Last week, I mentioned the possibility of me starting a D&D 5e campaign in the near future over Roll20. Keeping that in mind, I’ve been brainstorming what kind of setting I’d like to use.
I could make things easy for myself by using a published setting, like the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk. However, I’ve done that before. I want to use a setting of my own creation, something I can use as an expression of my own fantasy tastes and sensibilities.
The creative person in me wants to start with the big picture, building a massive world possessing a rich history that spans several millenia and filled to the grim with unique cultures. Thankfully, the more logical person in me has a rolled-up newspaper in hand ready to keep the creative person in check.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying designing a setting from a top-down perspective is objectively wrong and you should never do it. That couldn’t be further from the case. Instead, I’m trying to say I believe there’s a more efficient approach.
Start your world-building efforts with a much smaller scope, such as a small town and the surrounding wilderness. You can have some ideas about what lies beyond the horizon, but don’t focus upon them right now. Tuck them into the back of your mind for now, retrieving them when they are needed much later in the campaign. Focus on this small area you’ve crafted, filling it up with possible adventure hooks, interesting ideas, and breathing life into it.
The reason why I prefer this method is that it allow you to focus on the setting details the party will be immediately interacting with. It’s great that you’ve created this cool society that exists across the ocean from where the campaign begins, but if your party shows no inclination to hop on a boat anytime soon, it might feel like the time you spent making said society was wasted. Instead, you can slowly add things to the world, expanding the boundaries of that starting area as they are needed within the campaign. Just because you’re starting with a smaller scope doesn’t mean it won’t grow bigger as time passes.
Hell, I even suggest not doing the hard work until you’ve had a Session Zero. Have a general idea for the area, but fill in the details once you know what kind of characters will be in the party, allowing you to make a setting that will best suite them. You can even borrow some of their ideas, making them feel like they’ve taken part in the creation of the setting too, making it a little bit more personal for them.
It’s cool to have a world of your own, but you’ve got to start somewhere. A small, frontier town tucked away within the wilderness sounds is as good of a place as any.