How do you tackle building a new setting?

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I'm having a massive case of DM's block. I haven't homebrewed a D&D setting in years. It's been too easy to use preestablished ones like Eberron or FR.


But frankly I'd LOVE to sit down and think up a setting, gods, etc. but I'm running into a "Different for different's sake" issue when dreaming up my locations and such.


When you sit down to dream up a new world what do you do to frame it? Are you more the build a town and explore type, or do you like to have a fleshed out nation/political system in mind?

I feel you, man.  Gone thru the same.


I tell you what helps me over the years.



1.  Start with a scribbled map.  Any thing.  Just scribble a map.


2.  Pick any spot on that map and picture what life will be like there at that spot.  

  • Thats where i am starting the campaign.

3.  I dream up that starting place.  I want that town to be where the PCs want to tether themselves for a while, or for a reason.

------>What encounter am I planning to start the campaign on.  

------>------>I've picked spots in the middle of the ocean and started the game as a sea-farer game.  

------>------>I've used pre-gen towns I found on the net.  

------>------>I steal from other sources (recently read stories./novels/other modules/whatever)

------>------>I steal from my players background stories.  (Hey...they want me to use I use it!)


This is usually enough to get the quick adventure going.  if I am world building, then its on to the aspects I love first.

1.  Make cities/towns.   Place them like you are a God.  Group people at bays, lakes, river junctions.  Near resources.  Dwarf strongholds, elven forests, lizard man swamps.  Give the cities names.  This will change, but its the perfect start.

2.  Once I have cities/towns, I build a nation or groups.  

------>If this is a thriving commercial epoch, then multiple strong nations/tribes whatever.  

------>If not, then I go with turn them dark.  One city which should be prominent is now a ruins or a ghost city, or its overrrun by orc/goblin/ creature of terror.  Being overrun need not be by a creature, mind you.  Some calamity may have befell it, or sharp poltiical change.  

------>Make sure each town has a name, and then re-evaluate.  

  • 1.  Rivertown has been overrun by lizard folk.  I give it a new name based on the lizards and now, i have history.  The city of Rivertown was overrrun by Lizard folks who decimated its people and drove them away.  It is now known by locals as "The Mirks", and they speak on it peacefully, for nearly everyone lost a father, mother, favored uncle their in old Rivertown and shun the place.
  • Or, 2.  Rivertown became a tyranny at the death of great King Waddlebash.  A cabal of wizards now run Rivertown with absolute might, and despise divine and nature powers of all kind.  It is they who have polluted the river, and have patrols of golems and undead protect their "city".  The citizens live in submission to the cabal, but welcome clean trade for craftware they make.


Once I do that, I move on to the next.  Politics, trade and resources.  No civilization survives among others without politics driven by trade and resources.  Keep it fun...cause it really is only background texture, and for world building fun.  Have fun with combinations of those.  Also, place a seed of what type of people your PCs will encounter.   I stick with a Majority, and then the minority.  For each of these, decide who and what controls it.  Let your mind run and build interdependencies...even crazy ones.




The Town of Polanus

MAJOR:  Mostly God fearing Humans, MINORITY:  rare elves with connections to the White Archers

Politiics - An evil Despot (Ancestral Baron Kettlegut runs it all begrudgingly)

Trade -

  1. Silver Mine (Owned collectively by everyone in town) and
  2. Fish  (Run by the Whitefish Trading Company) 

Resources -

  1. Religious (The Cathedral of Cuthbert draws in people from around the world),
  2. Military (The White Archers was founded here, and train younglings to become the finest in the land)


The Mountain Fort of Bearwood

MAJOR/MINORITY:  Mostly Halflings / rare dwarves

Politiics - None (the elder who ran the town recently died.  A loose council fights over who should be next)

Trade -

  1. Rare Mineral (The Red Lotus flower is found only here, and is critical for many uses by the evil Wizards of Rivertown...the Sisters of Mercy grow and harvest it),
  2. Iron Ore (mined by descendants of slaves, run by Aline Kettegut, sister of the tyrant of Polanus)

