Recently, I’ve begun to write Dungeons & Dragons adventures and resources sharing them with other enthusiasts of the game through sites like DriveThruRPG. Thus far, I’ve written three one-shot adventures based on the evenings where I gave my DM a break and had my fellow players play as ‘monsters.’
After writing those up and sharing them, I decided to put some more time into creating a fresh setting for any future DM-ing. The setting I’ve been working on and writing is called Red Banks set in a northern region based on Wisconsin populated by Ice Age beasts and lost native civilizations.
In the course of this, I came across the article ‘World building tips for fantasy RPG’s like D&D and Pathfinder‘ and found it rang true. Its ten tips made a lot of sense and increased my confidence writing as I was already doing most of them. It’s always good to have guidelines. A new DM or player isn’t left wanting for advice. What I’d like to offer today, however, is an edit of this tip list. Depending on the kind of gamer you are, these tips will inspire, reinforce, or seem trivial to you, and I think that’s a vital thing to know. How you approach (or would approach) world-building will often reveal not just what kind of player you are but what kind of play you most want and the kind of players you want around you.
1. Pick a world & make it your own.
For almost 45 years, folks have been crafting players and worlds for Dungeons & Dragons. Therefore, if it seems too daunting to craft your own world, then you can simply play within one already well-traveled: Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Eberron, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Planescape, Dragonlance, Dark Sun, or Mystara. When I DM-ed my first ever campaign last year, I originally began by imagining my own world. While I designed cities and villages and geography, I realized I may be biting off more than I could chew since the world needed not just politics but religion, economies, and history. Spending the time to craft these areas of the world would mean less time to focus on the pragmatics of playing.
Also, in completely creating my own world setting, I was inadvertently making it difficult for my players to incorporate everything they wanted. How could I allow a Sword Coast adventuring rogue in a world without the Sword Coast? Make up our own Sword Coast? Unnecessary. Simply set the campaign in the Forgotten Realms. But I wanted the freedom of my own setting, meaning I didn’t want to be hemmed in by well-established city-states or history.
The solution? Find a corner of the established world waiting to be defined. Thus, I set my campaign on the Forgotten Realms continent of Osse, an area nearly completely blank and just waiting to have its story told. This solved the problem because it allowed players to partake of the entire Forgotten Realms lore while playing in a nearly wholly original setting. In fact, my friend who’s DM-ing my current campaign has done the same thing so there’s a sort of continuity, and my Red Banks adventures could easily be slipped into Anchorome.
2. Player decisions shape the story.
Trying to force players into a narrative is draining and limiting for both DMs and players. However, there needed to be more than merely drifting from one encounter to the next–there needed to be plot. Keeping track of their interactions watching how they enjoyed or disliked each encounter and what sort of questions they were asking (and, thus, what kind of answers they were looking for) led me to sketch out myriad paths for the party. As they went along, they were creating drama, creating the plot, and often completely bypassing encounters I had written. Also, as they played, their decisions shaped how they were approached and viewed by NPCs.
In fact, I made it clear to the players, actions determine your alignment and how you saw yourself had less impact on your alignment than you perhaps suspected. While you may think of yourself as lawful neutral, your actions may tell a different story and how others are effected by and see you has more weight in determining alignment. This made for some interesting choices and tensions. The point is, rather than pigeonhole players, they were given more of an ‘open world’ to engage. It makes sense to let “players play the game how they wish.”
3. Throw them into the deep end right away.
Watching D&D streams to get a sense of how the game was played, I realized something. Introductions are boring and needlessly time consuming. Therefore, I decided players needed to have a real reason to encounter each other if they insisted meeting as strangers. In my campaign, each player begins by waking up in prison cell in the same jail meaning they have to identify each other and work together to get free. Once they do, they have to recover their equipment and get out of the jail as they do so players tend to develop rapport allowing for further adventuring.
