Designing Your Own Campaign Setting

Well, in between filming for the new One Die Short web show, I’ve finally found some time to answer a question.  You can read a little more about the plan for the web show here, and keep an eye out for our kickstarter next week.  Now back to business: today, we take a look at designing a campaign setting:

Dear DM,

I’ve finally gotten my 3.5 books and am converting my on the fly campaign into a campaign setting book for my friends at college that reacted favorably when I described General Yipgrowl and the rest of my campaign world to them. Having never done something like this before, I was wondering if you had any advise for writing a campaign setting?

At some point, every Dungeon Master will decide it’s time to try their hand at writing their own campaign.  We’ve all gone through the pre-packaged ones, and there are some amazing ones out there to be sure, but we are storytellers, and we want to tell our own story.  At first, this might not seem terribly complicated.  You have the story-line in your head, or maybe you’ve even written it down.  You know who the main villains and good guys are.  You feel pretty good about it, and so you sit down to start writing the opening adventure, and… oh wait… there are bucket-loads of shit you never considered.

The very first bit of advice I would give you, if you haven’t done so already, is to write down EVERYTHING.  Don’t worry about stringing it into anything cohesive yet, just write down your ideas.  Write down histories and backstories.  Write down character bios.  Write down information about items, locations, monsters – whatever you have in your head, write it all down.  Right now.

Once you have it out of your head, you’ll find it much easier to start stringing it all together, and seeing where the pieces fit.  Trying to juggle things in your head isn’t easy for anyone, regardless of how good you are at daydreaming.  Once you get it all out, start organizing it.  I like to organize my information into 3 basic categories:

World History
Location History
Character History

When it comes down to it, writing a campaign setting is writing a history book, and the more detailed you can make things, the richer the setting will feel, the more your players will be enveloped by it, and the happier you’ll be with it.

When you start organizing and focusing, I recommend beginning with World History first.  Zoom out, and then zoom in.  If you start with a single Character’s History, you might realize later on that it doesn’t actually work within the context of a larger history, and then you have to change it, and that’s a pain in the ass.  Start big, and go small.

World History
When you’re working on the world history think in terms of our own world history.  What information is the most important?  What do we write down in our history books?  Regardless of what you think about our history books, they still make for a convenient model to work from.  Focus on the following:

Seats of Power
Important Political Figures
Resource Distribution

This probably goes without saying, as I think every DM in the world loves maps, but make sure you draw out your world!  Knowing what your world looks like, where towns and cities are located, and where everything is in relation to everything else, will REALLY help you get more detailed with your histories.  Context is very important.
From Mad Brew Labs.

Location History
Location histories should read much like a World History.  For towns and cities you’ll want to focus on all of the same things, but get more detailed.  What is the governing structure like?  What people are most influential?  What is the local economy based on?  For environmental locations, you can still consider similar things.  If it’s a jungle, was it always a jungle?  Did another civilization ever live there?  If the land is uninhabited, is it important to anyone?  As with all of these categories, the more detailed you can get, the better off you’ll be.

Character History
This is probably the easiest one for most of us, because we’re always designing characters, whether as a DM or a Player.  I won’t say much here, except that you should really keep in mind how each character relates to their location’s history, the world’s history, and also, how the characters relate to one another.  Think about Game of Thrones.  One of the reasons it’s so enthralling to so many people is because almost every single character in it is effected by numerous other characters.  The more you can interweave things, the more complex and interesting your setting will be.  Believability isn’t even that important if you’ve crafted something very detailed and intriguing.  The Players won’t even notice.

And that’s about it.  I’m not sure if this is exactly what you were looking for, but hopefully some of it’s helpful.  As you go through the process of designing your setting, please feel free to toss more specific questions my way.

Good luck, and roll it like you mean it!

-The Dungeon Master

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

This entry was posted in DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, General Roleplaying and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Designing Your Own Campaign Setting

  1. Dave The DM says:

    This outline has been very helpful for me.

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