The Architect DM: World Building By Process

If you think about the world around us and how it came to be the way it is, most things you’ll look at are the result of a process. Villages were created out of a need for shelter and then grew into towns and some eventually grew into cities, while natural formations like mountain ranges rise and fall due to the workings of plate tectonics. When we set out to create a world for an RPG, or even for videogames and fiction, we are attempting to create a world that is the result of a process that has never actually happened. Some worlds can certainly have mountains that don’t line up along a range and aren’t even created by plates of earth shifting and colliding, but my personal belief is that if you are creating a world the best foundation you can use is that of the real world that we see all around us.

Everyone that is going to experience the world your creating has a fundamental understanding of how our world works, the result of which is that any differences that appear in the world you create are going to stand out. This means, to me, that the things that are different about your game world should be important and serve a very definitive purpose in your game or the stories that you’re hoping to tell. What is one of the first things you notice about the planet Tatooine from Star Wars that is different from our own? It’s all desert, sure, but our planet has some very large deserts so that’s not totally out there…OH GOD IT HAS TWO SUNS! Not only does this hammer home the point that Luke Skywalker is very far away from our planet Earth, it also looks cool and when you think about it even more it provides a solid explanation for why the planet is much more hot and dry than what we are used to. George Lucas may not have come up with the idea because he wanted Tatooine to be a desert planet, he may have just thought it would be cool and alien to show two suns on a horizon (which it totally is), but the ideas work together and serve to enhance the world and the stories that are told on that world (okay maybe just the first three stories).

Start With What You Know

When designing a fantasy world (or sci-fi, or any fictional world, but I say fantasy for ease of use) my biggest suggestion is to start with what you know about the world we live in. If you’re designing a map then look at a local, regional, continental, or world map and steal things liberally. Take the map and turn it upside down or sideways, trace parts of it and then overlap those with other parts of it, but most of all if you find yourself wondering whether or not something is right try to find a similar case on a real map and if you do you’ll know what you’ve done is feasible and makes sense. Again I will state, this is a fantasy world so not everything has to be feasible or make sense, but as I stated above if it doesn’t make sense there should be an interesting and good explanation as to why it doesn’t. You may not know the explanation at the beginning, but you should be prepared to come up with one or else I guarantee your players will be disappointed in the end.

Designing a fantasy world from scratch can be one of the most daunting tasks, but if you’re undertaking it then clearly the published campaign settings and maps just aren’t working for you or maybe you just feel the insatiable necessity to create something for others to experience. My advice would be to start with a list of objectives that you hope your world will accomplish not just for you as the designer and the DM, but for the players and the games/stories you will produce as you explore the world. If your goals involve political intrigue, travel, and hazardous environments then you might create a world with a series of islands and nations or you can at least know that you will need a series of nations and a wide range of terrain and environments throughout the world. Once you have your list set out, boil each item down to a handful of crucial elements your world will need in order to accomplish that item – politics require nations that interact with each other, travel requires a larger scale map, personal relationships / social interaction requires a lot of NPCs (and maybe that means a large city as a focus). If you follow this process, hopefully you can come up with a world that isn’t just something random but a world that is a solid framework on which you can build and develop that not only supports but enhances the things you and your players like in their RPGs.

Some Nitty Gritty Details

Everything above has skewed towards more general concepts, but now I’d like to get into some very specific and refined ideas. I would be willing to bet that the majority of our D&D games involve a series of medieval style towns and cities strung together by roads. Your roads might be made of gold or clouds or the bodies of thousands of kobolds, but in principle this should all still help you out. Villages, towns, and cities develop for very specific reasons and these are not all that hard to recreate or to flat out fake when it comes to creating your world. Towns usually spring up around important areas or features, such as a source of water in a dry climate or an area rich in natural resources (food, wood, stone, etc). Now you might be questioning this because you can probably list a hundred or more towns you know of that don’t fit this criteria, especially if you’re in the US like I am.

