Owning Your World #1: Having and Eating your Cake


When designing your own campaign world, life can be made easier by incorporating elements from pre-published sources. As we get older, time to sit and plan becomes hard to come by. The plethora of products available for RPGs (d20 specifically) makes this job easier, however it can be just as time consuming trying to make it all fit the flavor of your world. How can one bring together the ideas from these various products without watering down the feel of your own world?

We've all felt it; that creeping feeling that somehow the world you've spent so much time and energy building has become Dragonlance...just with different place names. Perhaps in the d20 era of D&D, your world has become Forgotten Realms, or (cringe)...Eberron. It's common, and sometimes seems unavoidable. When I first started designing my world 15 years ago I lived at home, paid no bills, and had nothing to worry about beyond next weekend's session. Time was plentiful and I would sit for hours on end building cultures, personalities, and places to populate my world with. As I got older, outside responsibilities began to take precedence in my life so I began to increasingly rely on pre-published material to help me out. Then, one day I woke up and realized that my game world had been taken over by several others.

This problem stems from one thing in my opinion...implied setting. For those that don't know, the implied setting is what the designers had in mind when they wrote the product that you're itching to incorporate into your homebrew world. In the 3.0 edition of D&D, that implied setting was Greyhawk. In 3.5ed, it was Forgotten Realms or Eberron. In almost any D&D product, from any edition, by any publisher, there is a hint of the writers implied setting. Often, incorporating one thing results in incorporating a bunch. A prestige class for example may look like an easy fit; but once all the necessary schools of magic, organizations, feats, etc. have been added in to make the class work in your world, you may have just watered down your vision.
Designing your own campaign world is no small task, and can be quite time consuming.

There are a few ways to lessen this invasion of your campaign world by outside sources. Simply replacing flavor text is the same thing as writing your own material from scratch, but is one of the only solutions to the problem. So how can you have your cake and eat it too?

1) Think Big

The bigger your campaign world is, the easier it is to add something in after the fact. Maybe that obscure religion or tyrant king is from another continent than where the action in your campaign is taking place. If you already have all the cultures and regions of your world planned out before you begin play, you've limited yourself in what you can add in later. All the action may take place on one continent, or even in one kingdom, but there has to be more of the world left over for later. This is likely not the only campaign you're going to want to run in this world.

2) Plan for Flexibility from the Start

It's easy to fall to the temptation of making a list of allowable classes, races, etc. at the beginning of the campaign and sticking to it. In fact, that's exactly the advice you'll often find in the "Gamemaster" chapter in many popular roleplaying games. You're far better off in the long run to make a short list of what's allowable right at the outset and adding to it later. Trying to think of every possible scenario right away is a dead end in building your world. By putting more initial limitations on what you have to choose from (for your players and for yourself), you'll save valuable planning time and still leave yourself room to maneuver later.

3) Involve your Players

If one of your players comes to you with a really interesting class or race (or whatever) don't just disallow it arbitrarily or worse, do all the work to incorporate it yourself. Have them flesh out the background and flavor the text themselves. If you left yourself some room in your world as per the previous tips, they should be able to work it in without stepping on the things you've already established in your world. Consider giving the player a list of ideas you'd already been playing around with but haven't had time to fully render, and see what they can do with it. It isn't enough just to add the material verbatim into an undeveloped part of your world...make them tie it to something that already exists, whether the players have encountered it yet or not.

4) Narrow the Religious Scope
Figure out what you'll actually be using, and stick to that for awhile.

Unless your goal is to have a very populated pantheon of gods in your world, consider carefully anything religion or cult-like that you add. By having a limited pantheon that does not grow as the game progresses you'll establish a more believable religious theory for your world. If something strikes your fancy at the game store, find a way to tie it to the existing religions in your world...resist the temptation to add a new god. It's far more realistic for your players, and more satisfying as a gamemaster, when that adventure you bought helps build your world rather than add someone else's to it.

5) Don't Forget about Architecture

The shaded flavor text boxes in pre-published adventures can ruin your game. Often, they make mention of the architecture in the dungeon/city/castle...whatever. Architecture varies widely from one region to the other in the real world, and your campaign world isn't (or at least shouldn't be) any different. Take a few minutes while you're reading through the material you're using to build your world or plan for the next session and make some notes in the margins of the books about what will be different when you use it. Tie the look and feel of your source material to the region you're using it in.

