Trouble With Worldbuilding and Adventure Writing

Allistar1801

Explorer
I definitely have a problem when it comes to making concepts and actually making a game for the players, but I have no idea what to really do about that. I have tried both styles when it comes to scale and how much worldbuilding goes into a campaign, but it never seems to change anything. When I try to keep it small and build out as the player's interest in something increases, it ends up being a very bog standard adventure with no motivation or anything besides a group going on a weekly adventure with no lasting consequences. When I try to build around a concept, I find it next to impossible to come up with any kind of adventure for the PCs to go on. I hate that my brain does this, but I can't seem to figure a way around it. I have a concept that I very much want to make work, but I can't find a starting point or decide if I should even DM given my past experiences.

My most recent example. I had the idea of a setting that leans a bit more into the implications of magic and how it would affect civilization. To keep it brief, magic has become the new symbol of status and power, so sorcerers with their magic, "royal blood" start replacing the nobility, wizardry is regulated by the state and more heavily used as a military force because it can easily wipe out entire units given a well timed fireball, meanwhile the clergy are dealing with a succession crisis because resurrection magic kinda throws a wrench into the system that relies on people replacing other people after their death. I like this concept, and it could serve as a nice backdrop, but I have no idea how to capitalize on it and start an adventure with any of this.

The only thing I've come up with is a bare bones outline where the players are enrolled into one of these lord's academies (through various methods such as kidnapping, conscription, or family favors with these sorcerers and the like), meet each other through the classes, get some background set up, and flash forward to them having to take a practical test (I.E go on their first adventure) before they can officially go out as agents in service to their lord. This takes them to a town where yada yada yada happens and the players can do their thing and let it grow naturally with a few plot hooks. Maybe I'm just being too self deprecating, but I feel like this isn't any good and that I should just restart.

So, what do you think I should do, in terms of writing world building and even running this game? I don't want to let my group down, but I just don't know if I should be doing this given that I have this much trouble with writing.
 
@Allistar1801 I think you’ve got some cool ideas for a setting there. I think all that makes for a great backdrop. Now, the question is how to hook the PCs into things.

Have you asked the players what kind of characters they’d like to play? Have you discussed the setting with them at all? That might be a good way to get some ideas. Maybe what they come up with will inspire you.

More generally, I’d say to steal regularly and unashamedly. Just use plot hooks, concepts, and characters from whatever media interests you. Reskin or repurpose them as needed. Come up with some NPCs with goals and motivations. Put them at odds with one another....that should present some opportunities.

The game Blades in the Dark has good advice on how to begin a game. Take two factions and set them at odds. Perhaps in your work it would be the church/magocracy and the former nobility. Then, add a third faction to the mix....one that can prosper or suffer from the conflict. Have that third party ask the PCs to help.

Adding that third faction really helps to open things up. It’s a good starting point.
 

ninjayeti

Explorer
You have some cool ideas. Now think about the sorts of conflicts those ideas would create and build adventures around those:

1) If sorcerers are the new nobles....what happened to the old nobles? The former elites are probably not going sit idle while their power and status slips away. Maybe the PC's are sent after rebels working for the old guard.
2) If wizardry is heavily regulated....what happens to wizards who feel the rules are unreasonable and refuse to obey them? Maybe the PCs need to investigate and shut down outlaw wizard orders.
3) If magic has come to dominate the battlefield....what happens to the former soldiers/knights who are increasingly obsolete? Maybe some old soldiers are making dangerous pacts with demons to gain warlock powers.
4) If resurrection upsets the natural order....what will various religious factions do to make things right? Maybe fanatics are assassinating people who have been raised from the dead.

These are all conflicts that can be introduced to the campaign initially as low level tensions. This lets you foreshadow the adventures you will throw at them latter down the road.

These are also conflicts that can be presented as morally ambiguous, letting you more deeply explore these ideas and giving players a choice in what side they will take. Maybe the PCs start out working for a sorcerer-lord to hunt down agents of the old nobility, but come to realize the nobles were wiser and more just rulers than the sorcerer-lords. Sure, those rogue wizards are powerful - but if they haven't ever abused their power, should they really be treated as criminals? Maybe resurrection DOES have some terrible long term consequences that most people don't fully understand yet.