Outside of the game world, we’re all here to play the game, so inventing motivation feels beyond forced. Character backstory is meant to give players a sense of who they are in game and how they’ll interact with others. You’d never just blurt out your personal history to strangers or even friends in one queer monologue nor expect it of others. You reveal it over the course of taking action.
It’s not the DM’s job to explain why a player’s character wants to adventure; the DM’s job is to create a setting where a player’s character can adventure. It’s best to dive right in and not look back.
4. Maps! Your Maps! Their Maps! Maps!
Mapmaking is perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of worldbuilding. Lovers of fantasy fiction take special glee in examining the maps at the beginning of most novels giving them a glimpse of what they’ll soon be reading. It’s almost impossible to not use a map in D&D. At the very least, there must be a map of dungeon through which the party is delving. As I mentioned in #1, I ended up setting my campaign on the Forgotten Realms continent of Osse but that still meant I needed to make a map so players could get a sense of where they were playing.
I made an initial map and then updated it as the party explored (using Inkarnate). However, I encouraged players to assign to someone the task of map-keeping. This would be the person who actually drew the dungeon(s) they explored for immediate and future use. As DM, I had sketches and maps made but I wasn’t about to give them to the players. When there was a battle, I drew out what the players saw around them and placed our minis. Yet, it was still up to the players to craft their dungeon delving map.
What’s wonderful about this practice is encourages note-taking and is a great way to test your own powers of description as a DM. Does your players’ map look like your DM map? What went wrong? Anything that allows us to improve our game play makes for better experiences.
5. Embrace lore already existing.
Again, picking an already existing campaign setting often times provides you with a pantheon of deities and a seemingly endless array of political and economic factions. Pick and choose what you want to focus on and ignore the rest. Already existing lore is simply a means to flavor your own story. In the current campaign where I’m a player, my character’s deity is Shaundakul, a god forgotten if not no longer existent. This means, my character is embracing a philosophy more than an actual faith. It plays an extremely minor role in the game play only really affecting my roleplay in a motivational sense. This is more than enough.
It’s too easy to get lost in lore, in attempting to create it or apply it. What makes for smoothness in gaming is having it readily available to add flavor or exert subtle influence.
6. NPCs exist & act with or without player interaction.
While I believe in letting players dictate where the story goes and how it proceeds, they need to be walking into something. This is done by sketching out what NPCs (non-playing characters) do when the players aren’t around. Things don’t just stop in a village because the adventurers stepped away, decisions are made, debates occur, and new faces show up. Likewise, villains aren’t static. They are constantly adjusting their plans to the resources (or lack thereof) available to them. Some villains might become obsessed with the party of do-gooders thwarting their plans, some may speed up their actions, some might completely change course, and others may entirely ignore the pitiful party.
Point is, NPCs are dynamic entities. They are the way you let the party know what has been, is, and might be going on around them. NPCs remember, they act, they have needs and desires, and they make good and bad decisions just like the players. The only difference is, as the DM, you have to inhabit the mind of each NPC and exist there for the benefit of players whether or not the players are present, know, want, or need it. It is, arguably, the most rewarding and time consuming aspect of the game.
7. Keep exploring the world, let new and old characters meet up.
After investing so much time and effort into NPCs, the world you’ve created, and the shared story you’ve played out, it feels like a waste to never revisit them. So while it makes complete sense and is wildly fun to explore new worlds and generate new, fresh encounters, it is equally fun and rewarding to see old familiar faces again whether they be friends or foes.
A couple of weeks ago in the campaign I’m currently a player in, the DM had all the characters from our first campaign show up. They were each more advanced and while still themselves somehow different; it was a fun encounter as they handed off to the new party the responsibility to defeat the big bad. It was also fascinating to see players have to play both their current character and their former one, have them interact with each other and the new faces. The DM was savvy in writing it as an organic outgrowth of what we had been doing in the second campaign. This is just an example, it could be done with characters, NPCs, places, and even events. The point is, having the callback or tie-in gives a sense of continuity to the setting heightening the realism and expanding the size of the world. Plus, it’s a fun treat.
