Asking me to write about worldbuilding is like asking Al Gore to write about global warming:
- It’s an open invitation to endless rants on a topic which is extremely important to me, and boring to everyone else.
- A great deal of hot air and gaseous emissions are going to be involved.
- What I consider to be absolute truths, other people consider to be dubious or outright lies.
Hey, this analogy really works!
Anyway, the request from the RPGBloggers carnival was to discuss the whys and wherefores of worldbuilding (gads, I love alliteration!), rather than specific details of one’s world, so this will be less about the the lineage of the Margrail family and how it caused the civil war, and more about worldbuilding in general.
Instant World! — Just add water, land, terrain, people, history, ruins, monsters, factions, gods….
One of the biggest changes in D&D 4.0, as compared to 3.x and to most older versions was the very clear attitude of “Worldbuilding, shmorldbuilding!” The DMG was heavily focused on how to make Big Cool Dramatic Set Piece Fight Scenes… giving these fights a larger context in which they were occurring, not so much. The explicit “assumed world” with its heavy handed background and pre-gen history was supposed to be all you needed; from there, all you had to do, as a DM, was shuffle the players from dungeon to dungeon, with the occasional quick stop back at The Town where you could B)uy Supplies, V)isit the Temple, R)est At The Inn, or T)rain For Next Level.
You know. This.
Apparently, according to at least some folks in the know, it was determined that world building “scared” people, that it was a turn off, that what people wanted was to boot up their kitchen table and jump to the instance selection screen. Yeah. Except for one thing — if that’s really all you want from D&D, you’re better off playing a video game. If you’re going to invest the time to play in a real RPG, you’re going to want to get more out of it than you can get from an online game, and that means having more than a bunch of rides in the Dungeonland Amusement Park, however well constructed each ride may be.
As a point of comparison, let’s see what the 1e DMG had to say on the subject:
“You, as the Dungeon Master, are about to embark on a new career, that of universe maker. You will order the universe and direct the activities in each game, becoming one of the elite group of campaign referees referred to as DMs in the vernacular of AD&D. What lies ahead will require the use of all of your skill, put a strain on your imagination, bring your creativity to the fore, test your patience, and exhaust your free time. Being a DM is no matter to be taken lightly!”
Now, you see, who could back down from that kind of challenge? Only some total mealy-mouthed pencil-necked wussbag! Gary Gygax tossed the gauntlet down, and if you don’t have the balls to pick it up, you don’t deserve to be behind the DM Screen! The few, the proud, the DMs! The transition in writing style from R. Lee Ermy to Mr. Rogers marks, in my opinion, a significant decline.
However, both the hyperbolic pontifications of the 1e DMG and the pandering circumlocutions of the 4e DMG hide the real truth — worldbuilding is neither difficult nor terrifying. It is, in fact, rather easy, and infinitely more rewarding than buying someone else’s world off a shelf. (For one thing, when it’s your world, you don’t have some snot nosed brat that thinks JRR Tolkien ripped off R. A. Salvatore whining that apple trees can’t grow in Happy Elf Dale during the month of Widdlywonk due to the time in the Fourth Age Of The Second Crisis that Murglefloop the Mad cast this spell which…(insert noises of DM thwacking brat with book here)).
In The Beginning…
It’s said that there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank sheet of graph paper, so don’t leave it blank. Draw a squiggly line down the middle. There. You have divided the land from the water. (Pick one side and say “Land!”. There you go!) Alternatively, you’ve drawn a river. Not all adventures begin on the coast, after all.
Now that that’s done…think a moment about what kind of setting you want. Not necessarily “I want a fight with orcs!”, but things like theme, tone, and style. Let your mind drift a bit until you get an image you really like in your head, or browse Deviant Art, or flip through game books, or whatever you find inspiration in. I have found that a single image, or even a single phrase, is enough to spin out a whole world, once I get started, and the world sometimes ends up having little to do with that original concept (and sometimes it’s still locked into it).
Looking around my desk, just now, I happened to see a present my wife got me a year or so ago… a giant microbe from GiantMicrobes.Com. Plague… disease… ruin… OK, yeah, we can run with that. I see people dying in the streets, their corpses festering horribly. I see grim-faced folk walking among the bodies, calling to their gods. Plagues work best when people are close together, so this is a densely populated world, or region of a world, and that implies a high level of technology and social organization…something roman, perhaps, or later medieval…there has to be a way for the plague to travel, so lets go back to that map we just drew. It is a river, after all, so it needs tributaries. Draw a whole bunch of other squiggly lines, branching off and converging with the main river. It’s best if they all flow roughly the same direction, even if they meander a bit.
