There are two options as a dungeon master in Dungeons and Dragons. You can purchase a premade campaign that will take your players from one level to another. Some will run your players from level 1 to 20 even. Or you can create your own world from scratch to tell the story that you and your players have thought about playing. It is harder to do the second option but it is very worth it if you want to go down this path.
World Building: What is it
Dungeons and Dragons is a popular tabletop role playing game that allows players to explore dungeons, fight monsters, and take on other challenges. The game world is created by the players and can be as detailed or sparse as they want it to be. This guide will provide tips for world building in Dungeons and Dragons, from creating a setting’s history to developing its geography.
There is a lot that goes into creating an entire world from scratch so the article below will give you many ideas to think about. You don’t have to incorporate all of the ideas. It is your world and thus you can do what you want with it. You could have your world be heavily influenced by the gods or they could never show up in any real sense. Or you could remove divine magic entirely as there are no gods in your world. All of these options are perfectly acceptable but greatly change how your world looks and feels.
The Setting: Describe the world’s history, geography, and cultures
The world of your story is split into many different nations. Perhaps there are a few small regions that connect them, maybe there is a large desert that separates one nation from another, or perhaps it’s just a giant ocean.
What is the brief history of your world? What major kingdoms / monsters / gods / guilds / people have shaped the history of the world? How did they do that? If you look at the Lord of the Rings there are several Elven, Dwarven and Human Kingdoms with pockets of monsters and the occasional dragon plus many minor areas and towns spread throughout. Most of the history is shaped by different magical items and high powered NPCs. You don’t need to know all of the history to read the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, but knowing the history explains minor details.
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So what will your world look like? Ancient and filled with ruins from a glorious past civilization (easiest and most common)? A world at the pinnacle of technology and magic (hardest to play)? An item (i.e. One Ring of Power or Silmarils) or group of people (Fëanor / Morgoth or Sauron) that have shaped the course of history?
List any people / items or anything else of importance and how it changed the history of the world. If you want to know how create a memorable villain for use in your history please read our article here.
What are the major mountain ranges, plains, swamps, forests, oceans, lakes and rivers. The best way to figure out the geography is to make or find a map that you can use. The fastest way to create this would be to use DonJon’s world builder.
If you have something more specific in mind you can just sketch it out on paper – it doesn’t have to look nice or be incredibly fancy. I have used plenty of hand drawn maps with major labels that look like a child did them and it was fine. If you are serious about your maps there are plenty of software tools out there that can help you do as much as you would like. Otherwise you may want to have one generated for you for free with the link above.
What races have power in your world? Is there a mixed humanoid kingdom, a predominately dwarven kingdom in the mountains, nomadic barbarian tribe of goblinoids, and the undead isle ruled by an ancient lich wizard to the south?
I hope you get the idea. List out what groups are inhabiting the major kingdoms in your world? What is their history and notable people / creatures in each of them.
Check Out Our DM Journal
The Dungeon Master Design Kit is for Dungeon Masters that like to create their own RPG campaigns from scratch, but have trouble keeping all of their notes in one place.
This book contains 5 pages of questions for you to quickly plot out the overview of your RPG campaign.
From there we split into three sub sections (or sub plots or acts) and ask drill down deeper into the story line so that you can tell a cohesive story in your RPG even if it lasts for 45+ weeks.
The Creatures: Describe different types of creatures that inhabit the world and their behavior
This is perhaps the best reason to play Dungeons and Dragons. In other table top role playing games (TTRPG) the dungeon master needs to create all of the creatures, monsters, and characters that the players would encounter. The monster manual and other books that have been released allow you, the dungeon master, to quickly have races, creatures and monsters at your finger tips.
Is there a group or type of creature that is predominate in an area of your world. The common choices for this would be goblinoids, demons, devils, dragons, or undead.
I am using monsters and races differently. I am considering the races that are available for players to use in the Players Handbook as races and anything else listed in the monster manual or other books containing monsters to be either creatures (animals primarily) or monsters. It doesn’t actually matter if you agree or disagree with these definitions. It just matters that you have an idea of any race / monster / creature (or however you want to split those hairs) will be in your world in a way that influences the world around them. For example, you can use any and all monsters in the monster manual. It only matters if you will have a large number of one type of creature somewhere in your world.
Are there any races / creatures / monsters that you do not want to have in your world? If so, note that and let your players know. Why let your player’s know? Some creatures are tied to player classes. So there are two types of warlocks in Dungeons and Dragons. If one of those races do not exist in your game will you allow that warlock type to be played? If so, do you have to change how they work? The same would be true if you say that undead creatures don’t exist. Every cleric has turn undead as a class ability – does that get changed then to be turn demon or turn goblinoid? Or is it just wasted now? It is up to you (ultimately) and your players to determine. A change that big should have player input in my opinion, but it is your game and world.
Do you have a theme that your monsters will follow? Lets say you are playing in a world like Ravenloft, recently revived in D&D 5e with Curse Of Strahd. This world, back in D&D 3.5 at least, had a corrupting influence on everything it touched. In Ravenloft, everything corrupts eventually. The monsters in Ravenloft could be more corrupted or could even have a template created to add onto every creature in the area.
