Friday, January 4, 2013

Worldbuilding in a Single Night?

A longtime friend and reader asked me recently asked me what one would read if you were building an old school DnDish-fantasy world of your own for the first time.

She rejected on one hand my usual “bottom-up” advice ripped from the middle sections of the 1st ed DMG (simple starting town plus dungeon plus small scale map of places between) and my rather more involved “go out and read these twenty real-world books on social/economic history, physical geography, mythic cycles yadda yadda” type advice. She, instead, wanted sources that could help her create enough of an interesting homebrew world that it didn't feel completely like a movie set backdrop–and here's the real groaner--but digestible enough to be read in a single (if long) night.

It's a daunting question.

Here's the best my wee brain can come up with. First a little quick general advice:

Practice Just-In-Time, Long-Haul Creation. Create just enough for you to feel comfortable in answering the questions and anticipating the choices of players. So your comfort level is above just a town and dungeon, figure out what your level of questions is “just enough”. Things like the name of the realm, a few stereotypes about its people (these can be contradicted in play after all), the big ticket geographical features (a volcano-ridden long chain of barrier mountains, poison fungal wood etc), the local enemies/threats and the like.

Now that you have a starting base, think of the first session and its prep as the beginning of a long journey: one step by enjoyable step you figure out more and more of the specific details. Give yourself room to breath and grow. Don't paint yourself in a corner. 

Group by Levels of Detail. Related to the above, even if you want more than just that small scale map, it makes sense to group what you actual detail to that smaller scale in the first few sessions. Put more attention into the NPCs, unique features, and general lay of the land to that small, bounded area. Think of it as the "zoom function", putting in more to the places that the PCs are likely to visit. 

Play 20 Questions. Jeff Rients famous 20 campaign questions to ask yourself is an excellent (and quick) way to put your head around the types of setting details player may want.

Now the actual question, what to read:
Ed Greenwood's “Plan before you play” Dragon magazine #63 and “Law of the Land” #65. The former article (really Greenwood was at his best before Forgotten Realms was published) is a great little thought exercise walkthrough: draw up a vague regional map, jot down some countries with a few unique characteristics, then extrapolate relationships between these realms (what are the trade routes, who is likely to go to war with whom etc.) A quick and dirty way to think holistically about how the region hangs together organically.

The second piece is another one of my all-time favorites. Ostensibly it's about the rather dull subject of creating legal systems, but the piece wanders so far off the reservation that it hits all kinds of subjects from weird local folklore/customs to how to develop interesting political intrigues. Again another piece that is both interesting and thought-provoking in getting you

MAR Barker's “Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit. Again a piece that's more about thinking through a broad range of questions than direct “how to” advice (I find these types of articles far more inspiring and provoking to my creative process than the rather canned, predictable advice you get from most gaming material). Barker takes on how to create more than just cardboard deities of a vaguely familiar real world type, but how to start a thought process that weaves in a coherent religion/cosmology/mythology that relates to the “actual” world of its fantasy practitioners. (Something for the longhaul creation process).

Oh great wisdom of the collective hive mind, your turn to help a sister out. I'm sure I am blanking on any number of useful resources. What short readings/tips/tools would you suggest? And what makes them great for this purpose?


  1. Tell her to get her gaming group together and play Microscope for a night. By the end, she'll have a diverse setting she can use for her games, and any time she needs to expand some details, she can run it again, starting from one age or era.

    1. Good suggestion, evolving things out of play always beats the pants off cold design.

      You know I've been wanting to run that myself for about a year now (even bought a couple extra boxes of index cards).

    2. I was about to suggest the very same thing.

      Another suggestion to create the characters and initial hooks: Fiasco. with a playset (fiasco environment, they have one for standard fantasy) tailored for your campaign.

    3. Agreed. And if your players take part in the session, they already have an investment and knowledge of the world.. Fun to play as well.

  2. The section on geography and weather in the back of the 1e Wilderness Survival Guide. It's quick, it's simple, and it'll make her world look believable (assuming that's something she wants).

    The Hyborian Age:

    1e DMG pp 86-92 (Yeah, I know, but even if she doesn't want to do the top-up stuff, there's a lot of good info on there).

    1e DMG pp 104-105: Monsters and Organization

  3. Excellent post. A good exercise for me as well (a bottoms-up sort of guy I am). I tend to focus on places to drink.

  4. Google search [Analogous City or Country] history wiki

    Repeat as needed

  5. Collect pictures you like.

    Here's a way: google image search for strings of search terms you like.

    Like google "horror funny knight lizard city"

  6. Posted the following on Google+, along with the link to this post. I hope it helps.

    A couple thing off the top of my head, that might help...
    From the +Gnome Stew crew: Never Unprepared and Eureka - 501 Adventure Plots
    From +Frog God Games: Tome of Adventure Design
    From an old Dragon Magazine Series (available in PDF on the internet): Ray Winniger's Dungeoncraft Essays
    From Hero Games: Fantasy Hero (5th Edition)

  7. That's a tall order, I looked at the Appendix N I put together for my fantasy Roman campaign and there are weeks, if not months, of reading history involved in it. But I would recommend that you read the first two books of Herodotus Histories, covering the rise of the Persian empire and the peoples they conquered. It gives a brief description of many of the lands and peoples to provide a good background. He was credulous enough that there are a number of tall tales in there that can be sparks for adventures Together the first two books are less than 200 pages. Reading it inc conjunction with trollsmyth's excellent recommendation of the Hyborian Age will show you how it can be used to create a fantasy world.

  8. tell her also that world-building is a game in itself and not something that you do before the game.

    it is not a chore or preparation but a beautiful creative endeavor.

    also, renegade crowns for warhammer 2e is a nice supplement to create and detail a part of the world (relatively smallish one but...)

    1. I'm gonna bounce off of this and say that yeah, world building is not something you do entirely beforehand. Typically, I have a campaign in mind and then the little details are worked out through the player's actions.

      In regards to creating just enough to be comfortable answering questions, I totally agree. However, I'd have to add in: Be a really fast note taker. You never know when a character's action will turn into something important down the line. My players always love it when something they do comes back to them, either good or bad, because it shows them they are having an effect on the world.

      As for reading...well, I don't know if she'd accept this given that she rejected the "bottom up" approach, but the affiliations chapter in 3.5's Players Handbook 2 always sparked ideas for me. Instead of starting with a town, start with an organization. Why that organization exists and its goals is a great starting point for what the world is like. Plus, it gives the characters starting out a push forward in where to go.

  9. Back in the old days, we didn't care about things like "world-building" and just played. The environment grew organically, out of our own heads, instead of as some sort of deliberate undertaking. I imagine all the good fantasy worlds developed in a similar way.

  10. I was going to suggest The Hyborian Age essay as well.

  11. Hadn't heard of Microscope before. Checking it out now. Thank you for the tip!