D&D world building is a giant task. You have to make an entire world with governments, kingdoms, and think of almost everything for your players. Or do you?
D&D world building is a large task. Most dungeon masters try to do too much. Figure out the focus of the game, if it is necessary, and who needs to know what.
When designing the world there are quite a few time sinks that dungeon masters fall into. Today we will help you avoid those pitfalls and focus on what really matters.
There are a few things that you need to keep in mind at all times.
- Is this necessary?
- Are the players still the focus of my game?
- What do the players need to know?
- What do I need to know?
I know that asking if something is necessary seems like a stupid question but think about it. How many times have you made stuff that the party has never discovered? All your hard work was for naught and it sucks but is generally okay.
Now imagine that with an entire world. Imagine your players only discovering 5% of what you have spent your personal time making. This is how it generally is and many dungeon masters fall into the trap of making far too much.
Making an entire world is a large task, but you can do it piece by piece. You do not have to do everything all at once like many dungeon masters who build their first world do.
The next important point is to ask if the players are still the focus of your game. If you are designing far off kingdoms that they will never visit, are they the focus of your game? The answer is no, so stop doing it. This might be cool for a different group but your time is valuable. Spend it on things that matter for your game now and perhaps one day you can figure out that area.
Following step number 2 will also help you to avoid the problem of railroading your players. There is a difference between railroading and a linear game. If you are curious about it read this article here that fully describes railroading.
This step also stops your NPCs from overshadowing your players. Many times when players world build they make awesome NPCs that they want to show the players. The players are now an afterthought and this should never be the case.
Step number 3 keeps you grounded like step #2 and gives you an idea of what to prepare. Do the players need to know how the government works in depth? Do they need to understand the basic laws of the city? What about crime? Is it essential to your campaign?
These questions will be the crux of figuring out what you should do with your world. We can spend all the time we want making a bureaucratic system, but how impactful will it really be to the players? Do they care how government works?
Most likely not so plan things that are important to players. The thieves guild’s inner workings are not that important unless the players will directly encounter the guild. Now protocol and infrastructure along with a system of order is essential.
The last step is about prepping for yourself.
Step number 4 helps you cover all your bases. If you need to know who the boss is for the thieves guild then plan it. Figure out what you need to know that the players don’t. Have it be a natural extension from what the players know.
Think of why they want to know something or what they will ask questions about. This gives you an idea to what extent you need to prepare. You will not have to make everything up about the city, just figure out what is immediate to the players. If you need to continue to build your world, you can do it piece by piece.
Building piece by piece
When any dungeon master starts D&D world building they want to do it all in a week long session. They go crazy making every aspect of the worldd and don’t see the light of day until they are finished.
This is a bit of an exaggeration but I know some dungeon masters who have done this. Instead of spending all of your time building up everything make it piece by piece.
I mentioned in the first paragraph how D&D world building takes time. You should only do what you need to and no more. This allows you to build piece by piece.
After a year of building your world piece by piece you will have a mostly full fledged world. You will still be able to add to it, but a few countries probably have been explored. You have made a small part of the world and leave other parts ready to be explored for future games.
The trick that most dungeon masters don’t understand that good D&D world building involves never finishing that world. There should always be a sense of wonder and discovery for you and your players. Something new should always be possible.
You also do not have to do this alone. You can let your players help you. Sometimes players ask intelligent questions. I emphasize sometimes since most groups have players ask an intelligent question 1 out of 5 times. But those 1 out of 5 times can help you craft your world.
Suppose that you have them go into a city. You have figured out the guard, the general layout, and what the players might be interested in. The players then decide that they want to adopt a child on the spot. Why do you ask? They are players that’s why!
You cannot prepare for every situation. That is what makes being a dungeon master fun. In those situations clarify what their intents are and then try to figure something out that makes sense.
Perhaps this city just went through a war and has a lot of orphans. They will be able to possibly get an orphan for free. Maybe the city is normal and has a bureaucratic process that takes time. If so do that, but make your decision based on the world/city that you have created.
I talked about essential information, but what is it? What exactly should you know before the game starts?
What game are you running?
I made an article about sandbox vs linear games that you should check out. Once you know what game you are running it is easier to plan for.
When I run sandbox games I prepare a bunch of situation and environments for the players to explore. Are any of them cannon to my world? Whatever the players explore are! For the rest, eh maybe. They were just some half baked ideas.
