World Building 101: 10 Key Lessons
This is an introduction to how to build your very own campaign world. In it I hope to introduce you to some world building concepts and ideas that you can use or chose to ignore when designing your own campaign world.
There are a lot of campaign worlds out there, but nothing is as unique, and as well known by you, as your own campaign world. There are lots of ways to build your world, but the best way, in my opinion, is to model off of our own world. After all it is the world we know best and the only world that we know can support intelligent life, at least for now.
1) Start With The Macro Scale
Is your campaign world even a planet and if so, what shape would it be in? A spherical world is common and the result of constant gravitational effects on assembled particles. It is theorized that dust was formed when the Sun, Sol, was born and out of these dust clouds the planets coalesced. Then the asteroids that formed clumped together or fell to the planets and some became moons. Most though were absorbed by the planets and evolved into the round balls we know so well. Well, what if your world is flat (it sure would be easy to map)? What if it were a toroid or square, or some wild shape? The intervention of magic can do a lot, so could a planar gate with connections to other planes either outer or inner. The majority of worlds will be spherical and resemble earth, but that doesn’t render the rest of this discussion different if you chose a different shape for your world. What shape will you choose for your world?
2) What Is The Density Of The World And Its Organization?
Jack Vance, the science fiction author, invented a big world in one novel. It was the size of Jupiter and had a low density. Its size allowed it to hold its atmosphere, but its huge size allowed for vast land areas and huge continents. The only problem was that metal was rare, most of it came from the occasional meteor that crashed into the planet and those deposits of metal were very valuable. Nations would go to war over them. Philip José Farmer invented the Riverworld; it was a unique world designed for unknown reasons to hold the afterlife of all humans who died before sometime in the 21st century. The world was one Mississippi sized river bordered by mountains that wrapped around the entire planet in a loop. Along its shores everyone who had ever been born got to live again. The first and best novel in the series centered on Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his quest to build a great steam powered riverboat that could circumnavigate the planet in a goal to find out why Riverworld existed and what the motives of its creators were. Along the way he had to work with evil King John (out of Robin Hood) and he read about the journeys of Richard Burton who was able to explore the world and find its headwaters.
Larry Niven wanted to invent a world, so he took a blue ribbon, laid it on its side and stuck a candle in the middle. Then he expanded the world into his famous Ringworld and the candle at its center became a small sun. One DM I knew invested heavily in Judge’s Guild maps and modules and he strung them together side-by-side to create a ringworld for his home world. Which world will you build, how will it be unique, and what will it have in common with standard D&D worlds?
3) Choosing The Right World
Your choice of a world and its shape should be determined by the kind of campaigns you want to run in it. In a massive world you can fit a whole lot of continents and civilizations, monsters, and everything else. But travel across this world would be a difficult deal, especially if you have to go a large distance. Remember that Teleport only has a 500 mile per level range. If you want a world were all the past people have come to life, then you can do Riverworld. If you want a huge world that is science fiction in origin you can create a ringworld. You could also do a torus (donut shaped) or one of Larry Niven’s early ideas: Diskworld. On Diskworld the sun is at the core the world is flat and there are huge mountains at the outer edge to hold in the atmosphere. As you go closer to the sun you had deserts and hotter people like magma men, as you got further from the center you got colder lands and arctic creatures. You had a huge area to adventure in and that was only counting one side of the world. If you wanted, you could make the outer planes on the flip side and the elemental planes as zones on the disk. Most people will want to stick to a standard spherical world. How will your campaign design shape your world? Do you want to bring back all the famous people of history, do you want a huge area to explore, do you want to have your players discover new lands or do you have something even bolder in mind?
4) What Makes Up A Spherical World?
Most are plates of crust that sit on a molten core. These tectonic plates float on the sea of magma and move around. They may have started as Pangaea, but they have moved around before. Australia has been a past neighbor to India, South America used to be a neighbor to Africa and so on. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is shrinking, and the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider as the plates slowly drift. Half of California and the San Andres plate is shifting north and half of it is shifting south. If you have a world it is theorized that a dynamic ecosystem is due to volcanic action releasing heat and gases into the world which interacted with lightning to create the building blocks of life and went on to form life in the seas. Now it is true this is a theory, no one was around to witness the early earth so we can only make theories about it. This theory is one that is almost universally accepted by the scientific community, but it doesn’t have to be true for your world. Did your world have a more biblical creation by the god(s)? Did they get together and forge the planet out of their imagination? Or do your peoples just believe that? It is your world so you can do anything, and you can make any arguments about how it was formed. Is your world actually a liquid world with floating islands on it, or is it a huge gas world with floating continents moving around in the air cylinder (I once had a world like this and the natives used massive ships that would sail between floating continents). If you use tectonic plates then where they split oceans will form, where they clash mountains will form. Where they rub against each other earthquakes will happen, and where they are thin volcanoes will form. This action will be the major land and sea forming method on many worlds.
