To Boldly Borrow From Others?
We're not all Tolkien, Paolini, or Martin, we don't all have the entire world mapped out in extreme detail. We don't know where every river, creek, or random dead tree is in our world. And even if you can make everything in your world exactly where you want it, players may never visit that place.
When I was younger I would sometimes map the entire world, and have massive notes on what happened where, and why. I knew which kingdoms and races had fought over this stretch of river for a thousand years. Which is great if you're writing a book, and useful for helping make the world feel "real". But that was very time intensive. I won't say don't do that. If you have the spare time, if building a world and doing all the fine details is your thing? Do it! Build, write, detail!
If, however, that's not your thing; if it seems daunting and impossible to create an entire world, with multiple competing factions, thousands of years of history, kingdoms, guilds, deities, tyrants, freedom fighters, wizards, and dragons! There are still options to build a world that feels vibrant, interactive, and fun.
The easiest to explain is to simply use rule number 1 whenever someone wanders "off the map". Make it up. Everyone decides to head left instead of right, and you don't have that town/forest/mountain already created, you just take a moment, catch your breath, and make it up. This is one of those things that gets a lot easier the more you do it. Your first time making up a city off the top of your head you will forget things. That's ok, let your players ask questions and answer them as they come. No need to know what color the guard's uniform is, unless a player cares.
Another tool to shorten your prep time from ALL THE DETAILS, but give you more than empty space to work from when your players zig where you expected a zag; broad strokes. Have a map, know mostly where important towns, mountains, etc. are at. If it matters for your big metaplot then you should know who lives there already, why they might be important, but you don't need to know the name of the tavern until the players are headed that direction. This gives you a large framework to build on, and the freedom to add to it as it matters.
One of the more fun things to do is outsource some of this to the players. This big town happens to be where one of the characters is from? Ask the player some questions, if they say stuff that doesn't fit at all, don't feel bad saying no. But, you should be able to 'yes and' your way from their thoughts on their hometown to a coherent concept of what the place looks like, who the major players are, and what various plot threads can be tugged at.
Also, we’re doing this for our tables, our friends, our fun, so don’t feel bad borrowing from others. Unless you’re writing with the intent to publish, there’s no plagiarism issues. You don’t need to create an Assassin’s Guild Leader out of nothing if you have read, played, watched, or been at the table with anyone that played an interesting assassin. Use alternate universe versions of characters you know, places those characters have been, or even plots those characters have thwarted (or completed). The PCs of your other games will easily become the NPCs of your current game.
Even bigger scope, don’t feel bad borrowing entire planets, stories, or major characters from mass media. Change the names, give them a fresh coat of paint, and set them in your world. The most obvious of these I ever pulled off was in a Star Wars game I was running. I needed a good “get the band together” opening adventure. So, I took a great SciFi story I knew, modified it to work in Star Wars, and unleashed it on my young and unsuspecting players. A few weeks later I’m talking to an older buddy, he’s laughing, because one of my players sees him at the college regularly. Kid had described this “mind-blowing” plot that had really gotten him excited. My buddy listened raptly, being an old school DnD guy, he’s got his own share of those stories. As the kid finishes his story, my buddy just chuckles, “That’s a Star Trek episode, and Spock used mindmeld, instead of the force”.
I knew that the kids were unlikely to have seen that old TV episode, not impossible, but not probable. Even if one of them had, it probably hadn’t made a huge impression, and it let me give them a scenario where combat was an option, fight the worms tunneling through the mines, or talk to them, find out why they are upset, and choose to fight the miners...or find a compromise between everyone. And it worked. The players enjoyed it enough that one of them was gushing about it to another nerd. Telling the story.
To quote an old text, “there’s nothing new under the sun”. So borrow from ancient texts, Gilgamesh, Dante, Sun Tzu; borrow from TV, movies, books; borrow from other players, other DMs, other RPGs. Don’t hesitate to use actual history to inspire your world building.
Give yourself enough framework to freeform, write the entire 1000 year history, or be prepared to make it all up as you go. Borrow stuff, ask your players, and most importantly, this is supposed to be fun. We’re telling stories, together.
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