World Building Dirty Dozen

I am preparing material to run an adventure using the D&D Next play test rules. It has been a significant time since my weekly gaming group has played using the DDN packets. If you have been keeping track of the play test you know there have been significant changes and experiments during this public offering of the new rules set. I spent some time last week talking about the system and to get some of his feedback on the new rules set to see if my opinion was entirely fringe. From his feedback along with a number of things I’ve read on forums and blogs elsewhere I find the predominant feeling of the table top RPGs community is much like the community of console video gamers. In the face of a major, impending release people do not seem excited. Certainly the associated corporations tell us we are excited, that the new is going to destroy every preconceived notion in one, pristine glowing light of the new. But in general the attitude seems to be, from multiple sources, “Meh.”

Back to the point I stated I was prepping to start running this week. And while I am not looking to build a full scale campaign and put in the associated sweat and blood of world building there is at least one specific region a DM/GM needs to flesh out, the location the adventure(s) happens. In the spirit I pulled together a small checklist of information I compile when developing an in-game region.

 Regional Dozen

  • Theme
  • Geography & Weather
  • Demographics
  • Socio-Economics
  • System of Belief
  • Political Structure
  • Water, Means of Acquiring Food & Diet, Shelter
  • Tech Level
  • Specialized Products (Textiles, Spices, Precious Metals/Gems, Crafts)
  • Division of Labor
  • Relationships with Other Areas
  • Warfare

Theme

This is an important decision and that is why it is top of the list assuming you are building a world from scratch and you are not taking the geographic approach an already in possession of a world map. If you have played any sort of single player RPG (especially JRPGs), console or PC, you are familiar with this trope. Each town/village is different and heavily influenced by a real life culture. There’s a quaint Western European town, rustic Eastern Asian village, something vaguely Middle Eastern or American West for the desert/badlands region. If this is the route you go it will strongly influence the other eleven points of the checklist so decide it early and stick to it.

Geography & Weather

This can influence the theme as real life cultures were created to work in concert with the natural surroundings. Developing this early on will give your world some believability. For example, if you squat a town out in the middle of an expansive plain what do the people use for building materials? There’s no nearby source of trees for lumber, stone deposits to quarry? Mud brick requires a source of water to create and maintain.

Demographics

Who lives in this place, what is their general life expectancy. Is there an out of the ordinary male/female ratio? This requires a little more thought and becomes more a gray area when you add in fantasy races, unless you want to stick to very predominant races in different regions. Deciding on this early will help to determine what the interplay of races is and the severity of racism in the region (and beyond).

Socio-Economics

The bread and butter castes and classes of the region and their relative size. Vying for the top position in society will be the nobles and the priests, below them the middle class consisting of merchants and skilled tradesman, commoners in the form of yeoman and unskilled (but free) laborers, and then peasants and slaves. If you are planning a larger town or city there will also be indigent. This will inform the Division of Labor and Political Structure.

System of Belief

What are the prevailing spiritual and religions practices of the region and why? This will be informed by any history you have created for the region, large events. If the region depends on the sea for its livelihood you can bet the center of most of their belief will be focused on the sea. Agrarian communities will place an importance on the start and culmination of the growing season. It only takes a little thought to make it seem plausible. This is what you should be aiming for rather than writing a religious treatise. Strike the last statement if you want religion to be a major plot point for the campaign.

Political Structure

Who’s running this place anyways? Are farcical aquatic creatures the basis for your system of government? Maybe try Mandate of Heaven, an oldie but a goodie. Maybe the place is run by the meanest guy with the biggest stick, or his progeny who inherited the mantle. Unless this region is the capitol of the kingdom, empire, principality, republic, etc. the persons in charge derive their power from another person in charge. The area can be a vassal state, or governed by an appointed official. In the rare case of a free city it may also be an elected official or council.

Water, Means of Acquiring Food & Diet, Shelter

This may seem silly but it is vital. Before the people of a specific place can worry about anything else they need to be able to survive. Is water plentiful, or at least readily available? Is water drawn from wells, rivers, lakes, natural springs, or is it collected using cisterns, aqueducts? Food also plays an important part in developing the people of a region. Is there arable land, is this an agrarian society, nomadic hunter gatherers, maybe migratory herders? Knowing the people and their diet will determine whether they make use of temporary buildings, or permanent structures.

Tech Level

To understand how people might live in a region you must have knowledge of the tools at their disposal. One of the problems with classifications such as the ‘Iron Age’ is our world did not develop along a uniform time line. Necessity is also the mother of invention. If a region has a certain technology you should handily be able to provide the necessity for the technology. In the previous point there’s mention of aqueducts, cisterns, and wells. For a community situated on a river they likely have no idea how to construct anything of that nature. But they may have a complex crop irrigation system and how to utilize floodplains.

Specialized Products (Textiles, Spices, Precious Metals/Gems, Crafts)

Think of it as the regions imports and exports page. When we think of certain places we associate representative goods with that area. Holland is well known for tulips, East Asia for rice, the American South for cotton and tobacco. Coal from the Black Mountains, Swiss chocolate and watches, and the list continues. This might include practical items like cereal grains, oil, pelts, livestock, tools; or luxury items such as precious metals, gemstones, jewelry, alcohol & drugs, and exotic animals and furs.

Division of Labor

How much of the population is dedicated to strictly growing food. The more advanced technology a civilization has the greater yield of foodstuffs and the less people needed to cultivate food. A food surplus allows for people to have specific occupations that do not include creating food. If the close knit farming community is doing well, they might have someone who is best at X do that full time to support the community rather than farm, such as a tanner, smith, or potter. It’s the birth of skilled labor. The division of labor is greatly influenced by the region’s tech level and their specialized products. In general this will be a pyramid shape with farmers on the bottom, common laborers, skilled laborers, specialized craftsmen and merchants, and at the very top landowners and religious leaders. There is an obvious shift in this paradigm if the location in question is a mining town, or a trade route city.

Relationships with Other Areas

Is the region aggressive, are its neighboring communities? Is area heavily controlled, isolationist, or open to all and fosters trade? If the area has a diverse population it is probably well visited by outsiders or at least was at one time. Monasteries cloistered deep in the mountains are reclusive by location and usually asceticism in their system of belief. You should also develop why one region likes or dislikes another. It may be they covet lands, difference in religion, share the hatred of a common enemy, or have a symbiotic trade relationship. Really there can be any reason; human history is a laundry list of hate, destruction, conquest, and the occasional amenable accord. There is not much else to say on the topic, it’s fairly self-evident.

Warfare

A region’s relationship with its neighbors will determine how often there is fighting, while resources and tech level will determine by what means the fighting happens. Fighting in this way can be anything from family feuds, general banditry and raiding, border skirmishes, private war (one noble against another noble in the same overarching kingdom/empire), or a full scale, international war of conquest. A region that is often embroiled in war is likely to have the most up-to-date technology (swords, shields, advanced armors) and strategy (siege weaponry, specialized units & formation), whereas a generally peaceful region is more than likely to turn hunting tools (spear, bow, sling) to war with no, or rudimentary, strategy.

 

So next time you’re up for a bit of world building try the list out. Remember that world building is not a finished product. If you are able to jot down something for each point of the list that do not contradict each other you will be in good shape. As you play or write fleshing out the frame will happen naturally. Dig the list out and add to it from your latest chapter or game session notes. Before long you will have at least one well-defined region. From my own experience it is much easier to handle the twists, turns, and unexpected curve balls of a story/RPG session when I have a firm foundation off which to build.

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