Seven twists to make your D&D world unique

I recently encountered this post by M D Presley on ‘The Four Cs of Fantasy Worldbuilding,’ and it sparked my imagination. Specifically, the idea of a fantasy conceit: a way in which a fantastical world deviates from our own (real) world.

Presley points out that a fantasy world need not have many conceits to hold our attention. The Wizarding World of J K Rowling has maybe three:

  • Magic exists
  • Otherworldly creatures exist
  • Ghosts exist

In all other respects, Harry Potter’s world is really not that different from ours. But what about the world of D&D?

D&D has quite a bit of worldbuilding already ‘baked in’—the way magic works, for example—but it’s up to you how much of it you choose to stick with. Subverting one or more of the game’s ‘conceits’ can be a good way of making your world unique.

So, what are the conceits of D&D? I counted seven, but let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any. For each conceit, I’ve also considered what your game would be like if your world was different—what TV Tropes calls an ‘averted trope’. Again, share your own ideas about this in the comments.

(By the way, the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide kind of covers this at the start of Chapter 1 in the section on ‘core assumptions’. But not all of these assumptions are technically conceits, some I’m doing my own thing.)

1. Magic exists

Arguably, it is this more than anything else that defines fantasy as a genre. No magic, no fantasy. And as it happens, there are several types of magic in D&D: wizardry, sorcery, pact magic, divine magic, music magic, psionics, ki, and in some worlds, artifice. That’s at least eight types of magic, each with their own way of working, and we could probably include magic items as well.

Averted: a game without magic would be very, very different. Very few of the core classes would exist, and the game would essentially become low fantasy (something I’ve written about here). Healing would become more challenging, and there would be a greater focus on mundane equipment. It might lead to a darker, more horror-themed world, or it might put more of a focus on politics, intrigue, and exploration. Frankly, other systems might work better for this style of play, like Forbidden Lands (my review), Symbaroum, or Fate Core.  

2. Otherworldly creatures

It could be argued that this is a third of the game! In every edition, the Monster Manual has been packed with strange and wonderful creatures for Dungeon Masters to populate their worlds with. It’s often the book that new players most enjoy flicking through.

Averted: a world without monsters would be a very different D&D game. I imagine it would feel much more like Game of Thrones: very human-centric, perhaps with more of a focus on politics or investigation. It might affect how some classes work quite substantially. Consider all the abilities that revolve around fiends and undead, for example, or the ranger’s favoured enemy feature.

3. Planes of existence

By default, the world of D&D—the ‘prime material’—is one of many. As a bare minimum, there are elemental planes, an ethereal plane, the Feywild, the Shadowfell, and a world of demons and devils, and probably something like the Astral Plane or a plane of celestials as well. In some campaign settings, like Planescape, the game world is the Planes. Chris Perkins recently described how the Multiverse is the implied setting of 5th edition D&D, and at high levels, it is more or less assumed that the party is hopping around constantly between worlds.

Averted: to my knowledge, all of the core D&D settings have other planes of existence in some form. In some worlds, like Eberron, they are not necessarily set up as places to visit, but they still exist. A D&D setting without a multiverse would essentially be limited to a single, physical world. Many monsters would need to be radically reimagined (eg, fiends, fey, elementals) and there could be big implications for classes like the warlock (who are their patrons?) and wizards (where do summoned creatures come from?). That said, it could lead to richer worldbuilding, a greater emphasis on the prime material, and perhaps a more grounded or realistic setting—which for some players, might be more to their taste.

4. The Underdark

The concept of a cavernous world beneath the earth is pretty much baked into the game now, to the extent that the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide specifically lists ‘Underdark’ as a monster habitat. Previous editions sometimes used term like ‘underground’ instead, and individual settings had their own names for the place (eg, Khyber in Eberron), but I think the official D&D settings all have some kind of analogue for it.

Averted: the Underdark is a useful conceit because it gives DMs an excuse for the existence of dungeons—which, after all, are 50 percent of the game! Without the Underdark, several fantasy species would need to be explained with a new backstory or would just cease to exist (eg, drow, duergar, svirfneblin etc). And without the Underdark, adventures would take place on the surface, where things are generally a little less bizarre and alien.

5. Divine interaction

I have to be a bit careful here as there are, of course, many, many people who believe this to be true in our world. But the key word here is believe. In our world, whether or not you believe in the divine and its influence is ultimately a statement of faith, and not a matter of universal agreement. But in most D&D worlds, the gods are explicitly real and known, and their power is made manifest every day through the answered prayers of clerics and other divine spellcasters. In some settings, like the Forgotten Realms, gods have literally walked the earth.

Averted: I touched on this in a post a few years back (here) where I use the character of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII as an example of a healing domain cleric in a world without any direct mention of gods or religion (other than the ambiguous concept of Lifestream, perhaps). Gygax himself was originally quite blasé about the gods of his world, and was more than happy to let the players do their own worldbuilding in this regard, only inventing his own gods as something of a jokey afterthought (‘St Cuthbert’). A godless D&D world is perfectly possible, but it would obviously have an impact on the nature of religion and divine magic, as well as some creatures and mythical beings (eg, angels). And all of this, in my opinion, could be rather fun.

6. Life after death

As with point five, above, I must caveat this by pointing out that this is something that many people in our world know to be true, and I am not here to disabuse them. But again, it is faith position and not universally agreed. In the UK, only a third believe in life after death, and among men this is barely a quarter. But in the worlds of D&D, the existence of an afterlife is unarguable. Spells like raise dead and resurrection are clear proof of this, as are the existence of undead creatures like ghosts, vampires, and liches. You might not believe in souls, but D&D definitely does.

