When I got back into DMing last year, I did so by running my players through one of the official adventures, Curse of Strahd. When that came to a close, and it came time to start a new campaign, I decided to give creating my own adventure and world a start.
All of my advice centres around one principle: You’re making a world for your players, not for yourself.
You’re not making a priceless faberge egg that’s going to sit on a shelf; this world is gonna be interacted with. You’re not writing your own novel; players are going to have input. Work around your players’ desires and interests. Focus on creating a great game experience, not a neat word file.
Tip Zero: Ask Why Aren’t You Using a Pre-Created Setting
Creating a new setting can be a lot of work, so you have to be really sure that you need to use your own world. The most common reasons I hear that people don’t want to use a pre-generated setting is that they don’t want to be too tied to existing material, or don’t want to risk getting something wrong. To answer both of these concerns, you as the DM have unlimited license to change whatever you want. Just because you’re playing a game set in the Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance or Eberron doesn’t mean that you need to stay 100% faithful to these worlds. Want to have Dragonborn in Eberron? Go for it. Want to make the Dwarves of the Forgotten Realms all pirates? Do it up.
If you want to make your own world, it should be because no published setting can easily accommodate what you’re trying to do. Perhaps you’re in a different time period from the normal D&D assumptions, or you want to have an entirely different set of standard races. Make sure you’re not taking on unnecessary work, as altering an existing setting can be much easier.
Tip One: Talk To Your Players
As a world-builder, it can be tempting to jump in headfirst and start making the world. You write pages and pages of backstory of every race, culture, city, and organization in your new world. Having outlined two-hundred pages of Gnomish history… none of your players decide to play a Gnome. All that work is practically wasted, and you end up resenting your players for not wanting to engage with all of your cool Gnome stuff. Those selfish jerks.
Talk to your players about what they’re interested in. This will guide what your prepare. Don’t create a world full of complex political machinations and high society if all your players want to do is kick down doors and murder goblins.
When I was making the world for my current campaign, I already had a sense of what my players were like from months of playing with them. A couple of them had expressed interest in playing sky-pirates, but not all of them. If I dove in headfirst and made a swashbuckling sky-pirate campaign, I wouldn’t be accommodating the interests of all my players. Instead, I decided to have the sky-pirates crash-land into my setting at the very beginning. I also tied in their ship to the main story itself, by having it run on an energy source that was in high demand on the surface world. This helped me make them feel tied to the world without necessarily having to visit sky-world.
One of my players wanted to have been raised in a swamp by an evil hag. She was rescued by another one of my players. That told me I needed to put a giant swamp near the main city, to make sure they had a chance to meet. Now that I had this swamp, I knew that I could use this as a location for one or more future adventures. They’ve now almost died in it! Twice!
One of the Sky-Pirates was a Dwarven stowaway from this world. I decided it would be cool to have her experience some culture shock as she returned to the surface world. Well, in order to have culture shock you need to have culture. I decided to spend a lot of time detailing Dwarven society. They’re pretty neat.
Tip Two: Keep Things Open
It can be tempting to start populating the world with stuff right away, but I would avoid it. As a world-builder, you’re sort of laying down track in front of a moving train. If a player’s making a new character and doesn’t resonate with any of the stuff I’ve made, they’re going to feel awkward when I ask them to make an interesting character with ties to the world.
Let’s say you’re making a map and want to put Town X between adventure location A and B. Your mind races, thinking of an interesting identity for the town since they will for sure have to go here. At this point, you might think I’ll just repeat the refrain of “don’t prepare too much”. However, here I think you need to actually prepare a lot.
Rather than set Town X’s identity in stone, you should prepare three or so interesting town ideas. Come up with a couple of ideas of adventures for each of them. Only once the players enter or ask about Town X do you decide which one Town X is. The advantage of this is that you always have the right adventure for the right situation. If your players just had a really gruelling and emotional adventure, throwing them into a corrupt and gloomy town might not be the right tone. If there’s a lot of urgency to go from A to B, making Town X super deep and rich might be a waste. Use your deep town idea when your players have the time to do so.
Tip Three: Don’t Limit Your Players
I often see people make custom setting that don’t feature a certain race or class, on the grounds that it wouldn’t gel with their setting. No Samurai fighters or Monks allowed in their setting, they say, since they don’t think it fits within their Medieval world. They don’t like Dragonborn, so they don’t exist in their setting.
Remember that you’re making a world for your players, not for yourself. Swallow your pride. If you as a DM don’t personally like a certain aesthetic or playable character race, then sucks to be you. Your job is to accommodate your players. Find a way for those things to make sense in your setting.
When I was making a map for my campaign setting, I intentionally zoomed in on only half of the continent and left certain areas vague or undefined. I created some definition for the main fantasy races of the setting, but I knew that if a player wanted to play something weird like a Yuan-Ti or a Tabaxi then I would have to find a place for them in the world. Just saying they’re “from a far-away land” can be a fine back-up if you didn’t leave room on your map for them, but set yourself for success.
What a World!
These tips all sort of revolve around the same thing. Give yourself room to improvise, work around your players rather than against them, and don’t make things harder than you need to by wasting work.
As a final tip, when naming things make sure to read things out loud a couple of times because your players will inevitably make fun of anything they can pounce on. Trust me.