Creating a new fantasy setting for D&D is daunting but I don't want to use one of the published settings. I have a blank piece of paper in front of me and a whole world to create. My friends want to play as soon as possible. Where's the best place to start?
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You've got a blank sheet of paper, and you want to play ASAP. Excellent. This is what I've done successfully:
You're ready to play!
After your first session, follow up with:
I would do the following. Note this is also found on my blog here .
This will probably run to about 10,000 words. You can do this in about 2 weeks spending about 2 hours an evening at a 1,000 words a evening and time drawing maps. Or consider it about 24 hours of work.
This is being expanded in the following posts.
A Fantasy Sandbox in detail Part I covers Step 1
A PDF Collecting the above steps into a printable book can be downloaded.
Start with what you know you and your friends like.
You should establish a basic setting and campaign focus, depending on the themes you know your players will enjoy. Decide if its going to focus on combat, investigation, exploration, etc, and if the setting fits or inverts that style of play. For example, a campaign that takes place in Rome during the height of the Western Empire lends itself well to investigation, but less so to exploration.
As an example, I had a group of players that liked role playing and investigation. I started a campaign set in an alternative 950 AD Bavaria, where enemies could be fierce but were more likely to run away if they dropped below 50% hitpoints - meaning, they were always willing to talk first and cut a deal.
Add a base and adventure location.
Knowing the above, you should have base culture/setting in mind. Add a starting base and and adventure location, plus 3-4 additional encounters and 2-4 NPC personalities. Again, focus on what your players like and don't like. Don't run an adventure after Sunday school that features a base at a brothel.
In the adventure above, I started with an inn located on a recently flooded river and a hidden fortress under a waterfall, complicated by a small tribe of starving goblins and a creepy harpy that never revealed herself.
Take notes during the first session.
Most adventures I run "create" future adventures through how players treat the NPCs. Attach facts to NPCs as they are played, and listen to what your players think about them. If NPCs develop personalities during the session, you should fill out their backgrounds and associated locations before the next session.
During the adventure above, an orc who was staying with the goblins became the focus of a bait and switch with a sword with a continual light spell on it. The players loved the NPC so much, they persuaded a new player to play the orc character. The players also were interested in where the goblins came from, and why the harpy was so afraid to show herself.
Build out from the first session.
After the first session, add more surrounding details. Put that dungeon location and the base into a more defined region, and add a new dungeon location.
After the adventure above, I knew I had to locate the goblin's lair, and fill out the background of a ghost (from which the harpy was hiding) as well as a nearby tiny town where the players would eventually train.
What I would not do:
Try to create a campaign setting.
What I would do:
Make a list of all the ideas and concepts I want to use in the setting. Put the list away and go and make a cup of tea. Go through the list and make connections between the items. Leave all the dangly bits, because I'll find ways to connect them later.
That's it. Really. You don't want to try to create the whole thing from scratch or, and this is important, it will never happen. Start small, start with a bunch of ideas, build outward as the game goes on. Ideas will occur in play which would never have done so beforehand, and best of all, the players will come up with ideas that you can pinch and include.
Here's a (truncated) example of one of my lists:
So what have we got? Well, let's say the zombie apocalypse rendered the original continent on this world uninhabitable, so there was a diaspora. One of the destinations was a small colony on the shore of a distant land, and now this colony is the main setting for the game. The new continent is vast and unexplored, and with many, if not most, of the fighting types having been killed in the Zombie Wars, probably in some kind of Dunkirk type rearguard action, the taming of this new land is left to the youthful heroes of the new generation (the players).
One particular danger in this new land is that it is ruled by vast beasts. These things stomp about causing all sorts of trouble, and generally make expansion rather difficult for the new arrivals, so a sort of Very Big Game hunting culture has arisen, with groups of heroes going out into the wilderness to take down these titans, and bring back trophies in order to improve their standings in an informal league of adventurers. Though it is serious business, this playful attitude is tolerated, even encouraged, as it inspires more youngsters to sign up to pacify the wilderness.
(In game terms, each of these giant beasts is a huge specimen of an iconic D&D monster, and there's only ever one of them. So there's one huge hydra, one massive manticore, one bloody big beholder, and so on. They're so big they cannot be easily or quickly harmed by simple sword strokes, and the heroes have to come up with more clever methods of attack. There may be an indigenous tribe of orcs or something, but for the most part, there's only one of each monster.)
