Fantasy World Building Tips for RPGs

Fantasy World-Building Tips for RPGs

by Stolph

World building tips for fantasy RPG's like D&D and Pathfinder

A knight standing watch over a city at dusk While world building for a fantasy RPG such as D&D or Pathfinder, think of yourself as a master weaver of a wall-sized tapestry. Most of the time, your players just see the back of it, and can't see the big picture of how things fit together. 

Occasionally they figure something out. And it's as if they see a small section of the front-side of the tapestry. It is those moments where your players will have those "aha" moments, filled with wonder. 

To elicit this awe from your players, it helps to have certain aspects of your world fleshed out. And to follow certain practices while building your world. 

You don't need to do all this work up-front before Session Zero. But you should build your world gradually as the PC's explore your world and go on adventures. 

1: Build just one world and stick with it

The more detailed your world, the more immersive it becomes for your players. Since world building takes a lot of your time, it helps if you have just one world to build. It also helps to focus your efforts to near where the PC's happen to be to support the adventure. 

RPG campaign worlds need a certain amount of detail to be fun. So many GMs prepare the entire plot line up front, including supporting maps, NPC's, etc.

The problem with this approach is if the players think of a completely different way of achieving the objective than what the GM did. This threatens to obsolete all or most of the prepared material. Worse yet, the GM may protect his investment by forcing the PC's to follow the planned plotline. This is called railroading; and players hate that. But there is another approach, one I call "Just-in- Time Worldbuilding", which is based on Just-in-Time manufacturing.

In Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, there is very little inventory of parts, and just the right amount of parts appear at the right spot in the manufacturing process at just the right time. Since JIT uses a "pull" system, where upstream processes dictate through signals how much to produce, instead of "push", where everything is planned up front, it easily adjusts to changes in consumer demand. A similar process can be employed when building campaigns.

When I GM, I don't lay out in advance a grand plan on exactly how the PC's are supposed to accomplish their goals. If I did, I'd be tempted to railroad the players if they try to deviate from my plan for them.

Instead, I detail history, items, groups, NPC's and places near where they're currently at and how they tie into the goals. Then I use those details to "wing it" during play based on what the players decide to do. I build these details around the PC's between sessions, rather than all in advance, so I can adjust to the PC's actions. This also minimizes the wasted material I created in case they do something I didn't anticipate. To figure out where the PC's will go next and what they plan to do during the next session, simply listen to them talk to each other. If they mention two or three possibilities, detail them all.

By anticipating where the PC's will go next and detailing just that, I give my players the false impression that my entire world is incredibly detailed and interconnected and the correct impression that they're in control of their actions. Just like in JIT manufacturing, this approach to worldbuilding fills in just enough detail (the places they are likely to go) at just the right time (before the next session) using upstream signals (what I hear the players discuss in the previous session and where their PC's are currently located and what they just did).

If you use these techniques, don't let your players know. As my brother once told me about being a GM, "Never let them see the man behind the curtain."

If you tire of your world, you may be tempted to start a brand new world. Doing this will make it harder to have the detail needed to create that sense of wonder from your players. 

Instead, use that creativity to make up a different part of the same world, or a pocket dimension. Keeping it part of the same world allows you to intertwine the two parts later. 

2: Remember that the PC's are the most important part of your world

Unless you want to jump straight to the action with Session Zero, PC's should always have a backstory. But you should have the player make one up before the next session. 

And the PC backstory should always fit in with your world. Suppose the player decides that their character once attended a Wizard's College. If you already have one made up, then tell the player that's where their PC learned the craft of magic. 

Now suppose the PC comes from a port city, but you don't have one already. Then world build with that player to make up the port city. 

3: Use a World building tool

If you're like most world builders, you keep your notes in a haphazard collection of computer files and paper notes. Your computer files are in random folders scattered across multiple devices. You probably have multiple copies of many of these files... each slightly different.

A better way is to use a world building tool like Scabard.

4: Start with a starting village or town for your PC's

Worlds for RPG's tend to get built organically over time. So an ideal place to start is a starting village or town where the PC's first meet up. Not necessarily where they're from, but where they meet for their first adventure. So there should be a dungeon nearby that they can explore.

