Constructing your own world is one of the most rewarding parts of running a roleplaying game. It’s a way to explore the philosophical, religious, and social concepts of the real world that you find interesting within a fictional but dynamic universe. It’s a way to throw cool and crazy ideas at your players, like gleaming techno-libertarian elven kingdoms or coked-up goblins armed with scavenged laser guns. Plus, it’s a way to gather up your disparate creative ideas that don’t have a home into one big pot.
But it’s also intimidating. A world has geography, nations, cities filled with people who themselves have interests, fears, desires and shames. I haven’t been running games or building worlds for very long, but I have learned enough to show my workflow — and maybe give some advice for anyone who wants to build a world but doesn’t know where to start.
A D&D or any other RPG campaign will never scratch even 1% of the world you can build in your head and in your notebooks. Use that to your advantage.
I treat the world around my players as the “dark room” and a 50-mile radius around them as the flashlight. They don’t need to know the military tactics of a hobgoblin captain waging war against a dwarf fortress on the other side of the ocean, so I don’t need to figure it out. I keep only a general sketch in my head and in my notes about the nations, conflicts and groups that are far away from the players.
As a general rule of thumb, if it would take more than a full session of travel to get somewhere, I don’t worry about what’s going on there. If my players make it clear that they want to visit a place or investigate a plot hook I’ve thrown out, I’ll spend a session or so bringing them there and foreshadowing the major themes. That gives me time (usually a week or two) to write a page or two of notes for the next big city they’re going to (which I usually invent on the fly) and some of the fights and encounters they’ll first get into.
As long as you shine the light only where the players can see, they’ll never know that the rest of the world is as much of a mystery to them as it is to you.
And there’s another benefit to keeping things vague: The improvisational nature of a tabletop session brings out all sorts of weird and funny ideas from you and your players riffing at each other. Players will throw out random ideas (“Wouldn’t it be crazy if we just convinced the dragon to impart his soul into a magical sword?”), and you can furiously scribble them down behind the DM’s screen for next session.
Related: Rather than meticulously place each idea for a wacky character, devious trap or mystical item within a static location in my world, I keep an ever-growing list of people and things that I sprinkle in where needed. My big dumb google doc of ideas has reached about 18 pages at this point.
In one campaign, my ancient dwarven warhammer that sings in riddles when sung is held by a Bullywug king who doesn’t understand the power the weapon holds. In the next, maybe my player’s don’t visit the swamp — so I stick the hammer at the bottom of a rubble pile in the depths of an abandoned dwarven castle that was overrun centuries ago.
You shouldn’t sequester your ideas away just because the players took the door on the left instead of the door on the right. But you also shouldn’t break the illusion of choice by making both doors lead to the same hallway. So I keep mu traps and NPCs and items on deck, hinting at them but never definitively committing to their location until the moment is right.
I also rely as often as possible on the golden rule of improv: “Yes, and!”
Last year I ran a campaign in which the players had 48 hours to fortify a city against a seemingly limitless army of the undead. To fill that time, I gave them tasks like repairing or fortifying walls, healing wounded soldiers, recruiting allies among the city’s numerous factions, or scouting the enemy forces.
What I didn’t expect was that my players would order dozens of Catapult spell scrolls and hundreds of pounds of gunpowder and steel pipes. After convincing the town’s dwarven labor unions to give them the materials on the cheap, they’d constructed about 40 pipe bombs, and when the undead came, used the catapult scrolls to launch them over the walls and knock our 10 to 20 ghouls a pop.
It frustrated me at first. This is supposed to be an epic battle, and they’re trivializing it, I thought. Then I mentally slapped myself. This is a hilariously effective plan they came up with and I shouldn’t punish them for creating something effective.
So instead, after they wiped out a few flanks of ghouls, I had the undead commander order the army to pull back outside their Catapult range, and start sending in shock troopers riding gargoyles and shadow dragons. Boom. Because of the player’s creative strategizing, they’ve forced the undead to switch tactics and send flying units in — meaning the ground forces could be routed by another army coming in to help them, and the players could continue fighting the flying menace.
By working with them and not against their ideas, we had a combat session that was more dynamic, more cinematic, and most importantly far more fun than what I had in mind.
(And one of the most gratifying things is that the wild ideas and exploits of one party become the legends another party builds on. One player actually managed to forge a dragon’s soul into a sword. So of course I made that sword into a hexblade patron that a future Warlock PC could follow.)
On the other hand, there are times where you need to be exacting and specific.
RPGs need structure, consistency and stakes, or else they become a shared daydreaming session that risks losing player attention. Your players need some threat of failure ever-present to make success meaningful, and they need worlds that make those stakes clear.
As an example, here’s an isometric map of the Temple of Illithos, a dungeon I like to throw players through in my games.
As per the previous rule, I move the dungeon around in my world; sometimes it’s in the bottom of a swamp, other times it floats in the wretched, furious seas of Abyss. The structure is plug-and-play.
But when my players walk through the front doors, it becomes a fixed place. I know the square footage of each room, I know from where enemies comes from and where traps fire, and I know where treasure chests are hidden.
This benefits me, because I don’t have to come up with encounters on the fly, and it benefits players because they can backtrack through rooms or spy on the movements of guards without becoming disoriented by me going “Uhh, I don’t remember what the third jail cell held,” or “The mage’s chamber has … um … three potions of healing, and … well … a skull? sitting on his cabinet?”
I keep similar documents for religions and cultures in my world. And one of the biggest game changers for me has been keeping a running spreadsheet of my players! I keep notes on each character’s name, physical appearance, stats like armor class and passive perception, and any other details that help me write convincing interactions between them and the world.
I’ve gone on for long enough, so I’ll end with this: Learning to be a Game Master is such a rewarding process. It tests your creativity, social skills, group management, conflict resolution, and storytelling skills. It gives you a platform from which to entertain your friends and funnel your creativity into a project many people can enjoy. And every time you run a game, your skills grow organically as you throw ideas at the wall and build on what works.