With this article, I’m kicking off a collection of pieces on approaches to creating a world for your RPG campaign. Every DM will have their own method for drawing up their world, but this series aims to highlight a few distinct approaches and angles that, hopefully, most DMs will be able to take something away from.
First up, I’m going to talk about my personal favourite approach to constructing a setting, which is to develop the world as it is now from what it once was. Every society, nation, city or culture exists as a response to what as gone before it, so developing a solid history for your world should give you a strong foundation for developing the smaller details and creating an authentic setting.
‘You see ancient-looking ruins…’
One major advantage of creating a world via its history is that as well as developing the cultures and populations your players will interact with, you are also creating material that can be directly brought into your adventure planning.
An ancient ruin is often the ideal site for an early-game adventure. Forgotten artefacts can offer powerful magic items to your players. Undead of all kinds make excellent enemies throughout the early levels of a campaign. By putting at least some thought into what has come before the era your campaign is currently set, you are baking this sort of content into the setting at its most fundamental level, which avoids the dungeons and enemies you’ll want to use feeling tacked on.
It also helps immerse the players if there’s a sense of history to the monsters they’re killing and the locations they’re exploring. Most video game RPGs sprinkle their environments with architecture, notes, books or monuments, and feature expansive codices detailing the origins of the foes and factions you’ll encounter. These elements rarely have any bearing on the critical path of the plot, but help the world feel old, real, not just something that only exists while you’re looking at it. In tabletop RPGs, writing the history of your world gives you the foundation to do exactly the same thing, perhaps in an even more powerful way due to the more interactive nature of tabletop roleplaying.
Cause and Effect
Of course, you don’t need a treatise on every small town, every ruin, every artefact, but even just sketching out the history of the major players in your setting, be they cities, factions, individuals or cultures is a worthwhile starting point for creating a world. It’ll lend your game a sense of authenticity, and also help when figuring out the world as it now exists; the answer to any question about what a society believes, how a population are ruled or how a nation defends itself in wartime can be found by looking back at its history.
Has a nation experienced bloody revolution? Their leaders will now be desperate to maintain power, whether through enacting popular policies or by clamping down on dissent with a ruthless efficiency. Has a culture been blighted by Vampires or Liches and their undead hordes? They may fervently practice a Good-aligned faith, or oppose magic completely, well away of the destruction it can sow. Has a region been recently conquered by an invading enemy? You’ll find its culture, art, trade and society at a turning point, caught between protecting the old ways and an acquiescing the new order.
Thus, it can be said that the biggest advantage of taking the historical approach to worldbuilding is that it relies entirely on the principles of cause and effect. This in turn means that any aspect of your setting created in this way is going to make at least some level of sense, even once you factor in entirely fantastical elements of the world. It lends your setting an air of authenticity and makes the cultures, nations and factions that exist within it feel far more permanent and real. And if the players ask questions about the world you’ve not necessarily answered, the pieces are already there for you to assemble an answer from, simply by thinking about how they relate to whatever is being asked.
This method won’t necessarily make your world more interesting just by itself, but it provides a firm cornerstone from which you can build to that. Your players will appreciate the chance to explore that history first-hand while getting into the typical questing business of delving into ruins, finding artefacts and slaying monsters. As a DM, you’ll be equipped to fill in the gaps in your setting without creating contradictions or wildly implausible scenarios, and inject your campaign with a little extra flair as you mention ancient battles, fallen empires, famous figures or momentous events that shaped the world the campaign now explores.
Do you take a historical approach to worldbuilding? Has this article inspired you to consider the history of your setting a little further? As a player, do you enjoy settings that have a tangible past to them? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!