The Architect DM: Worldbuilding Diary

For well over a year now I’ve kept an eye on the material that our friend Dennis has been producing over at his blog The Spirits of Eden for his RPG setting, the World of Adel. I’ve talked to him a few times about his worldbuilding and the setting that he’s created, and every time we talk I marvel more and more at what he is creating. Today he has started a series of posts he is calling a Worldbuilding Diary and I was instantly impressed and inspired by it.

If you haven’t seen his blog or read anything about the World of Adel, I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for a setting unlike any of the published settings I’ve seen. It has a very personal feel to it and has Dennis’ fingerprints all over it, but the various elements he has combined and the amount of raw passion that goes into his efforts really make it stand out for me. I remember talking to him over a year ago and being very interested in his dislike of the proliferation of humanoids in standard D&D and his desire for more alien and insect-like allies and adversaries. The world has evolved since then, and to start this post out I’d like to share some of the aspects of it that interest me the most.

The World of Adel

Dennis may comment on here that I’ve gotten it all wrong or that I’m focusing on the wrong things, but here’s why I think you should care about his setting. Dennis has started categorizing the World of Adel as “Sci-Fantasy” and managed to get beyond my initial cringing at any kind of cliche combining of concepts by comparing it to some of the earliest Science Fiction stories that most people would barely put into the category. This sentence alone would hook me into a non-standard fantasy setting to start with:

Adel has many accoutrements of science-fantasy: there are robots you can accidentally wake up that will kill you, high-tech artifacts lying around, and a few people can find and carry around laser guns, often to the alarm of everyone around them.

For many of us this most likely conjures images of a setting like Eberron or something very steampunk that meshes fantasy ideas with the low-end of the science fiction spectrum. However, Dennis goes on subvert these ideas by explaining that much of the setting is still very rural and set in a world that can literally speak to the inhabitants through active spirits. This quote is the next part of his diary that really hooks me in:

They have towns and cities of course, but most of it is still farming villages where people live in simple homes embedded within the wilderness. This is because the Adelians have a tight relationship with their world. Their world has literally erased an entire civilization beforehand. It has a very dangerous defense against the kind of strangulation that its previous inhabitants performed on it. Adelians respect and revere nature, while at the same time, knowing that they have to challenge it in certain spaces to advance.

The concept of a world that was dominated by a previous civilization resonates very well with what I like to see in RPG worlds, as I’ve written about before in using the fall of the Roman empire and its ruins as inspiration in worldbuilding. The idea that a world purposefully destroyed a civilization and has built up its own defenses takes familiar ideas in an unexpected direction that I really enjoy. While I was already quite familiar with the world that Dennis has built, his Worldbuilding Diary post introduced some new aspects of the world and gave me a much better look behind the scenes of his thoughts and processes while developing the material. I hope to see a handful of other Worldbuilding Diary posts pop up so that we can all share some of the things we set out to accomplish when we start our own RPG worlds.

My Worldbuilding Diary: Beginning at the End

Perhaps the most defining element of the worldbuilding process for my current 4th Edition D&D campaign was that my campaign was taking place after Dave’s campaign, which meant that I had to allow for Dave’s campaign to change and evolve my game world before my game had even started. Some of the evolution was predetermined and Dave simply built towards it as his campaign progressed, but many things that came about in his campaign were different or completely new to game world. Even with the changes we had decided on from the beginning the way the changes came about in his game were often quite different from what we had anticipated and I often found I could easily work those differences into my ongoing campaign as they arose.

Let’s think about a very specific example for clarity. My old game world featured a large lake in the center of the map, which I handed to Dave to do with as he pleased. However, we both knew that by the time my campaign started the lake would be drained to become a large gorge or canyon. Dave was perfectly free to keep it as a lake for as long as he liked, even through his whole campaign, or he could have started his campaign out with some drastic event that caused it to be drained. No matter what happened, I could begin my campaign with the empty gorge by showing the players a map and letting them know what it represented because we’d both agreed on it beforehand. The nice thing about RPGs is that the details and history of that gorge are not necessarily important at the beginning of a campaign, and so I could introduce a drastic change in the game world but let the details be worked out in Dave’s campaign and introduce them into my game later on. This was our process for many different aspects of the game world and several important plot points as both of our campaigns progressed, and it was some of the most fun campaign planning I’ve ever done.

