Sometimes, as a GM, running in an established world / universe is nice and easy. We’ve read the novels, seen the films and purchased all the supplements that reveal the deepest secrets of the most sinister organisations of the setting. When you tell your players they see a Jedi, they know what you mean. When the Red Wizards of Thay turn up, the players know what they’re in for. When a kender walks by, they check their pockets! A lot of the heavy lifting has been done by someone else, and you get the pleasure of reading the background details and playing in someone else’s sandbox. However, a lot of GM’s also love to build their own worlds, or love the idea of building their own worlds. The opportunity to create something unique for players to explore and characters to live in.

Today I just want to share a little bit about how I go about world building for a new campaign, and how I introduce players to it. This is by no means the only way, or even a particularly definitive explanation of my own approach – just a little insight into my process.

Broad strokes

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I just want to say right up front that my BIGGEST rule for world building is that everything is in broad strokes. I almost never leap into detailing all the minutia of life in my setting. This is for two main reasons;

  1. A lot of the stuff that gets created in this feverish excitement of world building almost never sees the light of day. You write about the calendar and the number of moons, and the full history of the royal family, and then your players decide to spend six months underground exploring a dungeon!
  2. I want my players to contribute to the details. My favourite part of world building is the opportunity for the players to expand upon the base I offer them. If I go writing entire gazettes about the setting, it doesn’t leave the players much room to expand.

As a consequence, I instead focus on what is cool, the tone of the setting, and the hooks that will get the players excited about exploring the setting.

The Rule of Cool

Usually, when I begin crafting my own campaign setting it is because some cool idea has popped into my head. A new found continent with the remains of a highly advanced culture, ripe for exploration; a world where the moons progress so close that you can literally climb to them; a world recovering from a devastating war that wiped out the dwarves; you’re all aliens protecting the last human in existence; a cyberpunk-toned city in a fantasy world. These are just a few examples of ideas that have sparked my campaigns.

With my cool idea in mind, I typically brainstorm the other cool things that go along with it. Sometimes this is with an actual pen and paper, and sometimes it is just me thinking through it in my head. I try to make a list of cool stuff that makes my cool idea even cooler. I try not to go overboard, instead sifting through my ideas to just grab a few big things that will make the setting come to life.

That new continent? Let’s make the advanced civilisation like the ancient Mayans, and they have solar powered machines. And all the explorers come to a single harbour town that is filled with pirates and other ne’er do wells.

Check the potential

With a cool idea in mind, the next thing I do is make sure it is actually a good fit for an RPG campaign. I try to ensure that my cool idea meets the following criteria:

  • There is room for a range of different character types.
  • There is a variety of potential adventures.

It is easy to check. Just count them types of characters or adventures that immediately spring to mind. If you get to more than 5 of each, you’re good to go! If it doesn’t meet this criteria, then I probably need to add another cool idea or two.

It is really important to ensure that a range of characters are conceivable, otherwise players might feel constrained by a lack of choice. Even if your intent is to run a game where everyone is part of a wizard college, or all the characters are barbarians, or members of the Space Patrol, extrapolate so you can see the variety of characters possible: you can have barbarian warriors, thieves, druids, rangers, clerics and bards, just like your Space Patrol crew will need a medic, engineer, bounty hunter, communications officer and psycher.

Likewise, if you cannot come up with at least a half-dozen potential adventures in your setting, the characters might struggle to find things to do! In my “new continent” campaign players could explore the ruins of the ancient culture, join or hunt pirates, get involved in intrigue in the port, wander through the jungle trying to find ruins, try to rebuild an ancient machine, establish a trade route with the natives, or petition the Governor for a Letter of Marque – just for starters!

Tone and inspiration

At this point I like to clarify my ideas so I can set the tone and begin thinking about how I am going to “sell” the campaign to my players. Having gone through “what is cool” and potential characters and adventures I probably have a good idea of the tone, even if it is just “gritty” or “high fantasy” or “space opera with no aliens”.

I like visuals, so I usually hit the internet at this point to grab some pictures that will both inspire me and keep me on-track. I used to just have folders filled with images on my computer, but these days use Pinterest to collect my ideas. Here’s an example of one such board I did for Verge, a cyberpunk-inspired fantasy city. Most of the time these image collections are for my reference. I will later curate them into just a handful of images I will show the players before the make characters.

A starting point

With my ideas clarified, I next turn my attention to where play will begin. This will depend on the setting, game and the kinds of stories I expect to tell. I mentioned in an earlier GM advice article that you should discuss ideas with players, and sometimes I will leave this step until after that conversation. However, you can do this prep in advance.

I like to make the starting location small, relatively self-contained, and evocative of the overall setting. A small village, a castle, a frontier town. Even if the setting is an entire city, I will make the character’s starting location or “home base” a single district or neighbourhood. In non-fantasy settings it might be a space station, an office building, or grimy bar.

In regards to having it reflect the overall setting, you just need to make small references. If it is a grim and gritty setting, make sure the neighbourhoods, characters and general set dressing are suitably gritty. Likewise, if it is a game of high fantasy, throw in the occasional detail of the miraculous.

