by Mike Shea on 29 April 2019
In the March 2019 episode of the DM's Deep Dive I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Dungeons & Dragons and RPG luminary Wolfgang Baur who is currently the Kobold-in-Chief at Kobold Press the most popular third-party publisher for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons supplements including the Midgard Campaign Setting, the Tome of Beasts, and the Creature Codex.
The rest of this article offers some notes from the episode.
Here are Wolfgang's top three tips for worldbuilding in D&D:
Know what you're trying to build. Pick a theme. Pick a seed. Pick a tone. Do you want gothic horror? Survival horror? Elfy fantasy? Choose your theme, write it down, and stick to that. This is particularly useful for shorter campaigns where you have a focused overall theme for the campaign.
Start small. For newer worldbuilders the urge is to build out everything. This can be deeply satisfying for the DM but our players just need a village. They need a hommlet. Start small. The focus on local concerns will resonate much more with your players than a big grand world. The five thousand years of history may be important to you but you can't expect your players to care until it matters to their characters.
Before you roll out a new campaign in a new world, make sure the players are on board with your setting. Have a pre-session zero discussion in which you pitch the campaign theme and pay particular attention to the body language of the players. Maybe your group of high fantasy heroic players aren't down with the dark gritty horror fantasy of Shadow of the Demon Lord.
Would we have had the Lord of the Rings if Tolkein hadn't farted around with elvish languages, 5,000 years of history, and a bunch of songs? A lot of the Silmarillion doesn't appear in Lord of the Rings but it was important to Tolkien.
If you care about your world, go for it, but don't expect your players to care.
Every poll Wolfgang ran back in the TSR days agreed with my own polls that DMs run their own campaign world. This has been true and will be true probably forever because DMs love building their own worlds.
Wolfgang recommends focusing on a region like the Sword Coast or Zobek for Midgard. Smaller worlds mean the players will actually be able to explore it. Hint at the ancient history.
Wolfgang thinks Keep on the Borderlands's popularity comes from its focus. Players want to know what is going on here and now but DMs love to go deep. Wolfgang had customers say that the 450 page book for Midgard was just a teaser for the world. How much more can he provide? Well, he has a whole Kingdom of the Ghouls Kickstarter in the works so probably quite a bit!
How much time one has available will likely dictate whether DMs choose to build a homebrew campaign world or a published setting. Some DMs just don't have the time to build a campaign world so they take it out of the box and run with it. If you go with your own homebrew world, you have to worry about understanding traderoutes or governmental systems.
Players: "We just want to go to the old ruins on the hill."
DM: "But the town councils meeting..."
Players: "We don't really care about that."
Wolfgang's players aren't there to share Wolfgang's homebrewed stuff. They're there to play a game. The homebrew that matters is that which focuses on the characters. Build your homebrew from the hooks of the characters.
The spice on top of a campaign setting seems to resonate more to players than the in-depth stuff. The throw-away lines gather as much momentum as the carefully planned stuff.
Wolfgang's highest expectation for Midgard is that DMs will strip it for parts. He's perfectly happy for people to take the shadowfey and leylines and the bearfolk and put them into their own worlds.
Mash it up. Wolfgang is a big believer in mashing up material.
Beyond getting your players together to make sure they are on board with your campaign, maybe get them involved a bit in the world building. What's the name of the assassin's guild?
Wolfgang's primary points to give to the players:
Wolfgang likes to have conflicts between individuals versus the state. You might have a great base attack bonus but the court of the shadowfey doesn't give a shit.
Midgard and other campaign settings have the "seven things you need to know" (see chapter 16 from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master).
Any worldbuilder would be smart to come up with that list. What are the five, six, or seven things the players should know when playing in this world?
Wolfgang: "Sometimes you get these people who say 'I have these sixteen notebooks and I want you to edit, develop, illustrate, and publish them and send me a check'."
Me: "It sounds like the villain from Se7en."
I crack myself up.
The pitch for a world setting is almost never going to happen. The sad reality is that RPG companies can barely keep their own settings going.
The way to gauge the popularity of a setting is to do it yourself.
Forgotten Realms started as a bunch of articles in Dragon Magazine before it was a boxed set. Start with small articles about your setting.
Building campaign worlds from adventures means you build the world in a slow and incremental pace.
Focus your efforts on doing the most awesome and amazing adventure possible and your players will come back every week demanding more. If you focus your most limited prep time on genealogy and coats of arms, you're probably not putting time where it should be spent.
Your most important adventure is the next one.
Build the world from the history of a paladin's recovered sword.
"What are your thoughts on building cities?"
"Oh! I have thoughts about this!"
"I know, you gave me the question."
I crack myself up.
The history of fantasy RPGs is the history of cities. Greyhawk, Waterdeep, Sigil.
When you're building a city you have to know how normal people act. What do they drink? What's the government like? How do the laws work? Who handles the nightsoil?
You have to know something about history and society to build a credible city.
"How do you find the sweet spot of having standard recognizable stuff with new stuff specific to your world?"
There IS a sweet spot. Wolfgang uses the boredom gauge. If he gets bored while writing about them, they probably need something unique. What is the twist or mashup for these guys?
If you're writing for a beginner audience or your players are new, don't spend a lot of time making new core races and what-not. The core stuff will be fine for them. If your audience is jaded and has been gaming for 20 years, it might be worth shaking things up with new races and classes and stuff.
"What kind of material are customers most interested in with campaign settings?"
Wolfgang finds that people are most interested in friction, hooks, and where stuff is blowing up. If you leave parts of the campaign setting unresolved, you're identifying a place where the game master can run with it.
People also love high fantasy and weirdness. Midgard was supposed to be low fantasy but then became high fantasy the more they injected it into the setting.
People love gods wandering the Western Wastes, ancient tombs, and broken leylines.
Give people the most exciting NPCs, flashpoints of danger, and the high weird.
You can't answer all the questions when building worlds. If you do so, you're doing it wrong.
Leave yourself room to breathe.
In Midgard, there's a lot blank. The far north and the Hyporboria hasn't been touched.
"How do you update canon?"
Wolfgang doesn't really update events in Midgard. Things happen really slowly in Midgard.
Things change in Midgard when adventures push it that way.
"How would you introduce world-changing events into an existing campaign world?"
You have to get your players buy-in for big change like this and then you can just drop them in. Spelljammer makes travel too easy. It's hard to change the rules half-way through a campaign.
Major shifts for the characters can make the players resent you. Don't change the rules on the players without their buy-in. Don't take their magic items. Give players a choice.
"What mistake with worldbuilding have you learned the most from?"
Advancing the timeline too quickly.
In one campaign world there is a beautiful and awesome part of the world that the characters can't really get to. Make sure things are exposed to the players.
"How important are connections between lands and nations?"
It's a mistake not to connect them! Connect your nations and societies. It's fuel for adventures. Trade, religious, and political connections are very useful for the story.
"If someone is new to Midgard, what's the elevator pitch?"
It's a dark world with strange magic full of leylines, shadowelves, and bearfolk. It takes European history and puts it in a blender with dark fantasy. There are over a hundred adventures for it for the past ten years. It has a little something for everyone.
Thanks to Wolfgang Baur for taking the time for the talk! Check out the Midgard Campaign Setting today!