D&D General Does a campaign world need to exist beyond what the characters interact with?

BookTenTiger

He / Him
In a lot of discussions on campaign settings or various facets of.D&D "lore" (cough, Halflings, cough), I see folks focusing a lot on the logical or illogical rules of a fantasy world. How could Halflings societies thrive if they don't interact with other cultures? How could the smithy be a dwarf without there existing large dwarven cities? How could the main city survive without extensive farmlands, and how are those farms not constantly raided by monsters?

I'm always surprised by these issues. I've come to realize it conflicts with a central theme of how I create my homebrew campaign rules:

No aspect of the setting exists if the characters are not interacting with it.

In my campaign settings, I create some very loose ideas about the themes and aspects of the world ("there are vampire tyrants" or "it's all one huge kingdom"). But any specifics are kept undefined unless the characters need them (or unless the players show interest). Though the campaign world looks fleshed out and immersive, behind the characters' backs it's all foggy and insubstantial.

Here's an example of what I mean:

In a recent campaign, one of the characters was a cleric of Arawan, god of death. I made sure Arawan had a presence in the campaign world, but I did not have any other firm truths about religion. (No player showed much interest in religion during character creation, so it didn't get detailed.) During one adventure, the characters came upon a huge turtle in a swamp. I'd decided this was the spirit form of an animal god once worshiped in the valley. The characters were really interested, so after that session I created a pantheon of animal gods. Some were still worshiped, some were forgotten, others were corrupted.

As the campaign went on, one of the players became really invested in these animal gods. He started theorizing that they weren't gods, just powerful beings who had tricked the people of the valley into worshiping them.

Well of course that became the truth!

These animal gods became a very important part of the campaign.

Meanwhile, other seeds I'd planted for interesting ideas were either ignored by the players, or not interacted with by the characters. I either shelved those ideas, or changed them so they'd come up later. For example, I had a slime-focused dungeon that I modified and leveled up three different times because the characters didn't choose to go into it in the first two locations. It went from a polluted coastal island to an abandoned swamp temple to an ancient alchemy lab. Once the characters explored the alchemy lab, those other potential dungeons ceased to exist.

To reinforce: this is just the way I prefer to run my homebrew settings. I still have fun thinking about the rules and truths of the world between sessions, but unless those rules and truths are needed by the characters, they are not set in stone.

So what do you think? How do you run it? Is your campaign setting realized and existing even without character interaction? Or do you only detail what the characters are interested in?
 

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payn

Legend
So what do you think? How do you run it? Is your campaign setting realized and existing even without character interaction? Or do you only detail what the characters are interested in?
It really depends on the style of campaign.

An adventure path, preferably with a good player's guide, will highlight the specific important topics of the campaign. Sure, items will be fleshed out and filled in as needed, but the direction of the campaign is focused, and thus, most prep and information will center on the campaign's main topic.

If I run an open sandbox, then things are going to be generally explained in detail. Stuff will exist outside the players, and stuff will happen outside the lens of the players. Whether that comes into focus or not, will depend on both the players and their actions.
 


Xamnam

Loves Your Favorite Game
I'm not going to pretend my players are going to visit even 10% of the world I created, but it was great fun for me, and if I'm asked a question, I love having an answer at the ready so much more than coming up with one on the spot. That's the sort of thing that excites me as a player, when a character makes an offhanded comment that expands the world beyond what I previously knew, in a way where I now want to see that for myself. That's what I think about in between sessions, and makes me eager to get back to exploring.

That said, I'd never want to be so precious about that it can only be engaged with as I originally envisioned it. And I certainly didn't write a story that I'm expecting them to follow.
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
both GIF
 

aco175

Legend
Does the world need to- no, should it, maybe, would it be more fun, likely. I can run a quick campaign with just a small town and a few surrounding locations. That is how we tell new DMs to do it. You have the town and the smith bursts into the tavern saying he needs heroes to save his child taken by XXX. It is simple but can be fun. Like the OP, you add details as you go and expand on what the players bite on to.

If there is a world beyond the local, the world may feel more believable. This is likely more true in a game that focuses on politics or court with intrigue over hack and slash.
 

Withywarlock

Villager
I don't think a campaign world has to exist beyond what the characters interact with, no. It's always good to have some answers to questions you can point to based on existing lore, sure, but one must also be prepared that players may not be as invested in certain facets of the game as the creator. It's OK to be disappointed if a player doesn't ask about a bit of the world you really enjoyed writing, but it's also OK for them to not ask about it.

I for one am very inquisitive about the homebrew world of Elan my DM has created, always asking curious questions about how things work, which has allowed me to make a character that fits snugly into their setting. But then I can appreciate players just want to get into the game as soon as possible.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is quoted as saying "perfection is achieved not when there's nothing more to add, but when there's nothing left to take away."
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
I kind of build the world both with "solidified" lore that moves outward from where the campaign begins and becomes more flexible, firming up as it interacted with by PCs or my desire to run particular adventures. This also potentially solidifies it for future campaigns as I like to run multiple campaigns in the same setting (ran games in the same homebrew for 25+ years for example). At the same time, some things that are encountered as "definitive" can change based on new information or a change in perspective - as needed or becomes interesting for me or the players.

