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Quick and dirty worldbuilding

A world may seem overwhelming. Consider the detail and breadth of the FORGOTTEN REALMS® and the GREYHAWK® settings. What DM, by himself, could create such a thing?

The answer is you; and in a lot less time than you think. The process has only three broad steps - one of which you can do in a hammock with your eyes closed. Admittedly, each of these broad steps has smaller steps within, which is where the real work is. Based on what you do in Step One, though, creating your own campaign world can be as quick or easy or time-consuming as you like. (We can even design one as we go).

Step 1: Decisions, decisions...
You won’t need any graph paper or pencils for this stage, though it may ultimately be the most important. You must make three decisions, but don’t cast any of your choices in stone until you’ve considered all three.

First you will have to decide how much detail you want your world to have.

“More is better” is not necessarily the correct idea. If you spend 400 hours developing every burg and bramble, you won’t have much time for actual DMing (or anything else, for that matter). Also, if you have all the details worked out ahead of time, you won’t have much flexibility later on if you have new ideas, if your campaign changes, or if you find a module you like but can’t use because your world is too defined for improvisation. What may be worst of all is that too often DMs create wonderful, rich adventures and settings for the places they think the of all is that too often DMs create wonderful, rich adventures and settings for the places they think the PCs will go, then the PCs go in the opposite direction, and all the work is wasted.

The other extreme is to have very little detail. Perhaps a map and what type of culture you want to occupy each area will suffice for you and your players. In a combat-intensive campaign, who cares who the Pasha of Phlegnar is, as long as you get to kill the fire giants in his mountains?

The best approach for most people is one of moderation. This approach gives you the detail you need immediately and allowing flexibility to change things later on. You might decide to detail the areas where the campaign begins and add other details to areas as the players travel there. Obviously, this will be a problem if your players don’t go where you expect them to. You might instead decide to add some detail to each area, just in case. The problem now is either that an area is short-changed with too little detail or that overworked detailing every tree and bird. A lot depends on how much information your players want and what type of campaign you’d like to have.

You must next decide where to place the balance between science and fantasy. If you choose a high-fantasy world, there can be steamy jungles in the middle of the arctic tundra, rain can fall up, dandelions can talk, and all unicorns can expect to be addressed, “Your Hornedness.” In other words, you’ll be making up the rules by which your world functions. This choice is a good one for those who don’t want to add much detail, since you can make up whatever details you need, whenever you want and needn’t worry about players arguing that “it can’t be”. Keep in mind, however, that in a fantasy world where the rules by which the players live are void, they will probably have a lot of questions. A high-fantasy DM must be very creative and inventive.

On the other hand, there’s the scientifically accurate campaign world, based on the actual principles by which we live (at least to the extent that used in the AD&D® game). This is a choice favored more by detail-enthusiasts, because of the abundance of languages, flora, fauna, climate, topography, alphabets, political systems etc. While this method offers immediate answers to questions like “What season comes after spring?” and “Is it cold up in the mountains?” it can be restrictive. If you follow geographical science, areas along rivers which flood yearly must be fertile, even if in the middle of a desert, whether you want them to be or not. Likewise forests north of a certain point will have to be strictly coniferous due to the extreme cold and lack of water. In such a world, you needn’t be as creative, but you are somewhat more restricted in terms of what is possible. (For our sample world, we’ll lean toward science but reserve the right to explain some things with fantasy).

The third thing you must decide is the type of campaign you want to play. As noted before, details like politics and personalities don’t matter much to players whose goal is to kill monsters and collect treasure. If this is the type of campaign you’ll be running, your job as world designer is much easier.

If, on the other hand, you like geo- politics and intend to run a role-playing intense or political intrigue type game, you can be pretty much assured that the low-detail approach does not work. Roleplaying and intrigue both rely on NPCs and good stories. NPCs need homes, backgrounds and experiences; stories need settings. No matter how heavily based on fantasy, a low-detail, highly improvised world soon develops people and stories that should be connected but aren’t. Players quickly notice discrepancies and become disenchanted. This is not to say that a political campaign needs notes as thick as a phone book, but it does imply that more detail and work may be necessary.