So there you have a sandbox-type setting, with a base of operations, and a unique feel via the sport analogy and the giant monsters; all that from about fifteen minutes' work.
What it boils down to is two general directions:
The main difference between the two is personal playstyle, in addition to what kind of game you're building it for.
I like to start with a village or town and then build and develop a few miles around it. This gives the players a base of operations, a place to heal and a place to upgrade their gear or blow all their money. It doesn't take too much time. Sketch some of the more important locals, a temple a noble or two, a couple guards and some other colorful characters. Oh of course you are going to need a tavern.
Step 1: Figure out why
Step 2: Planning
Step 3: Mechanic Writing and Building
Step 4: develop the environment
Step 5: Revise and expand
Step 6: Edit and Playtest and Edit
Step 7: Cut it into publishable chunks
In general, if you want to start "right off", for home play, start with a bottom-up, and let the players help design the central elements. You'll be skipping steps 6 & 7, and 5 will be done as you develop more adventures. Having run several campaigns this way, it works really well.
There is also http://www.io.com/~sjohn/demog.htm also known as
Medieval Demographics Made Easy
You can start either at the top or the bottom, I think its realistic to start at the bottom because starting at the top makes things top heavy I find (its all a nation of orks, a nation of gnolls, a nation of trolls ,etc when realistically the modern nation is not very old.).
Unless I was very averse to it, I would try to get a firm grasp of what feudalism is. Maybe read a bit of history.
You can also start at the very bottom which is game mechanics and build up from there, but that requires a bit more foresight.
In your context, friends who want to play right now this minute, I'd start with an initial adventure and starting point, seed it with a ton of ideas that the players can follow, and build the world from what they do.
In more concrete terms I'd come up with a basic scenario with at least three "sides", a map of where at least two are (the third side provides the "in"), and at least two personalities per side. Have side three get the characters involved and then grow from there. Steal a setup from a favorite movie or book to start.
Worked Example: A Fist of Seven Silver Pieces
South of the last Barony is a colony of people. The descendants of escaped outlaws they now are mostly simple farmers just trying to eek out an existence. However, they have found a small cache of old imperial silver they have used to trade for a better life. Now their mule trains to the last Barony are being raided. They've hired the adventurers to end the raids.
What the farmers don't realize is there are two groups raiding them, a group of orcs from some local caves and some of the young men of the village using a ruined Imperial border post.
Now, create the two young men leading the raiders and WHY, the orc shamen and chieftan, the village headman and his young daughter (who is in love with the lieutenant of the raiders instead of their leader).
Things that provide hooks for the future: all six characters, the raider's motivation, the ruins, something special about the Imperial silver coins (perhaps minted by a supposedly legendary Emperor-Mage who most don't believe existed but created a grand spell/item...is it in the caves) and so on. Plus, your players will invent connections you didn't think of...run with them.
Everything here is stolen from common items (two westerns, stereotypes, etc) and is easy to create (cave map, ruined outpost...all easily found online), and six characters.
That could get up you up and running Saturday even.
I've started a couple of times, years ago, by reading the Dungeoncraft serie by Ray Winninger. It explains and gives structure to the campaign building process. The second time I used it just as reference but it still was super-useful :)
I think you need to answer two questions before you follow any of the great counsel offered by other responses: 1) What kind of adventures do I want and like to run, and 2) What kind of adventures does my group like to undertake?
Don't set yourself up for frustration by over-fashioning your own world if, by their nature and temperament, your gamers are more enthused by hack-and-slash and don't require much depth, history, etc. Believe me, you'll find yourself trying to force them to care about the hours of work you put in, and everyone will be dissatisfied.
If every now and then they like to dabble in some history, but not much, buy someone else's world and adapt according to your good pleasure--that's your prerogative.
If your group loves geological and historical and magical histories and background and depth, then by all means, go ahead!
If you're like me, a lazy DM, then I suggest the following: Start with an initial adventure, an initial town, a handful of NPC names, each with a one-line description of what they look like and how they behave. I like hex maps so I'll pick six adventure ideas and place them around the starting area. I'll write a random encounter table. If you're good at improvising, just use a random monster table (and maybe some wandering NPCs?) that reflects the seven locations you have and the general area. If you need more structure, prepare a real encounter with each of the monsters and NPCs you picked. Then start to play. Keep adding just-in-time information and adventures as the game develops.
