Gamemasters have unique worldbuilding challenges. Especially when you transition from player to GM, the additional prep can be daunting. You need to learn more rules (or at least, learn to reference them quickly). And if you want to run homebrew adventures, you need to do enough worldbuilding for a one-shot or campaign. It’s a lot to hold in your head, while you’re also nervous about roleplay, and making sure all your players are having a good time.

Fortunately, World Anvil can help take some of that load off! While we’re celebrating Adventure April (and the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons), it’s a great time to refer back to the advice of the OG GM, Gary Gygax. If you haven’t heard of “Gygax 75” or “The Gygax 75 Challenge,” let’s get into what it is, and how it can help you quickly accomplish the basic worldbuilding needed to start a homebrew adventure with confidence.

And also, how World Anvil can support your 4-week odyssey of old-school worldbuilding!

What is the Gygax 75 Challenge?

Way back in 1975, Gary Gygax contributed an article to the wargaming ‘zine Europa, entitled “How to Set Up Your Dungeons & Dragons Campaign – And Be Stuck Referring It Seven Days Per Week Until the Wee Hours of the Morning!”

With a title that long, you might assume the article was similarly verbose. But you’d be wrong! In about 2,000 words, Gygax outlines a five-step plan to do just enough worldbuilding to start playing, while leaving room to infinitely expand your homebrew setting over time.

His five steps were:

  1. The overall setting of the campaign
  2. The countryside of the immediate area
  3. The location of the dungeon where most adventures will take place
  4. The layout and composition of the nearest large town
  5. Eventually the entire world – and possibly other worlds, times, dimensions and so forth must be structured, mapped and added

In 2022, game designer Ray Otus took the original Gygax article, and used it as the foundation for a four-week worldbuilding workbook he called “The Gygax 75 Challenge.” It became popular among Old School Revival (OSR) enthusiasts.

The Gygax 75 Challenge in World Anvil

Some people use a paper journal and graph paper to complete the Gygax 75 challenge. If you don’t want to build your world any bigger than the initial setting, that might be fine – or at least a fine starting place.

But thousands of gamemasters have told us the biggest headache World Anvil cures is keeping all their lore, maps and session notes in one easily-searchable place. (It’s very difficult to use CTRL+K in a paper journal, much less a collection of them). We also make it easy for you to control what lore your players see – and what remains hidden for them to discover in-play.

Plus, some folks are just more comfortable with digital tools. As a writer who has lost way too many hand-written drafts over the years (thank you, ADHD), I appreciate anything with an auto-save feature.

We’ll be following Ray Otus’ guide, and showing you which World Anvil templates and features you’ll need for each week. So let’s break it down!

Week 1: Concept aka “The overall setting of the campaign”

worldbuilding metaAt World Anvil, we usually call the concept your setting premise. It’s the worldbuilding inspiration behind your imaginary world. Otus breaks this week down into five simple tasks:

  • Getting or creating your notebook
  • Developing a pitch to sell the concept to your players
  • Gathering sources of inspiration
  • Creating a mood board
  • Practicing your pitch

You’ll create a new world to serve as your notebook. You’ll develop your pitch and create a mood board in the Worldbuilding Meta. You can find the Meta under the World Settings in your left sidebar menu. Then the Meta will serve as a cheat-sheet as you practice your pitch.

Week 2: Surrounding Area

For anyone who’s been impatiently asking “When do we get to make a map?” congrats – we’re there! In this step, you map out the region where your players start their adventures, typically on a hexagonal grid. The tasks for this week are marking the map with:

  • A large settlement
  • Two other settlements
  • A major terrain feature (like a mountain, lake, or forest)
  • One mysterious site for exploration (like a ruined temple or crumbling tower)
  • One dungeon entrance.

There are many free tools for creating a base regional map, and our Interactive Maps feature makes it simple to add markers for settlements, castles, ruins, and yes – dungeon entrances. We also have worldbuilding templates for Settlements, Geography and Buildings – so if you prefer to figure these places out in writing, you can do that first. And even better – these articles can be linked to the map markers, so you can find your notes by clicking the map.

Otus offered “extra credit” for distressing your physical map to give it more character, and coming up with a random encounter table. We’ll give you extra credit for connecting your articles and map markers – and sure, if you want to create a random encounter table, go crazy.

Week 3: The Dungeon

At least, three levels of the dungeon. Which might be the whole thing! Follow your heart! I’m not here to judge the size of your first dungeon, friends. Gary and Ray have some pretty prescriptive advice for how much dungeon you need at this point. Here are the highlights:

  • Creepy, ominous entrance, for the vibes.
  • Three levels with d6+6 rooms, each with a theme.
  • Multiple (d3+1) ways to move up and down levels.
  • A dozen iconic monsters, sprinkled throughout.
  • A few (d6) major features (traps, puzzles, etc.)
  • Treasure, including 3 wondrous items (and their location)

Dungeon Fog, Dungeon Scrawl and Dungeon Map Doodler are a few good options for creating a map of your dungeon. As with the region map, World Anvil’s Interactive Maps is great for adding markers for those fun surprises you may not want your players knowing about in advance!  And the Item template is a great resource for describing those wondrous items.

If you’re playing D&D5e, (or your favorite OSR RPG), you can find excellent candidates for those dozen iconic monsters in our community stat block library. If you’re the sort of person who’d rather make up your own nightmares… well, that’s what the Species template is for.

Week 4: Town Features

In this final week, you stock up your large settlement for your adventurers to gear up! Like an 80s teen movie, no respectable dungeon delving campaign is complete without a proper shopping spree montage. But seriously, many players really enjoy getting equipped for the campaign, and doing this prep means you can use that element of play to add flavor and establish the status quo of the world.

  • Create or find a city map
  • Name the essential shops
  • Add at least 5 pieces of local color
  • Create at least 5 distinctive NPCs

The essential shops should be locations where your adventurers can acquire weapons, armor, rations, and other supplies that fit the overall setting. If you’re doing a sword & sorcery campaign, magical reagents might not be available at every major settlement. If you’re doing a historical fantasy setting, flintlock pistols and gunpowder might be available.

The “local color” includes factions, gambling houses, guild halls, temples or churches, public forums, or unique landmarks. In World Anvil, you’ll use the worldbuilding templates for Organizations, Buildings, and (possibly) Professions for these elements. For the NPCs, you’ll use the Character template. There are a lot of great prompts to help flesh them out, including the “DNA” that Ray Otus requests: Distinguishing trait (the Quirk field), Need (Goal), and Agenda (Additional Goal).

Week 5 – The Larger World

In many ways, this “week” never ends – it’s the open invitation to keep building your world. The Challenge has a list of suggested things you can tackle. This might be mapping the continent, dreaming up magic relics, or sowing rumors from distant lands. But at this point, you’re ready to start using your setting in a campaign or one-shot.

If you’re participating in Adventure April with us, you can create a one-shot as the crowning achievement of your Gygax 75 Challenge! If you complete the challenge, share it in the community and tag it #Gygax75 so others can be inspired by your work!