So for example, over decades and the course of several campaigns, the players heard about how oppressive and religiously orthodox the Kingdom of the Red God of the West was. Anyone they met of that religion or hailing from that part of the world in previous campaigns was a zealot with little tolerance and was on a mission "to convert or punish heathens." As you might imagine, this made them unpopular and frequent villains. However, eventually in one campaign the PCs had to visit the Kingdome of the Red God of the West and braced themselves for having to disguise themselves or hide, or fight off hordes of religious fanatics who thought the PCs' gods were demons in disguise, etc. . . But when they finally got there the people were kind and curious, and let them know what areas to avoid where the church had even more power, etc. . .The players were flabbergasted. Now, for years I too had thought of that part of the world as they imagined it would be and when PCs talked to people about it that was the impression given. But then I started thinking, "How many of those people had actually been there? How much of that rep was based on meeting those pious enough to be driven to go out in the world and convert people, sometimes by the sword edge? How much more interesting will it be have the common people there not being particularly 'evil' but instead having funny ideas about where the PCs come from?" etc. . . And thus, I started to actually detail the KotRGotW with that paradox in mind, without necessarily contravening what had come before.

I draw maps with the same principle. I don't create maps of my homebrew with a god's eye view, but with the general sense of what an area looks like and then represented as it might be by different mapmakers over time. Do the rivers on the map of the Isle of Dwarves look like they violate the laws of nature and geography? Maybe that's because the guy who first sailed the coast and drew a map marked a river in X spot but the next guy marked it 50 miles to the west and then someone who'd never made the trip drew a new map based on both of them and decided it was two rivers, and then someone who traveled inland from a different direction drew a map with a confluence but it didn’t match with existing rivers, so another mapmaker changed it, etc. . . And then when I run an adventure I decide what I need it to be like there. . . maybe the maps are wrong, maybe the rivers are magical, maybe the fact that the setting is a flat world means rivers work differently. . . I'll figure it out when I get to it, but in the mean time the map is "right."
 

el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
tl;dr version of the above: even the real world is not set and established until we interact with it or even sometimes after we have! So I don't see a wholly top-down unchangeable perspective as all that much more "realistic" or immersive.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm always surprised by these issues. I've come to realize it conflicts with a central theme of how I create my homebrew campaign rules:

No aspect of the setting exists if the characters are not interacting with it.

For a broad definition of "interacting" I'm cool with that.

As in - I currently am playing a dwarf in a Rime of the Frostmaiden game. Technically set in the Forgotten Realms, honestly, the world outside the Ten Towns where the game takes place doesn't really need to exist.

However, some elements of Dwarven culture are formative to my character concept, so even though we aren't interacting with dwarves much, I am "interacting" with it in my roleplay.
 

Stormonu

Legend
I do a lot of development beforehand, because it's not always easy to come up with it on the fly. Also, it lets me further flesh out a coherent theme for the world around the players.

Long, long ago I made the mistake after fleshing out my first campaign world that my play group wouldn't be able to signicantly change it - it was around the Time of Troubles was released, and I was really upset how all that caused great upheaval to FR (which was one of two influences for my worldbuilding - Greyhawk being the other big influence). I didn't want to be rewriting my maps and country entries. I did relent; the players in that particular game became quite influential the world as it exists, and their escapades have been incorporated into the events of the world, including more than a few border changes (and the overthrow/disappearance of a whole nation even).
 


pointofyou

Adventurer
The world probably does not need to exist beyond what is needed for play. What different tables will need for play seems likely to have some variance. How realistic-ish it needs to be seems likely to also vary from table to table. Likewise how much input the non-GM players have into it. This is one of those areas where what's right for a given table is what matters for a given table.
 

Oofta

Legend
I have a large, persistent world that my campaigns happen in, so yes the world exists outside of what characters interact with. Many times it doesn't really matter, but if I have someone from a far-off land, I can point to which far off land they are from. I have a basic outline of the regions that can and do shift over the course of multiple campaigns, oftentimes because of the actions (or inaction) of PCs.

Decide that following up on what happened to that dragon that was pretending to be the king after you drove them off wasn't all that important? Their motivations didn't change, but they learned from their mistake and have now taken over a different kingdom. They're just as evil, but not nearly as obvious about it as before. It may or may not have an effect on a future campaign.

For the most part, the other regions are just outlines sketched out with details added as needed. But they still exist and there are ripple effects to events near and far. To me, that makes it a more believable, living world. Not necessary of course because most players don't care but it works for me.
 

