The Architect DM: World Building Basics

So far the Architect DM series has focused primarily on locations and building design, but today and over the next few weeks I’m going to take a look at the larger scale idea of world building and some factors that play into designing a realistic and believable world to play your games in. As with many of the design aspects I’ve talked about previously, designing a realistic world can feel like one of the most intimidating and daunting tasks to undertake but in reality if you apply principles correctly it can make your efforts easier and better at the same time.

For the most part this post will focus on the pseudo-medieval world building that goes along with most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, but I will try to address modern, sci-fi, and other worlds as much as possible. As always I strongly encourage you to comment and ask questions if you have them, and if I see enough interest in other types of world design I will definitely do more posts in the future addressing non-D&D specific world building.

A Matter of Scale and Approach

The way I see it there are two distinct ways to design a world for your campaign, with a possible third approach that dances somewhere in the middle. The first approach is what most people think of doing when they run a D&D game which is drawing a complete world map and filling in as much information as possible, then running the game and letting the players explore that world – we’ll call this the Large Scale approach. The other is designing a specific town/city and starting the party out within it, then as they explore designing and introducing more and more of the game world to them as they explore. You can even start the party out in a more confined location such as a specific district of that town/city, a tavern within the town, or even a single room within a building inside of that town and branch outwards from there – we’ll call this the Small Scale approach.

The obvious disadvantage to Large Scale world building is that it takes an insane amount of effort from the DM beforehand, and you’re probably never going to satisfy yourself or the players with the amount of information you can put into any specific area of the world. Thus, the appeal of running something in Forgotten Realms or other campaign settings because all of the beginning work has been done for the DM. The obvious disadvantage to Small Scale world building is that if you haven’t designed or prepared a location then the players either can’t go there or will have an improvised and most likely less interesting adventure if they choose to go where the DM hasn’t planned things out yet.

The Middle Ground

The shady middle ground between these two approaches is most likely what I would suggest for any DM attempting to create a world for any RPG. The first step is to decide what the basic scale of your game will be, and I very much recommend talking to the players first. Some examples of basic scale are a game that focuses on local happenings and is based mostly around a single town and the areas close by, or a game that focuses on a kingdom and a series of villages within it, or even a game that encompasses a smaller continent and its interaction with other nearby islands and continents. All of these are acceptable scales for a game to begin with and can dictate the entire feel of the game – if you and the players decide you want to focus on kingdoms or continents then the specific details of the towns and cities are not as important and you don’t have to plan for them.

If you start with just a town, you can focus your effort on developing that town, the people within it, and the areas surrounding it and create a series of fun adventures that focus on that town. The players are certainly free to leave the town, but wherever they go and the adventures they partake on should be focused on that town and everything should tie back to the town in some way that builds upon the foundation you’ve created with that town. As the game progresses, you’re free to tie in more and more elements that allude to the world beyond the town and introduce other elements of the world as the players journey out more and more and discover more of the world. Even if the players decide to leave the town right away, you can have them go a few hours out of the town, have an adventure, and then discover that the town was attacked and ransacked while they were gone. Even if the players aren’t in the town or if they really aren’t that fond of the town the events of your campaign can draw them to the town and perhaps their efforts aren’t so much about the town but about discovering who destroyed it and preventing the same from happening to any other towns.

The opposite can be just as easily accomplished if you start with a nation or continent scaled campaign, and perhaps your players are nobles, generals, or other major players in the larger scale world but as they go about their days they start to become drawn into certain specific elements of the nation and you literally build the world in reverse. The nobles and generals are concerned with the overall direction of their nation, but a bordering kingdom’s ruler becomes an adversary and you introduce the neighboring nation into the mix. As the adventures/campaign progresses you can have specific regions come into focus, perhaps the regions from each nation that are along the contested border, and then focusing even closer one or two specific towns become crucial to the plans of both nations. I suggest trying one approach, and if certain elements don’t work your particular DMing style and players may be better suited for the other, and then you can fine tune precisely where in the middle area you are best at creating a world and run a campaign that makes the best use of your abilities.

Between the Train Yard and the Beach

This approach really can’t be classified as either a Sandbox campaign or as a Railroading campaign. That’s because I don’t really believe in running a game in one of these styles to the exclusion of the other. Instead I think that the concept of a Sandbox game and the concept of Railroading are tools that every DM can and should use, and that knowing how and when to use them is what makes you a better DM. I’ve written before about how to use the often negative idea of Railroading to good effect in my post Railroading in a Good Way, but I haven’t really addressed how to run or plan a Sandbox game because there are already tons of words written about this topic and I think for the most part they are great and cover a lot of things that I don’t need to cover again.

