A Monster for Every Season: Summer 2
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  1. - Top - End - #1
    Titan in the Playground
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    Feb 2011

    Default How Do You Approach World-Building?

    In any campaign, any edition or setting, how do you go about building your world? Do you map it out ahead of time, or make it up on the fly? What sources of inspiration do you use, and how do you convey it all to your players? And how do you keep track of it all?

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    Lord Raziere's Avatar

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    Mar 2010

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    well the way I'm currently approaching worldbuilding is the "sow, grow and reap" method.

    Basically I sow a bunch of seeds early for this and that and so on, planting things that might potentially be involved for something or other, keep some parts of this or that blank. Then wait until something comes up, until things have grown enough for the thing to become relevant and then I do more with it when things have progressed to it being an important detail, so I can fill in blanks when needed. furthermore the plan is to make all these random seeds connect together as I go along. because I've found that holding to a plan too much tends to make things go wrong, so the seeds are there to be potential growths depending on how things shake out. and I reap the results when its clear we are at the end.
    I'm also on discord as "raziere".

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    Eldritch Horror in the Playground Moderator
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    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    From about seventeen different directions at once and never for long enough to let anything settle before changing something else from earlier. The only games I've run with any success have been in pre-built settings.
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    "Is a stack of ten pancakes too many pancakes to give to the party, even if most of them fell on the floor and one or two were stepped on? I wanted to give my party pancakes as a reward but I'm unsure if it's too much. The pancakes are also laced with blowfish poison so the party would have to get an antitoxin before they could eat the ones which weren't pulverized by shoes."

    I don't think anyone would want those pancakes even if you paid them to eat them.

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Dwarf in the Playground

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    Dec 2015

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    I tend to build it from my PC's background.

    Then, I use a sow and grow process like Lord Raziere.
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    Titan in the Playground

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    May 2016
    Corvallis, OR

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    I've been running games in a single, living-world setting now for ~7 years and 15 groups.

    It started as a "serial numbers removed" Points of Light 4e setting. About half way through that season (school years, as it started as a high school club game), I decided to switch to 5e for the next year. I had some vague ideas about metaphysics (doing it differently than stock), so I engineered a "blow up the world + timeskip" event where one of the two groups got involved in a quest for an artifact and got the choice of how the old world ended (and some parameters for the new one), while the other was involved in deciding how the new civilization formed by the survivors of the main region and this cataclysmic event would rebuild.

    Did a timeskip of about 200 years to let things stabilize.

    From there, I've maintained a "fractal" style--I sketch out very high-level metaphysics and aesthetics up front, but only dive deeper into individual places and cultures and maps as needed when campaigns visit them. The truths established by one campaign affect all subsequent campaigns; even concurrent ones can see the effects when they're affected by them. And campaigns are largely sandbox-style.

    Mostly, my worldbuilding is reactive, plus noodling around the cultural edges (places the PCs rarely poke) when I have time and energy. As campaigns go places, I design (from my very vague notes like "there's a nation here") what's actually there, trying to maintain consistency with whatever was said about that place in earlier campaigns. Everything gets notated in a wiki that's now up over 500 pages...with about as many that I know I need to write but haven't yet.
    Dawn of Hope: a 5e setting. http://wiki.admiralbenbo.org
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  6. - Top - End - #6
    Bugbear in the Playground

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    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    I look for a world map first.

    Civilizations are often defined by what they have access to. Farmable land? Surrounded by mountains? Living on islands? Landlocked? Isolated? I then pick some reasonable and unreasonable locations to have a civilization and start figuring out what kind of society started here. Using that I determine how they interact with their neighbors.

    I rely lightly on existing racial tropes, but also experiment with turning them on their heads, or making variations of them. I try to make at least 3 notably different cultures for any racial group. And if the population is large enough, break those up even further. I'll also try to include at least one racial cultural group that is strikingly different (in the way the Drow are to other elves).

    Populate with creatures(non-sentient/sapient creatures of mundane to magical quality), determine magical power and technological development, adjust cultures appropriately.

    Determine a few specific details about lords and leaders, and leave everything else lightly penciled in until absolutely necessary.

    And there ya go, it's a world.
    Knowledge brings the sting of disillusionment, but the pain teaches perspective.
    "You know it's all fake right?"
    "...yeah, but it makes me feel better."

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    KorvinStarmast's Avatar

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    May 2015

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    I don't really have to anymore.
    I have a number of worlds, and world sections that I dreamed up years ago that I fiddle with.
    I have a couple of published worlds to fiddle with.