Step Two: Get the crayons
Now that made your basic decisions, the concrete process of creation can begin. By the end of this stage you’ll have a map with civilizations and topographical features a plenty.

First, list the various climates and topographical and geographical formations you want to use. You can also draw your basic land form(s) (e.g., a big island, several small islands, continents, etc.).

Your decisions may be influenced by the resources you have, such as the Viking Campaign Sourcebook. To incorporate this, use an area with a cold climate, mountains, and fjords on a sea that borders on other cultures.

Another option is to choose features based on the monsters who inhabit them, such as a jungle and vegepygmies and su-monsters. You may want hills for halflings and forests for elves. Bear in mind that you’ll have difficulty squeezing it together realistically if you choose too much that is too diverse. It is better to have too many ideas and have to scrap some than to not have enough. If planning a high-fantasy campaign, your topography may be somewhat unusual (or even weird).

Map one. At this stage, you are mapping out the generalities. This includes geographic features and which cultures inhabit what areas. You may define some areas by the campaign materials you plan to use for them, as in the areas based on the AL-QADIM® and RAVENLOFT® settings above.

Next, list the various cultures and civilizations you want in your world. Keep in mind that any PC races you want need to have a homeland. If you have sourcebooks such as The Roman Empire, Kara-Tur, or the AL-QADIM® setting, you can count each of those as at least one culture. Really what doing is paving the way for adventures and plots within your campaign.

If you intend to play a “Law vs. Chaos” campaign, you might be able to get by with two vast empires and some small independent states. If you don’t want to have to detail too much, you can just have a few nations. Civil wars and other political forces could always diversify your selection later on. If you intend to do this, you may want to build cultural or religious differences into the country right from the start.

Cities are a special problem, since you have to either own one that’s predesigned, such as the LANKHMAR™ campaign, Golden Huzuz, or Waterdeep, or you must design your own. Consider that each country probably has a capital too (see Step Three). Important ruins, landmarks, and religious sites might also be added to your list.

You should now have a pretty impressive list of geographical and political features ready to be placed on a map. This is the third task. Depending on the diversity and quantity of features you listed, this step can be easy or difficult. Likewise, if you’re designing a more fantastic world, you needn’t worry too much about the rationale of any decision.

Elves and dwarves may live together (maybe even underwater) in a fantasy world, while the more reality-oriented designers will want to separate them a bit. Keep in mind that if they’re too far apart, you won’t be able to justify their traditional racial animosity toward each other.

 A quick glance at the first map shows that there are four states based on class, four based on race, and five “sourcebook states.” Two states focus on political systems, three are centered around monstrous inhabitants, four are based on culture, and several areas are unoccupied by an established body. This arrangement is perhaps a little crowded, but so is Europe. Unlike Europe however, my states still lack borders.

Because borders are often geographical features, they require some attention at this point. As yet, we have no rivers on the map because I've saved them for this purpose. Not all states need to be separated by rivers and mountains; they might use stone markers or have borders established only by tradition. As usual, fantasy worlds might have no borders and no sovereign states, thereby avoiding these problems altogether. For adventuring purposes, however, borders and border conflicts can be great plot motivators.

Step Three: Then what happened?
At this point, we have a stage with scenery but no play. Four things remain to be done to make the production a success. The first (and easiest) is to name all the nations, cities, seas, forests, and so on. I find that taking names from the phone book or words from the dictionary and switching a letter or two is a good way to come up with names. You might also try twisting a synonym for the region, such as Arcania (from arcane) for a nation of magic users.

Map two: Here is where you give everything names and draw the borders. Whether you actually delineate borders or keep them in your head, know where your empires and kingdoms are. Places previously identified only as capitals, major cities, and game world-based areas are named.