Once you start looking for the conflicts, I think you will have lots of rich material with these ideas.
 

John Dallman

Explorer
… meanwhile the clergy are dealing with a succession crisis because resurrection magic kinda throws a wrench into the system that relies on people replacing other people after their death.
I hit this problem many years ago, and the solution I found comes in several pieces:
  • You don't get to resurrect people who have died of old age.
  • Sensible monarchs retire when their heirs are ready to take up rulership.
  • Larger polities tend to be run by oligarchies, meeting as councils, rather than monarchs.
The first piece came from the rules I was using at the time. The third was from backstory: the big city in the campaign was run by an oligarchic council, since the wizards and thieves had got fed up with the local warlord at the same time, and made it impractical for him to maintain his rule without killing half the population, and he felt that was pointless. The second was created by a PC who'd founded a small kingdom, and realised much later that retiring from being king was the right thing to do.
 

ART!

Explorer
I think you have everything you need. Just work out the factions, important NPCs, and their connections, agents, goals, and timelines, and go!
 

Aldarc

Hero
I definitely have a problem when it comes to making concepts and actually making a game for the players, but I have no idea what to really do about that. I have tried both styles when it comes to scale and how much worldbuilding goes into a campaign, but it never seems to change anything. When I try to keep it small and build out as the player's interest in something increases, it ends up being a very bog standard adventure with no motivation or anything besides a group going on a weekly adventure with no lasting consequences. When I try to build around a concept, I find it next to impossible to come up with any kind of adventure for the PCs to go on. I hate that my brain does this, but I can't seem to figure a way around it. I have a concept that I very much want to make work, but I can't find a starting point or decide if I should even DM given my past experiences.
I would look into constructing Fronts from Dungeon World. Or using the Game Creation sheet from Fate. The general idea found in both of these is writing down the major NPCs, opposition/factions, and the impending and current issues that you would like the players to face or exist in the background of player activity. It may help to jot these things down and keep them to a relative minimum.

My most recent example. I had the idea of a setting that leans a bit more into the implications of magic and how it would affect civilization. To keep it brief, magic has become the new symbol of status and power, so sorcerers with their magic, "royal blood" start replacing the nobility, wizardry is regulated by the state and more heavily used as a military force because it can easily wipe out entire units given a well timed fireball,
This is a neat idea. I could definitely imagine a stylized Roman Senate that forms around noble blood and sorcery. I believe that the nation of Telvinter in Bioware's Dragon Age has something like this. Several issues may be present here: what is the relation of sorcery and wizardry in other nations? Do wizards believe that they are entitled to share rule? Does becoming a wizard impart the blood of sorcery on offspring? What about bastard children?

meanwhile the clergy are dealing with a succession crisis because resurrection magic kinda throws a wrench into the system that relies on people replacing other people after their death.
Or what would this mean if a noble sorcerer became a lich? Does the law say that one relinquishes their claim after death? So if someone dies but is resurrected, are they still heir claimants by the letter of the law? What conflict might be present if someone challenges that? How might this impact political assassinations? What if the clergy is bribed into intentionally failing their resurrection ritual of the deceased noble? What if the gods (or powers that be) refuse to resurrect someone? What if a noble has someone steal the body so that the deceased can't be resurrected?

I like this concept, and it could serve as a nice backdrop, but I have no idea how to capitalize on it and start an adventure with any of this.
Create instability in the realm by creating a succession crisis. What would the seeds of the succession crisis look like? How might the major nobles move pawns around to their favor? Since I mentioned the Roman Republic, why not consider how resurrection magic might have created a succession crisis for Rome and have that happen. Does this crisis precipitate the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire?
 

Tyler Do'Urden

Soap Maker
Maybe I'm just being too self deprecating, but I feel like this isn't any good and that I should just restart.

