As a fairly long-time player of fantasy games, I’ve been a bit of a world-builder for years. My early experiences with Warcraft and its map editors and exposure to Lord of the Rings led me to dabble in creating a number of fantasy worlds of my own–one of which I explored in high school as part of our daily journal assignment and others throughout the years. When I came to Dungeons & Dragons in college, I was rather naturally drawn to the creative aspects of the Dungeon Master and began putting this impulse to use in that role.
A question that I’ve had asked from people seeking to create their own worlds is this: “How do I get started?” To answer that question, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts that take us through the design process for my most recent fantasy world, created for a group that I’m running on Roll20. While I’m tailoring this to a Dungeon Master hoping to create a new world for D&D sessions, a lot of this advice carries over to fantasy writing or other creative outlets quite easily.
Before we even get started on building our world, we need to settle down and determine our goals. It’s fine to throw everything in without any planning, but if that’s going to be the case, why aren’t we using something already established? Why can’t we use the Forgotten Realms or Nentir Vale or something generic like that?
Here’s a sample list of some goals that I established for myself in creating this setting and some questions that I asked to develop these ideas. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list on either side, and sometimes as you create you’ll find additional questions or have goals at odds with one another and need to make decisions. It’s really a back-and-forth process.
Goals: To create a world that encompasses the basic “stuff” of D&D 5e, leaves room for a few unusual or independent things, gives me a good “big picture” view of the world, and provides dynamic forces that leave room for plot hooks and changes–with or without adventurers.
Whew! That sounds like a lot. Let’s break this down and talk about why I had these goals.
- The basics of D&D: As a Dungeon Master, I knew that I would have mostly new players in starting this group, and I didn’t want to limit their selection of material from what they would find in the Player’s Handbook (in case they bought it and felt entitled to use it). Although my players would have probably accepted “You can’t play that because I’m the DM,” this doesn’t cause any resentment at the outset and lets me say “Yes” to my players.
- Unusual or independent features: Partly I wanted to involve my creative impulse, but I also wanted to justify the creation of a new world apart from adapting the Forgotten Realms. On the players’ side, they can find out new or interesting things about the world that won’t be mentioned in the PHB and be rewarded for asking questions and investigating the setting.
- “Big picture” overview: While I recommend starting small in terms of the details (that is, create a single province or region), knowing the major powers of the world and how they interact is helpful for a DM. It provides suggestions for where player characters might hail or where you might first like to develop your setting. On the players’ side, it makes the world feel alive and gives them goals about places they might want to say or groups they can eventually influence to feel impactful on the world.
- A dynamic world: Things are always changing, and creating an engaging world means you have to think about the forces acting upon it. What are the current tensions between different factions? If your players do nothing, what will happen to the world? What might happen as the result of their involvement? Down the road you can use these to give your players a plot hook or introduce a new complication. It also provides motivation for players to stop or help certain in-universe goals.
Finally, let’s look at some of the related questions that guided me in my endeavors.
Question: What does my cosmology look like, and how do I know what I need?
In keeping with my first design goal, I needed to account for all nine of the PHB races (including their subraces) and all twelve of the PHB classes and their options. Importantly for cosmological purposes, there are seven cleric domains that need to be considered in some way.
Question: How do the different races interact, and how did they get to be that way?
D&D comes with a lot of cultural stereotypes for its different races–this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to be addressed. However, I also didn’t want to deviate too far from the PHB portrayals–an elf should recognizably be an elf in this new world. The easiest way to address this is probably to cast the different races as nation-cultures–after all, their physiological differences should lead to some variety–but there’s also the question of three of the PHB races being offshoots of humanity, whatever they are in this setting. In that respect, I really have to account for seven mortal races (taking away half-elves as both parents already exist and tieflings because demons, but then we add in orcs) but still deal with these offshoots in some way.
Question: What do international relations look like?
This provides plot hooks on a grand scale and also answers questions about how easy it will be if my players want to go off the rails. Also, if I’m asking the question at this level, I’m preparing for a sandbox approach that gives me some freedom to improvise if need be.
These weren’t all the questions I asked myself, but you can see some of my concerns in building this new world. Without a plan in mind, it’s harder to make your setting consistent and dynamic, and you may not have all the pieces you eventually find you want. Retroactive continuity can work but only so far. Also, had my goals been different or had I answered these questions differently, I would have come up with a very different setting.
If you’re thinking about becoming a DM and this process daunts you, don’t worry. This is a post for other people, and there’s nothing wrong with using published settings. That’s great, actually–Eberron and Dark Sun and Ravenloft and all of those others have some really cool stuff, so have fun in those worlds. This is just about doing it from scratch.
Next: I show you the basic overview of the setting–then we steal everything we need for a foundation.