So you wanna be a master? Specifically, a Game Master for a tabletop RPG such as Dungeons and Dragons, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, or so many others? Then you’ve come to the right place. Over the next few weeks, we here at Geekenstein will be publishing a series of articles walking you through the process of creating a world and running it for your players in the most fun and effective manner in order to facilitate a positive experience for both yourself and your players.
The first step to DMing, after assembling a group of players, is to create the world that you will be adventuring through for the foreseeable future. Of course, you don’t need every detail about an entire globe at the first session, but you will need a basic concept, with some fleshing out. You’ll need a villain, quest hooks, interesting NPCs and locations, and a planned storyline to take your players through. This article will give some useful pointers to help you through the daunting task of building a world for your campaign.
Building A World
Start With A Story Concept
The first step of building a new world is to start with a strong idea for what you want your world to be, and what kind of story you want to tell to your players. Do you want to tell a regional story about freeing a village, a grand arc in which your players save the multiverse, or something in between? The world you create should reflect your story. The best way to start would be to classify your planned story into a genre. Do you want an action-packed campaign? Build a world that facilitates such a goal, filled with clear villains and heroes, with plenty of opportunities to fight. On the other end of the spectrum, you may want to tell a story with moral ambiguity and shades of gray (not the book!). In that case, be prepared with characters and situations that aren’t exactly what they first seem to be. The possibilities of stories are endless. Just make sure not to bite off more than you can chew.
Know Your System and Time Period
In addition to having a story in mind when you begin your worldbuilding, it’s important to keep in mind what game system you are using, and what time period the system may limit you to. For instance, Dungeons and Dragons just isn’t meant for a steampunk storyline (a campaign I played in used the D&D system for a steampunk world). It can work, but it’s not optimal. Similarly, a cyberpunk system might not be the best one to use for a fantasy-based time period. Even with this restriction, however, there is a huge amount of space you can work in.
Work Within Your Planned Scope
This one’s fairly simple: If you’re planning a smaller-scale campaign, it’s not strictly necessary to have an entire world built and populated down to the smallest detail. You just need to focus on the region you intend to have your story take place in. That doesn’t mean you can just ignore the larger picture, however. Have a name for surrounding kingdoms/nations, at the very least, as they may become involved in the story at any point. The opposite goes for larger scale campaigns: have a world map built and populated, but only plan extensively for the small areas where you expect the story to take place, such as specific cities or dungeons.
Don’t Be Afraid To Use Tropes
Tropes have a negative connotation in storytelling/worldbuilding. However, things become tropes for a good reason: they work. Things like an Evil Empire, led by an Evil Overlord, aided by his second-in-command/enforcer are classic storytelling devices, and will do narrative work without you having to expend too much energy on it, since your players, assuming that they are the least bit Genre Savvy, can get the concept pretty easily. Using narrative shortcuts simply makes your job easier, allowing you to create a world quickly and efficiently.
The Nuts And Bolts
Once you have a solid world concept you want to work with, you’ll be needing to put together your vision into a coherent whole. You’ll need dungeon maps, town maps, and, if you so choose, a world map. There are many different ways you can accomplish this, from drawing it on paper or computer to using a computer program, such as these ones, to make your map. These maps then need to be populated with shops, NPCs, and enemies. This process can vary incredibly, and I leave it up to you to work within your system and use level- and theme-appropriate enemies and NPCs.
Hopefully, these pointers have helped you get a start on creating a world for your campaign. If you have any comments, questions, or concerns about these tips, leave a comment below or email me at JakePPetersen@gmail.com. You can also email me if you want more personalized advice for working with your world or story. While I have never DMed a campaign myself, I can definitely help with fleshing out your concepts with my knowledge of storytelling and worldbuilding.
Stay tuned as we continue our series on being a Game Master, continuing next with a collection of tips and tricks about the actual process of Dungeon Mastering!