So, what do you think I should do, in terms of writing world building and even running this game? I don't want to let my group down, but I just don't know if I should be doing this given that I have this much trouble with writing.
Nah bro, these aren't good ideas. They're great ideas! I want to steal them!

And that's just the thing... as Pablo Picasso put it, "Good artists copy, great artists steal."

You want to be a great DM? You're gonna steal, you're gonna do it ruthlessly and shamelessly, and if you do it well none of your players will ever know or care because they're too enthralled with the game.

Because here's the deal - you don't have time to build a world from scratch, and think of everything your players will want to ask. You've got bills to pay. There are guys who do this stuff for a living - they're called GAME DESIGNERS.

Game designers aren't gods, though, and a good DM is probably capable of doing the same work they do given the time that they can spend on it. But you've got a fraction of that time. And since they aren't gods, feel free to taint their creation however you desire. The only canon welcome here is the kind that shoots metal balls or turbolaser blasts. And maybe the kind that wears robes and casts healing spells, if that's more your thing.

The issue here is that you've got great macro ideas. That's some nice skin, or maybe at this level, clothing. But you need muscles, bones, organs, blood vessels... you get the idea. That's where you need to pick some materials to rob blind.

(Be careful! Don't rip off something all your players know. I've made that mistake before. But there's so much material out there... you shouldn't need to do this.)

I'll demonstrate how I homebrewed a setting through this method in the last several minutes, between preparing client correspondence and running to the copier:

First we need a theme. I'm not thinking something quite as big and grandiose as yours... I'm going to go with something easy - dark Germanic fairytale. Quaint villiages, mysterious castles, cursed knights, faerie-haunted woods, and lots of people named Fritz and Hans. Cool.

Okay, we need a home base. Something well fleshed out that we can scratch the serial numbers off of. This is a quaint, dark fairytale world, so we don't really want a bustling metropolis. No Waterdeep, Lankhmar or Greyhawk here. Let's see, what are some good villages... well, if your players are really new to the game, or old grognards just starting 5e after a hiatus, Phandelver would work fine. If they're newer-school gamers for whom AD&D has less meaning than ADHD, maybe try using good ol' Hommlet, or Restenford from The Curse of Bone Hill - both very well rendered villages. But I'm not going with either of those.

Nope, we're gonna steal Bree. Grab yourself a PDF of the Cubicle 7 Bree-land supplement and you're good to go.

BREE? But all my players have watched the Peter Jackson trilogy like ten times!

Doesn't matter. They don't remember anything about it that matters here, and will never notice. As long as you've ripped Barleyman Butterburr's skin off and replaced him with Gersteman von Leerweiss, a fat jolly old knight who took over the great big Landsknecht Gasthaus (which is going to become one of their favorite places to drop coin after an adventure), they're never even gonna notice. They're not in Bree, they're in Bockenburg, and they're never gonna realize they're in Bree. Especially because you just replaced all the hobbits with gnomes.

None of this is going to take any more work than scratching out a handful of descriptions (far from all, just a few flavorful ones) and keeping a random German name generator and a random Gnome name generator handy to rename all the hobbits and humans. Everything else remains the same...
… and they'll be too busy playing to notice. Hmm... let's make the Dunedain into cursed wood elf rangers from an ancient fallen kingdom that used to be on these lands... kewl. We'll give them Celtic names. The Dwarves who wander through... are still just the Dwarves who wander through. They dress well and have a lot of coin. Maybe we'll use old norse names... or better yet, Polish. There we go.

There, I just saved you dozens of hours of work.

Now we need adventure material.

There are a few low level adventures and hooks in the Bree book... those will get us started. Then we need some more nearby environs.

First we need a big cursed wood. If you have new players, go ahead and reskin some of the old Myth Drannor supplements, and you're off to the races. Or whip out Dolmenwood.

Now we need some more towns, slightly bigger, for higher level adventures. Preferably with lots of werewolves, and some undead. Oh yeah. Are we pulling out Feast of Goblyns? Yes we are.

