The Architect DM: Creating Histories – Part 1

World building can be one of the most intimidating tasks for DMs and GMs when it comes to running their own RPG campaign. No matter how much advice you read or receive from your friends, creating a world of your own or modifying someone else’s world can still feel incredibly daunting even for people who are experienced at running their own games.

In my last solicitation for questions and suggestions to discuss in this series on twitter, clampclontoller said this, “In my homebrew, creating histories in specific territories is a challenge – particularly linking them to the whole world.” Since this is an issue that I’ve struggled with many times myself, it feels like a good topic worth exploring here!

It Gets Easier with Time

The first thing I would like to mention with regards to developing a history for your game world is that it gets easier. There are two sides to this statement, the first is that you will inevitably get better at developing history as you plan and run your game and learn what your regular players react to or ignore out of the history that you created. The second, and for me it was quite mind blowing when I first realized it, is that as you run and play in your game world you and the players are creating the history. The more you play, the more past there is to explore moving forward in the game.

For me this happened entirely by accident. I ran my first two D&D campaigns in college and while they took place in entirely separate areas with different stories and characters, in the back of my mind I had placed both games on the same campaign map but separated by a large sea. As the second game progressed, a handful of similar elements began to creep into the game that the same players never even noticed that tied both games together. Fast forward to six years later when Dave and I began planning our 4th Edition D&D campaigns where we discussed Dave’s dislike for large scale world building and I offered up my college game world for him and I to both run in. Dave took the game world shortly after where I’d left it off and developed it as he saw fit, and I took my game world hundreds of years in the future (after Dave’s as yet unplayed campaign, using a mysterious gap in history to account for it) and ran with it.

Our joint campaigns was essentially an experiment, though we didn’t really view it that way, because we took an idea that we (and I imagine most DMs) have always talked about doing and decided to actually do it. The end result of this experiment was nothing incredibly amazing, but it has been quite fun and the end result is that Dave had a basis for a good game that he is nearly finished running and I now have a much more fleshed out game world than I did beforehand. Dave’s campaign has effectively created the history of my campaign, and without a doubt in the future I will be running more D&D games that build on the history that both of us have built together with all of our players (over 15 total players combined).

Share the Load: An Experiment

I’ve deviated a bit from the original suggestion, so let’s get back to the idea of developing histories for specific regions and linking them to the larger world. First, I’d like to suggest an experiment for some truly adventurous DM out there: Create a region in your game world, give it a name and a location on the map, but then let one or more players whose characters are from that region (or who have strong ties to that region) develop the details and history of that region. To some DMs and players, especially of non-D&D RPGs, this may not be a crazy or abnormal idea at all, but for others I know for a fact it can be something completely new and interesting. Much like world building in general, this might seem like an extremely intimidating or even reckless idea (depending on the players). However, let me explain a bit more and see what you think afterward.

Imagine you are starting a campaign and you’ve created a region in the mountains called Kaz Dwarfington. One of your players decides they would like to play a dwarf, and together you decide that the character will be from this region. Let your player develop their character’s history however they want, and then as the DM you can go in and pull out important elements of their history and tie them to parts of the region or even to the entire region. Let’s say the player in question decides to play their dwarf in a very specific or eccentric way, perhaps with some odd habits or constant references to strange customs.

All of these elements are ripe to be used as larger elements that help define the region of Kaz Dwarfington in your game. As the game progresses, throw some other dwarves from the region in and let the players make things up and interact with them and further build the history of that region through play. At first glance this concept feels like a strange mix of DMing and Roleplaying, and might feel to some DMs like giving away too much control of your game world, but this entire process is really the same as what they players are doing as they play your game. The key difference here is that the player’s are allowed to influence things beyond the immediate time and presence of their characters, but as the DM it can be important to grasp how much the players are involved in the game and allow it to effect larger elements than you may be used to. At the basic level, this is a very big picture application of the “just go with it” and “say yes” DM attitudes. The great part is your players may not even realize that they’re helping you build your game world until a while after the fact.

Linking Ideas to the “Whole World”

The great thing about running an RPG for a group of players is that no matter what your concept of the whole world is the general idea can always be tied back to what your players have experienced. The above ideas I’ve discussed for developing history as you play the game and letting your players help out in the process is tied to the concept that the players experiencing these histories is what ties it to the known world for them. You can spend hours of effort and tons of brilliant ideas on a continent that the players never visit or see any element of and it doesn’t matter how much you feel it is tied into the world at large, the players aren’t experiencing it and until they do it might as well not exist in your game world.