6) Develop Your Own Races

You don't have to create whole new races from scratch, but a little time spent switching a few racial paradigms around, or changing the names and appearances of the familiar races goes along way towards separating your campaign world from all the ones that inspired it. All my players for the last decade or so will tell you that there aren't any elves in my world, cause "Scott hates elves". Sadly, this isn't as true as they think. The Elu, a starchy race of near-immortals much akin to the Melniboneans in Michael Moorcock's novels, are basically elves. On paper they're no different at all. In fact, there are regional variations of Elu stock to coincide with all the different types of elves that can be found in a standard fantasy campaign. But again...my players would disagree.

7) Keep it Fresh
The bigger your campaign world is, the easier it is to add something in after the fact. .

I try to add a new idea to my campaign world every few sessions, depending on how often we play. By fleshing out ideas and tying them to your setting one at a time instead of all at once, you can fully realize your ideas as they come up. It's not necessary for all that background material to be seen by the players or their characters, just so long as it's there when you need it. Using this technique you aren't just adding a new NPC/city/spell, you're world building with every stroke of the pen. It won't be long before you have players asking if their next character can be "whatever that guy we met on the road three months ago was".

8) Plan Small

Figure out what you'll actually be using, and stick to that for awhile. This may seem to contradict the first two tips, but by thinking big and then planning small you can spend more time focusing on the things that are right in front of you without worrying about how they'll affect the bigger picture later. You may have a great adventure that you purchased and are itching to run, but by changing some of the NPCs or creatures to types that are currently prevalent in the region the adventure is to be used in you'll be reinforcing your own setting by running it. It won't be that much extra work either because you've been focusing on fleshing those things out anyways...in the end it's easier than learning all about something new and trying to find a way to make it fit.

Designing your own campaign world is no small task, and can be quite time consuming. With each installment in this series, I'll try to break the process down and go into detail on different subjects, with the focus being on the flavor text rather than the crunchy parts. Hopefully these articles will make your lives easier, while still allowing you to develop a rich world for your adventures to take place in...your world.

Next installment...Owning Your World Part 2: Cradle to Grave; Creation Myths and the Afterlife

I usually have some vague idea of political structures, too. You know, who has what treaties with whom, what kind of leadership rules each section (kingdom, theocracy, etc...) and such like that.

I've found that as the players learn more about the world and as it evolves, the structures become more defined as the players form relationships with those in power ... be it good or bad relationships

The bit I hate the most is that it seems almost inherent that any fantasy MUST take place in a medieval setting, by divine decree.
This is what makes settings generic - mindlessly accepting that certain things just plan have to be that way because the other people did it, without even realizing you've accepted it.

But then maybe it's just my growing hate for medieval settings.

There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes.
-"The Scar", China Mieville

what does your alternative to medievalness look like?

Either prior to medievalness, a Rome or Ancient Greece thing, or set after it (my favorite) with ranging amounts of industrialization.

Although personally I'd love to see some fantasy, with magic and odraces and stuff in a World War II age.

There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes.
-"The Scar", China Mieville

i have to say: i can't see why some people (you're not the first i've seen) call it the WW2 Age? why an Age? what's so different between 1940 and, say 1915? or 1960?

Shadowrun or the Weird West are two very good examples. The average Dean R. Koontz book could work.

I happen to seriously dislike Koontz.
Shadowrun, from what I've heard of it, seems perfectly up my alley. Cyberpunk + fantasy = LOVE.
Weird West...I don't know anything about it, but I suspect I could love it too, as it's another type of setting I enjoy.

There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes.
-"The Scar", China Mieville

The problem with the 20th century is that the changes simply start coming at an ultrafast pace. I mean, you can have a setting somewhere in the medieval era take place in a five hundred year span and not have as much change as you have in just ten years in the 20th. By this I mean social and technological change, not some petty king losing some stupid plot of ground.

Why it's called the WWII era? Because it was the most significant and , ah, memorable thing that happened around 1941. It might also have been the Era Of Not Quite As Floppy Hats As Usual, but that kind of didn't have the same impact on life.

Neither 1915 nor 1960 can concievably be called the WWII era.

There is heroism and brute warfare on the ocean floor, unnoticed by land-dwellers. There are gods and catastrophes.
-"The Scar", China Mieville

Axiomatic has it, more or less, but there are so many alternatives to "generic medieval."

Pick a year. Any year.

Do some research about what kinds of arms and armor existed in that year.

