World Building: The Very Basics of Being Vague


World building can seem daunting. Where do you start? What do you start with? How big should it be? How detailed? More importantly, how long will this take!? [Note: I will be largely talking about fantasy worlds here, but this can be applied to any other genre.]

Building a world can be a heap of work if you’re trying to keep track of wars, kingdoms, politics, courts, family feuds, famines, droughts, and so on. Whew! If you’re new to this, what you need to keep in mind is that players, however nice they are (or maybe aren’t), will probably walk all over your perfect plans. So…

Don’t worry. Be vague.

Yes, I know. You have so many ideas, so many things that need to happen! What’s the good of playing god if you can’t show off your rich, vibrant creation skills?! The honest answer is that, as a whole, players will not always do what you expect. This can be very useful for world-building!

You only need to create the places/people/whatever that your story absolutely needs. If your heroes meet up at X place, are hired to find X person/artifact at X place, then you only really need to create those places/people/things. The trick is to make these single places feel a part of a larger, populated world (or worlds).

For example, all of current my campaigns start/end in one large port city, so that’s all I’ve made! Because this is a stand-alone city, it can be a part of any world that is within roughly the same time period – like a modular drop-in. I know everything about my city that there is to know – that’s all I need to have fleshed out. So long as my city seems like it’s real, the outside world does not matter as much.

So why would your players stomp all over your delicate god-plans be a good idea? Well…

Your players can help!

Your players may want to be involved in your world. Hell, their characters come from it! Is their character from a tyrant-led barony? Are they a knight-errant, cast out by their king? Maybe a merchant’s child, rebelling against their parents and going into bard school. Whoever they are, they come from somewhere.

You can use these places to build up world-character. When they tell you about their character, ask them a few questions and get interested! Are they from the mountains – and if so, what is the mountain range called? Do they get along with the people nearby – or do they care about the outside world at all? Is it a big town or a small village? What is their family like, and did they have a particular role in the community?

Not only will this help you build your world – it will help you learn more about your players, your player characters, and the world in which they want to adventure. If they don’t enjoy your world, they’re not going to enjoy the campaign. If they’re feeling up to it, ask them to write down their info so you can pull from it later. These little tidbits can hook your players in as you use them – especially if they feel like they helped.

If your players are the type that don’t put a whole lot of thought into characters and back stories, that’s okay too! Because…

When you’re new, being vague can take pressure off you & your players!

Say you’ve sat down with your players and none seem particularly keen on fleshing out back story, regions, or anything. They’re new, you’re new – or maybe they’re not that keen on role-playing. That’s okay! You’ve got this, you just have to nail down your bare bones.

Let’s start with what you absolutely need for your first session (after character creation):

  • The PCs meet
  • A Quest!
  • Journey’s beginning

The above list is a set of situations you want your PCs to experience – so only these places are absolutely needed. Where will they meet, the inn/tavern? Are they already on the road, and meet up with the other PCs along the way? Will there be a contact of theirs that, er, contacts them with the quest information – and then they meet the rest of the team? Do they respond to a missive from a relative – or is it a royal decree demanding the adventurers’ help?

Meeting standbys:

  • Start in a tavern/inn (Requires place name, barkeeper name)
  • Answering a request from a notice board (requires person or company name)
  • Contacted by a local leader for a requested meeting (requires leader’s name & a friend, servant, or second-in-command)

First quest standbys:

  • Overhear about magnificent riches (requires place name for riches, requires riches ‘name’ if applicable)
  • A mysterious traveler arrives at an inn (requires place name, given name of stranger, place stranger needs to go)
  • Hired to retrieve/find x important item/person (requires place name, person hiring, item name, person to be found)
  • Local people are being terrorized by a regular raiding party (requires place name, possible witnesses, person hiring, name of raiding group)

While fairly standard quests in nearly any tabletop game, they are a good way to get a grasp on your world and how your players react to it/each other.


[Note: D&D quest idea taken from this list. If you are new or seasoned, do not be afraid to use online resources made for this purpose!]

Quest: A caster has summoned a creature that they cannot contain and it is destroying the area

Party Meeting: Local leader contacts the party. He seeks people with particular skills to take down the creature and bring in the caster for an arrest.

Names/info needed:

  • Caster <Farblat Simla, rogue wizard>
  • Creature <Akiaza, troublesome creature> (Name is not required. But…reoccurring villain, anyone? *waggles eyebrows*)
  • Leader <Joseph Hodgeson, head of town watch, military man>
  • Town <Marblybrook, a town with many retired military>
  • Area being destroyed <Dark Forest, not often visited due to strange noises and disappearances>
  • Any merchants/contacts the party may need to meet before setting out <Sara Porder, merchant; Thaen Yosept, local guide>

Even with this minor amount of information, you can start your party on their first steps out of Marblybrook toward the Dark Forest at the best of Joseph. (But not after visiting Sara for supplies or hiring Thaen as their guide.) Watch out, Farblat!

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast