Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

Recently I found myself in a situation where I had to submit an original medieval fantasy TRPG setting for some work. Ultimately I did not get the job, but my submission got me in the door and helped me make it to the final round of interviews. I’m pretty proud of it. The best part about the rejection is that now I get to share my work with all of you.

I only had an hour or so of free time between the time I got wind of the assignment and the time I had to submit. No problem. Creating, outlining, and describing an original world in a short amount of time is exactly what I do. Let me show you how.

1. Get An Idea

This does not have to cut into your designated hour of worldbuilding. Sure, you could sit down and have a quick brainstorm but you could think about it while you go about the mundane. Instead of watching Netflix while you do the dishes or catching up on your favorite podcasts while showering or working out, let your mind wander about the world you want to create. Think of a strong central idea like, “Dragonborn run an evil empire and are more numerous than any other race in my island world,” or, “A century of warfare has changed everything,” or “There are huge blank spots on the map and everyone wants to be the one to fill them.” Feel free to start by stealing an idea from somewhere else to get inspired, and then twist the idea to make it your own. While running a cool five miles I came up with my central idea for this pitch, “Monsters rule the world below, the undead rule the surface, the civilized races are trapped in the sky.”

2. Outline in Bullet Points

Now that you’ve got a good idea it’s time for a rough world outline. If you’re limited on time, just write out your big ideas and any details you’re afraid you’ll forget while writing the rest of the world’s description. Then go back and quickly put the details of your world in some sort of chronological order. My world outline for this pitch looked like this.

  • In the beginning humans, elves, half-elves, halflings, and dragonborn ruled the surface in 13 cities.
  • 13 cities form a nation ruled by a council of 13 mage governors.
  • In the beginning dwarves and tieflings lived together in one massive city underground.
  • A mage governor fears death, becomes a lich, makes undead army.
  • Undead army takes surface city, many dwarves and tieflings get away, undead have harder time chasing them down in the monster infested tunnels.
  • 6 remaining surface cities are lifted into the sky by their mage governors and now float safe above the undead.

3. Come Up With A Campaign Arch Outline

Once your bullet point outline is ready, make another. Think of your campaign’s potential arch within the world. The story might change as your game goes on since it hinges on the actions of the PCs, but it’s good to think about your campaign’s overall arch before you put meat on the bones of the world outline. Why? Because your campaign’s outline could affect the world outline. Maybe your campaign calls for a villain or earthshaking event you haven’t included in the world outline. If you add details to from you campaign outline to your world outline, those details will feel less tacked on (e.g. suddenly wand theory is a huge plot device which shows up in the final book of the Harry Potter series). Here’s what my campaign outline looked like for this pitch.

  • PCs start transporting goods for a mage governor and have to fend off sky pirates.
  • PCs find sky pirates which attacked them part of some greater plot.
  • PCs slowly uncover the secret plot – the pirates and others (including high-ranking public officials) are feeding intelligence about the people living in the sky cities to the undead below, but why?
  • PCs investigate plot by exploring the surface world of the undead and are aided by the dwarf and tiefling survivors who have evaded the undead by living a nomadic life underground.
  • PCs discover the undead are building their own airships and making dracoliches to attack the sky cities.
  • PCs return home to defend against the attack and discover the attack is only half the plan. If the undead get close enough to the cities they can enact a ritual that will crash the sky cities into the ground, killing many. Battle may be won or lost depending on the actions of the PCs.
  • After the battle PCs discover the location of the leader lich’s phylactery.
  • PCs must go back to the surface to destroy leader lich once and for all.

Once I outlined this possible campaign arch, I went back and added these bullet points to the world outline:

  • After being in the sky for 50 years, resources for the sky cities are limited and a large economic gap forms between the wealthy and the poor.
  • Some of the poor turn to piracy for money and others enlist to fight the pirates and protect the goods of the rich.

4. Describe the World (and the Campaign Arch)

Now that you’ve got your outlines, that may be all you need to run your first session. If you want to share the world information with your players, post it on Obsidian Portal, or submit it for a job, you’re going to need to flesh it out a little more. With an outline in chronological order, it’s easy to throw down a few paragraphs to describe your world.