In a lot of discussions on campaign settings or various facets of.D&D "lore" (cough, Halflings, cough), I see folks focusing a lot on the logical or illogical rules of a fantasy world. How could Halflings societies thrive if they don't interact with other cultures? How could the smithy be a dwarf without there existing large dwarven cities? How could the main city survive without extensive farmlands, and how are those farms not constantly raided by monsters?
I love world building... I have 5 or 6 different worlds i am in different stages and all of them have SOME of what you are talking about made up (the best part is that between all of them I have everything, but each has its own quirks).

now I will let my players vote on what one I run... and in play the things they focus on I will add detail to.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
In a lot of discussions on campaign settings or various facets of.D&D "lore" (cough, Halflings, cough), I see folks focusing a lot on the logical or illogical rules of a fantasy world. How could Halflings societies thrive if they don't interact with other cultures? How could the smithy be a dwarf without there existing large dwarven cities? How could the main city survive without extensive farmlands, and how are those farms not constantly raided by monsters?

I'm always surprised by these issues. I've come to realize it conflicts with a central theme of how I create my homebrew campaign rules:

No aspect of the setting exists if the characters are not interacting with it.

In my campaign settings, I create some very loose ideas about the themes and aspects of the world ("there are vampire tyrants" or "it's all one huge kingdom"). But any specifics are kept undefined unless the characters need them (or unless the players show interest). Though the campaign world looks fleshed out and immersive, behind the characters' backs it's all foggy and insubstantial.

Here's an example of what I mean:

In a recent campaign, one of the characters was a cleric of Arawan, god of death. I made sure Arawan had a presence in the campaign world, but I did not have any other firm truths about religion. (No player showed much interest in religion during character creation, so it didn't get detailed.) During one adventure, the characters came upon a huge turtle in a swamp. I'd decided this was the spirit form of an animal god once worshiped in the valley. The characters were really interested, so after that session I created a pantheon of animal gods. Some were still worshiped, some were forgotten, others were corrupted.

As the campaign went on, one of the players became really invested in these animal gods. He started theorizing that they weren't gods, just powerful beings who had tricked the people of the valley into worshiping them.

Well of course that became the truth!

These animal gods became a very important part of the campaign.

Meanwhile, other seeds I'd planted for interesting ideas were either ignored by the players, or not interacted with by the characters. I either shelved those ideas, or changed them so they'd come up later. For example, I had a slime-focused dungeon that I modified and leveled up three different times because the characters didn't choose to go into it in the first two locations. It went from a polluted coastal island to an abandoned swamp temple to an ancient alchemy lab. Once the characters explored the alchemy lab, those other potential dungeons ceased to exist.

To reinforce: this is just the way I prefer to run my homebrew settings. I still have fun thinking about the rules and truths of the world between sessions, but unless those rules and truths are needed by the characters, they are not set in stone.

So what do you think? How do you run it? Is your campaign setting realized and existing even without character interaction? Or do you only detail what the characters are interested in?
I won't run and dislike playing in a setting that only exists through character interaction. That to me is a stage play, and not a TTRPG. To me, the setting is meaningless if it only exists to service the players, and setting and worldbuilding are the best parts of the game IMO.
 


jgsugden

Legend
I have a huge world that exists, advances and lives outside the perceptions of my PCs. Here are a few reasons why:

1.) Long Lived Setting: My setting has been around for about 40 years. It has seen hundreds of campaigns, adventures and one shots. Each contributes to the lore, and I continue to build upon them. Further, the world has a built in 'reset' button that takes it back in time to the same critical point where new sets of PCs get a chance to make a difference. As such, I've had plenty of opportunities to flesh out the options that spring from the events of this time, exploring them in different ways each time - the majority of the work was done long ago and lives inside me.

2.) Immersion: There is a huge difference between a DM creating a world on the fly and players exploring a world that is well thought out. The well designed world makes sense and allows the players to lose themselves in the experience. When they encounter something that does not make sense in a well thought out world, the response is, "Is this a clue that I need to look into?" rather than "Lol. That's stupid. The DM screwed up again." You have more options to tell more diverse stories when the PCs begin to care about NPCs, when the PCs start to set goals outside of 'level up and gather treasure', and when they get more excited about the resolution of the story beat than they are about what treasure the big bad had.

3.) Personal satisfaction: My world has been alive for 40 years. I have NPCs that I enjoy playing. It is wonderful for me when a new group of PCs finally run into them. I enjoy seeing the PCs knock down the toy buildings I create, I enjoy seeing them twist the stories in ways I did not expect and I enjoy seeing how that plays out across the storylines in ways they might not have been able to predict. I have puzzles that have existed for 40 years and never been solved - and others that have been solved recently for the first time. When those puzzles were solved the puzzles enjoyed resolving an adventure, but I was watching the conclusion of a sage far greater than they knew that had been obsessed over decades earlier. For one of them, I emailed the obsessive player that last played with me 15 years ago ane relayed the story of how it played out. It felt like we stepped back in time during that chat. The cliche is, "You get back what you put in ..." and I've put 40 years into the setting. It gives back so much, so often. I'm super excited about where one of my current groups is because they're on the cusp of discovering a lot of interesting information and really kicking off some very fun storylines.
 


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