Game Master Musing: Worldbuilding Pt. 1 (Patreon Request)
NOTE: This was originally published February 22 2020.
Good evening gamers and readers of Red Hoodie!
Today I’ll be writing about worldbuilding: how to get started with a brand new universe, some helpful tools and resources, and how to take your worldbuilding to the next level. This is an expansive topic and there’s no way I’ll be able to cover it all, hence titling this post Pt. 1. This is also a great time to write more about this since in Set The Table Episode Five, published last week and available on Apple Podcasts as well, Jack and I talk about homebrew and worldbuilding. That seems to be the theme this month, so thanks to patron James K. for requesting it, and lets dive in.
I want to be sure to talk about content that is separate from the Podcast, so I’m not going to spend as long defining and introducing things. Homebrewing, is changing/modifying/bending rules, or creating content from scratch for use in your tabletop role-playing games. Worldbuilding is the process a GM undertakes in order to create a physical space for the players to have their adventures in.
In this post, I’ll be talking mostly about worldbuilding from scratch, as I have done with my universe of Ados. I’ve talked a little bit about Ados before, so if you’d like a very short primer to some of Ados, you can find that post here (Note: Post is no longer available due to changed details, I will write a new Ados Primer soon.) I wanted my world to be unique so in that post I introduce how my races are different (slightly). You want your world to be relatable, and for players to connect with it. While you can do a set of entirely homebrew races with all unique names and features, it’s a little easier for people to get “on-board” with your world when there are some things that are familiar to them.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so when you’re starting off, what’s the first thing someone might ask… Where do I even start?
A world is a big place, and it’s hard to know where to begin. I would recommend starting with a location your players will spend time. I assume that if you’re worldbuilding, you’re likely writing your own campaign or adventure as well, so work on your world, and your campaign in tandem.
What is the first location where your players will be? Why are they there? What adventure can you design around the location, or if you have an adventure idea, what location do you need to make that happen?
A campaign I ran years and years ago, the first in the universe of Ados, took place in a small pass-town called Piedmont. I mentioned Piedmont in the show, but you’ll get a little more insight here. Firstly, it took me about a year before I realized that Piedmont was a street name in a town I had to drive through to get from my parents house to where I attended college. I thought I had made up the name, but long after having written in onto my map, I passed the street I had seen scores of times before and realize that’s where my brain conjured the name from. So use any information or resources you can as you begin to think about your world. You can use name generators for various things, and I’ll mentioned a few later. But for now, think about street names, town names, your friends’ names, whatever you can to get some content down on the page.
Piedmont is a small town, of a population no larger than 75 people, perhaps 20 or so structures, the only notable ones are a large beautiful stone church with stained glass windows facing the street, and beside it a tavern with a stable built onto the eastern side. There is but one main road through the town, old scattered cobblestone sunken into the earth and with tufts of grass poking through, running west-to-east, with smaller walking paths of faded earth south from the road to peoples homes. North of the main road there is the tavern on the eastern side of town, to the west of the tavern the church, and to the west of the church, a massive graveyard. For Piedmont, the town was all about it’s history.
There had been a bloody civil war fought between the human kingdoms of the west and east. The elves and dwarves and other folk of the time agreed not to take part in the futile war, and instructed the humans to keep their fighting away from civilized lands. This meant that to pass between the west and east, they would either travel in the cold of the north through mountain passes, or sail far around the continent to the south, or travel through the Twin-Lake pass, where Piedmont was eventually constructed.
The town was sort of naturally walled by forests to the north and south, and beyond the forests small mountain ranges, and beyond those still two large lakes, Arob, and Bora. Thus, the path between the two was named Twin-Lakes Pass, and following the western human victory, a large graveyard was constructed in the pass to honor those who died in the war. Piedmont was constructed as a sanctuary town, and the rulers of the eastern kingdom who fought and died, were buried in a mausoleum on a small hill within the cemetery.
To further answer the questions I posed for this section, “Why are they [the players] there?”, I have to talk a little about that first adventure. The priest who manages the church in Piedmont acts as a spiritual and community leader for the town. They have no mayor, no guard, as they are meant to be a sanctuary town. When people of the town started to go missing, he sent word to the King of Northtide (in the west) for aid, who decided that since Piedmont was meant to be neutral in allegiance, that he would post notices asking nearby adventurers to investigate, thus, my players arrived over the course of an afternoon and the following morning all having seen a notice (or simply wandered there next in one case). Thus, they met the owner of the tavern and learned that the disappearances were worse than they thought, and thus the adventure was afoot!
