How is it that some GM's are able to craft beautiful, deeply engaging game worlds and others never come even close? The answer is simple my friends – they try! A thousand times if need be until the end result is adequate. In life, like all things this too requires time and believe me when I say this to you, it will be time well spent. Let us dive in and explore some of the main accents of World building together!
First, let me mention something real quick – to have an enjoyable D&D game your GM can use any of the many thousands of modules available out there, or simply use a well-established world. It is a lot more rewarding though when you create everything from scratch. So let me, the lowly scrub, present you with my way of doing things. There are many ways, but this one is mine. You are welcome to adopt it in its entirety or promptly dismember it and drag the gory piece you loved back to your GM cave.
1)All Worlds should have a skeleton!
Yes, when I create my new game world what I do start with forging first are its bones. What are the bones of a world you ask? It is its map, the way it looks and feels to those who stride along its dusty roads and trek along the high peaks or gasp desperately for their last breath of air while drowning in its seas and lakes. Having a discernible topography will greatly aid everything else that you do. Do try and think of something interesting here – perhaps there is an area in your world plagued by frequent earthquake activity? Gale winds that strip the unfortunate travelers' flesh from their bones? Flash floods? Yes, the climate is as much part of your game as the monster bugs lurking beneath the sands of that desert, you just scribbled on that piece of paper. Whatever the size of that map it must be visualized. Ah, but I can't draw to save me' life you exclaim! My answer is – me too. Don't worry, that map is for your exclusive use only and you can use anything really. Last time I scribbled on a napkin using one old rotten pencil. For this you can either use technology or get full medieval – it matters not, the end result should be sturdy enough so that one can add the rest. Those of you who are tech savvy might make use of any and all existing map making software that is available on the net.
2)Add the muscle, flesh, and sinew the already shaped bones of your world.
Now that you have that map you should think of populating it with... well everything really. You should start with the nations first. A Kingdom here and Empire there, a sprinkle of barbarian or dwarven clans roaming around those mountains, the “Sea of Doom(TM)” pirates pillaging the seashores of that sea on the edge of the napkin. After you thought of the nation's names (for the lazy ones there are name generators) it is time to consider what races and monsters you will have populating the lands, where each of them are living, and why are all of them killing each other over that piece of strange rock over there in the center of your map. Seriously. Sometimes a game world can be that much more engaging if your players know or experience first hand its quirky cultural differences. I mean nothing screams fun more loudly than a tribe of halfling goat herders, who have an age long vendetta with local sheep herding dwarves, beating each other over the heads with clubs creaming - “We wuz here first!” or “Zat grass bilongs to uz!” It is important also to have clearly defined borders and settlements, important centers of civilization that your characters can visit in between their adventures, get robbed out of their hard-earned loot and chopped to bits by the local Assassin guild goons. One important note – that world of yours needs to feel alive. Did I say alive? Yes, I did! No, you can't have it dragging its rotten corpse around. A good thing to do after putting all of those races and monsters in and defining those Empires is crafting an overarching plan on what is happening in the back. That makes the players feel as part of a real working world. A war here, an asteroid hit there, just like before it is your world and you decide what is happening in it. Meanwhile, your players are questing to find Mrs. Bagels missing cat...
3)The skin of your world is Religion.
To hold all of that meaty goodness in check your creation needs a creation myth. And Gods. A Pantheon populated by a bunch of douchebags who talk and act like mortals but have the power to obliterate the world. Or pick no more than six Gods and create them yourself. You can either base them on any of those existing polytheistic religions of our past and get creative. It is important to note that a lot of classes draw their power from a divine source, therefore your creations should be fleshed out clearly enough so that the Players aren't annoyed as hell when they try and choose themselves a deity. It really kills the fun when your Paladin, for example, is unable to find a God to follow since you have only Dark ones, or the Manically evil wizard has to choose from a group of giggling care bears shooting rainbows from their asses.
4)Put some clothes on to cover yourself.
