Building A Campaign World – Part 3: Gods

This is the third post in my series on world-building. To see all of the posts in one place, click here.

As I’ve said in the past, I’m not an advocate for doing too much world-building before you actually start playing. I like to discover the world as the players do, staying one step ahead so that I don’t get caught with my pants down. Today, though, we’re talking about something that really does require a bit of advanced planning on your part.

If you have a cleric in your party – or think you’ll have a cleric in your party (and this is why it’s good to get an idea of what characters people want to play before you get them around the table) – then you’re going to have to think about religion in your world. You may well want to use the pantheons from the Player’s Handbook (Appendix B), and that’s fine – but, to me at least, it seems like if you’re going to the effort of building your own world, you should populate it with your own gods, too.

Again, though, I’m an advocate for doing as little as possible, allowing the fine details to work themselves out while you play. So let’s take a look at how I built the pantheon for the 9 Towers.

The Broad Strokes

If you’re going to create a pantheon, it’s important to create at least a little bit of mythology surrounding it. It’s very easy to simply present your players with a list of gods and domains to pick from, but at that point you might as well stick to the standard gods presented in the Player’s Handbook. The goal of everything I do when I build a world is to create something new and exciting, something the players haven’t seen before, something that feels deep, coherent, and somehow real (even though I know I’ve left a huge amount of the world intentionally blank).

The first thing to do is think about the themes of your campaign that we talked about in the past couple of articles. Defining your gods and parts of your mythology is a great way to tie those themes into the larger world – and it’s a great way to put that knowledge into the hands of players, peppering your responses to successful History and Religion checks with information from the mythology you’ve built.

In my case, I knew I wanted to run an artifact campaign that dealt with relics of the gods, and I knew that some great cataclysm had befallen at least one part of the world at some point in history (remember the Bonewood?). I also knew that the town of Standing Rock contained a mystery in the form of a huge, monolithic tower.

This got me thinking about the tower. What is it? Where did it come from? Why is it there?

I started wondering if maybe the tower was linked to the gods and the mythology of the world in some way. I started to think about the gods as powerful entities who rose to their status as deities through some great act. I like the idea that the gods were originally mortals – it hints to the players that they might one day be able to rise to that level of power (especially if the end-game of the campaign is going to be dealing with world-shaping artifacts).

This prompted the question – what did they do to attain deification? The obvious answer – and the one that I went with – is that they fought some great evil. Chaos reigned, and these powerful figures banded together to restrain it.

This still doesn’t tell me anything about the tower, though. I decided that each of the gods is said to have had a stronghold that served as their base of operations, and possibly functioned as a conduit for their power in some way. I began to think of the gods as Lords, overseeing the world from their towers – towers which had once existed in the physical world, and which legends say could still be found.

Whether the monolith at Standing Rock is one of these towers or not is unknown – both to the players, and to myself at this point – but I now have a solid reason for the interest in that tower, too. It’s the only thing like it that has ever been located, and so there is great interest in determining whether or not this tower is one of the fabled Lords’ Towers.

Fleshing It Out

With these thoughts in mind, I turned to the rulebooks. This is the point at which you want to think about specific gods. I made a list of all the cleric domains in the game, and began to match them to those that seemed to fit thematically. Initially I wanted to have a pantheon of 7 gods, but it didn’t feel right. 7 is a number that shows up everywhere, from the Rod of Seven Parts to the 7 Dragon Balls and Voldemort’s 7 Horcruxes. Sets of 7 show up everywhere, and while that means it feels right and familiar to players, I wanted to do something different.

In thinking about this, I had begun to refer to my campaign as “The Lords of the Seven Towers”, and while that didn’t quite feel right, “The Lords of the Nine Towers” did. I can’t explain that, other than to say that it’s an aesthetic decision that felt right to me. Remember, this is your creation: sometimes, “it felt right to me” is the only explanation you need.

Having decided on 9 gods, I began to refine my groupings of domains into 9 sets and began to think about the 9 gods themselves. I’ve never been a huge fan of worlds where the presence of the gods is felt strongly and lots is known about them; I prefer a bit of mystery, and I like the idea of separate factions of different religions who interpret things differently. It feels much more real to me than a world in which you can state facts about the gods with absolute certainty.