I plan on writing the adventure at Piedmont up formally for publication someday so I won’t spoil it further, but I wanted to illustrate how a location in your world can be used as a focus for an adventure. This is how I started worldbuilding and if I were to start with a brand new universe/world today, then I would start all the same. What’s the first place the players need, how much information do they need about it, and what’s the adventure?
How do I make a whole adventure in just one location?
This is easier than you think. A town doesn’t have to just be a town. Piedmont was nestled into some nearby woodlands, and the adventure easily could have taken the players into the woods to investigate the possibility of beasts, cultists, or some other threat taking people from town. The small population might mean there is a known recluse, and perhaps that one odd person isn’t so much a person after all. The graveyard from the war is a place where I could play with the idea of having undead be the culprit of the kidnappings. The mausoleum could lead to a dungeon under the town. There could be a cave system in the nearby mountains. There could be a hidden room beneath the tavern. There are lots of possibilities for what there could be in, around, or otherwise nearby to a small town.
In addition, the pressure of the town being so small, helped to elevate the threat level and tension, and if it really is someone from the community whose the cause, then how have they gone unnoticed? Why are they doing this? To what end? Sometimes, small town mysteries are some of the most intense.
Bonus Note: Inspiration
It’s important to draw inspiration from sources in real-life. Maybe not important, but it can really help get creative juices flowing. Think about what books you read, what television shows and movies you watch. Think about it from a writers standpoint: what emotion is the show trying to get me to feel and how to they achieve that? The female investigator is going back to the house where the victim was murdered, alone, and at night, and the music changes, so clearly that’s how to achieve tension and suspense. This is perhaps more of a note for adventure writing than worldbuilding, but since as a GM your role is to create an experience for your players, it’s worth thinking about.
Okay, I’ve got a first town, we had a first adventure, but what comes after that? There’s still a whole world to design!
It gets easier and easier the more you write and design, and I’ll explain why. Beginning from Piedmont, and the adventure, I had a few other pieces of world-lore. I had the two warring human kingdoms, the Elf and Dwarf kingdoms that the humans could not war within, the Twin-Lake Pass region, the western human capital of Northtide, I needed an eastern human capital as well, and a few other hooks, leads, and bits of what I’m calling “World-Lore” to work with.
World-Lore is any piece of your world, be it a character, location, item, legend, story, historical fact, relationship, shop, kingdom, or deity. As you write for your world, and as you write the adventures that will take place in your work, keep track of all of your world-lore.
Sometimes you’ll generate World-Lore from other sources, like how I got Northtide out of designing Piedmont. Sometimes it will be a moment of creative inspiration and you’ll get a great idea for a dungeon, or island, or island-dungeon. Other times, your players will ask for it.
I had one player who was going to join the game present his character to me as he was building it. He had a backstory all planned out, but wanted to know where in my world it would make sense for him to be from given his story. I told him I would think about it and get back to him, and after an hour or two one weekend afternoon, I had a Google Doc ready to share with him that was 16-pages of information on a region where he could be from any of the places listed. It was more than I needed to do for sure, since I hinted at the city he ended up choosing, and I could’ve just written the 3-pages on that one city, but I saw it as an opportunity to write more about a region of my world I haven’t fleshed out. Most of the regions lack any serious meat and potatoes, but some, like the region this character is from, have a pretty decent amount of information about them.
Perhaps it’s just a few pieces of World-Lore, like who a characters parents are, or which kingdom lays claim to a city on the border between two regions, and why. It doesn’t matter how, why, or even what bits of lore you find yourself coming across or creating, but create them, write them, and collect them.
Then from each piece of World-Lore, build from there. Also DO IT ON PAPER. Like real physical paper, and with a pencil for that matter. I’ve tried using map-building and map-making software like Inkarnate for world size maps or Deepnight for smaller scale maps, but none of it gave me the feeling of creative freedom like a piece of paper and a pencil. It’s much much easier to just jot down ideas lightly in pencil than to try to learn a new tool and accidentally delete a section of mountains you were proud of when you were trying to delete the Dwarven city that you misplaced by just a hair.
