A Stubborn DM's Guide to Worldbuilding
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
The role of Dungeon Master is an unforgiving one. It is your responsibility to master the chaos that sweeps your world. For the best part of six decades, this pivotal role was learned through academia and practice. Although that still rings true today, I also know that the online tabletop landscape is vast and overwhelming for new DM's.
If you’re reading this article then you already know what I am talking about. That seemingly impossible hurdle you must jump as you make a canonical history of people, places, and major events that shape your world.
Today, I am going to give you some tips and guide you on where to begin this DM journey: Worldbuilding.
Whenever someone asks for my advice, I always say the same thing. "Start with a single town". Your average adventuring party doesn't give a damn that your world was made from the skull of a galactic-sized dragon during the second era of existence, or that a giant chicken cracked the egg of the cosmos which created the stars and planets... and that's OK! Don't worry so much about making your world hyperrealistic and be open to the unknown and mysterious. Your world can come from anything.
Neil Gaiman says "You are only limited by where your imagination can take you."...but let's be realistic!
You are the arbiter of what is and what is not possible in the confines of your world. I think one reason that worldbuilding can seem scary to newbies is the limitlessness of it all. Some DM's can start at the beginning of the universe and craft a story spanning hundreds, thousands, or millions of years.
That being said, I believe there is great wisdom in learning when to temper your imagination. I understand the appeal to start at the canonical beginning and move chronologically, but bigger does not always mean better. Once you've uncovered all of the mysteries of the universe and revealed your eight novels of lore notes for your players to see, you will find you've only succeeded in both writing yourself into a corner, and stifling your inspiration. Not everything needs an answer!
Let your players help form your world!
When I first created my own homebrew world of Varian, I made the conscious decision to make this a collective experience amongst myself and my players. We started in the town of Preston, on the shores of the Elven Continent of Ettinvale. I had some ideas that Preston would be a main fishing hub in the region... And that's it.
From there, I spoke to my players and learned about their backstories. I let them create their own hometowns, cities, islands, and governments from the lands they hail from. This pivotal information that I gleaned from them was used to inform and mould the city of Preston and the quest they would embark on. Not only does this make your job easier, but it also lets your players feel like they contributed to a living, breathing world.
Just remember that the goal is for these places to be as unique and diverse as the characters themselves, but it doesn't have to start out that way. Flesh out the culture of the town or city as you work with your players.
Creating the Creators
Now that you have a small local area for your players to explore, let us zoom out briefly and fill in a few details. Sometimes understanding the basics of the macro-scale can help you design more unique elements into the micro-scale. That means expanding on the divine beings that make up most fantasy settings; the Gods.
These builders of creation are best kept vague and I always recommend that first-time DMs keep their deities fickle and used as a way to personify human attributes and traits. More akin to the old Norse and Greek Gods and their lore.
Gods can have their own prejudices, skewed morality, and could have a spectrum of followers from vague passive peons to hardcore zealots willing to kill in their name. Even the most divine being of Good and Justice could have followers capable of terrible acts in their name, and the same goes for the Evil and Unjust Deities whose followers may show mercy and love. Gods should personify the ideals of their followers, but like any religious dogma, there are things that can be lost in the translation between divine deity and zealot cultist.
Although creating new and original Gods can be fun in itself, the lore of Dungeons and Dragons and sourcebooks already have a lot of established ones that are easy to pick up and use in your setting. Use and abuse the established lore as much as you can and take whatever you need to expand the story you are trying to tell.
Naming your Deities can be as difficult as naming anything else in your world. Although there are plenty of quality fantasy character and town name generators online, if you think about it you already have everything you need to auto-generate that random villager moving lumber that one of your players decides to spark up a conversation with. What was the street name of your childhood home? What about your second-grade teacher? What's your least favourite food?
Remember it's a fantasy world and making NPCs or even a powerful God of Death with silly names is all part of the fun and may even bring in some unexpected laughs and storylines!
Foreshadow and plant seeds everywhere and always... even if you don't know what those seeds will grow into!
I know it may seem backwards, but I find this technique helps a lot with my own world-building and is something I tell other DM’s who ask me for advice. Let's make an example: You have planned for your party to come across an ancient ruin where they will find an artifact and slay a monster.
What you haven't planned for was that one of your more inquisitive players has decided that they want to delve deeper into the history of this ruin; who built it and why it was abandoned, but you didn't prepare for this! Well, well, well, my fledgling DM, you need not worry. I know this seems like a scary situation, and you may even blame yourself as the DM for not making any sort of contingency plan for it. But let's instead consider this to be an opportunity to expand on the lore in ways you didn't prepare for.
This ruin has stone carvings that indicate it was made by Dwarves! The ancient Dwarven text (which oddly enough your Elven Druid understands) speaks of a great evil that was once bound to this ruin before escaping. Perhaps it's description matches that of a monster your Ranger once saw while hunting in the forests outside of his village...
Think of the wonder and awe you can instill in your players with such a tale, and how it can help expand on the history and lore you've already established for your world. Most importantly - how you can connect it to the overall story you are trying to tell. Not everything needs to be explained to your players. And some things you don't need to explain to yourself. Take your time.
A World of Wonder
Out of all the advice I have given, I think the most important thing to remember is to start small and then expand upon those ideas. A lot of this will be through conversations and working with your players. So although the prospect of creating an entire game world may seem daunting at first, I hope this introductory guide to worldbuilding may have helped you in some way as you move into the thick of it all. Remember to have fun, and embrace the failures you make along the way - they will give you far more experience than any advice I can offer.
About the Author:
Adam is the Dungeon Master for the Stubborn Heroes, an Actual Play D&D 5e podcast set in the homebrew world of Varian. Their current campaign takes place in the Isle of Umbra, an ancient unexplored land of myth and legend where a group of outcasts form an unexpected bond to face dangers small and world-ending alike.
Check out their website here: https://www.stubbornheroes.com/