Players experience the game world primarily through character interactions, and secondarily through narration. If they have been adventuring for months with a dwarf from Kaz Dwarfington that has a surly attitude and knows how to navigate rocky terrain, then you can be sure that the entire party is going to have a strong connection to the region of Kaz Dwarfington and can probably pick out an NPC from that region with ease. These are fairly generic examples, but the basic idea can be applied to a nearly limitless variety of ideas. Characters from island regions can smell strongly of saltwater and feel more comfortable on ships and in water than on dry land. Characters from the Underdark can be uncomfortable in lots of sunlight and fresh air. Whatever the key points you decide on, all of these elements will help the players get a better idea of specific regions in their heads and help solidify a form of history for those regions in their minds.

Enough with Your Fancy Shmancy “Concepts”

I’ve labeled this post “Part 1” because I realized about half way through that I am barely even touching upon the original comment asking for help developing histories for territories and linking them to the larger world. Most of what I included in this post is conceptual and probably more ethereal when it comes to world building rather than solid advice on how to go about it, so in the next few weeks I will be writing as many posts as I feel are needed to get to some more rock solid advice on the topic. In the meantime please comment here and let me know what you think of the ideas I’ve brought up here, and even if you have questions/advice regarding the original topic and help add to the discussion that will build into the next few posts.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.

Comments

  1. Consider using various board & card games in a ‘mash-up’ style of play to help spur creativity when designing a fantasy setting for a D&D game:

    Settlers of Catan is useful for the hex tiles, as is Heroscape landscape system: layout tiles and create original fractal geo-morphs that can also serve as a D&D campaign map

    Magic cards can help flesh-out the metaphysical history of sites in your realm: play a Magic game to contest each hex space and keep notes to interpret for a D&D chronology, or even go so far as using a Magic-like process to bring each hex type into existence (hex tiles on the table allow players to draw more cards, gain allies, creatures, artifacts, etc…)

    A tarot card set can enhance plot development for PCs & NPCs alike: look at creating epic PC destinies & campaign plot directions: goals that are based off of setting challenges related to story plot not game rules supplements. Good sets include the Druid Tree Oracle and the Celt Animals set, in addition to classic tarot (virtually any set of cards in useful for meta-game mash-ups, even ‘simple’ sets like UNO can be fun if used in play)

    Taken all together, you can roll-up a world using various games as a template, like the old video game Warlords 2 (a classic); oddly enough, simple systems can yield complex nuanced settings. Think stuff through and always ’round-up’ 😉

  2. I agree with the idea that allowing players more freedom to define pieces of your world is mutually beneficial. I have occasional trust issues with creative projects, but I allowed three of my players to really take a strong hand in developing parts of the world that I hadn’t gotten to yet. One halfling character is from a tribal society that lives in a volcanic desert. The player has done a lot for me to get the ball rolling and to better understand what the halflings in my campaign setting are like.

    Another of my players designed a huge temple complex for her paladin’s deity, including all the various NPCs that live there. It worked out well, because I didn’t have the time to do all that myself. Relinquishing creative dominance shows our players we trust them, and takes a load off our own shoulders.

    As far as developing history goes, my process has taken a course something like this 1) develop a central creation myth and the chief dieties, 2) write, write, write to explore possible legends from a prehistoric “heroic” period that will set up future civilizations and racial relationships, 3) define several distinct historical periods (including a “golden age” for many of the races), 4) slowly flesh out the details of each historical period with a paragraph or two about what happened in each major region, or with each race. That should give you a solid month’s worth of writing at the least.

    In my opinion the details can only help. Even if your players don’t visit that far away continent that you’ve designed, I really think its existence in your mind contributes to the shape and direction of events in their current location. I’ve been slaving away at my campaign setting for years and years. It’s only gotten better with time and specificity. As I turn general concepts into detailed ones, they reveal more areas for potential development. It never ends!

  3. At the risk of taking too much space in the comments section, I have another point. I’ve found that combining ideas is very beneficial. Pooling multiple projects together that were originally supposed to be separate introduces new levels of complexity to a setting and history. At some point in the last year I decided to combine three campaign settings I was working on together, and it worked wonders for the resulting super-setting. Characters I had never thought would meet began to develop relationships with one another. I also combined a few iconic characters from each setting, and changed around race in several instances, but all of this gave my setting three times the creativity per square inch. I’d suggest it to anyone who has had trouble finishing multiple projects. Combine them.