For a linear game, I would make sure that every environment that the players encounter was important.
A sandbox game is a bit looser by nature and thus the rules that make up the world are more flexible. A linear game is the opposite.
Now that you have this in mind, lets get into some things that you should know before you start the game.
The 5 questions
You have the type of game you want to run in mind. If it is a sandbox you can skip this step for a little bit but you need to figure it out sooner rather than later. For linear games, you need to answer 5 questions before you begin. Here are the 5 questions.
- Magic. How does it work?
- What technology level are you at?
- How dangerous is the world?
- How do the gods factor in?
- How are adventurers treated?
Almost all of these questions are world wide. This means that when you answer them they will affect every area of your world.
The reason why the 1st question is essential to D&D world building is because magic is huge in D&D. It is huge in most games, so you must figure out how prevalent it is.
Is the world at large a barely budding bloom of magic? Low magic can lead to many problems for some players and if your world is low magic you need to tell players.
On the flip side a high magic world can be the source of many interesting things. How far has magic integrated into daily life? Will the players get magic items more easily now? Will the players have to face more magically adept enemies?
A normal amount of magic is also fine but you must figure out how it would change daily life. Are wizards feared or respected? Is magic blood magic, made by a weave, held as the fabric of the universe that when manipulated enough makes distortions happen? Lastly, how have the gods dealt with magic?
These are huge questions that can change how any campaign is run. You cannot have a group of wizards run around in a moderate magic level setting when all the magic is held by the church. At least, the group will not have an easy time like normal.
What caused this outlook on magic? Was there a global catastrophe? Has magic ever not worked? Is magic reliable or does it only seem reliable?
You have a lot of questions to answer regarding magic, but there are other questions that you need to answer.
D&D world building hinges on magic and technology. Your techinology level can completely change your whole world. Do you have guns? How has that affected normal mages and armies? Is there an integration of technology and magic?
Almost every civilization that has magic and technology should naturally try to combine the two unless one is vastly superior. For example, we have enchanted equipment. This is magic integrating with technology, but there can be much more.
Golems made of steel and infused with magic are called iron golems. In a 3.5 D&D setting, Eberron, they had magic trains and flying ships. Is your technology and magic at this level? Why not?
You need to think deeply about your technology and ask ‘why has no one done this?’ If you cannot find a good reason why it hasn’t been done then make it a thing. Your players will like your originality.
With technology, you can make the normal tropes apply. This is a lazy D&D world building prep but it can be efficient if technology will not be important in your game. Magic always will be, and technology can be too, but you can gloss over technology unless you have inquisitive players.
One thing that you cannot gloss over though are the dangers in the world.
A dangerous world?
How dangerous is your world? In D&D world building we have a ton of magical creatures at our disposal. So much so that normal civilization is not viable. You cannot just live out in the wild as a level 1 hermit. You will die.
Kingdoms were built in our world because of the danger we posed to each other. How dangerous are these magical beasts? Is it so dangerous that travel is almost impossible?
You can make a really cool campaign by answering this question with ‘deadly.’ If the world is deadly then the kingdom your players are in might not have contact with anyone else. For all they know they are alone in the world.
If the world has a lot of dangerous creatures like owlbears then the knights or town guard should probably be a bit stronger. Or do they solely rely on adventurers? This is answered more in question 5 but is still important.
The danger of your world will affect how kingdoms are formed, how important adventurers are, and almost every aspect of daily life. Not many consider this when doing their D&D world building but you can do better than them!
The gods are a whole other story together.
In D&D the gods exist without a doubt. Or do they? In a normal setting, the god’s hands are everywhere. It is pretty hard to be an atheist when clerics are performing miracles daily by praying. It is even harder to not believe when the gods have shown themselves to mortals.
Because most D&D settings have gods and clerics you need to consider the implications. When D&D world building how do you think being able to cure any would change the world? How about getting rid of disease? Raising the dead?
Now imagine that these spells are either costly or given an artificial cost by a religious organization.
All of the world’s problems can be solved but people are greedy. How influential are the rich in these religious institutions?
Forget the mortals, how are the gods themselves? Are they like greek goods or are they decent beings? How did they gain their power and why are there even gods in the first place? Do they even need us or our prayers?