After all that building, tinkering and drawing on napkins it is high time to clothe your creation. Yes, it is fluff time! You can spend a lot of time polishing your world now, obviously creating the overall history of an entire world can be a somewhat daunting mission. Thankfully you spent all of that time before and you have a good foundation to step on – everything is easy when you know who lives where whimpers and moans before such and such godly statues and why the goat herders hate those dwarves so very much. Everything goes here! Ancient cataclysmic events, invasions by otherworldly beings, entire nations slaughtered because of one person's foolish ambition etc, etc. My personal advice is – do not go overboard with this! You now have done most of your GM work and can relax a little bit, have something to drink. Fluffing out the world that you've just created requires more work but that can be done later. This is the moment that you can write some in-depth notes on this and that ancient ruler or archmage and start legend building.
To me and most other GM's, world building is one of the most rewarding experiences! I dare say in the end, it feels somewhat better than running the game itself. Almost...
5.) Now that your body of work is complete (pun completely intended), and clothed in brilliance with ample opportunity for adventure let’s move onto the spirit of the game – thematics. Theme is essential to any story as it colors the sculpted world around the characters. Whether the story revolves around something direct like vengeance, or more abstract concepts such as transformation, any theme can be pulled off well in nearly every setting you’ve already devised in your world. If the theme is centered around a concrete thing like vengeance there are a multitude of ways it can be done. It’s quite possible the characters may have wronged someone in the past and a survivor or relative of that wronged person has been setting out to destroy them. A regular Moriarty to the characters in the universe you’ve made. The same concept can be turned around easily as well having the party at the table being the ones hunting for vengeance. This thematic can happen in nearly any part of the world you’ve made and bring interesting character elements from the NPC’s and the Party into play as vengeance is sought from either camp. Abstract themes usually are played out quite differently and don’t tend to rely on the PC’s much unless it’s instilled in them. The abstraction allows for you the creator of the world to use things like symbolism or folklore within the universe to show the characters something, whether that something is about themselves or some other greater lesson is up to you as the artist. Usually, abstract themes should be left to someone who has really felt out the mood and type of players they are dealing with ahead of the campaign as you will probably need to know if the players will take an interest in a story devised around obscure meanings and clues.
6.) Regardless of your choice in concrete or abstract themes, there’s a sister half to the spirit of the game and world you’ve built. Pacing! Although it may seem obvious to some it’s not, pacing depending on how you set it can totally change the interpretation of the theme you’ve laid out in your universe. I’ll present some examples and show you how this can be greatly effective to consider or can be damaging some of the foundations of your universe when done poorly. Fast-paced stories set in a world that are quick, and ever-changing make excellent role play games. Maybe some political espionage, a battlefield in conflict or even a simple quick dungeon delve going from bad to worse quickly can be overwhelmingly exciting for everyone. However, if a faster pace is used where it would be out of place it can break some aspect of your universe, can don’t mean will. A great example of this can be an investigation like theme, where the enemy has a large head start on the characters. Allowing for the arch enemy to prepare many a dangerous trap, terrible beasties or misleading clues ahead of the party. If the pacing is too quick or the party tries to push ahead of the pacing, important clues can be missed and monsters can gain the upper hand in an ambush easily. If a character is in a world where there is a large arid wasteland or you’d like the theme of the story to center around survival, a place that the characters within such a theme/place you’ve created a brilliant opportunity. If you pace it quickly it could become a search and rescues type of adventure where someone has been out in the wastes for far too long and the monsters, like buzzards, are circling in for the kill. Alternatively, you can create a situation where the players must act cautiously in order to survive, grinding the pacing to a near standstill as every second and close could result in death, players trying to outpace the game here can get killed easily or kill others just as quickly. Fast-paced action or slow meticulous investigations, whatever fits into your beautifully crafted and layers world it’s important to keep in mind that fun is still the optimal goal we are trying to achieve as Masters of our self-built Universes. So if players aren't enjoying the pacing of the game or seem to be getting restless, switch it up.
Throwing curve-balls at the party is a sure way to grab the attention back to the table and into your world. I hope I’ve laid it the best case possible to show how theme and pacing are in essence the spirit of a roleplaying game set within the universe you’ve made. Both world building and story-craft are really the largest tools in any Game/Dungeon Masters arsenal, both only become better with every consideration and use. Space operas, fantastic fantasy realms, modern dramas or even post-apocalyptic hell zones all when using both of these tools only become more alluring to the people at the table. So with your maps, factions, religions, regions, themes, pacing and friends in mind, we hope that we’ve been able to prepare you will in the creation of your universe and the exciting adventures within in it!
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