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


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MGibster

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?
I typically only detail parts of the setting I think my players are going to interact with. There's no reason for me to go into the economy detailing imports, exports, and where the food is coming from unless it's going to come up during the course of the campaign. To do so means I'm expending a lot of energy that could be spent on more productive things that the players are actually interested in.

There are some people who simply enjoy worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding which does have some utilitarian value to a campaign I think. If the PCs go off on a tangent about the cuthroat world of apply brandy production, the worldbuilding DM will be prepared.
 

Irlo

Hero
No, a campaign need only exist within the confines of the play at the table. Anything beyond that is DM fantasy. Which is OK, but not required.
I'm replying with this quote not because I disagree with this sentiment but because this spurred some thoughts.

As a DM, I've found over the years that I really need to focus highly on the campaign "within the confines of play." When I take a broad approach to world development and maintenance, I lose the ability to bring engaging, interesting adventures to the table. I dreamed of that persistent world that would last through 40 years of gaming, but that was beyond me. I had great ideas for the world, but I couldn't come up with anything interesting for the characters to do.

BUT ...

I'm a much more effective DM when I have some "campaign reality" beyond the players' scope. I'm not great at improvising in a vacuum, but when I have some sense of the "reality" on the larger scale, I arrive at better, more engaging ideas on the smaller scale that hint at the broader world, however vaguely defined that might be. When I'm more engaged and excited about making a connection, my players are more engaged.

So, for me, that DM fantasy is important (and required for a good gaming experience).
 

Oofta

Legend
My point was simply that the world is not dictated by the ideas and whims of one person.

I wasn’t saying anything about the players have knowledge of the wider world around them. Not sure where you got that idea
I just didn't understand what you were saying. That's an approach issue. Most people don't have groups where the players make major decisions about the world and will work with a DM to make a character story that fits into the world if they care.

It's not "the ideas and whims of one person", the DM has a different role as defined by the game. You can change that if you want, but the default assumption is that the DM builds the world, sets the stage and then the players decide what their PCs do in that world. As it says in the DMG "The Dungeon Master (DM) is the creative force behind a D&D game. The DM creates a world for the other players to explore, and also creates and runs adventures that drive the story."

It certainly can be a collaboratively designed world, but "ideas and whims of one person" makes the default assumption of the game and virtually every game I've ever played in sound like a bad thing. Do what you want of course, just like the OP doesn't see the need to have anything outside of what the PCs interact with.
 

Micah Sweet

Legend
Why would a player even know? Whether my DM has the whole world plotted out or not I have no idea as player. There is nothing fake to interacting with the world you know IMO.

If the DM has an island nation ruled by a dragon king on the opposite side of the world (that we will never interact with) - what is it to me? How is the more “real” to me.
Mostly because I'm usually the DM, and I care and my enjoyment matters too. And I'd rather believe that there's more to the world than what my PC has experienced first-hand.
 

Ixal

Hero
As you are designing the setting it in the end comes down to only things existing which you want the players to interact with, robbing them of the possibility of deciding of their own what they want to interact with or not. It also makes adding more stuff later a bit more problematic when those things would have had an effect on the things that are already there but did not as it did not exist back then.
 

If you consider the complexity of an actual world, there's always going to be more going on than the PCs can interact with or that even the DM can prepare for. More pragmatically, however, I think there are pros and cons to a DM running or making a very detailed setting. A pro would be details that make the world feel lived-in in a way that prompts engagement. The point isn't to craft an illusion for the players, but to make them invested in the shared experience at the table. The wall mural that depicts an ancient battle might be a throw-away room description at first, but might prompt a player to find out more, and now it can become part of your world. A con is when the DM is deep into their worldbuilding but the players are relatively clueless, either because information hasn't been (or realistically couldn't be) conveyed to them or because they don't care. It's easy for the DM to present mysteries and intrigues in a way that is opaque for players who lack context.
 

MGibster

Legend
Mostly because I'm usually the DM, and I care and my enjoyment matters too. And I'd rather believe that there's more to the world than what my PC has experienced first-hand.
It's kind of like going to the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios. They try to make it look like it's part of a bigger world, but you know the Potterverse comes to an end as soon as you walk a few hundred feet in one direction or the other.
 

kigmatzomat

Adventurer
I say yes, although not with the same effort. I think of it like a zone of illumination. Things close by are highly visible. Details are lost in darkness but PCs can see the general shape of large things even in the shadows. This lets them have ideas on the larger working of the setting, often at the level of stereotypes.

