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GM Tips: Starting From Scratch - Worldbuilding from Nothing

"Occular Jar" by Bob Greyvenstein

As a forever GM, you can all too easily find yourself in the situation of having to come up with a game on short notice. It can be easy to fall back on a rerun or a printed adventure, but what do you do if you’re a worldbuilder and prefer your own settings?

Equally, if you’re a new GM and you want to dip your toe into the world of worldbuilding, it can seem very daunting when there are all these fantastically details worlds already out there to compete with!

If you’re in either of these positions, let me bestow upon you my tips and tricks for worldbuilding from nothing:

1: Start Small

There are two main schools of thought on worldbuilding, top-down and ground-up. We’re going to focus on ground-up as it’s the quick option and most suitable for this article. You don’t need a whole world! Start yourself off with a village and surrounding countryside. In your village, you need to identify one building per player character, this can include things like temples, stores, and services. Add two buildings of your own, a Tavern, and something the players forgot. The countryside around your village only needs to be realized out to a distance of about one day of foot travel and contain a point of interest per player character. Add an extra point of interest for yourself.

Quick Aside

Want a free adventure you can play tonight with 30 minutes of prep? Have one on us!

2: Choose the Frontier

Frontier towns are liminal spaces where things happen. Due to their nature, they are on the edge of what is known, meaning that everything beyond the town is ‘terra incognita’. This has a two-fold use; it gives a sense of mystery and exploration to your game while also meaning that you don’t have to develop them – yet.

Have at least two borders within a few days travel if you can – this lets you go in different directions depending on story needs.

3: Know Your Environment

This includes things such as climate, water, and terrain. A riverside village will have different needs and threats than a mountaintop one and a higher likelihood of fast travel. Threats from a nearby swamp will be different from the threats from nearby hills. Differences in the local biome will impact how your village survives and what goods it might need. Mountain villages usually have good access to stone and metal, but limited crops and wood. Swamp villages may have plentiful food, but outsiders might be repulsed by some of the creatures served!

4: Limit Your Foes

This might seem counter-intuitive, but a village beset on all sides by hordes of foes is unlikely to survive without pre-existing heroes – this can reduce player agency. It’s better to have a small number of foe types that can be developed than random monsters everywhere!

5: Bespoke Worldbuilding

Build your world (village!) alongside your players building their characters. If a character is playing a priest of the swamp god, make one of your buildings the local shrine. If a player chooses a character with an antipathy for a specific monster type, use that monster as one of your foe choices. If your world is your characters’ home and they belong to it, they are more likely to care about what happens to it.


“The village(2) of Floken is located near a large forest to the north (2,3) and west of the mountains (2,3).”

“Small farms surround the village, whose notable buildings include the Smithy, the Shrine, Azbang’s Tower, and the Reeve’s Gaol. The General Store sells most goods and the local tavern is called ‘The Woodsman’s Wedding’(1, 5).”

“Floken is in a temperate area, although wind and snow from the west make the winters cold. The nearby woods are mainly oak and yew. Logging and farming are the primary industries of the village (3).”

“Near the village are a number of local sites of interest, including the Mountain Watchtower in the east, the ruined mill to the south, and the newly discovered ruins in the forest. A local hunter is rumored to have found a treasure trove in the mountains and a few ancient coins are in circulation in town (1,5).”

“In days gone by, goblin tribes would raid from the mountains, but that stopped when the tower was built. Wolves still hunt the depths of the woods and have been getting bolder, but of more concern to the Reeve is the sightings of strange reptilian people sneaking around the old graveyard to the south (1,4)”

How do you start building a world for your homebrew campaign? Let me know in the comments below!

~Ben Crossley

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