World-building. It’s a term that you’ll hear in a variety of contexts including literature, cinema, television series, video games, and our usual focus, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of Dungeon Masters became Dungeon Masters because of the creative control they have over their own world, and a lot of players come to Dungeons and Dragons to relax into an immersive experience that combines the intricacies of careful craftsmanship and the thrill of spontaneous play. It’s a space that not only allows us to momentarily escape the troubles of our real lives, but also empowers us to confront those same troubles in a practiced and graceful way. That being said, if mishandled, worldbuilding can also be confusing, exclusionary, and at its worst prohibitive to a player’s enjoyment of a D&D experience.
Now I will be the last person to downplay the value of worldbuilding when crafting an immersive experience, but the prep work alone doesn’t contribute to immersion. Immersion is all about the delivery of intricate information you as the Dungeon Master have spent time carefully crafting, and when mishandled this can have a variety of less than ideal outcomes. Reserve too much information and it's easier for the players to resist immersing themselves in your vision. Ramble too much where the players don’t have the chance to make choices and interact, and they get bored. So what’s the solution?
In my experience, it all comes down to frequent and honest communication. Some players will be more interested in the world than others. Some players will have extremely detailed backgrounds while others are fine creating characters they learn about as they go. So let’s create a space where everyone wins, including you, the world-builder.
Let Your Players Create Too
Now I will admit, my world building is nothing exceptional. I have little interest and skill in crafting highly specific settings with complex layers of intrigue and novel ideas that keep my players guessing. Most of my interesting world-building concepts are rearranged ideas from other sources (but then again, isn’t all art?). So this is a little tip that has gone a long way for me.
My players often create locations, home towns, and points of interest in their back stories that become focal points for a campaign. For example, in my latest game, I had a player create a town next to a forest of fairies. Boom. In the game. This is probably the most direct way that a player can be included in the world-building process, and it doesn’t mean you have to forgo your boundaries for creating your world. If that player mentions something about the world’s overall economy, or another major component you’ve thought through, ask what they’re really trying to convey, and then ask if you can edit or include additional details that further integrates their setting more closely with the overall world you’re creating. You’re creating something together, just like the story you’ll spontaneously tell later on at the table.
Organizing A Reference Document
Now, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many sudden shifts for many different people. In terms of D&D, this led to a shift of at-the-table play to online play, which led to my greatest discovery: Google Drive. And this in turn led to the greatest world-building tool I’ve ever had: the Google Doc. What this tool allows for is you, the Dungeon Master, to detail a world’s common knowledge to your heart’s content, as well as include homebrew rules and systems, with your players’ understanding that you can edit and expand on information you present.
With the shift from tabletop to online gaming, one of the biggest discoveries I’ve had about myself and my gaming preferences is how much I love storytelling in gaming, and how my focus on mechanical understanding was to deliver the story I wanted to tell on my terms, without the DM telling me my idea didn’t fit what the book said. So when I sit down to DM games in my latest world, I view my players as storytelling contributors that write for their own characters, and I want them to have every tool imaginable.
So, I started with a Setting Reference Document (not to be confused with 5e’s SRD, which is a whole different can of worms). The Setting Reference Doc includes a gazetteer (in the fashion of Eberron: Rising from the Last War or Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount) with brief descriptions of the major regions that any character would reasonably know about. For an analogue to our real world, you don’t need a Harvard education to know that England has a Queen and Japan had warriors in its history named samurai. By elaborating on a few key iconic details from each region of the world, it gives each player a sense of what the overall world is like, as well as decide where their character hails from.
Once they make that decision, it’s time for a one-on-one conversation with each player. While every player knows the information in the living document about each region, I give each individual player more specific information about their home region, that they are free to share with other players (or not). This is how you create complex systems of character information without making it feel as if the DM is gating information from everyone. Each player has a little more information in one area than the others, and it allows them to express unique perspectives on different situations as the party dynamics mature and develop.
The key concept here is conversation. It’s not about hiding things from your players. It's about giving them the proper tools to allow themselves to immerse themselves into your world and ask better questions to drive the story. This happens by communicating what you want, and listening to how they communicate what they want. And it's not going to be perfect each time, but the more you respect the angle they’re taking with their character, and rewarding that with exclusive details about your world, the more trust they’ll have in you to take them through an immersive and rich experience.
Nuts and Bolts Tip: If you’re planning on using a Google Doc to communicate your world-building, expectations, or other homebrew systems, make sure you’re the only one who can edit it and the players you invite to view it are commenters. You don’t want one of your players to accidentally delete all of your hard work.
Now, I’ve played in plenty of games where I’ve really thought through the world building process. However, in the heat of the game, not every player is going to pick up on every little detail you describe, and some may not even interpret the same detail the same way. By having your world-building details written down and accessible to your players, your players can clarify details with each other. If they remember a location but don’t remember its name, they can look it up. If they hear the name of something, and they know if they’ve heard it before, they can look it up. And if your players discover secrets about the world they’re characters may not have known before, you as the DM can always update the document to contain the most detailed information all players would reasonably have access to.
There’s a certain beauty in being able to say “look it up in the doc” or “you can find it in the doc”. And just to clarify, this isn’t intended as a punishment, or a “gotcha!” It just empowers your players to create compelling characters using details you’ve provided them so that they can respect the work you’ve put in while creating unique characters that allow them to express themselves. Everyone wins.
As a DM, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve seen a DM forget details, and then try to scramble to pretend that they didn’t. And this situation only gets messier if none of it is written down. It gets even messier if a player wrote it down, and the DM tries to cover their butt by saying they misinterpreted or wrote it down wrong, creating tension with that player.
If anything, not only does a living document organize your thoughts and creations into a useful tool, it also keeps everyone at the table accountable. If a player tries to say they didn’t understand something you’ve made abundantly clear, other players are empowered to help you adjudicate. If you’ve made a mistake, other players have something you’ve written to keep you on track. I’ve found ever since implementing a living document detailing my world, my players have felt that I’ve been more accountable in delivering a quality experience, which has actually led to more trust in my judgment. Fear of accountability is a symptom of doubt in ability. The DM that fears accountability or being called out for a misruling they’ve laid the precedent for is one that tends to be more interested in maintaining an unbalanced power dynamic than one that’s interested in crafting the most quality experience for everyone, including themselves.
And ultimately, this is our goal. When your players are included in your thought process, imagination, and creativity, they become more interested in the little things that make your world yours. And that leads to their investment and ultimately their immersion. It’s okay to hold onto some secrets about your world for your players to discover. In fact, it’s encouraged. However, it's a whole other thing to get them to care about the secrets your world holds that they can discover. And the best way I’ve found to get players to care about your world is to make them a part of it, from its design to its play at the table.
When you present your document, I recommend running it as part of a session zero. Explain your expectations, variant game mechanics and why they’re more appropriate to the style of game you’re going for, then dive into the nitty gritty. Where are the players going to go? What races can they play, and do they conform or differ from the traditions set by the PHB? What are the problems in each region, and how could they fit into a character’s story?
A great tool to ignite a player’s imagination while character building is the ten question exercise I posed in the previous Study Hall post. If you can ground the players in the world, while also having a consistent resource for information you freely give, and give them exclusive information based on the choices they make at character creation, you present far more investment into your world, and they begin to actually care about it. That’s what increases immersion. And that’s what makes D&D so magical.
Study Hard, Play Hard
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
Honestly, I write what I want when I want. Often monster lore, sometimes miniature showcases, and the occasional movie/show review.