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

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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.


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).


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

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
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.


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.


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.

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")


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.

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