When running a large campaign, you want to have a setting that players will care about. Your setting should feel like pieces of living history, not a series of location backdrops and tropes. This means you need to create a dynamic and nuanced world, instead of locations in a vacuum.
There are many details of your world that will end up existing in your head, not on paper. Other parts of your world building won’t be explicitly used in play. But establishing these elements for yourself builds context for your world, and that helps you be more creative when exploring your world at the gaming table. When creating context, the biggest creative tool at your disposal is a world map.
Creating the World Map
Having a good map can be the key difference between a world that feels real and lived-in, and one that feels like it was made for this week’s session. Every time you use the map, the world will continue to evolve. You can make new connections between regions, and piece together the history that brought the world to its current state.
Use whatever map generation technique suits you when making your campaign world. Freehand sketching, world building software, and even video games* can all create good maps. Whatever technique you use, the idea is to create a visual guide to the geography. As you flesh out the history and cultures of your world, the map will be a framework that ties it all together.
Start with the major features that will shape large regions of the world. Put thought into what assets and obstacles they provide as they’re pieced together. They should impact customs and culture, and significantly shape the local economies.
- Rivers form the backbone of commerce and agriculture, especially in low technology worlds. The earliest cities of a region are usually built next to a major river.
- Mountain ranges create large natural barriers between regions, even creating different climate zones to either side. The most rugged prevent large groups from traveling, except by a few narrow passes. Living near or in the mountains provides access to rich mineral and ore deposits, as well as natural defenses against enemies.
- Islands, long coastlines with natural bays, and inland seas all provide a stable source of food and potential for trade. The importance of traveling by water may also lead to a seafaring culture that has an advantage in naval warfare over inland groups.
- Large forested regions, jungles, and swamps will tend to have smaller scale communities, because clearing a large area for a growing city would be difficult.
- Plains, steppes, and grasslands have few natural boundaries breaking up the landscape, so they’re versatile regions. Depending on climate, they may be farmland, host nomadic herders, or be transformed by sprawling communities. However the region is used, it’s the easiest type of geography to exert control over, but also the hardest to defend from outside forces.
Now that you have the basic geography of the campaign world defined, it’s time to place your major cities. Cities are almost always built around sources of water, access to trade, valuable resources, or defensible terrain. Ultimately, they will be shaped by how they can take advantage of these geographic features, as well as by proximity and access to each other. Give yourself some variation in the size of cities and how close they are to one another. Each of these differences will add to their character as you explore them further.
If you’re using a modern or science fiction setting, then there are a few differences to consider when emphasizing features of your world map. Natural obstacles become less of a hindrance as technology improves, but increased demand for fuel, metals, and other goods increases the importance of resource exploitation. Cities will be larger and better connected, and in general, production centers will rise in economic importance over agricultural lands.
If your campaign “world” spans several planets, then you may want to further abstract your map to cover a few critical points.
- How long does it take to get between the planets of importance?
- Are there any limited routes, like gate technology or safe corridors, that can be controlled?
- What is the relative economic and military power of the major campaign locations?
Since the point of the map is to visualize static structures that will influence the people of your campaign world, spend your time on what makes the most sense for your campaign.
Populating the World
With a map completed, it’s time to start taking down notes about the people that live there. People are the most complex part of any setting; they have intricate histories and cultures, and may self-identify with more than one faction. Defining these social structures will give you plenty to work from as you run your campaign.
Where there are people, there are states. Large populations require some sort of organizing body that maintains social order and provides physical safety. This is known as the state, and the state’s influence (or lack thereof) on the people living there can be as significant as geography. The way states are organized varies greatly, and each type governs and responds to crises uniquely.
- City-States have loose political control over the territory within a day’s travel of the city center. Their military potential is limited by a small population, so they tend to be insular. When they are outward-looking, their most sustainable strategy is commerce. A city-state that relies on conquest for expansion will either develop into a kingdom or an empire, or end up collapsing due to overreach. The collapse of a city-state is generally signaled by a loss of influence, conquest by a rival state, or in extreme cases, abandonment of the city itself.
- Kingdoms are large, territorial states that typically have a single cultural identity. They can potentially exert strong political control over land and subjects. When a kingdom fails, it’s likely that either an internal faction or an outside aggressor will seize control of existing political structures, and the structure of the kingdom will not change significantly for most subjects. If the ruling class is gutted during a collapse, then individual towns and principalities will become disorganized and left to fend for themselves.
- Empires are huge states that rule diverse cultural groups. Administrators and bureaucrats become an essential part of the ruling class in an empire due to its complexity. Empires have the greatest ability to raise large armies and absorb losses during prolonged conflicts. They tend to be too large to conquer all at once; it may take multiple wars over decades or centuries to grind away at their territory. Or an empire may collapse from within, if it doesn’t adequately meet the needs of the people. Cultural groups can rise up and create separate states out of an empire that grows complacent.
