Updated: Apr 11
What is it that brings a d&d campaign to life? What is it that D&D players find interesting and engaging? Of course the adventures, villains, quests and random events in a campaign matter but so do the small details.
Heroes will always have to exist alongside the day-to-day life of the world that is happening all around them (they stop being heroes if they don't exist alongside normality, which is a bit of a problem with high fantasy). When the PCs take their first step into a different world, they need to leave behind that ordinary world. One reason why we see Frodo Baggins drinking in the Inn of the Prancing Pony in the Lord of the Rings, is so we can contrast this with the extraordinary adventures he is about to go on.
Historical details and social conventions really count and should always be part of the world you are creating. The best campaign setting in the world (pick your favourite here) will always have a highly detailed culture or cultures, because this is what makes it a unique world.
In this blog we're going to look at what people wear, where they live and how their societies function. In later posts we'll explore language, but that's pretty much the biggest world building topic one can ever tackle.
Dungeons, Dragons and Detail
In fantasy world building detail matters. Middle Earth is compelling because of Smaug and the Nazgul, but also because of the songs and words of the Elves, the cuisine of the Hobbits, the intricate description of the stone of Isengard and flowing golden hair of Galadriel.
Detail helps a person situate themselves in the story and worlds become superficial in its absence. That said, description has a time and a place and shouldn't be used in place of narrative or allowed to choke the flow of events like weeds.
Imagine your PCs are guests at the castle of some great lord, there is a temptation to rush through to the bit where the action happens, where they are sent on a quest or where the evil enemy invades the castle.
Why do this? Why not describe the entertainment? Why not explain what is served for dinner? Why not allow the PCs to explore the stables, the library, the armoury?
Each of these places is a perfect tool for helping the players to understand where they are and the kind of realm they are adventuring in. The everyday use of detail is a powerful story telling tool, and ultimately, in every d&d adventure and every d&d session we're just in the business of story telling.
In the Arcverse we create concepts that are cosmic and universal (the Keeper and the Sundering for example), all the way down to the micro (we tackle life for tea sellers on the streets of Arc), Why?
Much of the time in the Arcverse, adventuring doesn't happen on epic, cosmic levels. Instead, journeying through the Arcish wilds, or the Library of Harenis or the dungeons of Mordikhaan is adventuring on a small scale.
When building a fantasy world, it's easy to get caught up in creating grandiose landscapes, powerful magic, and epic battles. However, it's important to remember that it's the small details that can help make your world feel more believable and immersive for readers.
Understanding what a world looks like in micro detail (what people eat, and why they don't eat one thing in one place but do eat it in another for example) is one of the best ways to help situate the players in the world. This isn't an argument to allow real life to negate the adventure, far from it.
In fact a real world created for the players to experience becomes all the more exciting when it is disrupted by the fantastical. A great way to avoid producing bland, boring adventures is to avoid rushing through the small town stuff before the real adventure begins. You might think that your players want you to cut to the chase, but they don't.
From the clothing worn by characters, to the architecture of the buildings they inhabit, to the daily customs they follow, these small details can add depth and richness to your world, making it feel more alive and real.
In this article, we'll explore how paying attention to these details can help create a fantasy world that readers will love to explore.
There's a reason why movies have expensive wardrobe departments and top costume designers win Oscars. The reason is that clothing is part of the visual language of the movie. Similarly, it has to be part of the visual language of your world. Ask yourself, is it enough for your evil wizard to have black robes? Your players or readers will know what this connotes and to them it will be largely forgettable, they've heard it all before. What details can make them stand out? Here's an example:
'The wizard Zyoch stood tall and imposing, his dark aura radiating malevolence. His hair was long and tangled, and his beard reached down to his chest, both jet-black and unkempt. His piercing eyes were a bright, menacing shade of red that seemed to bore into one's very soul.
His skin was pale and seemed almost translucent, as if he had spent his entire life hidden away in the shadows.
