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

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Unless it's a railroad by definition a world must consist of more than the party interacts with. Because otherwise there is never the possibility of options not taken and choices offered and turned down.

But it doesn't need to be a lot more, and I am a big fan of fleshing out the world as we go - the more blank spots on the map, the more places I can fit to need and/or expand on player narrative needs.

In my current Masks of the Imperium campaign I've worked out broad strokes on a number of potential hooks that the players haven't taken up. Heck, the first few levels were options of various settlements on the new continent that had issues they could solve, and I needed to flesh them out enough to create hooks, do briefings by their superior, let them gather information from various sources, and then decide which to handle. They got to maybe 20% of that material.

During the campaign there have been plenty of spots where they need to decide "do we go after X or Y" - both of these need have been developed enough plot and worldwise that they have information and can make meaningful choices. There's currently a war brewing thanks to the newly installed Regent over the Child-Empress the party is agents of. I need to have that fleshed out and information coming back even though the party has never chosen to go there.

So yes, there needs to be enough that the world feels rich, dynamic and not just exclusively focused on the PCs. There needs to be options that the characters could have interacted with but chose to do something else. All of those can likely be done in broad strokes without the fine detail, but they do need to exist for a well formed and non-static (outside the PCs) setting.
 

log in or register to remove this ad

reelo

Hero
If it's a "living" setting with factions that have agency independend of the players, then yes. If you tell the players that in some location there is X doing Y and the players don't follow up on that lead, Y still needs to happen after a certain amount of time, and the consequences thereof must be tangible when they finally do decide to visit that region. DM should keep track of what faction is doing what at any given time.
 




Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
This is an interesting question. Do "setting" elements about the game world need to be described beyond those that are part of the situation faced by the characters? I think so, yes, because it provides context for the characters and their actions. For example, in my recent campaign, I described that the players' characters were in a city surrounded by a bog and that it was generally known that there had been sightings and rumors of various monsters in different parts of the bog and that there was a nearby village not too far from the city and that there was a road through the bog to the lands beyond. I described all of this even though the immediate situation in which the characters found themselves was that they were in a tavern with a barkeep.
 

Larnievc

Adventurer
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?
That’s pretty much how I do mine. I throw a bunch of hooks at my PCs and any they follow up become important: the rest evaporate.

Keeps me on my toes and saves me a lot of head space.
 

MGibster

Legend
Unless it's a railroad by definition a world must consist of more than the party interacts with. Because otherwise there is never the possibility of options not taken and choices offered and turned down.
I tend to characterize it as not existing until the party interacts with it. I'm like the holodeck, baby. If the PCs zigg when I expected them to zag I just make something up. No need for it to exist until the PCs encounter it.
 

M_Natas

Adventurer
It depends. In the end, what matters is what is happening at the table.
But for the things that happen at the table to be good, there need to be some things to be good.
And Setting is one of them.

A good setting needs to feel real in order for the players to immerse themselves into the game. If it doesn't feel real, it the DM doesn't put work in to create an illusion of a lived in real-world, the players will have less or even no investment in the world.
In order for a setting to feel real, it needs to be consistent (so not in one Session the Halflings are dwarflike creatures and the next session they suddenly turn into giants) and it needs to feel like things are happening even if the PCs are no there to witness them. There must be the feel that there is a past and a future.
and the main word here is feel. Some DMs can totally wing that and don't need to prepare things in advance, others need to prepare a lot of stuff in order to get the feel of the world right.

Every DM has different strategies to accomplish the goal of a world that feels real.

I do it now on two levels:
First level:
On a conceptual level: I have a metaplot for the campaign and the adventure the players are currently in. What does that mean? That means I plan out what will happen if the players do nothing. At the moment the PCs are in the feywild and were able to beat the BBEG. But the archfey died and made his lover, who was under the control of the BBEG his successor. The other powerful fey will be pissed about that.
If my PCs decide they have enough of the feywild and just leave, they feywild wild descent into a civil war between the new archfey and the powerful fey who wanted to be the ruler of the domain. That civil war leads to a devastation of the feywild which the new ruler will win, but she will rule over ruins. It will make her so depressed and desperate, that the campaign BBEG can sweep in and take over by offering her help.