If you’ve chosen a rather scientific approach, be sure that the names you choose correspond to whatever language you assign to an area. One interesting alternative to this might be not to label anything except where your players start (and perhaps where they’re from). As they travel through the world they can note names - which you’ve had plenty of time to think up - and draw their own map. The map would be very valuable to the party (and other less scrupulous parties) as would maps with information gathered by others. Imagine the PCs breaking into Hegel Keep just to steal a look at the Chamberlain’s map of the northeast corner of the world.

If you chose this rather unorthodox approach, it could make your second step more complicated; namely, devising the plot(s) occurring in your world. This step is probably the most important if you want your campaign to exist in a vibrant, “living” world. Even if you chose a low-detail, high-fantasy approach, a certain amount of plot is necessary to keep the game from getting stale. If you chose a more political type of campaign, you’ll definitely want these plans well laid.

For example, a civil war is beginning in eastern Rathuric due to some Paladins’ beliefs that not enough is being done to oppose Gnashskull. This area, known as Tarnation, has historically been the home of ‘Good’ extremists, in the ‘Lawful vs. Good, which is more important?’ debate. The leader of this uprising is one Sir Derek, assisted by his advisor, Nemur. While Derek is Neutral Good, Nemur is Chaotic Neutral and an agent of the Lord of the Dark Lands. It is the Lord’s hope that a divided Rathuric will be unable to stand against the continental war he is planning.

I’ve decided that the civil war will be in full swing after one month of game time (from the start of the campaign). After six months, the Dark Lord will begin to mobilize his forces, and within nine months the war will be well underway. If my characters pass through Rathuric or the Dark Lands, I know what’s going on there. If in another part of the world and ask a Paladin for news, he can relate the most recent news of the war. If I were more interested in details, I could have five such plots for each country and region. Instead, I have one or two for each, some related to others, all interwoven into the Dark Lord’s plans.

The plots in each country are mostly political, but the details devised vary from economic to political to social and historic. In Grundee, I’ve focused on the military fears of the Rift and relations with the Nomads on the other side of the mountains. In Yeo, I’ve focused on the emergence of two new political and religious leaders, while the entry under “Elementia, League of” focuses on the social influence of the Elements in those countries. The only uniformity I’ve held to is defining a nation’s borders, capital and leader(s). A more detail-oriented DM might want to define the political, socioeconomic, and historical background for each country. Likewise, they might detail each capital city (which I did not do).

With everything named and the story in motion, the third step is to define other major actors besides the PCs. In actual game play, most kings, queens, and emperors will probably not be vital NPCs to the party, as they will be far too important to waste time regularly on even high-level adventurers. The nobles, merchants, generals, priestesses, and other characters who will be helping, healing, and harassing the PCs however, should be considered.

Some DMs prefer to play NPCs as they arise, others have entire life histories written up. Whichever extreme you choose, this is the time to plan for those encounters. Again, if you know the route your players are likely to follow, you might be able to develop NPC’s for the first few months of game time and worry about any others later on.

The final step is detailing. Even if chosen initially not to add many details to your world, you will eventually need some. If chosen to detail your new creation heavily, you’ll quickly find that there’s no end to what you could do. For the sake of playability, there are several other subjects you should probably focus on initially.

Religions, weather, and languages tend to have a lot of impact on actual play. Folklore, customs, and etiquette can be used a lot in dealings with foreign governments. You may also choose to design your world like this sample one, where there could easily be another continent somewhere off the map to the north. (My players have yet to learn that they can cross the glacier and reach another land).

Over the years, I’ve created four campaign worlds, and, using the aforementioned system, can now create a playable one in about three hours. Obviously, it’s not a high-detail world. For that I’d need several days. Adding details isn’t as Herculean a task as it sounds. Nothing about creating your own world is difficult if you know what you want first and take it one step at a time. You’ll find creating your own world is the most satisfying experience a DM can have.


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