Welcome Worldbuilding Adventurers!
Your party gathers together for their very first adventure. Perhaps they are at a local tavern or the guest quarters of a castle or riding the waves on a pirate ship. The party is ready to seek out adventure and you have the plot hook prepared to get them going. Then they open that door, take a step out into the brave new world and…
Oh, what’s that? You haven’t built the world yet? The party is standing in a blank void of space because there’s where to go? Oh dear!
Well, fear not! Together we can help shape the world that the adventurers will travel!
Worldbuilding Made Easy
When speaking to new GMs about running a TTRPG, one of the most difficult aspects for them is designing the world in which the players will adventure. Every GM I’ve met has grand story ideas that they want to use. However, they feel that they really have to nail down the world first before the heroes can start their adventure.
This can be harrowing for a newer GM. The pressure of coming up with a good story and then building the world on top of that is enough that some GM’s never try it. Others just give up and don’t even attempt to GM at all.
For those GM’s that want to build the world that they are playing in, these next few articles are for you!
Three Different Methods, Same Great Result!
When I am designing a world for my players I generally use three different design methods.
1) Start Small, Grow Big
In this method, I start off very small. Maybe I only detail the starting tavern, the road they will travel, and the final battleground. Without a doubt, this method is the fastest way to play, as I only build what I need for the very first story.
2) Player Designed Input
In this method I start by giving an overview of the world concepts that I have. Then I ask the players what they want. Maybe they want to start in a jungle or the woods, or a grand city. After that initial input we work together to design the initial setting where we will start our adventure. This method takes more time as usually we build the starting point, then I build the adventure around it.
3) Map It
In this method you build a map of the play area first. For example: a small city, a large territory or province, a continent, even the world. After you complete the map, you can detail out kingdoms or countries as you please before starting the adventure. As a result, I find this method to be the most difficult worldbuilding technique. It takes time and effort and using this method is where many GM’s get stuck.
Worldbuilding: Starting Small
For me this is the simplest way to get into any story arch. For this method to work you use the most minimalist approach to designing the world that the players are in.
When using this method usually you build the story first and the world after. Let’s say you want your group of heroes, newly arrived in a small town, to help a villager find a lost child in the woods. As the GM you can add a twist and something exciting for the players, like a witch lured the child. Or maybe a troll grabbed them up. Perhaps a young Green Dragon has just moved into the neighborhood and taken the child as a prize.
As the GM, I write the story first. Using techniques from my previous article series, I come up with the Ending first – an epic dragon fight! Next comes the Spark – a notice on a board outside the tavern, a weeping man and woman talking about their lost child and how the town will pay any who will find him. Finally, the Barriers – tracking through the woods, discovering a small broken castle ruin, maybe a wandering troll.
Writing the story will naturally build the game world around it. For example, in the scenario above you will need the name of the tavern, the town, the few locals you meet inside the town and how they interact with the adventurers. furthermore, you don’t want to forget the name of the lost child. Then maybe name the woods that the party travels through and tracks the dragon in. Consider naming the castle ruins the dragon is hiding in and the dragon itself.
For the first adventure you probably don’t even need to name most things. The locals might just call it “The Forest” and the castle ruins could be as simple as that, just some broken down ruins of a lost kingdom from a time long ago.
When you’re done with the adventure you have a closed loop and a small world that your characters have discovered. The whole worldbuilding is done and it wasn’t very much work at all!
So how does a GM grow the world bigger then? Well, by writing another story!
The conclusion of the last story could have many outcomes, so I am going to suppose that the heroes victoriously defeated the dragon and saved the child. I also like recurring villains, so I am going to suppose that the dragon took enough damage to fear for its life and fled the combat, so even though the heroes defeated the dragon, it’s still out there in the wild, burning with hatred for the ones who took its prize.
To continue worldbuilding we just make another story. The villagers are happy the child is home and hold a feast in their honor. The local lord gets wind of adventurers in his territory and sends an emissary to invite them to his castle. If the heroes take the invitation and arrive at the castle they quickly find out that the castle is haunted and the lord wishes for them to remove the ghost, curse, or what have you from his castle so that he can sleep peacefully at night.
As the GM you write the next portion of the story. The local lord, is he a Duke, Daimyo, Count or just a local knight with a small holding? You could name the territory that he resides in and protects, his crest or seal on his armor, the clothing and colors that he wears.
By describing the look of the castle you are also worldbuilding. Is it dilapidated, with rotten walls and falling stonework? Or is it elegantly designed and well kept? Does the lord feed you extravagantly, or just with measly soup. These small details could provide the players and yourself with ideas on how well off this local lord or even the territory, province or kingdom is doing.
As you tell the story the world is slowly getting bigger for you heroes and yourself. Although you don’t have a map, you know that the village that you traveled from is only a day’s ride or less to the castle. You could describe the landscape on the way to the castle, if it is hilly, rocky, or wooded. Did they come across a stream, river, or lake on their journey to the castle. In the distance do they see mountains or just flat open terrain.
To grow the world using this method all you just need to come up with the next adventure. Also, take notes down from what happened before. Using this method the players only have the information they need at the time and gradually the world becomes bigger and more vast. The world grows along with the power and prestige of the players.
Now Go out there and Play!
Overall, the best way to learn how to use this method of worldbuilding is to just go out there and play! Write the stories your characters want to enjoy and just fill in the gaps with enough world to make it playable.
As a GM you only need to concern yourself with the story at hand and as the world gets slowly bigger by the adventures that your players are going on you can add more context and plot threads.
Join me next time as I detail the second method that I use when worldbuilding – letting the players to do most of the work!