If you have been following the series thus far, by now you already have the framework for a thriving developing world, for you and your players to explore and enjoy. We have some immersive villages and towns for our players to visit, as well as a wealth of history for them to draw from. Sooner or later however, our players will want their characters to do what adventuring is really all about. Dungeon delving, slaying evil, exploring ruins and battling foul and dangerous monsters are the bread and butter of the adventurer life, but most of these things will not be found just down the street from the local tavern. Your world will need a variety of locations and features that will provide this kind of stimulation to the players, and these special features are going to be one of the most important aspects of your world.
When I begin creating these kinds of locations I always go back to the history aspect first. Why do the ruins exist and what where they before ruins? How and why does this network of underground tunnels exist? was this man made or a natural occurrence? etc. Regardless of the origin, I need to be able to explain it. In the example of a network of underground caverns, how did they come to exist? Well most caves are caused by centuries of erosion, as water seeps through the cracks in the rock and the water absorbs carbon dioxide and creates carbonic acid. If we are talking about some old ruins that are hidden deep inside a forest, maybe centuries ago it was a reclusive temple of worship for elves. I need to have an idea of the origin of my feature in order to properly develop it and decide why this place should hold interest for my players. You should also be able to explain why others have not came across it before and ransacked the place, or if others have tried and failed. If they failed, then what was the reason for their failure. If a ruined temple was to sit on the outskirts of a forest and near a village, it is unlikely that it has not already been fully discovered and explored.
Lets look at the cave networks mentioned in previous parts of this series. The large expansive caves in the mountain side that have become home to goblin refugees. After the goblins were driven out by our king from the west, some of those that survived were driven into the mountains. Needing shelter they came across this cavern network. The caves were formed naturally over centuries as erosion worked at the rock, and now there is a network of winding natural caverns creeping down into the mountains. Our goblins no doubt met a few unpleasant creatures that may have previously taken up residence, but they managed to clear out enough of the caverns to feel somewhat safe. Perhaps they also found a good source of water in an underwater lake or river, where water had been gathering over time. We know that the mountains have forests at its foothills, so they have a source for wood and food very close by too. Over time the goblins have repopulated their numbers, and may have decided that the caverns (as they are) are not adequate, and they may have dug into the rock and created some additional tunnels and chambers. Also perhaps one goblin has risen to claim leadership and has crowned himself the new goblin king of this tribe. He may have wanted grander chambers, so the goblins (once again) dug out more goblin made tunnels, including some more secure chambers to house the treasures the king has begun to amass from raiding.
Taking all this into account I would begin drawing out my cavern networks, and making sure that I have room to expand them should I need too. I want my players to be able to explore my caverns and encounter my goblins. I also want them to have a few more challenges other than a goblin horde. Any other creatures I decide to put in my caverns have to be done so with several considerations. How will these creatures interact with the goblins? Are they friendly or allies to the tribe, or are they hostile? If they are hostile creatures, then why have the goblins not killed them or vise versa? I decide to put a couple of trolls down one of the natural caverns. At first the trolls and goblins were at odds, and many goblins and a few trolls were killed. Overtime however, the goblins figured out that if they threw a portion of their prey and food down the tunnel where the trolls live, the trolls would leave them alone for the most part. The trolls get easy food out of the bargain and as their numbers are diminished, this seems like an amicable and safer arrangement. The goblins and trolls (while not allies) have created a sort of symbiotic relationship that works. Also should the caverns get invaded, the goblins know that a couple of enraged trolls could be a good asset for them.
I would like to include a trap or two in my caverns, but neither goblins or trolls really have the mental aptitude for creating any trap that would be considered remotely cunning, so instead I will lend from nature. Perhaps there is an underground river very close to the surface of one particular tunnel. The running water has been eating away at the cavern floor above, and it is now very thin and brittle. A couple of goblins fell through a few years ago, so the goblins know to stay clear of that tunnel and have created an alternative route around it. our adventurers would not know this however, and should they fall through, they would end up in the fast flowing underground river. This could lead to drowning, or maybe there are a few air pockets and by following the river maybe an entirely new special feature or location is discovered. As I sit here creating this dungeon and by following my own process, I am naturally creating options for additional content for my world. I began devising a trap, and in doing so created a viable new place for adventure for my players. I also want to examine the geographic aspects of my caverns. If water is dripping down we are going to see stalactites and stalagmites in some areas, as well as possible mold, mildew and fungus. All these aspects are to be considered.
This is one of the advantages in creating worlds in this way. Following the steps In this five part series will not only allow you to create a believable and vibrant world, but the process itself will do much of the work for you. Your world will grow and expand naturally through this process and as such will be far superior to anything you could have thrown together at random. In the first part of the series I told you you would never finish your world. Now I am sure you can see why. It is an amateur Dungeon Master that draws a map, scribbles in some forests, mountains and swamps and then draws dots on the map to represent towns etc without even considering how each and every feature would come to be there. So many people have asked me to look at their world and critique it. I hate doing this. Mostly because in my opinion the majority are not worlds, but just maps. They have no real depth and I can look at the map and see so many geographical anomalies or unexplained oddities. Often rather than critique it and hurt their feelings I will just say something like “That’s a nice map you have drawn there, hey can you tell me how come this lake is here in the northern hemisphere without any river or water source flowing to it? or why is this town here in the middle of no where, and how do its citizens survive?”. I point out a few floors in their logic and allow them to struggle to answer the questions for themselves. At this point they usually get the point.
A map is not a world. It is but a tool to help you to visualize the world. Maps are powerful, as they allow others to visualize what you already have imagined in your head. Never allow the map to lead the creation of the world, instead create the world and then map it.
I hope that you are willing to put in the work that is needed to create a real and believable world. If you do I can promise that you and your players will not regret it, and that your stories will be all the richer for it. If you do not want to do the work, or do not have time, then I seriously suggest you do not waste your time and more importantly the time of your players by coming up with some lame and inferior shell of a world. Go buy a published one and read it! As a player I expect my Dungeon Master to have put in the work and present me with a game session worthy of our mutually devoted time. If I see holes and gaps throughout his storytelling or if I can not get a feeling of immersion at his game, the odds are I will not be visiting his world or his gaming table again. Recently I have had discussions with a few acquaintances and viewers of our show Howreroll, and they talk to me about other games going on that they are or were a part of. We get complimented for how our games are run and often they ask why we can achieve and do what we do where others can not or do not. All I can really say is the more you do something the more you improve. I have thirty three plus years of gaming experience and thousands of hours put in at the gaming table. I have evolved in my craft and am very critical of my performance as a Dungeon Master. I also put in ten to fifteen hours of prep time for each of our bi weekly shows. Work yields reward. Sadly if you can not or will not do the work required, you will have a poor results and too many are willing to settle for that. I am not…….