Running the world the players built.

I have never written my own campaign world. All the games I have DM’ed have been in published settings such as the Forgotten Realms and Eberron. When my Monday night group decided that we would reboot the campaign after losing a key player I decided it was time to run a home brew world. I also decided to take a tip from the Dresden Files RPG and include the players in the creation of this world.

Before I explain how we went about creating a campaign setting, let me explain why I have waited so long to design a home brew world. I know that Dungeons and Dragons is a fantasy game, and that flying dragons and fire ball shooting wizards don’t mesh with reality. I know it’s hard to draw arbitrary lines in the sand when it comes to reality vs. fantasy but world knowledge is where I draw my lines. I prefer to play in a setting where information for the players and their characters is abundant. Unless the PCs are band new to the planet they should have some working knowledge about their surroundings and the people who inhabit them. Since there tends to be a wealth of this type of information with the published worlds, it is very easy for me to use them for my games. Even without giving them a players guide, I can send my group to a wiki or a website dedicated to the lore and history of pretty much any of the 4th edition published campaign worlds. This means I don’t have to sit down and write pages and pages of back story, and I don’t have to create tons of NPCs with differing personalities to populate this back story. If my players don’t want to act fresh off of the boat they can do their homework and be ready to explain the history of the world or some of the lore of their people. If my players want to be ignorant they can avoid any study and just play the game, garnering information from the the players who read up on their setting when need be.

So I have avoided writing my own setting mostly as a time saving measure; I don’t want to have to prepare pages and pages of information about a complex world just to have most of it ignored or only ever read by me. I don’t want to have lots of irregularities because I couldn’t think of good answers for my players’ questions about the world and its people. But after playing around with the Dresden Files RPG for a bit I decided I can have the best of both worlds. The Dresden Files RPG invites the GM/DM to build the world and the story with a great deal of input from the players. The game books actually suggest that the first session of the campaign should be a city- or world-building session. Characters should be created only after they have some frame of reference for the world in which they exist. That line of thinking makes so much more sense to me than to make a general, all-purpose hero and plug it into which ever world in which they might be playing. Cooperative world building offers a ton of benefits to both story and game play. When players have a hand in building a world, there is definitely more interest in setting and more attachment to what they have built. This makes it easy to get a bit of emotional involvement when the DM needs something to use as motivation; threaten/kidnap/take over something one of the players designed and motivation will quickly follow.

When players are involved in the world building their characters tend to have much more connection to the world. Your parties will see a lot less of the “wandering orphan dark unknown past” archetypes and a great deal more characters who have real grounding in the setting and the story. Some characters might even be written with relationships to NPCs that are dynamic and add a great deal of flavor to the story. When a DM writes a story there is a set level of creativity and design that can be reached. Everyone is limited in one way or another,  but when you have 4 or 5 people all throwing their hats into the design ring you can bet the world will have far more depth and a great deal more color than if designed by one person. NPCs will have a multitude of personalities, as will locations and story hooks. Cooperative world building is one time that too many cooks might not be such a bad thing. So how does one go about a cooperative world building session? There isn’t a step-by-step system that I have found, and everyone should tailor theirs to fit the group dynamic. But I can tell you some of the key things that I did.

1. Ask the big questions:

  • What is the adventure setting? City, forest, classic dungeon, desert, planer, fey?
  • How big is it?
  • Who are the main inhabitants? Humans, Monsters, Demons, Gnomes? Is it a mix of a few? Are they in power or just numerous?
  • Is there a central power? Is power spread out? What kind of power is it? Divine, military, or something else?
  • What is the level of magic in the inhabitants?
  • What is the level of magic in the gear the players will be finding?
  • What role do the gods play?

These are not the only questions I asked but they are some of the more important ones for the process. When asking questions like these it’s important to remember not to shut down peoples ideas. No matter how wacky they sound, keep them on the board. Really bad ideas will get weeded out when you and the other players go through the selection process. Shutting people down during the initial questions might stop them from being truly creative.

2. Pitch the answers with some light context:

Once you have all of your answers, go back over them and pitch them at your group with some ideas you might have on how each idea might look in your game. Tell them what a low magic world might look like. If they decided the setting was a floating island in the sky, give them your thoughts on how that would affect the campaign and travel.  This can take a while but sometimes hearing some of their ideas a bit more fleshed out might help the group decide which of their options are really the best and which fall flat. From here you can vote, or just discuss each option until your group comes to a solid decision to the answers for each of your main questions.

3. Create pre-existing relationships:

After many of the main questions about the world have been answered some attention needs to be paid to the denizens of your new creation. I gave each of my players some homework; each of my players was required to create 3 NPCs who each had some form of relationship to their character, be they friend or foe. Doing this will give the DM a huge head start when it comes to creating story hooks and meaningful NPC interactions. I, as the DM, will not have to spend time creating NPCs, injecting them into the story and then giving the players a reason to care about them. Each NPC the players create also has a bit of back story that translates into further creation of the world. One of my players created an NPC who was a drug dealer of sorts. This means that the campaign setting has some sort of drug-related issues. It also means one of the players is somehow connected either through dirty dealing or having a secret addiction to some form of substance. This is DM gold– usually a DM couldn’t force this kind of stuff on their players but because they designed it, they love it.

4. Let your players answer their own questions:

The first night of our new campaign one of my players was having trouble with his character. He told me, “I don’t really understand how paladins fit in this world.” My reply was simple “Make it up, and tell the rest of us how paladins work in this world.” He was looking for me to tell him how his character class functioned and how it should act. I had no idea, and to me it made more sense to let the person playing the class to define what their role would be. Players have lots of questions about the world, though they often already have a mental image of what is going on around them. Asking them to describe a setting or a room, or even an NPC they just met, will add a broader palate of creativity and increase your players’ involvement in the story.

5. Continue the Process:

Cooperative world building does not end when the game begins. Once your group has been playing in the new setting for a while, try to keep the group involved. Get input from players when creating new NPCs, towns or plot hooks. Letting each player contribute something will give his/her characters some inside knowledge that the group can share with each other in a helpful way, be it information about the city they will be visiting, or a bit of history on their new nemesis. Doing this allows the character to function as if he/she had spent their whole lives in the setting.

There is a lot involved in building a world with your group. This is not meant to cover the entire process but to help you get your start. If you have some helpful hints feel free to post them in the comments section; I am always looking for more ideas.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.

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About Thadeousc

Thadeous can't think of anything interesting about him self right now. Know this though if he could it would be creative and funny as well as thought provoking.
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