January 27, 2016

Worldbuilding in the Background

To Dungeon Masters, worldbuilding is the single most important aspect of their job. It shouldn't be. 

Adventurous Worldbuilding

The core engagement in Dungeons and Dragons for players is the adventures. Putting together a world should be like stacking powder kegs in a warehouse, each precariously placed to come crashing down into a fiery inferno at the slightest nudge. If you set things up right, your players should be able to step in blind, and learn everything about the world by their interactions with the adventures they go on. Adventures should be present spontaneously, and invite players in by giving them something to engage in. At the same time, adventures should serve the larger world and provide the strokes that paint the canvas of your campaign world. 

In a very real way, everything not tied to adventures is excess; the only information that matters is the information that players will actually use. In my experience, players do very little without motivation. When something has implicit use, like a quest, item, or NPC vendor, it commands immediate attention at the table. By contrast, nothing kills attention faster than a monologue about culture or geography, even though that is very much the stuff that makes the world. Your players should get a sense of those aspects through the way it helps or hinders their actual quest. For example, if I want to highlight how interesting a dwarven wedding is, the quest might ask the the player characters to attend the wedding of a dwarf noble to prevent assassination. The NPCs at this wedding are potential villains and every culturally significant event is a possible scene for danger.

Background Details 

A huge amount of storytelling can take place when the players aren't expecting a monologue. You can, for example, customize your magic loot to reveal significant events in the campaign world's history, or add features to the environment in combat to highlight aspects of the region and its inhabitants. Using these events in combat has the dual benefit of worldbuilding in the background and spicing up the combat experience in the foreground.

Introducing NPCs us perhaps the best place to do storytelling in the background. Their motivations, quirks, even manner of speech, gives your players insight into the campaign world. Describing them gives you an opportunity to talk about the manner of dress in a region, some of the culture, and make note on an important faction. And, of course, what the NPC offers should motivate players to interact and learn more. 

A Practical Example: Septica's Secret

The party arrives at the city of Nihlyn, in the north of Escrow, hot on the heels of a dangerous killer. They are stopped outside the gate by a city guard wearing eastern robes, but wielding the shortsword and shield of a western guardsman. They are inspected as if entering a military outpost, and any clearly stolen goods are to be confiscated (which gives the rogue cause to worry.) 

Within the city walls, the party seek out clues to the killer's location at a nearby tavern. Even though it is still civil twilight, the barkeep is already closing shop. He's a lithe halfling of middle age, and meets the party with recognition. A messenger dropped off a message at this tavern this very morning for the party; a missive from their benefactor, Z. The letter contains instructions to meet the Lady Septica in her castle, Overkeep. 

In keeping with Nevarene tradition, the Lady, not the Lord of the castle, holds the seat of power. She asks the party to handle a matter on her behalf. She explains that she is being blackmailed and asks that the party deliver the gold and retrieve the damning information held by the blackmailers, but not read it. The party is given an appointment time and location, and free reign to handle the situation in any way they deem fit, provided that they recover the scroll. 

The location is the old ironwood tree in town. The tree is impossible to miss: its bark and branches have grown resembling agonized human faces. Because the grisly growth coincided with the massacre when this city fell to the Nevarene empire of the Far East, the locals refuse to cut it down, and instead pay homage to it, even after the city's eventual reclamation decades later. Unfortunately, it is in a public marketplace.

The party took the initiative to set an ambush for the confrontation, intending to simply kill the ransomers. Then, at the appointed hour, dozens of clerics of paladins belonging to a prominent good faith arrive in the crowd. Many are carrying nets, chains, and rods. The party wisely chooses not to ambush the clerics and instead meets with them. The clerics insist that they must meet with the lady herself, because of her recent visit to the Nevarene, and begin a march toward Overkeep. The party, fearing an assassination attempt, fights some in their number, but other proceed to the castle unabated. 

The party arrives at the Lady's quarters at the same time as the clerics, who break down the door. Inside, the Lady Septica has died gruesomely. 

A new mystery grips the party: what was Septica's Secret, and how does someone die, alone in a locked room?

- - - 

What have the players learned about the culture and history of Nihlyn while on this adventure? 

We know that the city was captured in the past by a foreign nation and held for generations before liberation. We know that today the city practices a bizarre mix of traditions from both cultures, and fosters a highly controlling guard. We know that women hold a lot of power in society here, especially in the noble classes. We know that the Lady has some connection with the Nevarene, which it cost her life to keep secret. 

Each of these insights were afforded by an interaction that the players had a stake in. Importantly, the players were afforded a lot of choice in this adventure, and could have even skipped it entirety, if they chose (I always keep a second quest on hand.) This choice (or its illusion) drives a lot of the interactions, and keeps everyone at the table engaged.

 - - -

As always, if you have any questions, DMing-related or otherwise, feel free to contact us at middlefingerofvecna@gmail.com.


  1. Great post. Choice is at the center of players involvement. Even in adventures, I try to give players multiple paths to overcome obstacles.. perhaps a trapped door that can be bypassed by solving a riddle.. or by battling a guardian construct. :o)

    1. I have a great post on this very topic scheduled pretty soon. It's basically the entire way I structure my campaigns, and it's going to be a core theme in these articles

    2. I'm excited to read it as a new DM starting a campaign in a world of my making. Fortunately it's a world I've had in the back of my mind for years. Forcing myself to flesh it out for the game. It should include a good amount of mystery and puzzling.

      When do you think you'll finish the next article?

    3. I should be churning them out once a week on Wednesdays