Premade settings are alright. Ravenloft is nice, but perhaps constant darkness is a little much. Maybe the Forgotten Realms has too much to keep track of and not enough flex. Waterdeep just doesn’t have the natural world aspect for your group. Well my friend, allow me to introduce you to perhaps the most honoured tradition of every DM: making it all up.
1) Don’t Be Afraid To Rip Someone Off
I have before and will again steal. I’m a criminal of the worst variety. I’m a pirate. And I’m in no way ashamed of my piracy. Mostly because it’s not really piracy but I pretend it is to justify my eyepatch and poofy hats. It’s also the reason I use the word “avast.” But, I digress. There’s no shame in taking inspiration from other works of fiction or other people’s games. Absolutely none. (At least not when you’re writing for friends, and not for profit.) Take characters and plots and big bads from all over the place if you want. There’s a lot of beautifully written characters, monsters, and settings out there. My friend Scott used a monster idea from the Netflix Castlevania anime - that being the petrifying cyclops - in one of his games and I didn’t find out about it until well after we played. (Also, I highly recommend that show. I’m not much for anime, but it’s witty, heavy, and brutal in all the right places in my humble opinion.)
Even if your players recognize what’s happening, you can account for that and change some things accordingly. Rip everyone off if you want. Call your MacGuffin the Singular Ring. Call your character Luke Windwalker. Call your bad guy Baldimort! No one can stop you! You’re the DM!
2) Don’t Rip Everything Off
This seems to run counter to the previous point, you may say. Well, you see, if you make everything the same as the thing you’re ripping off, then you might as well just go and experience the thing. There’s no real point in making your plot the exact same as the plot of Lord of the Rings, because the players will all know what to do. You have to mix things up. You have to make things up, typically on the fly. Which for some people may be very difficult. But don’t despair, my friend! There is a solution.
There are hundreds of “what if” ideas out there. What if Gandalf kept the One Ring? What if Alduin never came to return during the Skyrim civil war? What if Anakin didn’t fall to the dark side? Etcetera. I’m sure even you have some. Use them. Or rather use the equivalents. Don’t just rip off NPC names unless you’re making everything up. This brings me to my next point.
3) Need A Name? Combine Two Things
“Welcome to Bladeburrow. My name is Baldr Silverhand. This is the Valor Hall inn where we serve our world-famous Black Beer.” Boom. Easy. Made that all up in less than thirty seconds and all I had to do was mash a bunch of words that came to mind in a way that made general sense. The rest is just world-building and that’s where the real fun (or perhaps the real difficulty) comes in. This is perhaps the most time-honored worldbuilding tip for DM’s and GM’s that I am personally aware of. Give it a name and you’d be surprised how easily everything else can fall into place. Sometimes genius strikes after you make a name, and a whole campaign can spring from a single idea. Sometimes you make a name and it falls flat. It’s even a little awkward to keep using in-game so you give the thing a nickname and slowly phase out the original name. No issue. Other times, Fartsberg will never fall into obscurity. No matter how hard you try. Burn it to the ground and the players will just dedicate the rest of the game to rebuilding the damn place.
But the important thing is that even the dumbest of made-up-on-the-spot names can make for a memorable and enjoyable gaming experience. These games are often at their best when something stupid happens or is said or in the case of Fartsberg, exists. Don’t be afraid to give something a stupid quality when you’re making everything up. Stupid exists in the real world and that’s something a lot of worldbuilders overlook in my experience. Just think about allergies. Then think about the fact that cats can be allergic to humans. This simple fact is incredibly dumb.
4) Become the Description Master
This is a pretty obvious tip that’s easy to account for but hard to master. Learn to describe things masterfully. I find that in order to do this, you have to have a very clear picture of what you’re trying to describe in your mind. The next most important thing is to include stupendous adjectives. “The stone tablet glows slightly” is very different from “The smooth stone tablet glows with an ominous light.” Another thing to consider is color. Color is an often overlooked but critical part of the descriptive process. There are a hundred different articles online to teach you how to be better at describing things during writing, but a tip that I find to be the most valuable is to imagine yourself in front of the thing or in the room, or meeting the person in question and ask yourself what would stand out to you personally when inspecting that. Lastly, always try to stimulate all 5 senses when really getting into the description.
You walk into a large decrepit room. As the door opens, the cracked stone bricks around the frame sprinkle rocks onto your shoulders. You look around and an overwhelming feeling of dread fills you as you notice the large pile of slimy bones in the corner. The pale white of the bone is intermingled with the yellow stains of time and rot. A gentle dripping can be heard, but you’re not sure from where; there are no obvious leaks in the ceiling. As a wafting smell of rotting meat suddenly hits you, the realization that there is more to this ruin than meets the eye sets in. What do you do?
I hope this supplied a mix of ideas for new worldbuilders and new as well. Have fun with your games and don’t be afraid to mess up. Because you will. Repeatedly. Borderline constantly. Fartsberg taught me that.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://assetstore.unity.com/packages/3d/environments/fantasy/medieval-world-creation-kit-36555
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games