This approach makes sure that you don't waste a lot of time on stuff that won't get used. It treats actual gaming as top priority and assumes that you don't enjoy world-building per se. If you do, ignore this advice. :)
Gather your players together and run a game of Microscope.
I've only done this for one game so far but it's generated a very interesting world history that the players have had input to and so know some background for immediately. I then expanded on this history and filled out interesting places and events hinted out by the Microscope gave.
I have two rules for setting generation: Broad and Small.
A few sentences that tell you why this setting is going to be AWESOME (by whatever definition you use). These are broad strokes, designed to help you stay focused on what things to include or flavor to go for. "Dragons psionically holding together the Material Plane against Cthulhu things. Airships powered by sentient meteorites. Repeating design work on everything, interlocking like Islamic art."
A town, a few interesting NPCs. A dungeon or place of adventure, a few interesting NPCs. Within this situation, put in a few rumors, hooks and potential directions things can go from there - if the players show interest, you know what section to develop next.
The players will make up backstories too, which also helps develop your world.
Broad covers the fun unique parts, small is the parts the players regularly engage with. Don't build stuff unless it's very likely to see play - no point in making 200 pages of setting if you only play 5 sessions.
Building a fantasy setting is hard, damn hard. You have to think a lot of things and make them coherent. Also, you don't have to have dark spots. The best to do is to create a "small island" in a well-built, pre-made setting.
That said, if you really want to develop a setting all by yourself, you should define the following things first:
You can stop here. Once you know these things, you choose one city where things start. That city and kingdom must be well defined, so you have to concentrate a lot on its NPC, buildings and problems. Normally, a campaign involves traveling and interacting, so you will eventually need to refine the outside world later on. Having a rough idea of what's outside the borders of the country the characters start in allows you to define a plot, and from this plot, you can plan what kind of details you will need later on.
For inspiration, I strongly suggest you to read European history, and Italian lords families such as Medici, Savoia, Estensi, Gonzaga. There's plenty of inspiration in there.
Here's what I did:
I'd start with a megadungeon, and build the first few levels (about twice as far as you think the players will get in the first session, just in case), simply because they're a great way to keep a party occupied. Then fill in some general terrain around it, a village/town/city or two.
Have some areas around your core, where the various player characters come from. Do this after the players have decided their race and general background.
Build out from there with different types of landscape and monsters. Make a handful of NPCs and give them various problems based on their surroundings. Some the PCs can help, some they can't. Try to make the NPCs be more than quest-givers. Some background is good, and makes the world seem more real.
Place some dungeons occasionally, with various justifications as to what they use to be. A few crypts or cemeteries, some castles/keeps, a handful of caves, and an abandoned town should generally be enough for the starting area.
You'll need some explanation as to why there isn't a local ruler getting rid of the monsters. Various methods I've used or seen are:
Make sure that as the players explore, you generate new areas of the map for them. Also, let them find new 'base camps' from where they can explore. This should come naturally from how you built your core. Make sure to have accurate maps for where all the new areas are.
After that, you have to decide where to take it. You can develop governments and nations, or wilderness and dungeons.
One important piece of advice: Don't go into detail for a region the PCs won't reach in the next few sessions. By the time they get there, your underlying situation may have changed a lot. Or they may simply keep going in the opposite direction.
Also, you don't have to balance everything. If the players know that there are some things out there they are no match for yet, they are more careful but also more motivated.
I would start with what your players want. What do they want to play, and what story do you want to tell? When you get their input, then you can move on to more specific setting creation.
Start with the God Mythos that you want to use. Is it one that exists already, or is it your own, or a combination of the two? This then will give you the greatest culture upon your planet.
Now draw a map of your new planet, with the continents, land masses, and oceans named. Now decide how many cultures are on your planet, and then place them. Also create one unique culture that you and others won't recognize where you got it from.
Now how magical of a world do you want? How many suns and moons do you want?
Don't do the earth, reason being that it's too restricting on what you can and can't do, for history has already done this for you!
Now you are on your way and the rest will flow from you. Remember the old books you read; use them as examples to stay away from. You can use a small percentage from foreign works — just have your own ideas so outnumber the borrowed ones that it shows. It shows you liked that concept and thus why you included it; but don't do this to often, otherwise it looks like all you know how to do is borrow from others. (The book Dinotopia did this too much, and that cheapened it.)
Also create a list of rules alterations to give to the players from the start.
Now have fun and create.