Resources -

  1. Best Farming (known as the Greybeards, the run almost all the farms just outside the fort, and wish to hold sway over Bearwood), 
  2. Secrets(Sisters of Mercy hold power over who will become the next Emperor for they know deadly, long forgotten secrets),
  3. Fine weaponsmiths (Broketusk is an reknown Orcish weaponsmith, known wide over for the finest work.  Attracts other great smiths, apprentices, custom work)

The Port of Sungai

MAJOR/MINORITY:  Mostly "arabic" humans, rare Religious People of any race

Politics- A young merchant boy (Young Merchant Lord named Davos runs it.  He comes from legacy and said to be the next Emperor.), Gold Cloaks (The town guard who have more power than anyone really comprehends)

Trade -

  1. Massive Market Square (If it can be bought or sold, this is the place.),
  2. Slave market (Lizard folk captured from Rivertown)

Resources -

  1. None (The Port is going broke, squandered by Davos and the Cloaks.  New tax levies are coming on all goods),
  2. Low Morality (This is the place to find mercenaries and assassins), 
  3. Pilgrimage (This is a rally point for trips to the Cathedral of Cuthbert...points of light trying to rally in a dark alley way),
  4. Best Inns (The finest inn known as Whalebacks with the finest prepared foods and chefs of renown who seek rare ingredients)


As for divinity, I stick with local tributes to Gods and sanctuaries and let it build from there naturally.  Of course, -every- time you go this way you get players confused, or wanting to mix and match, or whatever.  Just flow with it.  I simply make a compare to some DND deity thats "cannoned" and use that as a basis for quick interactions, understanding, parallels.


Recognized Divinities:

Cuthbert - patron of Polanus  (As St. Cuthbert)

Reapus - Dark Angel of Secrets (Patroned by Sisters of Mercy in Fort Bearwood)(A Nuetral version of Vecna)

The Three Fingers - The Trinity of Haluud [Locu, Millus, and Sithus the Assassin] (The three great mischief makers who became divine ) (Patroned in Sungai by the masses, despised by Cuthbertian Pilgrims)  (Parallel to Mitra or a baneful Pelor who seems to do more harm to his followers than good.  Deity of the common man.)

Finally....once this is done...Seed Adventures.  

Find a handful of modules/dungeons/whatever, and place them on the map.  Just seed, with little care.  Close by or remote.  It matters not.  As you go on through the campaign, just seed more adventures.   


Using this (and a good name generator) you can start a basic campaign.



Don't forget that it's never a spoiler to heavily solicit input from the players.  They'll be a hell of a lot more involved, interested and fascinated by any setting that they had a role in creating.


I never create worlds anymore.  I start with one setting that the players suggest they'd like to start in and let the play build it from there.  That's not necessarily sandbox either ... it's just very collaborative.


The end result for me is saving a lot of time and building something together with others than we're sure everyone will enjoy.


Of course, any "worlds" that you do build don't need to go to waste if you use this method.  You can still use all those fun ideas too.  You're not turning it entirely over to the players, you're just getting their help.

OD&D, 1E and 2E challenged the player. 3E challenged the character, not the player. Now 4E takes it a step further by challenging a GROUP OF PLAYERS to work together as a TEAM. That's why I love 4E.

"Your ability to summon a horde of celestial superbeings at will is making my ... BMX skills look a bit redundant."

"People treat their lack of imagination as if it's the measure of what's silly. Which is silly." - Noon

"Challenge" is overrated.  "Immersion" is usually just a more pretentious way of saying "having fun playing D&D."

"Falling down is how you grow.  Staying down is how you die.  It's not what happens to you, it's what you do after it happens.”

