Creating Your Own Role-Playing World

So you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder or Starfinder for a while now and have been using pre-made quests and adventures for your group.  Or perhaps you’ve been creating your own stories but using an existing world (and books) such as Forgotten Realms or Golarion.  You might have now reached a point where you’re thinking “This is cool, but I have some really neat ideas to create my own world, my own universe.”

The reason I didn’t mention such popular role-playing games as Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars or Vampire: The Masquerade is because all of those games (for the most part) either take place on Earth or in a universe that has already been so well documented and fleshed out that a lot of the ground work has already been done.

I’ve been playing tabletop role-playing games for about 30 years now.  While that doesn’t make me anywhere near an expert on the topic, it does mean I’ve made mistakes and learnt a few things along the way.  My current group is presently battling it’s way through the infamous ‘Rise of the Runelords’ campaign for Pathfinder.  We know it will take us at least another 18 months to complete but already I’m planning the next campaign.  Not for the first time I’m looking at creating my own world.

So what does that entail and how do you go about it?  Regardless of whether your world is grounded in science fiction or fantasy, the ultimate thing you want to get right from the very beginning is to ground your world in reality, with science.  “Wha-?” I hear you say.  It’s simple; if you can create a world that is completely and utterly grounded in the laws of physics (as we know them) and reality, then everything else that comes later becomes much more believable.

As an example, take a look at the Lord of the Rings films.  Director Peter Jackson approached these films as more of a ‘Historical Documentary’.  All of the weapons and armour, the tables, chairs and various props all had to be functional.  Ridiculous shoulder pads and armour that would never bend simply wasn’t included.  When the entire world looks and behaves as we imagine it should, then we are less likely to reject ‘magic’ or ‘magical beasts’ when they appear on the screen.  The same logic should be applied to the creation of your world.

Starting with the bigger picture, how large is your planet? How strong is it’s gravity?  How does it orbit the sun? How long is a day? Is the planet tidal locked? What is it’s distance from the sun?  How many moons does it have?  All of these things will impact how your world behaves.  If you are using Earth for a base of comparison and nudge it ever so slightly towards the sun then you have a planet that is now alarmingly hot, that means that you aren’t going to see any pine trees or snow.  No moons? That’s going to affect tides and travel by boat.  If the planet is tidal locked (like our moon) then you’re going to have one side always facing the sun and one always in the dark with only a small habitable band of life around the equator.

The point is, how you plonk this planet in space is going to directly impact the type of world it is.  How is this important?  Because if the planet is further away from the sun and we find ourselves walking in a burning hot desert, the players are going to ask questions, or make assumptions.  Why? Because regardless of how well they role-play, even at a subconscious level they’re going to be comparing the world to what they already know.

For instance, you decide that in your world nobody can be cut by a knife.  It’s always been that way.  Sure you can argue that the characters won’t know any different and simply accept it, but the players are going to struggle with that because they know in their world knives can cut.  If you’re going to change such a thing, you need to offer up a damn good explanation as to why, and ‘because magic’ is typically only going to float for so long.

Rivers are going to flow either down from the mountains (fresh water) or flow in from a sea or ocean (salt water).  Hills will often precede mountains.  Mountains typically denote tectonic plates.  Settlements are typically going to be near fresh water and fertile land, not on the top of a mountain for no reason. Again, at some point a player is going to ask “What is the point of this?” if they are visiting a city in the middle of an endless swamp.  Once you start down that path then everything will come crumbling down.

You don’t need to be a cosmologist or geologist to do this either.  Thankfully, we live in the modern era of Google.  And you don’t have to get too deep into all this. It’s unlikely that the characters will ever come to know or understand how their planet works, but with a few basic building blocks in place everything else will become plausible.  You’ll also find that these building blocks will help create story content and answer questions your players might have that you never considered.

Okay, so let me give you some examples of what I’m currently thinking for my own campaign.

My world copped a major knock during a cataclysmic event.  It’s now spinning on it’s vertical axis rather than it’s horizontal as it rotates around a red sun.  Being that my sun is red it firstly changes the lighting of my world from yellow tint spectrum to red but it also burns cooler, meaning my world needs to be closer to the sun to survive.  It’s odd rotation is also going to cause one half of the planet to have a great deal of sun for six months and the other to be quite dark for six months, before they swap sides.

I’ll need to look up how hot and cold these regions are going to get, and what kind of effect that will have on things like the ruins in those areas and the soil.  I may need to speed up it’s rotation around the sun so that neither side gets too frozen or burnt.  I don’t want the ruins of the ancients becoming so brittle from extreme temperature that they’ve turned to dust after only a few thousand years.

Life at the equator should be reasonably normal with a day/night cycle, but there wont be much in the way of seasons.  They’ll probably get some ripper storms with the high and low fronts constantly banging into each other.  This will probably lead to a pretty serious tropical environment, very humid.  Thick clothing and armour isn’t going to be enjoyable.

With the moon destroyed there wont be much tidal activity but that’s okay as I expect a lot of the planets water will be evaporated or frozen.  Those living in the ‘central band’ are likely getting most of their water from the rains, which may mean that water tanks are the norm rather than running rivers.

I’m not sure yet how all of this is going to impact the magnetosphere. I’m thinking there might be some solar radiation leaking into the side of the planet that is currently facing the sun, but that’s cool because despite being super hot it creates a danger zone.  What might live in that? What effect might it have on flora and fauna?  I’m creating story points now.

As I said earlier, the cool thing is you can find answers to a lot of this stuff just by doing some Googling.  I’ve happened upon a number of threads that deal with such ‘What if…’ speculation.

You don’t have to go anywhere near as deep as that though.  I mean, you can create an ‘Earth Like’ world with similar hemispheres, just change the shape of your continents at bit.  Most of the popular fantasy worlds are essentially this.  And for good reason.  You don’t want to go too alien.  Even my world above begins with an Earth-like planet that has gotten whacked.  If you go too alien then it’s going to make it really hard for your players to wrap their heads around it and role-play effectively.  They’ll forget that they are in a low gravity environment or that there are 28 hours in a day.  Or that knives can’t cut.

Rivers flow a certain way for a reason. This affects the surrounding terrain. This impacts flora and fauna.  Don’t put fresh water rivers through your desert. Is your world farther from the sun? It may be dim or dark most of the time, in which case even Humans should have low-light vision.  If you consider these things and put a little bit of thought into your world, both you and your players will benefit from it greatly.

TL;DR – Do some research before you start filling in hex squares on the map.

I’m willing to bet there are a LOT of you out there with ideas and tips of your own.  Let’s hear them below in the comments section.

Liked it? Take a second to support ATGN on Patreon!

Leave a Reply