Last time I introduced you to my team of intrepid adventurers, Beleg, Elessana, Rhai, Magnys, Eogred, and Maghana– you remember them, right? Well now it’s time to backtrack a little, because before they even existed, I had to world-build. No story takes place in a vacuum, and I didn’t want theirs to be the boring exception. Now, there are a lot of D&D campaign settings out there in the established lore, from the ever-popular Forgotten Realms to the classic Greyhawk, to Dragonlance (made popular in the novels by the same name), all of which have their own diverse and complex histories to draw from. “Ian,” I hear you thinking, “how much world-building could you actually have needed all that is all figured out already?” Well reader, I’ll have you know that I am an obstinate fucker and did not use any of those.
See, as a first-time DM I thought it would be easier to start my world from the ground-up rather than start on the outside and try to read up on all the densely packed game lore on any given world and work my way in. My reasoning was that with Tyr, the name of my homebrew game-world, I would know everything that I would need to run it because I had to write all the densely packed game lore. Ultimately that made more work for me, but the dirty little secret nobody tells you about DM-ing is that once you roll up your sleeves and get down to the nitty gritty work of it all, it’s basically all you want to do with your time and will take over your life. Seriously, why do you think I’m here shouting my thoughts into the widely apathetic void of the internet rather than being out and having a life? Ha. Good one.
So back to the aforementioned nitty-gritty. The first thing I had to take into concern when building my world was genre. Now, this might sound stupid to say since genre is pretty much pre-determined; we’re playing Dungeon’s and Dragons, not Dungeons or Dragons or Maybe Spaceships (though I would play the fuck out of that game), but yeah, it’s fantasy right? Well yes. But I keep flashing back to my DM back in college complaining about how sick he was of “Tolkein Fantasy” when running our game. By “Tolkein Fantasy” he meant that euro-centric, High Fantasy toned adventure that no matter how many apostrophes you add to the names of places to make them exotic always come out sounding like Medieval England. The problem of that that he had (and me too), is that Medieval England was fucking boring! Unless any of you are historians and genuinely fascinated by the subject, I’m pretty confident in saying that whenever anyone else hears the word ‘feudalism’ their eyes start to glaze over. Seriously, they called it the Dark Ages for a reason. Not only that, but I don’t think a Tolkein-style Medieval analog even works particularly well as a campaign setting as they generally weren’t the best places to go adventuring around. Chances were you were born poor and kept poor and your life’s biggest adventure was that time you farmed an extra bushel of potatoes for your lord to eat while using you as a footstool as a reward for your farming prowess. There was little to no social mobility, and if by some chance you were a knight, you pretty much had to stay planted on top of your fiefdom in order to make sure it churned out enough profits to actually pay for your plate mail and horses since those were basically the equivalent of an Iron Man suit back then. To make a campaign world, there needs to be some element of egalitarianism in the society to ensure the characters have the freedom they need to make choices about who they are, where they come from, and where they want to go.
While my old DM’s go-to for avoiding Tokleinization was to try to draw more from east-Asian mythology, I am neither as well-read or as into anime as him, so my solution was this: I was going to abandon ship on the S.S. Epic-High-Fantasy and take try as much as I can to make my fantasy world as contemporary as I could with it still making sense that people still used swords and armor and shit. I tried on a few different time periods trying to see what I could get to stick. My first thought was a Victorian analog setting, but as I’ve never really seen steampunk executed particularly well and having little other choice with the level of technology existent in that era, I decided maybe it could use a little more sword-and-sorcery than that. I had already decided that I wanted there to be some level of technology present in the world just to invigorate the setting, but not so much that it overpowers it and everyone’s wearing top-hats covered in gears and smokestacks for some reason. I liked the idea though of combining basic technology with magic to allow for the kinds of inventions that would make the world feel slightly modern, things like reliable clockwork, air conditioning, basic firearms, etc. In the end I decided that Tyr should be a world on the cusp of its own Industrial Revolution. Mass production will still be a few decades off, but the innovation is still being done on a smaller scale in the metropolitan centers of the world while the further out you go the more it resembles traditional fantasy with ramshackle towns full of country bumpkins and outdated-but-reliable tech. Basically what I could do then was pick and choose between elements of traditional fantasy I wanted to use so my players didn’t feel lost in some distant subgenre, and things I would use to invigorate the setting and still give the feeling that they’re exploring somewhere they haven’t all read about a thousand times.