For me it is all about the nations involved. Is it a Tolkien-isk setting with Dwarves and Elves? Or are the races unique to your campaign? Is it High Fantasy with magic and healing at every corner, or is it realistic fantasy or dark fantasy? Once I have figured out these basics (at to make a quick note, these topics are touched upon in the 4e DM's guide and I think even in the 3e DM's guide) I scribble a map, decide which race is going to be where (oh, the dwarves are small in numbers, they have these 2 mountain regions, there are a lot of Eldarins so they get these lands her) etc. I figure out what the diplomatic relationship is between the nations and races (there are usually at least half-a-dozen human races in my campaigns for example), and finally I decide what type of adventure I would like to tell first. For example: right now I would like to tell a "Forest" type adventure so I will flesh out the "Wild Elves" first and create their backstory, I then decide what type of monster I would like to use (Dryads and Treants) and decide that the quest giving NPC is going to be a Druid. From this point on the adventurers will create everything, they want to go to the big city... there is on nearby, they would like to visit the court of the Wild Elf Queen, it is not that far away, they would like to sail to the nearest desert... this river flows right there.

Personally I start with 2 thoughts:


1 - Am I building this world for a particular game?


2 - What do I find exciting about the world I am about to create?


If you are building the world to run a specific game (at this point it's not important whether or not you intent to use the world again) then find out what the players want to do. Do they want to fight Gods? Do they want to explore dungeons or raise armies? Do they want to travel or build their own empire?


And then look at what is interesting to you. If you are interested in making the Gods and Myths of the world then start there and as you go make decisions based on what you need in the world to support those Myths and Legends.

With 4th ed I looked to the rules and created a setting that incorporated them. It was based on a city-state that grew and prospered when Nerath fell as it became a beacon of light in the midst of darkness. Elves fled to it when the woods became infested with monsters (as did the shifters. The two tribes devolved into gangs and continued their ages long war). A portal to the north existed leading into the Feywild where an eladrin citadel was located. A river split the city in two and although the town council had for years tried to build a bridge, the Halflings who controlled the docks ensured it never got built.

I didn't end up DMing anything in it funnily enough and as we played in the adventure paths it was little more than a backdrop.

I'll be doing the same for D&D Next. Using the racial write ups I've started constructing a setting, this one has more flavours of the Dark Ages. For millennia the world has experienced a Golden Age which started when the dwarves drove the giants north of the Misty Mountains and into the Frozen Lands. Many dwarves migrated to the foothills and built cities open to the sky (hill dwarves) during these peaceful years, having grown rich from mining gold and gems. Some Halflings, who had been a nomadic race in the Age of Giants as they sought to avoid the attention of the Giants, started to settle land and became farmers (stout Halflings). Elves first discovered magic and with powerful dweomer created magical weapons and Armour for other races to use against the Giants. However with the peaceful golden age the elves lost the secret of casting these enchantments as they concentrated on other uses for magic. The Dragonborn, created by Dragons as slaves when they fought the Giants, became free when the Dragons were defeated by the Giants and driven from the land. The Dragonborn created empires for themselves. Humanity formed it's first Kingdom in the Western lands 500 years ago called Pomorum. The King managed to unite the lords and ladies and it became a land of chivalry and honour instead of a land filled with petty nobles engaging in generation long squabbles over parcels of land. Although not all humans liked this new rule so some of them fled beyond it's borders and formed the Free Cities. Independent City-States.

This Golden Age ended though when the Giants returned. Before, the mountain dwarves had moved their armies in tunnels far too small for the Giants, but when they reopened them they found them filled with orcs and goblins the giants had enslaved. Thoroughly defeated and overwhelmed by sheer number, the mountain dwarves are a homeless people living in the cities of hill dwarves and other races. The rock gnomes were also trapped in orc controlled lands in the Misty Mountains and so created the Warforged to fight their way through the hordes so the rock gnomes could escape. Now the Warforged are a people with no culture or purpose. Orcs and goblins roam the countryside making travel dangerous, and only a single Dragonborn Empire exists while the others have erupted in civil war.