Somewhere on that main river, probably where most of the other rivers feed into it, is going to be a major city. Draw a circle or square or star or maybe a bunch of little buildings if you’re artistically inclined. Ah, but what to call it…this is important, as your choice of name is going to start off a whole new train of associations…
Names are more important than a lot of people think. Way too many fantasy worlds, especially kitchen-sink fantasy like D&D, tend to suffer from the Aerith and Bob syndrome. Few things scream “They just didn’t care!” like having the town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh just a few miles down river from Zugrakgal, which trades with Chong-Wan a days ride to the north and Fortress Maximus two days ride to the west. While a world will have that much diversity (and the reverse problem, that of having a planetary monoculture, is rarer but still occurs), the local region you’re sketching out now won’t. Getting back to our idea stream… if we’re going for an advanced, dense, population with regular travel, we can look at a few Earth cultures for ideas. China and Renaissance Italy come to mind, among others. But the images in my mind were more gothic, so I want a sorta kinda germanic feel to things, though not necessarily historical Germany or any variant thereof. Again, letting my mind play a bit, something that sounds right is Vilkersburg. But “burg” is a bit too historical (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and I want to not be too tied in — even symbolically — with the real world. Play a bit with the syllables… Vilkersbraan. What’s nice is that now we have a syllable that can mean “town” or “settlement” or the like. I then decide to tie things together a bit more (not necessary) and decide that main river is known, at least here, as the Vilk.
Draw bunch more circles going up the river and scattered along the tributaries. These are small towns and villages that rely on the river trade. You don’t need to name them all yet (though you can). Just pick one or two, though, and give them names. These will be the other major settlements in the region. Oooh… we should figure out how big an area we’re mapping. Assuming 4 square/inch graph paper, at 100 miles a square you’re creating an area ridiculously large, and at 1 mile a square, probably too small. We want this to be a decent sized nation. Let’s assume twenty miles a day is about the maximum travel speed on the roads, so why not have each inch be a day’s travel, and thus use 5 miles/square? This gives us a portion of a large nation or a reasonably sized small one. Probably needs a name, too, since we’re designing cities in it… I like the sound of “Spar” or “Skar”, but that’s not quite enough… it needs something else…veldspar bubbles to mind, but that’s a type of rock, and unless you’re being deliberate with that sort of thing, you end up with the equivalent of “The Fair Republic Of Chlamydia, and its ruler, Count de Monet”, and that’s never good unless you’re going for out-and-out satire. Valdskar…nah, not quite… Haldskar…. Halduskaar, with a long “u” pronounced as “ooo”, and “Hal” pronounced as in “Hollow”. OK, it’ll do.
Next comes a pretty important choice…is Vilkersbraan the capital? If not, that implies Halduskaar continues on another map (which is fine, we’re building a world, here). Because it gives a way to increase the scope of adventures later, I’m going to say no… there’s a capital somewhere else, probably down the Vilk a bit (though as we develop the world, we may change our mind; for right now, I want to just establish distance and rough direction, so we’ll say “about two weeks travel south or southwest”. Capital ought to have a name, and Foltersbraan is what hits my brain first. Don’t want to overdo the “braan” ending for every city, though. Keep that in mind.
So Vilkersbraan is a major regional city. Why is it here? Well, it’s on a river, and we’ve established its important for trade…. and we’re thinking about something sort of germanicish… so wood. Forests. We have major logging operations upriver, and it all comes here. Go cover the upper quarter or so of the map with fluffy cloud shapes. Those are forests. The forest needs a name, of course. Here’s a small trick… you can almost always get away with a “plain English” descriptive name like “The Bloodwood” or “The Forest Of Black Fangs” or whatever, especially if you make it clear that you’re “translating” the real name. “Names that don’t mean anything”, that aren’t simple combinations of English words, are seen as “names given long ago when they did mean something in an older language”, while names in Just Plain English are What People Call The Place Now. And here I’m getting a bit stuck, as the names bubbling to mind — black wood, dark wood, elf wood… or variants on these… are just too darn cliché. My mind is momentarily locked into a bad place for creativity. So…off to Chaotic Shiny . (Prior to the Internet, I relied on Judge’s Guild supplements for this, or just wrote my own computer programs.) A couple of clicks, and I see “Tidefern Jungle”. Not entirely what I want, but something connects in my brain… Whitefern. Whitefern Forest. I like it. It makes sense, and gives me some local color… it’s named for the unusually pale fern growth, not precisely white, but an unusually light green, barely tinted. They probably have medicinal uses…medicine… hey, weren’t we starting with a plague? If the ferns have reputed healing powers, they may be being sought in huge amounts to cure the plague… which gives us, in turn, a conflict, a hook to start adventurers off on. I see a few right off to bat:
a)The easy access to the ferns is gone. You need to go deeper into the woods to find more, and the woods are filled with nasty beasties.
b)The ferns are precious. Bands of “Gatherers” enter the woods and war over patches of them.
c)The local inhabitants of the woods are getting pissed at how many people are coming in and stealing their ferns.
d)The ferns cure the plague… but they’re dying of some other cause. Maybe whatever’s behind the plague is in the woods and is killing the ferns…
e)The ferns do nothing to cure the plague, but people think they do, and con artists are doing well selling this false “cure”.
f)The ferns do nothing to cure the plague, and everyone knows it… but… some sages believe that they could, if the secret of processing them properly was known, but that knowledge was lost during a religious civil war long ago, when old monasteries were burned…
Any of the above can be mixed and combined, of course.
