Designing a Fantasy World

So, as promised a while back, here are my views on designing a fantasy world. (Some of this was written by “Rich Staats” and included in the “Book of World Creation” which I’ve uploaded it to PADnD for info).

This entry will cover creating a world, covering two different ideas:

Bottom up – starting small, and extending the world as the PC’s explore, great for a first timer.

Top down – A huge task, creating people, races, maps, religions, things the PC’s won’t see for years.

So, you have decided to run your own campaign, there are tons of pre-formed worlds, but you want something individual, something that’s yours.

There are books on this, the World Builders Guidebook is one, it’s a rather unwieldy thing, hundreds of random tables if used well will get a great world, or could give you a huge, cube shaped world with 100 moons.

The way I see it, there are two ways to do it yourself, start small or seriously huge.


The bottom up method, or starting small.

(This is best if you are starting at 1st level, higher level characters have been and seen places, places that you really need to know about.)

The world develops as the characters interact with the world, nothing is wasted because the PC’s only see the things the DM lets them see, he can hint at other places, but the concentration is on here and now.

As they grow, so does the world, a little at a time, for instance if the PC’s are interested in what clothing is current, then the DM will probably research this and give more info next time.

There are a few problems, you have to be really good at working on the fly, a real challenge if you can’t think on your feet, there will be times when the PC’s ask questions on things the DM doesn’t know, the world will be like a Movie set, behind the stage is just plain bare walls.

Also, the DM may make a decision that later bites him in the arse, a simple thing that ends up ruining the next surprise, in some ways it helps to have a little in reserve.

There may also be the desire to add some “Artificial ideas” from other sources, say a Dungeon adventure here, or a module there, some links may be rather tenuous to say the least.

So how do you do it?

  1. Figure out where they are going to start, define it, draw a map, then have some idea of what you actually plan on doing.
  2. Figure out who the PC’s will be interacting with straight off, people, groups, religions, what races are prevalent. Consider how they act.
  3. When you develop the world, make sure you design just a little bit more, leave a little in reserve, you never know what your players might do!
  4. If you plan on linking something, ask yourself “why this would happen?”
  5. Put things to discretely direct the PC’s to the places you want them to go, don’t railroad them because people hate that, just…. Push them slightly, if they don’t go with it, well that leads me to 6.
  6. Be willing to “Ad lib” but if you do WRITE IT DOWN! No matter how good your memory is, you are going to forget things, PC’s don’t.
  7. Keep a good diary, log everything.

This type of world really lends its self to letting the players help, ask them at the end of the session what they liked, what could be improved and what they would like to see.

Create some interesting NPC’s and storylines, BUT don’t get too involved in them, the PC’s will find a way to ruin that without thinking about it.

Lastly you need to design things in advance, not too much, just enough to cover any eventualities, you don’t want to be caught with your pants down.



The Top down method.

What can I say? Its difficult, challenging, a hell of a lot of work, takes ages…. You’ll get to the stage where you are about to give up…. One of your PC’s visits that temple you spent ages designing…. It all seems worthwhile.

The DM designs the Cosmos, the Stars, the Planets, everything right down to what the royalty are wearing, where the rivers go, what fish live in them… everything (getting scared yet?)

You are going to get absolutely engrossed in your world, you’ll be in total control, you will barely ever be caught out by the PC’s because everything will be written down somewhere. This world will be you, it will reflect your energy, your creative juices.

So apart from the painstaking hours of work and challenges what’s wrong with this idea?

Firstly, you could design a whole city, but the PC’s may never go there. Speaking of the PC’s, hell they really don’t get any say in what’s going on, because the DM has spent so much time designing it.


So, you can handle that, how do you do it?

  1. Consider the world, how big is it? (ie do you need a world, or a single city?)
  2. Are the PC’s staying local or going on a massive quest?
  3. What Tech level is the world? The higher this is the further they can go.

Next develop the Cosmos.

  1. Where did the World come from?
  2. What deities are there? Do they interact with the world or stay up high?
  3. Is it possible to access other planes?
  4. Is Magic possible? High or low level?
  5. Do Psionics exist?

Next, develop the world.

  1. What is the geography like? How much water is there? What about suns, moons? Is the world mountainous or flat? Is there any instability?
  2. Consider the climate, are the tides linked to the moons? What areas are dry / wet etc.
  3. Is the world different from Earth?
  4. Is there any special magical areas like Wild Zones?

Next, consider the races and demographics.

  1. What races exist in this world?
  2. Where do they live?
  3. Does this match the world? If no, just go back and review the world, adding in places for those races to live if you need to.

Next develop the eco-system.

  1. What is the food chain?
  2. Where are the fertile areas, are there any waste areas?
  3. Place vegetation and suitable life forms as required.
  4. Are there any unique races? How do they fit in the world?

Develop the cultures.

  1. Place a culture in a region and consider how it interacts with the world.
  2. What race or races are they?
  3. What resources do they have? How do they survive?
  4. What religion are they?
  5. What technology level are they?
  6. Social structure?
  7. Symbolism? Art, architecture.
  8. What language do they speak?
  9. Who do they trade with?

Join each of your cultures together, consider how they interact, have any world effects impacted on them? Then write the history of each culture.

So if you haven’t gone crazy, you’ll be on the next step, nations.

  1. What social system is there?
  2. What racial groups exist there?
  3. What are the major religions, and there religious figures?
  4. Major Laws?
  5. Customs, Holidays?
  6. Clothing styles.
  7. Mindsets?
  8. Economy, do they trade with others?
  9. How do they view magic?
  10. What sort of army do they have?

And so we get to the next step, what is unique about this world?

Are there any races that PC’s will just be dying to play?

Is there anything majorly unique? Random zones of magic? Pools of liquid hot magma? Its up you, its your world!!


Next you need to take a step back, consider what you have created, is it possible, yes it’s a fantasy world, but the laws of physics should at least be considered, ie:

Are there deserts next to glaciers? If so, did you make a mistake? Or is it what you want?

So there are a hell of a lot of things to do here, there are a few things you can do.

Firstly, don’t spend your life designing something the PC’s will never run into, yeah you can hint at the underground race of creatures that live in the upside down trees, but if you need to cast gate to see them…. Why design what clothes they wear?

Make a hell of a lot of notes, get a book, write down everything, any ideas make sure you get them.

Also be willing to change things on the fly, just make sure you note it down.


So there you have it, mine (and Mr. Staats of course) ideas on creating a world, a thoroughly challenging pastime.

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