Building a world for play is, to many, one of the big attractions of playing a TTPRG. However, it can be a daunting task, especially if you get caught up in the minutiae of it all. Also, the time requirements can be onerous. It’s all good though, because you can still develop a nuanced, holistic world! The trick is planning and scaled development. So let’s take a look at developing your world in stages.
Plan Big, Start Small
One of the pitfalls of world building is atomistic design. That’s where you build each region/location complete, then plunk it down beside the last one with no thought about how they might interact or influence each other. Holistic design looks at how all the cogs in the world machine might interact with each other, and it can start right away. So let’s look at an example of a World Flower. One of the common dangers in world building on a larger scale is that it can swiftly become overwhelming. By using a World Flower, you can more easily manage the scale and depth you have to work at.
In the centre is the starting region or location for your game. It’s the part that needs to be the most developed and complete at the start of your game. Surrounding it are the adjacent regions and places. They need to be between 50% and 75% as complete as the starting area, enough to know how the peoples there interact with each other and the starting area, and to be good imagination fuel for your players. The outermost area are the distant regions; they only need to be about 25% complete, enough to know who and what is there, and enough notes to develop them later. Past that, you only need the most skeletal notes, which will in turn develop as the players progress through the world you’re making. The idea behind this is to have both a broad idea about the world, and to then be able to develop regions as the players access them to the same level as the starting region. So what does the world look like as the game progresses?
Growing by Stages of Exploration and Advancement
In the Developed World Flower, you can see how the game has progressed, as the players have travelled, progressively “unlocking” and revealing more of the world. In this case, the result is a bit heart shaped. The green areas represent places that moved to being fully developed. In turn, these spawned more yellow regions of partial development in the adjacent areas, and then more pink distant areas past them.
In effect, by approaching your world building like this, you can save time and pour details into areas that need it most while keeping an eye on places nearby. It also gives a solid organic, living feel to the world. And bear in mind, your world doesn’t have to be a “conventional” globe. This technique can work for the bulk of world designs including disc and ring worlds, Dyson Spheres, floating islands in the sky and more!
Filling the Areas
This is the part that helps keep the world fresh and interesting.
Each area should have a few different zones inside it, and can be any combination of biomes and built up areas. For example, the Starting Area could contain a settlement, swamp, forest, river, and hills. This immediately gives a variety of options to the players and DM/GM. Adjacent to it may be areas with lakes, mountains, forests, and other related biomes; not as well fleshed out, but described in case someone wants to be from an outer area. Distant to that may be the ocean, a river delta, or other features, more sparsely described.
After figuring out the terrain and settlement situation, it’s time to add adventure stuff. I like to have one to three “dungeons” in each area, with different challenge scaling as needed. These “dungeons” can be ruins, warrens, caverns, actual dungeons, giant tree mazes, or any manner of things. What they really are, though, are the places that the players will go to. Whether on a job, mission, quest, or out of curiosity. The size, complexity, and so on always vary.
Threats to the land and party are key. In its most basic form, this is random encounters. I like to make my own tables, but the ones provided by most games are perfectly serviceable. The reason I like to make my own is because I like to have thematic and regional encounters, so that every swamp and every mountain doesn’t produce the same list of same-y feeling encounters. This helps keep interest up and can really help demarcate when the players have entered a new region.
Bringing Back Exploration
The main reason I like building worlds like this is that it brings back the exploration and discovery aspects of gaming. Too often games tend to “fast travel” from point to point, and while that is a valid way to play, I find it tends to result in a bland world. Exploration and world discovery is a big part of gaming to me, and also how I can introduce side-quests, new plots, and do things like enjoy watching my players create their own fun based on things they’ve found in game. And going about world building using this method is a great way to do it!