Part 3 – Where

(You can find Part 1 – Why here and Part 2 – Who here

So far, this series has been primarily about people. I started off addressing the human element of Dungeons & Dragons because it’s often overlooked by new Dungeon Masters (DMs) in their excitement to get started. Not giving the social aspect of the game its due at the beginning can frequently lead to serious problems later on. Now that we have spent two whole articles going over the ins-and-outs of group harmony, it’s time to turn our attention to the game itself. I want to start this next discussion by addressing where your game is going to take place. 

This isn’t going to be 1500 words about how to choose which group member has the best house to play at – although it is a good idea to figure that out before your first game. Rather, this article is going to be about figuring out where the characters of your game will be adventuring. Rather than picking the right basement, this is about crafting the right game world for you and your group.  

Generally speaking, there are three approaches to building a world for a D&D game. Each of them have different advantages and disadvantages. By the end of this article, I hope you will have some idea of which one is right for you. The three world-building methodologies I will be discussing are: 

  • The Adventure Module
  • The Existing Setting 
  • The Whole Cloth 

The Adventure Module and the Existing Setting approach both rely more heavily on the official books published by Wizards of the Coast. The Whole Cloth approach can make use of those same books, but draws most heavily on your imagination. 

The Adventure Module 

Dungeons & Dragons is currently in its 5th Edition. Since the advent of 5th Edition, Wizards of the Coast has focused heavily on pre-made Adventure Modules as the main content it publishes for D&D. This is a boon to novice players and novice DMs as it takes some of the work out of building the game and allows folks to get playing as quickly and effortlessly as possible. 

Each Adventure Module is designed to be a unique and colourful campaign in and of itself. Some of them (such as Waterdeep: Dragon Heist) focus exclusively on early levels, while others (such as Storm King’s Thunder) provide a roadmap to take your players from burgeoning adventurers into seasoned veterans. Still others (such as the recently released Candlekeep Mysteries) offer bite-sized adventures that can be finished in a session or two and have a wide variety of potential starting levels. 

If you choose to play an Adventure Module as your first campaign, explore the ones that are out there and figure out which one feels right for you. Do you want to play a game in the wilderness or in a city? Are you hoping for an action movie or a horror movie? Do you want something you can play for a long time or just an introduction that can lead into your own homebrew content? 

Once you have selected the book that feels right for you, make sure to give it a good read before you call up your players for Session 0 (as discussed in Part 1). As DM, you want to make sure you know what the adventure has in store before your group starts making characters. You don’t want to end up with a Paladin who is horribly prejudiced against goblins when one of the most important NPCs in the book is a goblin. 

While Adventure Modules provide a lot of the groundwork for a game of D&D, they aren’t exhaustive instruction manuals and they cannot account for every action your players may take. Even if you are going through a Module as your first campaign, you will want to stay on your toes. I suggest having a few potential “alternative paths” drawn up in case your players throw you a curveball (which will happen eventually). 

While some DMs – both new and veteran – might feel that following an Adventure Module restricts them, there is some truth to the phrase “restriction breeds creativity”; adding your own flourish to a published adventure can be one of the best ways to find your voice as a DM. 



The Existing Setting 

One of the tentpoles of Dungeons & Dragons’ lore is its iconic worlds. Much like the planes of Magic: the Gathering, D&D has its own unique fantasy realms complete with their own familiar characters, locations, and deep history. With each new edition of D&D, these worlds get a new book to bring them up to date with the current rules system. Some of these worlds might be familiar: Dragonlance, The Forgotten Realms aka Faerun, Eberron, Dark Sun aka Athas. Each of D&D’s settings has a very distinct vibe that can be channeled to make your campaign feel special. 

If you don’t like the idea of following the rails provided by a pre-made Adventure Module – but you don’t have the confidence, time, or inspiration to build your own world – using an Existing Setting book as the base for your game can be a great middle ground. Rather than providing you with a whole guided campaign, the Existing Setting books lay out one of D&D’s worlds in detail before passing the ball to you. Using the background resources provided by the book, you can build the story you want to build. 

Each of the worlds tend to have a central conceit that makes them special but that can be adapted for a variety of games. For instance, Eberron is a steampunk-adjacent, Victorian-inspired setting complete with trains, guns, and skyscrapers. Within this particular motif, it falls to you to pick the kind of game you want to run. Do you want to create a Western-inspired shoot-’em-up? How about a gritty detective Noir? Maybe an outlandish heist inspired by a Guy Ritchie movie? All of these – with their multifarious tones – could be played in Eberron and feel very different from similar games played in the more generic high fantasy settings usually associated with D&D

At the moment, Wizards of the Coast is practically begging players entering D&D from Magic to use the Existing Setting approach. Over the past few years, both Ravnica and Theros have been released as Existing Setting books for D&D, giving Magic players a great pair of springboards to jump from their card game into the world of tabletop RPGs. 