All of this has come from my most recent campaign, where I adapted the partial continent locations of my previous D&D campaigns and developed a roughly planned out continent, but then I focused in on a specific town and began my campaign there. As I alluded to above my party didn’t attach to the starting town as much as I’d hoped they would, but the very unexpected happened when they cleared an abandoned and haunted castle in one of the earliest adventures and my wife decided to spend all of her character’s gold to repair the castle and make it her own (after asking the resident spirits if she could). The castle, just outside of the initial town I’d planned, became a makeshift home base for the players and ended up being just as important a location as the town itself.

From that foundation, as the campaign moved into the paragon tier, I’ve adjusted the scope of the game by integrating and developing the various nations of the continent into the major factions of the campaign. As plots progressed, the players were given a decision between several of the nations and their choices indicated which nation became the spotlight for a few adventures and as a result the aspects of that nation were explored in more detail and several towns in those nations were highlighted. In essence what I tried to do was start at a smaller scale and build that up over the heroic tier, with various hints and allusions to the larger nations (including player origins being from different regions/nations) until the paragon tier where I inverted it and started larger scale and progressed to the smaller scale details as the campaign has continued. I’d like to think I’ve been largely successful with these efforts, though there were aspects of every part that could have gone better or progressed differently, I believe the players have enjoyed it and even if they didn’t realize exactly how the scale was changing I think it set an underlying tone for the campaign as its progressed.

Is He Seriously Talking About His Campaign? Help!

As with most of my Architect DM posts, the end result here is much different from what I originally intended to write. Next week I will continue with my World Building posts, but instead of talking about generalities and how to approach world building I will apply my education and experiences in urban design, architecture, and even sociology to specifics of how you can design a world. Other topics that go along with this are how to determine the literal scale that your world should be, such as how often towns occur naturally along roads or how big a town would really be with the population that’s listed in your favorite module.


  1. I’m always conflicted about how much to rely on real world cultures when building up cultures when building worlds. Even the professionals seem to rely quite a bit by lifting cultures wholesale (including dress, building style, language style if not exact language, politics, religion, etc). Kara-Tur and al-Qadim are obvious examples.

    On the one hand, culture building can be a lot of work and it’s much, much less work to say ‘well, they’re like Vikings’ than it is to create all of those elements. On the other hand, you end up reducing a lot of the mystery and majesty of the world if you’re just reshuffling earth cultures onto new terrain.

  2. I actually don’t mind using real world cultures. That is one of the reasons I enjoy playing in the Mystara setting so much, as it is based on historical cultures reshuffled into new patterns. It makes it a lot easier for the players to become familiar with the cultures in the setting, and we can focus more on the interaction between various cultures and ethnic groups. Furthermore it does not seem to reduce the exploration, that we do, for even if you can recognize the culture, there is still many elements to explore.

    I’ve argued for the use of historical cultures here:
    and for using festivals likewise:

  3. Thanks for the article, Danny. I use the same method you describe – large and small scale. It works like a charm (though I have to admit I’m one of the obsessive DMs that spends hours and hours thinking up city names so my map can look complete). But painting in the details with player contribution is almost necessary to get you thinking freshly. I love to see the stuff they come up with and trying to work in into what I’ve already designed. That’s cooperative storytelling.

    One of the most enjoyable parts of worldbuilding for me is the fusion of the familiar with the unfamiliar. You can do a historical campaign setting if that’s what you want (it can be a lot of fun), but it’s also enthralling to create something more original by picking two cultures and trying to fuse them. This is done a lot more in popular entertainment than we realize. The movie Braveheart essentially transplants Scottish culture from 200 years earlier into 13th century Scotland. It has an interesting effect in that it emphasizes their poverty by using clothing and technology from a more primitive period.

    In D&D, we’re constantly fusing modern forms of thinking with medieval ones. Eberron and Forgotten Realms both feature characters and nations with a worldview that is very enlightened and culturally aware compared to the way people actually thought in medieval Europe. There’s nothing wrong with that – they’re fusing the familiar with the unfamiliar so we can relate better.