The Age of Awakening

I feel like my worldbuilding is a bit disappointing after talking about Dennis’ World of Adel because my game was firmly tied to the concepts of running a high fantasy D&D style game in 4th Edition. With that and the idea of playing the “Points of Light” concept fairly literally through the introduction of a crystal called Etherium that could repel monsters and was used to keep most towns and cities safe I had a good base for both Dave’s and my campaign worlds. On top of that base, I went with the safe assumption that Dave’s campaign would more than likely end with the world in turmoil if not completely in ruins and began planning a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. At some point early on I named my campaign “The Age of Awakening” because I felt it worked with the idea of a world rebuilding but also because the campaign centered around the Chained God as the main adversary, and I really liked the possible contrary interpretations for the title.

The very first events of my campaign involved the introduction of a cult dedicated to the Chained God, and though there have been various adversaries and sidetracked adventures I have tried to keep that cult and the Chained God itself as the main focus of the game. One of the ways I decided to do this may have been too subtle in hindsight, but I tried to hint at the Far Realm as this dangerous space between the various planes of existence that is always trying to force its way into the planes. Several times through the game the party has experienced portals being taken over or almost infected by the Far Realm and witnessed the creatures and monstrosities that pour out of them. However, as I said, I feel like I may have been too subtle as a DM and this one overarching theme has probably been lost by my players over the last three years of playing.

What I Would Change

My campaign isn’t quite finished yet, but I think that if I could go back and change one thing I would get the Player Character’s more integrated into the main events of the plot. I may just be an over critical DM, but I feel like over the course of the campaign most of the characters have simply been going through the events and haven’t really been an integral part of them and haven’t really been changed much by the events. As I move forward and work on my future RPG worlds and campaigns, I am going to try and mix things up more and integrate the characters (forcefully if necessary) into the events as best I can. My prediction as a more experienced DM is that this approach may also result in a higher death rate amongst the characters of the game, so it may just be a different style of play I’m leaning towards as a DM.

If you have thoughts on the World of Adel, my campaign world, advice for me that relates to my worldbuilding diary sharing efforts, or if you write your own worldbuilding diary please share in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Wow, thanks for the mention Bartoneus!

    I definitely wouldn’t say you’re focusing on the wrong things. There’s a lot of different things you can focus on by design – you were brought in by the hints of lost tech, the rare adventurer holstering a laser gun and the cleric looking at it shifty-eyed wondering when it will explode and kill them all; some may see articles like the Seraphim and Furies and go “hey I want to start a campaign about female paladin secret societies!” I like creating spaces for a lot of fundamentally different stories and experiences that still hit on some connected themes of the overall setting.

    I would also add that I like your concept of Etherium within your setting. It reminds me of the Sun-Stones of Dinotopia (and gives me much the same idea as in that mini-series – the stones get sabotaged or damaged and danger looms) and it’s something I never considered myself when thinking about Points of Light type settings. It’s a good way to have your cake and eat it too in regards to having civilization survive while maintaining a “world in siege” kind of setting. Particularly if the stones are fixed to a certain point, and you have to “make life work” in that fixed position (it has to suck if you’re living in the place where the Stone’s range doesn’t cover a nearby water source).

  2. Great post. I think both worlds sound really interesting. Would love to play in either.

    I wanted to comment on your last thoughts. When you mentioned having the PCs changed by the events of the campaign, I thought immediately of some tricks I’ve used to do just that. In some cases I’ve planned life-changing events with the foreknowledge of the players, but sometimes I surprise them. They seem to react well to both methods, as long as I give them the option to fix or tweak the effect.

