World Building Guide. Part 1.

Map of the world of Saemmyr for the Pathfinder fantasy roleplaying game

Every Dungeon Master at some point decides he wants to build his own world. He wants to create something magical and unique and introduce his players to his own vision. We are going to start with this, the first in a series of posts tackling the subject of world creation, and just how much work it is to do it right!

Why Create a world?

Creating a world and I mean a world,  is a tremendous undertaking. Most Dungeon masters draw a map, add towns, cities, rivers, mountains, swamps etc. Label everything and then think they have created a world. What they have in fact created is a map. Nothing more. To create a world you have to develop its geography, ecology, society, sociology,climatology, cultures, commerce, system of government etc etc. There are several fully developed, published campaign worlds out there, like Forgotten realms, Ravenloft, Planescape, Eberron, Mystara and Greyhawk to name but a few. Unless you are willing to put the work in to truly create a world, my advice is DON’T! Go with one that is already created and developed. You can still set your own adventures and create your own stories so I seriously recommend for the bulk of you , that you take that path.

Now IF you think you are willing to put the work in and want to create your own world, read on.

We will start by examining a few facts about true world building.

  1. You are going to spend a vast amount of time to create a worthwhile world!
  2. You are going to have to do a lot of research and learning!
  3. You are going to burn out from time to time!
  4. you will NEVER finish your world!

While you are indeed making a fantasy world, for it to be successful, your players are going to have to believe in it. They must feel the immersion and feel like they are part of a living breathing land. It must change overtime, and certain aspects must change and others must evolve. Lets look at the world we live in. It is vastly different today than it was ten years ago, and each decade that passes yield huge changes. Your world will need to be different, yet it must still feel similar in many ways so as to be believable. A land covered in lava or fully submerged in water will feel alien, and the work you will need to do to make it viable will be monumental.

I have created several worlds over the decades, and most I look back at now and laugh at. My earlier successes as Dungeon Master were with Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft and Greyhawk. Not with my own creative disasters. In fact I don’t believe I had a world that I could look back on and say anything positive about it (if I am being honest) until 2003. Even then it only held glimmers of promise and made no real strides. However in 2004 I began a process. I had evolved from the classic three act concepts of adventure building, and towards truly non linear game sessions. I had Broken free of the shackles of how most Dungeon Masters think and moved towards a truer creative process. At this time I realized I needed a world that could support this way of gaming. This world would be living, and evolving and would support itself and hold up to scrutiny from even the most veteran players. Any aspect of my world could be explained with logical and viable explanations. It would feel familiar so as to make the players feel comfortable, yet different enough so as to en-capture their sense of wonder. Over a decade later it is less than thirty percent finished and it never will be.

Currently I have two worlds. One that I use for pen and paper games around a physical tabletop and another that I use for Virtual tabletop gaming. It is simply not possible to play truly organic sessions and deliver the quality graphical content that I need to on Howreroll. While virtual tabletops do allow this in theory, as most do allow a free hand drawing option, I only use fully produced graphics and maps for encounters on the show, so I must make sure I have content for everything. It simply is not possible to have content ready for every possible eventuality, so as such I have to operate a sub linear approach. I will explain what I mean by truly organic gaming in another topic but for now lets get back to world building.

There are really three basic ways to begin building a world. The first method is to sketch and draw the outlines of the world map, and then pick a place to start and begin filling in the details for that area and region. The second way is to ignore the boundaries of the world itself and just develop a starting area and surrounding areas in depth, and allow the world to grow outwards. The third and my favored method is somewhere between the two. I create the outline of the world, but then go farther and create regions. I spend time developing a structure and overall concept for each region. Then I dig down to a starting area and develop it fully, and all the supporting areas around it. My intent will be to concentrate my sessions and adventures in this are to begin with, and while my players explore this full and richly developed area, I can work on expanding the areas around it.

First steps and research.

I suggest you begin by studying maps. Real world maps. Pay attention to the coast lines, where the mountains are and what appears around them. Look how the rivers flow, and the affects on areas due to climate and elevation. Look to see where towns and cities are and ask yourself, why are they where they are? This will give you a basic understanding of how a world grows. Yes a world is a living thing that grows over time. Villages become towns, towns become cities but only if the region around them supports. You can see how the land is vastly different from continent to continent. How distances between settlements varies based on the archaeology of the land and where the larger cities seem to be placed.