After the elf-kingdom fell, there was a human kingdom, now also fallen. We need some grim old castles. Let's throw in Palace of the Silver Princess, Castles Forlorn, and "The Forgotten Man" from Dungeon #75. There's plenty of spookiness and classic fantasy castle adventure. We also need a ruined tomb/big freaking dungeon. How about the Tomb of Abysthor? It's not quite as daunting as Rappan Athuk, and more coherent.

My god man, I think we have a setting here! I want to go run this right now!

That's how I build a campaign, and it just snowballs from there. Lots of details I wouldn't think of are pre-filled - and I can fill in the rest. Analysis paralysis is broken, as rather than creating the setting, I'm co-discovering it.

Now, you try. Let's reach out to the EnWorld Hive Mind and see what materials might work well for your campaign idea...
 

aco175

Adventurer
I have been playing FR since 5e came out since I do not have time for world building but I like your ideas and can see where this would make a good game.

I like to start small and might make a sorcerer/noble NPC with a problem to lure the PCs in. Maybe the players read the primer on your world or not and now you can introduce the connection between sorcerers and nobility and the mage general who thinks he can rule better. That's your conflict and another connection with your new world and another like FR. You can have something of a quest to get get a rare component that will be used to raise the noble's mother back from the dead, even though this will make he 'unlanded'- which the PCs would know about since they grew up there.
 

Celebrim

Legend
In almost all adventure stories, the villain drives the plot and the heroes react to it.

Think of the MCU, for example. Almost everything that happens in it is because a villain does something. The villain is seeking something. The villain is enacting some plot.

Whether you are building up from the bottom or starting with an overarching story plot, the important thing is to have a villain creating a tangible problem for the protagonists to ultimately solve.
 

pemerton

Legend
I like this concept, and it could serve as a nice backdrop, but I have no idea how to capitalize on it and start an adventure with any of this.

The only thing I've come up with is a bare bones outline where the players are enrolled into one of these lord's academies (through various methods such as kidnapping, conscription, or family favors with these sorcerers and the like), meet each other through the classes, get some background set up, and flash forward to them having to take a practical test (I.E go on their first adventure) before they can officially go out as agents in service to their lord. This takes them to a town where yada yada yada happens and the players can do their thing and let it grow naturally with a few plot hooks.
Hopefully without being too harsh, my feeling is that your scenario outline is weaker than your background.

One the one hand it seems too tightly connected to the background: you have the PCs forcibly enrolled as agents of lords who get sent on a test-mission.

On the other hand the actual action seems a bit arbitrary and McGuffin-like (This takes them to a town where yada yada yada). I don't get a sense that the events in the town are meaningful reflective of the background or the PCs' connections to it.

There have been some good posts in this thread about looking for the conflicts, finding out from your players how they are interested in hooking into those conflicts, etc. I would suggest that you think about loosening the hold of the background on the PCs (eg maybe some are hostile to the lords, hate magic, are the scions of the families who have missed out on their inheritance due to their elders being resurrected, etc) while thinking about how to make the action more intimately connected to those PC-background relationships (eg the PCs tackle an enemy of theirs rather than someone who is their enemy only because a lord has told them to go on a mission; the PCs protect their village against magical interlopers; the PCs need to undo the resurrection of someone who is in their way; etc).
 

lordabdul

Explorer
@Allistar1801 I think you've got a great backdrop for a good campaign -- don't be too hard on yourself. From what I can tell, you have a general idea for a world, but what you're missing is the premise of what the adventures are going to be. Robin Laws likes to frame premises as "The characters are ABC doing JKL in XYZ". You've got a bit of the premise, since you said the characters are new recruits in wizard nobility schools, but you don't seem to have really decided about what else they're doing.

