Roll For Insight: Forging A D&D World

March 1, 2019 by brennon

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When the world was cold and dark the Titan Gods took their hammers to the anvils of the void. With the great beating of hammers and the heat from the heart of a star, the world of Belanaramir was formed and moulded into a place for the lesser races.


Only kidding. I was sitting trying to come up with great ideas for a roleplaying world and just scrawled a few letters down onto a page. The name Belanaramir came to life and with it the idea of a Fantasy world where there are dark shadows in every corner cloaking secret ominous threats.

In a bid to create a living and breathing world to roleplay in with friends I might have at some points bitten off more than I could chew, but here in this particular article, I’m going to be talking about some of the lessons I’ve learned alongside a few tips too on starting out.

Just a note before we begin. World creation is not something with right and wrong answers. You can do whatever you like, and this is just my take on it and what I’ve learned from the process.

Less Is More

One of the first things I learned was that you can come up with a skeleton for a world without having to attach the muscles, organs and all the other bits and pieces. Having a rough landscape to build upon with a broad history for the goings on and the lifestyles for the everyday citizens is more than enough, to begin with.

Ancient Bones - Raphaelle Deslandes

When it came to Belanaramir I wanted to understand the major world event which made it what it was today. This was The Great Divide, pitting Magic against Divinity and a resulting Cataclysm that came from their struggles against each other.

The power vacuum created within the story was enough for me to then establish the main foe for the overarching story, namely a Necromancer Elf named Devos. From here came the notion that he has rarely been seen in past years, working through his underlings. They then formed the basis for some of their lesser foes the players might meet along their travels and also enabled me to have a dark presence in the world without having to resort to dropping Devos into everything they did.

Necromancer - Stanislav Dikolenko

With this dark influence seeded into everything happening within the world it offers up the chance for the players to experience a regular Fantasy-style campaign but with the added notion that what they’re doing might be affecting the overall story, or their exploits might end up drawing unwanted attention as they rise in fame.

Very few campaigns ever find their way to what could be known as ‘Paragon’ or ‘Epic’ level (anything over Level 10 pretty much) so putting too much effort into these larger characters is a fool's errand. Instead, spend your time focusing on how they affect everyday life and what this might mean for the average adventurer.

Sowing The Seeds & Cooperative Storytelling

In the case of my world, Belenaramir, this is done by enforcing a few interesting aspects of the world that would be noticed immediately by the players.

  • Humans are rare if not entirely unknown amongst the populace
  • Elves are the most populous race owing to their lineage and links to Devos
  • Monstrous races are not an uncommon site amongst the regular folk, a sign that the lines are blurred within this world
  • Magic is prevalent and is used for a variety of things like powering lights and systems within cities through to transport
  • The law is dealt out by those loyal to Devos, not some self-appointed law service within each town. Wherever the adventurers go, someone knows someone who has been taken by them or ended up on the wrong side of the law

Mix this in with stories that you tell in taverns and the look and style of certain environments that you set up gives you enough to work with and has the players knowing enough about the world their characters grew up in without having all of the information to hand.

This is also where you can draw on cooperative storytelling to help you build certain aspects of the world. Each player will have a cool backstory they want to see brought to life on the tabletop and if that’s the case they may want to tell you about their hometown, their family and friends and what events caused them to become an adventurer.

Use this, don’t discard it. Take it on board and work it into your world, filling in the blanks and slowly but surely building something that your players have had a hand in. If they have a sense of ownership over parts of your world they are more likely to keep wanting to come back to the table, finding out where these story threads lead.

A Taste Of The Wider World

One thing you will want to do is establish where the main portion of your game is going to begin. For me, I had three distinct areas of the world. The Broken Lands are an area inspired by Middle-eastern architecture and also the frontiers of the Wild West. They are a lawless place filled with monsters and the perfect breeding ground for adventures.

Fantasy Landscape - Gabriele Nicastro

By comparison, the Crystal Reef is a lush jungle landscape and entirely different place in theme and aesthetic. No world should be like those from Star Wars where the entire place is seemingly just one biome! That’s not how worlds work Lucas…

The third area of the world is the Drakwold and The Chained Wolves, a place where Devos calls home and the central hub of activity in the world of Belenaramir with a distinctly European theme.

Here you can immediately see three different locations, each with a variety of themes. Since what we’re trying to achieve here is to give you a rich starting point for telling stories you can simply look at your players and find out what kind of sandbox they want to play in.

Mountanins - Jonathan Acosta

If they choose Drakwold, for example, they’ve got a perfect starting point for general adventures they’re familiar with but they’ll most likely always be wondering just what The Crystal Reef and The Broken Lands look like, making it perfect for laying the seeds for future endeavours. The same goes for whichever area of the world you might have picked.

Something To Care About

As I mentioned, one of the key things is creating something for the players to care about. You need them to want to hang out with each other in character and you want them to have a driving force putting them towards the same goal. There’s nothing worse than characters who end up wanting to go off in different’s a pain in the ass and it really puts a downer on a campaign.

Mercenaries - Lap Pun Cheung

So, in my campaign, I’ve worked on a guild that the players can be a part of, a little like the French Foreign Legion. The Guild Of The Shattered Sword is a group that I’ll go into more detail on in the future but it allows everyone, whether they are good, neutral, chaotic of perhaps evil, to find a place to call their home.

The players will have ranks, a home base, characters they have come to know and love (hopefully) but most importantly someone giving them a cause and a reason to go on each of their quests.

I like open sandbox games but you also need to railroad sometimes otherwise your players will spend five hours shopping. Warhammer 40,000: Deathwatch and Werewolf: The Apocalypse/Forsaken are key examples of games which urge you to stick together and follow the guidelines of someone more powerful than yourself. In Deathwatch it's the Chapter Masters and in Werewolf it’s your elders and the sense that you’re part of a pack.

Once you have this focusing their attention you’ll find that the players will gel together. This is where you let them off the chain, a little bit like a level in the Hitman video game. They have an objective and something to do, but how they get to it is entirely up to them.

What’s Next?

There’s plenty more I’ve learned in my time as a Dungeon Master including lots of mistakes and much more. Hopefully, with what I’m planning here we’ll be able to address that and perhaps give you a few tips too. Failure is just a part of learning.

For now, though we’re going to delve deeper into world-building over the next couple of instalments, talking about setting up quests and bringing the party together for the first steps down into dark dungeons against monstrous foes.

Art by Gabriele NicastroRaphaëlle DeslandesJonathan AcostaStanislav DikolenkoLap Pun Cheung

What are some of your world building tips?

"World creation is not something with right and wrong answers..."

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"...can come up with a skeleton for a world without having to attach the muscles, organs and all the other bits and pieces"

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