World building can be one of the most intimidating tasks for DMs and GMs when it comes to running their own RPG campaign. No matter how much advice you read or receive from your friends, creating a world of your own or modifying someone else’s world can still feel incredibly daunting even for people who are experienced at running their own games.
In my last solicitation for questions and suggestions to discuss in this series on twitter, clampclontoller said this, “In my homebrew, creating histories in specific territories is a challenge – particularly linking them to the whole world.” Since this is an issue that I’ve struggled with many times myself, it feels like a good topic worth exploring here!
It Gets Easier with Time
The first thing I would like to mention with regards to developing a history for your game world is that it gets easier. There are two sides to this statement, the first is that you will inevitably get better at developing history as you plan and run your game and learn what your regular players react to or ignore out of the history that you created. The second, and for me it was quite mind blowing when I first realized it, is that as you run and play in your game world you and the players are creating the history. The more you play, the more past there is to explore moving forward in the game.
For me this happened entirely by accident. I ran my first two D&D campaigns in college and while they took place in entirely separate areas with different stories and characters, in the back of my mind I had placed both games on the same campaign map but separated by a large sea. As the second game progressed, a handful of similar elements began to creep into the game that the same players never even noticed that tied both games together. Fast forward to six years later when Dave and I began planning our 4th Edition D&D campaigns where we discussed Dave’s dislike for large scale world building and I offered up my college game world for him and I to both run in. Dave took the game world shortly after where I’d left it off and developed it as he saw fit, and I took my game world hundreds of years in the future (after Dave’s as yet unplayed campaign, using a mysterious gap in history to account for it) and ran with it.
Our joint campaigns was essentially an experiment, though we didn’t really view it that way, because we took an idea that we (and I imagine most DMs) have always talked about doing and decided to actually do it. The end result of this experiment was nothing incredibly amazing, but it has been quite fun and the end result is that Dave had a basis for a good game that he is nearly finished running and I now have a much more fleshed out game world than I did beforehand. Dave’s campaign has effectively created the history of my campaign, and without a doubt in the future I will be running more D&D games that build on the history that both of us have built together with all of our players (over 15 total players combined).
Share the Load: An Experiment
I’ve deviated a bit from the original suggestion, so let’s get back to the idea of developing histories for specific regions and linking them to the larger world. First, I’d like to suggest an experiment for some truly adventurous DM out there: Create a region in your game world, give it a name and a location on the map, but then let one or more players whose characters are from that region (or who have strong ties to that region) develop the details and history of that region. To some DMs and players, especially of non-D&D RPGs, this may not be a crazy or abnormal idea at all, but for others I know for a fact it can be something completely new and interesting. Much like world building in general, this might seem like an extremely intimidating or even reckless idea (depending on the players). However, let me explain a bit more and see what you think afterward.
Imagine you are starting a campaign and you’ve created a region in the mountains called Kaz Dwarfington. One of your players decides they would like to play a dwarf, and together you decide that the character will be from this region. Let your player develop their character’s history however they want, and then as the DM you can go in and pull out important elements of their history and tie them to parts of the region or even to the entire region. Let’s say the player in question decides to play their dwarf in a very specific or eccentric way, perhaps with some odd habits or constant references to strange customs.
All of these elements are ripe to be used as larger elements that help define the region of Kaz Dwarfington in your game. As the game progresses, throw some other dwarves from the region in and let the players make things up and interact with them and further build the history of that region through play. At first glance this concept feels like a strange mix of DMing and Roleplaying, and might feel to some DMs like giving away too much control of your game world, but this entire process is really the same as what they players are doing as they play your game. The key difference here is that the player’s are allowed to influence things beyond the immediate time and presence of their characters, but as the DM it can be important to grasp how much the players are involved in the game and allow it to effect larger elements than you may be used to. At the basic level, this is a very big picture application of the “just go with it” and “say yes” DM attitudes. The great part is your players may not even realize that they’re helping you build your game world until a while after the fact.
Linking Ideas to the “Whole World”
The great thing about running an RPG for a group of players is that no matter what your concept of the whole world is the general idea can always be tied back to what your players have experienced. The above ideas I’ve discussed for developing history as you play the game and letting your players help out in the process is tied to the concept that the players experiencing these histories is what ties it to the known world for them. You can spend hours of effort and tons of brilliant ideas on a continent that the players never visit or see any element of and it doesn’t matter how much you feel it is tied into the world at large, the players aren’t experiencing it and until they do it might as well not exist in your game world.
Players experience the game world primarily through character interactions, and secondarily through narration. If they have been adventuring for months with a dwarf from Kaz Dwarfington that has a surly attitude and knows how to navigate rocky terrain, then you can be sure that the entire party is going to have a strong connection to the region of Kaz Dwarfington and can probably pick out an NPC from that region with ease. These are fairly generic examples, but the basic idea can be applied to a nearly limitless variety of ideas. Characters from island regions can smell strongly of saltwater and feel more comfortable on ships and in water than on dry land. Characters from the Underdark can be uncomfortable in lots of sunlight and fresh air. Whatever the key points you decide on, all of these elements will help the players get a better idea of specific regions in their heads and help solidify a form of history for those regions in their minds.
Enough with Your Fancy Shmancy “Concepts”
I’ve labeled this post “Part 1” because I realized about half way through that I am barely even touching upon the original comment asking for help developing histories for territories and linking them to the larger world. Most of what I included in this post is conceptual and probably more ethereal when it comes to world building rather than solid advice on how to go about it, so in the next few weeks I will be writing as many posts as I feel are needed to get to some more rock solid advice on the topic. In the meantime please comment here and let me know what you think of the ideas I’ve brought up here, and even if you have questions/advice regarding the original topic and help add to the discussion that will build into the next few posts.
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.