A lot of DM’s struggle with world building, and I don’t blame’em. It ain’t easy trying to keep track of some of these things:
- Town Names
- Monster Locations
It’s enough to give anyone a headache. Factor in that your players are probably only going to explore 1/10th of the world you’ve created, so a lot of it is wasted effort.
The real problem is: How do you create just enough of the world so that your players can explore, without creating a lot of extraneous things that are useless.
I used to spend hours writing down notes for various different locations. I’d map out an entire countryside, with several areas on the the map devoted to adventure ideas. I’d even go so far as to map out the dungeons, and have them in a binder, ready to go. Then when we sat down to play, the first thing out of a player’s mouth would be, “I want to go punch the Town Guard in the face for messing up my entire evening with such and such NPC.” The wheels would come off the wagon, and I’d have to improvise the whole thing. These sessions never really went all that well – unlike a DM I used to play with, I’m not the best at coming up with on-the-fly stories.
So how do you make it so that your world is built up enough for your players, but also isn’t going to waste?
Don’t design your world
That might seem to go against what this post is about, but let me explain. The DM’s responsibility is to provide an interesting world for the players to tell a story in, and to throw challenges at the players. So get involved with the character creation, and make your players come up with some history. You can do this by asking your players to fill out the following questions about their character:
- Where did your character grow up?
- What did your character’s mother and father do?
- Do you have any brothers and sisters? If so, what are they like?
- Are there any historical figures in your family that you’re proud of?
- Are there any historical figures in your family that you’re ashamed of?
- Why is your character adventuring?
- What’s a story that you were told growing up? (Make it as fantastic or crazy as you want.)
These questions can help shape the campaign. I’m going to fill it out for my first level fighter, and then translate the answers into something a DM can use for a campaign.
Where did your character grow up?
In a small village named Hamrock.
What did your character’s mother and father do?
Mother was a barmaid, father worked the forge.
Do you have any brothers and sisters? If so, what are they like?
Two brothers, one sister. Or, at least, I did. They got sick when I was young and died. I got through unscathed.
Are there any historical figures in your family that you’re proud of?
Father likes to tell a story about his great great grandfather Mikos who fought in the Kiryami war. He says that he was a great hero, and single-handedly defeated the Elven Prince that was invading.
Are there any historical figures in your family that you’re ashamed of?
Errgon, great great great grandfather’s brother. He fought with the Elven Prince, and split our family in two.
Why is your character adventuring?
I HATED working at the smithy, and never was very good at working the bar. (I don’t have the brain for sums) But when I was a kid I used to get in fights a lot, and I became really good at winning them. I started fighting in the pits of Taren to make some extra money. When they got shut down, I knew I wasn’t going to go back to just staying at home.
What’s a story that you were told growing up? (Make it as fantastic or crazy as you want.)
Everyone always said the nearby caves were haunted by ghouls and dragons. The springs in the cave are naturally hot; people say it’s because there’s a dragon deep in the heart of the caves, breathing fire and burning the sulfur. I’ve never seen a dragon in there, and I’ve explored the caves a lot, but every once in a while someone goes missing, and it brings back the old stories.
Making their story your world
Alright, so we have some good pieces of background story here. Ideally, you’ll have four players that have filled these out, and you can start to flesh out the surrounding area from that. You don’t need four players to do that, though. If you do have multiple players doing this, have them work on them together, though, so they don’t all say they were childhood friends, growing up in different cities. Feel free to rename cities, as necessary for them, too. You need to shape their backgrounds to fit your world, and some things might not work out well.
We’ve got some good seeds for backstory, though!
- Caves nearby with mysterious story
- Nearby city large enough to support fighting pits
- Elven invasion/war many years ago.
- Deadly disease from the past
- Small village
You’ve got two nearby places named for you – these are places the character is familiar with, so you can start fleshing those out. (We’ll go into special ways to flesh out the cities later, but we know from the player that there’s a smithy and bar in the village, and a fighting pit/arena in the larger one.)
You can start looking at the caves nearby, too. Maybe mapping them out. Since he explored them a bit as a kid, and explained that there were natural hot springs, you’ve got a lot of your interior already designed. (Smell of sulfer, big enough for a dragon to get into, hot water pools, locals shy away from them.) – That’s an excellent place to hide bandits, or even put ghosts/dragons in. You can do a lot with this location, and your player mentioned it, so it’s possible they want to explore it.
The deadly disease probably means that healing is few-and-far between, or there was something special about the disease that made it immune to magical healing. So along with your elven invasion backstory, you’ve got sickness that you need to deal with. People are probably not going to be very trusting of those who are dead. They will probably start to burn dead bodies quickly, instead of burying them. There could be some local histories or rhymes, (“Ring around the Rosie“, for example) explaining the disease and how to combat it. (Though it might be ineffectual.)
The history of the Kiryami war means that there are woods nearby – enough for an elven nation to exist. You get to decide if they townsfolk were local interlopers and it only “seemed” like an invasion, or if the elves were, in fact, invading. Then you get to decide why. You’ve got two great big heroes that you can drop into the story, too, to make it more personal for your player. You could have them meet up with some elves, who speak highly of Errgon, or maybe even find tapestries depicting the final battle, where Mikos did his great action that saved everyone. The elves who fought in that war are likely to still be alive, (It’s only been about 200-300 years, after all) so you’ve got some possible NPC’s waiting for you there as well.
The best thing about these, though, is not only do they give you an area to start in, but they give you things to tempt your PCs with. The lost Sword of Mikos, the cursed spellbook of Errgon, the mystery of the caves – if your players are interested in fleshing out their characters, you’ve got some good hooks that they built for you! And you have NPCs you can have them interact with, and threaten from time to time, too.
Letting your players flesh out the broad strokes of your world will make it easier for you to fill in the smaller details, and it helps ensure that they are as invested in the world, and game, as you are.