Let’s take a closer look at the Eastern United States right around where I live, in fact let’s look at the town I live in right now which is one of the older towns in the US and though it is close to water and other natural resources there is one very definitive fact that has contributed to the continued existence of the city in which I live. That fact is that it is almost exactly 40 miles from both Washington DC and Baltimore (both of which are port cities). 40 miles is roughly the distance that a horse and cart covers in a day trip (from sunrise to sunset). That’s right, my city exists for the simple and logical fact that people didn’t want to sleep out in the woods on their first night out from the coastal cities. If you look at a map of the US, particularly the East Coast, you will notice there is a town or city every 40 miles along the major roadways. Most people don’t notice this anymore because we can drive that far in under an hour, but in general I believe our D&D games will skew a lot more towards how things were in Europe and colonial America than to present day.

Using the Horse Scale

As I discussed in my last article about the basics of world building, one of the most important things to decide when you are designing a world is what scale you’re going to design to. Now we have come to a concept of how to determine that scale while you are designing – think about the most abundant method of travel and set a day trip in that mode of travel as your scale. Start with a single town or city, and then set the next town that measure of distance away in whichever direction you choose. You can create a topography for the land and adjust the roads to match or you can just design roads however you want and then create topography around them, but pretty soon you should have a decently realistic map forming, and that’s when you can start deviating from the formula. Perhaps a specific town was over run by monsters years ago and has since fallen off the map, forcing merchants and travelers to rest outside of a town on that road for a night.

Essentially this method of using a scale to design your world is laying down a fundamental framework which you are then free to tweak and design as you see fit. Really what I’m attempting to do is take the worry of “How do I decide where to put towns?” away from you and hopefully instead let you focus more on those towns in detail and their relations to the overall world. The scale that you determine is a short cut, one based in reason and feasibility within your game world, that can help you speed up the design process and still have an underlying logic behind what you’re creating. I admit the example above skews a bit towards the American style of things, because I’m pulling from what’s immediately around me, but the same concepts and ideas can be applied to a wide range of cultures that can in turn help you design worlds that feel more like whichever era or culture you’re hoping to emulate. I put this example forward also because I believe it meshes well with the root of many of the D&D games we hear about and the fantasy worlds that we enjoy; they focus on the travel between towns and the idea of visiting various taverns and inns as you travel from place to place.

Some Quick Q&A

I tweeted last week asking my followers if they had any questions about world building, and one of those questions (regarding what scale to design worlds at) ended up being the focus of my previous article that in turn led into this article. Now I’d like to take the opportunity to address some of the other, more specific, questions that I received just so those people don’t think I’m ignoring them entirely.

Rob Donoghue (an excellent game designer, if you’re not familiar with his work you should be) asked: How hard is it to build a sewer in an existing town or city?

Building a sewer system, or any underground system, in an existing town can be an extremely difficult task. First and foremost it takes a lot of time, effort, and money/resources. Sewer and drainage are the first things that are completed on any new construction, and that’s should tell you right there how much of a pain it is after the fact. However, there are some factors that can effect this task either making it easier or harder. The amount of sewer that is needed is certainly an important factor, but also whether or not the area is inhabited or used regularly can be another factor. If the city/town can relocate people for a period of time or shut down a portion of the town then that helps because it is really a necessary part of installing something new underground. I know for a fact Rob is probably familiar with Tysons Corner (outside of DC) where they are extending the DC Metro system through a heavily occupied area – this effort has been years and years in the making, will still take many more years to complete, is extremely expensive, and I have no doubt that the construction is a huge inconvenience to anyone trying to do anything in that area while it is ongoing. The short answer is – VERY hard. The result of this answer is that some steps or precautions can be undertaken to mitigate how difficult it would be. In a fantasy setting, perhaps you can have large parts of town evacuated and closed down while they attempt to upgrade their infrastructure or their efforts can be immensely helped by the proper application of dwarf or gnome technology in the form of some kind of medieval tunneling device.

B Lynn asked: “How viable is it to have a tree top society?”

I’ll start this out with the short answer this time: extremely viable. Assuming you can deal with a handful of the major concerns that would come with a tree top society, you can easily create very intriguing and believable cultures that flourish with this kind of development. One of the best examples is the tree city of Lothlorien in the Lord of the Rings books/movies, where all of the elfish construction focuses around trees and is designed and decorated with woodland themes and motifs. If you’re attempting to design a viable tree top society, as I mentioned earlier I would start with a list of the major concerns you have about it not being viable, such as how they deal with the height – guard rails, more enclosed rooms or no low windows, using stairs/ladders/magic elevators. As with any society, as long as you can solve the populace’s basic needs then it should be viable, which usually means providing shelter, food/water, and resources. Obviously in a forest you have plenty of wood to work with, and most likely abundant natural life to live off of, and trees usually provide very nice shelter so I’d say you’d actually have to stretch pretty fare to make a tree top society seem not viable!