Two rough sketches

With my broad strokes philosophy I don’t see much point in creating an entire world map, or writing a detailed world history. I do, however, make two rough sketches. By rough, I don’t mean crayon on the back of a napkin! What I mean is, they are not precise or complete. Sometimes they are not even a picture, but instead a collection of notes or dot points. They are most definitely not something you could use for tactical combat.

The first sketch I make is of the starting location / home base. This is more-often-than-not in the form of dot-points or a brief description of all the notable locations and people. I try to include one or two places the characters are likely to visit or spend time at, a non-player character who is their main point of contact who helps to “humanise” the location and bring it to life, and an authority figure. This is often enough to get started, but after making these notes I will usually go a little further by adding in a few more interesting characters and locations.

The second sketch is more often an actual map, indicating where the home base is in relation to any other notable features. This might include the nearest major town/city/starport, one or two interesting locations and one or two obvious threats. This map helps to orient things in my own head and gives plenty of ideas for potential adventures. Players might investigate the interesting locations, go to deal with the threats, and eventually make the journey to the major town. I will also include any major geographic features, such as the main travel routes, forest, mountains etc.

As well as helping understand where the stories will initially take place, this second map is a great resource during play when i want to fill in local details and colour. If the characters talk to a shopkeeper or blacksmith, for instance, they might here about the denizens of the local mountains, or complaints about how nobody ever visits from the city.

The pitch

I usually stop my planning at this point. I will probably have a good idea for what the first adventure or two will be and will start outlining those, but in terms of world building I am done – almost. Now it is time to think about how I am going to get the players as excited about the setting as I am.

I always begin with a brief elevator pitch that has a concise summary of the really cool parts of the setting and some kind of clear hook. This is usually some variation of my original cool idea – after all, if it was exciting enough for me to do this prep, it should be exciting enough for the players! The goal of an elevator pitch is to give the listener a clear picture of whatever it is you are planning, but in a small, bite-size package. Make it punchy. Mention the awesome stuff. Give a hint of the kinds of dangers they will face or the sort of action the characters will become embroiled in.

To back-up my pitch I will often use one of two things. Either, some images that I feel really capture the essence of the setting, or a short hand-out. Images are really handy if you have a particular style or image in your head that you want the other players to also understand. For example, I had a campaign about barbarians that was heavily inspired by the art of Frank Frazetta, so I showed the players a few carefully selected pieces of his art and explained why they represented the world I was pitching.

A handout is particularly useful if there are features of the setting that are very different from what players might expect, or if you are introducing rules changes. You must be aware, though, that not every player is going to read it! If I give players a handout I (a) try to make it brief, (b) break it down into bite-size chunks, and (c) skim over the key parts when I give it to players. The handouts I have used in the past vary widely, depending on how much I want to set in stone from the outset, and how much time I have to create it.

Savage Swords Cover

Click to see my example of a primarily image-driven pitch.

Planetfall cover

Click to see my example of a fairly detailed handout.

The buy-in

My final step of world building may seem a little unconventional, but I find it invaluable for getting players to “buy into” the world I have proposed. Before our first session, after I have pitched them the idea and we have talked about general themes, tone, stories and characters that will comprise our game I invite each player to share one fact about the world.

I usually begin by saying something like “I am going to ask you to add a detail to the world. It can’t contradict any already established facts, and try to make it fit with the tone and type of stories we are planning to tell.” When the players understand what I am saying, I then ask; “What is one custom, geographic feature, political group, creature or other detail that is interesting about this setting? It can be something your character has direct experience with, or only knows about as rumour.”

This invitation might be a bit weird for some players, but in my experience they love it. Some real “gold” has come from player input in past campaigns. I’ve had worlds where horses didn’t exist, all elves were believed evil, engineers were cult members and entire societies were vegan. Other campaigns established that nobody believed in the undead (and wasn’t it a shock when they were encountered!), the capital was built between twin waterfalls, and a race of humanoid cockroaches lived just beyond the borders of the frontier. All of these things were eventually incorporated into the stories we told and players often remembered these details well after the campaign had ended.

Sometimes you may need to discuss a piece of player input, and perhaps adjust it. “No horses” was fine for our campaign, but if we had a player who wanted to be a noble knight who rode a great steed, things might have needed tweaking. In general, though, I have found players to be thoughtful and most of the time they add the “spice” to the setting, rather than great big world altering concepts.

Stay flexible

That pretty much sums up my approach to world building. It is relatively loose, which means it can be quick to do and allows me plenty of room to make things up on the fly. I always have a notebook with me when we play, and as facts and details are established I note them down. I also like to give the players a notebook as a “communal journal” and let them note anything they want as we play. I keep this journal at the end of the session and will occasionally read it (sneaky!) to see what things they found interesting or noteworthy. Sometimes they note details I only briefly passed over, and other times they misinterpret information I have given – either way, it is great fuel for future adventures!

Anyway, that’s how I world build. What about you? What tips or advice do you have for world building?