Worldbuilding for D&D like a dev (wannabe)

Over the last two months or so, I’ve been homebrewing up my own setting/world for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It is a huge amount of fun–and a huge amount of work. The simple job of keeping facts and timelines straight once you’ve started is a gigantic thing in and of itself.

I realized that I’ve been working on this in a semi-agile way–perhaps more kanban than scrum, but fundamentally, if I were to work on a software project the way I’m working on this D&D world, you wouldn’t be able to say I was doing it wrong. I’m aping all the names of the principles here from people who know more than me, but it’s a little bit like pin-the-tail-o-the-donkey. You’re just sticking things where they belong.

There are a few rules I’ve set myself to keep this working smoothly:

Documentation

Right now, one of the only things that’s helping me keep this all together, is documenting everything I do as I do it. The Confluence server I put together a couple of weeks ago has already demonstrated its value several times over (as if the experience of putting it together wasn’t intrinsically valuable as well). I have a lot of ideas, and many of them seem good. Some of them even are, and I don’t want to lose them, even if I can’t use them straight away.

The rule is, that if I’ve worked on it beyond the ‘jot down an idea’ stage, it goes in the wiki. Not necessarily in the main wiki space, because I do want to keep that clean and functional, as well as free of potential secrets ad cruft for the players who are also using it. But I keep a separate DM space on the wiki, where I can keep a notebook of my ideas: character’s I’d like to create, possible adventures/quests, etc.

Detail goes in the wiki too

When entering things into the wiki, if it’s an idea or element I’ve just been working on for a bit and the details are fresh, it’s tempting to just enter in top-line information to save some time and rush off to the next exciting chunk of work. DOOOOOOOONNNNN’TTTTT!!!!!! I’ve found that I need to take the time to enter everything in in detail. Because I’m only hooman, and things can be forgotten. Quite easily, actually…

Even for the ideas that make it into canon/publication/whatever, the wiki is useful for keeping them. Beyond the obvious reason that the players will need access to all of the information about the world, it’s important for me to remember that I forget sh**, no matter how important. If there’s an element of the world that I haven’t looked at for a week or so, the details ain’t fresh anymore.

Done is better than perfect

I’m quite lucky that I’ve already got a group of players lined up for this game. It’s really exciting, and I want to pour time into this so that everything is amazeballs when they first enter the world.

Having players also means I have a deadline though, and I can’t be precious about things. Some things will have to be good enough, and the details can be figured out during sessions. I’ve got encounters to plan!

Exceptions, sometimes

I’m finding I’m making two exceptions to this, though: planning the first session and its NPCs, and working on the things that really make the world pop for me.

I’m taking some extra time in planning the first session and its NPCs because I think that it’s one of the things that has to be right–these parts of the story are the bits that are responsible not only for hooking the player characters in to the plot, and therefore need to hold enough water, but they’re also responsible for hooking the players into the game. To use agile terminology here, the MVP has a higher standard at this point.

And for the things that make the world pop for me… It’s really important that you never forget that this kind of work is a labor of love. You are writing a D&D setting from scratch because you want to (or because someone is paying you to, in which case I am very jealous). If there’s some part of it that is more exciting than others, a) have fun with it, b) keep going there because it will likely provide inspiration elsewhere and will pay off many times over, and c) have a think about why…

If there’s some part of your setting that you think is so much more fun than the rest, it’s worth considering making that a bigger part of the game. If you find it completely engrossing, there’s a good chance someone else will as well. As an example: I spent quite a lot of time devising a governmental structure for my setting The Torm. I’ve wanted the campaign to be political from the get-go, and be full of intrigue. But I just kept adding what seemed like superfluous detail to the senate members, and the executive branch. Except, a few days later, I was working on something else entirely, and those details suddenly became very relevant, and are forming not a small part of the campaign’s hook.

Focus your work

But be careful.

It is so incredibly tempting to get caught up in the idea or element you are working on and follow that thought wherever it leads. And sometimes that’s the right thing to do. But, especially when I’m working on one of the things that are necessary but maybe I’m less excited about, I find that that kind of meandering inevitably leads me back to the things that I’m excited about but that I’m not working on at the moment.

And, because I’m so excited about them they’re usually either in a finished state, and should be left alone until the players can get their hands on them, or they’re in a blocked state, and there isn’t really anything I can do with them until I finish something else. Probably the thing I just got distracted from. So I should finish that so that I can get back to what I do want to work on.

Mary Sue and the User Story

The other thing is… that those things that you keep getting drawn to are very likely to wend their way into Mary Sue, or even worse, gods forbid, God-mode Sue, Mary-Tzu or any of their other and many variations1. It’s so easy to get caught in the gravity well of your favorite character…

Don’t ever forget, this story that you are pouring your heart and soul into is not just for you. Never ever focus on your own enjoyment, or author/GM-avatarization over the experience of your players. Heck, if you fear you are going this way, write a user-story for your favorite NPCs. And no, you can’t be the user in the story. I find this a really good way to keep my inner Mary-Sue in check.

It’s easy to fall into the trap. I think most good GMs start off an NPC trying to create something exciting for their players. And that focus on creating something exciting ends up with a life of its own and then suddenly this awesome character you’ve created is going to be so much fun and OMG wouldn’t it be great if they could breathe fire or fly because they’re secretly a p’morphed dragon prince who’s really nice, and oh their CR won’t go up too much if I give them a giant badass cannon that they can totally carry around single-handed because look I just bumped their Strength score a tiny bit because you have to justify these things for the sake of realism and oh look I TPKed…2

Finish it, and leave it be. Your players will probably have more fun, and chances are, as a result you’ll have more fun too. Also, your friends won’t hate you.

Iterate (where necessary)

If you’re a completionist or perfectionist like me, and as is probably evident from some of the above… it can be hard to let things lie if they don’t feel 100% finished. But here’s the thing: Roleplaying games are cooperative fiction. They’re supposed to be unfinished until the players come into the picture.

On rare occasions, you will have to go back and update things. Sometimes even after the players have seen them. Sometimes, ret-cons are OK. Try not to use them too much, and definitely try not to ret-con player decisions. But if your players are chill folk, they’ll probably be understanding of the fact that this is not a published and polished novel. RPGs are a little rough around the edges sometimes, but that’s OK. The benefit we get from having something part improvised far outweighs the cost. Love the mistakes you make–sometimes they’re the gold.

Wrap-up

Obviously, these are guidelines. And, they contradict each other sometimes. I’ve got contradictory rules for a reason though: it’s important to never go too far to any extreme. The most important thing is to make sure you’re having fun, and make sure that your players are having fun. That’s it. If you’re doing that, you’re doing it right.


  1. I have no issues with anyone named Mary Sue, nor with women or female characters in general. It’s the trope you see… and it’s really bad story-telling. 

  2. This is especially a problem for Munchkins turned GMs. Like me… 


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