    I use a modified critical hit table (like the second edition ones, but simplified) that has created some fantastic character-changing moments. When PCs lose a limb, it tends to affect them. When they lose an arm, and they’re a two-sword ranger, it changes their life. After a couple sessions of missing his former glory, the ranger got a magical arm replacement, a crystal one with some awesome powers. Now he hides it under longs sleeves and gloves, but it’s definitely redefined his character. And he appreciates all of his two-sword powers much more.

    Alternatively, we had a guest DM that gave the PCs each a magical tattoo as part of his adventure. The players were told that the tattoo appeared in a specific location, and it was permanent. None of them took very well to that. A female player was frustrated that she now had an unwanted tattoo across her cleavage.

    My point is that they were mad about it because they had no opportunity to own it, to tweak it in a way that would suit them. The next week I put a retcon in place that made the tattoos appear only when they used the associated power, and I told them they could put it wherever they wanted. This made them happy again.

    We’ve also used in-character email conversations to bolster character development, to introduce NPCs, to develop world details in a more writerly fashion, and to give them something to do during the week or two that we aren’t playing. It’s made a huge difference. Everyone now has really strongly developed character relationships and opportunities to change and grow in new directions. It’s so effective.

    I’ve become an absolute believer that permanent and interesting changes to the PCs over a series of adventures are the bread and butter of a campaign. You just have to allow the PCs some creative control, or a way out of effects they don’t like. Just like any story, the characters are the most essential element. If your characters experience a strong arc, the story will be compelling.

  3. Great article and great comments! I like the idea of sharing world-building diaries (though I confess I’m not at all confident I have the time to get mine on the internet). World building is probably both the most enjoyable and most frustrating part of being a DM. I love creating worlds, places and characters, but its easy to get lost in the myriad of decisions. Diaries are a great way to keep things organized though and sharing them is just brilliant. That way when you get stumped its that much easier to get help.

    I have just started working on my next campaign setting so I suppose now would be a good time. :p

  4. I love the idea of creating a “lived in” world, one that exists in its current form because of all the stuff that happened thousands of years before recorded time (sort of like that horrible, wonderful heroin you’ve hooked me on with the Wheel of Time series). Landscape, mythology, races, racism, wars, and hatreds are all tied back to events far in the way back past.

    Of course, this is just a macro version of the micro PC stage, where the characters are actually PART of this world. Their backgrounds, their histories, their motivations, these are all tied to the world that they live in, and their choices matter! I got to watch the culmination in your campaign of one of the character’s histories, and it was a beautiful thing. Any DMs running campaigns should strive for that success.

  5. @Dixon: I definitely like the idea of the “lived in” world. As I recall, during the panel on world building at GenCon, one of the panelists finally said something along the lines of “So, the moral of the story here is, create a world and play in it for 20 years then the world building will be easy.” :p

    Seriously though, I’ve reused the same campaign world a couple times now in my two main long-running campaigns. In a bit of a twist, my current campaign is actually set well before the first one (mainly because at the time I was still hoping to finish that first campaign which was interrupted prematurely). Still though, for the players who were a part of both campaigns, its a fun touch when I toss in something that was mentioned in the first campaign, or they realize that they are taking part in a piece of “history” from the original campaign, etc. As I mentioned above, I’m currently working on a new campaign setting, but part of me is considering simply making it the same world, just set much later than either of the first two campaigns, building off of the foundations of those first two, and providing for a few easter egg opportunities in there as well. The only real hang up is that it would require a little bit of reworking of racial back stories, but that can be achieved easily enough. :p

Trackbacks

  1. […] But I will definitely get into it a bit deeper than that as we go along. If you have any questions or ideas for further topics of interest, feel free to comment and tell me what you think. This discussion can use more input. In fact if you write a post on the subject, give me the link and I will add it in here. So far, @Trabant has posted his own, as did @Bartoneus from Critical Hits. […]