D&D World Building Week, Part I: Concepts

Every D&D game world starts out as a blank sphere. What a DM places in it - or chooses not to place in it - is what makes for memorable campaigns.

One of the goals of the RPG Athenaeum is to provide useful material for readers to employ in their Dungeons & Dragons games, whether these games take place in settings modified from published material or entirely of their own creation. This blog hasn’t, however, addressed the topic of how dungeon masters (DMs) might go about creating unique settings for their players; less experienced DMs may not even know where to start. World Building Week, a five-post series on “homebrew” campaign construction beginning today, is directed toward these DMs in particular.

Throughout this series, the posts will refer to this writer’s most recent homebrew campaign setting. Continually referencing the same setting will hopefully clarify the manner in which the various topics contribute to the whole.

The first post in this series discusses campaign theme.Let us begin by saying that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with using the rules of any edition of D&D as written, and using all officially produced material for those respective editions, especially for players and DMs new to the game. Indeed, one needs to run at least one campaign “by the book” to discover areas of the rules that may need to be modified or ignored by one’s specific gaming group. That being said, it’s also important to recognize that a time will come when players will become weary of wizards with pointy hats, elves that look and act like Legolas and human fighter-types that could pass for Conan. When that moment arrives, it’s time for something more than generic D&D campaigning; in such a case, the DM needs to provide an engaging setting that makes the players want to learn more about it. That type of setting is rooted in having a firm campaign theme, which guides DM and player choices about other elements of the setting.

Choosing your campaign theme

A campaign theme can be loosely defined as a handful of concepts that summarize what the campaign is about. Usually, these concepts are short phrases, like Roman Empire, ice world, city campaign, elves vs. dwarves, bronze age technology, pirate archipelago or thieves’ guild campaign. It helps to brainstorm these concepts with players, since DMs who don’t seek player input run the risk of creating a setting nobobdy really wants to explore, and such campaigns usually fail after a few sessions. It’s important for the DM to bring several ideas to this meeting, that players may build upon or voice their lack of interest in them. Often, rejected DM-generated ideas will spark an idea about what players really do want.

After conducting as much brainstorming as the players are inclined to do, the group needs to narrow the list of concepts to a workable number. Often, reducing the list to eight concepts, then five, then three or four usually works. This handful of concepts will guide numerous future choices, so it’s important to get some degree of comfort from everyone present before proceeding.

For our example campaign, the concepts were:

  • Riders of Rohan
  • Roman Legions
  • Aftermath of a great war
  • Scottish Highlanders

The great heresy

At this point, we’re about to do the unspeakable: using those concepts, decide what official material will not be used in this particular campaign. It may seem counter-intuitive to do so, since game manufacturers label every one of their products as “must-haves” for players. However, as the The No Dandelion-Eaters Campaign illustrates, it isn’t necessary to include every official class, race, or monster in the game for it to be fun. Often, the act of selecting what will and won’t appear is what makes a campaign unique.

Since the example campaign was to be our group’s first foray into fourth edition (4e) D&D, we decided not to restrict core player character classes or choices, although we did choose to use only the 4e Players Handbook for the entire campaign (the system was new to us, after all, and there are just under 1,000 different combinations of race, class, paragon path and epic destiny presented in that one volume).

The concepts we chose restricted our choice of terrain a bit. After all, a tractless swamp full of lizardfolk could exist in the campaign area, but nobldy was really interested in fighting or interacting with them, so what was the point of including them in the game? The culture inspired by Rohan would need plenty of plains or steppes for their mounts, the Scottish Highlander-types needed, well, highlands, and the culture with Roman-style legions would probably want the areas of rolling hills between the horsemen and highlanders. As DM, I chose to focus on monsters dwelling in those three terrain types, augmented by subterranean, extra-planar or other-worldly foes.

After deciding what won’t be used, it’s time to do some basic cartography and create a set of central conflicts; those topics will be discussed in tomorrow’s post.


9 comments on “D&D World Building Week, Part I: Concepts

  1. Philo Pharynx says:

    “Every D&D game world starts out as a blank sphere.” How limiting 😉

    One issue that must be considered before anything else is how much does a player need to know, and how much will your players put into learning the world? One reason why the “standard generic Tolkienesque world” is so common is because it’s easy. Players already know enough to develop a character. Some people are willing to delve deep into multiple sourcebooks to understand the world and the situation. Other people want to be told the differences in five minutes and then go. An easy way to show the difference is thedifferences between the Forgotten Realms, Eberron and Dark Sun. FR is an easy world to get into. A player can say “I want to play an Elf Ranger” and it’s easy to figure out some of the places they can come from. In Eberron, it’s a little more complicated. There’s more low-level magic in the world, the races don’t have the traditional backgrounds, and there’s been a continent-spanning war. But you can usually get a player into the major differences in under an hour and most concepts work with a little tweaking. Dark Sun is very different – the nature of magic is different, iron weapons are rare, the terrain is unfamiliar, and many races are changed. A player who doesn’t read any of the source material is going to have a hard time understanding the world.

    Once you figure out how much change your players are willing to take, then you can “budget” where you want to tweak. Some of the things you might consider are: Geography, cosmology, magic, racial stats, racial cultures, class stats, class cultures, nations, monsters, history. It’s important to keep a certain amount of things the same to give players a reference. And for what you change, there’s addition, deletion and modification. You’ve mentioned deletion, but each of the above worlds also includes adding and modifying unique elements.

    Many players would have a hard time learning a world with no gods on a mobius strip around the sun with entirely new races and classes. But by picking a few familiar elements, you can tweak others. Keep the mobius strip and have divine powers based on philosophical beliefs instead of gods. But if you include the standard races and classes, there’s something familiar for players to hold onto. More adventuresome players might delve deeper into your new races, but you aren’t forcing them on everybody.

    • Alric says:

      “Every D&D game world starts out as a blank sphere.” How limiting 😉

      Smarty pants. You try to find a royalty-free picture for fantasy world building – it’s not as easy as it looks. 😛

      Good points all around, Philo. Especially the part about keeping some aspects of the world design from players, and modifying instead of deleting items.

      Nice hearing from you again, by the way.

  2. […] Yesterday’s post described some methods for developing themes for a new D&D “homebrew” setting. With the brainstorming finished and a handful of guiding concepts at hand, it’s time to start building the framework for the campaign. In the approach discussed here, this step begins with a regional campaign map. […]

  3. […] a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I and Part II before continuing […]

  4. […] a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II and Part III before continuing […]

  5. […] D&D World Building Week, Part I: Concepts D&D World Building Week, Part II: Cartography and Conflicts D&D World Building Week, Part III: History D&D World Building Week, Part IV: Culture The last four links for this week are from The RPG Athenaeum, and they are the best four articles that I’ve seen in a long time on world building. There are major sections of books and even some entire books on the topic, and I’ve not seen anything better than the advice given on this blog. I hope the series continues and maintains the fine standards that they have held themselves up to. If you’re interested in starting your own fantasy world for any reason, check out what these guys have to say. var addthis_pub = ''; var addthis_language = 'en';var addthis_options = 'email, favorites, digg, delicious, myspace, google, facebook, reddit, live, more'; […]

  6. […] a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV before continuing […]

  7. Rane says:

    Thanks for posting these. They’ve really helped me build my island campaign setting.

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