Today’s guest article was written by Lord Byte, and it looks at a worldbuilding technique that doesn’t get much attention as some other approaches. His lens is D&D 4e, but the advice can be applied to a wide range of RPGs. Thanks, LB!
The dwarves live in the mountains to the north, the elves in the forest, the humans in cities along the coast… I’m willing to bet that pretty much every first campaign world started like that. And the second. And third. (Guilty!)
Every campaign world I made was an exercise in me trying to cram as much as possible into it. I would want an Arabic-style land to the south somewhere, so I could include Al-Qadim influences. Then psionics arrived so a floating crystal city somewhere. Then some new race was released and a couple of new classes which I had to fit in so players could take them if they wanted.
Inevitably I would abandon every single campaign world. It all felt like a giant cliché, every splatbook seemed duct-taped in, and it left a sour taste in my mouth (even though my players loved it). So abandoned my world and took my players to Eberron, but it never felt right.
When the 4E “Wizards presents…” books arrived I dove in headlong, hoping to find the spark that would reignite my love for world-building. And I did: As soon as I read the “points of light” theory, my mind made the switch. I could break away from a medieval world with fantasy tacked on the side, but how?
Cut to Highlight what Matters
Then the core rules arrived and I immediately hated the eladrin. A recent article had also changed my mind on half-races, so I started cutting those out. I felt elated. I was free! Then I realised something: World-building isn’t about trying to fit everything in, it’s about making choices and sticking to them, creating something different by only picking what you want, what your world needs!
Once I started I couldn’t stop, and each time I removed a race, class or monster, my vision of the world became clearer. Every thing removed tells a story about the world that every addition just doesn’t. It all becomes to much to try to fit in and try and think of every consequence and nuance and what the effect would be on the world. By sticking to a few core races, I told a story, one in which I could see what the impact was on my world.
Change or Flip instead of Cutting
It’s not just taking giant scissors to the game system; dare to change things or completely turn them upside down. My elves are cannibalistic, and basically the only humanoid race that isn’t integrated in society; they are universally reviled (with good reason, for most). There are no intelligent humanoid “monsters” apart from them. Orcs in my world are the saviours of society, an honourable martial caste that keep the few remaining city-states safe from the dangers of Nature.
Change the name and function of classes. My clerics are called avatars, because they each exemplify an aspect of the one god. The avenger became the mage-hunter, an agent who hunts rogue wizards. The artificer became the inventor, and just by describing its powers differently it seems an entirely different class.
An other effect is that you can make races or classes rare by giving them a social stigma, and telling your players to not take them unless they have a really good back-story or reason for them. (Like the way that elves in my world are reviled and hated, and get an enormous amount of racism aimed at them.) Of course this didn’t stop some of my players when the campaign started, but most of them came crawling back before long, retiring their character just to play something less “hard.” Others actually exulted in the challenge of playing strange races (one elven druid is changing the world slowly, and another is playing a young minotaur, who was frozen in ice, the last of his kind).
You don’t have to stop there: Remove wizards and sorcerers entirely, and suddenly the only arcane magic user is the warlock. This changes your world’s dynamic entirely, as magic is purely a gift from great and terrible creatures, be they ancient gods or demons from hell. Remove the cleric (and warlord), suddenly the paladin becomes the only source of healing magic, making the clergy of your world a martial class.
What could’ve caused that? What kind of world is that? You tell me…