Seriously, do yourself a favor and start your worldbuilding with a piece of paper and a pencil. Work on your map on one side, and draw/write lightly until you’re content with a large piece, like half of the map and then you can start going over it a little darker. On the other side of the page, you can jot down ideas for world-lore as you write. You’ll probably want a notebook, sticky-notes, or some other way to write down ideas for world-lore because once you get going the back of one page will not be enough.
Also once you’ve got a bit of world designed that you’re proud of, totally do use a digital tool to formalize it (unless you’re a killer artist, which I am not). I’ve seen really nice stuff made with Inkarnate (linked above), but since I wanted something a little more modular and less freeform I decided to use Hexographer, which apparently has since been upgraded to Worldographer but I haven’t made the swap because I’m a little nervous about keeping my Hexographer settings and such. If you’re new though, check out Worldographer. It’s super simple and easy to learn and use, it really suited me being able to upload a picture of my paper map and sort of build over it, using it as a guide for where my land/ocean is, roads, rivers, towns, mountains, lakes, etc. It’s clean, and gives me some old-style feelings, and since I grew up playing the TTRPGs of my 80’s-loving father, the hexes and style is nostalgic for me
How do I keep all of this organized?
There’s different ways to do this, and you need to find what works for you as a creator. For the longest time I had a stack of not-sticky notes and if an idea or bit of lore came to me, I’d write it down. This quickly got out of hand, so I started writing more of it in digital documents. I’d open Notepad and write whatever I was thinking of and save it under a name that covered a majority of the content. Sometimes it was just “Notes Dump <Date>” and had lists of herbalism components, magical weapon ideas, and a story lead for next session in my main group. Also, not the best way to organize.
It took me a long time to find a resource that I liked, that was also free, and I finally did, Notebook.ai. You can click here to check it out yourself, but the free version lets you create up to five separate universes, and an unlimited number of characters, locations, and items. There is a paid version, where you can also create all sorts of other things for your world like religions, creatures, languages, and more. The very best part, is that you can reference anything from your notebook, with anything else, which was something I desperately needed.
You see, at this point, years later in my worldbuilding process, I had a fantastic map with lots of locations and regions and notable people, but it was hard to keep all the connections straight. So-and-so lived in Town A, but was related to such-and-such who lived in Town B, and if my players are asking someone in Town A for a name then I want to be able to access that information more quickly that searching my note documents, or rifling through a stack of sticky-notes, which I do still use.
With Notebook.ai, I was able to create characters, who were related to other characters, who lived in one town, which was part of this larger region. I think you can do regions in the paid version, but since I use the free version I did my regions as locations and created a custom field for sub-locations, so that I could link all the towns, cities, dungeons, natural features from a region together. It’s been awesomely helpful.
I also take and make session notes within the documents section of Notebook.ai, so if my players meet a new character I can link that character if I had them made ahead of time, or create them and link them so I can refer to that character, their connections, where the live, etc. It’s a really awesome tool for any GM looking to be able to organize their world, and be able to keep connections noted, which is important because as I said, Worldbuilding gets easier the more you do it.
This is because once you’ve got all these places and people and connections and relationships, some things just start to fall into place in your world without you even having done anything. For instance, I was writing the other day when I realized that one of my characters knew another character from a piece of history, and that because of that connection I knew immediately where they were from and how they ended up where they are now. Once you establish a living functional world, things begin to happen without you really designing it that way at all, and when you get to that point, it’s truly magical.
Wait, you said years went by before you had a living functional world? I can’t wait that long! I don’t have that much time to work on a world!
Yes I did. I’ve been working on the Universe of Ados for eight years now, and I’m still working on it. I’ve run a handful of adventures in various locations, but with new groups I almost always fall back to that one adventure I wrote that begins in Piedmont. I’m very comfortable with the adventure, I think it’s some of the better writing I’ve done, and it means that everyone doesn’t have to start in a tavern, not at first at least.
