Worldbuilding. A term that represents the process by which a DM creates, populates, and defines the history, geography, political borders, creatures, peoples, religions, economies, and cultures of her or his world.
One of the challenges of beginning your tenure as a Dungeon Master is the overwhelming nature of creating your own world from scratch. It’s a daunting task to undertake. Luckily, you don’t have to know every little detail about your world before your first game.
In fact, I would seek to persuade you to leave room for your players and yourself to develop the world as your game progresses. Here is why:
1. Players are more engaged in the game when they have contributed to the world
This is a statement that I want to greatly emphasize.
D&D is a collaborative storytelling game. This is not to say the entire world should be developed by the DM and players together. That process would most likely be difficult and time consuming and might not be very fun for either party. The collaboration comes in naturally through the player characters’ backstories.
When the players develop their characters’ backstories for the game, encourage them to think of the village, town, city, or wilderness area the character grew up in. If the character is a sailor, have them come up with one or two places they have sailed and the people, or monsters they encountered there. If the character is a rogue, maybe they escaped from an assassin’s guild and have been on the run from its members since. If he or she was a farmer, have the player create the town or village nearest to the farm and a couple key NPCs who live there, what crops or livestock they raised, how and when they transported goods to market.
Players love encountering a place, NPC, item, or monster that they created. I know because I’ve been that player and I’ve felt the thrill of recognition when the party encounters someone or some place from my backstory. When you as a DM get to bring something your players have dreamed to life, it is an amazing feeling and one of the reasons D&D is such a unique form of entertainment.
2. Players like to discover new things in the world
Exploration is a key reason open-world RPG video games like Skyrim are so popular. I have found on several occasions that players enjoy feeling as though they have made a discovery that no one else in the world (as far as their characters know) has made. It makes the world seem real, living, breathing, fresh. It adds complexity to the world. It can revive a story line that has stagnated or grown stale. It can be a nice break from dashing after villains and rescuing townsfolk. Additionally, the exploration doesn’t have to take long. It can be a couple hours of a game or a single play session representing a few minutes or an evening for the characters.
Let me give you an example from an online game I ran a few months ago. The players were on a time-sensitive mission to travel to a monastery to warn the monks of an imminent attack from unknown assailants. They made camp for the night in the shelter of a bluff. While they were setting up camp, they noticed carvings on a few large round stones. Upon further investigation, they discovered that the stones, when placed in series of recesses, opened a 30-foot tall door hidden among the cracks and lines of the bluff.
Entering, the players found themselves in a very old stone building hewed from the interior of the bluff itself, replete with columns and high ceilings. They discovered a stone-carved axe that was longer than the characters’ bodies. From these clues, they surmised that some sort of giant, most likely a stone giant, dwelt there centuries before.
(Note: this exploration took approximately 3 hours of play time and about an hour of in-game time, which didn’t detract from the characters’ time-sensitive mission.)
Reasons I believe the Stone Giant Outpost exploration was successful:
- Didn’t detract from the primary mission
- Players made the discovery of what the purpose of the building was and who had lived there without help from the DM
- They obtained a few interesting items
- It was an open space with rooms and floors that the players could explore in parallel, rather than traveling along a single, serial path.
Ways to keep explorations fun:
- Keep it short
- Only ask for a single roll from the players for each activity rather than asking for a roll in every room
- Plant a few obvious clues about the place’s history for the players to find and synthesize
3. Your creativity needs to be recharged
You’ve probably heard of writer’s block and I believe this applies to DMing as well. You have a well of inspiration and ideas in your mind and when you plumb the well to its depths, you need to allow time for the well to refill. One technique that I have found to be particularly effective in worldbuilding is what I call ‘seeding’.
Seeding is a process of developing story ideas or elements of the world in which you brainstorm a few ideas, record them, and leave them alone for a week or a few days. Then you come back to the ideas and develop them further with fresh eyes, fresh inspiration. After enough time, you will have a fully-fledged story idea or world element that’s ready for implementation in your game.
One way I do this is by keeping a Word document for each region of my world. This may be a city, a wilderness region defined by type of terrain, or a political region. I initially brainstorm a few ideas about what monster lairs, roving bands of humanoid creatures, ruins, and settlements exist in the area. In the initial phase, this may be a very loose idea: what type of monster, what type of settlement. The ‘nurture’ phase involves creating key NPCs, planting magical items in the lairs and dungeons, coming up with defining characteristics of the town. Finally, I find a place in my story to deploy the element. In the preparation for the session, I finalize details, names, maps, motivations of important enemies or NPCs, and then drop the lead for my players.
4. You can mold the world to enable and enhance the story
If you enjoy learning about bettering your DMing skills, I recommend Matt Colville’s YouTube channel ‘Running the Game’. It is an excellent series of videos in which a very experienced DM and game designer gives advice on the trade. In several of Matt’s videos he mentions a concept that he refers to as ‘leaving space’.
What this means is that the DM doesn’t have everything about the dungeon, the town, the monster lair completely set in stone. There are some things the DM doesn’t know about the story. This ‘leaves space’ in the story for the players to fill in details. Maybe the DM has a backup plan for how the players are going to get into the dungeon, but she or he would allow the players to come up with their own ideas and try them before introducing this backup way.
For example, maybe the players fought a troll on the banks of a lake near a waterfall. Where is the troll’s treasure? Maybe the players decide to swim to the bottom of the lake, maybe they look behind the waterfall, maybe they try to find troll tracks leading away from the lake into the forest. If you have already decided that the troll’s treasure will be hidden up the cliff inside a cave, you may be less willing to concede to the players’ creative ideas.
This isn’t to say that the first idea the players have should always be the “correct” one. But when the players get to experience the excitement of one of their hunches being correct it makes them feel smart and increases their immersion in the fantasy.
As another point, let’s say the characters are on their way to defeat a dragon and return a stolen item to its rightful owner. You know the level the characters are and you know the challenge rating of the dragon. You’re a little worried that they might get their tails handed to them. Of course, the players don’t know how much more powerful the dragon is than them; their characters might have a vague estimation of their own ability, but this is very different from knowing that the characters have 70 hp each and the dragon does an average of 100 hp of damage per fire breath.
Maybe you decide to give the characters some advantages. If you plan out every detail of your world up front, there might not be a convenient story way to drop some magic items and potions of fire resistance into their path. However, if you’ve left some details undecided, you have more freedom to drop in an abandoned wizard’s tower, a secret temple of a healing god, or the home of a retired, reclusive, legendary dragon slayer with a secret weapon (literally).
Building your own fantasy world is a lot of fun. I hope these tips enable you to break the process down into smaller tasks and create an evolving, exciting world for you and your players.