Building the Sandbox: Creating the World for Your Players

The first thing that always comes to mind when I think of worldbuilding is the Looney Tunes episode, “Duck Amuck.” The animator (a visible “character” in this episode) changes the background rapidly, indecisive with where the episode should take place. With the world around him constantly changing, Daffy doesn’t know what to be. A noble musketeer? A humble farmer? A jolly skier?

“Who’s in charge here?” Daffy Duck complains. “The scenery! Where’s the scenery?” 

Daffy is more than willing to do his job and get into character–as long as he knows where he is! Otherwise, he jumps from persona to persona, unable to get a handle on the point of the scene.

Your Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) players are the same as Daffy Duck. As excited as they are to get into character and play the game, they can’t do that to the fullest without knowing what the world looks like around them. Although each player might have their own individual backstories in their mind, all of those factors lead up to where they are now, in the world you have created. As the Dungeon Master (DM), you’re playing God in this universe. Even if a character has come from another city, another country, or another continent (if those exist in your realm), you’re the one that’s at the start of it all. The players can only begin to shape their characters around what you have begun.

Just like their characters, your Non-Playable Characters (NPCs) need a place to live, too! Creating relatable and captivating NPCs (which will appear in an upcoming post!) is heavily reliant on how they interact with the world around them. The more developed your world is, the more interesting your characters will be, because it gives them more choices to make.

Some things to think about when creating your world:

  • It doesn’t have to be realistic

Remember that this is a fantasy game! You are the master of this universe. Literally anything goes. Want to put a desert five blocks from an ice cap? Do it. Using your creativity to come up with reasons for the existence of these things is what will put your world apart from the rest. Don’t put yourself (or your players) in too small of a box; it could be preventing you all from creating something magical.

  • It doesn’t have to be gigantic

For new DMs and writers alike, creating a world can seem daunting– and that’s okay! Middle-earth wasn’t built in a day! It’s better to have something small that is colorful and developed, than something large without any substance or flavor (is this metaphor getting too baked-based? I’ve been binging the Great British Baking Show during quarantine). Start with a “one-off” or small campaign, or borrow a module (pre-made campaign) from the creators of D&D themselves. If you start with a template, you can get practice building a world up from a skeleton to something fully-fleshed out. Before you know it, you’ll be a worldbuilding wizard!

  • It doesn’t have to be set in stone

Like in any story, characters often get more developed with each passing session. Don’t be afraid collaborate with the players and let them “ret-con” things as new information is discovered. If you talk it over and they think that an alteration is in order, go ahead! Your group is storytelling live, and this is only the first draft–let them write it in pencil. If you hold them accountable for everything they said on the first day, they’ll be afraid to make bold moves, stifling everyone’s creativity and good time.

I implore you: give the kids a sandbox to play in. Otherwise, they’ll just pick a spot wherever they want, and it might not be consistent from player to player.

Until next time. Let the good dice roll!