No matter what year you picked, your armor list is 95% likely to vary from the list in the D&D PHB to a noticeable degree. You may also notice...some forms of armor listed there never existed...or if they did, evidence for their existence is fragmentary and circumstantial.

My personal favorites:

  • Bronze Age
  • Early Iron Age
  • Early Medieval (roughly 6th-9th century CE)
  • Renaissance

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the PHB gear most closely seems to fit the last...while OMITTING gunpowder (grr!).

Nice article, Scott. Your time and effort are appreciated.

One comment:

The factor I have found most important in developing a unique and memorable campaign setting is thematic consistency. It's a fair amount of work, but if all the details in your "plan small" segment complement each other, they will add up to something far more memorable than the average campaign.

Many people think "theme" and assume: oh, you're running an Arabian Nights/Greek Myth/Viking campaign? Cool. And that's part of what I mean, but only part of it.

Other fundamental questions about the world are worth answering. Is land comparatively scarce, relative to the amount of ocean (Earthsea)? Is your fantasy world actually the moon of another world (too many sources to name)? What is the geologic era of your world? Is magic connected to something in particular (Palladium, Skyrealms of Jorune), or does it "just work"? Is there a faster mount than a horse, and if so, what impact does its existence have on cavalary, chariots, et al? Does your society use magic the way we would use technology (cf. the warp-gate "distributed architecture" of buildings and even streets in Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion)?

Finally, for all serious world-builders out there, I'd like to put in a good word for Gurps: Fantasy2. This setting is weird, wonderful, and utterly unique in my experience.

is that a 3rd edition book?
how does it differ from Yrth? a few points, maybe.

Yes, it was an early 3rd edition supplement. If I remember correctly, Fantasy 2 was the "Mad Lands"... darker low fantasy pre-medieval lands where mad gods walk the earth (based mostly on Winnie the Pooh characters). If you think of the video game Black & White where the animal avatars interact with the humans over which they rule, that's somewhat close to the flavor of the Mad Lands... but darker.

The god avatars in Mad Lands are mostly cruel and irrational and the humans are just scraping by in small communities, terrorized by the twisted formerly-human experiments that the gods enjoy creating to amuse themselves. It has a bit of the Call of Cthulhu flavor in the horror department.

The idea looked interesting, but I never bought the book. It wasn't the flavor I was looking for at the time...

However, I would also recommend Myth: The Fallen Lords sourcebook based on the game of the same name. The Myth story actually has a really deep history for a video game -- the idea that there is an eternal struggle between the Light and the Dark for domination of the world. Every 1000 years an ultimate hero (or villian) rises up to either save or raise the lands and usher in the next Age where either Light or Dark dominates.

In any case, if you ever played the game (which was a great deal of fun), the sourcebook gives a lot more of the crunchy bits to the backstory of the world setting. One of the cool things about the game were the cut scenes actually where you'd hear a soldier's voice as he was writing in his journal about his experience during the war between Light and Dark. Made for an immersive experience.


Either of these settings might provide rich ideas to avoid the "Forgotten Realms Lite" feel that you might get after running a 3.5 campaign for a while. Even though these are GURPS sourcebooks, they're great for any fantasy system. For those that have the time, it would be a fun excercise to create kits / prestige classes based upon the Myth character archetypes (and limit the characters to only use these classes to keep the Myth "feel"). I always have wanted to build a campaign from that world, but never had the chance thus far.

Thanks for the comments everyone. They've made me realize one glaring omission from my article...when stealing from other sources to help build your world, don't limit yourself to fantasy material. In fact, it's probably better if you *make sure* to take a few ideas from non-fantasy sources. Even if you're going to design a fairly typical medieval fantasy setting, the benefits of including inspirations and influences from out-of-genre material go a long way towards making the setting unique.

As much as I *really* hate to admit it, Eberron did a good job of this in some areas. The only shining points in my opinion are the Lightning Rails that stretch across the land, and the Warforged race. Those two things are not typical fantasy elements, and they are the only things about the whole bloody setting I enjoyed. No offence to Keith Baker, of course...

To take an example from something that *doesn't* appear in any published product; in my own campaign setting that inspired this series of articles I've stolen liberally from westerns, kung-fu movies, sci fi novels (most notably the Homecoming series by Orson Scott Card), and some of Moorcock's stranger works (not the Elric novels so much...though I have stolen an idea or two from those as well). Going even further with this point, my current world (not the one I will be refering to in this series)is built completely from non-fantasy influences, with the possible exception of some ideas stolen from Spelljammer, which is hardly a typical fantasy setting anyways.

