So this post, like several of the recent ones, is a request from some of the people I currently game with. It’s about world building and some of the tips I have about it based on some of my successes and mistakes from the past. This post is pretty much just about my process when I created Hekinoe, as that’s the only campaign world I have made that I feel is fully fleshed out. How I world build is not better or more correct than any other GMs. Its only benefit is that it works for me. Your mileage will almost certainly vary.
So before I ever put fingers to keyboards or pen to paper or whatever you want to call it the first thing I did was ask myself why. Why not Faerun? It’s too big, I don’t know it well enough, and it’s not mine. Why not Planescape? Because I could never do it justice and Tony is the only one that would really get it. Why not Ravenloft? Horror is too hard to do in DnD in my opinion, and it’s not mine so I don’t know it well enough. Why not Dark Sun? Because I could never do it justice and because I love it too much to let my players burn it down. Etc, etc, etc. Do you get my drift? I needed to establish why a published setting or world or whatever you want to call it wouldn’t work for me. Ultimately it boiled down to me wanting something that was mine, that I could create from scratch, that was built to my specifications, that didn’t have a shit ton of contradictory published material about it. I wanted something that was mine. Not Ed Greenwood’s or Gary Gygax’s or Dave Arneson’s or Weis & Hickman’s. I wanted to make a world that was well and truly mine. Something that belonged to me that I knew deep down in my bones.
The next thing I had to figure out after I decided that I wanted to make my own campaign world was what was unique about it? This doesn’t mean your world absolutely has to have something completely unique and new and never before seen in it. Hekinoe isn’t particularly unique as a whole, but it has some somewhat interesting and maybe a little uncommon aspects of it. I think. Really most of it is just variations on what might be called regular DnD/fantasy worlds. This step is more about putting your touch on a fantasy world, finding a way to make it yours with a signature element you like. For Hekinoe it was some of the weird races where most of them existed due to external influences on native races, and the fucked up magic which isn’t unique, but the particular implementation and reasons behind it are kind of unique in my opinion.
Similarly to how the campaign was unique, I next wanted to figure out how it was different from regular DnD worlds. Hekinoe has arcane magic and psionics, but no divine magic or gods, so it also has no divine classes. This also makes it a world where believers in a religious philosophy or faith or whatever can’t automatically back up their faith by a cantrip or spell. So it’s a world of skepticism where cults and faiths are ostracized and have no value to communities. I also wanted to have a world where technology wasn’t on permanent pause because I kind of detest that in long running fantasy settings like Forgotten Realms, so I added early firearms and steam power and that sort of thing to Hekinoe. This is also a good point to start thinking about house rules and that sort of thing. If your campaign setting is different from regular DnD in some way, are the mechanics and rules and such the same as you can find in the regular rules? With magic operating differently in Hekinoe, I needed to implement mechanics in Pathfinder to represent that.
Another good thing to consider at this stage is how do you want your campaign world to be the same as other fantasy worlds? Making everything strange and different and unique is ok, I’ve read plenty of novels with completely alien races and environments that you don’t find in typical DnD or fantasy and they’re fine. Some are amazing. But sometimes players like familiar things. Does your campaign have humans? Elves? Is magic a thing? Are there gods? Etc, etc. Tropes and stereotypical fantasy elements exist for a reason, and that reason is because they work. People respond to them. Doing things similar to existing worlds is fine. It also allows you to use typical fantasy elements as inspiration for your own world. Doing “normal” fantasy/DnD things with your world has just as much value and is just as valid as doing things in a unique or different way. All that matters is what your tastes are, and to a lesser extent, what your players’ tastes are. As a GM, it is your world, but it’s also important to consider your audience. You might love your world and all its trash bullshit, but if nobody else does, you’re going to be very very lonely. Or you’re going to be very very butthurt because nobody you play with gives a shit about any of your bullshit.