Next, the sensible thing to do would be to draw a map of this new world I was creating, so I could shape the countries to fit their landscapes… But I didn’t do that either. I actually didn’t draw an actual map to my world until several sessions in, maybe a month into my campaign. I actually found it more useful to leave things vague as the world shored up around my players. Their first mission was basically “You are in the capital city of Northspire, which as you might guess is in the north, and [plotstuffplotstuffplotstuff] you are being exiled by the King and tasked to escort this package to an outpost on the edge of the World’s Edge Desert far to the east.” They were basically tasked with crossing the length and breadth of the kingdom with some easier level encounters in the first few sessions so they could flex their roleplaying muscles while I waited for them to ask more questions about the world and decided to fuck off this boring mission and go their own way in the world, as per my plan.
Eventually though, you’re right, I did need a map. There are a lot of video tutorials about how to best create a map that reflects your game world and one of the really interesting ones I read involved rolling every dice you own onto a piece of paper and tracing their outline, and the number they land on determining the natural features of that section of the map. If any of you are sensing a theme here though, I didn’t do that either. When it came time to draw my own map I wanted to keep it a “living document” in a sense, so I drew it on a page in Roll20 in my campaign using their drawing tools. Sub-optimal for map-making though they may be, I am not a good enough artist for it to have really been a problem, and my map came out looking like this:
Now you might notice that aside from several dots and some slashes of text here and there, this map is largely blank. This is intentional. That way, I can add locations to it as they become relevant to my players. We’re still in the early stages of my campaign, so it’s not necessarily relevant for them to know that on the border between the countries of Delvrith and Adrium there’s a small fishing village named Troth where an old lady has a mission to find her lost kitty cat. However, they do know that as they’re currently sailing east for reasons I’ll talk about when the time comes to get into the plot, they’re travelling closer to the hostile Archipelago of Dryllm, which will likely have some impact on their voyage if they’re not careful. Likewise, while I’m homebrewing this world, I still might want to include the familiar Forgotten Realms city of Waterdeep on it somewhere (especially given the two new Waterdeep adventures coming out), and you know, the City of Splendors might make a decent capital city or major metropolitan center of Auriente or Elemonte, currently blank slates for later world-building. Now, this school of thought does carry with it the danger that my players will decide that they’d like nothing better than to visit sunny Elemonte in time for the beach weather, if that’s the case I can improvise, or stall till the end of the session with a water-encounter and then work on fleshing out Elemonte in the interim between sessions. And some of the areas I have already added to, but in secret, so who knows? Am I lazy, or a GENIUS!? Mwahahahaha.
Ok, now that we’ve gone through my creation process and I’ve tried to justify the choices I’ve made to you veteran DM’s out there, let’s get into what’s in the actual world that my adventurers were dropped into.
The campaign starts and is centered around the Kingdom of Adrium, in which all the players began in the capital city of Northspire. Adrium is the largest nation on the map currently (there’s some debate in my head as to whether my map cover all of Tyr or merely the relevant sections of it, I haven’t decided) and therefore is the most influential. In recent years they’ve begun mostly to lead in the innovation in the recent field of techno-arcana. In that sense, the kingdom is going through something of a golden age. The economy is thriving, new wonders are constantly being created to the delight of the citizenry, and the standard of living is high. For the most part.
Because I wanted my players to have the opportunity to decide what aspect of my story interested them most for them to peruse, I decided that this would be a nation at war, because nothing says opportunity for a travelling band of murder-hobos than war.
The war, with the Archipelago of Dryllm is the price of Adrium’s plenitude, and possible its soul. You see, while the standard for living is generally high, and innovation leads the world continually forward, the King is beginning to turn his back on things seen as of the past. Under the guise of cracking down on Dryllmic espionage, the Northspire guard has been rumored to be rounding up magic users. Techno-arcanist engineers are fairly safe from persecution as they are easily controlled, most requiring the investment of the crown to get their various projects off the ground, but wizards have become a rarity, and even the odd ranger, alchemist, or monk has been taken off the streets. As Dryllm is a nation steeped in the Old Ways of blood and magic, this explanation is deemed plausible by most. The King hasn’t outlawed magic outright either, lending to the questionable credibility of those claiming that he is determined to see the old practices of magic stamped from his new world. In general, the public attitude towards magic follows the government’s– that it is a thing to be regarded with suspicion or in some cases, outright hostility. There are some in Adrium who view the use of magic as a statement of loyalty to Dryllm and treason against the crown. The King wisely downplays this extremism so as not to provoke their southern neighbor, the Gnomish nation of Delvrith, where magic is an ancient and respected tradition, and who’s trade in magical components and artifacts with Adrium is a solid basis for their alliance. The bordering city of Ellandale is seen as the last bastion of magical society in Adrium, as the King wouldn’t threaten the magic users so close to Delvrith’s borders, especially as most of the trade with Delvrith goes through Ellandale’s ports.
