Enjoy this belated post while I enjoy my honeymoon!
On world building:
World building is often a fun and engaging task for the DM, or at least the DM’s that survive into veterancy tend to enjoy the time they spend crafting worlds, cities, and dungeons that the players may never see. What makes this world or campain better than a pregenerated setting, a near-earth setting, or any of the multitude of already established fictional worlds? Most of the time, it is the DM’s enjoyment in crafting a world and a fundamental familiarity they will have so they can generate additional content on the fly. I am sure others do it to avoid the baggage that comes from using a world already known to varying degrees by the players. No DM wants to get into a fight the Tolkien-fan about what the background theological beliefs various orc clans have.
When the players start to get into the weeds of the DM-crafted world, though, things can start to seem random if the DM’s background knowledge is not communicated well enough to the players. Alternatively, too much explanation and the players lose interest in ever setting down roots in a world that can already feel crowded by NPC’s, towns, relationships, and stories. How can a DM balance out these conflicting desires and instill some player buy-in from the get go?
The first step is always communication. Discussing the DM and players’ expectations goes a long way to avoid issues. Talking during and after each game in an open and positive way can help the DM and players course-correct their behavior. Giving the players agency and allowing them to write the story, sometimes literally, for their piece of the world is also a fantastic way. What I offer in the sections below, however, are ways to go beyond and make your world a unique place, a memorable setting that draws in interest by standing apart from another fantasy realm.
A Changing World
One method of creating a unique world is to take a normal world but impose a fundamental change. This will set the stage for the players to react to a shifting world, letting them shine or fail, then reflecting their actions in the world around them.
-Spirits have started crossing over from another realm, attaching themselves to powerful groups and people, attempting to influence and recruit them for a fight in the other realm. They grant power and knowledge while they ask for the players to root out opposing spirits in this realm before they cross over. Defeated enemies will have their spirits attempt attach to the party, often promising different unique abilities to entice the players to choose them. Why do they cross over? What is so valuable that they need your help to get it? Adventurers start going missing from this realm and huge premiums start to pile up for the hero-inclined as the best talent keeps getting skimmed off by these spiritual recruiters. Do your heroes stick through for the long haul in their realm, hoping to become big fish in a small pond? Do they chase the promises of spirits for greater riches in a deadly fight for another realm?
-An otherwordly force is moving in on the world, with expeditionary forces just a rumor on the borderlands and in the deep underground. The weird physiology of the creatures defy understanding, perhaps needing metaphysical concepts to harm them: the action of drawing a bow, the swirling of a paintbrush, two opponents agreeing to disagree, etc. Alternatively, the creatures might sacrifice themselves in a single attack that kills a weapon proficiency or removes a single memory, requiring defenders to stockpile these concepts as a bulwark against the invaders. As the invasion progresses, they begin to change territories and even whole continents, luring heroes to defeat them here and then transverse to their realm to crush them permanently.
-Something deep is stirring. After a period of relative peace and weakening if not disappearing magic/monsters/power, monsters are awakening, tombs are being pushed open from inside, and powerful forces are coming to the fore. Luckily heroes just starting out are ready to ride this new wave to great heights, or be drowned as it passes them by. Empires will crumble under complacency and change is coming. Time to loot the tombs and ancient ruins for knowledge from the more powerful past. The players aren’t the only ones in position to snap up these new trinkets, monsters, and power, so they should take care who knows they compete for it. Generations of peace have led to deep coffers on the part of the old guard’s noble families and rulers.
-Magic is running dry. Old sources of power are fading and monsters are becoming mere beasts. The players are at the bottom of the totem pole that is sinking into the mud. Do they hold some secret and their magic is not fading? Or are they the grunts on the front line being sent on ever riskier journeys into the deep and dangerous places to recover ever rarer magic? The cause may be central to the heart of the world, an attack by the underworld, demons, or a god, or perhaps the effect is a pervasive magic plot initiated by a powerful cult, demi-god, or otherworldly invader. Can the players survive a world of fading magic while the existing powers that be become increasingly guarded and defensive, thrashing about like cornered animals?
Put the Fun in Fundamentals
Another method of creating a memorable world is to change a foundational aspect of the world from its inception, or at least long enough ago that it is common knowledge. Ensure that your players understand these changes and implications before creating their characters. Allow them to rework some character options if they end up not working as intended in the changed world. Foundational changes at the heart of the game world and your campaign can make for a memorable, if different, take on the usual fantasy fun:
-At birth, every living creature with a soul is imprinted with the knowledge of its true name. Anyone with knowledge of your true name can command and ensorcell you with utmost ease, but you can only ever give up your true name willingly. Tarot cards, palm reading, and other similar predictive arts are said to be able to work out almost all of the letters of someone’s true name with enough background around the details of their life. Record keepers, diviners, and investigators are tools of war aimed right at the heart of generals, kings, and fearsome monsters just the same as rams, catapults, and crossbows are tools on the battlefield.
