My assumption at this point is that you know your GM style. You know your player’s styles, and what entertains them. You have a campaign partially fleshed out in your head. You are ready to sit down with your players and begin laying out what will make your world tick, and letting your players think about what lays before them.
My style is top-down or big-to-small. I tend to be more organized than less. I prefer a lazier world-building process that is an amalgam of published campaign materials and homebrewed ideas, rather than one wholly of my creation. I say lazy since I prefer to “borrow” rather than create, wherever possible in world-building.
Ultimately, I want rich characters playing in an interesting world and it doesn’t matter to me if the world is 100% my own creation or not. I focus more on stories and characters than world-building. Every DM has their own evolving mix. Also, I prefer no player come to the table with a complete character concept & backstory. I want players to develop their characters at the table, not in isolation. I do want them to come with a few ideas for a couple characters, but is often not required.
For this series I will reference the D&D 5th Edition Starter Box set featuring the adventure “The Lost Mines of Phandelver” (LMoP). This particular adventure is set in the Forgotten Realms, and I am happy to make use of it. I am also willing to add or subtract as much or little to that setting as I feel I want, as the story unfolds. For now, since my players loosely are aware of the Sword Coast (Neverwinter & Baldur’s Gate exclusively), my setting is contained within the Sword Coast Realms for ease, but I am looking to expand into more when I can take advantage.
The Player Binder
At the start of the session I distribute a binder to each player. This binder contains everything they need to understand the campaign and create their characters. They will keep this binder for the entirety of the campaign. They store their character sheets, maps, props, as well as their starting documents. As a practice, I also collect every binder after each session, and occasionally update their character sheets as needed.
The Campaign Pitch
This is the adventure hook by which your players receive a decent synopsis of your campaign in just a few sentences and move onto the world-at-large. For this campaign, LMoP, I reworked the stated hook slightly, and I have told my players the following:
The year is 1487, just over 100 years after the Spellplague rocked the continent and 36 years after Mount Hotenow destroyed most of your city, you three are all employed at a very reputable mining supply company as delivery specialists. You employer, Gundren Rockseeker, has picked you to deliver this very important load of goods to the small mining town of Phandalin with the promise of extra pay. He tells you what he always tells you, “Be good. Be safe. Be on time.” What could possibly go wrong?
The Six High Concepts
There are six high-level concepts I come to the table with for every Session Zero, so I can quickly describe the campaign and world, and then transition to Character Creation as fast as possible. At the beginning of describing these concepts, I state the universal reminder to my players: “This is Player Knowledge, Not Character Knowledge.” I envision the concepts top-down in the universe: Cosmology, Pantheon, Magic, Geography, Calendar, and Timeline.
- Cosmology (DMG 43-68): Decide if you will use a standard D&D cosmology from 5th Edition, an earlier edition, a hybrid, or completely your own. I start top-down from a “Universe” perspective, then drill down until we get to the character level. For this universe, I am sticking with the 4th Edition “World Axis” model, where there is a Material Plane (earth) and its two echoes (Shadowfell & Feywild). The Astral Sea is believed to float above holding the Gods in their individual dominions. The Elemental Chaos with its elemental forces clash together below. Within the Chaos is a portal to the Abyss. I never define much detail here beyond providing my players a picture of “the planes”, and that there may be potential connections between them.
- Pantheon (DMG 9-13): Have a list of deities for your players to choose from for either background reasons or class reasons or both. Here is where I almost always pull information from other sources rather than create my own. I may add extra flavor, extra story bits, or even combine a few deities together into a single one. Typically I want to provide the following attributes for each deity: Primary Alignment, Sex, 5th Edition Domain, Spheres of Influence, Dominion, Allies, Enemies, and Symbolic Weapon. I also provide a small 3-point overview of the Deity’s dogma.
- Primary Alignment: Every Deity has an alignment that epitomizes their dogma. I do not use character alignment as a measure, rather I focus on individual actions and their consequences.
- Sex: I have found players enjoy knowing the sex of their god, and in turn their characters may as well.
- Divine Domain: Each Deity has strong influence over one or more of these mortal aspects of life. Clergy serve their deities through these portfolios.
- Spheres of Influence: Clergy can exemplify a Deity’s dogma through certain behaviors and actions called Spheres of Influence. These are often conceptual or racial.
- Titles and Honorifics: In different regions, in different ancient tomes, or in different eras, deities are known by different names and titles.
- Dominion: The plane of existence where a given deity is believed to exist.
- Allies: Other deities or entities that are considered to have a positive relationship.
- Enemies: Usually established through world-shaking events, deities take sides and create enemies. Sometimes, an enemy is created because they are allies with another deity.
- Symbolic Weapons: Religious symbolism is very important. In the world, a weapon aligned with a deity says a lot about a person’s character. For the LMoP campaign, I am using a mix of Realms deities, as well some 4th Edition deities. I chose deities my players have heard of, so when I explain the pantheon, they have quick familiarity. For Character Creation, they can select from 11 good and neutral aligned deities.For my Good & Neutral Deities in this world: Part 1 & Part 2
- Magic (DMG 23-24): For me, this is the single most important world concept I explain to my players from the start. DMs should be able to discuss the world’s magic rarity and the people’s superstition of it, magic item existence and creation, and characters overall access to magic through spellcasting. Magic defines the relationships between mortals and higher beings, be it Gods, Primordials, Monsters, or Nature itself. The world’s history is defined by magic. Of course, if how magic works is a story plot, then discuss cautiously. Your players should view magic as wondrous and mysterious, but for the DM, is should be well understood. Fifth Edition defines magic as a nearly limitless pool of raw energy that cannot be shaped or accessed directly by mere mortals. For most worlds, magic is stored energy in every fragment of matter in existence. This raw magic is accessed through an interface that unlocks the energy. In the Forgotten Realms, it is commonly known as “The Weave.” I like the definition, and continue to use it in my games.
- Arcane Magic: Using either methodical learning or intuitive understanding, Bards, Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards, work the magical interface directly with their spell casting.
- Divine Magic: Clerics, Druids, Monks, Rangers, and Paladins, all depend on their relationships with higher beings, greater forces, or the deeply mystical, to access magical energy either from within themselves or the external world.
- Geography (DMG 14): A regional map handout at Session Zero can give your players a scope of the area the campaign will begin with, unless there is some story reason not to. Maps should only provide minimal details such as very few towns or places of interest. The main features such as bodies of water, mountains and hills, ice caps or jungles are also important for players to create their characters in. Players determine important character locations during background creation.
- Calendar (DMG 32-33): I provide a one-sheet calendar that reflects the regular calendar year, important dates, holidays, and the current date. This sheet also includes a time tracker and lunar calendar. Each player binder will have extra copies during gameplay.
- Timeline (DMG 26-32): Consider providing a very high-level historical timeline that depicts common epochs, and the major highlights that represent the era represents. You should try to state the reason for one era ending and another beginning. Try to minimize the amount of detail to 4-5 epochs. Here is an example drawn heavily from Forgotten Realms lore:
Next time, we’ll discuss House Rules.