then you’d best focus on that 17 level dungeon rather than the system of government that runs civilisation. Is it going to be urban, is it going to be set in the wilderness, or a mixture of both? Consider if it’s the former, to introduce more social encounter mechanics or just pad them out. If its the latter, consider a hex crawl. It simulates the traversal through open wilderness, and the players charting the unknown. You could even have this between two cities.
You have your world, now it’s time to make like it’s the 6th day and add some people. Add in some towns, villages, and if you expect the players to be needing to move around a lot, sketch out a map. Make your own random encounter table, or take one and spice it up with your own flavours. It’s best to make monsters that fit your world’s theme, instead of just goblins/zombies. Create some important NPCs who the players will be likely to meet, as well as a list of random ones that you can grab straight away. A handful of tavern keeps, blacksmiths, guards, bandits, etc. Place them around the world but don’t feel like they should all have a concrete place. As the campaign will draw on it will become more clear where and what the players will be doing. You can then bring in all your assets and lay them before the path the players are on. This is more preferable to having an entirely detailed town hundreds of miles away that they’ll never see.
Fronts are my favourite world building tool. They’re essentially factions, and it’s the moving and shaking of these factions that create the tension and the adventure in your world. So depending on what kind of campaign you’re running, list out 2 or 3 fronts in your world. You’ll want at least one that is hostile to the world – basically the bad guys who have a detrimental aim to the good folk of your land – a couple of neutrals, and the Good Guys. This is the faction of good/status quo, the lord/king of your kingdom. Then you can throw in some neutral parties such as a religious body, a trading company or even a roaming warband of thralls or something.
The way these fronts will interact with the players and each other will make the world feel like it’s bubbling with activity and life. Each front has a step by step list of how it’s going to achieve it’s overall goal, and in between each session you’ll check in to see if they’ve progressed to the next step or not. This means that if you know during the next session that Evil Front A will be attempting their dastardly summoning ritual at the graveyard that night, the players have a chance to stop them and push back their plans. If they decide against it, then Evil Front A will move onto it’s next phase of the plan, and maybe there’s a new swarm of undead roaming the lands.
Pick one for the quest
Now that you have your setting, your style of campaign, your assets and your fronts, it’s time to pick a quest. Or several. You may have to tweak your fronts to create some juicy conflict, but think ‘who is most likely to ask the players for assistance?’ And even if the king will ask them to go on a noble quest, maybe one of the neutral or evil fronts will get to them first, and offer gold in place of virtue? Either way you’re going to need a plot hook or five, as well as some juicy side quests if you want. Be careful though, as players tend to lose track of side quests if there’s too many, unless you make it absolutely clear they need to solve it pronto. One of my favourites is the Cursed Ring quest: a player is given/tricked into taking a ring that gives them a buff, but they slowly start to go a bit mad or have weird dreams. It proceeds to get worse and worse until they either trick someone else to take the ring, or they find an NPC who can remove it.
The main quest however should be stopping or effecting a world changing event. Dismantling an evil front and frustrating their attempts at completing their goal. And don’t be afraid of letting the front put everything on hold to come after the players if they’ve proved a particularly thorny thorn in their side. This can provide some filling to your adventure. And, if the players succeed or fail at stopping the bad guys, the world goes on. It’s not “Tiamat is summoned into this realm, game over man”, but “you failed to stop the evil dragon cult in time. Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you now!”
So that’s my 5 steps or tips or whatever for world building. As I said at the top, it’s very satisfying to create your own world, map, characters, monsters and bad guys. It makes GM prep a joy instead of a job because you’ll never be second guessing what a published adventure wants you to do (random Young Green Dragon anyone?). Even if you don’t do a whole campaign, and just a single one-off adventure, or part of an adventure between other quests, you’re sure to enjoy it if you put the work in.