View Full Version : [Any] How do you approach world building?

2010-01-08, 03:35 PM
For anyone who uses custom settings to any extent, either huge worlds or games set entirely in one town, how do you approach building your world?
I tend to start with an idea for one or two locations then see how their existance could influence the surrounding areas and build outwards from there, eventually linking places together.

2010-01-08, 03:37 PM
I start with a simple idea, and add more and more complexity.

2010-01-08, 03:43 PM
I like to take one grand idea, and envision its evolution in time and see how it applies to a small area (like a barony). Then build that area in detail and expand outward from there.

I usually keep only broad notes on surrounding areas, and develop them more and more as PCs venture there.

2010-01-08, 03:46 PM
Ive been looking for some good world building tips myself as I am relatively new to DMing.

I've been starting with small areas and expanding, as most people seem to do. But I have been experimenting with variations of taking notes along the way or actually writing an entire story and fleshing out every character, store, etc.

I need to find my groove.

2010-01-08, 03:47 PM
I tend to start with a Big Idea, and work into the details.

From Pirates are awesome, for example, to an archipelago world that by its nature encourages piracy through politics, and stagnancy through how souls were recycled, encouraging those political states to maintain.

I make a world to fit a concept.

Course, I have friends who begin with a town, and create as they go.

2010-01-08, 03:50 PM
With lots and lots of lists.

Lists of what I want to do, lists of how I may be able to do it. Lists of names, lists of interactions. Lists of jobs. Lists of cities.

If you name something relevant to the setting I probably have a list of it.

Organization is a pain though.

2010-01-08, 03:52 PM
I do a top-down approach: build the world or continent, then nations, then towns, then figure out the politics and people and details of a place. Large scale to fine details. That way I'm more aware of the inter-connectedness of everything, how this city's politics connect to this town's culture etc etc.

2010-01-08, 03:59 PM
I actually have a very different approach. I have not built my entire world, nor do I plan to make an entire world at once in the near future.

That being said, I start with a city (namely, the one I plan to start some PCs in). I ask myself "What does a good-sized city entail?" I then put all of those things into a city. Then, I describe an average (type of building), like shop, or house. Then, I add to those with certain important buildings. After the city is good enough, the area surrounding the city becomes less hazy. The lands start to form. I can maybe get a whole country, but almost all of it is based on necessity, and remains hazy until PCs travel there. I'm a very "seat-of-my-pants" DM.

Oh, if I get bored for some reason, I'll just hop over to the gaming articles on this site and build a villain. Nothing shakes up a small town (I've never built anything larger than small town) like a minor villain.

2010-01-08, 04:07 PM
I sit down with colored pencils and make a fantasy map, full of evocative locales. Looking at the map, I come up with a general history of the region, usually combining the backstories of multiple modules I've placed on the map. Then I decide on a place on the map to start, and drill down to specifics of that one locale. As the players expand their wanderings, I fill in more and more detail as needed.

2010-01-08, 04:20 PM
Involve the players. Our best campaign world has been one in which the players from the first campaigns became the gods of the world. In future campaigns they get to see holy wars fought over sites of their last adventure, find followers of their old characters, etc. etc.

At one point in one campaign the players accidentally woke the Tarrasque up and it decimated half of a continent. In the next couple of campaigns journeying to that continent was always amusing because they saw the after effects of their actions, and heard legends of the 'nightmare beast' that ravaged the lands.

In the first campaign the players became gods. Every other campaign in that world was somehow a result of the previous campaign.

Campaign One: Players become gods
Campaign Two: The gods haven't been heard from in 100 years and an undead army is massing under the banner of a foreign god.
Campaigh Three: The players didn't stop the forming of the undead army in the previous campaign, and it is now ravaging the world.
Campaign Four: The characters from the previous campaign became war heroes and rule different parts of the world. In addition a new city was created by a bunch of refugees from the 'Last Great War', and something odd is going on in the city....

EDIT: How this pertains to the actual question
In that first campaign I had a barebones map, but the characters actions filled in a lot of the map for me. As they went to places and did things certain parts of the world became more important than others. If I knew that there was a forest somewhere, and then the players went there and did a whole bunch, I know a lot more about that forest, and the creatures that live there.