You might not need to go too deep into it like I just did, but you do need to answer a lot of these questions. Primarily, how does having active gods around influence the world? It is a big question but one that needs to be answered.
Now onto our last important question.
How are adventurers treated?
Did you know that your players are adventurers? Of course, you did, that is why you need to know how adventurers are treated. This directly applies to the players and is something that they should either be aware of or get to know.
My players, for example, are in a world where adventurers are viewed in a good light. They are viewed in the same light how we view rich people. We look up to them and think that they are cool/are happy for what we get from them. (Jobs, technology, and more) But we also are a bit jealous.
You might look up to a rich person thinking that they are respectable for being rich, but deep down you want that wealth. You want that power and sometimes you can be a bit abrasive or even dismissive of them.
If rich people had superpowers and there was a task force to keep them in control that task force might end up with never-ending bureaucracy that makes these people despise adventurers.
Your players are rich people with super powers. In some areas of the world they might be treated differently but you have to think of how your part of the world. How are adventurers treated there? Are they just pests who only bring trouble?
There are many different ways to view adventurers and some opinions may vary but it is good to have an idea of how they will mostly be treated throughout the world.
A closing thought on how the world treats adventurers. Normal medival warfare doesn’t work. When magic is involved lines of people is stupid. Therefore, how are wars fought? Are they fought with small groups of around 5 people? If so, your adventurers might try to be recruited by the military or be viewed as military. Always something to think about.
There are lastly, some other D&D world building miscellaneous considerations that you should think of.
Here is where you start after you finish the other questions. Make the world and pick a place. Imagine how the land, sea, rivers, mountains, forests and more affect the kingdom.
You need to factor in geography into your game. It gives a sense of realism for things and makes sense. Would a landlocked nation be known for it’s boat making skills? If yes that can be quite a story but unlikely. Figure out why these areas are the kingdom’s borders.
This should only take a little bit after you have put in some random mountains, rivers, lakes, islands, and the sea.
Once you have geography done for your world (it should only take 5 minutes, don’t overthink it) then you need to make A kingdom. Again, only make 1 kingdom to start with. Otherwise, you are doing too much D&D world building
The players are in a kingdom. Who rules it, what is the system of government like and how are the officials? Are they corrupt, lazy, at war?
I can go on with a long list of what you need to think of for a kingdom, but here are 3 guidelines to help you not to waste your valuable time.
- Dominant race.
- Political system.
- Economy (poor, rich, what does it run on)
If you can answer these 3 questions you should be in great shape. You can do other things like mention the capital, how the kingdom’s general feel is (good, corrupt, etc) but that is something that will be felt out while playing.
Your players will get their own opinions and you can adopt them into being part of the kingdom. Just let your players know who is the dominant race and if it matters (usually will), the political system for when they gain levels and how the economy works.
There are lastly a few miscellaneous points I will mention.
Last miscellaneous bits
Only focus on these pieces if they are important to your game. You can choose to only use 1 or 2 of these and you can get an entire campaign out of them but they are not all necessary to make your world come alive.
Other Kingdoms and their relationships.
Great or recent Great wars.
Odd world quirks (multiple suns, moons, solar system/planets if relevant)
Are you alone? If not what else exists and why? (generally this is covered in D&D but you can make up even more monsters or reasons for why things exist. Think of the old gods that a warlock can be patroned to. Who are they and why are they not like normal gods?)
Where do people actually come from?
Vices in your world. (drugs and such)
These are some interesting D&D world building bits, but before we get to the conclusion I need to say something.
Do not over prep! You do not have to do this alone!
You can let your players add flair to the world. If a player wants to play a crazy elf and that is the only elf, you can make every elf a little crazy. If players ask why guards are so incompetent, make it a thing. Guards aren’t trained well etc.
Also, do not do too much. You don’t need to make the whole world.
Start small and work your way up.
Make what is relevant to your players and your time will not be wasted.
I hope that I have been able to help guide you in your D&D world building.
Not everyone wants to be locked in a room for a week creating a fictional world that may or may not be seen. If you follow these steps you will have a functioning small piece of your world that can be easily built upon.
I hope that you understand what matters in D&D world building. It is like making a puzzle. Go piece by piece.
Did you like the 5 steps? I know there is a lot of miscellaneous information at the end but the 5 steps should help you create a solid world.
This has been Wizo and keep rolling!