When it comes to world-building, I’m no expert. I know the general “rules,” and I have an understanding on the different approaches to doing it for Dungeons & Dragons.
I’ve been building worlds since my childhood, when my overactive imagination kept me entertained for hours while I played with my toys as an only child. When I started writing, my world-building skills grew and I started focusing on more aspects of these worlds, making them more multi-faceted.
Now, as I delve deeper and deeper into D&D, I’m trying to call upon those years of learning to make something that’s really special and worthwhile for my players. The trouble is, given everything I’ve just said, I’m still a newbie. I still don’t know everything there is to know. I’m no Terry Pratchett, or J.R.R. Tolkein, or George R.R. Martin, or any of the countless writers out there who have built such wonderful, rich, and realistic fantasy worlds.
I’ve been making mistakes, but without realizing what they are. I’ve been putting my ideas down, and creating what I think would be a fun and interesting campaign world, but then – every time – looking over it with disappointment…without really knowing why.
Then I found Calamity Games’ Avarath campaign setting, which I talk about in more detail in my previous post, and it suddenly became clearer what I’ve been missing. They truly impressed me with the scope of their content…and I think that’s one of the key elements I’ve been missing: a clear scope.
Sure, with Muluth, I have a continent with a history, and a ruling empire, and histories of the inhabitant races, blah blah blah. But I never really had a scope of the world. I knew it was big, but I never really put down or figured out how big. And that’s a problem. Both Muluth and Caldon suffer from this somewhat, and I’m just not happy with them.
Another thing that became incredibly obvious to me when reading over the Avarath stuff was the history to the world…it was so intense and so long and drawn out – in a good way! When writing the history for Muluth, I tried to make the modern year the current year for Faerûn , which is 1490-something. So I wrote the history for one-and-a-half millennia. That was my folly. It was not nearly long enough, and I could tell. The world felt too recent, and not old enough to have the kind of mystique that fantasy worlds offer.
I did a little better with it with the Caldon setting that suddenly struck me one day. Instead of writing the full history of the setting, I built a map and plotted out the major locations, then started filling in the details of those locations without alluding to the full history of the setting. This seemed to work, and I became really happy with these “snapshots” of how life currently is within the locations of Caldon.
But there was something…something missing still. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was more happy with Caldon than I was with Muluth…but not happy enough. So I think it’s time to try something different. First of all…my maps suck. They just do, and I need to come to terms with it. Seeing the map of Avarath was a real eye-opener. So, I found a better online map-generator over at Terra Incognita, called GMworldmap.com, and it auto-generated a fractal world map for me (to find that, go to this list of mapmakers, and click on Flat World Map).
And here it is.
Sure, at only about 1,200 miles across at its widest, it’s not huge…but it’s a bit bigger than Greenland, and that’s big enough, I feel. So, now, with a more realistic-looking place to start from, I think I’m ready to dive in – but a bit more carefully than I have in the past.
I’m going to start smaller, like some DMs (Matt Colville and Matt Mercer, specifically) recommend. I’ve zoomed in on the southern half of this area, and focus on that. I have no idea what will become of the northern half…and I currently don’t care.
Alright, we have our region map. I have no idea what to do with it, or where to start, and it feels awesome. The massive potential of this place has me really excited. What I’d like to do is find a way to import this image into some kind of mapping software and then add features to it like more visible mountains, city markers, roads, etc.
But first…I need to pick a spot in which to begin. I don’t want to get lost in this vast new space. I need to be focused. Luckily, I prepared for this. The cool thing about this fractal mapper is it allows you to zoom in more and get really close. So, I took snapshots of the subareas of this region so I can work them out and map them in a detailed fashion at a later date.
For example, here’s the zoomed-in portion of the region where we see that large bay:
Now I can get really detailed and close-in on these places. When I’m ready for that, that is. I think having a clearer scope on the physical world here will help me figure out what’s going on, and give me a better idea of where things are in relation to each other.
Finally, I’m not going to write a history. I’m not even going to worry about locations yet, or how they’re related to one another. I’ll be too tempted to run wild. I need to remain in control here. And I need to not write myself into a corner. When I made the Muluth world history, I made it too restrictive for the players to be creative just for the sake of compelling or even shocking storytelling. That’s not what I want to do.
If I truly want a world of possibilities, I need to leave it more open and ready…much like Faerûn in 5E Dungeons & Dragons. That’s the path to success. I’m excited to get started.
What have been your struggles in creating a campaign setting? What do you love most about your current or a past campaign setting, whether you’re a player or a DM? What is something you’d love to see in a campaign setting that you haven’t yet? Do you have any advice for me regarding building a setting? Feel free to be part of the conversation here!
Until next time – Well Met!