From Region To World
At this point, you’re probably ready to start sketching out an actual adventure or two, but you might want to go a bit further. There’s a few things you’ll need to ask yourself, and then answer:
a)What races are there, and how do they fit in? A wooded area implies elves and the like, but what are the rest doing? Are halflings a semi-despised minority, wandering because they’re not allowed to settle down anywhere? Or are they not wandering thieves, but back to being peaceful farmer types, perhaps even more devastated by the plague? The image of something like the Shire, with piles of corpses being burned and sad faced hobbits wandering among gardens gone to ruin and the sky filled with dark smoke from burning bodies appears, and I have to say, “Oh, shit, yeah, we’re going back to First Edition halflings, damn straight!”.
b)Gods! You can’t have a plague without gods. A powerful, hierarchical church fits this setting well — especially one that’s now losing its power because it can’t stop the plague, and has become desperate to root out “heretics” and “demon worshippers” who may be behind it all… and they may be correct, but there’s still innocents caught up in the crossfire. If you don’t like making up gods (and why don’t you? It’s fun!), go grab Pelor and rename him. Create a couple of warlike exarchs or demigods, and have one of them be the inspiration for the holy knights who are crossing the land looking for sin (a PC paladin or cleric could come from this order)
c)Borders. Has the plague spread to other nations? Probably. You don’t need a lot of details on the other nations nearby, just yet, but you do need some idea of what’s surrounding you. A name and a line or two of description — “An open land with mostly rolling hills, rich in agriculture but poor in iron and other metals, ruled by a single king who is heavily controlled by the local clergy” — is often enough to get going with.
d)Classes. A lot like races, some of this will depend on what players want to play. You need to create whatever they need for them to know how their class fits into the world. Is someone a wizard? Decide on wizard guilds, are they local, regional, national, or planetary? Are wizards feared or seen as just a kind of scholar? How does the church deal with them? Warlocks? Come up with some good pact sources… and consider how anyone with a demonic pact might be viewed by the church or by a cleric PC. Rogues? Vilkersbraan is the only city in the region large enough to have well-organized thieves guilds and the like, but smaller towns will have at least some crime lords.
Here’s the cool part. Once you start on this path, each and every fact you add explodes outwards into a web linking together other facts and reaching outward into the vast grey unknown you haven’t created yet. Go up a bit to where I discuss those darn ferns… “religious civil war”… hmmm… quick! Create a schism or two, decide when “long ago” was, and who won? Or did no one “win”, and now one of those “neighboring nations” we just discussed is filled with “heretics”? Or perhaps peace was made, and both sides eventually agreed to disagree, but now the plague is seen by some as divine vengeance for not being pure enough… in any event, you’ve just made an important point on the timeline, a significant historical event that can be referenced in a lot of places. “This town was founded just after the war”, “The elf is old enough to remember the war”, etc, etc, etc. A couple more of these kinds of touchstone events (wars, assassinations, monster attacks) and you have a decent framework for the past century or two, at least.
Feeding The Maw
So, get back to your adventure, whatever it is. But each time you add something to the adventure, stop and say, “How does this fit into the world?” Got some goblins? OK, what are goblins in your world? Where did they come from? What do they want? Why are they here waiting for adventurers? Do they ever ally with humans? Are there multiple goblin tribes? Did you toss in a guard drake? Is the guard drake a heraldic symbol for any local family or guild or order? Is it a sign of wealth and power to have a guard drake on your manor or watching your vault? Maybe that’s a symbol on the +1 armor you tossed in as a reward, and maybe it can be traced back to a local noble family.. and while you’re thinking about that, what’s the local nobility like? Come up with a few good rankings, and decide if all titles are hereditary or if they can be earned or granted somehow.
And on, and on, and on… remember, nothing just “exists”. Everything connects to something, and as you create these connections, you weave a world into existence. It’s not just +1 chainmail, it’s “chainmail bearing the Red Drake, the symbol of the Grafvale house.”… and then you come up with something else about the Grafvales, how, I dunno, they were a rising power in the land but some of them sided with the heretics in that war and now they’re in disrepute but not quite stripped of rank…
Worldbuilding is an avalanche. All you need to do is kick off the first rock, and the rest just tumbles down.