Next, look at history and see how major events have altered the world. Pay attention to wars and events of economic impact and see how they affect the world. Not just the populations, but the geography and cultural changes they cause.

If you have access to one or more published worlds I advise you to study those next. See how others tackled the subject of world building, and examine their outlook on creation. You will usually see they have a lot of information about each region. They detail the economy, the small and large settlements, the areas of interest and much more. These are all things you are going to want to tackle in your world. You should also be getting a really good idea of just how much work this really is going to be by now…

A beginning.

Once you think you have an understanding prepare to begin the real work! Draw your first map and look at it. Then draw a second, a third and maybe a fourth. Why? well because I can tell you from experience you will see things you are not happy with in the first one and you will make corrections as you go. Several maps later you may have something you are happy with. This is your blank canvas as such so it needs to be right before you start. In truth, you can always plug your developed areas into a new map, but for the most part its easier to begin with a decent frame work. You can go as large as an entire world, or just start with one decent sized continent. Bare in mind though you will need to set a basic geography for each continent or land mass. Then next step is to add mountains and rivers. If you did what you were told to do earlier, and study maps you should have seen a format in how mountains and rivers seem to be geographically located. Rivers run from the high points down to the low points and typically will end up at the ocean or some other geographical low point so as to make lakes or swamps. Once you have placed your mountain regions and main rivers you can start to imagine the lay of the land.

Now you need to pick a starting point. This is where your players are going to begin life in your world. As the world develops and you run subsequent campaigns, you will have options, but for now you will need to work on the first region. You are going to have a lot of things to consider at this point. Distance, modes of travel, ecological features, social development, natural occurrences, political structure, philosophical outlook and unnatural inhabitants. Your first settlement (which is a good place to start) will need to be able to support its population. It will need access to water, and food sources. A form of potential trade, such as forestry or farming and a hierarchy and system of government. It will need to be able to be self sufficient or have avenues of trade. It will need to have a cultural outlook and philosophical outlook. Begin by making a few short notes. For example.

The town is on the bank of a river and close to a forest. It has a road going through it from east to west and also one going north. The town uses wood as a main source of material and trade commodity. It relies on small animal farming such as chicken, and hunting for its main food supply. It supplements this with fishing. It has a town council that has five electoral seats and a mayor. It comes under the protection of the local lord. It has no formal church but gives thanks to the nature goddess. It holds a yearly festival to celebrate the “rutting season” of the forest deer. Common food types found here are chicken, eggs, Deer, boar and fish. Their lack of availability of metal means that this is a main import for them, as would be textiles other than animal pelts. The main exports would be lumber and furs.

Once you have these notes down, you can find a spot on the map and fill in the details such as the forest and situate the town on the river next to the forest. Now you can draw in the start of the east to west road and north road.

This gives you a very rough starting point. Now you are going to want to elaborate and begin to structure everything. What buildings make up the town? What is the population? How many men, women and children? Are their any other racial inhabitants, and if so what is the social situation regarding them? Who is on the council and how and why would they be chosen? What form of law enforcement does the town employ? Is there a criminal element and if so why? How content are the average citizens in the town? Are those that rule just or unjust?

Many of these things can be answered by creating social groups and then addressing the relationships between each. We have the merchants, the farmers, the foresters, the council members and mayor. We have the law enforcers, we have the criminal element and maybe some homeless. How each of these groups views the other is part of creating a believable social structure.

You will also have to start thinking about what other natural features and settlements are around your town, and how far away are they. The distance between your town and these things will also have an impact on its structure and society. If the main mode of transport is horse and cart then a days travel will cover fifteen to twenty miles. This means that if the closest town is seventy five miles away, you are looking at five days travel to reach it. How far away is a metal source? or a town that mines? If it is a long way away the cost of metal items will be higher in your town due to the import costs.

Now you see why I say it is a massive undertaking to build a world. The good news is you do not have to make it in one day. You can’t. You wont even finish in a year or a decade. You will never truly finish your world but that’s OK. You only need to create enough world as your players can explore. In fact you do not want to finish it. If you do then you have no room to add something new.

In part two we will look at how to add individual details and objects to your region, and how to record and detail your world information.

Happy World Building………………..

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