This train of thought led me to a fairly easy decision. The gods don’t have personal names. They function more as archetypes or concepts, referred to in more abstract terms e.g. The Healer, The Judge, and the like. This is what I came up with:

  • The Healer (LG) – Life, Light, Knowledge
    The Healer watches over the sick and feeble, and provides knowledge to those who seek it. Myths tell how the Healer fought with the Raven Queen over who should choose when people die, but scholars argue that both gods also oversee the Life domain, and that their purposes are not at odds with one another. The Healer and the Raven Queen are seen by many as being two facets of the same god, and as such the Healer is often (though not exclusively) depicted as being male.
  • The Raven Queen (LN) – Life, Death*
    Not so much worshipped as appeased. It is known that death is the price of life, and believed that the Raven Queen rewards those who have lived full lives. Plenty of stories tell of the Queen punishing those who have lived sinful lives by choosing to bring them to death early, but scholars point out that if this were the case there would be very little evil in the world. It is generally believed that the Raven Queen simply observes, escorting people into death when their time comes but rarely intervening to either cut life short or extend it. The Raven Queen is exclusively depicted as being female.
  • The Seeker of Secrets (N) – Knowledge
    Said to be the entity who guards the secret of the nature of the Great Chaos’ imprisonment, the Seeker knows all. Some call the Seeker The Keeper of Secrets, and claim that the Seeker is also a god of Trickery. There is something of a schism in the church, some of whom argue that the Seeker and the Keeper are two entities at odds with one another and others who dismiss the existence of the Keeper entirely. Those who believe in both the Seeker and the Keeper are very much in the minority, if for no other reason than that would create a tenth Lord and thus render the myths of the empty Ninth Tower false.
  • The Gambler (CN) – Trickery
    Said to have decided which side to take in the Creation Wars by a roll of the dice, some regard the Gambler as evil. Others say it is the Keeper of Secrets, the opposite number to the Seeker. These people are more common than those who argue for a tenth Lord, but they are still a rarity. Whatever their beliefs, faithful folk still give a small prayer to the Gambler when things go their way, and a curse when they do not.
  • The Giant (CN) – War, Death
    Some are wary of the Giant, whose followers share stories of its great conquests and its thirst for violence. Though some believe the Giant to be evil, it is difficult to make that argument when the myths tell how the Giant’s forces led the charge against the Great Chaos, and that it was the Giant’s axe that struck the decisive blow in the battle. In many places the Giant is depicted as being an enormous orc, though human cultures tend to show it as a massive human.
  • The Phoenix (LN) – Life, Knowledge, Light
    The only Lord not represented as a humanoid of some kind. The Phoenix burns away lies and deceit to reveal the truth beneath, and burns out when it has cast its judgement. It is born again from the ashes, free of the knowledge of the judgement it has given and of anything that could bias future judgements. The judged are born again into a world where their sin has been burned away and they have received what they are due.
  • The Storm Lord (CN) – Nature, Tempest
    Scholars and initiates alike argue over whether the Storm Lord is an actual being or simply a throwback to a time when nature’s violent aspects were not understood and thus feared. Others argue that the dichotomy of brutal violence and beautiful serenity found in nature is a reflection of the Storm Lord’s tempestuous nature. The Storm Lord is often seen as the other face of the Lord of Thorns.
  • The Lord of Thorns (N) – Nature
    The Lord of Thorns rules over the natural world and its followers tend to be Rangers and Druids who see the Lord not as a person but instead deify nature itself. The Lord of Thorns is often represented as a giant four-horned stag, or a sinuous green drake. Some believe the Lord of Thorns is the peaceful aspect of the raging Storm Lord.
  • The Jester (CN) – Trickery
    Said to have been cast out from the towers for sowing discord and causing strife between the other Lords purely for its own entertainment. The Jester is seen by many as not being a full deity. It attracts the worship of rogues and criminals, and chapels are often found in the seedier parts of towns and cities. Large temples rarely, but sometimes, contain a shrine to the Jester. The Jester has a capricious nature, and myths abound with stories of believers who struck a deal with the Jester only to be betrayed.

Now I have my gods. I deliberately thought about the way the gods are said to have interacted with each other in myths and legends, because this will directly inform the way their followers interact with one another. Religious tension is a great source of conflict for your world.

This is now enough information to present to a player who would like to play a character of a religious bent. Note that I still don’t know who actually created the world – in my mythology the gods were mortals to begin with, so something came before them – but that’s fine. The only thing left to do is to introduce the enemy that brought these gods together – in my case, that’s The Great Chaos. It’s a big, ominous name that doesn’t really tell you anything specific – which is exactly what I like. All of this is in service of letting the game – and the world it’s set in – develop naturally around the table.

I also now know enough about my world to determine that Standing Rock probably holds quite a few temples, as worshippers of the different gods flocked to the monolith to try and determine if it had any connection to their deity. At this point, it’s time to build an introductory adventure for your players and get to the table!

