World Building 1: Start Small

For this Tabletop RPG post, I want to focus on tips for DMs/GMs who want to build their own fantasy worlds. I’ve built my own fantasy worlds since the mid-1990s, and I’ve learned from my mistakes as well as from the successes of others. So, as I work to create a new homebrew setting for D & D and Pathfinder games, I thought I would provide a step-by-step description of my process with my audience. You guys get to go on this creative journey with me as it unfolds.

So, today’s focus is on “starting small”. To do that, I’ll talk about three things that I do when I start small: I create a small world history, a small cosmology, and a single nation in which to begin a game.

World History, Simplified. As anyone who’s read a history book can attest, world histories are long and complex. They fill countless tomes, and that can make creating a history overwhelming. But, if we start small – if we just list ten major historical events in chronological order – we can give our world a sense of reality by imparting a “grand narrative” that can spur backgrounds, create plot hooks, and give the players locations, people, and events into which their characters may become invested.

World Name: Ivirune

Current Year: 2184, reckoned from The Sundering, a historical event that most believe to be nothing more than legend at this point.

Major Historical Events

  • 0001 – The Sundering splits the Great Land into the known continents of Hellonde and Acaris with two islands between them amidst the Crionne Sea. Trade with and travel among the barbarian tribes and Snow Elves of Valgarde in the north also exists. Two additional land masses, one far to the east and one far to the south also split form the Great Land, but no contact with them has yet to be established.
  • 0450 – The Wizard Princes of the nation of Acar grow in magical power that allows them to seize dominion over the entire continent of Acaris, save for a small region in the southeast, beyond the Sicar River, where a strange race of small, hairy-footed humans tend to dwell. Thus begins the Acarian Empire.
  • 0627 – Eladrin from the Feywild make first contact with Ivirune, establishing a nation on the larger of the major islands in the Crionne Sea. They name this nation Kalibor. This becomes a homeland for their kinfolk in this world, and becomes the “Homeland of the Elves” as the Eladrin evolve.
  • circa 0689 – Wyrmwood the Corruptor, a powerful ancient green dragon, takes up residence in a bleak marshland on the eastern side of the continent of Hellonde. His presence causes massive changes to the landscape, and, as the centuries pass, numerous other dragons come to this region at the end of their lives, earning the region the name “Dragon Marsh”.
  • 1071 – The nation of Morvian faces numerous raiding parties as various members of the Fearie Court (Seelie and Unseelie) find portals to Ivirune that emerge here. They take up residence, partially shifting Morviann into the Feywild and transforming the southern forest, now named the Orobahn Woods, into a strange, unfamiliar place – even for rangers. They also obtain slaves by raiding the border towns of the southern nation of Talwyn.
  • 1456-1468 – the Mage Wars erupt in the Acarian Empire, as the Mage Princes of the various regions vie for power. Their brutal disregard for all but victory has serious impacts on the land itself. In the end of the War, the continent of Acaris is now divided into the nations of Gilead, Acar, Ka-Tet (a desert with minimal water sources), Vekathas, the Djoran Wastes (a nearly uninhabitable region due to the influx of necrotic energies), and Evanus.
  • 1470 – In an attempt to prevent another Mage War from erupting, the heads of the six great magical orders – The Silver Star, the Order of Night, the Coven of the Moon, the Verdant Grove, the Order of the Green Lion, and the Sacred Order of the Shining Sun – establish the city of Castalar, governed by the Council of Six. They enchant the city to float five miles above the surface so that they may travel to areas needed to prevent such outbreaks from occurring.
  • 1674-1684 – The Elven Civil War on the island of Kalibor, between druidic and arcane practitioners, leads to the sinking of the capital city of Levianoch by the sacrifice of Archdruid Arael Dawntide. Afterward, the capital was moved east to Singvale. While arcane magic is still practiced, the Elven people look upon such power with more suspicion than they did before.
  • 1891 – A tinkerer in the land of Gilead, Wesmith de Rolo, creates the first firearm – a “pepperbox” as he calls it. He presents his invention to the King of Gilead, Arthur Eld, who commissions de Rolo to fashion these weapons for his elite knights, whom he eventually names ‘The Gunslingers’. Sharing of this technology with others is considered treason in Gilead.
  • 2039 – A group of Eladrin decide to break from the Fey-governed Morvian. They head east across the Winding Mountains and found the nation of Hylia. A hereditary matriarchal monarchy that they aspire to be a place where law and fairness are balanced for all – as opposed to the ever-shifting chaotic whims of the Fey Courts.

I admit that there is a decent amount of text in that box, but that gives me, as DM, numerous story elements to work with, and it gives my players numerous options when considering character backstories. So, what this brief history establishes for the world – a few known landmasses as well as the possibility of others (adventure! danger!), several nations that their characters can call home, and conflicts that – though “officially resolved” – will have lasting impacts on the world around them.  The history can be fleshed out and/or complicated later, but this gives a brief scope of some of the major events that have had lasting impacts on the world.

So, what started all of this? Let’s find out…

World Cosmology, Simplified.

