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How To Flesh Out Your Roleplaying World

LUKEThis post was guest written on this blog so let me tell you a little bit about the author –

The author has been a DM for well over 35 years, starting with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons back in the day, and going on to GM games such as Role Master, Space Opera, Villains and Vigilantes, and countless other systems. He is still an active gamer to this day, and continues to write D&D campaigns for both AD&D and Version 5.

Also, when he was 30 he had a son, who he raised on D&D, and who went on to become a gamer himself. That son then started a blog about board games, role-playing games, and RPGs…etc…

Yeah, okay, it’s my Dad. 

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Left: Luke (Me) Right: Paul (Dad)

How To Flesh Out Your Roleplaying World

PAUL:Many “swords and sorcery” style role-playing games (like Dungeons and Dragons) are set in a medieval style world which does not differ greatly from Earth. While there are obvious differences between game and reality – the presence of magic and the number of orcs per square mile being two obvious ones – the campaign tends not to alter the physical nature of the planet.

While it’s perfectly natural for a Dungeon Master to focus his or her efforts on treasure-laden crypts, rampaging hordes of goblins and rescuing members of the nobility from certain death, a campaign does run easier if a little time has been spent on the slightly more mundane side of scenario design. We’re not suggesting a campaign needs a detailed map of geological strata and a set of tide tables but defining some basics does make a scenario more logical. Here are some thoughts…

CLIMATE

Unless the campaign takes place across a huge area it is likely that a similar weather pattern will exist across at least most of the map. Higher ground will tend to be colder than lower and the range of temperatures is likely to be greater the further you get from the sea. Inhabitants of high altitude villages are therefore likely to wear thicker clothing and have smaller windows in their houses than those in warmer climes. Their basic armour class and the ease with which a rogue can gain entry to their houses may be affected.

Climate is one thing that dictates the flora and fauna of an area – animals in colder regions are typically hairier than those in warm areas and cold-blooded species such as reptiles and amphibians are more common in warmer climates. If your bad guys are undead it’s not an issue but lizardmen aren’t going to work that well in an area where the temperature is regularly below zero.

Damp has a number of effects on the party in the pre-Gortex era. Bowstrings sag, scrolls go soggy, ink runs and there’s nowhere to dry your socks. Wet wood is hard to light and even if a magical flame is used for ignition, damp wood doesn’t burn well.

Although not strictly speaking climate, the number of moons could also have a large impact in your campaign. Moonless means tideless. It also means very dark nights. The more moons you have the more tidal fluctuation you see and the more often that dungeon under the castle gets flooded. Multiple moons are also going to give you brighter nights reducing the value of darkvision for outdoor campaigns and don’t even think about the impact on moths…

GEOLOGY

The substrata under a character’s feet doesn’t usually have much effect. Limestone and sandstone are more likely to give large cave complexes while the megalomaniac necromancer who builds his crypt in clay is probably going to come to a sticky end. Species who burrow for a living are going to love chalk and hate granite while species who like large areas of standing water will be the opposite.

Well-drained soil will produce different plants to wetter ground – compare the short grass of chalk downs to the lush grasslands and water meadows of clay vales. Flooded areas last longer with poor drainage and disease-causing microbes prefer damp, especially if it’s warm.

If the geology is gold-rich the financial system may have a different base while iron-poor geology is going to put a premium on iron armour and possibly enforce a bronze or even stone based culture.

GEOGRAPHY

Early settlements tend to be in easily defended areas next to a reliable water source. Every homestead, village or town is going to have a spring, river, well, aquifer or other water source and control of that source could be a major political factor. Unless there’s a compelling reason to be elsewhere, your larger settlements will probably be on higher ground – both for defence and to avoid flooding.

Lower and wetter areas are more hospitable areas for disease-carrying bacteria which makes them less popular for settlement. Of course building on a bog doesn’t make for particularly sturdy foundations either.

The biggest single geographic features are those which severely restrict movement such as mountains or the sea. For this reason, they’re good features to place at the edge of the player map to stop your players from wandering too far.

The range of races may also have a bearing on settlement patterns. Dwarven communities are likely to prefer mountains, elves fertile forests, halflings anywhere where there’s a lot to eat, and so on.

