So, you’ve been a DM for a while now. You’ve run a few published adventures. You’ve played in a few different campaign settings, but nothing about the settings seem to grab you and spark your imagination. Sure, the Forgotten Realms and Eberron are cool and all, but you feel like there could be so much more to a setting. Your imagination starts coming up with awesome concepts that you’d love to throw at your players, but they wouldn’t fit in the current established settings. This is the first sign that you should begin to design your own campaign setting.
The notion hits you. Making your own campaign setting would be fun, creative, and can scratch that God complex you’ve developed from being a DM. But then the doubt sets in. What if it’s not interesting? What if my players will hate it? Then the realization that you have no idea where to start hits you. It can be overwhelming, but once you calm down and think things through, there are ways to overcome the fear and doubt. This is where this series of articles comes in.
Currently, I’m designing and writing lore for my own campaign setting. I have dubbed it Ebrium, and during this series I will reveal a few things I’ve been working on to serve as examples of how I’ve handled the creative challenges. These are by no means the definitive guides to do this. As with any DM venture, I recommend getting advice and tips from many different sources. This is just another source you can use.
When it comes to creating, I tend to be a top down kind of person. I like to establish the big picture before I fill in the details. Some people are bottom up creators, choosing to start small and add as the setting gets bigger. I suggest you try both and see which one gets the creative juices flowing better. Since I am a top down creator, I’m going to give advice with that in mind, so if you feel like this isn’t the right guide for you, that’s cool. There will still be some information you can use as you grow your setting.
To get started, I needed a checklist with all the basic elements a world would need to feel realistic and viable. Here was my checklist with a brief description for each entry. I will go deeper into detail for each thing in future articles.
- Maps. Before I did anything, I toyed around with a map creator to design the physical landmasses for the world of Ebrium. I decided on four continents, each with its own flavor. I used Inkarnate.com to design my first maps, and I highly recommend it for novice mapmakers.
- Deities. My next step was to establish a pantheon that would stand as the base deities of Ebrium and be responsible for how the world was created. Of course, this led to…
- A creation story. I used my pantheon to design a creation story that explained why the world looked and worked like it did. This includes the biodiversity of your world as well, especially how and why the different races ended up on the world. This led me into the decision to decide…
- Which races live in your world. Using the available races in D&D 5th Edition, I came up with a list of races I’d love to see interact in my world. Coming up with reasons why some of the more exotic races existed was a fun challenge.
- Political divisions. Once I knew who lived in my world and where, I had to establish nations, kingdoms, cities, towns, villages, forts, etc. This can be a tedious task, but you can have as much fun naming everything and establishing political rules you’d like to see implemented.
- Lore and socio-economics. Once the political stuff was taken care of, I had to write about how and why these places existed. I’m currently in this stage with Ebrium, and so far it has been very challenging but a whole lot of fun. This also includes determining things like how your world measures time, what currencies are available, holidays and important political events, etc.
- Conflicts. Once you have the lore set up, you can use it to generate world-spanning, or at least nation-spanning, conflicts that will become essential to your campaign and can be a backdrop for your party’s adventures.
- Consequences. Once the conflicts are established, you can determine what would be the consequences would be if those conflicts went one way or the other. These could be the building blocks for the adventures your party takes on during the campaign.
From this point, you can then begin to plan out where your characters are going to start their adventure and why. From there on, your world’s story is in the hands of the players. Their actions will shape how your world evolves, and if you choose to continue running campaigns in your world, the remnants of the choices your first party made could impact the choices of your fourth party of adventurers.
I will continue this series as I go through each of the steps myself. My goal with this series is to show that anyone with an imagination can come up with a campaign setting. You just have to follow the natural steps to do so to prevent having to go back and rewrite work when you find a snag in your lore that doesn’t match your political setup and so forth. I’ll also link to other relevant sources of information so you can get a better idea how others create worlds as well.