I generally start by figuring out what kind of movie/book I want to watch/read in this world, because that's easy to picture in my mind:
  • War story: they're idealist graduates of the Battle Magic University (who forms future military commanders), who, after their first field assignment, witness the actual horrors of war wizardry, and the cost of fighting for their nation, as they follow orders and push into enemy territory.
  • Spy story: they're patriotic graduates of the Scrying School (who teaches you the art of intelligence gathering and magical tradecraft)... during their first simple mission tracking emissaries/traders visiting the capital, they step into a conspiracy that threatens the very source of magic that powers their nation.
  • Teenage/"Harry Potter" story: don't fast forward! Have them go through one adventure per year in Wizard School, where foreign and domestic interests try to influence the next generation of nobles, but also where the school dance can feature a fireball version of Carrie.
  • Heist story: the characters are really agents of the old nobility, or the clergy, and they have infiltrated the ranks of wizards in order to steal or damage something (maybe the thing that makes resurrection possible) in order to restore power to these old factions. After accomplishing this, surprise twist, this opens up a hell hole or whatever and things go to shit.
  • Political story: the characters are newly titled Sorcerer Lords who are aiming to ascend in the ranks (up to Sorcerer Barons, Sorcerer Viscounts, etc.). But right now they're assigned as Lords of some small backward village and they need to navigate the politics of all the surrounding lands and the dangerous games played in their overseeing Sorcerer Marquis' court.
  • Detective story: just like previously, but Sorcerer Lords are actually a mix of mayor/sheriff/doctor for that local village, and you have to not only deal with all the local farmers' and artisans' bullshit, you also have to investigate murders, repel neighbour invasions, and track the source of monster attacks.
...and so on. Pick a movie or character and think about what would happen if it was happening in your world.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
I'm thinking you have a wonderful background to drop characters into and see what happens. Arrange things to be happening around when you start, and maybe have other things happen shortly afterward. Manufacture an instigating event to turn the individual characters into a party, and you're at least well on your way to golden. You can steal frameworks as @Tyler Do'Urden suggests above or not, as you prefer.
 

Celebrim

Legend
@Allistar1801: @lordabdul writes a good post for getting yourself into the framework for creating an adventure, and I want to combine his good advice with what I said to bring that first step into a more concrete place.

War story: they're idealist graduates of the Battle Magic University (who forms future military commanders), who, after their first field assignment, witness the actual horrors of war wizardry, and the cost of fighting for their nation, as they follow orders and push into enemy territory.
Ok, fine, that is a good goal. But it won't get you very far in turning that goal into an adventure beyond giving you a framework for deciding what sort of antagonist you want to create. The next step here to concretely write down who the antagonists are, what they want, and how they plan to get it. Remember, each adventure is about how the Heroes respond to the challenge presented by the antagonist. So in this case, if you are doing a "War Story" you need to decide who the Battle Magic University is going to war with, why that foe is threatening, what that foe wants, and what that foe is doing to go about this.

As a the most simple and stereotypical framework, the BMU might be going to war with the evil Kingdom of Darkgloom, the ancient enemy of the Battle Magic University, which is determined to subdue the peaceful people of Haven. And the enemy is attacking with a large army across a broad front, in an effort to directly overwhelm Haven's defenses, pushing specifically toward the nearest cities to the border within intent to besiege and conquer them. Your new recruits are charged with defending a small village, or a road, or a bridge, as part of the cohesive defenses of Haven against this attack. The enemy, the evil Captain Snarlyface, has certain resources he will throw against the PC's in an attempt to overcome the defenses they set up. So there might be an initial probing attack by Captain Snarlyface's scouts, followed by an attack by some of his cavalry, and so forth. To succeed, the PC's need to organize local resistance and develop a systematic defense in depth of whatever they have been charged to protect. Congratulations, you just wrote an adventure. If that adventure is successful, then you can invent a new scenario based on what happened in the first one. If it wasn't something everyone enjoyed, then you can pivot to a different idea and assume that whatever challenges were presented were resolved off screen by NPCs, and move on to an aesthetic of play that your players enjoy more.

And of course, if your players are jaded and sophisticated and such stereotypes are old hat to them, then you can always throw in twists like, it turns out they are working for the bad guys and they have to decide where their loyalties lie, or the orders they've been given are absurd, and they have to decide to violate the letter of their orders in order to achieve the thing they actually want, or whatever.