Geography can dictate political boundaries which tend to follow easily identified features such as rivers or ranges of hills. River basins and watersheds can determine where travel is easy and where it is harder while rapids, steep valley sides or waterfalls may form transport barriers and consequently geopolitical markers.

FLORA AND FAUNA

We’ve already looked briefly at animals under climate. The more important consideration is plant life, as ease of growing quantities of edible plants such as fruit and grains will dictate the location of larger settlements. If a town isn’t self-sufficient in such foods it at least has to have them within a reasonable trading distance. Herds need large areas of grasslands, which in turn will bring a more nomadic type of existence to the residents. All plants need access to water although this can be deep down or stored for long periods (think of the spread and depth of some tree root systems and cactus respectively). Alternatively, there could just be rain.

Animals will follow the plants. Herbivores in larger numbers, carnivorous predators in smaller ones. There’s an additional variety now in the random encounters – man-eating lions are a smaller danger than being trampled by large numbers of their prey and monsters may well prefer beef to human flesh!

Taller plants tend not to grow in areas where the weather is more extreme. A lack of tall plants means wood-based construction becomes limited, not just for houses but also for ships and anything else that needs long straight bits of wood. A lack of tall structures may also mean birds nest only in more isolated areas leading possibly to seasonal migrations and a possible open season on certain species.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

The political system may be a core part of the campaign or just a backdrop against which it is played out. Politics and governments will dictate the laws within which the characters have to operate as well as assessing tithes, land ownership, trading routes and military involvement. The government may be at many levels ranging from a free-for-all anarchy to a rigid system with layers of nobility or citizen representation.

More rigid legal systems can make it harder for characters to operate but do give them some protection, whilst relaxed systems give them more leeway but less redress. Carrying weapons and wearing armour may be fine in lawless wilds, but most city guilds would prefer their citizens not to look like tanks indoors.

And just what do you think those plate mail riding boots are going to do to my nice wooden floor, Mr Adventurer?

Religion also needs consideration. Clerics particularly need a deity to provide and recharge their magical battery and the pantheon of deities will usually reflect the ethos of the society (compare the pantheon of Greek deities with the Ancient Egyptian for example). Religious cults provide convenient plot devices and are an easy way to explain undead popping up with monotonous regularity. Whether they are state-sanctioned, tolerated by the state, or outlaws tends to be less often considered despite the bearing this has on the cult’s modus operandi. The same applies to groups of bandits – Queen Elizabeth I famously employed pirates to help her against Spain, turning a blind eye to their illegal antics in exchange for some of the plunder and sinking Spanish vessels. Illegal and opportunistic can be opposite sides of the same coin.

Large governments with considerable resources aren’t likely to rely on parties of adventurers to perform major tasks or defend the realm although they could be used on smaller missions. Would you rather use the resources of an elite city guard to track down the missing heir to the throne, or two humans, a dwarf and a tiefling who just happened to be drinking in the local tavern? On the other hand, a society where large organisations do not exist brings the adventurers more centre-stage, especially if they’ve previously proved their reliability and loyalty.

RACE RELATIONS

The racial profile of an area has a potentially large impact on its structure, architecture and economy. A human-o-centric environment will reflect the medieval villages and towns of history. Dwarf villages are likely to have more stone and lower ceilings while elven settlements are going to be full of open green spaces and lots of light. Or trees…lots and lots of trees…

In multi-racial areas there is the possibility of conflict or, more likely, a compromise between racial requirements – low ceilinged halfling taverns and high-and-lofty dragonborn halls may be located next to each other although the populations may not necessarily pass freely between them. Halflings have difficulty reaching dragon-height door knobs for a starter.

Race may also dictate language and while cants and common trading tongues may exist for convenience, their vocabularies are likely to be limited. The common tongue may be great for asking directions or getting a room for the night but it’s unlikely to have the vocabulary to debate the finer points of the ceremonies of the Thoth religion. Are there multilingual signs or do the uninitiated simply have to look at a meaningless set of scribbles? Suddenly there’s a reason for a town to have a resident sage, linguist or wise man.

Finally, a character of a different race may stand out. While a six foot tall skinny elf may blend into the background in a cosmopolitan trading port, he’s going to stand out like a sore thumb in a village full of gnome farmers. He’s also going to have real problems buying clothes that fit or speaking the local language.

