D&D is famous for its campaign settings, the detailed, premade, adventure worlds it has produced over its tenure as the most well-known fantasy RPG. The 1990s were by far the greatest heyday of this, with groundbreaking settings like Dark Sun, Birthright, and Planescape joining more traditional settings like Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk in the minds of gamers across the world. But D&D is equally famous for its homebrew, the rules and things created at game tables by DMs and players alike using the D&D framework. The most famous, and infamous, of these creations are homebrew campaign settings.
Homebrew campaign settings have a mixed reputation in the gamer community because of the very spotty nature of their quality of world building, ranging from light modifications or reskins of existing campaign settings to nightmarish making it up as they go things to kludged together affairs with poor internal consistency to publishing ready affairs. This means that gamers have inconsistent experiences, resulting in the hugely differing opinions on the topic. To me, the issue is that worldbuilding is not a skillset that most have, and when combined with the biases and influences we have about “fantasy”, fantasy worlds, and cultures that inspire us, the results can be disastrous.
So, the goal of the upcoming collection of serial blogs is to explore how to build a quality campaign setting that you and your players will love. One of my biggest lessons learned as a DM is that presenting a solid, internally consistent, developed campaign setting to your players is a huge step towards getting them not only immersed in the game, but also to getting them to commit to the game. At least half the effort of being a DM is in the world building, and it sets a foundation to build the rest (plots, encounters, treasure etc…) from.
So what makes a good campaign setting?
- Solid planning. It’s possible to “do it live” and make it up as you go along, but only a handful of truly herculean DMs I’ve met can keep track of it all and make it make sense. Planning out your world makes things much easier in the long run.
- Internal consistency. When a world doesn’t make sense within its own rules, players get frustrated and lose interest in banging their heads against the walls of random and arbitrary DM decisions.
- Interest blending. Good worldbuilding combines the familiar with the new; the former sets a comfortable baseline that the players will recognize, and the latter draws their interest and inspires action.
- Nuanced cultures. D&D has a history of taking an uneven approach to developing the cultures and peoples of their worlds, relying on the player and DM “knowing” how things are. Approach each culture from the ground up, avoid tropes and stereotypes, and your players will love it.
- You can make the best campaign setting ever, but if your players can’t read it, it’s just a collection of notes. There needs to be a player’s guide to get your ideas out there.
Graeme is a long-time gamer who has been writing critically about gaming since 2013 at his blog, POCGamer. He and his family live in the North Okanagan area of British Columbia. When not at work, writing, or gaming, Graeme can be found reading, scuba diving, or watching too much YouTube. In addition to his regular life, Graeme is a veteran of three overseas tours as a reservist with the Canadian Armed Forces. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and see his original and ongoing posts at bis blog, POCGamer. Contact him here.