Building a New World: Part 1

This week, I downloaded the World Builder’s Guidebook from DriveThruRPG, and my goodness, what a find. Many thanks to Twitter user @Archarzel for putting me onto this.

The World Builder’s Guidebook is a 96-page supplement by Richard Baker, published in 1996 for the 2nd edition of AD&D. This was about a year before TSR was purchased by Wizards of the Coast. Baker has made some pretty legendary contributions to the D&D scene over the years, including three of the most highly regarded adventures of the last two decades: The Forge of Fury (2000), Red Hand of Doom (2006, cowritten with James Jacobs), and the starter set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014). For $4.99 (£3.67) on DriveThruRPG, the World Builder’s Guidebook is a steal.

In this post, I’m going to show you how you can use the World Builder’s Guidebook to create a brand-new campaign setting for your D&D games. As much as I can, I am going to build my world using Baker’s excellent random tables.

(Disclosure: I am an English teacher, not a geographer. This is a fantasy world, not a physics engine.)

Approaches

Baker offers a number of different approaches to world-building. The first two, ‘macro-’ and ‘micro-’ scopic approaches, are perhaps the most familiar. The ‘macro’ approach is to start with the broadest generalizations and ‘zoom in’. The ‘micro’ approach is the opposite: start with a focused setting like a town and ‘zoom out’. Baker also talks you through a few other approaches such as the historical approach or the character-based approach, but I’m going to go with a macroscopic approach.

World hooks

‘Choosing a hook for your campaign world is the most important decision you’ll make in the design process,’ Baker argues. A world can be defined by its climate (eg, Le Guin’s Earthsea), its culture (eg, Rokugan is a fantasy mash up of Japan and other East Asian cultures), its weather (eg, Anne McCaffrey’s misty Pern), its situation (eg, Athas is a dying world), or its sites of interest (eg, Planescape crosses numerous planes of existence). We can choose this, or we can determine it randomly with two or three dice rolls.

I decided to let the dice decide. I ended up with a mash-up of ‘Arabian’ and ‘Renaissance’ cultures in a world where ‘an unusual condition or consequence alters the working of magic.’ Intriguing! I don’t want the Arabian flavour to become a stereotype, however. We’ll see how we go.

Worlds and planetology

Since we’re going for a ‘macro’ approach, let’s start by looking at the shape and size of the world: its seas and continents, mountains and climate.

First off, my world is a plane like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, not a spherical planet like Earth. Heck, we could even make it an infinite plane if we wanted to. However, for the sake of this article, we will make it finite. There is a defined edge that the world’s denizens dare not cross (‘here be dragons’).

In terms of its size, this is a big world: 15,000 miles north to south and around 26,000 miles east to west. That’s a total area of nearly 394 million square miles to explore. Earth, by comparison, is around half that size. Yeesh!

If we wanted to, we could go straight on to hydrography. However, I’m going to randomly determine the world’s cosmology first. Weirdly, this plane exists in a universe with real-world physics. In other words, it’s not Wildspace like the Spelljammer universe: even with powerful magic, you can’t travel physically between planets and stars. The world exists in a heliocentric solar system with one sun, and there are eight other planets of various sizes. Our world has no moons, but other planets might do. I’m not too interested in this for now.

Next, we move onto hydrography: bodies of water, essentially. My unnamed disc world is around 80 percent water, so a little more than Earth (which is about 71 percent). Baker’s system involves dividing the world into 20 ‘regions’ of equal size, and with a hydrographic percentage of 80 percent, all of these regions will be at least partly water-based. Two regions will be half land, half water (like the Mediterranean), four will be dense archipelagos like Indonesia, six will be seas with small, scattered islands like the Caribbean, and the remaining eight will be large oceans like the Pacific or the Atlantic.

In terms of continents, most of this world is sea. I randomly determine that there is one major landmass covering about five percent of the world, and the rest of the plane is islands of various sizes. This might sound like a small continent, but remember that our world is double the size of Earth, so five percent of its surface area is considerable. In fact, this continent is almost exactly the same size as Asia. (With Baker’s method, we can even determine randomly where to place this continent, although his system assumes a spherical world at this point, so that doesn’t quite work. I improvised my own system by dividing the world up into twentieths and rolling a d20 to place the regions accordingly.)