EMPLOYMENT

Economy is probably the item which has greatest impact on the characters. The simple rule is that a vendor won’t be located where there is no demand for his goods, and no way to supply the raw or trade materials needed without a good reason. For example, a limner is likely to be found in large settlements where there is demand for manuscript illumination and the required pigments are also available. He’s less likely to be found in a small settlement unless there’s something driving the trade such as a magic school. The chance of finding a limner in the middle of nowhere is essentially zero.

(LUKE: “I had to ask about this as I didn’t have a clue. For those who don’t know, a limner is someone who illustrated old tomes and manuscripts.”)

While there may be a market for several smiths or bakers in a large settlement, there’s only likely to be one in a small settlement. If one baker and his apprentices produce 100 loaves a day, the bakery is supporting about 200 people, and probably not making that much money. In a village of 200 people, there’s just not enough bread and pastry consumption to support more than one baker – especially if some households make their own bread.

There are two exceptions. Firstly when the goods produced are made for trade or export there may be a glut of supply, although this is more likely to be in durable goods – the fine tin work of Cornwall was traded across huge distances, their pasties weren’t. The other situation is where there is a regular through trade such as on a turnpike road or at a busy port. The trade has to be large and regular (or at least predictable) to support the glut. For example, a port may brew twice as much beer as its townsfolk need to sell for ship provisions and in the winter when there are far fewer ships the brewers turn their hands to barrel making, to support the brewing and for direct sale.

Adventurers are unlikely to come into a small village and find six taverns, a parchment maker, an armourer, two goldsmiths, a sculptor and a blacksmith unless the village contains something which can support the trade (like a large wealthy and somewhat alcoholic monastery in this case). Small agricultural villages just don’t have a market for gold, statues or parchments.

Remember there are support industries which may in turn attract different employment. A wine growing region may well contain a glassblower to provide bottles and the occasional fine decanter for the more wealthy patron even if the area could not normally support a glassblower. In turn the presence of the glassblower and vinegar made from any wine surplus may lead to the development of a cottage industry making pickles.

Finally, and perhaps obviously, the medieval economy differed greatly from today. Not only was banking less developed, leading to more coin in circulation, but some products have greatly changed their status. An example is the glove – common and cheap today but a specially made thing of value in medieval Europe. A reverse example is the oyster – once a peasant staple and now a gastronomic delicacy.

TROUBLE

Changes bringing trouble are a common plot device. Whether hordes of goblins are ransacking the countryside, a legion of undead is advancing or a troop of bandits is kidnapping slaves the locals will be dealing with the problem in their own way. They’re very unlikely to be suffering in silence on the off chance that a group of adventurers will pop past en route to somewhere off the map.

What’s being done will depend on the scale of the problem, the area in which the problem is occurring and the political situation. A small problem in a large environment is going to be ignored or dealt with swiftly. The lone thief who steals from the folk of a large garrison town is going to get short shrift if caught, but the local militia is unlikely to mount additional watches just for one thief. On the other hand, a large problem in a small environment is going to be dealt with quickly and decisively. When 500 goblins and their pet wolves sit on top of a hill for a day to ransack a small agricultural village at nightfall most people are going to vote with their feet and head for somewhere safer. A few stragglers will be caught, but the defence is generally to be somewhere else when the attack hits. Neither environment is particularly good for adventurers for different reasons.

Similarly, the town that’s just fought off an attack of orcs will be busy reinforcing its defences, recruiting more soldiers, sending patrols out to the countryside and stockpiling provisions. The elders of the town are not going to sit back and wait for half a dozen dubious looking strangers to put everything right. Said strangers may be asked to join the militia, destroy a key bridge, rescue a captured soldier (etc.) but they’re going to be part of a larger scale operation – they’re not going to be the entire operation. On the other hand they could be thrown into jail as “suspected orc sympathisers”, especially if there’s a half-orc in the party!

CONCLUSION

D&D campaigns, roleplaying campaigns, come in all different shapes and sizes. This has been a list of additional things that you may want to consider for your campaigns; however, the list doesn’t stop there. You can make your campaign however you want, just make it yours whatever you do decide to do. You can think about this list, or you can create your own of things to consider. Whatever it is you decide to do, make your world a rich one. Your players will appreciate it in both the long and short run.