Every adventuring group has to start somewhere, be it a small keep on the borderlands with caves nearby, a village near a ruined moathouse, a port town with a supposedly haunted house on a nearby hill, or any of a dozen other settings. The small town or village with an inn for resting between adventures and a tavern for collecting rumors is essential to the adventurer's base needs. And creating such a starting settlement is important for the GM who is building a campaign for the players to explore.

A generated fantasy map

5: Make a map of your fantasy world

Whether you draw your maps by hand like I do, or use fantasy map making software, you should draw a map of your world.

Fantasy map making software, like Campaign Cartographer 3, take longer than hand drawn maps, but tend to look better. Or you can use a fantasy map generator and create one instantly.

6: Give your world a history that goes back to the creation of the world

For your players to feel like their characters are living in a real world, it should have a history. That history should extend back to long before the PC's were even born. 

Having a such a history will give you plenty of material to draw on when dressing your dungeons. 

Creation Myth 

Cultures in the real world have creation stories, from Genesis in the Bible to the Mandé; the Greeks to the Norse. Fictional settings should have creation myths too. 

Creation stories tend to have common elements:

  • How the world was formed from chaos
  • The first gods and goddesses
  • How the earliest races came to be, such as elves
  • How more modern gods overthrew the early gods
  • How mortals came to learn about fire, magic, planting crops and forging weapons
You should build your own creation story for your world. 

Fantastical Legends 

Make up stories of powerful heroes of old. These ancient heroes often have legendary powers, and god ancestors. Add magic items to these legends, and your PC's will want to find them. 

Recent History 

There should be more and more detail to your history as you get closer to the current campaign date of your world. So recent history (the last 100 years or so), should be the most detailed of all. 

My Kingdom Events PDF has a section on how to create a detailed enough recent history. 

Magic Item History

Powerful magic items should have a history too. Who made them, and how. And who wielded them to what end. 

7: Create believable NPC's

NPC's are the second-most important part of the world. So it is important to make your NPC's memorable. 

Weave the NPC's in with the world building you've done already:

  • The history you've made up
  • Who they are the descendant of
  • What ancient magic items from legendary heroes they own.

Creating a family tree for your NPC's can help with that. NPC families are a great way to tie your NPC's together and to come up with a never-ending stream of stories for your PC's. 

8: Consider co-DM'ing on the same world 

If others in your RPG group also GM, consider taking one continent each on the same world. This helps share the load of world building with a friend. Yet also allows you to keep secrets when your co-GM is a player in your part of the world. 

For example, my brother made Krythar, and I made Eraven, which are continents on a common world, Erona.

A great way to intertwine the histories is to decide when mass-migrations took place. Or when important NPC's from the past travelled from one continent to the other. 

In Krythar, there was a major war called The Shattering that lasted 100 years. I decided that during this period, many migrated from Krythar to Eraven, fleeing the war. 

Co-DM'ing the same world also gives you a believable way to explain PC's who want to switch campaigns. They embark on a ship and sail there. 

9: Prefer many small dungeons over one gigantic one

You should consider dungeons as part of your world, and not disconnected from it. So they should fit in with the history of your world. I.e., there should be some explanation (even if secret from your players) of why they are there.

Smaller dungeons are easier to explain in a story-based world than large ones. PC's quests should have them traveling to 3 or 4 locations instead of a single one. Tie these locations in with the NPC's and history you've made up. And use this history to add dungeon dressing when populating the rooms.

There is even a technique to creating small dungeons. Johnn Four, from Roleplaying Tips, recommends 5 Room Dungeons, where each room plays a specific role.

Resist the temptation to wave your hand and have them appear at the next location. Getting there should be half the fun. You can use my Events while Traveling to spice things up along the way. 

10: Have areas of your world with harsh environments and horrible weather

It's not always sunshine and happiness. And tough monsters should never be the only challenge. 

Some parts of your world should have harsh environments and fearsome weather. Throw occasional storms and earthquakes even at the civilized parts of your world. 

Many game systems have complex weather rules, but it's best to use something much simpler than that so you don't drag down play.

If your PC's are somehow able to ignore the weather, then you're doing it wrong. Remember, at the very least, it should hamper movement. At the worst it should be life threatening.

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