World Building

One of my many hobbies is playing pen and paper role playing games, but even more than that, I like to run them. Periodically I wind up filling in for one of our groups regular GM’s (DM if you prefer).

Now for those of you who have never run a game, let me tell you a little secret. It’s a lot of work. First you have to come up with a plot and various hooks to entice the characters. Then you need to flesh out the story, build NPC’s and equip them, and of course, build the world. This is by far the hardest part. Of course, you can always use a preset campaign setting, such as the Forgotten Realms, or Dragonlance, but I find those to be way too limiting. Besides, every player you have has probably read at least some of the tied in novels, giving them a rather unseemly advantage.

I’ll admit that world building is always the part I have the most difficulty with. Specifically, the map making. My first campaign was an unmitigated disaster when I wound up creating much of the world as I went along, making a completely nonsensical mind boggling confusing planet. Granted I was 8, but that lesson stuck with me for most of my GMing career. Of my more current campaigns, 3 of the 4 currently have used preset maps and to some extent worlds.

My first (adult) campaign was based mostly off the world of Record of Lodoss War. This was an easy campaign to run in some respects, as while I was able to obtain a map and some community made resources (someone had tried this before). More importantly, the actual show was originally based off a role playing game to begin with lending it well to the adaptation I had in mind. This provided me with a fairly rich world including some notable NPC’s, a basic map, and some interesting custom rules. Granted I had to put in another 100+ fleshing the whole thing out to make it playable and adapt the resources I found to a 3rd edition setting. Probably what made this campaign so successful is that it gave me just enough to run with, but not too much that it overwhelmed PC and GM alike with various legends, NPC’s, and obscure facts. And while it gave me a world map, it was vague enough that I could add and remove stuff to fit the adventure’s I had planned. Overall, I considered this a great success, and I learned a fair bit along the way.

I cheaped out a bit on my second and third campaigns and used alternate modern earths. This had the advantage of making some things incredibly easy to design. The downside to this is the tenancy to gloss over certain details which proved to be a problem with the players, especially those attentive to detail. I wound up shutting the second one down prematurely wondering where I had gone wrong. As a side note, if you have problems with “rules lawyers” at your table, I recommend playing a system they are unfamiliar with. Partly the reason the first modern campaign survived while the second didn’t was that the first was a Call of Cthulhu game, where nobody expects things to be wholly rational or fair to begin with.

My forth campaign is still being created, but it’s my first one where I’ve decided to go all out and actually create the map of the world along with everything in it. The downside to that is that I am a terrible mapper. Fortunately, this brings me to the main point of this incredibly long spiel, which is that there exists a variety of tools for people like me including a intriguing little one called Maptool from the fine folks at I’m just beginning to learn it’s many uses, but I can already tell this is going to be a huge aid in creating all the necessary parts of the world I normally loath doing. For anyone who hates mapping like me, I highly recommend it.

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