Clear: the things I plan them to interact with. NPCs they will be in conflict with, political structures that will be in game, enemies, etc. I have paragraphs of notes on each clear item.

dim: "global" data like the dominant pantheon, the primary economic driver of towns/regions PCs are likely to visit (farming, mining, manufacturing, etc), where the safe lands are vs the dangerous ones, the "perennial problem" (Mongols, goths, pirates, spider-rats, etc). Also common info about regions they will visit (is there a noble/mayor/council, name of taverns, which temples exist, if there is a magic seller, presence of thief guild, etc ). I have a sentence or so on each item.

Shadowed: PCs know if they have a king vs queen vs council and a name or three. They have a sense if the government is strong/weak. PCs probably know a name associated with the "perennial problem" (Ghengis, Blackbeard, etc). They know if corruption is endemic or not. They have a sense if neighboring nations are hostile/friendly or rich/poor. This is often more of a list or outline with just 2 or 3 words in my notes. (This is often "common knowledge" and may not be actual fact, kind of like "Russia has a strong army")
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Thanks for the great posts everyone, this is a fun discussion to read. Some things I've noticed:

Campaign Settings that Outlive the Campaign: ....

So, one thing you may have missed...
"Setting Does not Equal World": I have played an entirely satisfactory campaign where all the action lay within 50 miles of the starting point. The only thing outside that which was relevant to play was one city to the north, and another to the south, that wanted to establish a trade route though the area. The details of those cities did not ever become relevant.
 

Yora

Legend
Strictly speaking, a setting always only needs what the PCs interact with.

But interaction is not just what the PCs are acting on, but also what is acting on the PCs. Interactions are constantly happening far beyond the PCs' line of sight. If the players run into and talk with traveling merchants from a distant land, the scene is affected by that distant land. Even if it has no map and the single named city is the one the merchants come from, this interaction with the merchants can be significantly affected by the vague image the GM has of the land.

There does not have to be a lot of detail for anything that exists beyond the boundaries of the current campaign, but if you want to avoid having the campaign feel like taking place in a sealed bubble, there needs to be something that is touching the boundaries.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
But interaction is not just what the PCs are acting on, but also what is acting on the PCs. Interactions are constantly happening far beyond the PCs' line of sight. If the players run into and talk with traveling merchants from a distant land, the scene is affected by that distant land.

Interactions may constantly be happening beyond the PCs sight. The scene may be affected by that distant land.

Or, maybe the PCs just ask for the price of a bag of jerky, and they move on.

If you have loads of time on your hands, you certainly can make up lots of setting details. And if that itself is fun for you, go to! Maybe they will be relevant, maybe they won't. Maybe they'll at least be flavor, but maybe they will never come up.

Those "maybes" mean there's a cost to benefit thing going here. How much effort do I put into this, vs how much benefit my game gets from it. Then, compare that to all the other things one might do to improve one's game.

It is to clear to me that loads of setting details not directly related to the PCs action is the best bang for the buck.
 

Yora

Legend
Which is why efficient worldbuilding is oriented towards a purpose. The idea of big campaign settings that can be anything to everyone and covers whatever style of fantasy you could ask for, like Forgotten Realms in particular, is nice on paper. But you end up with so much mush that is rarely going to be of any use to anyone that it makes finding and remembering the more useful elements more difficult. Not to mention the amount of writing time that is spend on it.
I regularly feel that the best campaign settings are the ones that have a general idea of what kinds of stories are going to take place in them, instead of offering a place to play any kind of story, but being spread thin on useful specifics everywhere.
 

Xamnam

Loves Your Favorite Game
The idea of big campaign settings that can be anything to everyone and covers whatever style of fantasy you could ask for, like Forgotten Realms in particular, is nice on paper. But you end up with so much mush that is rarely going to be of any use to anyone that it makes finding and remembering the more useful elements more difficult.
They certainly are a lot easier to use in an age of control+f, PDFs, and wikis than they used to be, though. So, nicer off paper than on paper. :p
 

Voadam

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.

So what do you think?
All of these seem like things that players can be interacting with in a game.