Spy story: they're patriotic graduates of the Scrying School (who teaches you the art of intelligence gathering and magical tradecraft)... during their first simple mission tracking emissaries/traders visiting the capital, they step into a conspiracy that threatens the very source of magic that powers their nation.
Which again, is a perfectly fine starting point, but this idea will go no where unless you decide who the antagonist is, what that antagonist wants, and and what the antagonist has done and will do in order to achieve this objective. In other words, you need to know what that conspiracy actually is.

So here, this being a spy story, the more twists you put into it probably the better. The twists are actually the thing you are going for here, because a good spy story usually works around shifting perspectives about what is going on. At the very least, it ought to take some time to reveal that the actual purpose is to attack the very source of magic that powers their nation, but there also might be surprise allies. For example, one of the emissaries is actually a double agent working for an allied power, but that agent is hesitant to reveal themselves to the PCs, because they know that the PC's boss is a double agent working for the bad guys and the reason they have been assigned to this case is precisely because they are inexperienced and presumably inept agents who will be unable to unravel the mystery in time. Perhaps that double agent assumes the PC's are actually subverted double agents as well. Bang, now you have the basics of an adventure.

When I'm setting up a campaign, one of the first things I do is list all the factions I can think of that are in the immediate vicinity of the starting point, and then come up with the plot each of them is undertaking at the moment to achieve their goal. This can include the BBEG whom I'm expecting to drive most of the action of the campaign, but it also will give me a wealth of side plots and quests that the PC's can partake in while the main plot is unfolding, as well as give me some idea as to what interactions with NPCs by the PCs is going to be like.
 

lordabdul

Explorer
When I'm setting up a campaign, one of the first things I do is list all the factions I can think of that are in the immediate vicinity of the starting point
All good stuff! But yes, that, specifically, too. Once I know if I'm going with war times or spy thriller or Harry Potter school stuff, I fill up the world with appropriate factions and NPCs and locales and agendas... and then I pick a faction for the PCs to belong to, which then determines more or less who they're up against.

Other times I just have a starting scene in my head, and I grow from there. The PCs are standing where a violent battle took place, as assistants to the High Sorcerer General. Dozens of Fire Magic Battle Wizards lay dead on the ground, cut in pieces... the General turns to the surviving Battalion Leader... "Their magic was supposed to be negated, we picked this place because it's under one of our ley lines, and the moon is in our favour... what the fuck happened?". The Battalion Leader is shaking, but she replies "I... don't know sir. They didn't use any magic that I know of. They were wearing some unknown full body metallic armour, covering even their heads and hands. They seemed unphazed by our fire magic, the flames licking at them but causing no harm... they kept advancing. And then they used some mechanical swords that cut our wizards to pieces in seconds... I've... never seen such horror, sir". The General turns and tells the PCs: "well, shit. Kid, go get me the Grand Inquisitor on the Vision Sphere... he better fucking know what's up."
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
@Allistar1801

I’ve been thinking about your sorcerous usurpers and subjugated wizards because something was nagging me, especially after @ninjayeti posted this:

If wizardry is heavily regulated....what happens to wizards who feel the rules are unreasonable and refuse to obey them? Maybe the PCs need to investigate and shut down outlaw wizard orders.
Wizards would seem to be the natural oppositional force to the sorcerers, head to head...if not being their rivals or allies with the same plan. So how did the sorcerers alone become ascendant? Then it hit me: they attacked wizards in their weak spot, a weak spot I fiddled with in a post-apocalyptic campaign- their dependence on magical writings. In my campaign, ALL forms of written text were largely destroyed in the apocalyptic events before the campaign started. That made wizards relatively rare, and also affected spell availability.

That won’t work for you; it doesn’t fit. But what would?
1580987616198.jpeg


The sorcerous usurpers could have trained a force of people equipped with magic fire wands, rods or staves to destroy any writings deemed magical.


Those wizards in the emplot of the crown would have theright to keep tomes and scrolls legally- their contents and amounts would be strictly regulated, of course.

But paralleling the events of the novel, would-be “Rebel” wizards (and their allies) would find ways of concealing their precious tones and scrolls, with some becoming “Living Tomes”- covering their bodies with tattoos of the arcane texts.

 
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