This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write on some things to consider when making a campaign world, or using a published setting. I don’t know how many parts this will be, but each will focus on a different section, likely starting on the macro and work to the micro scale.
Whenever you run a game, you need somewhere to put it. A universe of sorts to run it in. It could be as simple as a single campaign world (or continent, country, city, even a single building depending on the stories you’re telling), or it could be something as complex as the mutliverse that comic books have or alternate timelines in Back to the Future style or a galaxy of planets like Star Wars and Star Trek and Spelljammer. Once you know how big you want it to be, you can then begin to populate the areas needed; don’t build any more than you need at the time however.
There are many different rulesets you can use to make systems, people and cities, each with their own pros and cons. Games like Traveller and Alternity have rules governing the creation of star systems and the planets in it while games like D&D and Pathfinder have rules for the specific cities you’ll find. There’s even some stuff like How to Host a Dungeon that creates the backstory to why the dungeon came out the way it did and who the players in the area are. You could even do a procedurally generated style like what goes on in Dwarf Fortress, or in pretty much any random table generated dungeon or overland trek you had with encounter tables. As a side note, even if you don’t play the game, I suggest you take a look at Dwarf Fortress world generation to see the sort of complex world histories that can be created, with the various connections.
When designing a world freehand, I usually run into issues with where to place terrain features. Coastlines are easy enough, mostly just draw some lines and there are your continents. The issue with where do the forests, rivers, deserts, mountains and things go. In the end, as long as it isn’t Earth you’re on, then the rules are different due to magic and/or technology, sometimes both. Maybe your world has floating islands due to some minerals in the rocks making them lighter than the surrounding air or a magnetic reaction with the core, maybe you have trees that don’t require water to grow and thus can grow in desert climates or on mountainsides far from a water source. Perhaps they’re actual moving cacti that get up and move throughout an area. If your players try to call you on something not making sense in the world layout, you can either go with ‘A wizard/technician did it’ sort of excuse relying on magic and tech to explain it, or you can just smile and nod and say ‘It is weird’ filing that away as something that might be a great plot hook for the players later.
Of course, I think I might go a little extra crazy in the worlds I design. I’ve done up things like fault lines and even borrowed the idea from Dungeon’sMaster.com article on Residuum which is basically an idea of adding oil or similar resources into your world. It can add an extra step in designing, but it will have various payoffs in the end. These sort of things are somewhat advanced steps mostly for added colour and theme, but you can come up with all possibilities that you can do with this sort of stuff. If nothing else, someone’s going to have something that other people want and it is a great plot driver when that happens. Also, look at coming up with sites of interest, such as wonders of the world, ancient ruins and so forth. Beast Wars 3D Animated series had things like Standing Stones, Floating Island, Techno-organic dungeon, and so forth. D&D the Animated Series had some good ones too. These add flavour to a world, both man-made and nature-made points of interest.