    What I mostly do is fiddle with powers/ideals/deities/and the nature of metaphysics. Is it Earth/Air/Fire/Water or is it Earth Air Fire Water Spirit, or, is it like my last bundle a seven sided thing: earth air fire water spirit time location? (The latter informs how I mess about with how magic works, and doesn't work, in an old home brew world that is still a mostly AD&D relic).

    I am currently assisting my brother's world building efforts as the shared world he's got going fleshes out over time. Have helped with some deity stuff, some pre history stuff, and am now working on linkages between one continent (where the two pc parties are) and the old continent (which is where people came from who colonized this continent ages ago).
    Last edited by KorvinStarmast; 2021-11-19 at 09:19 PM.
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    Mar 2005
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    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    1. Set up a current state of the setting that is conductive to adventuring and the intro adventure. Generally posit a central theme or two for the setting. Select the level of silly-awesome-lunatic allowable.

    2. History & calendar. For a single fantasy world I like a 2 moon calendar with 360 days. You can find various random generators for misc stuff. Then I grab a couple dead RL ancient religions for holidays, rituals, and rites. Change all the names and work out what things like "the gates to the paths of the dead open up at midnight" mean (I tend towards the literal).

    3. Long term actors & plots. Generally 4 or 5, avoid cliche world ending junk, nobody just outright "evil for teh lulz". Make sure to give them reasonable goals & logical plans. If fantasy then "hire clueless adventurers who don't ask questions to get the forbidden artifact that will ascend me to godhood" is legit (no double-cross or anything, payment in full as agreed).

    4. Find or make high level maps. Add just enough detail that I can expand/improv more if needed. Depending on game scope it could be a single city with special location that have evocative names (supers game), massive cave network with towns + resources + random encounter tables, single planet (generic fantasy), or a star map with tech level + economy + government type.

    5. Specific dungeons, locations, special features, etc. Some get a X on the map & a paragraph. Others get a fully mapped & stocked dungeon set up. Add custom magic, items, secret organizations, and local actors or plots.

    6. Revisit #3 and update it with respect to things that turned up in steps 4 & 5. Then go and revisit #1 with updated info. Come up with about 10+ plot hooks (I keep a stash so I can drop 2 or 3 reasonably appropriate ones at any time).

    7. Prep the beastiary & archtypical npcs (specific gnoll tribes at war with each other, elite guards, typical casters/mad scientists). Don't run more than about 30 general monsters mostly, everything else is special uniques (olga the lonelist ogress) or themed for a location/mission.

    8. Trip through the folder of random generator websites to see what fits or sparks new ideas. Read news of the weird for things I would never think of. Work up lists of random names that fit, otherwise all the random npcs get named Bob.
    "And this, too, shall pass away."

    DtD40k7e rewrite complete.

  9. - Top - End - #9
    Bugbear in the Playground
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    Oct 2016

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    I prefer historical based campaigns so I rely heavily on real history and real maps. I will mismatch the map and the history in a fantasy campaign.

    Once I have my source material I then re-skin it for the environment. Even If I’m running straight historical I will do this in campaigns that involve political intrigue to prevent players grabbing a history book and getting ahead of the campaign. If the players aren’t going to be involved in world changing events I’m happy to run straight history.

    An example from a campaign I ran about 5 years ago. It was a pulp hero set in the 1930s campaign. I took the factions/politics of Italy in the late 1400s. The map was the South Island of New Zealand, mirrored and flipped to disguise it. I replaced Rome with a 1930s Shanghai to remove religion and add more organized crime. I erased Ceylon and Madagascar from the world map and placed the Island so it intercepted the main shipping routes in the Indian Ocean. I made the North East ethnically Indian, the North West ethnically Arabian and the South sub saharan African

  10. - Top - End - #10
    Halfling in the Playground
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    Aug 2007
    The Great White North

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    1. We're going to do a one-off dungeon crawl so I need to create an NPC in a place to send the party on their way.

    2. The players actually enjoyed #1 so I guess I need to find something else for them to do.

    3. ????

    4. I have a detailed map of the continent and have worked out the general history, geology, climate, and environment of the place, as well as relationships with the nearest continent, and would you like to know about the major religions of-

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    Yora's Avatar

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    Apr 2009

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    That's a very simple question for contless really massive answers.

