So, you want to write your own campaign setting for D&D 5e? Or maybe you’re creating your own Pathfinder setting, or even a Sci-Fi one? A setting isn’t just one story or adventure, it’s an entire world, a place where all kinds of stories can happen. So if you’re looking to create one for your campaigns, here are some tips to get you started with your own D&D campaign setting!
What are the most important parts of your RPG or D&D campaign setting?
It doesn’t matter what kind of RPG campaign setting you’re creating (what system or for what campaign). You always need to start by asking yourself some basic questions:
What kind of fun are you having?
We play games to have fun with our friends. Maybe our characters aren’t (especially in darker games like Cthulhu), but we players definitely should! So, what do you find fun in a setting? Why is your setting fun? Brainstorm a list of random ideas. They don’t need to be related to each other or make sense at all—making sense of things is a problem for future you! A great way to do it is to look back at past games and list what made them fun to you. Look at published campaign settings you like (like the Book of Ebon Tides by Kobold Press), and even actual play podcasts like Critical Role or Dimension 20 if you enjoy them, and list the things that would make them fun to you.
What kind of genre and game do you want to play?
Now, look at the list of fun things and find common themes. This will tell you if the world should be fantasy, science fiction, or any other genre(s). If you get mixed signals from the list, maybe you need to focus on just part of it—or you can go ahead and just do a hybrid like science fantasy! Once you have your genre, choose an RPG system. It’s important to do this now, because RPG systems always reinforce certain themes or aspects of the world. For example, if you have a high fantasy world with heroes, adventures, and all sorts of creatures and monsters, D&D 5e might be the system for you. But if you lean towards the heist genre, you might want to try Blades in the Dark!
What are the player options?
If you’re creating a setting for an RPG, the players and the GM are the most important part of the world. So, before getting to the hands-on world building, think about which player options you’ll offer. Of course, you don’t have enough material yet to go into details, but try to have a generic idea. Will there be multiple playable species? Will there be classes? If so, which ones? Can they do magic? It’s important to establish this now so that you can then worldbuild the setting in a way that fits these options. Otherwise, they could feel tacked on, which will break your players’ immersion (and your own too).
We interviewed Wolfgang Baur and Celeste Conowitch from Kobold Press about this—you can watch the full interview on YouTube:
Create a campaign setting for your own TTRPG game
You have your groundwork, so it’s time to start with the actual world building! Now, everybody has their own methods for creating a D&D campaign setting, but we love the agile world building method and we think you should give it a try!
Start with the meta
The meta is a document that defines the scope, the theme, the conflicts, general concepts about the world, and your inspiration. It’s an amazing way to start world building with a solid foundation and a clear motivation. This will help you not only stay focused on what really matters, but also to prevent writer’s block, since you’ll have a very clear idea about what to write about next! To learn all about the meta, check out this blog post about how to start world building with the meta.
Outline the plot… just a little bit
Unlike a novel, an RPG campaign is written collaboratively in real time, so you shouldn’t come up with a full plot for the story (plus, at this point you’re creating a setting!). However, it’s definitely a good idea to come up with several ideas that you can later pull from to create an engaging plot and conflict. For example, two gods could be fighting for power, a faction could be trying to overthrow the government, or a group of aliens could have just appeared out of a wormhole. Create several of these, and make sure they fit the scope and themes you defined in the meta.
It’s bullet point time!
If you’re writing the setting just for your reference, you don’t need to spend tons of time writing beautiful prose about every single detail of your world. If you do that, you’ll probably never be ready to start playing! So, instead, take the starting area of your planned campaign and write some bullet points about it: one sentence for the location, another sentence for the factions, another one for the NPCs they can meet… you get it. The point here is that, since you don’t know what your players will do, you shouldn’t spend time building things that might never see the light of day. Then, once you start your campaign and the players begin changing the direction of the story, go ahead and expand these sentences into one paragraph if they are still relevant to the story. Write only what you need to, and nothing else—that’s the core of the agile world building method. If you want to learn more about this, we made a seminar about it, which you can watch on YouTube:
How to write a D&D campaign setting book
If you’re writing a setting with the goal of publishing it (or sharing it with other people), you’ll need to go one step further! Bullet points with basic formatting will no longer cut it. So, make a list of everything a GM would need to run your setting and find the best way to organize it. Some examples are alouds (i.e. descriptions to be read out lout), adventure hooks, random tables, NPCs, and maybe even a starting adventure or a full campaign.
The best D&D campaign settings are self-contained, meaning that they have absolutely everything a GM would need. So look at your favorite settings books and use them as inspiration for your book’s organization and contents! Then, make sure player options are easily available. A great way to do this is using a platform like World Anvil so they can access the character creation rules from anywhere.
Get inspired by the best D&D campaign settings!
You’ll learn a lot by reading the best D&D campaign settings, such as the Book of Ebon Tides by Kobold Press! With this book, you’ll play in the Shadow Realm, where you’ll find yourself amidst the intrigue of the fey courts and the dangers of the shadow roads. And, of course, it has a bunch of new player options, like 52 new spells, 10 subclasses, and more!
Kobold Press is sponsoring this blog post and Summer Camp 2022. Go check out the Book of Ebon Tides and Tales of Shadows!
What are YOUR tips for creating a campaign setting? Let us know in the comments—and create a World Anvil account to get started with your own RPG or D&D campaign setting!
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