Before launching your Session 0 using an Existing Setting as the bedrock of your campaign, make sure you have acquainted yourself with your chosen world and have decided on the kind of game you want to run within it. A potential player might feel a little silly if they arrive having created an honourable knight to play in a world without feudal power structures. Don’t be shy about making any modifications to the setting you feel compelled to make while you are getting familiar with the world. Just because Wizard of the Coast’s Ravnica doesn’t have dwarves doesn’t mean they have to be absent from yours. 

The Whole Cloth 

The most ambitious approach, the Whole Cloth approach is building your own world and adventure from scratch. For a lot of DMs, the idea of pursuing this dual path of worldbuilding and adventure building is what draws them to running the game in the first place. However, you shouldn’t take building your own world lightly. Crafting immersive and believable worlds requires attention to detail and research. That being said, you can – and almost certainly will – make up some bullshit as you go, but take notes when you do. You never know when some DM improv will stick in the minds of your players and be recalled at a key moment in the game. 

If you are drawn to the idea of DMing specifically because of the Whole Cloth approach, I suggest starting your world small. For example: create the troubled mining town, the creepy woods on its outskirts, and the haunted mine the players have been hired to investigate. Once you have that starting point, you can expand the borders of your world as you go. Feel free to paint some broad strokes beyond these foundations, but try to refrain from fleshing out more than you need – things will likely have to change as the game develops. 

As you start shaping this first corner of your world, get a sense for the characters your players are thinking about. Since worldbuilding is an intensive process, you don’t want to waste your time. Having ten pages about gnome society does you no good if no one is playing a gnome. 

Another important thing to keep in the back of your mind when running an entirely homebrewed game is that your players are also involved in the creative process. Every choice they make in their adventure is breaking new ground and adding new colour to the world. If a choice your players make goes against your vision for the world, your first instinct may be to veto them to protect your creation; but I encourage you to be flexible. You may have final say in what you are building, but it can be immensely satisfying for the players to see their choices making an impact. 

I will drop the impartial tone for a moment and confess that I am something of a homebrew addict. Building my own stories in a world of my creation was what drew me to DMing in the first place. I can speak from the heart when I say that running a homebrew campaign is one of the most rewarding creative endeavours I have ever experienced. I am also acutely aware of just how challenging DMing this kind of campaign can be. My advice to you is to be open-minded, incorporate player input into your vision, and for the sake of your sanity take lots of notes. 


A Word of Warning 

No matter what approach you take to your game, I am going to offer a warning:

Let the questions of your players be your guide.

When you are building an adventure – even if you are cribbing most of it from a book – it’s easy to become attached to everything about it. It becomes impossible for you to remain objective about your creation. You can be excited to tell your players all about the history of the world that has led to the moments that spark their adventure. The issue is, players – especially new players – are already taking in sooo much information they can become overloaded easily. You can be spouting off about details you find important for the game and they will be sitting there, their brains a million miles away, because they are still trying to figure out how to calculate their attack modifier. 

It’s good to have that detailed information on hand for when you need it, but resist the urge to vomit it, unprovoked, at your players. Much like unsolicited advice, unsolicited exposition can be annoying as hell. Once your players have their feet under them, they will start asking questions about the stuff that interests them, and that is when you can start handing out the information. 

There is an added benefit to letting the interests of your players take the lead. We take our own perspective for granted. It’s easy to assume that the way you view your world is the only way to look at it, but your players may see things through a different lens. Sometimes an insightful question from an adventurer can catalyze a whole new bout of worldbuilding. Their minds might go places yours never did during your creative process.  

No matter what process you use to build your world, remember it exists as the stage for your players. For the duration of your Dungeons & Dragons games, those players are not just your friends, they are also your creative collaborators.  


Third Time’s the Charm  

And with that we have come to another ending. So far, we have hacked our way through the weeds of DM and player motivations, climbed the mountains of player archetypes, and slunk through the swamps of worldbuilding methods. Next time, we will traverse the labyrinthian decision paths you must navigate before your first proper game. 

Up to this point, we have been working our way through broad topics. In the final chapter of this special series, we are going to zero-in on some of the finer details you should address before your first session.


So, tune in next week when we will end this series with Part 4: What. 

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