    One thing I’m currently working on is the fusion of eastern and western cultures into unique ones to feature in my homebrew setting. I have one culture that’s an interesting blend of ancient Israeli and Egyptian cultures (which oddly enough were historically very related as a result of the captivity) with an Italian Renaissance style. People wear linen pirate shirts with leather doublets, but also culturally wear a tabard-like robe over it instead of a coat. As I’m thinking about it, it’s kind of like Assassin’s Creed meets Assassin’s Creed 2.

    Anyway, I think there’s so much potential for new connections and new ways to approach worldbuilding that we’ll never get tired of it. We just can’t be afraid to pair things that may not seem like obvious matches, and we can’t be afraid to take the time to be creative.

  4. I like to draw from real world cultures, but mix them up a bit, kind of like DarkPlane. In one of my worlds, I had a culture that mixed ancient India and Rome, creating a vast empire with well-organized armies, its own pantheon, and a strict caste system. Another area had half a dozen or so heavily fortified cities with high levels of civilization reminiscent of Alexandria at its best, surrounded by lands ruled by a constantly changing cast of warlords and tribal chieftains (much of Africa much of the time). You get the best of both worlds, the similarities allow players to get a “hook” into the culture right away without just having direct lifts that are TOO obvious.

  5. Sidereal, Morten Greis, DarkPlane, Tim: Borrowing and mixing from existing cultures is probably the best way go, it’s a nice shortcut and even if you tried to develop a 100% unique culture I’d be willing to bet that in the end it would resemble one or two specific real cultures more than others anyway – and you put a lot more effort into it at the beginning than if you’d just started with those two as a basis. Keep in mind that when you’re creating and developing these cultures, it can pretty evenly match the approaches I suggest in the post – if you’re starting large scale then don’t worry about the nitty-gritty details of the culture to start off, but focus on the overall attitude of the people and the interests, taboos, and other defining elements that make up that culture. The smaller and more intricate details can develop with the campaign at the same rate that the world itself does, and vice versa if you’re starting with a smaller scale.

    DarkPlane: To me one of the big reasons we see cultures presented in D&D and other fantasy settings that have more modern forms of thinking is because of things like Magic, which completely changes the way cultures would have developed.

  6. Great article. One interesting consequence of 4E’s tier system might be that you can use it to structure you setting design. Focus on your city/kingdom/region when launching your campaign, then begin fleshing out some details about the rest of the world late in the heroic tier, so that it takes solid form by the time your heroes are into paragon tier and doing more world-spanning stuff. As they progress toward epic tier, you’re starting to think about the whole world or larger cosmology.

    The players are always playing in a fleshed-out environment, but the DM isn’t faced with having to build everything from day one. The tier system sort of guides the scale of thought in a way that helps manage the effort required.

  7. @Bartoneus: Very good point about the magic. Although I’ve always secretly thought that if magic had really existed since the beginning of time, civilizations would have evolved so differently that they would barely resemble any period of our world’s history. I guess it’s all part of the suspension of disbelief.

    I’m very much looking forward to your continuing this series.

  8. Dixon Trimline says:

    I find this world-building approach fascinating, and am delighted at your decision to roll with the party’s improvised home base, the cleared haunted castle. Maybe the player being your wife made it easier 😉 And “Between the Train Yard and the Beach?” Wonderful.

    Now, there seems to be a shame built right into someone discussing his campaign (adventure, character, etc.). I wonder if we can modify this “Don’t talk about your X” restriction to include the phrase “… if it’s boring.” There are a lot of creationary things out there I WANT to hear about, and not just so I can show you mine!

  9. I’ve been enjoying this series. I’m interested to hear about why a town or city might be located where it’s at; for example, why is Chicago a good place for a city, or Houston? How did they come to be there. As to the small vs. large scale approach, it’s easier, in my mind, to do small scale and assume the characters haven’t ventured far from the town in their lives. That lets the players and characters discover the world at the same time. It also saves the DM a lot of work, as noted. I try to have vague ideas about other locations players might go to as well though, and try to come up with encounters on the fly a bit. Some people aren’t comfortable with that.

  10. I’m with Brian. Figuring out why a city is there to begin with (as a DM) helps me to understand its purpose and possible the feel the of the town.

    Looking forward to more.

  11. This is indeed a fabulous article.. I find that often ones imagination is hampered by rulesets… which is why I, more often than not, turn to GURPS, as it allows me the flexibility to modify the system as heavily as I need and still end up with (fairly) balanced characters


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