In the next part of this series we’ll be moving away from Standing Rock and the Bonewood. My players spent a lot of time adventuring there, but there was very little worldbuilding done during those adventures. Unfortunately that game fell apart, and I had to gather a new party – which meant building another part of the world. But more about that next time!

*Having never played 4th Edition and only giving a cursory glance to the pantheons in 5th Edition, I hadn’t realised there was a deity in the game already who was called The Raven Queen. Imagine my surprise when she showed up in Critical Role! I have since changed this god’s name for my new campaign, but as this series is a guide to the process I went through while creating my setting, I thought it best to show the pantheon as it began. This is all part and parcel of creating something – sometimes you find that others have tread the same ground as you before, and you have to go back and change things to make it your own again.

Building A Campaign World – Part 2

In the last post I talked about some of the broad strokes of my campaign setting, putting together the basics of a starting area for the party and starting to think about the themes and direction of the campaign as a whole.

This time I want to get into something a little more specific. Today we’ll be looking at some of the characters my players created, and talking about how I took the information they gave me and worked it into the campaign world.

I’ve talked about the characters from my first 5th Edition campaign in the past, but one I haven’t mentioned much is Jaciv Scara, a dragonborn druid. During character creation, Jaciv’s player told me a few things that I made notes of to use in worldbuilding:

  • The dragonborn society she comes from is very attuned to nature. Druids are incredibly common.
  • Something has despoiled the dragonborn homeland, and younger druids – such as Jaciv – are sent out into the wider world to seek out a place to settle and tend, as they have tended their current lands for generations.
  • These dragonborn lands are a long, long way from the place where the adventures are going to happen.
  • Dragonborn (or at least the dragonborn Jaciv comes from) hate orcs.

These were all things Jaciv’s player told me off the top of her head as I asked questions about her character, and they are all things that found their way into the world. At this stage in the game, though, I simply noted these down for future reference, picking the piece of information that seemed the most immediately relevant to use in my early development of the setting.

I was interested by the idea that Jaciv was on a quest to find new lands for her people. I’d been struggling to think of other ways to inject the themes of the campaign into the starting area, but it seemed to me that Jaciv had handed me a gift. As well as the monolith in Standing Rock, I could make use of the idea of a huge scar of some kind on the land. What if the land near Standing Rock was filled with a sprawling petrified forest, completely devoid of any sign of life but practically throbbing with magical energy? That seems like the kind of place a precocious, arrogant dragonborn might pick to try and restore to life (Jaciv’s player had told me that while Jaciv is fairly intelligent and well-intentioned, she also thinks far too highly of herself and her own abilities. Why would she simply find somewhere beautiful for her people when she could build something herself?)

With these thoughts in my head, the Bonewood sprung up to the west of Standing Rock. Now I have a starting area rich with mystery – and history – with a site that’s purpose-built to attract curious, foolhardy adventurers right on its doorstep.

The other benefit of this was that I knew Jaciv’s player wasn’t going to be able to make it to the first game session. It’s often difficult to introduce new characters, but here I had a ready made solution. I could start the group outside Standing Rock – not using the standard “you all meet in a tavern” opening but instead going with the just-as-standard “you have been hired on as guards for a merchant caravan” opening and, through a serious of unfortunate events, funnel them first to Standing Rock and then on to the Bonewood, where they would meet a lone dragonborn attempting to bring life back to the land and facing some horrible consequences that she couldn’t solve alone.

As we’re thinking about the characters going to Standing Rock, let’s us go back there for a moment as well. Remember that gnomish merchant, Barnum Rekel? When we left him we knew very little about him, but while Jaciv’s player was filling me in on the role of the dragonborn in my setting, Ash was giving me some information about Manbearpig that proved to be very useful.

You may remember me talking about Captain Manbearpig in my article about character creation. After Ash told me about the pelt he wears – the skin of a real, honest-to-goodness man-bear-pig – I got to thinking about whether this creature actually exists or not. If it did, I wanted to acknowledge it in some way that felt natural. After a little brainstorming, my mind came back to Barnum Rekel. Rather than your standard armour/weapons/healing potions vendor, what if Rekel instead specialised in rare and unusual creatures – both in selling their pelts and other bits, and in outfitting people to hunt these strange monsters?

I fleshed out his shop a little, writing notes about racks of furs and pelts, strings of teeth and tusks and tails hanging from the ceiling, about the musty, animal smell in his store. And, importantly, I decided that he knew about the man-bear-pig, a creature that he knows as the Mantiboar. Now he’s gone from a paper-thin, cookie-cutter shopkeeper to a character with some depth and purpose, and a built-in connection to one of the characters that that character – and, of course, the person playing that character – will have no idea about until the group meet this NPC through the natural flow of the game.