Long ago I made sure that my players knew that regardless of what the logo or the brand on the cover of the rulebook said, we were *not* playing D&D. Call the rules system itself whatever you want, but I haven't run a D&D campaign in a very long time precisely because of what Axiomatic refers to...but I have used the d20 rules to run some wicked campaigns of my own.

That was a great article, Scott. I find myself with nothing to add.

So, the next installment of this series of articles was to be about creation myths and the afterlife. However, since coming up with that idea, a wonderful article by Cocytus was already posted regarding religion and the like. So wonderful in fact that to seperate out the specific things I was going to discuss in the creation myth/afterlife article would be redundant. Cocytus outdid himself (and me!)!

For those out there building their own worlds from predominantly pre-published sources...what topic would you like to see covered next? Possibilities could be; political structure (making it real *and* making it easy to run), sticking to a theme (as mentioned by Cocytus above), magic (how much, and how?)...oh man...the list goes on.

Hey, you're too kind, man.

I think we should start a Forum thread on resurrection and the afterlife, things my article really didn't touch. There was an article or two about it here, way back when...I could look for it, but right now I just got off work and am feeling much lazier than usual. Anyway, I'd like to hear the thoughts of you and others on the subject, since most of the posters from that generation of gamegrene have long since gone (in fact, it was written and discussed long before I even read the site).

As for your next article? All of your subjects sound interesting to me. Magic is a broad and vast one, but like so many things in Fantasy, it tends to default to a rather hackneyed conception despite its enormous potential. Gilgamesh has some fascinating thoughts on this subject, and so, I'll wager, do many others around here. What are yours?

Whatever you write, it will be appreciated.

Scott, I'd like to hear your thoughts on magic.

Predominance of Magic
Source of Magic
Types of Magic (corollary of the above)
Magical items and relics
Prophesy, Dreams, and precognintion
Limits to magic
Magical creatures
Legends and myths

If you are taking requests I'd like to know whether you think that magic should be predictable - with predictable results. Should the source of it be a mystery? Do you favour a unified theory of magic -- or several strains of mystical forces each governed by their own rules? What about magic tokens and relics? What are the limits to magical power? Is there an opposing force to magic (like fate)? Are there side-effects of magic? Does the use of magic alter a person's psychology? Does magic change? How does it touch on religion?

Sorry ... you offered.

I thought that this article was excellent and complete. You are right to avoid re-introducing Religion/Cosmology as Cocytus did a brilliant job with that topic. You guys should be pretty proud of yourselves. Thanks.

Looks like Cocytus and I were were posting at the same time. I was beaten to the punch on a vote for magic. Anyways, a topic on the afterlife sounds fabulous !

As long as we're discussing talking about magic, I'd like to hear others' views on magic (and the magic system) as presented in Mage: The Awakening.

In adition, I'd really like to see if you guys can write up an article (or just start a discussion) about how to make political machinations work inside RGPs. How to make them both interesting (hence deep) and accessible (and to consider inter- as well as intra-party sjenanigans)

Well, it looks like the next installment in the Owning your World series will be magic. I love magic, hate magic, and want more/less magic depending on my mood/the time/your shoe size/the phase of the moon, and am really looking forward to exploring it in the next article.

I'd love to see the political topic done...but it's an area where I'd rather receive advice than give it ;) Though I have had a few very interesting plots going on in the halls of power (whatever those are) in various campaigns...it was never as good as I wanted it to be.

However, I do have an excellent book called Dynasties & Demagogues (who else has had it up to here with the "word-ampersand-other word" pattern?) that explores political machinations in fantasy campaigns, and how to make it work and such. So far it's a great read with lot's of awesome ideas in it...you should check it out! It is written for the d20 system, but there's lots of good stuff in there besides prestige classes and new spells ;)

Anyone ever play through the Enemy Within campaign for WFRP? Hands down the best prepublished campaign I've ever read/ran/played. I've ran it 5 times for different groups...amazing. The section that takes place in Middenheim (Power Behind the Throne) is a shining example of a political adventure done right.

yeah, I recall someone else here recommending Dy&De, I'll have to order it sometime.
I've never played WFRP...what are your opinions of the system and available material?

