This is the second installment in a series. If you missed part one, check out Becoming a Dungeon Master.
Hello, burgeoning Dungeon Master! In the last entry, we discussed getting your expectations at healthy levels and the materials you will need to start your journey. Assuming you have those, let’s build your world.
Roll for initiative!
Today, I am going to walk you through the lessons I learned when building my first world. Now, mind you, my campaign is 100% homebrewed (with exception to rules as written [or RAW]) and will continue to be so, as I cherish my imagination and creations. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t take these same tips and apply them to the official pre-made campaigns by Wizards of the Coast. Even with pre-made campaigns, you still have a large degree of originality and creativity you can apply to it, including the physical world.
In this entry, I’m going to assume that you are officially taking your first steps to becoming a DM and have the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Your World – The Big Picture
You have an idea for your story/campaign if you’re doing a homebrewed campaign, or you’re preparing a pre-made adventure. Before you begin any of that, I highly recommend building your world first. When you have a physical world to look at, you can easily picture things happening through your mind’s eye. Moreover, I found that when I was looking at my map, the story and campaign organically seeped up from between the pencil sketches.
Press “M” for World Map
When I had the general story trope I wanted for a campaign, I sat down with paper and a pencil. I closed my eyes and imagined the world I wanted to walk around in. I became lost in thought as I envisioned a world that would beg for investigation, exploration, and adventure-seeking.
Starting your world can be a little difficult. When you’re drawing your world, think of the terrain: what would be awesome to walk around in and explore? What would be difficult, dangerous, and even deadly? If you are well versed in ecology, think about the type of weather you want and think about how the mountains and the sea can affect your climate. Something important to consider is variation; you don’t want to have constant plains of green or only be in a mountain range. This would lead to a very monochromatic feel of your world and can even leave your players feeling bored or even “cold” towards your world.
Also, consider roads and paths that would make sense for people to tread while getting from place to place. Ultimately, this can influence trade routes, which could lead to some fun bandit-hunting quests in high trade traffic roads. Or, you could run a river throughout it with many tributaries.
In doing this, you have a reason for a high concentration of harbors and port cities to be clustered around the river, and reason why these cities and towns could be vulnerable to enemies.
Your World’s Personality
Your world’s identity is entirely up to you, including using a pre-made adventure. In that case, though, chances are that you need to exert little effort in naming your towns, cities, and kingdom. Adding your own flavor to the campaign is entirely kosher.
If you’re like me and want to make this world your own, you have a plethora of techniques in coming up with a naming convention. You can name things as simple and quaint as “Cherrywood Towne” or go and make up gibberish and name a city “Krumphorlex”.
If you want your names to make a little more sense and sound believable, may I recommend my language-splicing method? Find one or two words in languages that you find interesting that translate loosely to what you like. Now splice them together and boom, you now have a made up word that even has translated meaning, if you wish! Congratulations, your world is taking its first steps!
Life in the Details
You now have a physically drawn map of your world. You’ve named the cities, found your capital, and designed interesting landmarks. At this point, you can start envisioning your party crawling their way across the map, from point to point and what obstacles they have to overcome.
You can have an expansive map with dozens and dozens of towns, but if you don’t give your world tender lovin’ care, it will be cold, empty, and you will find yourself floundering on how the world will react to the party and their actions. Basically, the more fleshed out you have your world, the easier it and smoother it will be for you to come up with world reactions on the spot. So, let’s breathe some life into your parchment.
In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, it mentions that there are core assumptions to every D&D world: a mostly untamed and ancient world, overseen by gods, with conflicts, both magical and mundane (DMG, 9). Your world’s subjects are all going to behave differently depending on the world you built. For instance, is magic common, so it’s not out of the ordinary for them to see a wizard? Or because it’s so rare, will they want to burn your witch at the stake? Is there racial tension? Tribal warfare? Too many bandits?
The people who live in your world are the people you will be playing as NPCs and who your players will be interacting with. Be fun! Be interesting! In Sonnewelt, the main races are humans, halflings, elves, dwarves and gnomes. In fact, they are almost exclusively the population. So, imagine my party’s surprise when they ran into a pair of tiefling twins, Brai and Kai Clinkingson, at their shop, the Clinking Trinket, in the capital!
God and Government
Who do your people serve? It is important to have some sort of over-looking body, as it provides motives for your people and their enemies. Are they loyal to the kingdom or region? Are they against it? Do they care? What about the soldiers and guards that patrol the lands? Who do they worship? Do they worship any deity? These are important in shaping more of the personality for your world.
