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How to build a D&D World (Part One)

Ok, so you're ready to go, you have that D&D world in your head, you can see the mountains, the gleaming spires of the citadels, the monsters in the dark depths of the oceans. You know what you want to build.

Now I'm here to stop you from doing the one thing that will kill it all stone dead.

Do not try to build it all in one go. Even if you really want to, even if you really, really think you can.

Put. That. Silmarillion. Down. Nice. And. Slow.

Whenever we read a fantasy epic, we will inevitably be inspired and we will invevitably want to build fantasy realms of our own for the further enjoyment of our players.

It might be that you want to Kickstart, to publish or to put something out there online on World Anvil.

This is all super doable, but if you start small, and build out, you will be far more likely to succeed. There will be a time to deal with meta-concepts (histories, gods, continents, stars, magic etc), but it isn't now.

Let's imagine that the objective is to create a gaming environment that players will enjoy and intially it's for the purposes of a one shot adventure. All we need to do is think of an environment and a premise - the world around it will come soon.

Ok, so the environment that the PCs will find themselves in will be the wild wood, and the premise is that they have been invited to attend a meeting of adventurers in a small cabin in the forest.

The terrain is hard to traverse, thick briars and dark trees obscure the sky and strange creatures stalk through the undergrowth, the vibe is 'slightly spooky, but not horror.'

OK, so the PCs in your one shot get to the cabin and an elderly seer explains why she has called them together.

Deep in the forest one gem that fell from the heavens centuries ago (creating the wild wood) has emerged from the earth and the seer has seen it in her visions. It is very powerful and can both create and destroy. The Seer would go after it herself but she and the gem have a long and unhappy history of beefs with one another.

Now some lord of evil has learned about the gem and wants to harness its' power so the PCs need to get there first.

Ok, so you can probably plot out the rest here and work out the beats of the adventure, but we have a location and a premise and after the one shot is over, assuming you and the players are intrigued by the world, you can start making more of it.

The place to start here might be the gem that fell from the sky, because it had the power to create things and here we might have what I call a foundational premise.

'Five hundred years ago, the lands of Luthand were peaceful, but then the shard storm began. Dark clouds gathered over the realm and powerful stones, some cursed, some benign, fell from the clouds and transformed the earth.'

And there's your meta concept for the world, which is great to have, but we don't have to get carried away and build everything right now. In fact, it's imporant that we don't.

Because you and your players are exploring the world encounter by encounter, forest clearing by forest clearing, there is a danger that if you start talking to yourself about a continent on the other side of the planet where a dragon king resides in the heart of a mountain of fire the following things will happen:

  1. You will lose interest in the less dramatic business of finding a gem in a forest.

  2. You will lose focus on the intricacies and details of the world as it relates to your players.

  3. You will confuse yourself about what the world is meant to be.

  4. You will race ahead and talk about things that are ill defined and nebulous - this will make the world ill defined and nebulous.

All the dragon king stuff can wait, it's not a 'No' it's just a 'Not Right Now'.

If you've spent many years watching the Marvel movies, you've been watching a universe (the U in MCU), but Marvel didn't start off dumping every core concept on its audience, it told the story of Hulk, then Iron Man, then Captain America.

We were about 15 movies in before we learned about Wakanda, and 20 movies in before we saw the history of everything with the Eternals.

There are no doubt multiple reasons for doing this, but one is the fact that audiences need to absorb, assimilate and process worlds in just the same way that we need to absorb, assimilate and process knowledge in school.

D&D players and DMs are exactly the same, your world is going to be an extraordinary place but it will take time for it to reveal its secrets to you.

Starting small gives you options too, you can choose to scale the ideas you have in your micro world or you might decide that they are anomalies.

Here's an example.

Ok so in the wood where the PCs seek the gem there is a tribe of humanoids that live and hunt in the great thickets and briars.

They have palid skin, large dark eyes and are formidable acrobats, wearing hoods and leather armour, and they are masters with poisoned darts and arrows.

These guys are going to be an obstacle to navigate around, but they can be much more.

Let's imagine they're called the Nakarin, and they are somewhere between an elf and a goblin, neither good nor evil, but a bunch of them can be quite a challenge to a party if you cross their territory.

So before the roll them out as a universal feature of the entire world, let's ask ourselves some core concept ideas.

  1. Where did they come from?

  2. How did they get here?

  3. Why do they do what they do?

  4. What is important to these people?

  5. Who likes them, who doesn't?

  6. Are they unique or are they everywhere?

Ok, in no particular order, the Nakarim were once like the Zanarim, the spirits that inhabit the nearby plains, but one the the gems exploded in their lands and they were ripped out of their spirit selves and forced to inhabit corporeal bodies.

The Zanarim tried to save their siblings but once the Nakarim were in mortal form, they didn't recall or recognise their siblings and simply saw them as scary ghost things.

They fled the plains for the darkness of the forest, where an evil gem called to them.

We can go on and talk about how one of their leaders is drawn to the gem, while one is drawn to a mysterious owl that has flown from the plains, a herald from the Zanarim who is trying to help them remember.

All of that was made up on the spur of the moment and was based on the following concepts

  • In the forest there are people who might be a challenge to the PCs or possibly a help if the PCs manage the encounter well.

  • They must have adapted somehow to the darkness of the forest.

  • They must have been influenced by the meta concept of the gems (if the meta concept isn't influencing most things, then it's not a meta concept).

Now that we've navigated that one, we can see that the Nakarim aren't a global phenomenon, they are more localised, but perhaps the Zanarim are? Maybe there are different Zanarim all over the place.

Now we have a GREAT world building question to answer - have the Zanarim been affected by the gem-storm in other parts of the world? Are there different creatures out there that have been created by the Zanarim being affected by the gems? If the answer is yes then we have to either assume that this is serious bad luck and the Zanarim are facing some kind of dinosaur/meteor moment OR the gems came to the world to do this on purpose.

What kind of beef exists between the Zanarim and the gems? What actually are the gems? Here now you've got some world building meta ideas that spring from keeping your original concept tight.

Your small campaign or sandbox area can be a petri-dish for much bigger concepts later down the line, but it's important to let these first ideas bed in.

If you play several adventures in this sandbox environment, you and your players will start to feel familiar with it.

Once you reach a point where you 'get' the environment, history, politics and culture of a place then it's time to move on and to explore new lands.

Let's imagine that we decide to look at the plains that are about fifty miles away and are the home of the Zanarim.

On the plains, humans have settled and their small villages have grown into towns and there is even a city there too.

Humans being humans, their primitive agrarian societies have begun to develop and flourish and they have started to found religions and have begun to worship the Zanarim.

Now nothing in the experience of the Zanarim has prepared them for contact with humans, quite the maddest being the poor Zanarim have ever been saddled with.

Most Zanarim are simply concerned with reaching out to the Nakarim, but once humans start worshipping them, they connect with human psychical energy and some get hooked on the adulation.

This sets up the possibility of a fallen Zanarim who seeks dominion over all humanity and in the villages and towns on the plains an evil cult emerges to a Zanarim called Dathos.

Dathos is drunk on power and wishes to march his armies on the other places in the world (the mountains, the coast, the foot hills).

Once you've reached this point you can think about sketching out the civilisations that Dathos threatens to destroy.

Using a one shot as an adventure incubator we've gone from micro to macro concepts, discovering them one by one and creating the world organically.

We'll do some more on this next time.

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