Alright, you’re finally going to play a role-playing game. You bought the books, you learned the rules, you made a sample character. You’re all ready to DM your first campaign.
Or are you?
I’ve heard from a good amount of friends that they would like to GM a game, but they have no idea how to world-build. They’ve asked all their favorite DM’s, but they receive conflicting advice, and in the end, they are left just as confused as when they started. Well, luckily, the reason for that is not only benign but downright motivating.
Whatever You Think, You’re Right!
The answer is that there is no wrong answer.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit optimistic. There are definitely better DM’s out there than others and some campaigns that are intrinsically more fun than others. But the way those fun worlds are built is as varied as the people who build them. The only hard-and-fast rule for roleplaying games is that everyone is having fun. So this means all that conflicting advice is a good thing! It means it all comes down to the preference of the players and the people running the game.
In this article, I’ll provide a general overview of the different ways to start world-building before starting your RPG campaign. This will be an extremely basic overview, but don’t worry – we’ll delve into more details in the future.
Improvisation vs Preparation
The eternal debate about how to GM is between how much preparation to do versus how much of it to improvise. For a campaign that uses a premade setting, this will mostly just apply to the story since, ideally, you’ll have a ton of setting material to work with that will help you avoid having to do improvisational work with the world itself.
However, if you’re building up the world yourself from scratch, or even just applying a ton of homebrew patches to the setting, then you’ll have to consider how much of that world to build before the campaign starts.
Think of these two styles – improvisation vs preparation – as a spectrum. You can go full improvision, and come up with the basic premise of the world and then go, or you can prepare everything, basically make your own full setting book, complete with hundred different d100 charts to roll on.
Personally, I swing wildly between these when I make my campaigns. Sometimes, I tell people to roll up a character for a fantasy setting and then go. Other times, if I’m really struck with inspiration, I may think of a setting for years before I begin. So don’t feel obligated to stick with one technique over another, it’s purely subjective.
Now, I’ll scatter my blog with advice for world-building from one end of the spectrum to the other, but for this post, I think I’ll focus most on the improvisational end. If you’ve been thinking of a setting for a while that you want to run, then by all means, go out there and run it, tiger! There will be future posts with more ideas of how to enhance settings you’ve already put a lot of thought into them.
Where To Start
First, Don’t Worry About It
On the other hand, the premise of this post is that you’ve been tasked with running a campaign and you only have the barest idea of how you’re going to do that. You may have a little spark of an idea for a story, but you’re not sure what you’re going to do when players start exploring this little world of yours. Will you be ready with names, places, characters, voices, and everything else?
Honestly, the answer is probably no. I don’t think anyone is truly ever ready for all of the crazy shit players will come up with. If you’ve played before running a campaign, then you have to acknowledge this as true – there must have been some points when you’ve been a genius, and other points when your party has been unbelievably stupid. That’s the fun of the game. But, you don’t want to stumble over every little thing. At the very least, you want to have some consistency. The world will be the most fun to explore if it seems real and plausible, but also exotic.
Players, Pay Attention, Too!
By the way, don’t forget that world-building skills are useful for players, too! And I don’t just mean for games like FATE Core, where the players are like co-GM’s and may have literal control over ret-coning the world at times. Even for games like D&D, some settings are pretty forgiving when it comes to how much free reign a player has over their back-story. In fact, some of my favorite backstories for characters involve some world-building. As long as you get permission from the GM, feel free to throw in new characters, new places, and new magic or technology for your character.
Role-playing games are team endeavors. The more interesting setting you’re given for your character, the more inspired you may be to make it colorful and interesting. And on the reverse side, the more hooks you throw into your character’s backstory, the more you will be pulled into the GM’s story (at least that’s how I run my games).
Just like creating the full world for the game, there may be a bit of improvisation and preparation involved. If you’re handed a character sheet and sit down, you’ll probably have to come up with something quickly – therefore, incorporating some of the improvisational techniques we’ll go over shortly. On the other hand, if you have weeks to prepare, you may find yourself looking at other sources of inspiration I’ve mentioned in previous posts, or that I’ll mention in the future. The point is, it’s all the same skills!
These are the first places I look for inspiration when I have to quickly come up with a world for people to explore.
Pick a Game
The fact of the matter is that the easiest way to start building your world, even if it’s a homebrew one, is by pulling from the RPG you plan on playing. Let’s face it, that’s generally most of what they’re selling you: story seeds, locations, character ideas, spells, equipment. The rules are often just a small part.
Of course, this isn’t always true. Some games are selling you more of the system itself. Games like FATE Core, Dungeon World, or Burning Wheel act more like a toolbox. They have a wide variety of ways to start the worldbuilding process, but it’s your job to put them all together into a cohesive world. However, these games also usually contain ways to fill in any missing pieces during gameplay, like mechanics that help the players build the world, too.