There is one main hang-up I have that stops my writing cold – coming up with proper names. I like to keep my flow while I’m writing so I use simple placeholders. Then I go back and replace those placeholders after I’m done the lion’s share of writing. This seems to make everything go a lot faster since I can be focusing on fleshing out the outline and then switch over to proper name mode. I simply write NAME in all capital letters when I need a proper name I haven’t thought of yet. This makes it easy to find later when revising.

Write no more than 5 – 10 paragraphs. Time is of the essence, pitches should be short, and if you’re writing this for your PCs or Obsidian Portal, know that most folks won’t read pages and pages of description.

Here’s the description of the world I created for the pitch.

Six floating cities hover above the darkness of Enora in Bound Sky. Once a prosperous nation, Enora was home to humans, elves, halflings, gnomes, and dragonborn. The country was run by the Dordune, a council of mage governors, each acting as the leader of one of Enora’s thirteen major cities. Beneath Enora’s surface, the nation’s dwarf and tiefling allies lived happily in the kingdom of Drakefire. Except for the occasional marauding gnoll pack or angry dragon, all was well in Enora. Any threats which appeared were dealt with swiftly and efficiently by the Dordune.

Fifty years ago Governor Kira Vae, an elf wizard, was nearing the end of her long life. Some say fear of death gripped the governor, others say it was an unsatiated lust for power. Whatever the reason, Vae transformed herself into a lich. The transformation warped her mind, seeding a dark hatred of all life in her heart. The lich declared herself Empress of Enora. Empress Vae turned the citizens of her city, Cambor, into an undead army. The rest of Enora tried to stand against the threat, but so sudden and severe did the undead strike that seven of Enora’s cities fell to Vae.

Every victory added more soldiers to her undead ranks. Messengers were sent to Drakefire, asking for military against the undead legions, but the underground kingdom was already over run by Vae’s minions. Any survivors from Drakefire had already fled even deeper underground by the time the messengers arrived.

As the armies of Empress Vae closed around Enora’s six remaining cities, the Dordune made a decision to enact a powerful ritual which raised the cities and their people into the sky away from Vae and her undead. Away from a fight they knew they could not win. As the cities rose, Vae swore to eradicate the rest of Enora’s living. She is eternal as is her hate for all people who defy her.

Now the six floating cities of Deldoroth find themselves safe from Empress Vae’s undead, but they have their own troubles. With limited land to produce resources, the six cities have begun treating each other more like separate countries than one cooperative nation. The Dordune have disbanded and each governor acts as a city’s monarch. As competition for food, water, and shelter grows each day, many less fortunate turn to a life of crime or legal savagery to survive. Airships transporting goods from one city to another are wary of pirates, and many make a killing or die trying in the cities’ gladiatorial arenas (which were introduced by the governors to help control population growth).

Beneath Deldoroth, dead Enora can no longer be seen. Thick layers of black clouds hang between the floating cities and the surface. The undead built massive stoves and constantly pipe ash into the sky to blot out the sun they hate so much. Sometimes at night the victorious howls of the undead can be heard through the blackness by the people of Deldoroth. It is an unsettling reminder that Enora is no longer their home and what drove them out long ago still hungers for them.

If you have the time, go ahead and flesh out your campaign outline too. I wanted to do this for the pitch to give an idea of the adventures I’d create, but even if you’re not pitching it will be helpful to have a fleshed out description of your potential story to refer to. This is less necessary for home campaigns since you won’t be sharing it, but still helpful to you as the GM.

Over-the-top action and sprawling mysteries will be the hallmarks of Bound Sky. The campaign opens with a massive airship battle. The players, hired as merchant guards, encounter pirates and battle for their lives. After the battle the heroes discover a mysterious message to the pirates from a higher power. These aren’t your normal pirates. They’re part of something much bigger.

The story unfolds in Deldoroth’s soaring cities as our heroes uncover a conspiracy. The first learn that some of the pirates and then that some of the officials in Deldoroth have been working with the undead armies of Empress Vae. She’s planning something big, but to learn what will require closer investigation.

The heroes journey down to the undead-infested Enora and navigate the dangerous territory by disguise or by stealth. Diving into old ruins, gathering intelligence from enemy-infested cities, and aided by the nomadic survivors of Drakefire, the PCs discover Empress Vae has begun building airships of her own and converting dragons to dracoliches. She is planning an enormous attack on Deldoroth.