Halfling PCs could want to know about their culture, if halflings are Harfoot secret nomads is the PC in an otherwise non-hafling party necessarily a cultural rebel?

Chatting with the dwarven smithy a PC can ask about the nearest dwarven city. They can ask how does an undermountain dwarven city feed its population.

A PC can ask a farmer how much they worry about monster raids or how they deal with them.

D&D is an open-ended type of game, most anything can come up and you cannot really control what the PCs will inquire about.
 


Voadam

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?
For the last two decades throughout a couple of editions I have generally run in a mashup setting including elements from a lot of settings that I enjoy, mostly Ptolus (big henotheistic theocratic empire at civil war) and Golarion (lots of themed kingdoms that I integrate within the Ptolus empire or have outside of it). It is fairly realized with a lot of diverse thematic elements to pull on for any particular campaign or adventure.

I generally like having a solid background in my head to riff off of when things come up in game.

This type of setup has allowed me to run multiple campaigns in different areas of the same setting with widely different themes such as the Freeport Trilogy (pirates and Cthulhu); Monte Cook (Demon plots) and 3.0 D&D modules (planar stuff); and the Reign of Winter (Baba Yaga and Narnia White Witch), Carrion Crown (gothic horror), and Iron Gods (Thundar the Barbarian sci-fi D&D mashup) adventure paths while keeping the setting fairly continuous with common elements I can use in each such as the big church and the civil war world background elements.

I have also run an Oathbound Wildwood campaign fairly out of the book for the setting.

I have also run one shots with most elements completely improvved on the spot with things like the two PC halflings being the resulting two halves of somebody cut in half by a blade trap in a chaos magic dungeon. It was a lot of fun and they have gone really well.

Improvving elements is a lot of fun, but I also really like reading about and thinking about and incorporating setting elements and using them as elements to riff off of when things come up.
 

Mort

Legend
Supporter
Both will work.

I prefer to start small, and flesh out as the PCs go. But since I started doing that decades ago - whenever a campaign starts back in my original world, many parts are REALLY flashed out already.

The big danger I've seen to fleshing out a world without PC involvement (lands, kingdoms and people) is making sure the DM can "let go" when the PCs come in and, invariably, break things. I personally find it great fun when the PCs take a wrecking ball to various areas of the world, but I've seen many, many DMs who aren't happy when that happens to "their" creation.
 

Oofta

Legend
Both will work.

I prefer to start small, and flesh out as the PCs go. But since I started doing that decades ago - whenever a campaign starts back in my original world, many parts are REALLY flashed out already.

The big danger I've seen to fleshing out a world without PC involvement (lands, kingdoms and people) is making sure the DM can "let go" when the PCs come in and, invariably, break things. I personally find it great fun when the PCs take a wrecking ball to various areas of the world, but I've seen many, many DMs who aren't happy when that happens to "their" creation.

With any setting (or adventure or campaign for that matter) I think the DM should always be ready for the PCs to change the world, go off the rails, screw things up. We set the stage, set up conflicts and other actors but we aren't the authors of a story.

I've had people fail and I had to figure out how to figure out what happened next. I've had people turn what was supposed to be a BBEG into an ally. I've had people be far more successful than I expected. I think a DM should learn to roll with the punches because they're going to happen. On the other hand that doesn't necessarily have much to do with campaign world creation, an inflexible DM that can't react to the PC's actions in any campaign are going to hit the same issues.

Of course there's always a session 0 where you discuss this stuff. I'm playing Tomb of Annihilation right now and I knew going in that it would be an old school dungeon crawl. Not my preference, but I accept that I can't just say "F**** this dungeon, I'm going back to the city" and expect to continue the campaign. If the DM wants to limit how much the PCs can change, it should be discussed up front.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
There's a number of factors here.

First, how free are the players to range away from the intended core plot?

If they can go anywhere, then there needs to be something there. It's certainly easier if you have a persistent world, but you can also pants it if you're skilled enough.

Second, do you use the world for multiple campaigns?

If so continuity is always a plus. The players can grow a familiarity and that can breed attachment.

I find it fun and a good creative exercise and appreciate when a DM makes the extra effort.

But... it's not mandatory and shouldn't be for someone who wants to just run a basic adventure. And sometimes it can become a detriment when the DM is the one that becomes attached or protective over the setting, unwilling to allow the players to change it in ways they don't like, or using the crafting to enforce their personal will.
 

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