World Building From The Off…
Note: I wrote this at 3am while watching Critical Role. I have no idea if this crap makes any sense. Good luck, all ye who enter…
When I started as a DM the first thing I wanted to do was build a world. Well, almost. In reality I wrote a whole set of rules based around the d20 system, THEN I built a world, but the genesis of the two were so inextricably linked that they may as well have been the same thing. My world (and rules set) were called Oracle, after the database software my dad works with. I drew up a map which to this day I am still proud of. I created history for each continent, and I decided which races lived where. For a fifteen year old with a month’s RPG experience, back in 2003, I was fairly happy.
Fast forward thirteen years and my idea of world building is both grander and more humble. As I type this I am surrounded by notes and journals detailing the customs, racial make up, fiscal system and religion of the nation of Talomire. Very loosely based on England around, and in the decades following, the Norman invasion, I want to create a world with depth, character, and history. The lesson I am learning, however, is that sometimes less is more. Take, for example, Ed Greenwood’s classic Undermountain. The first level is vast, a dungeon that, realistically, a party would never have to venture far from. Add to that levels two and three (and maybe the Wyllowwood for good measure) and you have a variety of climates, tropes, villains, traps, and so forth, to keep your players fascinated and rewarded. But while many of the rooms on each level are detailed to an astonishing degree (my personal favourite being the Cavern of the Throne, where the ancient blue dragon Aragauthos is imprisoned. She scared my party a bit!), whole swathes of the caverns are left ’empty’, and to great affect.
Less Is Sometimes More.
The Undermountain is a fantastic example of giving DMs enough material to provide flavour and plot hooks, while leaving great swathes of the cavern open for the very same DMs to build their own lore and plot hooks. This empty space allows for those crafting their stories inside the framework of the Undermountain to write their own legends, their own villains, plots and machinations. This is the fundamental part of world building, both as a writer and as a DM; your world is a framework, and needs to act as such. Just enough detail to form a cohesive, vibrant world, not so much as to cripple the creativity of players and DMs.
I have run 5e adventures in two settings now, with a third on the way; Forgotten Realms, Talomire, and my first homebrew, Eloch Loria.
Eloch Loria is a grand world. With a history spanning ten millennia, nations, fiefdoms, people groups, and inter-racial attitudes and politics…writing a sourcebook is long and hard. But that didn’t grow up over night. Over the course of months the world grew from two villages, Meadowbrook and Dryntal, to a sprawling continent. It grew organically, and my players were a huge part of that. The Orc societies in the Daggercloak mountains are ENTIRELY thanks to Grom, the half-orc barbarian, and his backstory! There was space for the players to make the world their own, rather than a structure the players had to fit within. Beginning with a single village gives the space to do this, allowing both the world builder and his/her players to expand steadily outwards.
I really don’t know. I’m learning how to build languages from scratch for the dwarvish and elvish communities living in Talomire. Maybe I’m not the best one to ask. I hope any of this made sense; expect future posts to be far more about what I’m working on or have beta rules for. Stick around, that’s the good stuff!