I never played WFRP, though I did read through the rulebook some 13 years ago. I recall being struck by the class system, which represents a career path of character advancement: PCs are each likely to move through a broad succession of classes rather than being confined to leveling in two or three. A quote from a review I found of the 2005 edition puts it thus:

No more going from a thief level one, to a warrior-thief 5/4; instead you'll be born a simple Thief, steal from the wrong person and become an Outlaw, rise to Outlaw Chief and then sell your stealthy abilities as you become an Assassin. What's more, since you have to purchase the trappings of your new career before you can move into it, WFRP remains the only fantasy game where you go dungeon crawling in order to pay for med school.

Just as everyone seems to agree that Planescape: Torment was one of the better computer roleplaying games of all time, I have yet to meet a person who has given The Enemy Within campaign for WFRP an unfavorable review. Indeed, the guy who loaned me his rulebook back in '93 said it was the best roleplaying campaign he knew of, and most people familiar with it seem to share that opinion or one very like it.

I must be missing something here (in my dotage). The review, to me, shows a clear character class progression and uses creative concepts to project that advancement.

How is this different from D&D (or any other class-based system for that matter)? Or is that not the argument here?

It's not theoretically different: whereas D&D measures progression by numbers (level) and GM-intuition ("you defeated the evil priest and can now take his rightful place over the congregation!"), WFRP makes it part of the rules system (you can't be an Outlaw Chief until you've "paid" for it, both in points/trappings and story, and then you get something "official" to put on your character sheet).

I, personally, love the class progression in WFRP.

Yeah, WFRP has a good way of doing it. You spend experience points (in blocks of 100 I think? Can't remember for sure anymore) to purchase advances to your stats...once you've taken all the advances and skills, you can move to another career, one of several advanced careers, or you can do the logical thing and move on to one of the "career exits" that are listed with each. For example, you can become a Charlatan from the Thief career...but not from the herbalist career.

It made for a logical progression, plus it added some flavor text to what you were. I find that the Profession skills in D&D make up for this...but there was an air of realism to the way WFRP handled it that I miss from time to time. Now I'm getting all nostalgic...kind of a shame I gave all my WFRP stuff to my fiance's sister when she expressed an interest in roleplaying. Oh well...at least that same rule book is being used to run campaigns in the same high school library that I used to hang in at lunch!

did you run The Enemy Within campaign as a D&D campaign?
how hard was the transfer?

You know - there is a second edition out, and there are more books in the first year of release then the entire first edition run. Naturally, they've tweaked the rules a bit, but nothing that truly effects the career system, in my opinion.

No, but all the great reviews of it make me wish I had!

I, however, tried to run it as a D&D campaign...but to no avail. The 5th time through, I wanted to do something different and use the D&D rules instead of WFRP. It was right when 3.0 came out, and I wasn't familiar enough with the rules to convert it properly. I could probably do it now, but like I said, I gave it away to my soon-to-be sister-in-law (wow...too many hyphens!)

If you can get your hands on the whole thing (Mistaken Identity, Shadow Over Bogenhafen, Death on the Reik, Power Behind the Throne, Something Rotten in Kislev, and Empire in Flames) then do it! It's too bloody amazing for words. There's also a piece called Warhammer City of Chaos (don't know what they call it in the current printing) that makes running Power Behind the Throne alot easier...it's basically a gazeteer of the city that part takes palce in.

Great, informative article. Cheers!

I see what you're saying, but I have to agree more with point no.8.
(1-7 are just great tips!)

I do prefer to make stuff up as I go along. I'd rather have something small planned and add to it later to create my world, thereby informing PC's of local history, religion, races,NPC's etc. as we go along - making it a learning experience, rather than a dice fest. Then I'll go home and rewrite it, for that day only. After about 3-4 weeks of playing, you'll be surprizes with how much shit you can come up with.

I do plan well for the adventure at hand, but try to create as much as possible on the spot.

Anyway, thanx again.


i'll look for it, but I'm not sure I know anybody willing to learn WFRP

I have always attempted to plan plan plan...so many of my tips are things that I myself have to follow more. Knowing isn't using I guess.

So, after reading your post I decided to do what you do. I'm developing a setting right now unlike anything I've ever built/cobbled together from other things. Something completely different than the uber-high-fantasy setting that inspired me to write about building worlds. I'm building the cities etc. as I need them for my player. Sometimes almost literally right before the session where I need the info. Then, after each session I summarize the events of that night in point form.

Four sessions into the campaign in the new setting, I pulled out all the setting info that came up during planning...and wouldn't you know I have a great start on a setting without even trying to do it!

I guess my teachers were right all along way back in high school...I needed to take better notes!