Look back over this post and the one that preceded it. Think about how little work I actually did here. And yet I’m already starting to flesh out this area of the campaign world, injecting cool imagery with hints at a deep history of the world (whether that actually exists yet or not), NPCs who react to the characters in interesting ways that don’t feel forced, and all while wrapping it up in the stories of the characters that the players developed.

In order to stop this post going really long I’ve had to cut it in half. In the next part I’ll talk about the role of mythology and the gods in your setting, and whether you actually need to bother spending time developing them. We’ll also take a quick look at another character’s background, and how combining it with the information I had about Jaciv spawned a part of the setting that even I didn’t know was going to exist until it appeared in my head.

Building A Campaign World – Part 1

Building a campaign world can be a daunting task. One glance at an official setting of any sort – be it the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Greyhawk, or whatever – can almost be enough to put you off entirely. These worlds are huge and detailed, with characters and politics and history that you could spend a lifetime reading and writing about. How can something you create yourself possibly compete?

The answer is a simple one: you don’t need to compete.

Your players come to your table every week (or every month, or however often you play) to have fun telling stories about their characters. While it’s awesome to know what Baron von Crazypants is doing over in the Duchy of Dingleberries, it’s not actually necessary. True, some of your players – and, probably, you yourself – might really enjoy that level of detail, at the beginning of a game it simply isn’t necessary. The only things that matter are the things affected the players’ characters right now, or the things that might affect them in the near future. As a rule, that’s all your players care about – and for the most part, I think it’s the only thing you should care about.

There are plenty of books and articles out there that will tell you the broad strokes of world-building – things like the difference between bottom-up and top-down worldbuilding, how to design political systems and factions, guidelines to writing sweeping histories of your world. I’ll link to a few good resources at the end of this post, but I should say off the bat that this isn’t going to be another series like them (and it is going to be a series, because there’s no way I can cover all this stuff in one post). Instead, I want to take you through the process that I went through while building my campaign world – the process that I go through while building all of my worlds.

Starting Big and Small

The Big

Ideas about top-down and bottom-up world building are great, but personally I find that they just don’t work for me. Instead, what I prefer to do is a combination of the two approaches, driven and informed by the kind of story I want to tell* and the kind of characters who are going to be in it.

The first thing I do when designing a new campaign world is the think about the larger themes of the campaign itself. Even if my desired end-game is months away, I want the themes and images that I’m hoping to evoke for my players to be visible in the world from session one.

For The Nine Towers campaign**, I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be about gods in some way. Ever since I read TSR’s incredible Rod of Seven Parts campaign box set – which I never had a chance to play – I’ve wanted to run an artifact campaign. Now, obviously artifacts are not to be handed out willy-nilly to first level characters – they’re world-shaping, epoch-defining magical items. I wasn’t planning to drop a load of artifacts into my world and send the players on a fetch quest for 20 levels. In fact, I wasn’t even planning to include or mention the existence of the artifacts – whatever they turn out to be – until much later in the campaign.

So why is this relevant? Well, as I said, artifacts are world-shaping. Even if they haven’t appeared in the world for centuries, some remnant of their last emergence should exist in the world. So, my first step in building this world is simple. Artifacts exist in this world and, at some point in the distant past, shaped the physical landscape in some way. This feeds directly in to…

The Small

I know that some great magic has shaped the world in some way, and I know that I want to signpost this from the very beginning – even if the players don’t know that’s what’s happening. The obvious choice is to include evidence of these artifacts in the first place the players will visit.

When you read about bottom-up world-building, you’ll generally be advised to start with only the town the players begin their adventuring careers in. That’s what I do next – but it’s much easier than it could be now that I’m armed with the knowledge of the themes and ideas I want the campaign to explore.

I want the starting settlement to exhibit some evidence of the last time the artifacts were here. So I start brainstorming. Maybe magic behaves strangely here? Maybe people have visions of long-dead residents? Maybe once a year an epic wizard battle rages across the sky, a silent and harmless flashback from a distant age? Or perhaps the ground is scarred in some way, blasted and torn by something nobody remembers?

I think I filled three A4 pages with ideas. Then I went through and started knocking them out, either because they weren’t cool enough or because they introduced too many complications. Here’s a little example of my thought process here.

  • Magic behaves strangely here.