The governing body can also lead to where and how towns are laid out, trade routes, and socio-economic status of each town and city. It can limit magic or worship it! It could be a theocracy or it could even be a dictatorship. Your government helps shapes your world and its people and gives them some reason to act the way they do.
If this aspect bores you, and I don’t expect everybody to jump up and down at the thought of designing a government with policies, the Dungeon Master’s Guide gives twenty examples of governments, both realistic and fantastical, for you to use! Of course, I opted to homebrew mine.
In my campaign, the kingdom of Sonnewelt is a monarchy with republic aspects. The Sonnewelt royal family was always kind at heart and wanted to be absolutely fair and caring for their subjects, so they allowed their towns and villages to elect representatives to speak for them when it comes to all aspects of the kingdom. This ruling body allowed my population to be more favorable towards the royal guards and family, as they are beloved by all. In short, it’s a very patriotic country. However, it does lead to opportunities for interesting resistance and counterculture: not everybody loves Sonnewelt.
Gods, goddesses, demons and devils all can have their hands in your world, too. Fortunately, the extent of their interference is up to you. They can even be nonexistant. Do your people worship many gods in polytheism? Or one? Are your gods benevolent or malevolent? If you’re having trouble coming up your gods, goddesses and their counterparts, there’s no shame in using the Dungeons & Dragons pantheon. Page 10 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has an example table of gods, goddesses and their alignments for your choosing.
The people of Sonnewelt, including the royal family, observe their religion. The people worship all things wolf-related. They believe that sticking together and taking care of one another, much like a pack would, will allow them to survive and thrive. This core belief was around since the founding tribes of the Sonnewelt country.
There are several deities in my world, such as Ultera, the Virgin Goddesses of the estranged, abandoned, and ailing. Ultera gives the kingdom’s clerics their healing powers. She is a calm and fair goddess but will strike out in anger at acts of unwarranted and unabated lust on holy grounds, desecration of holy grounds and innocents, and selfish acts.
Baliphet is the ever-hungry ruler of Maliterra, my world’s hell. Baliphet is bent on bringing humanity to its knees and to rule all eternally. But his thirst for power and control will never be satiated. His acolytes are called Der Rauche, and give up their corporal bodies for promises of an immortal life of pain and suffering, with unlimited riches and power.
As you can probably notice, adding just the governing and theological layers to your world will start molding it into a more definite shape. Look at you! Your very own world, built by your hands, is showing its first signs of life!
The tools you use in your dungeon mastering career don’t have to be expensive. Like I said before, all you really need is a paper and pencil. As you’ve seen, I started my campaign by hand-sketching my kingdom. I even drew the layout for every city and town! But if you are itching to bring a little “zing” to your work, there are plenty of free and premium resources for you.
While there are a plethora of different tools every DM would find useful, I will just share with you the ones that I used for world-building.
First up, we have Inkarnate, an amazing tool for world building. Admittedly, there are some aspects that I don’t like about it. For example, all of your work is done on your internet browser and is saved online. Controls and selecting objects you place down can be a little janky at times. That being said, when you get used to how it behaves, you can make some pretty stellar works with Inkarnate! Where it really shines, though, is its ability with city-building.
I give you, Zamek Wilk! My capital city!
You can pay yearly for $25, monthly for $5, or use a lite version for absolutely free!
Secondly, is Wonderdraft, which is wonderful! Although it does cost a one-time payment of $30, you have a very intuitive toolset to make legitimate-looking fantasy maps! You know, the kinds of maps you find on the inside cover of The Lord of the Rings!
Thirdly, brought to you by good ol’ Veles the rogue of my campaign (thanks Max!), is World Anvil. This bad boy is a culmination of world-building tools for dungeon masters, storytellers and authors alike!
This tool not only keeps track of your maps, but it also is a place for notes, story-arcs and even character sheets. Although there are free accounts available, you can opt to pay for 6-month memberships at various tiers for increasingly powerful and useful perks.
And there you have it: you came up with terrain and a kingdom with a culture, personality, and identity. You have a world which is just begging to be explored by your party! A world of adventure, valor, terror, and secrecy!
Now that you have towns, cities, and villages sprinkled with exciting landmarks and mysteries, you are ready to start putting the muscle and tissue on the skeleton of your campaign.
Where there are caves burrowing into the sides of mountains, you will have hidden dungeons. And maybe, just maybe, where there are sprawling forests…
there lay in slumber, dragons.