Another important aspect of campaign worlds is maps and art and images and that sort of thing. This game is primarily words. Almost entirely words really. I’ve been lucky in my life by knowing several artists and that has led to some cool imagery existing for my campaign world. At the basic level, you should at least have maps. These don’t need to be comprehensive and you don’t need to shell out a hundred bucks for a mapping program (like me). Just sketch something down on graph or hex paper or something. Give yourself and your players a frame of reference for where everything physically is in relation to everything else in your world. This also helps for when you want to place cool things in the world for players to find and interact with. You don’t necessarily need to document them on the map, especially if they’re not well known. But having a map gives you an idea of where the empty spaces are in your campaign world. It wouldn’t make sense for an ancient undiscovered ruin of a sorcerer king to be next to a bustling metropolis (unless there is a specific background reason for why it exists there and has not been discovered), so having a map that shows you where all the bustling metropolises are can help with placing this ancient ruin in a place that makes sense within the context of the world and its trade routes and highways and such. Another way imagery and art can help is to make the world more real to your players. In my Hekinoe campaign book I have flags for all the major nations (thanks Jeremy), as well as descriptions of the meaning behind them, just like you’ll find in a high school social studies book for all the states. Nobody has ever really commented on them to say that it is a nice touch, but I feel like they make the world more visible so to speak, and the descriptions behind the symbols makes the world more internally consistent. It shows that thought has been put into the world and the why and how of nations. Like I said, you don’t need to map out every single place or have artwork for every single race and NPC, but if you can find or craft or bug your friends to create images of the major races and that sort of thing it makes it easier for players to envision everything. One of the things I ran into in my Orcunraytrel Arc campaign was players not really having a good picture of races. Which is partly my fault, but mostly theirs. Eric for instance thought that Sereth looked like the iconic grey alien race we see in film, whereas Lance just thought of them as desert elves with guns. It’s a fact, words are sometimes not enough to get players to see things the “right” way, and images and art and that sort of thing can help with that. .
One thing to be careful about with world building is playing favorites and hyperfocusing on one cool thing you love about your world. It’s perfectly fine to be super geeked about certain elements of your campaign world. But make sure you devote the proper amount of time and energy to the things you’re not super geeked about. If you look at The Known World, Kusseth, and the Nel in Hekinoe, you’ll see thousands upon thousands of words and descriptions and such about them. When you look at the nations of Orcunraytrel and nations of The Known World like The New Empire you can see that there’s barely anything more than a rough draft of information. If you look at my attempts to convert Hekinoe to GURPS you’ll see zillions of words and posts on the blog about getting sorcery, psionics, and Gifts to be precisely what I want them to be. So much so that they’re always the stopping point in my conversion attempts. It’s ok to be geeked about things, but don’t let everything else suffer for it or let yourself get burnt out by focusing on one topic till it exhausts your creativity. World building and GMing can and should be fun for you, so pace yourself and vary what you’re doing so you don’t get bored and burnt out.
Something to establish early on in the world building process is how much do players and average folks know about the world. It’s also important to establish how much of the world exists currently. These are important because they give you a frame of reference for exactly how much you absolutely have to create before play. Like I said in the previous paragraph, it’s important to avoid burning yourself out. Pace yourself. What absolutely needs to be known? In Hekinoe, the players need to know the government style of Kusseth, because Kusseth is one of the major nations of the land. But do they need to know the name and life story of every lord and official in every ward and district and every single street warden in the city? Probably not. Leaving gaps in your game world can be a useful and important tool for GMs as well. The gaps let you slot things in as needed, so you can do things like add in continents when you need them for the plot or a new campaign, like I did with the Orcunraytrel Arc. Orcunraytrel technically existed prior to the Orcunraytrel Arc, but mostly as a vague suggestion of ideas. I only fleshed it out when I needed it. These gaps in the campaign world can also give the players opportunities. In the Orcunraytrel Arc I left the surface area of Morkend mostly empty because the Mork lived deep down in subterranean cities. I also left it empty because it was a wide open area that the players could expand New Haven’s influence into as they progressed through the campaign. They ended up going in another direction and expanded their own personal influence into the area as the rulers of their own nation. Which wouldn’t really have been possible if the surface area of Morkend was full of cities and races that had been living there for centuries like the other surface nations of Orcunraytrel. Having thorough documentation for your campaign world is important, even if it’s just private GM information, but it is just as important for there to be gaps in the campaign world where you can slot in new things as needed or the players can work to create something to add to your campaign world.
Another two kind of linked things to establish early on in your world building is how static your world is and how much influence players and their characters can have on it. Some published campaign settings never change (except during edition changes). Or they change on a smaller scale, like with King Obould Many-Arrows forging an empire of orcs in The Spine of the World in Forgotten Realms. Mostly it’s just some threat that is handily defeated by popular characters, then everything returns to normal (except during edition changes). Do you want your world to be constantly shifting and changing as borders move and tensions between nations rise? Do you want allies and coalitions to be forged between nations and then those nations seek to bring down another? Do you want Big Bad Evil Folks to rise and fall like chumps and never have a real impact on the world? Do you want technological advances to occur or be on pause in the Iron Age? Are new advances in magic made where new types of spells and artifacts begin changing the world for better or worse or has everything that can be discovered about magic been discovered? Is there a secret library hidden in undiscovered ruins that will bring information to light that will change everything cultures know and understand about their land and how their world came to be?