In theory I like this idea. Wild Magic tables are an old favourite of mine from 2nd Edition, when Spell Failure was a thing and low-level adventurers were made out of glass and hope. My concern was that my players were all new to the game, and the first few sessions were going to involve teaching them the rules. It didn’t seem fair to them to introduce the complications of Wild Magic and Spell Failure at a level where they have so few resources and don’t fully understand how to play the game. For that reason, this is out.

  • People have visions of long-dead residents

In all honesty, I wrote this down and immediately didn’t like it. It’s a nice idea for a one-shot game or even a small campaign arc, but as a signpost of things to come I don’t think it works. Players will see this and immediately latch on to it as a mystery to be solved – at which point there either needs to be a mystery to be solved, and once it’s solved it’s gone; or you need to tell the players that there’s no mystery here, at which point they feel silly for having latched on to the “wrong” thing. It’s a great plot hook, but it’s not doing what I want it to do. It’s too obvious.

  • An epic wizard battle rages across the sky once a year, and the players are there to witness it

Another one that, frankly, I just don’t like. It suffers from a similar problem to the dragon attack at the beginning of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, in that the players aren’t going to want to go towards the giant magic fight in the sky that’s obviously way beyond their abilities to compete with, and when they do go to it (probably because you forced them to in some way) they’re going to be disappointed to find that they can’t interact with it in any meaningful way. I like the image and the idea – it certainly worked for Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time series – but I’d prefer to save it for later in the campaign. I store this one away in my notes, and forget about it for now.

  • The ground is physically scarred in some way

Although it’s a little bit trite, I actually like this. While it’s still a mystery that the players might want to investigate, it’s not an event in the same way as wild magic or a magical sky battle. It’s something that can simply exist, something that NPCs can explain away as simply a feature of the landscape or a curiosity.

In fact, the more that I think about it in those terms – a curiosity – the more I like it, even though I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve never questioned whether tourism exists in a fantasy world – but why wouldn’t it?

At this point I start thinking about cool things that would attract people from all over to come and see for themselves. I make another list – which I won’t dissect here, for the sake of brevity – and eventually I settle on a tall, bone-white monolith or tower that rises out of the ground towards the skies. Its origin and purpose are a mystery, and people come from miles around either to study it or simply to see it.

I decide that it has been there longer than anybody can remember, and that researchers have begun excavating the ground around the tower to try and find an entrance of some kind or an indication of its purpose. That’s all I need to know, because that’s all anybody knows. Later in the campaign I can tie this in to the artifacts in some way, and it will seem like I had everything planned months or years in advance. Yet all I did was stick a tower in the ground and shrug my shoulders when people asked me what it was.

Building the settlement itself is easy at this point. As more people came to investigate this strange monolith, traders and the like came to the site to supply the researchers. Over a few decades a bustling market town arose, centered around this giant tower. Alongside the mercantile aspects of the town, there is also a great interest in scholarly pursuits, and in magical research. Temples sprung up around the tower as various faiths tried to claim it as a relic of their own god. At some point there were far too many people scrabbling around the tower, fighting with each other for space to dig and trying to sabotage each others’ research – so it follows that there’s a Guild of Researchers, or some such thing, in the town. The whole economy of this place revolves around an interest in magic and the unexplained, so there are also plenty of merchants here dealing in trinkets and minor magical items – nothing powerful or game-changing, but just enough to get a flavour of the place.

At this point I sketch out the bare bones of an NPC or two. I put a gnomish merchant called Barnum Rekel in the town. Being that he’s a gnome, he’s been here for a very long time. I decide that he’s an old travelling merchant, something of a snake oil salesman, who saw an opportunity in this place and began to sell his useless baubles and potions dressed up as mystical artifacts of the tower. At some point he transitioned into the role of a more traditional merchant – he wouldn’t last long conning people – but he still has a sharp sense of profit vs. Loss and isn’t averse to massively overpricing relatively inane items if he can get away with it.

Putting it Together

Now I have a settlement – I decide to call it Standing Rock, because that’s what the tower was known as before the excavations start – and an NPC. I still don’t have an adventure for the players, but I have an interesting location that signposts some of the things that will happen later in the campaign and an NPC who can provide information and, maybe, quests. My next step is to have the players build their characters. Once I know who is going to be adventuring in this world, I can move on to the next step.

Check back on Friday for part two of this series, when I’ll introduce you to some of the characters my players created and show you how their backgrounds helped to develop the world and kick-start the adventure.

*Note that I said the kind of story I want to tell, not the specific story I want to tell. Going in to a new campaign with a set plan of what you want to happen is, in my eyes, a recipe for disaster. I’ll talk more about that in a future post.
**To clarify – because I know some of my players read this site! – I’m not talking about my current campaign here, but the last one I ran. They both take place in the same world.