So I know on an adventure level what will happen and on a campaign level what will japlen if the Players decide to do nothing. With that knowledge I can now adjucate the decisions the player make to interfere with that metaplot, because I know the motives and the strategies of the important NPCs in the World, It is easy for me to adjust what they will do based on what the Players are doing.

Bur for that to work, I need to know a lot more now the world than the players are interacting with right now.

The second level is small stuff:
When the PCs go into a shop, the NPCs are not just eagerly waiting to sell the PCs something, they are already in a Disccusion with another Patron (and maybe giving some Adventure hooks, but not necessarily).
When the PCs leave, the Shopkeeper continue the discussion with the other Patron. There must be a past and a future. It must feel like the shopkeeper didn't just spring into existence when the players needed a Shop. It must feel like it continues to exist, when the leave. Here continuity is important (when they return to the shop) and small details, that can be improvised at the table, but also can be preplanned.
I do both. Little details, like the Shopkeeper complaining about Bandits raiding caravans, that's why he have to raise prizes for some foreign goods, not the PCs but to somebody else makes the world feel more real. And the players than can decide if they want to interact with that bit of information.

But the small detail stuff doesn't need to be preplanned.
The big metaplot stuff needs to be.
And both inform the setting and what I as a DM need to prepare to reach the right level of "this is a real world feel".
And every DM has probably different strategies to make the world feel real.
 

squibbles

Adventurer
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.[...]
[...] 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.
I have a lot of responses to post. I hope you don't mind if some are meta-resposes.

First, I think your tenor is meaningfully different in the first and second red recolored statements. I'm more sympathetic to the second one; things can exist in a homebrew setting and still be subject to change, even if they exist only in the DM's temporary headcannon. I think it's useful for some big picture and background things to have answers, or the appearance of answers, to help maintain verisimilitude and theme. And I'd bet that a lot of things exist in most of your homebrewed settings, unless stated otherwise, due to the assumed world of D&D 5e (or whichever system you use)--i.e. there are multiple gods, there are other dimensions, there were magically potent civilizations in the distant past, supernatural metaphysical evil is a thing, etc., etc.

Second, when you say "campaign settings" and "lore" it makes me think of official or 3rd party publications, rather than homebrew settings, and that's a completely different beast. Published material needs to make sense, at least internally, or be so wildly novel or creative that I don't care. If it isn't better thought out than an average homebrew, then why should anyone read it? And, in that sense, I feel logical criticism of world-building is well justified. For one's own homebrew, though, it's very much like optimizing a level 20 PC; it's a way to engage with the game that some people find fun when they're not actively playing, even it it may never impact play.

I like world building, so it's mostly for me rather than for the players. I have to remind myself not to overdo it so that I leave them room for meaningful choices. I really like it when a player imagines something that then becomes part of the world.
This is probably where most of us land (and where I do). The setting is the DM's PC, there's a natural inclination to give it as much love as the players do their characters.

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.
This is a really good point.

The OP suggests a sort of dichotomy between 1.) worlbuilding that directly serves players and 2.) worldbuilding detail for it's own sake/for the DM/in case it's needed. Maybe you're suggesting a third type, worldbuilding that directs the type of gameplay that's supposed to happen in a setting--which, potentially, helps the DM keep focus and, even if it doesn't immediately serve the players, could be expected to as a game progresses. This is something I should probably think about to do worldbuilding better.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
I tend to characterize it as not existing until the party interacts with it. I'm like the holodeck, baby. If the PCs zigg when I expected them to zag I just make something up. No need for it to exist until the PCs encounter it.
To support your statement, can you please actually address the points I brought up about why it is needed in some cases.
 

MGibster

Legend
To support your statement, can you please actually address the points I brought up about why it is needed in some cases.
Nope. Not if you're going to frame the discussion in such an unfriendly manner. (Remember, I can't read your tone of voice or see your body language. Maybe you mean to be friendly and are genuinely interested in what I have to say, but I can't tell here.)
 

