Worldbuilding 101 – Getting The Players To Work For You
I have somehow found myself tapping away writing a damn article for a nifty website one of my players has pulled together, truly what a time to be alive.
I’ve been asked to compile my thought process and provide a step by step on how I built (more correctly how I fooled my players into worldbuilding) the world I DM in, as I’ve not seen it discussed as a legitimate idea before, I said why the hell not.
Here I’ll compose my Pepe Silvia style notes into something other humans (or our future alien overlords) can understand and provide you, the reader, with a new and fun way to build a homebrew world to enjoy and explore together.
The premise is to engage the players at nearly every step of the worldbuilding process. It will create a buy-in from the players and spark ideas like you wouldn’t believe. At the end of this article, I’ll list some examples of how I’ve seen this take my games into uncharted areas.
With the preamble out of the way, here it is, there’s no name, so maybe we’ll call it ‘Dickie’s World Design for the Distinguished DM’. Or not.
Before we start, a few ground rules need to be established, and the reasons for this will become abundantly clear.
- You, as the DM, need to be ok with allowing your players some creative control.
- The players need to be sensible about what they want to include.
- Read as: Everybody needs to be on the same page about the style of the world you’re building together; a common theme or trope should be established at the outset and kept in mind throughout this process.
- Remember, it’s about having fun and turning what is normally seen as the DM’s job into an engaging experience for the people who will be involved. When you get around to the end of this guide, and have to put pen to paper and build that world. Start small, only write what you need and don’t stress over the details before they come up in play.
Everybody needs to be on the same page about the style of the world you’re building together
So here’s Dickie’s World Design for the Distinguished DM (trademark pending) in its briefest form.
- I ran a level 20 one-shot to establish the player characters as Gods of a new world.
- I grabbed a map and played a nifty little game called Dawn of Worlds (it’s very simple and very free – here). The players had the choice of roleplaying as their Gods or just building stuff they thought was cool and wanted to see.
- I archived all of the decisions made and made the map a little fancier.
- As we play on Roll20, I made a game and have stored a load of specific lore information in there. That’s it.
To compare, these four steps above (of which two are games, and one of those you’re also a player) to an interwebs search of things you need established for Worldbuilding:
- Magic system
- Naming stuff
- People’s customs
- People’s conflicts
- Fill in the blanks
- What should you leave unwritten?
See what I mean? You, as a DM, could spend hours, days, weeks writing all that stuff up.
For what? Sure, it can be a fun exercise to write up, but if that’s your poison, I’d recommend knocking out some short stories.
And look, this might not work for you or your group. I don’t have magic beans, but what I have is an internet worth of ideas that weren’t working and one idea that did.
Using the four steps outlined above. Bish bash bosh, 80% of the heavy lifting all done for me.
Now, whenever I look to introduce an unexplored area or call in established lore, I have a reference point that everyone vaguely remembers because they were there when it was established.
Nobody has to go digging around on a huge Wiki trying to decide whether they like that the Elves only wear pointed shoes or if changing this seemingly insignificant detail will destabilise an entire races’ shared history.
It was established that Elves only like pointy shoes whilst they were present. They probably remember it because it’s stupid, and the players very likely had a say in the matter.
You, as a DM, could spend hours, days, weeks writing all that stuff up.
It really was that simple; the weight on the DM’s shoulders about deciding what races should be present or how they should interact is relieved —deciding where places would go on a map and near what resources are done for you.
Now you need only write up how the relevant people and places in your adventure work.
Some of my players even went the extra mile and gave me a rundown of how they envisaged their civilisation’s role in the world. Crowdsourcing D&D at its finest. There were some in-world disagreements, but these were settled within the confines of the system and have led to many lore-rich events that the players already know, precisely because they were a part of it.
The intent of this (and thankfully the result of) has led to players making in-character decisions based on the lore they helped write, and it’s entirely because they give a shit. That’s right, you heard me correctly, and I’ll repeat it, nobody gives a shit about Waterdeep, or Eberron or Ravenloft unless they’ve spent tons of time playing in those settings or reading the many published books or wikis.
Now my players give a shit because they have some emotional stake in the creation of this shared space and, as an important point of difference, not just the character they’re playing. Ask anyone who’s had children; their kid is always the cutest.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud that your thirst for knowledge is greater than your dislike of my writing style.
So into the nitty-gritty of it, how did I make a long boring thing into a short, fun thing?
I’m leaving out how you should set the theme, as that’s really a conversation to have with your players, and I’m far too inept at human interaction to guess how that conversation will go.
Step 1 – Level 20 One-shot
I set up a one-shot to establish my players level 20 characters as the new pantheon. They’d expressed an interest in an actual polytheism (some did anyways) and this felt like an elegant solution for everyone to understand the Gods of the new world.
I find writing a short blurb for any adventure is great for setting player expectations, and mine was pretty much this:
You are demi-gods, selected to cleanse the tyrannical evil of a distant world. If you destroy this being, you will be granted the powers and domains of greater deities and will be free to shape the land as you see fit. Should you fail, you will cease to be.
