As a GM, one of the most fun and daunting tasks you can undertake is the creation of worlds.
New gods, myths, legends, artifacts, heroes, villains, history, kingdoms, cultures, religions… there’s infinite room for creativity and no shortage of fun to be had!
The problem is that there’s literally infinite room for creativity.
Knowing where to start can be tough and when rushing in head-first it’s not uncommon to find that you’ve wrote yourself into a corner. When this happens it’s easy to lose enthusiasm for the world you’re creating.
It’s a problem I’ve encountered many times during my 7+ years of GMing. For each campaign I would create a new world and eventually I developed a set of methods that makes the world creation process fast and fun while producing vivid, consistent, and imaginative worlds.
It all begins with the first step:
Choose the Gameplay
Worlds in RPGs (both tabletop and otherwise) are not stand-alone constructs: they are meant to be played in.
The first step to creating a vivid and interesting world is to decide what type of game you want played in that world.
Ask yourself the following questions:
What does the typical session look like?
Is it straight combat? Very little combat? A mix of puzzles, riddles, combat, and social encounters?
Are the players classical, good adventurers or are they mercenaries, space pirates, or planar pillagers, etc..?
Where do I see these encounters happening?
In dungeons? In cities? In spaceships? In temples built out of bones of decaying gods?
In locales that span a wide range of heavy metal album covers?
In all of the above?
How do I want to guide story progression?
Is the game entirely player driven or will NPCs and world events drive most of the plot?
Do the players exist within a command structure, fulfilling orders? If not, are they free agents on a mission, mercenaries for hire, or a rag-tag bunch of outcasts that gets into mischief?
Is the progression driven primarily by exploration, social encounters, or pre-determined events?
Choose Central Conflicts and Environments
Once you’ve answered the previous questions you should have an idea of how you see gameplay and plot unfolding in a typical session, in other words: the assumptions of your game.
Now that you have a clearer idea of the assumptions you’re working with it’s time to build a world around them.
Worlds are meant to be played in, so start with the environment: create a reason for the environment to be the way you envision. Give the players incentive to explore the environments that you’ve chosen.
This ties in closely with the central conflict or theme of your world: if it is a war time campaign, the environment should be blistered with the signs of battles, cities will be impoverished, nature will marred by weapons of war. If an eternal winter has spread across the continent, everything will be cold and harsh, but nature may yet struggle on.
If the primary method of story progression is exploration, define a few interesting locales with good backstories and a home base, for example:
The material plane has been shattered to thousands of pieces. The players begin on a shrinking shard of the plane (a single kingdom), drifting through a dark sea of stars, gradually breaking into smaller pieces. On their journey they will likely encounter the Volcanic Stronghold of the Fists of Hextor, the Sunken Kingdom of the Drowned God, The Impossible Tower of the Mad Mage, etc…
In 3 short sentences we have defined: a central conflict/theme (the material realm being shattered), provided the players motivation for exploring (their realm is literally falling to pieces), and formed an idea of 3 interesting places for the players to visit.
A second example:
The gods could never agree on how the world should be, so they made two worlds and separated them by a thin veil. Now the veil is weakening and new, bizarre cities, towns, and kingdoms are popping up everywhere along with dangerous monsters in unexpected places. If it’s not stopped the players will lose everything familiar to them and their entire world. The players will probably visit the Crag of the Crab King, the Industrious Imperium of the Formic Hive, and the Brain Bakery run by Granny and Grandpa M’Flayer.
We’ve outlined a central conflict/theme (two worlds colliding), provided player motivation (anything they know and love could be destroyed or swapped with something at any moment), and 3 interesting places.
Entire articles can (and will be) written on how to flesh out interesting locales and encounters. Once you feel you have enough interesting locales and a strong enough central theme to create new environments throughout the campaign, it’s time for the next step.
Create NPCs and Flesh out the Backstory
The environment implies the backstory of your world as your descriptions of the environment reveal the world illuminated in the light of the central theme. Yet it is the NPCs who will ultimately become the face or even the very personification of your world, it’s backstory, and its central theme.