If you have questions specifically about world building or design that you’d like answered please feel free to share them in the comments here, tag me on twitter with them, or e-mail them to me at the e-mail below this post and I’ll try to answer as many as I can!

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.


  1. Just a few fun facts. The distance of 40 miles is an interesting observation, but it also makes America so strangely different, since it is post-medieval in its development.

    When I look a my home country, I see different developments tied into both geography, technology and government. For instance instead of a town at every 40 miles, you find a in the 16th century a roadside inn (and usually a village does not have an inn, you would instead reside in a farmers private home).
    Where the soil is bountiful, you discover late medieval and early modern villages lying a just a few kilometers off each other, often about 3-5 kilometers, since the fields of the next village more or less begins where the first village ends. Some villages however are manorial villages and are placed in the relation to the local lords abode.
    In late 18th and early 19th century the rights of farmers were changed, and instead of community-based farming, it became individual and the villages were split up into individual farms.
    Moving back into the past to about the years 700-1000, we discover villages placed out of sight from the coast. Their placement might have been better suited nearer to the coast, but to stay out of sight, they were placed further in land. We also in this period have wandering villages, which means that once every few decades, the villages would move their village a few kilometers, since the soil were spent at the present place, but bountiful in other places. Other villages were simply moved, when a ruler wanted to consolidate his power or build up a new town.
    And in areas, where the soil is sparse, the the distances between the villages grow rapidly, and more individual farms appear.
    Modern maps contains the sum of more than thousand years of different technologies (for farming), governmental choices (manorial systems, independent farms, community farming etc.), development of the land (for instance irrigation), when looking at where the roads run, towns and villages are placed.
    In order to become a town it was necessary not just to be placed at an opportune place for traders – especially their ships – you also needed the privileges to become a town, which were granted by royal degree. Many towns don’t have any special resources in their vicinity except for a harbor.

  2. Morten Greis: That’s perfect! You’ve pretty well covered what I planned to talk about in a future article as a way to do the same process with a more authentic medieval/non-colonial approach, so thank you!

  3. Thanks 🙂
    I hope I don’t spoiled your plans for the future article then. Since the medieval approach is my main interest I am looking forward to your coming article.

  4. Nope, just means I can reference your comment and then develop the article further or in a slightly different direction then I was going to before.

  5. Cool. I am glad to hear that.

  6. May I suggest a couple of ideas for related articles, based on campaigns I have recently played in?

    1. If a large region has been completed depopulated (or very nearly so), and is only now being resettled, what might the settlement pattern look like? Would it tend to duplicate the earlier pattern of settlement? Would it be strictly directional, i.e. spreading from the source of the settlers? Would it attract mostly looters or would a standard mix of settlers be likely? What economic activities would dominate in the earliest stages?

    2. Same question as #1, but assume that the region was not only depopulated but also effectively sterilized, and that the resettlement begins at a time when plant and animal life is just beginning to return to the region.

    I have my own ideas, but would really like to hear yours and those of your readers. Thanks.

  7. Michelle: I will definitely address those questions in one of my upcoming posts, thanks for asking!

  8. Wow, this article goes great with my last article, which took a look at worldbuilding from a planetary perspective. Kind of like your George Lucas reference, I talk about how a planet’s astronomic position, etc, can affect everything about your game world. Probably not as thorough as your article, but then, I’m not an astronomer!

  9. I just wanted to mention the biggest concern with something like the treetop living, and that is ‘why do they bother?’ I think that anytime you have something that departs from the established human norm — ground living, constructed homes out of locally abundant materials — you need a good reason why that has happened.