Boom. I don’t know about your players, but mine were stoked. I had five players, each with a domain they wanted. I let them pick or homebrew magical items of various powers (seeding weapons of the Gods for future campaigns, stroke my ego more, please), characters built for level 20, and we were off with a bang.
I had them land on this strange new world and immediately fought a Shadow-Tarrasque. This signals that the big bad knows they’re coming and that this BBEG has some serious clout.
The shadow part of the Tarrasque was designed entirely to give it a teleport, removing the ability to run away and plink damage from a distance. Throw in some fun earth-shaking legendary actions, and you have a Godly fight on your hands.
Post Tarrasque killing (which, as expected, was quite easy), I had the only surviving Fey contact them and offer them a deal. He’d show them how to get to the BBEG in exchange for the player’s divine word that they could be a part of the new greater pantheon. This was a fun little mad-hatter style picnic in the only remaining section of the Feywild of this shadow-covered world.
The purpose of this was to introduce a domain that was missing, trickery and change. Also, it allowed me to roleplay a little in the upcoming Dawn of Worlds game as this chaotic semi-sane Archfey.
The team accepted the deal and made their way to the backdoor.
The players had an epic showdown with the evil God, the terrain being broken apart by the sun as they fought. Fortunately, the players emerged victorious.
Installed as the Gods of a freshly cleaned world, a major pantheon sorted and the dynamic between characters set the stage for future God troubles.
Now everyone knew about the pantheon and had a great time learning—pats on the back all around.
Step 2 – Build that world!
We ran a level 20 one-shot, and now we (the DM) have our Greater Deities without so much as a Google search of “Egyptian God names and domains”. That’s a bloody great win in my books.
Now we need to play Dawn of Worlds and stick some places and people into the world.
All you need to prepare as a DM is a map and a mission statement of what type of world you want to build.
If you get it, skip ahead. Otherwise, stick around for how I went about this.
So no shit, I said to the team, “do we like playing D&D in high fantasy settings?”.
Unsurprisingly for my group, everyone said yes, so that’s what we had in mind when taking our turns.
I wasn’t sure how this was going to go, so I provided the caveat that as I’d be running the majority of the games, I could change anything I didn’t like after the Dawn of Worlds game was over. I’d recommend doing the same, unless you don’t want to, of course.
Thankfully it didn’t come to that as everyone was reasonably well behaved, and the session was a blast.
For the map we’d be defacing (Christ, I’ve never seen so many dicks), I used the Civ 5 SDK tool to generate a map. If you have Civ 5 on Steam, then you get this great little tool for free.
I’d recommend looking up how to activate it and have a play around.
Map generated, and a copy saved in the tool for future editing later.
I made a point of being an archivist by noting down each player’s turn and what they did with it. With special attention to any new races or places they added to the map.
Then we smashed out two sessions of Dawn of Worlds, easy as that.
A couple of players focused most of their efforts into a single civilisation each, and everybody else floated about doing little bits here and there.
The usual stuff of creating avatars of the Gods, building, warring, shaping the land and the people far better than any evening I spent writing could accomplish. I’d recommend using Risk battle rules for deciding who wins a fight.
The chaps, most of whom have no interest in world building, had so much fun that they want to do it again sometime. We most certainly will be once we start adding new continents onto the edge of the known world, or if I drag them back to Ravenloft (avert your eyes, you sneaky boys).
The next unnecessary thing I did was to stash away the map, head back into the Civ 5 SDK tool, add the terrain and places. Finally converted it in Wonderdraft but that’s a whole tutorial in itself.
Step 3 – ????? Profit!
Gosh, do you see what’s happened? We’ve got the Gods, a map, people, places, and major world events. But, again, I cannot stress this enough, I didn’t spend any time sitting on my own struggling to make sense of a handful of half-baked ideas (I mean, technically, I made up 1/6th of the stuff, but you know what I mean). Most of the heavy lifting was shared amongst those who would soon be enjoying the fruits of their labour.
That’s it. No really. I spent an afternoon making the map pretty. Put pen to paper on the races and places I had a hand in making. Jobs a good’un.
Now when I start looking into the next adventure to run, I refer to a little wiki I’ve set up in Roll20. I can see who established the places I want the adventure to go, and I ask them if they want anything specific set-in-stone about the civilisation they made up. If not, I go wild and write what I think the players need to know. If they are more precious, I’ll encourage them to elaborate on any of their ideas. Easy as that.
The players are more invested in the world. You spend less time writing stuff that never sees the light of day and everybody has a more enjoyable gaming experience.
Feel free to tell me I’m wrong, stupid or whatever the insult of the month is.
Richard’s made up awards include winning ‘Words Why Them So Good’ 2019, ‘Thief! Put That Blank Award Down’ 2020 and Fictional magazine’s ‘Best New Non-Extraterrestrial Writer’ 2051. He spends his days fixing computers and his nights in a (mostly) quiet dark room. Between the stereotypical geek hobbies he enjoys long walks, bourbon and looking attractive to wasps. You can find him on social media but you’re going to have to work for it.