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Every Day Dungeon Master: Building Worlds

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Here we are once more, Table Top Titans! In this installment I am going to break down several of the world building techniques that we DM’s might employ when creating stories for our players. First off, we need a world to play in, right?

Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition gave us two pretty easy ways to build a world. The first was Top-Down. In this kind of world building, you create the world, the continent, many of the gods, the lore, and the history and work your way down to the minute details of towns, monsters, and specific missions. IF you need a kind of reference point, I’d point at the worlds of Dragon Age and Witcher. These video games have you basically moving through a world that is already complete. Even the main narrative in each video game feels like you are dealing wit your own story in a world that would continue on whether you were there or not.

The second was Bottom-Up. In this technique, you build your world as your players encounter it. If you are intrepid adventurers who start out exploring a dungeon, the rest of the world isn’t quite as important as what is around the next cobwebbed corridor or on the other side of that trap door that looks like a bookcase. This kind of world building is great if you are playing with new characters, as many of them may not have a back story for their characters, or a handle on the setting. Using Bottom-Up you can introduce them to parts of the setting as they actively seek them out, creating this town as they try to sell what they found in the dungeon, hunting down brigands that are rumored to be just outside of town, or being mistakenly identified as brigands outside of town and taken to the larger city for trial.

Now having a world to work with is great, but we started this article talking about story. Of course, there will always be some groups who enjoy the absolute freedom of kicking around in a well-made sandbox. If you have a group this advanced and focused, congratulations on finding your unicorn you lucky bastard. For the rest of us, who find groups with every kind of player type and attention span, you will most likely have to offer them a solid narrative. For now, I’ll just give you a brief description, but maybe in an article or two we can get into the real nitty gritty.

The first, most obvious, and, for most DMs, most tempting story is your main event. This would be your quest to drop that ring into that volcano, or your plan to topple some intergalactic empire. This story will offer some really solid hooks to keep your players going; Villains than can love to hate, objectives to complete, and plenty of NPC’s to guide the way. All of this is great, and for your average player, you can get a lot of satisfaction out of it.

However, I want you all to remember that each person playing really wants to be the protagonist of this story. Whether you made a rough and tumble spaceship captain that aims to misbehave or an Amazonian super heroine with a fetish for glowing rope and invisible planes, you want to delve and develop your character. To that end, I suggest you take the time to put mini storylines, hints, and the odd connection between your story and theirs in the middle of your player’s path. A great example of this is the Final Fantasy games, namely the ones in the Playstation 1 era. In Final Fantasy 7 you eventually find yourself in a prison underneath a high tech theme park. This entire storyline breaks away from your main story, but it illuminates nearly everything you could want to know about one of your characters. You might think doing this would alienate the other players, but it won’t. Trust me. If it is well done and interesting, and as long as you are still doling out the experience as they earn it, most players will trudge right through the storyline, knowing that they will get a chapter of their own in the future.

How many of you build your worlds completely before a player character leaves a foot print?   What are some of your favorite, player-oriented story arcs that you’ve played through? Hit me up in the comments.

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