Does your world have a dark shadow over it that is slowly corrupting the denizens. Is there a plane of existence that is maybe too close to your world’s plane and for the last 50 or 100 years everyone has been impacted. Maybe everything is running towards chaos or law. It doesn’t even have to be good, evil, law, or chaos, it could be the domain of a god and that god’s personality is slowly changing everyone.
If that is the case is there a monster template that can be applied to powerful monsters? For example, all monsters that have a corruption aspect to them look a certain way and have 5 points of immunity to an element like fire. The sky is the limit here.
Most worlds have no thematic element so feel free to skip this.
The Magic: Describe how magic works in the world and its impact on society
Dungeons and Dragons spends a LOT of time defining how magic works in the world. Many different classes and monsters utilize magic in some way. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to change how magic works from the standard rules in your world.
Are there any special rules in your world? I once played a game where the dungeon master ruled that all divine spells were empowered for free without level adjustment. So I played a druid and used that to my advantage and as you can imagine that broke the game in many ways. I wouldn’t recommend creating a special rule unless it balanced or only a problem.
One of the best examples of this was the Dark Sun world. In Dark Sun any arcane spell cast sucked the life force out of living creatures and could also remove water from the world. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but there were no gods in this world. Most of the magic performed was psionic in nature. By the time you are introduced to the Dark Sun world most of the world is now a barren desert and arcane magic users are hunted down and killed on sight.
Do you want to do something like this in your world? Most worlds won’t and that is ok.
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The number one banned spell in D&D 3.5: polymorph. Polymorph had a full page of text and had pages upon pages of errata to try to fix it. Most dungeon masters just banned polymorph outright to avoid arguments on how it works. Is there spell you do not like or always cause an argument? Maybe consider making that spell forbidden from anyone in the world from using it. If you do this make sure no one (not players or NPC’s) use it.
What is the impact of magic in your world? If you changed any of the ways magic works does that change how things work or people react magic. In the Dark Suns world the impact is a barren wasteland and arcane magic users are hunted down and killed. Most games will accept the system in the core D&D 5e books and not have to worry about this.
The Technology: Describe the level of technology in the world and its effects
There is a balance between technology and magic. In high magic societies there is little need to create medicine, weapons and such using technology. In a low or no magic society then technology will try to advance to create medicine, weapons and even computers and space travel.
What is the technology level of your game. Most D&D 5e games are simply stuck at or near the medieval level for technology and then magic takes over. This isn’t a problem just something to note. If you want a more advanced technological level you may need to ask why that would happen if I can create a wall, give life back to the dead, and teleport anywhere in the world with a thought?
Is there a technology that is forbidden? With the current level of technology in Dungeons and Dragons 5e there is really no reason for this. But if you have moved to a low magic / high technology world you may want to limit things like computers and space travel or move D&D into space using tech or magic. The choice is really up to you.
The Politics: Describe the political landscape of the world and how it affects the people
You can go as deep or not as you would like into politics. If your players are of noble birth then maybe politics of a particular kingdom is what your world and story are about. Otherwise, maybe politics only comes into place if the players are interacting with a ruler of a local city-state or kingdom.
List out any major kingdoms in your world and their racial and class makeup. This will give you a general idea of who you need to create at least at a high level to give that kingdom flesh.
I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on this at the beginning but maybe having the name / race / class / level of any rulers for your major kingdoms. These would be names that most would know if they lived in the kingdom. For instance, most Americans know who the president is. Most of them will never meet the president. The same would be true in your D&D world.
Are there any guilds that your players may need to know about? I have always wanted to run a guild heavy game but have never done it. If that is something you want to try then list out maybe three guilds and create some sort of conflict between them. This will allow your players to potentially take a side or at the very least do side quests for a guild.
The Religion: Describe the major religious groups and how they impact the world
In the numerous Dungeons and Dragons worlds there is a list of different deities that one could use. Normally there will be at least one major god for each alignment point (thus 9 or more major gods are available to you). If you want to explore this then I suggest reading this article for a list of different gods of the multiverse.
If you are playing with a religion heavy world then list out any notable gods and their major NPC followers. Are there two or more gods at war in your world? If that is the case then figure out what the motives are for these gods and their followers and what will eventually happen if the players do nothing.
The Conclusion: Summarize what has been discussed and provide some tips for creating a successful world
There are a lot of questions to answer to create your own world and that may seem very daunting. However, you don’t need to deep dive into each of these to have a successful world in Dungeons and Dragons (or any TTRPG). Instead, take your initial concept and run it through any of the questions and sections above that you think will be prominent in your game. Otherwise, maybe make a note of anything you might want to delve deeper into and do so if it ever comes up in your game.
About the Author:
Dwight Scull has been playing tabletop role playing games (starting with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5) back in 2001. He started being a dungeon master around 2005.
He loves to play many different types of TTRPG’s, including GURPS, Shadowrun, Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension (and other White Wolf Games), Nights Black Agents, and others.
Fan of mysteries, light horror, co-op board games, true crime, sci-fi and fantasy.