5) Water Runs Downhill
This simple and obvious statement is how most of the Earth has been formed, but the action of wind, wave, and running water. Water carved the Grand Canyon and its action has weathered down the mountains. The lack of water causes deserts and where there is too much there are rainforests. Water will always try to flow to the sea and often it dives under the earth and comes to the surface as springs and the headwaters of a river. Both the mighty Columbia River and the Thames River start as small creeks and streams that come together to become a big river that runs to the sea. The Nile river is sourced in Victoria Lake and starts coming across some of the greatest falls in the world, Victoria Falls. It was a major expedition to reach the headwaters; you could plan a similar campaign for your group. Most life and civilizations occur where land meets water. Water is an inescapable need of every living creature (but not always of aberrations or outer planner creatures). Water also makes a great way to travel, you go slower by most river travel, but you can travel 24 hours a day, so you can go faster than if you travel on horseback, and both forms of travel are faster than walking. Bodies of water were early highways for civilization and spread limestone to Egypt, Portuguese merchants to as far away as China and Japan, allowed the colonization of Easter Island, Hawaii, and Australia, and the great English Empire was built on their mighty warships and trading fleet. How will the forces of magic and nature shape your world?
6) Similarities Among Worlds
Most fantasy worlds will develop along similar lines. Most fantasy worlds work in a time period from Hellenistic Greek to Ancient Rome, to the Dark Ages, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, to even the early Industrial Age. When will your time period for your world be set? Hellenistic Greeks and Ancient Rome had bronze plate mail, as steel wasn’t invented until centuries later. Centuries after that gunpowder was invented. When I ran an Ancient Roman World, glass was very rare, so potion vials were clay. On Pacific islands metal was not that common so clubs lined with shark teeth made great weapons. Different time periods and different locations had different technology. It took the Chinese to develop gunpowder. When they did, they used it in everything from life prolonging potions to fireworks. It took the more militant Europeans to develop guns. How would this affect the technology of your world and what equipment is available to the party?
7) The Flow Of History
Why were the Europeans more militant and driven more to explore than the Chinese? A big part of it was their world view. The Chinese called themselves the Middle Kingdom. Once they had united their nation they were happy and didn’t see much of a reason to go out into the world exploring. The Warring States Period was when China tried to unite itself, often under different nations and by different rulers. Sun Tzu lived and wrote during this period and his book on tactics is still studied to this day. The Chinese fought to form one nation as did the Japanese. Over in Europe there were various tribes of barbarians and primitive people. Many of those people were, at one time, ruled from Rome. Rome was comprised of the literal descendants of the Ancient Greeks. In Europe the competing tribes of barbarians took over various lands and used their own language as a basis for those lands. That is why there are so many languages in Europe and their constant rivalry was a bitter issue. The European barbarians first held Rome to ransom and then sacked it. Most Roman statues had their heads cut off and disfigured by the Vandals. That is the root of the world Vandalism. When the Roman Empire fell the Vandals turned their savagery on other tribes and eventually founding Germany and the other nations of Europe. Europe was almost constantly locked in a war of some sort as the various rulers tried to take over or hold onto their lands. This constant competition became a source of great scientific development as well as great human horror like the Black Plague and the Crusades. These two forces had global consequences from trying to oust the Islamic from the Holy Lands to the rise of the middle class. The Islamic Revolution has its roots in the Crusades and the Black Plague finally made the labor of one skilled man valuable and those craftsmen were higher paid and became the merchants, skilled labors, and builders of strong economies. The biggest event in the Forgotten Realms was when the Gods walked the planet and some lost or gained their divinity during this time. The imprisoning of Rovaug, the crash of the spaceship Divinity and the death of the God of Humanity, Aroden were all major events in the development of Golarion. What forces were at work to shape the history of your world?