Here’s what I ended up with:

Far westWestCentreEastFar East
OceanMinor islandsMinor islandsMinor islandsOcean
Half-land, half-waterHalf-land, half-waterMajor islandsMinor islandsMajor islands
OceanOceanMajor islandsMajor islandsMinor islands
OceanOceanMinor islandsOceanOcean

And this is how I drew it onto a hex grid. Each hex is about 700 miles across. That’s roughly the size of India.

I’m already thinking back to my ‘world hooks’ and how I can incorporate those threads at a macroscopic scale. This world is one huge landmass, chains of scattered islands, and a vast ocean. On Earth, Arabia is a subcontinent on its own tectonic plate, surrounded by seas. And if we think about the European Renaissance, it was centred around a peninsula and its city states: Italy. Thus, the ‘Arabian’ part of my world could be the huge landmass, and the chain of scattered islands could be a series of Renaissance-themed city states and republics. As for the ‘magic’ hook: well, it strikes me that this resembles a shattered world. How that affects magic, I’m not sure yet, but I feel like there should be some kind of story behind these island chains.

Seismology and tectonics

Tectonic plates might seem a bit dull, but it can be a fun way of determining where mountains lie. Using Baker’s method, I determine that my world has seven plates. The two smallest plates would be around 34 million square miles each: bigger than all but Pacific Plate on Earth. The other four plates would be far, far bigger than that.  

I penned these onto my map in blue. (Yes, in hindsight, I really should have used blue for the coastlines. I’m not a geographer.)

Baker’s tables also allow you to determine plate movements and mountain ranges. Here’s what I ended up with:

Essentially, there’s a range of low mountains (think the Appalachians) along the western edge of the main continent, and a line of high mountains (like the Himalayas, possibly volcanic) down the middle of the central archipelago. The eastern archipelago has a mountainous northern coastline formed by a trench system (think the Alps, but by the coast). Seismic activity is generally rare across the world, but occasionally occurs to the north of the main continent. You might see a tsunami of note once every two to three centuries.

Climate

Finally, I’m going to think about the climate, seasons, and winds of the world.

This is tricky because my world is a plane. A spherical planet like Earth has daylight hours, seasons, and climate bands because of its axial tilt. How do these things work on a flat world like ours?

A flat world can still rotate. And it doesn’t have to be completely horizontal. It could be slightly tilted, much like our own planet. We have already determined that our cosmology is heliocentric, so, essentially, our disc world orbits the sun, turning on tilted axis, alternately plunging the disc into day and night.      

I’m not going to go into more of the specifics than that. This world is already pretty fantastical as it is.

Let’s randomly determine the rest. My world is generally hot: a step warmer than Earth in general. This fits well with the Arabian and Renaissance themes. Its seasonal variations are mild: summer and winter aren’t much different, and the arctic regions of the world are smaller (besides, they aren’t really arctic, as this world is hotter than ours). Imagine an Earth where the northern coasts of Antarctica are temperate, the poles are forested, Britain feels like Spain, New York feels like Florida, and equatorial regions are uninhabitable for large parts of the year.  

How does this affect our flat world? Our largest continent is generally tropical. The ‘equator’ of the map is super-hot: the average temperature is well over 37 °C (100 °F) and usually in the range of 43 to 60 °C (110 to 140 °F). The northernmost and southernmost archipelagos are perhaps the most pleasant places to live.  

Finally, winds. Generally speaking (and this really is a huge generalization), currents and wind patterns go clockwise in the northern hemisphere and anticlockwise in the southern hemisphere. Of course, we don’t have hemispheres on this world (because it’s not a sphere), so we can kind of put winds wherever we like. Still, I chose to add some rough lines to give a general sense of weather systems.

That’s it for Part 1. The next step is to zoom in on a particular area and look at terrain, societies, cultures, and governments. Should be fun!

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