LUKEThanks for reading. It’s always great when I get the chance to collaborate with my old man on articles like this.

What do you like to consider? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. 

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15 Comments »

  1. There is one point not treated there which causes a lot of trouble when PCs starts being entrepreneurs instead of adventurers, and it is the use of magic. What about mining when you have access to a daily dose of Stone to Mud and its reverse? What about postal service, when two mage towers can have a instant telegraph with a couple crystal balls, and scribes copying messages to then deliver in town? And a major city within the confine of a Control Weather spell will assuredly never know droughts. One peculiar example from Guilds (a French RPG) regarding postal service when a surnatural wind barrier blocked communication with two halves of a continent was to send zombies on the other side with the help of catapults, and instruction to find their regrouping areato catapult replies back! All in all, and while not necessarily well spread, magic can cause massive upheaval in a given environment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Firstly, awesome suggestions. Secondly, that Guilds example is a fantastic idea. Finally, yes, you’re entirely right, magic isn’t approached here and it can be used to change the environment and even enrich it. That is the DM’s prerogative to include magic as they so wish. It’s the “DM’s Gift” – it’s their world after all 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow “Villains & Vigilantes”! A much beloved game of ours as well.

    Great information from your Dad! I’ve been exposed to some of this over the years as DM advice from books, supplements, other DMs, etc. One piece of advice that I really took to heart though, is keeping things as close to your environment as possible.

    For example, if I was running a campaign and the player is wondering about the weather and their home base is the same climate as we are in the real world….it’s a simple matter of looking outside and saying “Yep, it’s raining again”. Having perhaps trekked through that rain, I can easily recall how wet and cold it was, and how those things might affect the characters’s actions. This proves really useful in modern campaigns, where you have all the politics, economy, maps, etc. more readily available.

    From that base of comfort, they can begin to move onto other differing climates or more fantastical realms. Especially as the group begins to memorize the RPG rules and know their characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grounding it in reality before moving on? I like it 🙂 I suppose that grounding gives a firm foundation to be built upon – get the basics right and the rest will fall into place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article, and while everything in it is common sense (if you think about it) the issue is obviously that most/many RPG players and GMs *don’t* actually stop to think about them. I’d accuse videogames of having part of the blame, since mud and rain aren’t exactly a fun impediment for players to endure in CRPGs, but ignoring this stuff predates CRPGs by quite a while. It comes down to how much detail the GM is willing to add into a campaign, and just as much – how far the players are willing to take it on board. I think I mentioned once before the differences between “role”-playing and “roll”-playing.
    “My character tells his character to distract the guard while I sneak attack. Oh look, a twenty!”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ahh I remember you talking about that. I can see your point in regards to roll playing and role playing. It is so easy for players to fall into the wrong habits. How do you suggest turning a roll player into a role player?

      Liked by 1 person

      • In some cases you can role-play with them and hope that they come on board and respond in kind. If you’re the GM, you can reply to the above scenario with “OK, well TELL him.” while looking from one player to another.

        These may or may not work, but here’s the thing. It’s a style of playing RPGs, and while some people might look down on it because it’s not their preferred way to play, it’s a valid and supported style. It’s often a more mechanical and mathematical style of play, and has direct correlations to min-maxing in all kinds of games, from CRPGs to building army lists for Warhams. When I played EverQuest and World of Warcraft (and any other MMOs) I didn’t bother trying to roleplay my character, because *to me* it always seemed stupid* to try in an online, primarily-typed, MMO environment. Sure, there were “roleplay” servers for both games, but it’s not my style of play in a videogame environment.

        *not saying those *people* were stupid, or their fun or RP wasn’t valid for them, but for me it would be stupid.

        At the same time, I’ll make sub-optimal lists for miniature game forces because I think they’re thematic or simply look cool. So horses for courses.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely that. People game for different reasons and enjoy each subset of the incredibly broad gaming hobby differently. Far be it from me to tell someone they’re having fun the “wrong” way…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember an article or book or something written by Terry Brooks where he talks about this world-building in regards to writing fantasy books instead of DMing D&D campaigns.

    But much of it is very similar!

    Fascinating article.

    Liked by 1 person

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