Then I start incorporating the classes. Noble Warlocks from Pomorum have been known to bed the outsiders they form pacts with, leading to their bastard Tiefling children to be sired. Considered an embarrassment, the tieflings are sent to the Borderlands with a fat purse where they can't embarrass the noble family. Monks hail from the east across the Perilous Sea where the land is filled with a thousand gods. This land, known for it's high birthrate of Aasimar, recently saw it's ruler overthrown by Rakshasa (the first seen in the world for millennia). Worship of the gods has been outlawed so it's monks have fled to other lands where they can worship their gods free from persecution.

The way I see it, there are two methods for campaign/world design. "Expanding scope" and "Contracting scope". Expanding scope starts with a smaller idea or area and broadens. Contracting scope starts with a broad concenpt and then fills in the more specific details. I use both of these methods when designing worlds (which I do a lot in my free time). They both have their pros and cons and I recommend combining them. My method usually flows in one of two ways.


Expanding Scope

  • Start with an idea. For me it's most often a player race, but sometimes may be a location, creature, or nation.
  • Refine the idea. What do these people eat? Where do they live? How do they organize themselves? etc
  • What are their neighobors like? Start with a general idea and then repeat the previous steps for them.
  • After several iterations, you should have a good start for the core of your world.
  • Draw a map to position these areas in relation to each other.
  • Once I've done this enough times to frame my world, I take a more Contracting Scope method
  • Pick a nation/region/etc and begin filling in more concrete details about it and its people. Cities, roads, areas of interest, etc
  • Consider how these may interact with their neighbors or their natives. Is this city a trading city? Who do they trade with? For what purpose? Is it a military city? Who are they attacking/defending?

Conversely, if I start with a Contracting Scope method, it flows more like this.

  • Come up with a broad theme. Post apocolyptic, high fantasy, steam-punk space western, "almost real life".
  • Come up with some distinct regions to occupy this world. Large deserts, mushroom forests, mountains, whatever feels like it fits.
  • Draw a map to orient these places
  • Think of who or what would live in each area and how their habitat will shape their culture
  • Design their physical appearance.
  • Then broaden back out again and refine their culture and their society
  • Finally, begin filling in more concrete details about the nation, its cities, and so on

I think the key in either method is to be iterative. You don't need to figure out everything all at once. Start with more general ideas ("these are a warrior people") and then get more specific ("They are known for their skill in polearms"). Furthermore, be willing to change aspects as you go. Maybe your idea of these people being warriors doesn't work when you decide that you want them to live in peace with the scholarly races that surround them. They can't be warriors if there is nobody nearby to war with. Be wary of this, though, as it may lead to complete overhauls of your setting. This is fine, but very time-consuming. 


In regards to your worry about being "different for different's sake" I have two things to say. Do not change the names of normal creatures/races/whatever just to make them different sounding. If you have a race of stocky, short, bearded humanoids who love treasure and build underground cities, just call themn Dwarves. Because that's what they are. If you call them Than'kall, you're not really changing anything. You're just giving the illusion of difference and it might make players lose interest. IF it's for a greater reason, perhaps because "Dwarves" doesn't fit in with the language scheme you have for your campaign, it's more excusable. However, my personal opinion is that if you're going to give your PCs Dwarves, just call them Dwarves so the PCs know what to expect, since you aren't going to throw them any curve balls anyway.


On that note, there is nothing wrong with using established archetypes or even "borrowing" ideas from other settings. There are reasons why the archetypes exist, because they work. I think you should try and put your own unique spin on them, but you can make a compelling setting without doing anything terribly different.


Sorry for the length of this post, but hopefully it helps.














Another thing to consider, depending on how lore-heavy your gaming group is, is the history. If you have a city or a nation doing something strange, make sure you have a history and a reason to support it. The more bizare, the more necessary this is. This is very dependant on your group, though. Some players will accept a handwave and the explanation of "because shut up", but others will get really confused why you have a port town in the middle of a desert on a tiny oasis.

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