Every world has a cosmology, a mythos, a religion (or numerous religions) whose traditions inform life. Ivirune is no different. While a simplified cosmology will not deal with the multitude of tales and traditions possible, to present a simplified cosmology gives a sort of “In the Beginning” picture and maybe provides some major religious festivals that at this point may have also become secular observances.

And yes, I purposefully begin with history and then move to cosmology. Why? History is what happened (at least until we delve into critical history) while cosmology (and mythology) explains why it happened on a metaphorical level. Thus, I move from phenomena to culturally-dependent explanations for said phenomena.

Ivirune Cosmology

The Sundering: The Sundering is the mythic event that ended the Serpent War – a war between the Eldritch beings who represent the primal, chaotic forces of nature, and the more “rational – but still petty and human” gods worshiped at present. During the War, the two brother gods O’negod (basically Helm for all you D & D people) and Asmodeus slew their father the Ancient One, Orobahn, in battle atop a tower called The Pillar of the Elements in southern Acaris. Upon Orobahn’s death, the Great Land split into the various continents. Fearing that further killings would destroy the world they sought for themselves, the Gods bound their ancestors in obsidian coffins and cast them into the Void below the lowest level of the Abyss.

The Gods then entered into the Sanguine Pact – a blood oath where they swore never again to directly interfere in the mortal world, believing their intervention could bring about the undoing of the ordered world from which they sought to gain worshipers.

Major Feast Days

  • Feast of Fools – Midway between Great Winter and First Sun, this is a “day out of time” where, at least on a small scale, the normal social order is upturned. Think Carnival/Mardi Gras.
  • The First Sun, the “official New Year” celebration that marks the slow return of the sun and longer days.
  • Feast of First Planting, the Vernal Equinox, this feast celebrates fertility of plants, animals, and sentient beings.
  • Feast of High Summer, the Summer Solstice, held to celebrate the triumph of the Sun (O’negod) over the darkness.
  • Feast of First Harvest, the Autumnal Equinox, held to celebrate the gifts given by the land and to reignite bonds of community as the darkness of winter approaches.
  • Raven’s Feast, the Feast of the Hallowed Dead, held at the end of fall to honor the dead. On this day, the veil between the Prime and the Shadowfell is at its thinnest, and people often leave offerings for the misunderstood and feared Raven Queen in an attempt to curry favor from she who oversees the end of life.
  • Feast of High Winter, Winter Solstice, a feast that celebrates small lights in the darkest of times that will soon grow into the re-emergence of the Sun. This feast has become a time of gift giving and overindulgence.

This brief sketch of one major cosmological event, The Sundering, and a few of the major feast days helps provide a bit of background on the beliefs of the world of Ivirune. Of course, the world’s mythology – and that of each culture – is far more detailed, but starting at this level gives me a springboard. I know what major event shaped the cosmological formulations. I have conflicts between generations of deities that could potentially recur. Plus, having a list of major festivals provides background, places to further develop and individuate cultures, plot hooks, and fun diversions for the players to explore. It also helps for developing immersive means of telling time and date during a session without having to create an entire calendar.

Geography and Politics, Simplified – One Nation.

Now that we have a brief history and cosmology of the world, it’s time to design an actual place within the world, a single nation. I’ve learned that it’s best to start with one that’s largely isolated – an island, surrounded by mountains, etc. – so that there are fewer immediate external factors to work out in detail. If I were to start with a nation that’s a part of a continent, then I would choose one situated on one of the extremities. The fewer immediate neighbors a nation has, the fewer external forces need to be developed at the start.

Kalibor Map
Draft Stage Map of Kalibor

So, the logical question would be, “What should I flesh out when I put this nation together?” That’s not an easy question to answer. And I’ll be honest, before I picked up a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology, it was an easier question for me to answer. That said, the “short answer” is this: Flesh out the minimum of what you would need to make the culture of that nation feel alive to you.  For me, that requires naming major geographic and geological features, placing the various towns/cities/significant locations on the map, developing a sketch of the power structures (national, regional, local, legal, religious, cultural, etc.), describing 3-5 significant cultural features/practices, and briefly sketching out major international relations. I will also begin by drawing a simple map using colored pencils for the geographical features and black ink for the names.

Nation: Kalibor

Location: Humid Sub-tropical island. Most precipitation falls in late spring/early summer.

Population: 74,000 – 45% High Elves, 30% Wood Elves, 15% Half-Elves, 5% Eladrin, 5% Other (Sea Elf, Human, Other Fey, Aasimar, Dwarf, Tiefling – often concentrated in port cities)

Major Geographical and Geological Features: Grove of the Fallen – an oak and elm tree circle wherein the earthen burial mounds of the Archdruids rest; Verdant Jungle – a large, dense forest that stretches the length of the island’s center; Leviana Bay – the body of water formed after Archdruid Dawnstar caused the land around Levianoch to sink into the sea; Mountains of the Crescent Moon – a ridge of mountains that extends along the eastern horn and named for the shape of the range; the Jade Woods – a small ring of trees surrounding Lake Pelor and the Grey Stream where the new capital, Singvale, sits; the Fylvel River – the largest river on the island that extends from the coast to Lake Veyl near the western edge of the Verdant Jungle.

