Dungeons & Dragons Online

A Compulsive Worldbuilder’s Guide to avoiding Compulsive Worldbuilding

Okay, the title is a bit of a joke. I am a compulsive worldbuilder – that is to say, I have created a homebrew setting fleshed out well beyond the scope of the two 5e games I run within it, and I still don't feel like it's finished enough – and that's okay, because worldbuilding is great.

Part of the reason imo that DMs like running homebrew campaigns is to perform the labour of love that is worldbuilding, and share it with our friends. This is actually showing a lot of vulnerability, and both the process and the results can be incredibly rewarding – but for the many of us who treat worldbuilding with undue perfectionism or who can sometimes let it get in the way of just making sure the next session is as good as possible, here are 5 reflections and tips that I think can help calibrate your worldbuilding efforts.

Run the f****** game!

Unless you do actually also write novels, any worldbuilding that you do is always in service to actually playing the game. Don't get caught up navel-gazing and feeling like you need every possible path the players could take to be fleshed out in advance, because a) no preparation survives contact with players and b) if you try to flesh everything out you will never start playing.

Put together a bare minimum level of detail for a session or two, a few key NPCs, locations and encounters. Build an adventure, not a setting. Play the session. Once you play a session, prepare some more content, and as you continue to play build your world progressively around your players' choices.

One thing I find is that trying to create things en masse (e.g. thinking of mayors for all of a continent's major cities) at once tends to reduce the quality of each individual creation. Focus on a small number of creations and make them really impactful and flavourful for when you put them in front of your players. This will create a genuine impression of thoughtfulness about your world, as well as the illusion of completeness, without breaking your back.

Sometimes, you can't play the game for a while, and that's ok and a great opportunity to flesh things out. But again, remember that you want to play a game, and so make a good game before you make a fictional encyclopedia.

Nothing is sacred

You've had a great session, the party is heading off to a new city, one of the players is really getting into character and you've thought of making the mayor of the new city someone known to him, a bit of a nemesis. What a great plan? But what's this? Etched eternally into the sacrosanct document that is your notes on the city from 8 months ago, which specifically stated that the city is ruled by a benevolent priest, not a scheming patrician? Well that's it. Throw it out, nothing's changing.

This is slightly tongue in cheek, but the compulsive worldbuilder might struggle to change things they've already fleshed out, even if it makes the game more fun or dramatic. What if you've already given the game of the mayor several sessions ago to the players? What if you lost the continuity?

Just change it. Just because an idea arrives chronologically first, does not make it better. In fact, ideas that you have later on are more likely to be more closely-linked to your players and their characters, and so it's probably better. Change it if it's better, even if you've already given your players a name.

You can find an in-game explanation for the change if it helps; it could even be a dramatic plot hook. Maybe they were ousted by a political betrayal, maybe they abdicated, maybe they are sick and infirm and just a puppet for a shady advisor. Or, you can just tell your players you made a mistake with your notes and it's someone different. Whatever makes them happy.

This is not a reason not to worldbuild ahead of time, if you like doing that. It is a reason not to be protective about your past work. Do what's best for the game.

Beware the Map

Maps are great, but they are also insidious. This is particularly true of world maps. An incomplete looking world map cries out plaintively to the Compulsive Worldbuilder, with blank space and placeholder towns begging to be fleshed out.

Resist the temptation! Maps appeal to the completion complex, and they also encourage the idea of your previous work being immutable. They make your locations seem more set in stone, and since they are often provided to players, you often fear losing continuity if you change it after handing it over. Tip – just change it anyway. Your players will likely not notice, because, surprise surprise, they don't think about your world as much as you do. On my homebrew world I realised that a peninsula looked kind of like a dick (my players probably noticed but were too polite) so I just changed it. If you think of a better name for a big city or a mountain range, change it. Maybe it went through an in-game renaming, like Ahmedebad or Port Elizabeth.

Also – don't feel you have to fill maps in. An unfinished map with much more detail in one region than the others won't scandalise you players. If you do fill them in, and it starts creating completion complexes about the items you've put on the map but not fleshed out, just give each place a one-line summary.

Not everything has to be cool

I run a fairly high-magic world and I hold myself to high, possibly unreasonable standards for creating distinctive, cool, wondrous or magical settings or locations. Players might also be used to consuming media like Critical Role, which has a lot of those kinds of settings. However, it's important to remember that it's ok for a place to be mundane. Whilst amazing locations can build a great sense of wonder, they are best used sparingly, and the 'real magic' of D&D comes from the drama – which can occur in a perfectly mundane village just as much as in a city made of sculpted ice that floats on a magical cloud or whatever. In fact, I often forget not lingering longer on the 'lower' and more mundane tier of play.

Imo it's important for settings and NPCs to have a 'defining feature' to make them memorable. However, there's nothing about the 'defining feature' that needs to be very outlandish. The defining feature of a town could just be, as in the DMG, that it has a big tanning industry and smells really terrible. The defining feature of an NPC doesn't have to be that they are a half-aasimar/half-kobold who has no feet and levitates around, it can be that they have a stammer.

A somewhat paradoxical extension of this rule is that if something is cool, you don't need to worry too much about it being consistent or logical. Mercer & Mulligan did a podcast where they mentioned that Harry Potter is clearly an extremely successful fantasy series with some very compelling (I didn't say good 😉 ) worldbuilding; yet, despite being able to teleport at will, they use 'nature's slowest bird' to deliver post. The point is that once you have a cool, whimsical idea, that trumps logic – but you don't need to force yourself to have cool, whimsical ideas for everything, because that will make your ideas worse and less impactful for your players.

Engage your players

Because a homebrew world is such a labour of love and the product of a lot of private creative energy, it can be very hard to hand it over. Nevertheless, engage your players. If they write backstories, use those to help your create places & institutions as well as NPCs. Sound obvious? What about letting them create those places and NPCs themselves? Independently of you?

This can go either way – some players will have very different imaginations and won't know the full picture of your world and what makes sense within it. For example, one of my players wanted to create a samurai, but there is no analogue of East Asia in my world (not because I don't like the idea of it, but more because I like the voice acting side of things and I don't want to start doing Japanese accents). The easy fix is to take their ideas and adapt them as little as you need to.

Some players (if you're one of these, you're the best) like to ask about the lore of your homebrew world. You might or might have this lore to hand, but I'd encourage you to be giving, but also giving in small doses with this lore. Don't just copy and paste your entire notes, even if it could conceivably all be known in character – treat it more like a clue instead.

This is really an optional one because players vary so much and frankly a lot of them don't care about helping you worldbuild, or can't be trusted to be very helpful. But I think it can help to make DMing and worldbuilding feel less lonely.

That's it. I refer you back, always, to point one. Let me know if I've missed anything major!

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