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How to start worldbuilding

So you want to build your own homebrew world to set your Dungeons and Dragons campaign in? That's awesome! You're gonna have so much fun! Starting worldbuilding though can be a little overwhelming! Where should you begin? And how much do you need to know?

Do you need to have all your relevant NPCs and political factions planned out from the start? Do you need a complete pantheon of gods? What about knowing the price of all the different things you can buy at a remote trading post?

You'll be happy to hear that the answer to all those questions is no! In short, you can start wherever you like. And you need to know a lot less than you might think. Here's what I do:

Start small

First, start with something small. Like really small. Trying to plan out a whole world can be so overwhelming that you never get anything done. But thinking about a single character, or a town, or organisation is a lot easier. And once you've got that idea down, it's a lot easier to work outwards from there. And if you're really stuck for this initial idea - just steal something from a book or film that you love! Be that the basis for a character or a city or just an aesthetic, that can be an invaluable place to start!

So, where do you go next? Well, lets say you've got an idea for a mining guild. Then you just start asking yourself a load of questions about it. What it is that they're mining for? Why is this of significance to your world? Who else might have interest in it? You get the idea. Perhaps someone working for this guild found something unexpected in the mine recently. Maybe an artifact. Maybe a body. Who else knows about this? Who wants to make sure people don't know about this?

You see what I mean? We started with something very simple and fairly easy to create - and then just by asking ourselves half a dozen questions or so, we are already beginning to flesh out a few possibilities for storylines and characters, which can form the basis of the story you want to tell with your players.

Always ask why

I guess the easiest way to start expanding your ideas is just to ask why constantly, like a child might do when they're deliberately trying to annoy a parent. Why does a certain character want to go on an adventure? Why does the BBEG want to take over the world? Why is this rebellion taking place? Why does this guild want to expand into new territory? The more you ask why, the more detail you will begin to amass about the world you are creating. This, in turn, helps you to ask additional questions and come up with more and more ideas.

Now, it's worth noting at this point that your players will likely not dig down into the details of your world to this extent. If your players are anything like mine, then most of the time they'll probably be happy to take things at face value. They'll be happy just asking the bar-keep for a few beers rather than wondering what his childhood was like, and what his opinions are on various political factions. So you don't have to go overboard with the musings and the detail! That said, the better you know the world, the easier it will be to roleplay any NPCs - as you'll already have a vague idea of their leanings and motivations. You know how much time you have available for this, so you can do as much worldbuilding as you like, really.

The network effect

The great thing about this approach though, is that it works like a network. Every additional thing that you add to your world creates value, by creating a deeper and more coherent setting for everything else. So the more random ideas you have and can put together, the better. True, this can take time - but if you enjoy the process, then it's all good. I find that giving myself time to muse about stuff like this is really useful - because often my best ideas will come to me at like 4am when I can't sleep. The more space you can give yourself for the creative process, the better. At least in my experience.

Get your players involved

It's also super important to give your players a role in the worldbuilding process as well, though. They more that they feel their actions, choices and ideas have consequences in the world, the more invested in it they are likely to be. Therefore, listen to their ideas, and try to say yes to them as often as possible.

If they've just arrived at a dock for example and ask you if there's a customs house, or a harbour master or any fishermen there - unless you've got a good reason not to, then say yes! Who knows the direction that they may want to go and how they want the story to unfold - but that's part of what makes D&D great! You might have to think on your feet a little when coming up with these characters and places - but in the long run it'll make your game feel more vibrant and exciting. It'll also hand off a certain degree of the creative process to your players.

Keep it flexible

To do this, it's worth keeping some things a bit ambiguous and flexible. If your players haven't yet asked about the relationships between certain characters, or organisations or cities, then don't feel the need to dump a load of lore or exposition just because you want to show off how much prep you've done. In my mind, everything is flexible in my head until I've actually said or explained something at the table. That way you can always change things around to suit the direction your players take the adventure. I can't count the number of times my players have mused about possible situations during a sessions and I've thought 'that's brilliant! I'm definitely stealing that!' Keeping your world as flexible as possible gives you far more of these opportunities.

So there you go. If you hold onto these principles of starting small then working outwards, asking a lot of questions about your world and the people within it, and not being afraid to stay flexible and allow your players to help in the worldbuilding process, you should make worldbuilding a breeze. Have fun!


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