Yora

Legend
The OP suggests a sort of dichotomy between 1.) worlbuilding that directly serves players and 2.) worldbuilding detail for it's own sake/for the DM/in case it's needed. Maybe you're suggesting a third type, worldbuilding that directs the type of gameplay that's supposed to happen in a setting--which, potentially, helps the DM keep focus and, even if it doesn't immediately serve the players, could be expected to as a game progresses. This is something I should probably think about to do worldbuilding better.
My approach is directly at the service of the players. Not to have them sit around for story time, but to provide them with information and details that they can grab on to and use as leverage for actually doing things proactively in the game.
When a campaign gives players full freedom of choice, then it is difficult to make any choices when the players have no understanding of what kind of things will lead into cool adventures and what things would be just treading water in place with no interesting developments resulting from it. Even when the players can toy around with everything in the environment of the game world, it's very useful to have some things covered in bright blinking lights to attract their attention and leave other things only generally implied in the background.
When you have an overall concept in mind as the creator, it becomes a lot easier to identify which aspects should be big and attention grabbing, and which ones would only flood the players' attention with useless information or make them chase after threads that really don't go anywhere.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Nope. Not if you're going to frame the discussion in such an unfriendly manner. (Remember, I can't read your tone of voice or see your body language. Maybe you mean to be friendly and are genuinely interested in what I have to say, but I can't tell here.)
I put out several points, and your refutation ignored them all. Which I felt was rather rude so my request to you was just a straightforward request to support your points and refute mine.

You've now doubled down on not providing any support for your position and instead of adding to the discussion it feels like you are trying to turn this to reframing that my "please address the points" was unfriendly.

I don't think this particular discussion is worth any more back and forth. I'm going to take a break for a while from your posts so we don't escalate this.
 

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.
Sure, that is the DM fantasy. Which can be great. I’m pretty sure that is one of my DM’s favorite parts too. However, 90% of his fantasy doesn’t make it to the table (in his case).
 

Hussar

Legend
Simple answer? No, campaigns do not need to exist beyond the PC "spotlight".

Longer answer - it will largely depend on the needs of the campaign. But, at the end of the day, setting should service the campaign, not the other way around and I've found a lot of DM's who forget that. Sure, the shape of windows in Forgotten Realms settings might be of interest to read about (and no, I'm not making that up, there was a rather lengthy post by Greenwood on the old WotC site that spent several pages detailing windows in buildings in FR) but they really, really don't matter to the game very much.

And the game should, IMSNHO, always come first.
 

Rabulias

the Incomparably Shrewd and Clever
It's kinda like the thought experiment about relativity. Imagine you wake up in a room with no windows and all doors are locked. A sign says you have been kidnapped and either placed on a spaceship undergoing constant acceleration of 32 feet/sec/sec (duplicating Earth's gravity) or you are locked in the ground-based simulator (still on Earth). There is no way you can tell which is true.

So if the players go somewhere in the campaign world and the DM tells them what they find there, does it matter if they ad-libbed it on the spot, or prepped it months ago "just in case"?

If the DM enjoys world building for its own sake and/or their own fun, there is no problem with that, but I hope no new DM thinks they need to detail (or even sketch out) parts of the world that never intersect with the players.
 


Magister Ludorum

Adventurer
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.
We rarely agree on this issues (not necessarily a bad thing) but on this issue we are in complete accord. I am uninterested in playing in a world that doesn't feel real to me outside the players' actions, and I am fundamentally incapable of running or designing a world like that.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
It's kinda like the thought experiment about relativity. Imagine you wake up in a room with no windows and all doors are locked. A sign says you have been kidnapped and either placed on a spaceship undergoing constant acceleration of 32 feet/sec/sec (duplicating Earth's gravity) or you are locked in the ground-based simulator (still on Earth). There is no way you can tell which is true.
Until I lay my boot to the door and kick it open... :)
So if the players go somewhere in the campaign world and the DM tells them what they find there, does it matter if they ad-libbed it on the spot, or prepped it months ago "just in case"?
It matters if (or, IME inevitably, when) the DM ad-libs herself into blatant contradictions or inconsistencies due to not remembering or not writing down what we saw there last time or what we-as-characters/players already knew about the new area.
If the DM enjoys world building for its own sake and/or their own fun, there is no problem with that, but I hope no new DM thinks they need to detail (or even sketch out) parts of the world that never intersect with the players.
Parts of the world that never - and never will - intersect with the players/PCs, sure. But how do you know ahead of time which parts those will be unless you intend to somehow force your players to keep their PCs within a predefined area?

I played with a guy once whose character's motto was "Where the map is blank, I'll go." And he did, all over the setting world. Characters like that - or even the potential existence of characters like that - are why I think a DM wants at least a vague idea in mind of what's where in the world beyond just the adventuring region.
 

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top