Capital: Singvale (Population: 21,000)

Government: Ruled by a Triumvirate of elected officials who serve for 100 year terms. One member is from the Eladrin/High Elf nobility in and around Singvale; one is from a ranking Wood Elf clan member of the Verdant Jungle; and one is a representative of the current Archduid.

At the local levels (even Singvale), administrative and legal matters are handled by a group of seven individuals called the City High Council. These individuals serve for 20 year terms and are responsible for administrative matters, civil cases, and criminal trials.

Military: Kalibor keeps a standing army of 2,500 infantry and 500 cavalry as well as a Ranger Corps of 1,500 rangers and 500 Arcane Archers. In times of need, the Elves can easily conscript 5,000 more infantry and 6,000 more rangers/archers.

Religion: Within the large cities, most Elves keep a slightly secular version of older faiths. They acknowledge most deities, but if they have any personal devotion to a deity, they will often worship a deity of learning, nature, or, in some cases, magical secrets. Travelers will find that their faiths are, more often than not, respected in urban areas – save for deities such as Asmodeus or the other Infernal or Eldritch faiths. Elven religious devotion tends to be private, save for festival times, when Elves hold elaborate public rituals. Elves in the smaller towns and in more rural locations tend to be more open in their faith-based practices.

Cultural Gift Giving: Gift giving rituals among the Elves have evolved to include phrases from Old Elven dialects that many – even among the educated classes – no longer speak save for ritual occassions. When meeting someone believed to be an Elf’s superior/senior, the visiting Elf will (1) immediately present a gift (otherwise, the gift is given at the end of the visit); (2) a ritualistic series of denials about both the necessity of the gift (by the receiver) and the extravagance/cost of the gift (by the giver); (3) and (should the gift be accepted) a lengthy ritualistic “battle of gratitude” where both parties offer ritualistic praise for the gift and the other party that can last for three or four hours. Should the gift not be accepted: the giver faces shame and a possible loss of social standing.

Clothing: Elven clothing is light and flowy, often made of silks, linens, and cottons. Elves prefer vibrant colors. Men and women adorn themselves in gold or silver jewelry that often contains precious stones.

Diet: Mostly fish, wild fowl/game, nuts, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Cattle, oxen, pigs, sheep, and goats are available but in limited quantities, making these protiens excellent choices for gift giving or special occasions.

Architectural Style: Elves favor a free-flowing architectural style that both uses and highlights the natural elements around them. Given the geography of Kalibor, this often includes white stone foundations and support beams to frame wooden buildings. The Elves often paint their homes with verdant floral and/or forest scenes or with silver scrollwork.

International Relations: The Elves of Kalibor maintain polite, cordial, and, in some cases, friendly relations with most of the nations with whom they directly trade at their port cities. That said, they look upon the people of Acar, of Carpathoi, and of Ka-Tet with suspicion, but their diplomats know to remain professional. They find the Fey Government of Morovan uncouthand almost feral, but, as they too originate in the Feywild, they maintain cordial relations with the Morovanian Court.

Other Locations of Note: Sunken City of Levianoch: The ruins of the ancient capital can still be reached by those who can descend into the watery depths. Sanctum Arcanum: the official university for teaching the arcane arts, located in Singvale. Monastary of the Lunar Cycle: situated in the Mountains of the Crescent Moon, the monks here help those who seek to balance the often chaotic and contradictory natures beleived to be inherent in most Elves through disciplined living, meditation, and martial arts training.

That’s about all that I create at the start. This gives me one nation in which a campaign can either fully occur or can begin before the party ventures into another kingdom by boat (or magical portal if they have access). As you can see from the description provided, this “culture sketch”, if you will, gives both the DM and the players enough to begin thinking about as they create their characters. This isn’t a “fully fleshed out culture” in the way an anthropologist would write an ethnographic monograph, but it gives gamers enough information to get a sense of who the Elves of Kalibor are, some of the conflicts amongst their people that inform certain aspects of culture, how they interact with other cultures and a few options for adding flavor to character classes. And, for those playing non-Elves, this description helps them explain why they are in Kalibor.

Final Thoughts

This entire process took me about four hours to write, draw, and then type up in coherent sentences. My actual notes are simply just a series of phrases and bullet points. What I present in the blockquote boxes are examples of the typed text that I would hand to players along with a scanned copy of the nation’s map (I apologize for my horrid handwriting).

Does this process take time? Yes. That said, remember – when starting to build your own world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all that needs doing. That’s why, I suggest starting a campaign on either an island nation, such as Kalibor here or in a nation that exists at the edge of a continent, thus limiting the number of neighbors the DM must consider as immediate possibilities.

Having brief sketches of the world’s history, its cosmology, and of one nation – that you can continue to flesh out as each session occurs (and don’t forget to allow the players to “help” by asking them questions about where their characters are from and what those places believe/think about the world around them).

Starting small is a good practice for DMing in general – build one country to start, add as needed. Prep for one session at a time, extend as needed. I’ll talk more about world building and campaign construction (at least the way I go about doing these things) later.


Game on!