So which game to pick? Well, it depends on where you fall on that chart up above. If you think you can manage some improvisation, or you have some good players who can do so, go for one of these toolbox settings. In addition to the ones I mentioned above, there is also World of Darkness Core, Stars Without Number, or Savage Worlds. These games are usually pretty simple to teach, too.
But, if you don’t have a ton of time to think about all of the little details of your world, but you also don’t have a ton of confidence in your improvisational abilities, go for a well-established setting. The downside of these kinds of games is that you’ll actually have to put in some preparation work as the DM. You will have to learn not only the rules but also their campaign setting.
Keep an Eye on Generators and Resources
Personally, I find this fun (hence starting a blog on the topic), but it may not be true for everyone. But what’s the alternative? Coming up with all of those things yourself (which I also find fun).
If you’re choosing a generic toolbox setting, there are still plenty of resources out there to help you out with building a world. You won’t have to improvise completely, as long as you have access to the internet or have some RPG books. There’s a name generator out there for basically any type of setting or character. Personally, I use this fantasy name generator the most, even for non-fantasy settings. You can google for others, though. I also save resources that I run into on blogs or forums that I think may come in handy.
Don’t worry if you don’t have access to these resources in the beginning. Plenty of fun can be had with just your imagination and a notebook. Remember that players have all of their own things to worry about, like how their character is going to get out of this tough situation you put them in. While they’re thinking of what to do with their turn or making conversation with other players about how they’re going to storm this stronghold, take the time to plan not only for now but for other parts of your setting. I also do a lot of thinking about worldbuilding between sessions, too.
Pick a Ruleset
If you’ve got some time to read, but not the time to come up with intricate relationships of NPC’s, just pick an RPG with a well-established setting and start writing some notes about where your story seed may fit into this world.
Most RPGs fall into this second category, but that’s because there are so many different worlds that so many different talented authors have thought of. If you’ve got the beginnings of a story seed, it might be worth it to peruse existing games not only to use their rule systems, but also so you can adapt your campaign to their world, and thus gain access to all of the other resources available for that setting.
Go to the RPG StackExchange and ask what a good system/setting is good for your X-Files campaign. Or go to the RPG subreddit and start checking out their games of the month, or ask a question about what a good system is for some trope you want your game to fulfill. This requires a bit of preparation as well, so I’ll just throw you a few of the most popular RPG settings to get you started.
Pick a Genre
The easiest way to begin is by establishing the genre, time period, and place of your campaign first. For example, you may be inspired by an anime, so tell your players the genre will be like a sci-fi anime, a modern horror, feudal Japan, or pseudo-medieval Europe like Lord of the Rings. Even before you start a campaign, you should at least have access to either a story premise that lends itself to a genre best. Or at the very least, you should have a genre in mind.
If you don’t, may I suggest you start by consuming some more pop-culture? I’m prescribing you some fiction movies and books stat!
Anyway, here’s a couple example role-playing games with ready-made settings for inspiration based on their genres. You’ll find others in my blog or other blogs I link to.
Game Examples By Genre
If you’re going for fantasy, the most popular is of course Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s also 13th Age, Exalted or 7th Sea.
For the modern fantasy or horror fans, look at any of the World of Darkness books, Scion, or Call of Cthulhu.
Superhero aficionados are lucky to have Mutants and Masterminds, Marvel Super Heroes, City of Mists, or Masks.
If you foresee a science-fiction game, there’s Rifts, Shadowrun, Traveller, or the Stars Without Number.
Plan on adventuring in the Wild West? Try Deadlands, Aces & Eights, or Dogs in the Vineyard.
If you want to adopt a setting from a game or movie you like, there’s also plenty of choices: Firefly, Dragon Age, Robotech, Mech Warrior, Ravnica from Magic: The Gathering, Legend of the 5 Rings, Star Trek, Star Wars, War Hammer, and more.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of games by any means. It’s more to illustrate how many choices you have, and some of my personal recommendations.
Even uniquely creative settings like the award-winning Numenera from Monte Cook are usually inspired by either other popular fiction tropes or historical stories and cultures. At the very least, you should be able to think of either a historical or fictional setting that either you or your players would love to roleplay out.
Then, work out from there.
Whether you start building the world for your campaign based off a story premise you already have, how much preparation you want to do, or just a genre or setting you already enjoy, your style is valid. It all just comes down to starting with a tiny seed and then adding more and more building blocks to your story.
What are those building blocks? They’re basically locations, characters, or cultures. Then you can add on the magic, the technology and everything else.
This went on a bit longer than I thought it would so I’ll have to go over those building blocks more in future posts. But, hopefully, this inspired some ideas if you’re just starting out. Remember, before session 0, you only need enough for character creation. And then you only need enough for session 1.
One step at a time. Now, go on, start rolling some dice.