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Build from the Characters Outwards

by Mike on 1 May 2023

The characters are the heroes of the worlds we create together. They're the focus of our lens. The world outside of their view doesn't yet exist — except for the villains and their own quests.

It's hard to keep this in mind when we're building our world. We're driven to write sprawling histories, wide geographies, deep religious sects, and vast cities.

In the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, step one is to focus on the characters. Who are they? What are their names? What do they want? Where did they come from?

This is deliberately the first step we do. It puts them first in our minds as we prep the rest of our next session.

But we can take this character-first approach to anything we build in our games. Which religions should we fill out? Those tied closest to the characters as either their own domains or those domains they oppose. What elements should we focus on when building a city? Those of most likely interest to the characters, their classes, and their backgrounds. What sort of monuments might they run into out in the wilds? Those with a connection to the characters history, heritage, religion, or the villains they chase. What magic items should we drop in to the game? Those that provide use or interest to the characters.

We can use random tables to guide such things, but the results from such rolls can inspire us to build something interesting to the characters — something expanding the scope of the world through their own eyes.

What sorts of things can we focus around the characters and their players?


What type of strong start might draw them into the larger story?

What scenes move their story forward?

What secrets might interest them to discover?

What NPCs would they enjoy interacting with?

What monsters might they enjoy fighting?

What locations might they enjoy exploring?

What items and rewards suit their characters?

There's a flip side to this. Players engage well with new things to discover, new religions, new histories, new stories and folklore, new NPCs and villains. In this way, we want to think two horizons out. We can still keep the characters in mind as our own world unfolds around them, feeling real to them as they learn its history and see it alive around them. As GMs, we keep the horizon line always moving outward, just beyond what the characters can see so they know there's a world out there even if it isn't right in front of them.

It's a delicate balance between building for the characters and building a larger world.

It's also why we love being GMs.

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