    What I've been mostly doing for many years now is mostly rummaging through my big stores of cool setting elements that I used or intended to use in the past. I got a whole bunch of landscapes, locations, cultures, creatures, and other concepts that I made, and mostly never had come up in any campaign. I still think they are great ideas that I still want to use and any time I start planning a new campaign I try to see how I could put them together in a campaign that seems better than the previous ones.
    A side effect of this is that with each campaign, the setting tends to keep getting smaller, as I get a better understanding which elements work great together and can become relevant to play, and which ones don't really add much to the whole and are always just kinda there on the periphery.
    We are not standing on the shoulders of giants, but on very tall tower of other dwarves.

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    Ogre in the Playground
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    Jul 2020

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    Depends on what I intend to achieve, but I prefer not to improvise in these matters. Generally I decide what I need first (e.g. (and these are actual examples from a setting I'm working on) a quasi-acceptable target large expansionist state; a somewhat smaller regional rival; a mountain range; a no-man's land which makes sense; a very LN major power etc.). Once I know what I'm after, I'll probably try and make a map. I like maps. They also help fill in the details, put more nations on the, well, map, establish their relationships with each other, their racial composition, their language, reasons for existing feuds and alliances, such as forms of government, access to resources, cultural ties and so on and so forth.

  13. - Top - End - #13
    Ogre in the Playground

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    Jul 2008

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    The first step is I have an idea for a world that isn't already published. Secondly world building is something I do independently of campaign building. While campaign building I have to do a bit of world building, but I keep it at a minimum and it's basically just making assets.
    Black text is for sarcasm, also sincerity. You'll just have to read between the lines and infer from context like an animal

  14. - Top - End - #14
    Firbolg in the Playground
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    Oct 2011

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    Quote Originally Posted by Palanan View Post
    In any campaign, any edition or setting, how do you go about building your world? Do you map it out ahead of time, or make it up on the fly? What sources of inspiration do you use, and how do you convey it all to your players? And how do you keep track of it all?
    Top down.

    In a short story I wrote titled, "the introduction is a lie", I gave a few details of a world that I had created.

    The world was cold. Because the sun was dieing. Or so everyone thought.

    In reality (?), as the Archmage of New York had discovered, that was not the case. At least, if the forbidden tomes of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Spirit World he had been desperate enough to pursue could be trusted.

    Contrary to common knowledge, the books said, the Earth revolved around the sun. But the math on gravity and momentum said that the Earth should just fly off into space - the sun's pull just wasn't sufficient to hold the Earth in place.

    Enter Dark Matter.

    This strange, invisible substance somehow held the world in place.

    Which brings us to The Well of Souls. The source of all life. The finite source of all life. Which just happens to be Dark Matter.

    The world was growing cold, not because the sun was shrinking, but because the world was flying away from it. Because there were too many souls living, and not enough holding the world in place. "Atlas" had been picked apart by hungry life, and could no longer hold the world.

    And thus began the secret conspiracy to limit human population on a cold, dark mirror of this world, where ignorance and sanity are bedfellows, and the Wise have forsaken reason for madness.

    And the introduction is a lie.
    Last edited by Quertus; 2021-11-21 at 01:41 PM.

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    Anonymouswizard's Avatar

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    Oct 2009
    In my library

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    From the bottom up, with very much a 'it's added when it's important' strategy. If I can begin with nothing other than a location and a thing for the PCs to do that's ideal.

    Gods, other planes of existence, giant world ending threats, it's all just meaningless until it comes up. I don't care what gods exist, I care what gods the inhabitants of this town believe exist. If it adds flavour to the setting ('it never stops rainong') then it can be added, but if the PCs aren't going to interact with the Bunny Empire it has no purpose.

    Players are more than free to suggest elements, ideally they'll have come up with at least one major NPC each. But ideally we'll end up with a setting tailored to what everybody wants to play.
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    So here I am, trapped in my laboratory, trying to create a Mechabeast that's powerful enough to take down the howling horde outside my door, but also won't join them once it realizes what I've done...twentieth time's the charm, right?
    Quote Originally Posted by Lord Raziere View Post
    How about a Jovian Uplift stuck in a Case morph? it makes so little sense.

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    LordCdrMilitant's Avatar

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    Mar 2017
    Inner Palace, Holy Terra

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    Quote Originally Posted by Palanan View Post
    In any campaign, any edition or setting, how do you go about building your world? Do you map it out ahead of time, or make it up on the fly? What sources of inspiration do you use, and how do you convey it all to your players? And how do you keep track of it all?
    I usually start with a concept and map it out as I go. It helps to some degree that I run many games in the same world in succession, which means that I build it up one small area at a time in high detail through each game. Lately, I've been generally keeping my game "world" confined to a single city or so; which allows a much more reliable recurring stable of characters, though my next game is planning to be substantially larger in scope.
    Last edited by LordCdrMilitant; 2021-11-21 at 05:23 PM.
    Guardsmen, hear me! Cadia may lie in ruin, but her proud people do not! For each brother and sister who gave their lives to Him as martyrs, we will reap a vengeance fiftyfold! Cadia may be no more, but will never be forgotten; our foes shall tremble in fear at the name, for their doom shall come from the barrels of Cadian guns, fired by Cadian hands! Forward, for vengeance and retribution, in His name and the names of our fallen comrades!

  17. - Top - End - #17
    Bugbear in the Playground

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    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    Beg, borrow or steal everything.

    I will use anything that gives me usable ideas or ideas I find interesting.

    As for my actual approach... it's both top-down and bottom-up as a few other posters noted. So I guess "no middle"? My homebrew world has a defined overall cosmology, along with certain meta aspects like "I want more monsters than (demi)humans" or "I want a world good for high-seas adventures" or "There will be nations rife with political intrigue". I have an established pantheon, but it is one largely forgotten or unknown to the world's population and last time a player came to me one time about wanting to be the a follower of a god my response was "Just create one yourself".

    Then bottom up, I'll create characters, locations, items, plots as I get inspired or need them and look for opportunity to include them in the game.

    Top-down is the worldbuilding I do for myself, to scratch that itch, and is largely invisible to the players.
    Bottom-up is the worldbuilding the players see, that is meant to set the stage for the game.
    And the middle emerges when the game is played.

  18. - Top - End - #18
    Barbarian in the Playground

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    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    Quote Originally Posted by Palanan View Post
    In any campaign, any edition or setting, how do you go about building your world? Do you map it out ahead of time, or make it up on the fly? What sources of inspiration do you use, and how do you convey it all to your players? And how do you keep track of it all?
    Depends. You can build the world and let players originate in it (but that means giving them good descriptions of the world and the options available which can give away a lot). You can build the world and plop players into it (which very few players enjoy). You can build the world around the characters' backstories (which players tend to enjoy and feel more connected with but can also annoy them because it doesn't match their preconceptions).

    I build cosmography first. How did the world/reality come to exist? That sets a lot of basic assumptions.

    I build the world next and get the geography and weather basically nailed down. Basic calendar comes next.

    Then I populate the world and establish broad goals for groups. Everything is painted with a broad brush at first but multiple iterations through this process produces refined details (multiple cultures produce multiple calendars, there are festivals, and customs, and norms of social behavior).

    Then I destroy the world and rebuild out of the ashes one or more times and throw adventurers into a rebuilding time period when there are lost cities and defunct temples and cool things to find/fight.

    I do a lot of preparation in advance so that I have, at the very least, a broad framework to improvise from when needed. I give players knowledge dumps which contain information that may or may not be useful but gives them a framework to improvise from. When describing places I try to give them distinct terrain, architecture, and weather. People have modes of dress, shared mannerisms of speech and behavior, and sometimes even accents.

    I keep track of things using Google Docs. The calendars go into spreadsheets. I make extensive use of the document outline to index the document and cross reference.

    Inspiration comes from everywhere. Kalash is supervolcanic hotspot moving across the face of the world, a line of active volcanoes heralding its advance and raising new lands out of the sea while behind it deserts of black sand and ash can strip a living creature to its bones and acid rain forms poisonous oases and carves underground caverns out of the soft volcanic rock. I just saw a cool picture of black sands in Iceland and wondered how I could put that in a more conventional desert setting.

  19. - Top - End - #19
    Ogre in the Playground
    Lacco's Avatar

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    Sep 2013

    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    All right, let's tackle it. Disclaimer: non-D&D only.

    Quote Originally Posted by Palanan View Post
    In any campaign, any edition or setting, how do you go about building your world?
    It depends on the campaign. Currently, I've been worldbuilding a single world for several campaigns, but I've done local->global, global->local, spiral, step by step, even player-input based worldbuilding.

    So it depends.

    Usually, I just create a single locale for the starting game, and then go in spirals around it. Starting small. Or do a high level overview and then zoom to the area which interests me most, detailing other parts of the world as I work on and get ideas.

    I view the worldbuilding as a hobby, but it needs to be useful for my games: meaning that I usually don't detail areas that will not come up in my games. I also keep a lots of empty spaces, to put in stuff that players suggest or for later ideas.

    My current project involved:
    - a high level overview of the world
    - overview of historical ages & major events, major historical figures and basic mythology, worldbuilding from the past to the present
    - global map with lots of "empty" spaces

    On one side, I like to have several countries for the players to choose from. Also, several elven kingdoms, areas, dwarven major kingdoms and clans detailed (e.g. basic overview of customs, focus, area and folks).