As you may have guessed from the King’s paranoia, the war has not been going well. Dryllm is a harsh nation whose people are famed for their militaristic opportunism. In the past they’d sent the occasional raiding party to Adrium’s outer territories, and when asked for their reasons they’d cite their strength and ability to ransack a town as their justification for doing so. They are very much of the mind that “The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” With that said, the current struggle should never have lasted this long. The formidable Dryllmic navy should have landed, taken everything they could carry, and left the countryside burned behind them as they sailed back home to fight each other over the spoils, but that isn’t what happened. The conflict escalated into a full blown war 5 years ago when Dryllmic troops sacked and destroyed the city of Normsport, giving them their first firm foothold into Adrium and defying all expectation. Adrium’s King had spent most of reign in peacetime, and is widely regarded to have been a great King during that time of peace, relies heavily on his advisers for military decisions and some are whispering to each other that he’s beginning to crack from the strain. That coupled with the Queen’s strange absence from Northspire Castle of late, and now the news of a mysterious illness of the youngest of his five sons which has him bedridden and unable to be seen by the public, some speculate that it is a wonder the King is still hanging on as well as he is.
Delvrith does its best to stay out of the fighting, but supports Adrium in numerous other ways. Several of the Delvrithi Army’s most notable generals are on retainer either commanding portions of Adrium’s military or serving as advisers. Delvrith also supports the Adrium financially, through loans, relief aid, and investment in certain projects (including a heavy investment in a top-secret project known only to some within the Castle under the codename Project Mistwalker). Most of Delvrith’s own armed forces are situated to the west however, guarding from Gnolls who are known to invade from somewhere within the World’s End Desert from time to time. Even if they wanted to commit more of their fighting forces towards aiding their allies, they couldn’t without weakening themselves significantly. Gnolls are unpredictable, and to defend against their attacks requires constant vigilance.
Elemonte and Auriente are something of twin nation-states. Their proximity leaves their societies inextricably involved, though they still like to make a show of their independence from one another from time to time. Having remained neutral in the war, both nation-states are experiencing respective economic and cultural booms as they catch up to the larger nations whose resources are diverted by the war. Other than that, I’ve mentioned that the character and contents of these places hasn’t been firmly decided on, so this will have to be something my players discover through exploring their world when the time comes.
I’ve already touched upon the general society of Dryllm. In my head I think the best historical analogue for them would be the Saxons who occupied Britain shortly after the end of Roman rule. Their speech and culture is harsh like the land they live in, they live in de-centralized societies, little to no urban development, and their main occupations beyond fighting are farming, sailing, and hunting. While they do have a loose “pantheon” of worship, one of my NPC’s put it best when she said “In Dryllm they worship power more than anything else.” The islands that make up the Dryllmic archipelago each reflect every conceivable biome, and in that sense is something of a geological wonder. Some islands are covered entirely in dense jungle, some in wide open plains, some in mountains, and the largest spans from an arctic wasteland to a volatile volcanic southern tip. Therefore, the emphasis on power in their society is originally derived from their continuous fight for survival on many fronts. Each island therefore is highly specialized to live in their given environment, and they are tied together as a “nation” in the loosest sense. Long ago the people of Dryllm abandoned the subtlety of the gods the rest of the world prayed to for strength, and instead revered those beasts around them seen as perfectly suited to their environment. Dryllm’s “pantheon” then consists of the chosen beast for each island which they seek to emulate. Blood rituals are conducted before hunting parties in order to curry the favor of these chosen deities and ensure a good hunt, sometimes even including human sacrifice. Such creatures include the Owlbear, the Roc, the Basilisk, the Yeti, to name a few. Each island has it’s own patron native beast, but the whole of Dryllm venerates the three beasts of the main island, as this triumvirate represents the pinnacle of not just survival, but power, in their eyes.
Beyond the material world, I borrowed a lot from established game lore from the Dungeon Master’s Guide and later Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes about the planes of existence beyond the Prime Material Plane. I liked the idea of the four Elemental Planes (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, CAPTAIN PLANET) overlapping each other in places and intersecting with the Prime Material Plane somewhere at the center. Beyond that is the Shadowfell, D&D’s The Upside-down-from-Stranger-Things, a negative plane of death and decay where lost fragments of memories are gathered by the Raven Queen, and the Feywild– the Shadowfell’s polar opposite, a hyper-vibrant parallel to the Material where magic and life saturate a world full of faries and other fey creatures. Further working out of the planar system are the celestial planes of the gods, the infernal realms of the Nine Hells and the demonic Abyss, which are locked in a never-ending Blood War. Between all things are the Ethereal plane, the empty space between all the worlds where they can be observed, and the Astral plane, the abstract plane of pure thought and knowledge which serves as a gateway to the wider planar system. This is all fairly standard game-lore that I’ve left largely un-modified, but is still well worth mentioning as I find D&D’s Planar System fascination, and it is one of the coolest storytelling devices utilized in the game in my opinion.