8) Populating Your World
Now it is time to get down to the smaller scale; where are your various races sourced? Where do they live, where do they come from and where do they want to go? Are humans the most common race, as D&D assumes? Do dwarves come from an underground civilization, are the orcs their rivals and hated foes. Are there Drow in your world? With the light of the Elves should come the evil of the Drow as a counterbalance. What about the dwarves, do they duergar (evil slaver dwarves) exist? Is there an evil counterpart to the gnomes or just the good deep gnomes? Do you have halflings in your world or an evil counterpart to them? Races are the core foundation for civilization and the formation of countries, but humans are rarely allied just by race so often they work against each other, this keeps the humans from taking over from the other races or from exterminating them. Humans are more interested in killing off each other than other races. In Tolkien's world Halflings were jovial people who ate second breakfast and were isolationists. It is not that they didn’t like the biguns of the world, it is just that they thought they lived their lives too strangely, too fast, and with too much magic. Bilbo broke the mold when he became a thief and an adventurer. What are the races of your world and what are the forces; political, racial tensions, or the fight between good and evil that are at work in your world? Don’t feel you have to include a race just because it is in the handbooks and don’t feel that you can’t create an entirely new race just because you want to. What are the politics of your world?
9) What Adventures Are Available?
Now that you have gotten down to this scale you can start to think about what you want your player characters to do. Will they form a hearty band of adventurers on a noble quest like the destruction of an evil relic or are they on the search to restore a kingdom? Or will your group be aimless adventurers gathered for no particular purpose, coming from no particular area, and only going on missions you send them on to kill monsters and get paid for it, by robbing their corpses? This creates a group of murder hobos; people who shiftlessly move around and get rich through petty crime sometimes verging on the felony. Now there is nothing wrong with doing this, if this is what your players want to do, but most DMs have a nobler quest in mind, if not in the vein of Tolkien, then something similar to it. If you create a fantasy world with a new land to be discovered, then you can have your players be either conquistadors or be members of the primitive tribes trying to fight the incoming Europeans. Will you have an Europe analog or a Oriental analog? Most of the character classes are drawn on European models, but monks with a flurry of blows, ninjas and samurai are from an Eastern world and if you don’t have that world represented in your setting, then you will disappoint those players who want to play those type of characters. Of course, the Bard and the Skald came from Scottish and Irish tales and heroes, yet we apply them to entire continents. There were monks in Europe, but they were far more scholarly than adventuring. The monks of the Shaolin Temples were both; keeping vast temples full of records from clay tablets to written books. They also adventured across China as righters of wrongs; dispensers of wisdom and justice. What type of campaigns you want to run will have a major influence in how your form that world, so how do you form your world? What goals will you have in mind for the party and for future parties?
10) Detailing The Histories
A well developed world has history to it; that lends it gravitas, dignity and power. I know a DM who has had the same world for over 20 years, and he brings in changes made by players into each campaign. If you play with him in several games then you learn certain features of his world, what exists and where, and even some things you and get away with in certain areas. I have played in wide ranging games in his world from the pocket dimension to safeguard civilization to an exploration of the catacombs under a megalopolis, to the crushing of a slave uprising. He has a rich developed world with a lot of NPCs both weak and powerful and institutions that have a long history. There are parts of his world that are ignorant of other parts and even pockets that are near impossible to escape from. They use pocket dimensions to house the town’s population and feed and clothe them. Undead can become recognized citizens. There are a lot of unique factors in his world because of his development and because of what he has added to the world over the years that he has been playing.
Golarion has a well developed history because a full team of writers have worked on it. There is an analog to Egypt, China even America. There is an evil empire, a lost world ruled by a demon ape, a crashed spaceship, a Norse analog, a barely restrained demonic invasion, and a crusade against it. There are a lot of factors going on in their world. In contrast Greyhawk had only a little development, because most of it was in mind of Gary Gygax and he didn’t want people to copy what he had done, but to do their own creative work. The Forgotten Worlds was mostly in the mind of Ed Greenwood and so there wasn’t a lot written about it without his approval or permission. He had a limited world because he had a small staff working on it; himself. He was using the world he had developed from his own game, and he just spread it to the larger world. Eberron and the Spelljammer universe were well developed, but aside from the Dragonlance chronicles little went on in the Dragonlance world. I have read about all these campaign worlds and more.
When you build your world, you should take examples and inspirations from other worlds and use it in your own. You can take what you like, ignore what you don’t like, change things around, and be unique all on your own. Happy gaming and happy world building.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
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