DM Tip: Stop World Building, start World Weaving
That’s right, I see you doing it. Just stop before you go blind. World building in D&D is mental masturbation for DMs. I can’t count the number of times, I and other DMs, have slipped into the trap of world building and went blind to our player’s needs. Sure a campaign requires some world structure, but inevitably we, as DMs, go beyond just structure and start piecing together a golem of fiction that we expect everyone to view as beautiful. Spoiler Alert: Most of it is irrelevant and the players don’t care.
Let me prove it to you. Grab a pen and paper and list all of the Roman gods. How many did you get? Probably all the ones planets are named after. Now try the Greek Pantheon. What about all the Aztec gods? How is that list going? I am willing to bet it is pretty short unless you either study ancient religions or those mythologies impact your life in some way. And that my fellow DMs is the key; impact on life.
Most of us can name a fair amount of the Roman mythology because their names continue to impact our lives. Your players are the same way. I have seen, and have been guilty of, creating entire pantheons of deities for my campaign only to realize 95% of them will have no impact on my PCs lives. Have you ever sat there creating pages of royal lineage for a ruling family that your players will never interact with? Why? If you are like most of us, you did it because it felt good, and was fun. That is the author in you coming out all over the gaming table. Can you tell me the royal lineage of the Keita Dynasty of Mali? Me neither. It doesn’t impact my life other than sheer curiosity.
Your players only care about how the world impacts their characters. They are the world builders, because every person views the world from a unique perspective. DMs are here to create a structure and allow the world to be filled in as the players create it.
How many times have you rolled your eyes when a player drops five pages of backstory on your desk? Stop doing that. Read it. That is your world; they are building it for you. They are going to tell you everything that has impacted their character up to this point. You job is to take everyone’s backstories and weave them into a world.
Next time you are starting a campaign, try this. Give your players an index card of the structure of your world. List only those things that WILL impact the characters at the beginning of their adventuring career. You can construct the basic attributes of your world. You can decide that this is a low magic world where dwarves are an endangered species and it is in a constant state of winter. Crops have been failing for generations and the populace is despondent and depressed. Give that small backbone to the players and have them create characters and backstories. What they return will be a recent history of your world viewed through multiple players’ perspectives. Now take that and weave it together like an old lady making a basket.
For example: One player describes his half-elf ranger as an outcast from a royal family who fled his settlement after it was attacked by a hoard of orcs and has spent the last 10 years as a pirate on the high seas. What do I know from this one sentence? That somewhere in my world is a conquered kingdom of elves or humans or half-elves. There is a royal family, maybe dead, maybe alive that are missing a son. I also know that roving bands of orcs seem to inhabit an area of my world. He has also spent 10 years on a ship so my world needs oceans and water trade. One sentence. Imagine if you actually read all five pages.
Let’s say you are a good DM and have read all the character backstories and woven them into an interesting, but bare bones world. You now have your structure and a recent history. Next is the first adventure. This impacts the players so you will need to flesh this out. This is where your mental masturbation serves a purpose. Take the backstories and motivations and create a problem that needs direct attention and impacts your players. Then allow them to address the problem however they see fit. When it is done, review and weave the consequences into your world. See as you create consequences, the world expands to explain those consequences. Before the next adventure, have a sit down with the players and explain how their actions have impacted the world around them. Use the butterfly effect. They stopped an orc raiding party, but one member survived. He recognized the half-elf as the heir to the kingdom and now uses this information to create an alliance with another kingdom that was a rival to the player’s family. Armies are shifted. Peace comes to some, and war to others.
If, as a DM, I just world build that the local noble family has suffered a loss of an heir and now the dynasty is in jeopardy resulting in a power vacuum of warring factions, my players will deal with it, but have no actual interest in the problem. They are even less likely to remember the history and only when they have to deal with the factions.
What if I inform them after the adventure that one of the NPCs they killed in the tavern brawl was actually the heir apparent to the noble house from the mountain kingdom of Argoth, and his death has caused the power vacuum and warring factions to arise? They sure as hell will remember that since it was a consequence of their actions. Now the mountains on the map are not just a landmark that my hold adventure. It is jagged spine of turmoil of their causing. Do they avoid the place or dare to travel through. Will they fix it or profit from it?
That is where your effort should be directed. Not in a rich history that five PCs will never scratch the surface of, but in the immediate world around them. Players don’t need a hierarchy of 25 deities and their zones of influence. They need to know the one god that is pissed off because they defiled a holy site. They need to know this god is out for retribution, but there is a rival deity that may be of assistance. This is what they need because it impacts them, and they in turn impact it. If you, as a DM, spend so much time world building before the adventures, you can lose what THEY NEED in a sea of what YOU WANT. The more effort you put into your world, the more attached to it you become, and more you will bend player agency to fit your world view rather than altering your world around them and their actions.
So just stop, before you go blind.