    Now, maybe you as a GM have a great idea for Something Cool that departs from those norms. Now is the time to do a little backwards engineering and figure out what it is that drove the Elves to the tops of the trees, or whatever. Perhaps it is a threat — a burrowing animal, or a magical curse on the ground, or a ground-bound predator that walls don’t stop but climbing trees does. Or maybe an opportunity — say, the trees in this forest are easily molded by Elvish treecrafters during their first year of growth, so shaping new rooms and houses is merely a matter of letting the trees go.

    This is often something not well-addressed with Dwarfs in common fantasy settings. Even for master stonecrafters, carving tunnels out of rock is a lot of hard work, so why do they bother? Come up with your own answer and you’ll have your own fresh take on Dwarven society.

  10. This article got me to go back and revise my horse travel times for my homebrew RPG.

    That is pretty cool.

    What do you think of magic fiat for explaining how the ice temple is only one border crossing away from the desert temple, and things like that? Is it acceptable so long as the explanation is sufficiently interesting, or would it damage the player’s ability to use their real-world knowledge in a game, and be avoided?

  11. Wyatt: it really depends on how you pull it off, there are certainly quite a few bordering regions in our world that have pretty disparate climates, but perhaps the border between them is a bit more extreme/limiting and harder to cross than other borders. The added effort of crossing it should fit with the shock of “holy crap we just went from a desert to a frozen tundra”. The other way to approach it could be something like the Sahara desert where it’s very hot during the day and cold at night, maybe the Ice temple slowly melts every day and re-freezes at night, but the magic allows it to melt slower. Then again that doesn’t sound like the best place for an ice temple, and wouldn’t really feel very thematic, but maybe you can work something out with it!

  12. Great article. Your world building tips are great. I am building a setting right now and this post is going to become reference material for sure.

  13. Some great observations – I hadn’t thought about public construction as it affects accessibility within the city. Very interesting. I think that could be a whole adventure in and of itself. Here are a couple of things I’d like to see treated:

    -How does changing the order and speed of technological development in a fantasy world affect things? How would you represent changing the flow of invention to create a unique blend of time periods? What if, for example, the invention of the printing press happened before the invention of the castle, or something else that wasn’t directly connected? Presumably, you could have a culture that had printed books, but no need for or understanding of castles. Little unexpected connections like that could create an interesting and unique environment. After all, our technological progression is somewhat serendipitous, dependent on individual thinkers. Your thoughts?

    -How do you go about molding common social thought and philosophy within a unique culture? Any tips in that regard?

  14. I know that many on this site are not familiar with the following RPG, but Chivalry and Sorcery was developed in the mid 1970. What you suggest here, is the way some of us old timers have been running games for the last 3 decades. Not that we don’t enjoy fantasy elements, but a large part of my world in the characters living within the restrictions that a real world would place on them.

    As a person that regularly rides horseback for 4-6 hours at a time (nearly weekly), I am very much aware of how much time it takes to cover 25 miles in the saddle (plus the time to care for the horse.) I also walk about 5 miles a day.

    I tried to like D&D 4e, but when a third level character wiped out 3 minions and 2 baddies in a single sword stroke, well let’s say I can suspend belief in reality for magic or a dragon, but I just couldn’t buy that such an action could possibly occur.

  15. Nice off-topic trolling aside there Don. I think if you really tried to hone your craft you could be just a bit more condescending there, I’m sure you can do it.

  16. Fantastic combat in MY fantasy role-playing game? It’s more likely than you think!

  17. What about the effect of easily navigable rivers? For example, comparing settlements in South Carolina or Virginia to ones in North Carolina. Going upstream, from the coast, in North Carolina you quickly run into short falls that require portage or changing to overland travel; but in South Carolina or Virginia you can get much farther inland before you run into the same problem.

    Also, looking at the costs of supplies and staples. What is the community able to provide for itself and what does it need to import? Remember that if all travel is overland, by more than a day, then costs rise dramatically. That leads to smaller, more self-sufficient communities.

    For another example, look at what is known of the Mississippian, aka Cahokian, civilization. Their settlements were all along rivers with few going more than a day’s walk inland.


  1. […] post comes as a response to a comment by Michelle on my last post, World Building by Process, in which she asked what an area that has been depopulated and then resettled might look like. At […]

  2. […] topic first came onto my radar for this series thanks to a comment on my World Building By Process post by DarkPlane DM asking: -How does changing the order and speed of technological development in a […]