How I Became the Creator Of An Entire Universe:
I can still remember my early years of playing D&D. I spent years adventuring through the lower levels of Castle Greyhawk, before moving on to the Sword Coast and the streets of Waterdeep.. I was happy there, and the DMs that I had the privilege of gaming with at that time, really brought these worlds to life.
The one thing I didn’t like was the part where my character had no over all effect on the world in which he was adventuring. Technically he was more powerful than Cyric, or Midnight, when they killed and took the place of Greater Gods, but no one would ever know his name, outside of the four or five people in my gaming group.
When I started to DM, I spent my first few months, memorizing the Forgotten Realms. I knew its locations, kingdoms, peoples, and lore inside and out. However, after a year of playing in what is still the most popular of all published worlds, I started to get frustrated. There didn’t seem to be any mysteries left. And, if I attempted to put in my own, it would often lead to hour long arguments with players that knew the Realms as well as I, or better.That was if I was lucky. If I wasn’t, it would lead to the demise of yet another gaming group.
(Yes, I know there were other ways to handle it. Well, I know that NOW. back then I was fourteen and not backing down to anyone. These were the Eighties. Still in the height of the “GM is GOD!” days. And I wasn’t about to be the first to break that commandment)
Then a mentor GM from my FLGS, who was tired of listening to my complaining made what now seems like an obvious suggestion. He looked me dead in the eye and said, “Why don’t you just create your own world?”
My response, embarrassing to me now, made my naivete in what a GM is allowed obvious, “You can do that? Is that allowed?”
What began soon after has developed into a 30 year love affair with World Building. The world I created was complete and utter trash, at first. But I kept playing there, developing it further. I learned to allow the Players the chance to create along with me. And ten years later, I had a world that Players adored.
It had developed cities, kingdoms, races, classes, unique beings and gods. Continents, Mountain ranges, monsters, conspiracies, wars.. the list goes on. And I loved every minute.
When trying other games, I would create different worlds, depending on the genre. But I always kept “MY” world tucked in my back pocket. To this day, we are playing in this world. It just happens to be further into the future. but the former Characters are still historical figures. And Players that have been with me over an extended period of time, get great enjoyment from hearing the history of characters they once played get weaved into the adventures of today.
So, now that I told you how wonderful it is to create your own settings, how do you go about getting started?
Lets talk about that:
Where do I begin? Small That’s Where…
(Disclaimer: This is my process. There are tons of GMs out there and they all have a different way of doing it. Is my way better than theirs? Yes, for me it is. For them? No, probably not. I hope this helps you. But if it doesn’t, don’t get discouraged. Start small and work a process out for yourself)
So here’s one of the first traps that every fledgling GM seems to fall into. You see, when I say world building, most people think that means that you should create the entire world before the first Player Characters in that world have even been conceived.
It’s not your fault that you think this way. Its driven in us from the moment we get old enough to start being interested in Fandoms. The Nerdy instinct in us all is to memorize every last detail of the things we love. So that we might stand victorious on the field of debate battle when we, inevitably, debate the lesser established facts of said Fandom with our Friends/Rivals. Heck, some of the best friends I have are still people I met while screaming over a game table.
But, in World Building, this is one of the worst decisions that you can make. You spend so much time with the mundane details of how many blacksmiths there are in your world, you don’t leave yourself enough time to concentrate on the really cool things. Like that Dwarven tavern that is carved from one gigantic Gem of Tiger’s Eye.
If everything is predetermined, then you have painted yourself into a corner. You have no freedom. No room to allow yourself to riff freely during a session. You’re likely not going to tear apart the world you have spent all this time creating. you’re going to have to deal with that enough from your Players.
If you go into this with the intention that you are going to sort out every single detail ahead of time, the players in your group are probably going to run into the same issues that I had, way back when. The world is already set in stone. nothing that do has any long term effect.
There is one other issue that you will almost certainly run into, should you use this approach. You would be amazed at the stories I have heard through the years. Stories of GMs who spent an entire month building a city. With, guilds, governments, spy rings, and criminal organizations. Then the Players ride out of the city in the first five minutes of gaming, never to return.
What I suggest, is to start small. Instead of building the whole world, try starting out with just the city, town, village, or sparsely populated dale that the Characters will be starting their adventures in. Or, if you feel more comfortable building from the outside in, then start in the overall wilderness and decide on the cities, towns, and so forth, as the Characters come across them.