  4. Gargs454 says:

    I love the idea about using your prior campaigns to build history. After all, if the PCs get to an even remotely high level, they are almost certainly going to start affecting the course of events. Sadly, in my current campaign I decided to run it in the same world as my 3.5 game, only about a thousand years in the past. I did this mainly because the 3.5 game was put on hiatus when one of the players moved to France for a year and I was still holding out hope that the game would resume at some point. I didn’t want to write in the history of that campaign before it had actually ended.

    As for getting your players to help you with the history, I love it! Unfortunately, most of my players are not so interested. When they do contribute though its great because it saves so much work for you while also appealing to the player in question.

  5. Spiralbound says:

    I too can vouch for the effectiveness of allowing prior campaigns to shape your campaign’s history. I’m currently on campaign five in my homebrew setting, a world that is now almost 10 years old in real world time and the campaigns combined span over 100 years in game time. The events of the previous campaigns greatly influence future events, allowing the past, present and future of the setting to grow as a cohesive whole. As I’ve deliberately built each campaign with the influences of the previous ones in mind, the setting becomes richer with each game.

    Another technique I’ve used is to allow PCs that retire from adventuring to reappear as prominent NPCs in future campaigns. (where appropriate of course, I don’t advocate unrealistic cameos for their own sake) The players enjoy seeing this happen, taking great delight in interacting with their or their friend’s older character’s as NPCs. I also take care to “evolve” the characters’ in accordance with what would likely occur to them so that they are the same as before, but also affected by the passage of time and new circumstances.

  6. Shilling says:

    I love this type of thing. I’ve used the ‘player input’ thing and it works great – although I often suggest tweaks to make things fit the tone of the world better.

    For example, one of my players wrote a backstory for his PC about him being a retired arena fighter/gladiator type – including a whole potion misuse scandal that got him banned! What was I to do, this was totally against the grain of my voyages of Sinbad-style nautical setting?

    In the end this kind of tangent works out great. The arena became an Ancient Greece-type Olympics event that massively influenced the culture and history of the main island – it was in honour of the island’s god, so their religion got some fleshing out, and in my world it even became the origin of the very word “arena” – this was the name of the naturally conical valley after which all other arenas are named.

    It’s this knock-on domino effect that makes writing worlds so rewarding.

    One variation on this I’ve tried to ask players what rumours they have heard whilst in the tavern between play sessions. If they come up with something great I can put a twist on it and use it. If not -well it was only a rumour so probably not true.

    Finally one other method I’ve begun to use is what I think of as the RPG equivalent of “show, don’t tell”. If I have some detail of my world, some aspect of a culture or an event in history that I think is really cool, how do I show it to the players? Now the tabletop RPG mediums method of ‘showing’ is the quest. So I try and write the detail into a quest. (or situation, as I prefer).

    Lets say the dwarfs of Kaz Dwarfington all have red beards due to some ancient curse that is very important. Don’t just say “Kaz Dwarfington dwarfs all have red beards”. Make the players find and use the information themselves. Give them a goal that requires them to disguise one of their number as one of said red dwarfs. To pull it off they are going to need to find out what the dwarfs look like and fashion a red beard for themselves. Like you say, history is only important in a game if it gets used in the present.

  7. chad: Using things like Magic: The Gathering cards and Tarot cards to flesh out a game world and history is a great idea, and something I hadn’t really considered before. Thanks for sharing!

    DarkplaneDM: the trust issues are a very hard thing to get beyond, but in my experience 90% of the time it works out for the better when you can let go a bit as a DM. The far off continent example was mostly just to make sure that as a GM you keep in mind that what you’re coming up with needs to be included in the game, it sucks to spend a lot of time on something and then it barely comes into play or isn’t experienced at all. Your second suggestion for combining things is a great one – often combining to separate ideas can give us some new creativity or unforeseen ideas!

    Gargs: From my experience, some players that appear uninterested are actually just operating under the assumptions and experiences that they CAN’T contribute. Some DMs run in very much that style, the players have their role and the DM has a different role and when it comes to history and worldbuilding that is firmly off limits to the players. You’d be surprised how some players change when they start to realize (or play other RPGs) where they have more of a say in the history of the world – in the end it can even lead to them becoming DMs themselves.

    Spiralbound: that’s exactly what I was hoping to hear from some people, proof of the ideas in action. Thanks! Evolving and changing NPCs (and former-PCs) as a DM I was surprised to find is one of the things that I enjoy the most about running games.

    Shilling: That’s perfect! The rumors idea is great as well. The ‘show, don’t tell’ concept is also a great addition to the idea and something I feel like I’m harping on almost too much in my Architect DM posts.

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