My new campaign is starting this weekend, and my group opted to make use of Dawn of Worlds  to design the game world. Dawn of Worlds is a collaborative world building system for use with RPGs, novels, or anything else for which you’d need a world. It’s system neutral which makes it useful for anyone, and it’s a lot of fun in it’s own right. We used Dawn of Worlds for a number of reasons, and coming away from it, I can say I’ve learned a few things about the best use of the system.
The basic concept of how Dawn of Worlds works is like this: Each turn, each player gets a number of points. Points are used to buy things in the world from terrain features to races, to world-changing events. Turns are grouped into eras. Within each era, costs are balanced differently. In the first era, terrain and climate is very inexpensive, while the second era features inexpensive races, advancements (technologies and similar advantages) and avatars (powerful influences), and the third and final era features inexpensive organizations, armies, and wonders.
Dawn of Worlds spreads the labor of world creation out amongst the whole group, so it makes world creation faster and the end result more complex than if one player were doing it. It also makes sure that players are familiar with the history of the gameworld without having to bore them to tears with endless exposition or giving them a novella to read.
Even if you don’t have a project that needs a world, Dawn of Worlds is a fun game in it’s own right. Especially at the later stages, it’s fun to see the creations everyone made and their histories, and there’s nothing stopping you from cherry-picking your favorite parts to incorporate into other projects.
Dawn of Worlds promotes player investiture by inviting all players to add things they feel are exciting or they’d like to play into the world. If you have a player that likes the idea of gunplay, they can feel free to add a civilization of gunslinging tinkers. If one of your players fancies the idea of a race of kobold paladins and priests being the greatest force for good in the world, they can contribute that. If one of your players wants a giant civilization with merchants, diplomats, and civil engineers, there’s nothing stopping them. Everyone has the ability to put something in the world that they want to see or play.
In addition, the result of Dawn of Worlds pulls from the collective imaginations of a group of players, not just one. That means that you, as game master aren’t required to come up with everything in the world all by yourself, and that everyone’s best ideas are at the table. These ideas will quickly build off of each other as well. If that race of good kobolds comes to power by overthrowing their masters and driving them out of their city, someone else might make another order of kobolds dedicated to retaking their homeland from the usurpers.
But, not everything about Dawn of Worlds is smiles and sunshine. There are no problems or mistakes that I found in the system, but there are challenges that need to be identified and handled for the game to meet it’s greatest potential. I ran into quite a few of these with my group. Some we handled well, others no so much.
First is that there’s no mention of, nor adjustment for, size. This includes size of your group, size of your map, and size of your world. We don’t know if the base rules are intended to be used with 3 players or 18, we don’t know if your map is supposed to fill an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, or a poster, and while we know each power effects 1 square inch, we don’t know how many square miles that’s supposed to be. The easy answer is “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Stop being anal retentive and enjoy the game.” but that doesn’t address that these factors have very serious effects on both the game and the game world. My group consists of 7 players, and I opted for an 11×17 map where each square inch was approximately 10,000 square miles of the world (100 x 100 miles). Our game lasted til turn 16. Conversely, a friend of mine running his own game has slightly more players but a “freaking huge” (he hasn’t disclosed size other than that) map. His group went through over 20 turns in their first nght of play and haven’t even come close to finishing the first phase of the game (creating raw terrain). Map scale greatly effects the granularity of your world. If a 1′ square is 10 miles across, your end world looks a lot different than mine with squares 100 miles across.
Keep in mind when planning your game, that half the number of squares of land you have, divided by the number of players you have gives you an approximation of the number of turns it will take to add terrain to the entire surface of your landmass. Each Era (type of play) is slated to take a minimum of 5 turns, so I’d aim for that as a rough target for that calculation. Too much smaller, and your players will be finished with creating terrain well before it’s optimal to do anything else. Too much larger and you may move on from boredom long before your terrain is finished, leaving your world with vast stretches of featureless grassland.
While we’re on the “Are you clenched too tightly Matt?” issues, don’t wait to address this one if you’re uptight like me. When players place features on the map, they’re allowed to place them wherever they like and they’re allowed to make whatever they like. While that’s cool, you can only have so many jungles right next to artic tundra before your world starts to look pretty stupid. Yes, you can handwave each and every one away with some excuse or another, but it’s far simpler to start with some climactic bands (and tectonic plates and wind patterns if you’re super retentive like me) drawn on your map and labeled so that everyone knows what’s appropriate for each area. Then, if they drop a jungle in an arctic band or a dessert right next to the ocean, it’s because it’s intentional and they have a cool reason in mind, not because they have no idea it doesn’t belong there. Trust me when I say you do not want to wait till four turns in realize your terrain placement makes your brain hurt and try to clean it up then. It’s not fun.
Something else that’s a potential pitfall is the temptation to move into the next era before you’re finished with the current one. Remember that each era has actions that are most efficient only in that era, so if you abandon terrain building when you’re half done to start making races and cities, you’re not only wasting points (and thus time) on inefficient races and cities, but later you’ll either have a very empty world, or be faced with finishing terrain creation now that it’s more expensive. It’s far too easy to get ahead of yourself. Make sure you’re done with what you’re “supposed” to be doing before you get distracted with the next thing in line. While this isn’t a hard fast rule, keeping to it in general will produce better results than ignoring it.
Another feature of the game that’s well-intentioned but can cause problems is that if you finish your turn with 5 or fewer points left to spend, you get a cumulative (up to +3) bonus to your next roll for points. This means that players have a large incentive to spend down as closely to five points as they can. That’s fantastic because it means more being created and more happening in your world. Where it causes problems is when you have just a few points to burn to keep your bonus rolling, and you need to spend them on anything. This can lead to ill thought out plays and burning off points in ways that are innapropriate. We had a player burn off points several times by corrupting another player’s civilization. This meant that one their turn, that player then had to pay the points to reverse that corruption before they could take their own actions. To avoid this, keep in mind a short list of constructive actions within each era that take just a few points and don’t have prerequisites. That way, when bleeding off points, players don’t accidentally cause each other problems and frustration.
Anther area where things can get sensitive is when one player plays with another one’s creation. No one (generally) minds when you create a subrace of another race, or make a new order in someone else’s society, but as created societies and races start to have life of their own, sometimes they’re going to want to mess with each other. That’s normal and it should be encouraged, as it makes for a vibrant realistic world with the tension neccesary to create good stories and adventures. In our game, two players made very technology centric cultures very early, so another player created an order of terroristic luddites to make war on them. Similarly, we had the holy kobolds of Bahamut and the evil dragon corrupted kobolds at each other’s throats. After the tension created by the bleeding off of points by corrupting another player’s city I mentioned above, tension between players (not world factions) was high, and as world elements started to clash, other players got caught in the crossfire and became mildly annoyed. This caused me to make a new rule that before you touched another player’s creation, you needed to get permission. That was a mistake. It took all the tension and drama out of the world and future events and greatly reduced the creative options of players. It’s well and good to say that before touching another players creation you should discuss or mention it to them, and that no one should be a jerk to another player, but limiting players in this way wasn’t a good idea on my part.
Fianlly, while Dawn of Worlds allows for players to incorporate anything they want into the world, if the things they create aren’t in the official rules, someone will have to make a writeup for their creations. In some games that’s very simple, but in games in which that could be a painful process, it’s probably best to agree to stick to pre-made items and just twist them to make them unique.
So, while Dawn of Worlds has it’s challenges, just like any other game, the effort is well worth the payoff of a collaborative world full of player investiture and everyone’s best ideas and I strongly suggest your group try it out for your next project.