Where to Start: Campaign World Creation
So, you are trying your hand at running a game? Being the dungeon master is an exciting role. You introduce the campaign, world and general story ideas/themes to the other players in the game. Dungeon mastering is also a lot more work than any other player at your table has to do for the D&D game. So, I understand how it can feel overwhelming, especially if you have never done it before. Its only natural to think: where do I begin? As the DM, you are responsible for controlling the world around the players. So, you need to start with a world/campaign setting. Think about the basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. These questions fill out your setting and the conflict(s) you want to hurl the player characters into.
Today, I’m sharing a few of the most recognized approaches for building out your campaign setting. The best part is, there is no right or wrong answer. But, I do think different approaches will suit different dungeon masters and gaming groups better than others. So with that, lets talk about the four types of building a campaign setting/world to run your D&D games in.
Published Adventure Products
The simplest form of running the game is using someone else’s hard work as a starting point. There are a lot of adventure modules out there for you to try with your gaming group. There are several advantages of using a published product. First, professional game designers do the majority of the heavy lifting for you. If you are starting out for the first time, you can limit the scope of your dungeon mastering tasks. You are outsourcing the worldbuilding to professionals that have past experience to draw upon.
Second, when your group sticks to the central themes of the adventure, you reduce the preparation time. You can focus your preparation on reviewing the upcoming story points. Then, you build out your notes to cover what you think your group will do next. Some people find a published adventure’s book organization may not be to their liking. If that is the case for you, you’ll want to structure your notes so that you quickly identify things as you run the game session. Reorganization can be a big task for certain adventures. That may decrease the utility of using an adventure at all. I recommend checking out which products have good reviews. Pay attention to organization. Then make your selection.
Third, there is a large catalog of published adventures to choose from. You can find a story that interests your group and one that makes you excited to run a game. You can look at options put out by both Wizards of the Coast and other third party designers. That gives you the advantage of finding a theme that you want to explore without spending the time to create the story yourself.
Recommendation for Published Adventure Products
Published adventure products are great for three types of dungeon masters. If you are new to dungeon mastering, a published product can be a great place to start for the reasons listed above. When your testing out the DM waters, its a good idea to only take on a few tasks at first. When you have become comfortable with your first set of roles, add other parts.
Published adventures are a good option for DMs without a lot of available spare time. The “backend” work of running a tabletop game is time intensive. Published adventures save you a lot of time on figuring out the main story beats of your game. Instead, you can focus on preparing the next key steps of your game. That way you can enjoy the game without having to stress over “what happens next”.
Lastly, published adventures are a good option for DMs looking for new options to add into their game. Adventures often have interesting ideas, characters or locations. All which are things you can borrow for your own game and make it better. So if you are a DM that likes to borrow elements from other places, published adventures can be a trove of ideas to pillage.
I do not recommend published adventures for groups that tend to go off in their own directions frequently. Most published adventures are a form of a linear adventure. The publisher designs the adventure with a start and an end point. If your group doesn’t stick with the story line, then you can run into difficulties as they act outside the bounds of the adventure. You lose a lot of the benefits from running a published adventure in the first place (reduced prep time). I don’t recommend published adventures for DMs that want greater control over their game and story possibilities. The modules describe the story points and leave less creativity for the DM. Consider a “homebrewed” campaign if you want more control over the story.
The bottom-up method is all about starting small. If you’ve volunteered to dungeon master for your group, chances are that you have an adventure/story premise in mind. It might focus on the strife of a small local area. Or, it might be some grand epic that results in the players fighting cosmic forces in your multiverse. Either way, chances are your starting point is going to be a small area. You then expand upon the area as your group play unfolds in the gaming sessions. The bottom-up approach focus on what you need to know now as a dungeon master to run your game.
Chapter 1 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide (pg. 25), talks about Creating a Campaign. It lists the three topics ideas you’ll want to focus on as you start your campaign:
Create a Home Base
Create a Local Region
Craft a Starting Adventure
A small starting town or village is a great place to launch your starting adventure from. It allows your party to start from humble beginnings. It keeps your focus contained to a few key characters within the home base. You craft a few flavorful NPCs without being overwhelmed by having to manage too many faces too early on. Likewise, you keep the amount of locations to a small manageable amount (one blacksmith, one or two taverns, etc.). The key to the bottom up approach is only building what you need, when you need it. Add onto your world as your players continue to explore. Or you have a desire to introduce them to a new locale (the city nearby, etc.)
There are a few pros and cons to the bottom-up approach that you should consider as you plan your game:
Keeps worldbuilding investment low
Allows you to be more flexible and reactive to the players desires/actions
For newer DMs, you have less to create and manage starting out
Can feel underprepared if you haven’t answered a lot of basic questions about the world
Can lead to worldbuilding inconsistencies if you are making too much player-reactive content
Leaves “blank space” or vagueness around any long term ideas you have planned that span beyond the scope of your starting area
Recommendation for Bottom-Up Worldbuilding
Bottom-up worldbuilding is a great option for new dungeon masters that want to design their own world. The bottom-up method reduces the overwhelming feelings of where to start. It allows you to focus on a small starting area. From there, you can build out as you tell stories with your group.