As for his attire, he wore a long, flowing robe made of the finest silk, but its colour was not quite black. It was a deep, murky shade of purple that seemed to shift and change as he moved.
The fabric was adorned with intricate embroidery, depicting twisted serpents and demonic sigils. The robe was fastened at the waist with a thick leather belt, which was studded with blackened steel spikes.
On his feet were pointed boots made of the same leather as his belt, with sharp tips that seemed to glint in the dim light.
His fingers were adorned with silver rings, each bearing a different ominous symbol, and his left hand held a gnarled wooden staff, topped with a gleaming red crystal that pulsed with a sinister energy.
In short, every detail of his appearance screamed danger and malevolence, from his unkempt hair to his twisted robe, to the wicked gleam in his eyes.'
When it comes to creating believable characters in a fantasy world, the clothing they wear can be a powerful tool.
Clothing can reveal information about a character's social status, profession, and cultural background, helping to create distinct and believable individuals.
For example, a wealthy noble in your world might be dressed in opulent silks and furs, while a poor peasant might be dressed in rough spun wool.
This can help to create a sense of hierarchy and class in your world. Similarly, a character's profession can be indicated by their clothing. A blacksmith might be covered in soot and wear thick leather aprons, while a scholar might be dressed in more formal robes.
Additionally, the cultural influences on clothing can also be used to create a sense of authenticity in your fantasy world.
Different cultures will inevitably have different styles of dress, materials, and decorations that can be used to convey information about their history, beliefs, and values.
During the late middle ages after the Black Death, for example, the nobility across Europe instituted laws banning the peasants from wearing finery.
They had become alarmed by the growing prosperity of the peasants and were determined to do everything possible to prevent them from even feeling like they were peers with their social superiors; this was one step along the road to the overthrow of class rule.
What laws, customs and beliefs dominate how people in your world dress?
Architecture can be a powerful tool for creating a sense of place and conveying information about the history, technology, and cultural influences of the people in your fantasy world.
The type of buildings in your world can reflect the level of technology and resources available to the people who built them. For example, a grand palace made of marble might indicate a powerful and wealthy society, while a cluster of thatched huts might indicate a more rustic and poor community.
The question is, however, where did the wealth, the materials and labour come from to build the palace? Answer this and the palace tells many secrets about your world.
In a feudal society, the construction of grand buildings like palaces often came at a cost to the lower classes.
The laborers who built these structures were often peasants who were forced to work for their lords in exchange for protection and access to resources like land.
The lords who commissioned these buildings had the power and resources to command the labour of their subjects, and often did so without regard for their well-being or rights.
The laborers were typically paid meagre wages and had little autonomy in their work. They were also often subject to harsh living conditions and mistreatment by their overlords.
The exploitation of labour in feudal societies was not limited to construction, however. It extended to all aspects of society, including agriculture, manufacturing, and trade.
The feudal system was built on a hierarchy of power and wealth, with the upper classes enjoying privileges and luxuries at the expense of the lower classes.
Thus, when designing your world's buildings and infrastructure, it's important to consider the social and economic systems that underpin them.
By exploring the exploitation of labour and class in your world's history, you can add depth and complexity to your worldbuilding, and create a more immersive and thought-provoking setting for your readers or players.
If you say to this 'yes, but my wizard created their palace using magic' that's absolutely fine but you need to consider what that would mean for the rest of the world you're creating. In order for things to be believable they can't be divorced from their context.
The use of magic to construct a grand palace would certainly have significant implications for the social and economic systems of your world.
Depending on the rules and limitations of magic in your world, the availability of magical resources and labour could drastically alter the balance of power between different classes and factions.
For example, if magic was widely available and could be used to create resources from nothing, the existing power structures that rely on control of resources and labour would be fundamentally disrupted.
The aristocracy that holds wealth and power through control of land, resources, and labour would lose their position of dominance, as they would no longer have a monopoly on the means of production.
At the same time, the use of magic to create resources and buildings could also create new power dynamics and hierarchies based on access to magical knowledge and abilities.