Wait a minute… Don’t those two paragraphs conflict? Didn’t I just tell you NOT to create the city ahead of time?
Yes and no.
You can create the OUTLINE of the city. Create a shop, a tavern, a smith, a temple, a few NPCs with minimal details (names, mundane careers, etc.. But create everything else as needed. If you’re going to try this method, the few things you will most assuredly need are something to keep notes with, a list with the names of these people and places, or a name generator that you can use if, like me, you suck at making up names on the fly.
Sure, they’re here… But how do I make them want to stay?
Another thing that you might want to think about is the one thing that makes every story move forward. No, not designing the Family Crests for each of the of the Seven Royal Families. That can come later.
So what is the thing that makes a story world come to life?
Love, Hate, War, Rebellion, Revolution (yeah… there’s a difference), Greed, Righteousness, Murder, Jealousy, Oppression, Power (Or the yearning for it), Murder, Class, Pride, the list goes on and on.
How do you know where to place these terrible things? I’ll give you a simple rule of thumb. When you’re looking over your map, anywhere you see that is peaceful, where the people are happy and nothing ever goes wrong. THAT is exactly where you need to drop in some conflict.
One of the greatest lines I’ve ever read was in the DC graphic novel, Infinite Crisis. The Supermen from Earth 2 and Earth 1 are arguing. Earth 2 Super thinks that His Earth 1 counterpart has tainted the perfect earth (Earth 2) with the dark nature of Earth 1.
Earth 1 Superman points out, “Your world can’t be perfect. A perfect world doesn’t need a Superman.”
Kind of the same idea here. You might want to make your world full of the shining perfect towers and scenes that look like the beginning of “Legend”, then you want have anything for the heroes of your world (aka the Player Characters) to do. They will pretty much just ride through waving at the people, and dying of boredom.
(If you don’t get that Legend reference, go right now to find this Tom Cruise/Dungeons&Dragons acid trip online and watch it. Yes, its terrible. Its STILL required watching. not to mention that Tim Curry as Lord Darkness, ALMOST makes it worth the pain)
Fill your world with Conflict. Create tension between cities, kingdoms, people. But don’t do it ahead of time. Again, you want to make this spiderweb as you go along. And, if at all possible, make sure that your characters always have some of personal connection to this. It won’t always be possible but, when it is, put something important to them on the line.
The one area that, in my opinion, is the one area of conflict you should avoid, is that cookie cutter, everyone thinks the same way “Good vs. Evil” motif. I mean, unless your GMing for smaller children and need to use the simplest of concepts.
Darth Vader and the Emperor didn’t think of themselves as evil. The didn’t consider themselves the “Bad Guys”. They thought that they were trying to save the Galaxy from the tyranny of the Jedi
Does that mean that there aren’t those folks that just enjoy being bad. Sure there are. But they are an exception. Not the norm.
Instead, concentrate on things like, the differences between the classes, the oppression of peasants. monsters rampaging through the country side, Stopping (or maybe starting) a war between the great powers of the region. Make your world something more than some two dimensional place where everyone is as they seem to be.
Load your world with dynamite, then give the Players a box of matches.
But I Wrote This Awesome History and Timeline:
That’s cool.. but I would suggest you worry about whats going on in the world today. Only worry about history when it directly effects the story you are currently adventuring through.
I blame Tolkien. He wrote languages, histories, mythologies, alphabets, songs, and stories he never meant for his readers to ever see. And it made his books all the more beautiful. But I really don’t think that’s the way you should develop a game setting.
Let me ask you something. How many times in your life have you had a event from ten thousand years ago form the decisions that you and your friend make about where you are going and what you are going to do today?
(If you are a Historian, Archaeologist, Geologist, Anthropologist, or any other scientist who makes your living doing exactly this… Be quiet. you know I wasn’t talking about that, you Smart-ass)
Your entire purpose as a GM and World Creator is to create Conflict and Opportunity for Action for you Players and their Characters.
Create a short summary of the past, maybe a little information on the predominant gods, a creation myth (if you really feel you must) and move on. The rest will fill in as you create the backgrounds for your adventures.
Why do I say not to waste your time on these things? Because honestly, unless its going to help them retrieve that treasure, fight that monster, solve that mystery, or rescue that Noble who has been kidnapped by the Orc tribe, your Players probably don’t care.
Okay, I think I have babbled on enough for this post. But don’t worry. This is simply the beginning. We will talk more about specific world building topics in later articles.
Have a great day, and game on..