2010-01-08, 04:34 PM
The Satyr's guide to world building:

Collect a few ideas. Make sure that the ideas are actually good, and that they harmonize with each other. The ideas are basically the elements you see as especially important in a world you want to play in; often these are mostly asthetic elements.
Establish a framework for your world, like popultions ,technologies, societal and social structures, role of PC's, forms of adventures (a beautiful world whithout adventures is just a diorama), etc. This is just a very rough outline, but by this step, you should have a solid basic concept, just not the details.
Choose a system. Or explicitely don't chose one. This sound like a silly advice, but let me explain: The rules you are going to use for your world form the skeleton of its reality and while they are usually not as important as the fluff you will come up with, they form a lense through which the fluff is finally seen. It is usually not the worst idea to keep this out of the game for as long as possible and try to write your setting as "system-free", and worry later about the mechanical implmentation. Certain rules will also carry certain expectations and notions and will tag you along these;
Now you should check if there is a similar gaming world which was already published. Pehaps that one is good enough so that you could just take that one, change a bit here and there to fit your own ideas in, and can save yourself a lot of work. Otherwise, you just have found a quarry of ideas, so feel free to exploit it. This counts double if you could describe your setting as "The real world in this or that age and palce, but with X element". Nobody will ever be able to create a setting which is nearly as vibrant as the real world, which has also the bonus that everybody you will ever play with has at least basic knowledge of.
Then research, research, research. You can only write about stuff you know about. Good ideas are easily ruined by ignorance.
Collect facts about your gaming world, based on your ideas and the resuts of your research. At first, these are small, insular concepts, so you should bring them together and link them with each other. Create something of a setting-inherent history, based on two very basic thoughts: Only utter idiots believe in monop-causal developments, and follow any fictional idea you have with the utmost possible verisimilitude. Especially Fantasy settings have to be more plausible than a supposedly "realistic" ones. A real world setting can always to fall back as the hard, cold facts, and therefore have a quite comfortable ad reliable bottom line. A solely fictional setting does not have this luxury and must stand and convince on its own. So make sure that it can feel plausible and believable.
Create a summary of your setting. A short overview of the whos, wheres, whens and whatabouts. A timeline of events may come handy.
Search someone you could talk with about your setting ideas. Describe what you have in mind, gather your ideas, describe it. Listen to any feedback you get. You don't have to use it, but the practice if a primary presentation helps to make a setting more coherent, and other people will have a different perspective and will see other things than you do. Perhaps you can convince someone to assisst you in writing the whole stuff, and you can share your world with someone else.
And now to the boring bits: Write all the stuff down. Draw a map, flesh out all the small details,describe the major places, cultures and customs. By this point you should have a summary, and a solid concept, so you should only have to bring it down on paper. This part isn't nearly as much fun as the creative process behind it, though and can be tedious.

2010-01-08, 04:43 PM
I tend to start with a Big Idea, and work into the details.

From Pirates are awesome, for example, to an archipelago world that by its nature encourages piracy through politics, and stagnancy through how souls were recycled, encouraging those political states to maintain.

I like that. Thumbs up.

2010-01-08, 05:24 PM
When I make a world, I tend to start by drawing a map then figuring out history from when sentient races first appeared, letting that determine the layout of the present kingdoms, towns, ruins, etc. I don't always go into very specific detail of the past, just enough to cover significant turning points in the world or justify interesting locations.

2010-01-08, 06:02 PM
Checkov's Rule: if I put it down, it has a purpose. Nothing needs to be placed that's unnecessary. As such, if I'm starting the PCs in a town and want them to deal with a cave full of enemies nearby, then my world is that town and the cave. Expansion will happen if needed.


2010-01-08, 06:03 PM
It starts with a map; I try to find a pleasing shape for the world, though it may take several tries.
After that, I try to create a Big Idea: a governing tone or theme for the world, if you will. With that down, I sketch in the larger areas, then, once I'm satisfied that I'll get a good (or at least workable) result, I zoom down to the "main" region and develop outward from there.

2010-01-08, 06:27 PM
I am currently working on a setting based off a map generated here. (http://donjon.bin.sh/world/) I also am working on one setting that has been very interesting to create. Based on ideas in another thread I have begun building a world that is a gigantic maze that has been inhabited by various races and monsters. The upper levels are home to elves, dwarves, gnomes and the like, while deeper down it is like an underdark. The setting is based on the idea that many of the passages will bring you to random locations, so a dwarf city could be heard just through the wall, but walking around to it would lead to a beholder's lair.

2010-01-08, 06:34 PM
I am currently working on a setting based off a map generated here. (http://donjon.bin.sh/world/)[...]

That map generator is pretty cool...it's fun just to see what it comes up with.