It is up to our heroes to convince the people of Deldoroth to work together to defeat this incursion. As they work to negotiate with various leaders, the PCs uncover another mystery. Empress Vae has discovered the source of the magic which keeps the cities of Deldoroth afloat. She plans to disrupt this magic and crash the cities. If she succeeds, the death toll will be catastrophic.

The heroes stop Vae’s forces from destroying Deldoroth, but the victory is costly and the empress could return at any time with more forces. Thanks to a captured dracolich lieutenant, the PCs learn the location of Vae’s phylactery. The heroes must make another perilous journey into Enora, this time into Vae’s stronghold in Cambor. It is up to them to destroy the phylactery and slay Empress Vae once and for all to save their homes.

Check it out! I’ve even got a description of my first encounter in there. There’s enough information I could improv my way through the first session or possibly the entire campaign if I have no more free time to dedicate to preparation.

5. Got a Little More Time? Map it Up!

If you have some more time, maps are great worldbuilding resources that help make your setting come to life for both you and your players. They’re also a good tool for judging travel obstacles and distances from one place to the next. I created the two maps below in less than hour using roll20.net, but you can checkout any number of easy to use resources to create a map quickly.

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So there you have it! One-hour worldbuilding. Simple stuff!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

 

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I originally wrote this article for Johnn Four’s free roleplaying tips newsletter you can and should sign-up for over at roleplayingtips.com.

There is no task for a game master more daunting and gratifying than worldbuiding. Creating a universe in which a group of PCs can romp around in is very gratifying, but the seemingly Herculean effort it takes to get there can be miserable especially if you have many life commitments outside of gaming. For the last decade I’ve been running Dungeons and Dragons and other RPGs in published campaign settings, but it was always a dream of mine to create a new world. I mean a full, rich world with a huge history. We’re talking original rules modules, big honking maps, new monsters, intrigue, dungeons, rivalries, and more open-ended story than the closing chapter of a Goosebumps novel. The kind of thing I had the time to do as a kid but could now tackle with the wisdom of an adult.

Last year I finally embarked on creating that new world. With the impending release of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons I set pen to page and began creating a world from the top down. With so much going on in my own world and the promise of an Open Gaming License from Wizards of the Coast I’m still working on my 300+ page campaign guide that I’m preparing for my first self-publishing venture. I’ve been chronicling my efforts on this blog since January of last year. During that journey I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that can help you build a RPG world of your own, no matter how fleshed out you want your own campaign world to be. Your world might be built top down or bottom up or half off the top of your head and one session at a time. If your world is an original (or modified from an existing) creation these tips will help you out. Here they are in no particular order.

Take Notes

You are going to have ideas for your campaign. Lots and lots and lots of ideas. They might come at work, during your commute, during dinner, or another time a pen and paper aren’t handy. If you don’t write ideas down, they’re going to fade away. Your phone is your friend. Most mobile phones, even those of the non-smart variety, have a notepad feature. So when you get a great idea jot that sucker down and you’ll have it as long as you have the phone. If you want to backup your ideas copy and pasting them into an email or text message is super easy. When you sit down to flesh out your world you’ll know exactly where to find your awesome ideas.

Know Your World’s Central Idea

What makes your world special? Does it feel like a Lovecraft story? Is it recovering from a recent war? Is it in the middle of one? Does one oppressive (or benevolent) ruler have absolute power? Do the gods come down in person and give decrees to their worshippers? Is it a whacky place where every natural landform is made of candy?

Your world should have a central idea which sets it apart from the rest. In Exploration Age, the central idea is that there are unmapped areas of the planet that the civilized world is racing to uncover and colonize. I hold onto that idea and wonder how it affects everything else happening in the campaign world. How do the “uncivilized” peoples react to the colonization of their home by others? How do competing countries negotiate different land grabs? How will the new resources discovered in the new world affect the old? What struggles do the colonists have? Let your central idea permeate through all aspects of the world. Whenever you’re creating a new place or person within your world as yourself how it relates to your central idea.

Have A Map

I’m not an artist, but good lord it helps so much to have a map. Being able to visualize the world is not just a help to players, but to you as well. Everything becomes so much clearer and the world feels more real once you have a map. This is because most people are visual learners and need to see something to understand it. You can start small, just what you need for your first session, or build out your whole world at once. Knowing how close a city is to an ocean or orc infested mountains can help you discover what is unique about that settlement. If you’re like me and can’t draw freehand I recommend checking out some software. For free there’s Hexographer (which I use and is worth buying a few extras) and Stone Sword, or you could be fancy and buy Fractal Mapper, Campaign Cartographer, or Mapdiva.