    As most of my campaigns are relatively human/humanoid focused, I mainly need to detail the different cultures. I usually make a two or three clusters of kingdoms/duchies/communities that are close and related and then detail their mutual relationships. The cultures in clusters are usually relatively close in some areas (e.g. common customs, languages, religions), but each of those usually has few differences that make them small barrels of explosives piled on each other - so there is enough conflict to go around.

    Example: Kingdom of Ânor and Cormanthir have one common boundary - a large mountain range that separates them. Ânor is very militaristic (basically, organized in military-like hierarchy), xenophobic (the "we are the ancestors of first men, our peasants have more blue blood than nobility of other kingdoms") and quite corrupt (there is constant fight for power, including magic and backstabbing is basically national game... but whenever there is external challenge, the country stands as one big army). Cormanthir is very proud of its "heroic" past, focused on great deeds, nobility and knightly arts - one of the past kings was a peasant that showed great deal of courage in the face of enemy and skipped ranks quickly to a baron and later a king in reward for his heroism, inspiring the young to take pride in their country and its history. Their ability to withstand the aggression from their neighbor with valor is a stuff of legends. So is their wine and food, and their... let's call it hedonism. Where Ânor is pragmatic, Cormanthir will take the "knightly" way. And it worked well for them.

    I do not put any fixed numbers (e.g. population, etc.) into my worldbuilding usually - only comparative stats (e.g. Ânor has a smaller area, with denser population, better mineral resources and good trade location; Cormanthir has a large area, with better natural resources - extremely good soil, great forests, including two "fey" forest kingdoms within the kingdom itself). The only thing I already think about is major routes and time it takes to traverse them (e.g. the mountain range takes at least few days to traverse in best conditions and during winter it is practically impassable); the whole country is around the size of France with travel from one side to the other taking 40+ days on foot if we go straight and take the best possible path (and someone carries the luggage).

    For approximate travel distances I use Orbis as a good tool to "eyeball" various distances.

    Quote Originally Posted by Palanan View Post
    Do you map it out ahead of time, or make it up on the fly?
    I love mapping, so I usually map out the major outline of the area and then again, zoom to where something is happening. So for the two countries I specified, I have mapped the area where the two usually "meet" (the only part outside the mountain range with a common boundary... a poor, desolate duchy of Vargraven, which broke out of the former Empire of Three Suns after the last emperor died an unceremonious death at the hands of his nephew (who failed to keep his involvement secret and thus basically broke the whole Empire into parts).

    Now there is a small "political" map of the area (with my GM notes on it) and a small map for the players (that covers both the territory and locations in some detail).

    Quote Originally Posted by Palanan View Post
    What sources of inspiration do you use, and how do you convey it all to your players? And how do you keep track of it all?
    Random generators. I use them a lot.
    Wikipedia (someone once pointed out that you can google a year and you get a list of events that happened there... which is great for my current approach of "history shapes current world)
    Books (e.g. "Knight and His King" - a history on Sigmund and Stibor of Stiboricz that covers a lot of medieval fun)

    As for how to convey it all... they get the overview of their country - not too detailed - and if they ask questions, I usually answer (you would know the history of your country even if you do not invest in the skill). If they have suggestions

    If a player decides they want a different country, we go back and forth until the country is fleshed out sufficiently - in that case, I'll let them come up with basics and fill in the gaps that I need for the country to work. I'll also place it on the map.

    As for keeping track: I've found that writing a blog helps me a lot, but I've been behind for almost a year. I keep a lots of sketches, drawings, maps, notes... in various notebooks and binders.

    I'm quite the procrastinator when it comes to putting these things into digital form.
    Call me Laco or Ladislav (if you need to be formal). Avatar comes from the talented linklele.
    Formerly GMing: Riddle of Steel: Soldiers of Fortune

    Quote Originally Posted by Kol Korran View Post
    Instead of having an adventure, from which a cool unexpected story may rise, you had a story, with an adventure built and designed to enable the story, but also ensure (or close to ensure) it happens.

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    Default Re: How Do You Approach World-Building?

    Broadly speaking, I don't. This is why I pay for material from kitchen-sink worlds like Golarion, Faerun, Pact Worlds, Eberron etc
    Quote Originally Posted by The Giant View Post
    But really, the important lesson here is this: Rather than making assumptions that don't fit with the text and then complaining about the text being wrong, why not just choose different assumptions that DO fit with the text?
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