Interested in D&D World Building? This multi-part guide will help you create stunning, immersive worlds any player will get lost in. Right now we just have part one, the basics—check back often for parts 2-5!
D&D World Building, Part One: The Basics
Two armies bellow war-cries on opposite sides of a massive, splintered stretch of land; clarion calls of brass instrumentation clashing violently with a growly howl emerging from the throats of massive, canid berserkers.
Pirate ships grafted with large, floating jellyfish swing through the skies, belching fire and steel into the fleshy sacs of lighter-than-air gas that keep the vessels aloft.
Gods bicker and connive, each scrying upon their legions of worshipers, muttering prophecy and damnation upon the collective unconscious of the world’s web of life. Things skitter in the dark; the less said of them, the better. A child awakes in a tent, stretches, and climbs a tree: they witness a spectacular sight of twin suns rising over the verdant paradise they call “home”.
What do all these things have in common? Somebody thought them up, and decided that it would be fun to explore these worlds. Let’s figure out how to let YOUR world shine through in the world’s greatest role-playing game: Dungeons and Dragons.
Before Greyhawk, before Faerun, before the Forgotten Realms, there was a man in a basement, playing war games with fellow historic enthusiasts, and later, his own children. This man was Gary Gygax: the creator of Dungeons and Dragons.
His worlds were severe: one mistake would cost you immensely! Your life, your gold, your weapons: even the clothes on your back could be melted in the threshold of a green ooze.
Dungeons crawling with chaos, nefarious beasts, ingenious traps, and frightening spells all kept treasures out of the reach of the crazed adventurers seeking to lay claim. And as the adventures woven by Gygax piled up, he naturally began to do what humans do best: find ties together, and weave these individual adventures into tapestries of storytelling.
Shaped by events and consequences, a world was born—not through volcanic upheaval, clashing of tectonic plates, and downpours of rain—but by words, the clattering of dice, and the sudden surges of inspiration one gets when adrenaline and cortisol clash in a cocktail of neurostimulants.
Making a world is NOT an easy task; after all, if it was easy, why would we be paying for those awesome hardcovers filled to the brim with detail, characters, countries, organizations, and the monsters fighting to tear it all down? Whether running a sandbox campaign, where every road leads to a town, city, port, or dead-end, or a perfectly planned episodic adventure, a world is needed to provide events, inspiration, and intrigue to the players at your table.
So how does one make a world? The answer is actually quite simple: SLOWLY.
The Four Things You Need to Forge a World
Without an idea, a world cannot be born. Whether it be a world based on the xenophobic, paranoid, culture-clash climate of the Cold War, only set in a wizard-dominated caste system, or a ripoff of Game of Thrones (call it Activity of Empires), before any town is constructed, child born, or mountain razed to the ground, you must have an idea, a seed, for the world to be built around. Often, asking yourself the question “What if X, but with Y and Z?” is a great way to get the creative juices flowing. Inspiration, after all, is just stealing from so many different things, it’s hard to tell what you took from in the first place! Watch some movies, listen to music, and read! All of these ideas will mix in your mind, leading you to the next step!
Rarely, inspiration will strike in the form of “I wish to make a world based on desert ecosystems, only with the added caveat that giant worms create a rare chemical structure that allows space-ship pilots to process massive amounts of information”. Instead, it will often form in the idea of a simple story, such as “What if there was a place in the woods that leads to a hidden world?” or “What if a pirate group stole the wrong treasure?”. These stories are what worlds are made of. With your inspiration, start to think of events that occurred within your world. Think of these stories, and write them down, in bullet points. Expound on them at your leisure: what matters is they “happened”, and thus, to you, they are now “real”.
Who are the Napoleon Bonapartes, the James Bonds, the Nelson Mandelas? Who are the people that, even miles and countries and continents away, folk still know of them? Are they people? Or are they gods? If every story, you need a cast of characters. Who wrote and shaped the history of your world? Who is still writing that story? What twists are there? Answering questions like these will help you breathe identity and a solid foundation into your world, as well as naturally lead you to conflict, which every story needs to be compelling, especially one based around adventures.
Throw some spice into this concoction! Remember those pirate ships composed of wood strapped to flying jellyfish? Find your jellyfish! Cruise through the Monster Manual, read some books, find things that you’re passionate about, and throw them in there! You love pirates and portals? Toss them together! The world now is unstable on a molecular level, so pirates are literally jumping across the world through rips in reality. Find the spice to your world. And yes, this is also a reference to that Dune reference from Step 1. I’m good like that.
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How to Create Unique Worlds
When making your world, consider who will be adventuring in your world, and take their tastes into account.
