The Architect DM: Progress in Your Game World

Have you ever noticed that in most published tabletop RPG material the towns, cities, and overall civilization are kind of stagnant? Now have you ever driven down a street or been to a building campus and wondered when they would STOP doing construction on it? Our real life towns, cities, and overall civilization are very rarely in a state of stillness. When do these people build their cottages, repair their castles, and dig their mines? What I’m talking about today is introducing an element to your D&D games and RPGs that is very near and dear to the general topics I discuss in this column: Construction!

I’m sure that some time in the games I’ve run I have introduced a town beseiged by monstrous invasions that still happened to have a perfectly intact castle and city walls. Even in my current campaign I haven’t introduced the element of construction very much, with the towns in relative stillness except when it comes to events that the PCs themselves are involved with. The majority of residents in most D&D settings are most likely farmers, and if there’s one thing that farmers rarely have it’s free time. That’s because they are always working on something around their farms and more often than not it involves building something new or repairing something existing. My encouragement with this post is for you to throw a little bit of progress into your game world!

Pushing the Boundaries

Adding an element of progress into your game world isn’t just some gimmick that I’m proposing for one adventure or one location. In reality it can actually be a great element to really spice up your game and introduce new plot elements that you may not have thought of before. If you’re designing a town or even a whole kingdom for your RPG, why not look at the surrounding areas and decide that the people are expanding in one direction (or all directions, especially for those pesky & ambitious humans)? When borders are pushed conflict will invariably follow, and where there’s conflict there’s instant plot for your game to build from.

You can go with the classic and probably over-used deforestation route, or you can just have the humans expanding their farms and building structures further and further out from the town. As the people push farther into the wilderness, maybe the goblins or other natural residents of the region begin to lash out, and you have an already integrated reason for those goblin encounters you were planning on having to begin with! In this way you don’t necessarily have to create new plot points, but you might be surprised how you can tie expansion and progress into the plots you’ve already developed for your campaign. At its root expansion/colonization is change, and change is the magic stuff that can spawn plot points and build good adventures.

Basic Needs Drive Expansion

The basic needs that our civilizations have are most likely universal among the residents of your fictional RPG world – Food, Shelter, and Clothing. The roots of these basic needs are grounded in survival and comfort. When you look at adding some sort of expansion to your game world but can’t find a good justification for it, the need for one or more of the above factors is going to be your best motivator. Food is pretty self explanatory, but it can manifest in a large variety of ways. The main encouragements for change due to food involve animal migration, climate and locale considerations (good/bad soil, not enough rain), and increasing demand due to population or other factors.

Shelter can also be tied directly to population, where there are more people there’s more need for shelter. If a culture needs to build more shelter, they’re going to need more materials and this can be a huge motivator for people to explore and expand. Climate has a direct impact on shelter, if the area is warm but rainy then you’ll most likely see lighter structures with few walls and lots of windows, but with sturdy roofs. In addition the location itself can determine what kinds of shelter are needed or used, for instance a location with lots of natural caves is going to limit the amount of shelter required but will introduce a whole new set of factors that can come into play for shelter. Finally there’s always the issue that shelter takes up space, and a group of people in need of space are going to set out to find it almost immediately.

Clothing is a need that takes a bit of a back seat to Food and Shelter, but nonetheless it is an important basic need that has to be met for developing cultures. As with Shelter, climate and the location itself have a big impact on the types of clothing that can be easily found or crafted. Similar to both food and shelter, the more people there are the more clothing will be needed, and as with the others a necessity for resources is one of the fastest motivators for a civilization to expand or at least to explore into new areas. When you consider introducing these kinds of elements into your game, think about which stage of expansion the people are in.

Maybe for one game you have the local situation appear as painfully under supported and the people living there are into the process of figuring out where they’re going to expand to. In another game or later in the same game you might present a location to your players where the population has already planned out their expansion and are in a boom of exploring, building, and growing. A local growth spurt can be one of the most exciting elements of a location when properly incorporated into your adventures.

Other Needs Arise through Progress

At this point you might be wondering about all of the other needs that exist for the civilizations in our game worlds. Weapons/Armor, Tools, and Wagons/Carts are all examples of items found regularly in your typical D&D world and they have to come from somewhere. Some of these items are already more than taken care of because the local Blacksmith has become such a trope of fantasy settings that most DMs are going to include one in every town. However, I’d be surprised if the large majority of those blacksmiths are ever portrayed as making simple farm tools or even working with shoeing horses which in reality would be their most common business even in times of war.

For the most part any other type of need that might arise for your populations are going to arise as a result of the basic needs detailed above not being met. If a society has easy access to food, shelter, and clothing they aren’t going to need many other things with the exception of any recreational activities that develop as a result of their well satisfied culture. One of the charms of world building that I really enjoy is following the progression of needs for a populace, and that’s what I’m encouraging all of you to do as well.

The Reason Behind the Action

My belief is that most DMs, especially those that are just starting out, will brainstorm their world and include notes such as “this nation is at war with this nation”, “this town is being invaded by orcs”, or “this town trades ores and weapons to this nation for food”. These are all great elements for your game world, but I am guilty myself of stopping after this step and simply letting those sentences define the actions of the world. If we go through a brainstorming process involving the elements I’ve discussed in this post, perhaps our designs for campaigns could go a bit more like this:

If you’ve decided that a nation is going through a food shortage, due to weather or whatever cause you decide on, then that nation goes into action attempting to find more food. As they expand to meet their needs, they might come into conflict with monstrous creatures or other nations and conflict almost certainly results. The nation is fighting for food, and as such is fighting for survival, but due to the fighting a whole new set of needs arise such as weapons and armor that didn’t exist before. If you prefer a more peaceful development to your world building, than simply use these ideas to determine the types of trade and commerce that have developed between the various locations in your game world. With this kind of development we’ve successfully fleshed out a possible scenario behind any one of the sentences above.

One final distinction that I’d like to make is to remember that when I use the term “conflict” there is a large scope that it can encompass. Just because the first thing that we might think of is all out war doesn’t mean that any two elements in your game world have to get into an all out fight at the slightest provocation. Conflict in the sense of world building simply means that one element is impacting another in a consequential way. The details of that impact are what you as the DM have to flesh out and determine how it fits into the larger scale of your game world.

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  1. Another great post! I admit that I have even used the trope of the town expanding into the forest which angers the local druid, who in turn seeks vengeance on the town. However, although I detailed houses, buildings, etc. having been built outside the town wall on the retreating edge of the forest I never thought to included buildings actually in the process of being constructed. This gives me a great idea for an adventure/encounter taking place in a building under construction. My question though is in a “typical” fantasy world, what kind of “terrain effects” could we expect in a building under construction? Obviously, walls and floors might not be done, there may be significant “pits” or having to walk along beams, but otherwise is there anything else we should consider?

  2. I have never really been a fan of random encounters, and have tended to avoid them. I think now I know a big reason why – I never really stopped to think (or wanted to) about why a random encounter happens, so I just avoided them.

    Now that I know why I avoided them, I think I might go after more of them. Your article inspires several ideas for adventure, so thanks!

  3. I find that as with a lot of worldbuilding elements, looking up comparable real-world scenarios is helpful. Research on the motivations and chain of events that led from 1) European exploration, to 2) American settlement, to 3) native relations, to 4) colonial relations, to 5) New World war, to 6) Revolutionary war, is really informing my development of colonialism in my homebrew campaign. This way I can pick specific reasons why the spread of imperial nations in my world wasn’t the same as in true history. Specificity is the key, which I think is your point.

    Thanks again for keeping this column up. It’s a great muse.


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