World Building: What I have learned…

I created a standard fantasy world near the end of 3.5 and later converted it to 4e. I stole from Warhammer, Zelda, the Cthuhlu Mythos and of course Tolkien. While this sounds all very generic I thought the video game and horror twists made it a little more unique than a standard high-fantasy setting. I ran a long campaign through this world, the players didn’t get far, and I learned some valuable lessons about DMing and world building. I currently play in a home-brewed post-apocalyptic world, which has been awesome. I noticed the DM had a ton of flavour to this world and he didn’t spend a year and some designing it. With all this free time I had, I decided that I should work on a new world and use the lessons I have learned. This is what I’ve come up with so far.

Bottom Up with a twist.

For those of you unfamiliar with Top-Down or Bottom Up styles of world building I shall leave a link here.  I will let you peruse that at your leisure. My first world was designed Top Down. I started big then tried to fill this mostly blank canvas with lots and lots of details. I chose this time to go with another approach but with a slight deviation. I wanted to begin with a single location that I could drop my players into and they would be able to have fun right off the bat. It’s much easier to create a single town or city with lots of detail than to design an entire world and then put massive amounts of detail into every location. I wanted to focus on creating a single, exciting location that would grab my players interest. Before I did that I wanted to lay down a bit of groundwork.

Themes, flavours, and styles.

I did a tiny amount of top down building by nailing down the feel and flavour of the world I wanted to create. I chose an almost polar opposite of my first world. I wanted something with swashbuckling, sailing ships, lots of magic, artistic style, and the general feeling of a beautiful playground for DnD players. I examined sailing ships, my favourite video games (yes I stole a tiny amount from Zelda again), underused 4e mechanics like rituals (I want lots of magic), and one major design choice. I made a conscious decision not to design a world based on any of the rules in DnD. I wanted this to be a world that I could write stories about as much as run games in. I don’t care if the Cosmology of the Planes said this, or the DMG said that. I wanted key features of the world to be completely made up and not based off of a set of numbers and rules from 4e. This, I think, is what makes this new world more fantastical and beautiful and less game-y. Throw in some sailing, magic, high-adventure, a sky that looks like brushstrokes on a canvas, and magical winds that makes things a mite unpredictable and you have flavour and style. I also wanted a world that was undergoing a change of feudalism (classic medieval fantasy) to imperialism (golden age of sail) that would explain the whole mess. With my guidelines set for this world I could get down to business by building an exciting starting location.

Don’t Sample. Taste!

I don’t want to make my players wait before they can experience the world and its flavour. When I start a new campaign they are going to get dropped into a fun town with lots of features. Level 1 players are heroes and shouldn’t have to start off in a village because we DMs think all parties should have humble beginnings. I wanted a town with access to adventure, magic, the seas, and the sky while also supplying a plausible reason as to why the adventurers would be in a location like this. Lantern-Light is a town of towers built around a central spire owned by the local mages guild that doubles as an astral observatory. The tower itself has access to magic and also makes for a great background for Arcane heroes, it also has a sky dock for airships. This is a great hint at where the players could go at higher levels of game play. And the guild is a repository of magic  including access to rituals. There are a few detailed temples to allow the Divine-oriented player some options. The merchants near the harbour and the militia barracks offers possibilities to many of the Martial heroes in the campaign. Forests and coasts surrounding the town are great origins for anyone interested in picking up a Primal class. Throw in a few more shops, some taverns, inns, a city hall, and a number of NPCs and you have a great beginning location. From here I can move forward and create a number of great adventure locations, smaller or larger population centers, and start taking a hard look at handling sea travel.

By the end…

Overall I’m feeling happy about all of this. I didn’t have to make some complicated world map, or waste all my energy coming up with a ten thousand year history to explain everything. I have a set of guidelines that I can apply to future additions in my world and a town that we’ll get great mileage out of. If you have any questions or comments follow me on twitter @shiftykobold or email me at


One thought on “World Building: What I have learned…

  1. I built my current world of Cydonia from a combination of a Top-Down and Bottom-Up approach. I started out creating a two-page summary of current events and important towns.

    But I primarily focused on creating the first town the party would inhabit, and borrowed liberally from Fallcrest in the DMG. The players have helped me to fill in big-picture world details (without knowing it), and I’ve found that it works well. Since we have two weeks between games, I can prepare specific bits for whatever environment they enter during any given gaming session.

    I have a general framework for the “bigger world story,” but I’m focusing more on the “here and now” for the characters, and it seems to be working out pretty well.

    I posted some information on my creation process here:

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