Ask The GM: How To Build A World

By John Serpico on


Beth asks – I love being a GM and I want to challenge myself. I’d like to use the D&D 5th edition rules but create my own world to run a campaign in. What advice could you offer on how to build it?

Building a world from whole cloth can an incredibly fun and deeply satisfying activity for a GM. While existing campaign settings give you rich histories, plenty of pre-generated characters and a number of potential storylines, making one from scratch gives you more control and more options than anything you get from a box. When you’re using an existing campaign setting, there’s often a sense that you’re just renting it instead of owning it. While you certainly can make any changes to it that you want, you might be reluctant to change something that you feel is canon.

By way of a hypothetical, let’s say you’re running a module in a campaign setting that involves the queen’s adviser betraying the queen to a foreign power. What if you wanted the Captain of the Guard to be the betrayer instead of queen’s adviser because you’re drawn to stories of military intrigue over political intrigue? What if you didn’t want the empire ruled by a queen, but rather by a council of elders? You can make those adjustments, but they might have downstream impacts you need to resolve as well. Let’s say the queen’s son was going to become an ally. That queen’s son might need to become the wife of one of the elders. The adviser’s chambers might need to become the city’s guardhouse. Again, all of this is up to you, but the changes you make beget more changes. In short, sometimes it’s easier to build a house than renovate one.

Since you’re committed to breaking ground on a new house (or world), there are a number of approaches you can take. For sake of ease, I’ll share my approach first, and then I’ll provide some general tips, since my approach works for me but may not work for everyone.

The “Ask The GM” Approach

Generally speaking, I start with a map. I freehand a continent on graph paper and then draw some rivers and mountain ranges to get a general sense of shape. Sometimes, I’ll use a map generator tool online (like this one that sits on a Stanford website). I then add some cities, keeping in mind that virtually all cities ever built throughout human history were built on water and natural resources. Once I have my cities mapped out, I give each a name and a reason for being. For example, perhaps a city near a mountain lake exists because of rich veins of iron ore. And the city in the middle of the coast is the main point of trade via sea. And the city near a desert oasis is there because it was built on the ruins of some incredibly ancient city. Once I have that mapped out, I think about politics. Who owns each of the cities? Is the eastern half of the continent under control of an empire and the cities to the west are all independent kingdoms? Is the whole continent united? Or is there a grand war? Once I have that decided, I think about races – is this continent (and game) human-centric or are there dwarves and elves out there too? Perhaps that giant empire is ruled by the elves and the humans within it are fighting for equal rights. I then add in some non-city points of interest like the biggest and most important religious site or the biggest and scariest forest. When that is all sketched out, my last step is determining where the party should start. If the party is starting in one of the cities, I do a deep dive on that city and determine who the political and military forces are, as well as the various trade and diplomatic factions. If the party is starting in a small village, then that initial deep dive is much less intense and I instead focus on a couple of important NPCs and locations.

In short, I make a map, determine the cities, determine the factions, determine the points of interests, and then figure out where to start. Other folks take an entirely opposite approach, where they build a deep history before they make a continent or build an incredibly detailed location like an ancient forest or a farming village without focusing on anything else. Because of those varied approaches, as promised, here are some general things to think about regardless of how you build!

General And Useful Tips

You Don’t Need To Make Everything – You will want to make everything. You’ll want to have an organizational chart of royal families with in depth histories. You’ll want a definitive list of trade routes. You’ll want a stack of note cards with all the various acts of betrayal you expect to happen in the kingdom. Yes indeed, you’ll want all of those things, you but don’t need to build them right away. Keep in mind that there is only so far the players can travel in a single session. So before you build out the political machinations of the four possible cities they might want to travel to by the third gaming session, get a sense of where they want to go first. Build as much of your world as you need to know the current events and big political powers, and then only add on what you need to for the next couple sessions.

Showcase Your Interests – If you’re really into cartography and want to build a world with rich maps and shipping routes, go for it. If you’re into economics or finance, really dive into the nuances of trade, now’s your chance. If you’re keen on military history, build a military empire full of grand armies and exploitable weaknesses. The storyline of the campaign will be a mix of input from you and your players, but the world itself can be entirely yours and show off all the things you love.

Get Player Feedback If You Want It – If you’re working on a world for a campaign that starts in a few months, ask your players for feedback if you’d like some. Have them each name a faction or country or write a paragraph about their fictional hometown. Heck, you can give them a “Mad Libs”-style fill in the blank sheet for cities (asking for City Name, Chief Export, Style of Government, Notable Feature, Biggest Internal Difficulty) and let them go nuts. That might be a nice way to break up any world-building writer’s block.

The World Should Have Reason And Consequence – The setting you put together doesn’t need to be super serious. It could be a world of whimsy with cities built on the backs of giant whales or a place where the main religion involves baking a peach cobbler during every sunset. But whether it is serious or silly, make it a world where rules matter and things happen for a reason. If two countries are at war, the war is a big deal and food is scarce. If there is a province that has made its fortune two hundred years ago from a now-exhausted diamond mine, there should probably be two century old palaces and high unemployment.

The Setting And The Campaign Are Different Things – Building the world and building the story are two different things. By not building the entire world, you’re not neglecting the story. Let’s say you want to start the campaign by keeping the party in a certain town during a snowstorm for two or three sessions and embroil them in local politics. Well then, the only part of the world you need to build is that town… and maybe some references to far off places they can’t yet get to. You’re not cheating or being lazy by doing that. The story is the story and the setting is the setting.

Get out there and build, and if you have any specific questions as you go, you know where to find us!

Happy GMing!

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