My current group, which has been running for over a year a half now (two years this summer!) began with the adventure in Piedmont, and followed a lead from there all the way to where they are now. I’m not giving to much info on particulars because again, I’d like to write it into a long campaign guide someday but they need to finish the playthrough first. Anyways, I had a single hook left at the end of the events at Piedmont, and the party went with it. It lead them to the next larger town that I developed a paper and pencil map for that I took a picture of and uploaded to Roll20 where we play online due to distance. That town is called Two-Posts, and Two-Posts was a bit larger than Piedmont. Two-Posts was originally a hub town that I had on my map from ongoing world development, but it’s a crossroads town, with lots of traffic and temporary visitors; so many in fact, that there are more tents and camps outside of the the town proper than actual structures. The town would like to build more taverns and inns but travelers enjoy the transient atmosphere, and wealth of culture available to be found there. There are over 100 NPCs that I named and gave roles to for the town of Two-Posts. I didn’t do anything more than profession and name, but update their character info on Notebook.ai whenever I need to.
I know this sounds like a lot, but you do a little bit every day and it adds up. One NPC an hour while you’re at work, and within a week you’ve got 40 named NPCs. Jot it down in your phone, or in a notepad if you have access to one while working. Maybe you happen across a name that sounds good for someone, or you’re thinking of Dwarven smiths and you make a few names that would suit them. Name, occupation, and where they live. That’s all you need to start.
With Notebook.ai also, there is a section under “Writing” called prompts, where if you click it, the platform will ask you a question about one of the things you’ve created (for me, character, location, or item) that is a field on the things page. It may ask you to describe an item, what a characters background is, or what the climate is like in a particular location. Whatever it asks you about there is an option to quick-reference it, and you’re adding information to your world that contributes to it becoming more a living and full-feeling world.
I’ve described Ados as a universe a few times, and that will bring me to my last point…
How can I make sure my world is really good, and is compelling for my players?
Spend time writing about it, is the short an easy answer. If you think about our real-world, we have thousands of years of history that have resulted in how things are today. Your world needs to feel like it has history, like it’s people have stories and memories and connections to other people and things. If you can provide even a glimpse of your worlds history for your players, it will make the world and the adventure all that more special.
I keep calling Ados my universe for three reasons. One, is that that’s what it’s called on Notebook.ai, which I referenced a lot of times, just linked again, and really enjoy. Two, is that for a long time I called my map Ados, but since I decided there would be multiple realms (something like planes) the land mass I had called Ados was really Tomarev, and Ados was the universe where the planet that Tomarev is on is. Thirdly, Ados really is its own universe.
I’ve developed a unique calendar, a series of alternate magical realms aside from the common realm, and a pantheon of 30 deities and deific figures. Ados, and particularly Tomarev, have noted historical events from over 4,000 years ago (from where my current main group is), that have had anywhere from little, to gigantic impact on the world today.
I’m not saying those are the things you should do to be good at worldbuilding, but you should do something to create a sense of reality for your players.
In the future, I’ll provide xDy tables for things that can enhance your players sense of the world, like weather, holidays, and constellations. There are three things; perhaps the xDy table should be things you can write and describe to your players to enhance their sense of immersion in your fantasy world.
Think about your real-life and all the things you know that you might take for granted, but that add variety to your life. Things like weather might impact your clothing choices, and seasons and time do pass even in fantasy worlds. If you’re playing a long game you’ll want to be mindful of that. Players so often ask what time of day it is, but rarely will ask what time of year it is. Building my calendar helped me to describe my world better, and answer questions more deeply. This is the goal with worldbuilding. You don’t need to overload your players with information, but anything that is relevant, and anything that leads to a meaningful and real feeling experience, rich with life and history, that will immerse your players as deeply as you might feel for the world that you’ve created.
“Alright, so where are we at again?”
You’ve awoken on the 23rd of Halloris in your room at The Gold Brick, in the town of Dalhurst. It’s late autumn, the middle of the week, and as you go to peer out your room window, there is frost upon the edges, the first of the year. You can see people in the street below wearing scarves and knitted mittens, hustling about in part to keep warm, and in part to prepare for the months to follow. You dress quickly and head downstairs where you hope there is a fire lit, and breakfast cooking to warm you both inside and out.
That’s the kind of experience that can really leave an impact, for something as simple as describing how the player is waking up that morning. Immersion, experience, and realism are what I strive for.
I’m sure I’ll write more on the topic in the future but that’s a fair amount to get someone started. I’ve linked a few resources so feel free to explore, and search for others if these don’t tickle your fancy. If you do find a tool you really like using, then please comment below, or tweet at me (at)RedHoodieGames.
For now… Happy Worldbuilding!