If you have a friend who really loves Doom, throw some demons to fight in your world! If you have a friend who can’t stop talking about The Hunger Games, maybe refer to some countries that hold an annual blood sport, and even hint that they’re looking for “tributes” from other countries to compete.
Finding your player’s interests and incorporating that into your world will not only involve them more in the stories you’re creating together, but also help breathe variety and interest into your creative output. While a DM should craft the world to their liking, they should also strive to include their players in the creative process.
Is one of your players a Blood Hunter who's sworn to kill all Lycan? Incorporate some of the hairy beasts! Or may you have a Warlock in your campaign... in that case, make their Patron a part of the world!
This not only helps take the burden off your shoulders, but also creates some exciting moments in a campaign, where a player has a moment of sudden and beautiful realization:
“Oh my god, we made this together, and we just arrived here!”
“My character grew up here! Let me tell you all about it!”
“No, the prince died?! We have to avenge him! What do you mean you don’t know him?!”
Inspiration is a tricky thing, but when it strikes, seize it!
The word “verisimilitude” is often defined as “the appearance or feeling that something is real, true, or possible.” It’s a word I use as a guideline for whenever I create a fantasy world: one of the reasons people can believe that fantasy is real is because of the concept of verisimilitude.
Why does this world have port cities even though sea monsters are so populous? Oh, they have a shield that keeps the Godzillas away. Why do undead attack people? Oh, they need blood to keep their heart beating.
Having an answer for why something peculiar happens, or a line of logic as to why that phenomenon exists, can help separate a Westeros from a Tenty (Tenty is, to my knowledge, not a real place, and if it is, I didn’t mean to insult it).
Without verisimilitude, a world can feel random, boring, or even nonsensical. And yes, there is a difference between fantasy and nonsense, but that’s an article for another time.
When creating your world, strive to adhere to a sense of verisimilitude.
Answer simple questions like:
This can really bolster your world’s believability. This is not to say you should answer every single question before every single session is even played out in your campaign. On the contrary: it’s generally better to focus on the small before going big.
Build a foundation. A myth that the world agrees on, or a grand event that had an effect on the world’s civilizations that’s still felt to this day. Once the foundation is built, you can build out your branches. A good litmus test is: Do I believe this, or do I find this compelling? If you honestly answer “yes”, odds are, your players will also feel similar, or even more-so.
Three Common World Building Mistakes
The biggest mistake I’ve encountered in my own world-building, as well as those of friends I’ve assisted, is overreach. Creating an entire world, down to the last country, the last noble family, the last cultural festival, is going to lead to exhaustion and disinterest.
As I’ve said before: start small and build a foundation before expanding from there. Starting with a town, or even a section of a town, for a session or two is not only a good way to get a feel for the story of the campaign, but also to let inspiration strike. Do NOT commission an entire world map for a campaign that hasn’t reached its end-point! There is no greater feeling of disappointment than working hard for months on a world, only to have a campaign fall apart in a week or two. Start small, for your own sanity, and your own enjoyment.
Have you ever found yourself playing a video game with a codex of lore? And every time you accomplish even the most minor task, a new entry is added to that codex? And each entry is about the size of a short story written by J.R.R Tolkien? That, my friend, is a succinct way to explain Detail Overload.
As much as you find it interesting that a fountain was built by a respected artist as a token of gratitude for a Queen that called their eyes pretty, not every player is going to find every detail interesting. Instead, fill in detail when it's presented to you by the players, or if it will be relevant to the plot going forward.
This isn’t to say details are bad: on the contrary, they’re great! But only when used PROPERLY. Nobody wants to read ten pages about a town’s chicken economic policy. But saying something like “This town uses gemstones to fund worship of their god, and has ten festivals based on the gemstone types they’re mining during the year” is a really cool trivia bit that really fleshes out your town!
This common mistake ties into an aspect from an article I wrote previously (How to DM! Check it out!) in regards to adherence to rules over player enjoyment. If there is an aspect of your world that could be changed to better accommodate a player, consider making that change.
If a player wants to play as a dragon-born, but you’ve removed them from your homebrew, discuss the reason with the player, and perhaps offer a “reskin” if the species was chosen based on stats or benefits. Remember: your world is important, but so are your players and their expectations!
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This only part one of the series on world building so check out the rest of them as they come out.
As a DM of several years, I’ve seen a lot of joy created in this game: I’ve spent days with friends, creating memories, forging bonds, and finding a voice in myself that other games could never rival. If this article helps you find that voice, forge a bond, or make a memory, then I think it has been a success.
Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions, comments, or concerns about world building, please feel free to leave a comment below! I’ll read and respond to every one!