- Nation States are what we’re most familiar with. The combination of national/cultural identity and sovereign rule helps maintain a continuity of identity. This leads to protracted resistance if part or all of a nation state is conquered by another power, and the collapse of its government is more likely to cause internal structural change than it is a change of borders.
- Colonial Powers exist when the holdings of an empire are physically isolated from the parent state. Generally they exist for economic exploitation, so friction is common. Small colonial powers are not self-sustaining, creating a reliance on commerce with the parent and stunting military potential. If attacked by a stronger force (or internal rebellion), small colonies may be completely razed and abandoned. Larger colonies are more likely to simply be subjugated by the new power (or the parent state they rebelled against).
- Corporate States would exist if a business entity held legitimate political authority over a territory. As a large corporate institution, their primary strength would be economic; the military and police would be comprised of mercenaries and private security contractors. Conquest in war or a hostile takeover by another corporate entity may be no more noticeable to the average person than a change in management of a business. A financial disaster would be much more disruptive; financial collapse of a corporate state would abruptly cut off all services and institutions that keep society running.
For medieval or fantasy campaigns, your world will have some combination of city-states, kingdoms, and empires. If your campaign is more modern or futuristic, you may also have nation states, colonial powers, or corporate states.* Technically speaking, this is not an exhaustive list, but it covers the major political structures in a way that’s useful for worldbuilding. Also keep in mind that the state type doesn’t dictate the government type. A kingdom can be a monarchy, but it can also be an oligarchy or another type of government.
If you have just one large state for your setting, make sure to add in regional differences so that there is still some variety between locations. When making multiple states, you should have either diversity in the kind of state, or a set of differences in government or cultural identity that makes them distinct. You want to have variety and contrast when you’re finished. If your states are too similar, they’ll become redundant. The players won’t feel like they’re traveling to new places when moving between them.
Histories and Religions
When you create the history of your campaign world, it’s easier to work backwards from the present day. You have the cities in their present locations, your state borders and influences are mapped out; now how did the world get this way?
- What wars or political alliances have defined the current generation?
- Are there any long standing feuds between states?
- How long have the present day cities stood?
- Are there ruins of other civilizations that were defeated by existing powers?
As you’re creating your world’s history, also add in any major religious elements that you want to include. Religion influences the course of history as much as states do, so these two pieces are easily woven into the world together.
Keep things in broad strokes for this part of worldbuilding. Even if your players are kind enough to read a big information packet on your world’s history and religious philosophies, it will be too much information for them to remember during play. This step is mainly to ground yourself in the world you’re going to run. Ultimately, these two elements will help provide deep motivations for the factions that make up your societies.
Even if your campaign doesn’t have a focus on intrigue, creating factions within your states will add variety and opportunities for interesting choices. The players may not care which noble house rules, but a feud between them could spark a bidding war for the players’ services. One house may want an important artifact returned, while another wishes it destroyed. Playing with how far each is willing to go to achieve their goals adds a lot to what would otherwise just be a dungeon delve for a lost treasure.
You have many options besides noble houses when creating factions. Start by identifying their motivation. What do they want for society or for themselves? That is what brings them together and drives them. Political control is just one of many motivations. Guilds within a city might be upset with taxation, or heavy regulation of their contracts. Religious sects could vie for the hearts of the people, trying to get the populace to embrace specific rituals and traditions. Subjects that don’t have the protection of city walls may clamor for stronger military and more frequent patrols. Any society of modest size should have two or three issues driving interested factions. Having them available for conflict or as part of the background makes your world feel that much larger and more realistic.
Not every piece of your map will fall neatly under someone’s banner. The parts that don’t will be simpler to finish, because they won’t have an intricate social landscape to create. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t have interesting details of their own. Ask yourself why a particular region of the world is wilderness:
- Is it geographically isolated and difficult to reach? Isolated and resource-poor areas wouldn’t be worth the trouble for most states.
- Does it contain something that makes it too dangerous to settle? Terrifying creatures or bands of monstrous humanoids would threaten any settlers trying to gain a foothold.
- Did a massive disaster destroy the previous inhabitants and make the region unlivable? Ecological disasters, lands ravaged by uncontrolled magics, or something mysterious that wiped out a once-great empire would all be avoided by those living nearby.
Wilderness regions are often most defined by how they contrast with neighboring civilizations. Bringing this tension between civilization and wilderness out in your game will make the differences in location feel more important to the players as they travel between them.
Creating Space for Growth
As you draw maps and create histories, remember that you don’t need to complete everything now. Instead of writing down every detail, use an outline or mind map to record what feels important and comes to you easily.
You are creating strong foundations for your world that you can build on as you play. When you know how pieces of your setting relate to one another, you’ll have created an expansive network of possibilities for your world. Each added piece creates new connections with the rest. By identifying these relationships and focusing on contrasts, you can make your world catch your players’s attention.
With the world set up and ready to go, you’ll have dozens of stories at your fingertips. As you form the plot of your campaign, each piece of the setting will be teeming with new ideas that a blank canvas could never have provided.
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