Those with the ability to wield powerful magic would become a new elite, and could use their abilities to consolidate power and influence.
Thus, the use of magic to construct a grand palace would open up a range of intriguing possibilities for your worldbuilding, as you explore the social, economic, and political implications of such a development.
By considering the ramifications of this kind of magical technology, you can create a more complex and dynamic world that is full of possibilities for exploration and adventure.
When creating a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, it's essential to consider the social structures that exist within the world. The society that the player characters encounter can have a significant impact on the gameplay, and it's important to create a detailed explanation of the kinds of societies they will come across. Understanding these social systems can help enhance the gameplay experience and create a more immersive and engaging world.
For example, if the campaign takes place in a feudal society, understanding the feudal hierarchy and the role of the nobility can add depth to the world. The PCs may encounter lords and ladies who hold significant power and can be allies or adversaries depending on their actions. Knowing the social norms of the society, such as the importance of chivalry, can also inform the roleplaying choices of the player characters.
Another example is a society with a rigid caste system, where people are born into a specific social class that determines their opportunities in life. Understanding the roles and expectations of each caste can provide the player characters with opportunities for social mobility or create challenges for them as they navigate the strict hierarchy.
In the Arcverse, we created the theocratic society of Skaris, a tightly ordered totalitarian city state where the population is consistently reminded of the punishing aspects of the Aruhvian faith. It seems like an obvious point to make but the feeling of adventuring in this closed city is completely different from anywhere else.
Adventurers in Skaris are meant to encounter an alien social structure, where there are no taverns to drink and make merry in, and players can't get away with acting as they normally would. The adventuring pay off here is that a stealth/espionage campaign where players can't afford to blow their cover is the only realistic way to survive.
Knowing what the social structure looks and feels like here is really important and the adventure doesn't really function without it.
Creating detailed social structures can also help in world-building by providing a sense of history and culture to the world. For example, if the campaign is set in a world with multiple nations or races, understanding the relationships between these groups and the reasons for any conflicts can add depth and richness to the world.
In summary, social structures are an essential aspect of world-building in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Understanding the societal norms and expectations of the world can enhance the player's immersion and provide opportunities for roleplaying and conflict.
A good way to think of a culture is 'a shared system of understanding' , the language, customs and practices of a social group, whether this is a court of high elves or a group of high school friends playing in a d&d session, makes up what a culture is.
The daily customs of the people in your fantasy world can be used to reveal information about their beliefs, values, and way of life. These small details can help to create a sense of authenticity and make the world feel more alive and real for readers.
For example, a society that values honour and respect for the elderly might have customs that involve bowing or paying respects to older members of the community. A society that values nature and the environment might have customs that involve rituals or ceremonies to honour the natural world.
Additionally, daily customs can also be used to establish a sense of realism in your fantasy world. For example, you can incorporate daily activities such as eating, working, and praying, and how they are performed in your world, which can add a sense of realism and make the world feel more believable.
Incorporating these small details in the daily customs of your fantasy world can help to create a sense of authenticity and realism. It can also help readers understand the beliefs and values of the people in your world, making it more immersive and believable.
We will return to the question of culture in the next of these articles, as it is so deeply connected to language (our next topic).
In conclusion, paying attention to small details when creating a fantasy world can help to make it feel more believable and immersive for readers. From the clothing worn by characters, to the architecture of the buildings they inhabit, to the daily customs they follow, these small details can add depth and richness to your world, making it feel more alive and real.
Clothing can reveal information about a character's social status, profession, and cultural background, helping to create distinct and believable individuals. Architecture can be used to create a sense of place and convey information about the history, technology, and cultural influences of the people in your fantasy world. And daily customs can be used to reveal information about the beliefs, values, and way of life of the people in your world.
Remember, it's the small details that can make a world feel believable and immersive. Take the time to think about how the clothing, architecture, and daily customs of your world can be used to create a believable and immersive experience for readers. Your fantasy world will be all the more richer for it.
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