Worldbuilding is one of the most fun parts of preparing a TTRPG campaign, but it’s easy to get lost in the excitement of creating continents and fail to define what matters most to tell a good story. After a recent worldbuilding session, I realized that despite having spent hours describing city-states, geography, and gods, my world was not fit for running an adventure. I knew there was supposed to be a large-scale civil war, but I hadn’t spent any time describing the people that would be involved in it, so I actually had no idea what everyone was fighting for or why. I had defined the street layout of entire cities, but failed to describe the aspirations of their scheming kings. I had documented the unit composition of various armies, but never stopped to consider who was commanding them. The result was a stagnant world that was full of facts, but lacked any excitement.
Avoid the mistakes I’ve made: build your world in terms of stories instead of facts. Facts are easy to come up with and write down, so they’re often the comfortable go-to when worldbuilding, but they usually do little to help flesh out an engaging world ripe for an RPG campaign. In my first attempt at creating this world, I listed out all 15 cities with neat, 3 paragraph descriptions of their population, language, and history. I felt like I had made great progress towards creating my world, but in fact I was no closer to telling a compelling story then before. I didn’t know what the leaders of these cities were working towards, so there were no clear conflicts between them that could cause the war I wanted to base my campaign around. There were no plots to conquer land, or schemes to discover powerful magic: just 15 cities, each existing in their own bubble of demographic statistics. To make an interesting world you need characters whose goals pit them against each other to create conflict. Raw facts lack the characters, goals, and conflicts that will make your world engaging.
After my failure with fact-based worldbuilding, I tried basing everything on one central narrative: The city-states were conquered by a cleric who turned tyrannical after inventing magic, but were liberated to independence by the cleric’s trusted warrior who backstabbed his liege. The leaders of each city-state, despite appreciating their newfound freedom, are secretly studying the same magic that oppressed them with the dream of forming their own empires. After this worldbuilding session, I had much more to work with to start my campaign: I understood how people use and view magic, why there is a coalition of independent city-states, and what their leaders are doing now. It also inherently sets up an interesting conflict: new found peace is only being used to prepare for conflict, and a massive war will break out the moment any city-state gets the magical edge over the other.
Stories are more effective for world building than facts because they practically write your first adventure for you. If you describe your world as a story of characters helping and hindering each other, you may be able to just drop your heroes in the middle of the most interesting part of that ongoing story, and see what happens from there. After all, your goal when creating this world was to set up your campaign’s story, and your story will be especially compelling if it connects to the formative events of your world.
I didn’t start doing story-driven worldbuilding just to make my job of creating a campaign easier: it also makes the world much more accessible to your players. A good RPG world should be easy to understand, and allow your players to easily impact it. Humans can naturally remember stories much better than a list of facts: my players won’t have to sit down and read a 10-page document describing the demographics of each city state. Instead, they can sit down and listen to a short story about how the free cities came to be. Second, If your world is defined by the actions of key characters, your players can have a profound impact on the world by helping or hindering those characters. To go back to my earlier story example, the players may join up with the backstabbing warrior to help keep the peace between city states, or join up with a scheming king and help him conquer the continent. Because the key movers and shakers of your world are named and known, your players have a way to connect with it in a clear and engaging manner.
Just because story-driven worldbuilding can make engaging worlds doesn’t mean its easy. I’m an engineer, so its hard for me to create dramatic stories, but one short bit of reading that helped me significantly was this chapter of the FATE RPG rulebook. It gives you concrete steps for creating a story full of characters, goals, and conflicts. Even though I didn’t do those steps exactly in my worldbuilding, it helped me understand what elements you need to write a good story, especially one for an RPG. Happy worldbuilding!
PS: How do you do worldbuilding? What’s worked best for you? I’d love to hear about it!