Tags: dnd, DresdenRPG, rpg
A little while back, I ran a city-building session for my upcoming Dresden Files game. It was great fun, and the creative content that came out of it amazed me. We started with the barest seed of an idea—a DF game set in Philadelphia—and ended the session with a fully realized setting primed for all kinds of adventure and full of a robust cast of colorful characters. It got me to thinking: if this method works so well in Dresden Files, couldn’t it be used to great effect in other games, too?
The answer, I think, is “yes”. Since this blog is mostly about D&D, I’m going to go over the basics of how to use a collaborative world-building approach, similar to that in Dresden Files, to build your D&D world. This has a number of benefits. First of all, it takes a lot of the workload off of the DM, and spreads it out over the whole group. Second, because your players are helping to create the world, they’ll have a lot more of the basic knowledge of the world, and will be more invested in that knowledge and in the world, itself. No need for a big info dump at the beginning. Third, because character creation is a step of world creation, the characters that your players make are likely to be much more tightly integrated into the setting, and will probably have more hooks that you can pull on to get them into the story.
Step One: Themes
You’re going to want to come up with some themes for your campaign; at least one, possibly more. A theme is something that is happening in the background, something that people are used to and take for granted to some extent. It can be negative or positive. If it’s a negative theme, something that makes the world a little bit worse for everyone, it’s entirely possible that it can be resolved over the course of the campaign, though it’s likely that it will take the entirety of the campaign to do so.
- A tyrannical monarch rules over the kingdom with an iron fist
- Religious tension is everywhere, the result of two faiths at odds with each other
- The boundaries between the planes are thin at various places throughout the world, making extraplanar visitors common
Step Two: Threats
Threats are like themes, but more immediate and short-term. They’re almost always things that negatively impact the world in some way. A threat is likely to be resolved as the result of a portion of the campaign, rather than its entirety; a single threat can represent one story arc within the campaign. It’s good to start with at least one strong threat, though it’s also good to come up with a few and see which ones your players are most interested in. You can always use the other threats later on, once the initial threat has been resolved.
- Orcs have recently been spilling out of the mountains and raiding nearby towns
- Undead have been spotted recently in large numbers, and there are whispers of a necromancer on the rise
- A dragon has recently settled into a nearby cave, and is demanding tribute from the locals
Step Three: Faces
At this point, you’re going to want to come up with NPCs attached to each theme and threat you’ve come up with. These will be the way that the PCs primarily interact with that theme or threat. Note that, in the case of the evil monarch theme or the necromancer threat, the NPC does not have to be the monarch or the necromancer, him/herself (though it can be). It could be the head of a rebel organization who wants to take down the monarch, or it could be a tortured undead victim of the necromancer who only wants to be free to die.
Step Four: Locations and People
Now it’s time to flesh out the world a bit. Come up with some important locations (nine or ten should suffice to start). Major cities, famous dungeons and ruins, castles, haunted forests, other planes; any of these can be a location. The only prerequisite is that it should be something important to the campaign. You’ll also want to attach a theme or threat to the location (an existing one or a brand new one that affects only that location), as well as come up with a face for it.
You’re also going to want to come up with the major players in the world. These can be individuals, but this is also the time when you’ll want to flesh out the common races, and even the races that are uncommon but important. Factions and organizations fall into this step, too. Again, a theme or threat for each one is a good idea, as well as a face.
Step Five: Character Creation
Now that you’ve got the basics of your world fleshed out, it’s time to make characters. These characters should be tied to the world in some way. To that end, I’d suggest the following requirements:
- Your character must be affected by at least one theme or threat directly
- Your character must be tied to at least one location and at least one group of people
- Your character must be tied to at least one other player character
And there you have it. Have fun creating a world together!