The Architect DM: Designing with Precedents

It has been a few weeks since my last Architect DM post, but I’ve been brainstorming a handful of different posts and this one came to the forefront as something I want to discuss. My last post introduced some of my general thoughts about worldbuilding for modern and futuristic games, which is a genre that I plan on talking about more in the future. However, this week I’d like to discuss something I learned in architecture school that can be applied to your games and make your life as a DM/GM easier.

Whenever we started a design project or exercise in college we would first spend time studying a selection of existing buildings, often designed by well known architects. After a few days or even a week of studying those buildings, we would then move into designing our own solutions to the challenges put forth by the project. While working through the early design process we would often refer back to the existing buildings we had studied and choose one or two to be our “design precedents”.

What is a Design Precedent and how do I use it?

The concept of using a design precedent in architecture is really just an easy way of teaching students the old saying, “there are no new ideas”. While working through a design challenge, it was very helpful to see how a well known, professional architect had solved similar problems and being inspired by them or replicating them in new ways. What does this mean for you and your RPGs? For starters, it means that for any location or setting you’re using in your game, you are not only completely free to use existing spaces or designs for inspiration but it is actually the best thing you can do for your game. Don’t worry about being completely original or designing the whole world on your own.

To give you a specific example, during one of my projects in school I was designing a library for a location on campus nearby our studio. As a precedent, I studied a famous college library designed by Louis Kahn that has some very interesting ways of dealing with changes in scale and the interactions of private and public spaces within a library. Though the final design for my library project was quite different from Kahn’s design, I tried to incorporate some of the same elements of scale and transitions between public and private spaces. You can’t simply replicate the same design in a different setting, the design has to respond to its context and to a different set of requirements and influences, but using a precedent can be a great place to start and save you a lot of effort in the long run.

For modern or futuristic games, this can make running a game a million times easier. When talking to people that I know, I’ve heard over and over again that one of the easiest ways to run a successful modern game is to set it in your home town or a real location which you and all of your players are familiar with. This concept can be applied to settings that are less familiar as long as you choose a few elements that are based on real locations and start with them. If you want to run a game on a group of magical floating islands, start with the islands themselves and make them look and feel like islands you would find in our world. From there you can build up the setting and the more you make it feel like a realistic set of islands the more mystical it will be when the fact that they are floating is highlighted.

Worldbuilding Inspiration (or How to Steal Liberally)

I’ve never felt more inspired or had more ideas for running a campaign than I have recently. One of the primary reasons for this is that I’ve been reading several different fantasy novels lately including the Wheel of Time and the Song of Ice and Fire series. While there are RPG systems for playing in both of those settings, reading them can a be just as helpful for planning your own Dungeons & Dragons (or any other system) campaign. Just like using a design precedent for a building or a location, seeing how another person has gone about their own worldbuilding can be the best way to get started on your own world.

For the last three years I have been running an ongoing D&D campaign with a map split up into various nations and a lot of intrigue and interaction between the different factions, including a party made up of characters from different (sometimes rival) nations. However, in the last year I read The Game of Thrones for the first time and was immediately impressed with the way the world and its various nations and families were presented. Any future RPG game that I run that includes nations as a main feature of the its geography will be heavily inspired by the Song of Ice and Fire series. For example, one of the best elements from the series is that each nation has one or two primary ruling families tied very strongly to it that helps to further define and differentiate one location on the map from another. It also serves the excellent purpose of immediately tying certain characters to specific regions. This is just one of the elements that I’ll be trying to incorporate into the future games that I run.

There is quite a bit more that can be discussed on this topic, but I’m going to split it into a few posts and try to find some common themes for future posts to center around.

Click here for the rest of the Architect DM series.


  1. Another great article. I agree that taking inspiration from what others have done before is inevitable and that you will rarely, if ever, come up with something that is wholly original. What I like about this particular article is how you showcase ways to embrace these inspirations and tailor them so that our world ultimately feels unique. I think it is also always worth reminding that there is nothing wrong with stealing liberally from our predecessors. This is one of the things that I believe keeps many people from even wanting to try to grab the GM reins. They think “I don’t have the time”, “I don’t have good, original, ideas”, etc. In truth, we are all borrowing to some degree, its just a matter of how transparent it is.

    More important, just because something’s been done before, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing again. I think that the more we learn to embrace our sources of inspiration, the better our overall results will be. I too have been getting the creative vibe lately as I’ve been diving into books again and it has me excited as I start planning my next campaign (while still running my current one :p). The only problem now is paring down all the ideas since I have too many.