-The world is a sphere, but the world is on its inside, shielded from the cosmic tides of the astral plane. The hemispherical sun at its center provides rotating light, with the moon circling about it, sometimes reflecting portions of the sun to the nighttime side of the world. Occasional magical transport takes advantage of this by moving through the center, passing close by the burning hot sun. Dungeons into the deep are actually burrowing out, towards the strong magical currents and powers of the outer planes, which swirl about the outside of the sphere like metal bands, intersecting at carefully recorded points. This entire swirling sphere floats in the vast expanse of the astral sea. Small spheres float about this larger sphere that are the domains of gods, spirits, and powerful creatures, conjured from nothingness. The deep dark of the underworld is just below the surface of the astral sea, and it sees the corrupting influence of the pure magic of the outworld. Higher level players can explore the dangerous underworld and then even transition to sailing out into the astral sea. The heavens are a hemispherical top to the world and hell is a hemispherical bottom, although these are relative terms as they float about the surface of the sphere just as the elemental rings do.
-The world moves and continental drift isn’t something dreamed up by geologists but can be witnessed in real time. Whether the world is alive, gods are manipulating it, or natural processes work quite fast, it doesn’t matter, land moves and reshapes itself. Cartography requires magic and sensors to keep updated information feeding in. Some areas move in a pattern while others respond to the actions of mortal creatures. Perhaps a dangerous mine scares away mountains, so miners must work carefully or a particularly beautiful road solidifies the grasslands it runs through as if the land is showing off its splendid construction. No kingdom is safe as their lands may move and they might find new neighbors. How do people cope and live in a changing world?
Lots of Ways to Reskin the Cat
For the lazier DM or one with more finicky players, the DM can make a unique world by changing the flavor of an old favorite. These should be less gimmick and more about changing the perspective on an old stand-by of the game. Simple tricks are better for one-shot jokes and references.
–Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, and other demi-human origins and societies are not simply a recoloring of human society but have fundamentally alien values, fears, and desires. Elves hold beauty above all else, covering ferocity and sadism under a thin veneer, a place where beautiful undead are rented out as party guests and scars are the ultimate punishment. Dwarves become obsessive, agoraphobic workers in a society of hierarchy and debt-bondage where the important traits are who owns you and who you own. Halflings, fey, and other creatures survive and propagate new generations through the theft and transformation of human children, with the attendant chaotic and incoherent cultures that such an inconsistent and sporadic reproductive system brings with it. Are the players the black sheep of their societies in acting more human, do they represent serious psychological illness to their peers, or do they hide behind a human seeming mask?
-What if all magic is wielding the lost and captured souls, trapped below the world? The players may be the first to discover this or are among the few able to uncover this secret closely guarded by religious or arcane authorities. This can be a massive opportunity to grab power straight from the tap or a great quest to break the stranglehold of a single authority and journey down to save these souls.
All the World is a Stage
Directly put your players into the spotlight by creating unique circumstances that affect only them.
-Magic does not work for or on the players. Effects they interact with or touch blink out of existence for as long as they touch them, spellcasters are unable to target them. Permanently created or altered materials function normally but are unable to be magically manipulated while touching the players. Magical items cease to work under their employ and they find themselves unable to cast spells. Do they let this hamstring their abilities or does it become part of their arsenal?
-All roads lead to rome. Coincidence builds upon coincidence, accident to accident, the world keeps trying to get the players to explore one particular place. Is a god nudging them on their path to greatness, a demon conspiring for release, or are they being strengthened for recruiting by something from another realm?
-What if the players are instead the monsters and seek to expand their dungeon using the resources of the world above while constant attacks by heroes plague their efforts? As savages, they gain power through destroying civilization and beating back its encroachments.
-The players are the only ones with access to real magic, while other practitioners are clever fakes even if they can manage real effects. Ancient artifacts that most had presumed work through a combination of sleight of hand, placebo, and exaggeration actually work in the hands of the players. Long hidden tombs, powerful relics, and hidden tomes of spells are open to the players who should be careful lest the world take a sudden interest in their abilities. Others with access to greater items and spells might work out how the players managed to get magic and then seek to eliminate their competition.
I hope these ideas help you with your game and if you find it useful, please comment and share.