The bottom-up approach is great for DMs that have limited time to commit to worldbuilding. The exact amount will vary by your effectiveness and efficiency. As a loose rule of thumb, you want 1-3 hours to commit to campaign preparation between sessions. If you don’t have that much time to commit, then consider using a published module.
The bottom-up method is great for DM’s that are uncertain about their group’s commitment to playing D&D. The reality is, many gaming groups struggle to maintain a campaign for long periods of time. Life happens. Careers, family, other events and social activities get prioritized, or maybe you lose interest in the story. We have to be realistic. As Dungeon Master, that can be demotivating to have prep work never see the light of day. That’s why starting small and building as you go means you don’t spends hours upon hours worldbuilding only to waste it.
The good news is, if you are committed to running a game, you can find new groups or add new people to your table as you see fit. Dungeon masters are in-demand and D&D is more popular than ever before. So if you want to run a game, you can do it. People will want to play in it. Some DMs only want to play with a specific group of people. If you find yourself in that group, it can be a nice hedge on your time commitment should anything fall through.
The top-down method is all about starting big. You have a grand vision and idea for your campaign setting and you go about crafting it out in broad strokes. You likely design the whole world map. Then, you start creating different locations that your players will find in the world. In the top-down approach, you create geography, politics, conflicts, culture, gods, magic structure, and world history. The top-down approach helps make a consistent world. You’ll know why the kingdoms are at war with one another. And you know which deities are prevalent in different regions across the map. All these pieces of information help you make great games, and run them with great confidence. Of course, I assume you have a system to keep your worldbuilding in order and you can access the information as you need it.
The drawbacks of the top-down method is the steep barrier to entry. Building out a lot of world knowledge is an incredibly time-intensive task. Map making, researching, creative design and everything between takes a lot of time to get ready. You’ll only want to undertake this in a few key circumstances. First, you have the time to commit to it (before you start running your games). Second, you have a clear vision for the world you want to build out.
Recommendation for Top-Down Worldbuilding
Very few DMs should pursue true top-down worldbuilding design. You need a lot of time to commit to it and you have to enjoy worldbuilding. For a lot of DMs, worldbuilding is one of the fun aspects of being the dungeon master. You get to craft the campaign setting in your own image after all! But unless you have a lot of time between games you are running, you should world build as you play games with your gaming group. Worldbuilding is a solitary task, while dungeon mastering is a communal one. In my opinion, D&D is best enjoyed when shared with the group. So I encourage you to run campaigns as often as you can and world build in your spare time. For a more realistic version of top-down worldbuilding, we’ll look at the hybrid method.
The hybrid method is a blend of bottom-up and top-down worldbuilding. You have ideas about the big picture items of your campaign setting, be it: gods, magical system, history, or politics. You can and should flesh those out, as it will help guide the themes of your campaign that pop up within your game. Then, once you have the big picture ideas sketched out, you can zoom in on the beginning of your game. Build out using the bottom-up approach as you normally would. But now, you have a bit more of a background on which to build your initial story seeds off of.
First draw up any high level ideas and then create basis for the start of your game. Then, you can focus on whatever you want to build out your world. I’d recommend that you continue to focus on the aspects that impact your game immediately. But your interests may ebb and flow over time. This way, you can focus on what is urgent for your game sessions, or what has caught your interest for now.
Recommendation for Hybrid Worldbuilding
The hybrid method is all about flexibility. I think that most dungeon masters fall within the hybrid method. You can build out what you need for your games immediately. But in your spare time, you can focus on the aspects of worldbuilding that give you joy. Worldbuilding and preparation is a solitary task. Your energy state, inspiration, and focus is going to ebb and flow over the life of your campaign. The hybrid method lets you take advantage of those shifting states. You keep making progress on your campaign setting as you deal with the natural rhythms of life and creativity.
Its important to keep in mind the priorities of your game. As a worldbuilder its too easy to focus on items that are interesting to us dungeon masters as lore masters. But is it actionable within the game? Does your party needs to know about the 800 year history of the royal lineage of the Falconcrest family? You can probably skip it. So until you lock your session notes down, I recommend you spend your D&D prep time on the items that will drive the action and conflict within your games.
For pure beginners, I’d still recommend taking the published adventure approach. Or the bottom-up method. Be conservative about your time commitment to worldbuilding until you are certain you: 1) enjoy DMing and 2) have a excited, reliable group. Focus on the actions that will help you make a great game, and then go from there. You can switch from the bottom up approach into a hybrid style later on. If you are using a published adventure, you can spend your time studying the adventure setting. This will give you the more context you may crave without having to start from scratch yourself.
When we start out as dungeon masters, we need a setting to place our stories within. The setting doesn’t need to be grand, or complex. But, you need enough to make the world seem alive and reasonable to your players. This helps you immerse them within the stories you want to share with them, and the characters they will meet along the way. There are a lot of different ways to achieve this. We talked about four different methods that you can use to get your game running. Let me know if you have any questions, comments. Or other methods that you’ve used to get your campaign off the ground.
Feature Image Credit: Ede László