Averted: apart from the obvious game implications of removing resurrection magic, there would be other ripple effects from averting this trope. Life after death would become a matter of faith, as in our world, and we might have to think again about cosmology and the existence of fiends, angels, etc. (What are devils for if people don’t have souls?)  

7. Alignment

In the earliest days of the hobby, alignment has been a real, tangible force in the world of D&D. ‘Law’ and ‘chaos’ even had their own languages! A creature’s moral/ethical stance could determine how spells worked or which classes they took. This is much more muted in 5th edition, but there are still echoes of it. For example, a paladin can still detect evil and good with their divine sense ability, and there are occasional references in published adventures to alignment-specific events (eg, a suit of +2 plate armour in Curse of Strahd—but I won’t tell you where).

Averted: many groups already play without this, or handwave it. I’ve written about alternatives here. I largely use it as a shorthand to help me roleplay NPCs, and otherwise don’t care for it. WotC themselves have experimented with getting rid of it. Of all the conceits on this list, this one is the easiest to remove completely from your game, and your game might even be better for it.

Have I missed any conceits from the game? Are there any you would choose to avert (or subvert) in your world-building? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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11 thoughts on “Seven twists to make your D&D world unique

  1. I would love to subvert rather than avert alignment. Imagine Bards, for example, who are aligned not to good or evil or to chaos or law but to beauty or ugliness. How about Druids or gunslingers who are aligned to Nature or Industry or others could be aligned to Science or Magic?

  2. I have thought of a few alternatives to the No Underdark ideas or more realistic underdark ideas. Here are a few ideas on the scale of realness underdark variants. Skipping complete absence as you covered it already.

    1. Individual Magic Caves: instead of an interconnected massive underdark if you keep caves separate each one can get its own unique ecosystem and monsters. If you go more realistic most life would be surface dependent with food chains based on foraging outside or food washing in. However if you allow some magic larger Karst Systems may get two warring species or such.

    2. Speculative Evo Underdark: This idea throws out magic and replaces the live supporting nature of the deep with weird biological life. Strange rootlike plant life without chlorophyll who are fueled by symbiotic chemosynthetic bacteria and the bacteria themselves becomes the bottom of the food chain. Fungi dwell where they find enough life to decay, parasitize, or be symbiotic with. Etc.

    3. Tectonic Underdark: this one is the closest to the underdark on the small scale but the most fascinating on the large scale. Basically place the fantasy underdark on top of a world with realistic geologic processes hand waving the fact it will not just massively collapse. Man made will need to be propped up artificially to prevent collapse in earth quakes. Faults themselves will slowly move cave tunnels apart needing constant upkeep by underground species to make them usable. Plate margins have the danger of volcanic zones normally limited in RPG’s. Each continent will be very different as only life in the deepest zones will be able to move between them without hitting the continental shelf margins and being flooded. Then you have the issue of traveling deeper. After a point pressure will cause tunnels to cave in and collapse and magic would be needed to progress further. Sadly this makes the high plasticity yet solid mantle and whatever weird life lives their in a magical world difficult to reach.

  3. Frankly, I don’t think you missed anything. Those are all “hard wired” rules of DND. If I can be a dork for a second, I’ll say that you did miss another hard wired rule of DND but it’s just a minor one; the existence of God’s and goddesses, especially in homebrew games. I personally enjoy making up my own pantheon, though I gotta say there’s some inbreeding going on in my games. I haven’t played DND for a WHILE but I honestly enjoyed this list. Keep up the good work 👍

  4. In my primary homebrew setting of nearly 20 years, I mess with a few tropes. I made Orcs and Goblinoids staunch allies of humanity. Humans, Orcs, and Goblinoids were seen as too “savage” and prolific so they were enslaved for thousands of years by Dwarves and Elves until a successful rebellion 200 years ago (generations for the shorter-lived types but for Elves and Dwarves many fought in or have parents who fought in the War of Liberation). While the Humans, Orcs, and Goblinoids have mostly moved on the Elves and Dwarves still have their defeat fresh in their minds

    I also built a cosmogony to explain why light is feared and shadows are revered in my setting. The light of the sun goddess is punishing and would make life very harsh as the planet swings close to the sun during its off center orbit, but a planetary ring named Nyra’s Veil after the shadow goddess (the 2nd of two gods remaining along with her mother the sun goddess) covers the many southern continent during this period making the days bearable (yes, the “science” doesn’t quite work but there’s magic involved). As the planet swings further out the ring moves to help reflect more light and prevent harsh winters. Naturally, this makes the Northern Hemisphere inhospitable for most of the year, frozen for part and parched for another and crawling with Suntouched undead who draw power and gain fearsome abilities in direct sunlight. The whole culture of the world subverts the “afraid of the dark,” and “light is good, darkness is evil,” tropes. In my setting those who venture into the light without at least some covering are mistrusted, in addition to other indicators of this tropes flip.

  5. Do not invoke a picture of the lady merely for attention! That is is a way to get noticed and spend the rest of your days in a maze. Foolish mortal.

  6. I’m not vastly familiar with all of the campaign settings of D&D, but from what I have seen, it might be fair to say that the existence of powerful, civilizations could be a conceit of the game. Maybe brought down by war or even the hubris of mortals wielding magic, it’s a constant source of ruins and tombs to explore.

    1. Possibly! It’s certainly a trope. I guess the argument could be made that we have similar ‘ancient ruins’ in our own world, but perhaps not to the same extent as in D&D?

  7. I like that you include The Underdark, though it may (?) only be relevant in Faerun.
    There’s another world build principle that can be really helpful to defuse weird arguments about modding rules. It is the “natural laws.” We are so used to thinking along the lines of our own universe’s natural laws that stepping outside them can trouble our suspension of disbelief. If we can accept, as a principle, that D&D generally operates under Aristotelian physics, not Newtonian, the game rules are easier to accept.

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