Have A Timeline

Even if it’s very rough make a small timeline of your world’s history. Think about how major events would shape your world and adventure sites. How do these events tie into the central idea of your campaign? In my world aberrations used to rule the land before they were wiped out by dragons. Their magic technology can be salvaged within the ruins of their former empire, many of which are hidden deep in the uncharted wilds. These ruins are blank spots within blank spots! The events of my timeline inform the current world and relate back to the central idea. The rise and fall of nations and rulers, the birth of races, the discovery of new lands, the creation of important technologies, wars, treaties, and the like are the sort of events to consider adding to your timeline.

Steal and Twist

When it comes to stealing ideas for your world, don’t be afraid. Let literature, video games, film, television, art, and other campaign settings inspire you. When you do steal an idea go one step further and twist it. Add something to the idea or turn it on its head and see what happens. That idea is putty. Play with it until you’ve made something you think is interesting and original. Let’s take the giant spider infested Mirkwood of The Hobbit. Maybe you want to add a similar forest to your realm, but instead of spiders, it’s crawling with giant snakes, or undead animals, or enormous bees. Maybe falling into its rivers and streams doesn’t induce a magical slumber, but rather the waters keep people awake, slowly driving victims insane with deadly exhaustion. Perhaps instead of a forest it’s a desert, swamp, jungle, or arctic wasteland. Stealing is just step one. Challenge yourself and twist the stolen goods. It’s far more rewarding for everyone.

Ask Your Players What They Want

Before you embark the incredible worldbuilding task before you, start by asking your players what sort of game they want to play. I sent my players a brief email asking them about their preferred genre, tone, magic level, intrigue level, and play style for in D&D. Even though I’ve been playing with my groups for years some of the feedback was surprising. Have a chat with each of them, give them a quick questionnaire, or lead a more organized group discussion. It matters what your players want since they’re going to be playing in the world with you. Your gothic horror game could cost you some friends at the table if they’re not really into undead and lycanthropes.

Let The Players Do Some Work

Like I wrote above they’re playing in the world too, so let players shoulder some of the worldbuilding responsibility. I give my players a basic description of the world and then they create their PC backstories. In the process they’ve created cities, fantastic locations, artifacts, and even rules modules for the world. Encourage your players to do the same once they have a good idea of the tone and central idea of your world. Anything they add will just make the game and story richer and more interesting. Don’t worry. As the GM you reserve the right to nix anything that doesn’t make sense in your world. (e.g. The Kingdom of Bubblegum in your post apocalyptic zombie game)

Share Your Stuff

Don’t keep all your information too close to the vest, especially if you’re building a world from the top down. Share it with your players and other gamers you trust. Since a lot of worldbuilding isn’t game rule specific sharing the information with people outside of your gaming circle who appreciate fiction. My girlfriend has never played D&D, but she reads a lot of what I create. Having her outside-the-industry perspective is invaluable. All she cares about is story which should be the focus of a RPG world. The more input you can get, the better. Just remember that all feedback does not need to be taken to heart. Listen to those who are kind enough to offer feedback, but only implement the ideas they provide which sound good to you. I often link this blog in gaming forums and various social media sites and solicit feedback from strangers. I’ve gotten some of the best insights into my work this way.

Having people provide feedback can also keep your worldbuilding on schedule. It’s my mission to share updates twice a week on my blog which keeps me writing and worldbuilding. You could keep a similar schedule with whomever you are sharing your world. Maybe it’s the first of each month, or every Wednesday, or every day. Giving yourself a deadline and having others hold you accountable will keep you writing.

Write Everything You Ever Wanted

Put anything in the world you ever wanted to create. Stuff that thing full of all you ever wanted in a campaign world. You’re not going to run out of ideas. Take it from a man who has been a GM for 20 years. More ideas will come so don’t save anything. You might never use it if you keep hanging onto it. If you write what you want to write the work is worth. That’s sort of the point, right? These are games and are supposed to be fun. Let your imagination run wild and get a little crazy. Happy worldbuilding!

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!