8. Players always want options, but not too many.
When I taught first year college students, I would allow them to write their papers on any topic they wanted. My thinking was this freedom would keep them focused on the task by having it be something they were interested or invested in learning. That did happen on occasion but the vast majority of students panicked. There was just too much to choose from, too many options.
Players are absolutely the same way. Simply telling players about the village they are in and then asking ‘So what would you like to do?’ will frequently result in silence as for some unknown reason it never occurred to them to think about this before they arrived. Often, the strongest willed, stubborn, or most ridiculous character will make a pronouncement that will effectively lead every other character to make their choices in reference to that. This isn’t a negative. However, it’s not really satisfying. Too many choices can lead to the same result as too few, search for the balance.
Therefore, I’m a big advocate of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style of play wherein players are presented with multiple options (careful, not too many) they can discuss and debate as a party. Players are usually on the look out for something big, some major quest-line so it might make sense to hid in a rather innocuous task a seed of a larger, more significant quest. Give players options, two or three, and let them decide what they want to do. If players don’t want to do any of them, then let them wander. Sooner or later they’ll realize, ‘Oh, so, this is what’s available’ or they’ll make their own fun. Either way, the game moves on smoothly and as DM you get to pocket unused quests for later.
One of the most enjoyable things I did as a DM was slowly grow quests the party ignored or didn’t take until they became issues that had to be faced. Oh, the level 3s think the goblin gang is beneath them? Cool, cool, cool. Just know, over the interim these goblins have grown in strength because no one has opposed them and now face face you at level 5 as equals. Deal with it.
9. Tools are meant to save time, don’t get lost in them!
Players always need to be reminded they have items they can use. Players also need to be asked frequently if they really want to use that magic item right now and not have it for later… Players buy, make, and discover items to serve as tools to achieve their goals. Similarly, as DM, it’s really easy to get lost in campaign creation tools spending hours tweaking map details (that will never be noticed), populating shops in a village or town (that won’t be visited), or naming and fleshing out NPCs (who the party won’t ever bother to talk to). Part of your job as DM is having all this ‘just in case,’ but it’s very, very easy to slip into micro-managing your own campaign. Tools are meant to make things easier, and don’t matter in themselves. Players don’t care about your random encounter generator or challenge rating hack, they just want to play. Focus on using the right tool for the job, and then move on to the next task. Don’t obsess.
Or, at least, doing it on your own time…because they are really cool…
10. Weather is the foe of Players & DM
Watching gaming streams and reading modules both long adventures and one-shots, I’ve come to suspect weather is grossly under utilized. It’s understandable. When a party delves into a dungeon, a cave, or into some castle, the weather outside is inconsequential. But weather does matter because it’ll effect how the party travels to arrive at that dungeon, cave, or castle. Weather will dictate what is going on in a village–is it harvest time? is it spring? has there been a drought? too much rain? or is it the harshest winter on record?
It’s easy to ignore not just weather but terrain when it’s not directly part of a fight, but it ought to be treated like an ever-present existential foe. You need to rescue the princess. Okay, but it’s monsoon season so your travel to the citadel will be hampered and you’ll have to endure mudslides. The cold rains give you the flu. It’s spring, and your allergies have given you disadvantage on checks involving sight or smell. Because of the bitter cold, you have to make Constitution checks for every mile traveled or suffer frostbite. You get the idea.
Weather is something both players and DMs want to ignore. I think because it introduces a level of normality to the game, and none of us want to have to parse everyday banalities while we roleplay as a half-elven centaur looking for revenge against a horde of sentient snake-people. For example. But weather matters. It matter for certain spells and conditions. It is one of the easiest ways to add flavor to not just travel but the entire adventure. It helps players visualize the world, to have a tactile experience of the setting. It can be easily forgotten or overlooked and doing so denies the campaign the simplest, most vivid manner of expression.