Once you figure out how mutable your world is, you can get to the important part. How much influence your players and their characters can have on it. Are they just defeating the Big Bad Evil Person of the week to keep the status quo? Or can they be the Big Bad Evil/Good/Chaotic Murderhobo Folks that change the world? Can their actions bring down nations and reshape borders? Can they kill whoever they want? One of my ideals as a GM is that my players can do whatever they want to my world. But their actions will always have consequences, for good or ill. They can found nations, but if they act like jackasses to other nations and heads of state, they get wars and embargoes. If they are respectful and true of heart to the allies they have, those allies will go to the fucking mattresses and sacrifice life and limb for them. If they rescue ancient supernatural beings from eternal torment, those ancient supernatural beings will grant boons to them. If they fail to perform a task for those admittedly mentally unstable supernatural beings, those supernatural beings will be super butthurt and irrational about it. The players can do what they want in Hekinoe, I might not like it, and it might destroy my world, but I’ll let them do it. This doesn’t mean they’re guaranteed to succeed and it doesn’t mean what they want to do will be easy because they’re extra special snowflake player characters, but it means I’ll build scenarios and plots to let them give it a shot and give them a reasonable chance to succeed. Assuming success if even possible, because even though they’re player characters, some things are impossible, natural 20s be damned.
One thing to consider relatively early on is time. How old is your campaign world? How old are its major civilizations? In the span of about 5000 years, humans of Earth have moved from the Bronze Age to planes and spaceships and nuclear weapons and reactors and so on. What is the technology level of your campaign world’s major civilizations? If it is wildly divergent in terms of overall age and technology level from that of Earth, why? Is it due to marauding creatures, natural disasters, scarcity of certain key resources? This also ties into how static and unchanging your world is as well. If your intent is to pause your world on the Medieval Age or the Iron Age for the past zillion years, it’s good to have an idea of why it is paused in this fashion. Another thing somewhat related to time is considering how you want to write your info for the campaign world. With Hekinoe I created the present of the campaign world, and then worked backwards in time slotting in events and disasters and explanations for why things were the way they are. You may have a cool idea for an ancient empire of sorcerer kings or empires of psionic dinosaurs that waged wars against their magic using arachnid overlords and want to work forward from that idea to the present day of your campaign world.
I think I’m winding down here, so I’m going to close on what I feel is one of the most important things about world building: consistency. The internal logic of your campaign world needs to be consistent. Things need to work and be a certain way for certain reasons. If magic is fucked up and causes mutations and explosions, you need to know why it is that way. This can be as simple as “because that’s the way it is/I think it’s cool” or you can be like me and have several hundred words of secret background info that explains why it is that no character of the campaign world can ever know or even begin to understand. If there are situations in your campaign world where magic isn’t fucked up and doesn’t cause persistent magic and enchantments and spells to explode (like in Hekinoe with the Fallen that are animated by the necromantic sorcery of The Bleak Tyrant or the Fell Humans and their sorcerous blood and mutations) that’s ok, but you need to know why in this situation it works fine and not all the others. If you have a single race that diverged into two separate cultures and subraces (like the Sereth and Vyanth of Hekinoe and the Goebleen and Mountain Goebleen of Orcunraytrel), why did that happen? How are they different culturally and in terms of racial abilities? Why are they different culturally? If they aren’t culturally different, why did they diverge? You need to know why things are the way they are. The Known World has a shit ton of races, but only like three or four of them are native to the continent. Each of the others has specific reasons for being there and being the way they are. If your world has psionics and arcane magic, how are they different? What is their source? If they have different power sources, are they capable of the same things? If so, why? If not, why? A lot of the why and how of all the background info of Hekinoe didn’t exist right when I started writing it, but I generally had vague ideas about it. The fucked up sorcery of Hekinoe initially started out as being there because I wanted it there and wanted it to be that way, but as the campaign world became more concrete in my head and I began tying other ideas and stories from my head to the world, it developed into having lengthy background logic for why it was the way it is and how and why it could be altered and manipulated. You don’t need to know every single aspect of why things are the why they are on day one, but just jot down general ideas about it. Or leave a blank and fill in the why later when you come up with it.
Like I said at the beginning, these are just some things I think about when world building. They work for me. The main thing is to find something you like and go from there. Just string cool things and things you think your players will like together until you have something resembling a robust campaign world. Have fun doing it, because if you don’t, what’s the fucking point?