2010-01-08, 06:37 PM
generally i start off with a campaign idea. since i just got the Zombie Island of Dr.Ned Borderlands DLC, i've had zombies on the brain for a bit. we'll go with zombie outbreak.

at this point i'll try to set the scene. again, i'll blatantly rip-off my new DLC content. in this case the scenic Jacobs' Cove, a small logging community built by the cove by the Jacobs company. Jacobs' Cove is a newer settlement and is obviously by the water and kind of isolated... did they trade primarily by water or by land, and how did the PCs get there?

alright, so we we have a small, secluded community besieged by zombies.

so why would the PCs be sent there? various reasons:
-worried about family working there
-sent as envoy of the church/state to investigate
-they're simply curious as to the cause of the zombie.
-smacking around zombies is fun
-the wood is of very good quality (thus why Jacobs is there) and many artisans would pay good money for it
-they could be there to pickup/deliver an order to/from the Jacobs company
-Jacobs could have hired them to simply kill all the zombies

cool, so now we have motivation, the main quest, few quest ideas and a location. hooray!

ok, so now i need to iron out a bit more of the background (why exactly are there zombies there, their creation/origin, how to stop them, ect...), the NPCs (this Dr. Ned fellow seems fun and kinda crazy, why not tie him to the zombies somehow? hm...) a few more locales (run-down hospital/asylum, old lumberyard, creepy docks, ect...), maybe pay homage to a few other monster types (frankenstein, wolfman, dracula, the blob, ect...).

now that i have my main campaign idea, i work from there to create the world by incorporating the backstory of the characters. if the dwarf comes from the mountains, i add a mountain nearby for him to dwarf in. maybe the Jacobs company are dwarves. the elf might come from a hidden town near the cove and is being threatened by the recent zombie population. ect... i then create those towns based on the information the players give me.

at this point it's mostly done and requires some tinkering to get "right"

2010-01-08, 07:02 PM
Make it up as you go along.

But don't tell anyone.

2010-01-08, 07:09 PM
What I do is I first make a map. From there, I get an idea about who to put where, where I want my PCs, what I want them to do there, etc.

I would also highly recommend a visit to the Giant's "The New World" articles, which are about this very topic.

2010-01-08, 07:20 PM
Make it up as you go along.

But don't tell anyone.

while i do enjoy some "pulled out of the seat of my pants" DMing, having an entire campaign like that is VERY hard work, IMO. it's probably best to have the imporant stuff figured out beforehand and keep it loose enough so you can modify if needed based on player interaction (expected or unexpected) or future events.

2010-01-08, 07:22 PM
Step 1. I get a great idea.

Step 2. I eagerly begin drawing stuff up, and laying out impressive plans.

Step 3. I go into detail on one tiny area.

Step 4. I put it aside (just for now) because I got another great idea.

2010-01-08, 07:33 PM
For the only world I've made I started with a general idea of an epic adventure and then worked from top down. I drew a map of the world pretty early in the process. I had ideas for a few locations I liked to feature and the main NPCs, including the BBEG but it was rather basic.
I lost myself a little in details that have very little to do with the story. I calculated population density, decided on how many lived in the 10 biggest cities, drew up a few org-charts for different systems of government, decided on titles and customs for the nobility, how the economic system works, sea currents, prevailing winds, vegetation etc. Although having the rough geography of the world also helped me write a more detailed history of the world which in turned help me flesh out the main NPCs and adding a few more.

I've been filling out details as the campaign unfolds. Sometimes it just means drawing detailed maps of cities I had decided to include but also making up new places the PCs suddenly want to visit. I had decided on the personality, motives and actions of some NPCs early but I've waited to stat them out until I know when the PCs might face them and just as with the locations I also ad more of them.
The basic structure was there before the campaign started but I hope adding more to it in response to the PCs' actions avoids railroading on my part. They always have a few places and plot lines they can pursue without completely surprising me. Although I admit that sometimes I've though more about the background than the actual plot which once forced me to decide where they should go for them.

PairO'Dice Lost
2010-01-08, 08:03 PM
Generally, every one of my campaigns starts with a single-sentence idea. My most recent campaigns have been, in reverse order, "Rakshasas created a huge empire in the jungle, and the PCs are exploring the ruined capital," "The totally-not-Roman Empire is tried to take over the world, they screwed up, and now the PCs (from totally-not-Ireland) are trying to crush them back," and "There was a truce in the Blood War, the demons and devils corrupted the elven empire and turned a bunch of people throughout the world (including the PCs) into mutated freaks through a portal accident, and now they have to stop the multiverse from being taken over."

After that, I detail the current political situation (just what nations or their equivalent exist, who they like, and what each one is like in broad terms) and whatever the starting site is for the PCs, then make everything else up while I go along.

2010-01-08, 08:08 PM
When I'm building a city or country, I am derivative. I look at the real world and add or change explanations for things until its more fantastic. When I'm campaign-building, I do the same thing PairO'Dice Lost does.

2010-01-08, 08:08 PM
I start small and work outwards. Mostly, I just create something fun for the PCs to do. If it works, I'll expand on it.

I distrust Big Ideas and Epic Adventures, because they tend not to involve the PCs enough.