When writing NPCs it is important to flesh out the backstory of your world. The central conflict of your world is going to have 3 main facets:
- Cause – How did the conflict come to be? i.e. creation myths, political events, a wizard did it, etc…
- Resolution – How is the conflict resolved (the ultimate goal)? Gather artifacts, dethrone a mad king, etc…
- Factions – Who’s on what side of the conflict and why? Doomsday cultists, angry gods and their followers, bellicose Kings, devious dragons, the merchant guild, a rogue sect of angels, etc…
Define the factions you’d like to see in the world and the cause for their conflicts, then create the NPCs that will be agents and eventually faces of the faction.
Most important of all: make your NPCs interesting! Not every shopkeeper needs an important backstory or a quirk, but important NPCs do. Make the backstory related to the central conflict, but keep it personal so that your players will be motivated by it.
Define a few NPCs for each faction that the players will interact with early on. At a minimum you should define a leader, a high-ranking officer, and one or two low ranking people.
You can get by with a short description of a name, personality/mannerism, and a sentence or two describing them and how they act.
Iara Tsun, the unusually tall dwarf who owes a life-debt to the King. She is never seen outside of her formal armor and never uses a word when a nod will suffice.
Zorc the Mad, a half-elf mage with a dragon facial tatoo, obsessed with the summoning of demons. He wears a cocky expression to match his attitude and truly believes that summoning a powerful demon may allow him to free his son’s soul from hell.
Auren the Keeper of the Gate, an immortal former-human who is mostly made of glowing blue stone; his former knightly robes hang off him in tatters. He speaks in a loud booming voice that sounds like it comes from far away; he has guarded this portal for ages and will allow only the worthy to pass and receive the truth contained beyond.
Rog Horf the disgruntled half-orc cultist in charge of new recruits. He keeps his cultist robes pristine and is mindful of prejudice, choosing to annunciate each word carefully, but feels he is woefully underappreciated for his talent and intelligence.
The best part about using the short description method is that NPCs can be inserted into nearly any role we need on the fly: their role in the game is only set in stone once they make an appearance on the stage.
This saves prep time and makes the game flow smoother, giving you a pool of NPCs to work with for when your players do something unexpected.
After you’ve defined the key factions and some interesting NPCs, spend some time fleshing out the myths and lore: this will make your factions and NPCs more believable.
A lot of GMs fall into a trap at this point and end up developing extensive lore, legends, religion, etc. While this is fun, you should finish out the “party facing” aspects of your world first i.e. develop the starting local, it’s NPCs, factions, and environment. The PCs will definitely see this part of your world, but there’s a chance they will never delve deep enough into the lore to learn the deeper and more obscure parts of your world backstory.
Focus on the parts the players will see first then, if you have time, feel free to circle back around to lore and flesh it out even more.
At this point, you’ve identified your assumptions about the game, you’ve defined a central conflict, a motivation for players, the environment with several interesting locales, NPCs, and the backstory of your world.
All that’s left is the quests, plot hooks, and encounters.
By now these should flow very naturally, but if you’re having trouble just look back at your NPCs and factions and ask “How would they get the party to help them? What would they do that would harm/hinder the party?” For example:
Would Zorc the Mad use an alias to post a reward for the retrieval of a magical artifact from a dangerous dungeon?
Would Rog Horf send the PCs out on his personal errands where chance encounters will surely alter their fate?
Would Iara Tsun require the PCs to prove themselves against an encampment of orcs that suddenly appeared in the lower quarter of the city?
Start with at least 3 potential plot hooks and get a feel for which one you think will be most impactful to your group (which one they will like or at least remember best).
At this point: you’re done!
You’ve made a consistent world built around a central conflict, interesting locales, memorable NPCs, and enough plot hooks to start the adventure. Add more interesting NPCs, locations, plothooks, and factions as needed.