As most DMs eventually do, I’ve started working on a homebrew setting for Dungeons & Dragons. When D&D was first created, the setting you played in wasn’t overly important or specific, as opposed to your dungeon. This is why those who run the game are called Dungeon Masters. You created a dungeon, and ran it for multiple people, adjusting and improving it each time you played. However, as the game continued, it became more than just a dungeon, but an entire world that the DM would create, and use whenever they ran a game. Player Characters that had already played in that setting would then become high-level NPCs that the new PCs could get quests from and interact with. Your setting showed what you think about your world, and fantasy specifically. You take what you like and you put it in your game.
Now, there is already another article on this site, “11 Steps for Building a Homebrew World for D&D” which is actually fairly popular, so if you haven’t read that yet, go check it out. However, that article takes a “Top Down” approach, where you start with some of the biggest aspects of a world, such as the continents, the gods, the history, and you drill down to specific countries, cities within those countries, towns outside of those cities, etc. This works for some people, and is more classically known as “World Building.” However, if that is the only path you think you can take when it comes to building a setting for Dungeons & Dragons, then you might never actually play the game, because you could work on a setting for a lifetime and still not have everything ready. The trick is, you don’t need everything ready to play, you only need to know where the Player Characters are, and what they see and hear there. That’s it. Everything else doesn’t matter until it’s part of the game. So, today, we are going to talk about the alternative approach to World Building, something called “Bottom Up.”
Well, every campaign has to start somewhere, and while “The Tavern” is a common answer, said tavern is usually in a city or town. Some people like to start immediately in cities, but more often than not, players start in towns. These smaller municipalities are easier to understand and interact with, for new players, or for players with new character ideas. There is so much to learn, so quickly, when starting a new campaign, especially one in a new setting, so it’s always easier to give them a small amount of locations and NPCs to start with.
Now, I love the D&D content that Matt Colville creates. Many people are familiar with Matt Mercer and his show Critical Role, but (to use a sports metaphor) Matt Mercer is the quarterback, Matt Colville is the coach. We see Matt Mercer week after week playing in a game, but he doesn’t talk much about his style. Alternatively, Matt Colville has a small, not-very-popular D&D stream, but he has a very popular series called “Running the Game” where he teaches you to be a better Dungeon Master.
Many of my opinions about D&D are, at least inspired, from Matt Colville.
(Hint: If you hit the “Watch later” button in the top right of each video, then you don’t have to watch them all right now.)
Also, there is another YouTube D&D channel by Dael Kingsmill, and she has an excellent trick to make sure that you have the basics of any town established, which she calls the SPERM model. Every town should have a location, and corresponding NPC, to represent the town’s Social, Political, Economic, Religious, and Military aspects.
- Social – Tavern and Innkeeper
- Political – City Council and Council members
- Economic – Popular Shop and Shopkeeper
- Religious – Temple and Priest
- Military – Town Guards and Captain
Dael is similar to me in that neither of us have been running D&D for decades, like the Matts Mercer or Colville, but we think about it a lot and are very opinionated.
I have an inconsistent view about the AngryGM. If you haven’t read anything from him, I would recommend it. He has long, very helpful ideas about D&D (and other TtRPGs), but he delivers them in rants, full of swearing, insults, and no visual aids. It’s hard to read sometimes, but if you can get through it, he has some great ideas. One that really helped me recently, is his basic pantheon. Essentially, you come up with two opposing ideas, then, two separate opposing ideas, but you connect one from the first set to one from the second set. Then two more, connecting the second and third set, and continue that until you have five combinations. This gives you five gods, each with two core beliefs, that may or may not be obviously related, and each with two antagonistic gods, and potential allies. This forms a small, yet complex web of relationships between the gods and their respective followers.
I won’t show you the whole thing, because you should just go check it out for yourself.
My New World
Between these two styles of creating your starting town, you are ready to play D&D tomorrow. As the game continues, you will come up with aspects as necessary. Now, personally I use both styles of World Building, as I am creating my new world.
I started with some Top-Down style, as I wanted to know what was unique about my world on a fundamental level. First, I like the idea that everyone in the world is magical, and that when you pledge yourself to someone else, they become more powerful. This stems from the idea that a god is only as powerful as the strength of their followers. The more people believe in you and serve you, the stronger you become. Based on this, I created a basic pantheon, using the Angry GM style, but brought it up to 7.
However, I’m not good at creating the size and shapes of continents, that’s just not where my strengths lie. So instead, I decided to drop down to a single starting village. In my setting, humans are not creative, so bear with me.
What makes this town unique? It surrounds a historical bridge that crosses a large river. The bridge is white, so the town is called Whitebridge. While the river is popular for trade, and the road to town leads directly to the capital, the town itself is not actually a popular trade center. Instead, it’s a place where a lot of people pass through, and transfer their goods from water to land, and vice versa.
What is nearby? Well, if there’s a river, then the top of the river is probably mountains, and the bottom is probably a sea. However, if this is a stop along the river, then it’s probably more than a day’s journey from each. So there’s really not much around at all, but it’s very simple to get to more exciting places, and the people passing through are from those places. Fun bit of flavor, the mountains are full of Iron ore, and iron turns water a reddish-brown, so the river is called the Red River.
What are the SPERM centers?
- Social – An inn, that’s only a stone’s throw from the bridge, so it’s called the Stone’s Throw Inn.
- Political – The area is ruled by a Duke, who doesn’t live in the town, so the local issues are solved by a Mayor, but one that is appointed, not elected.
- Economic – Again, the town is important for trade, but does not engage in much trade, so instead the economic sector of the town revolves around hospitality of travelling merchants.
- Religious – There are two temples in town, one for the god of agriculture, for the locals, and one for the god of trade, for the traveling merchants.
- Military – There is a small guard force, about a dozen members, who generally focus on protecting the locals from potentially arrogant/destructive travelers.
Again, each of these centers has a leading NPC.
With that, I now have a town that is adequate to start a group of Level 1 adventurers, and an easy source for plot hooks to arrive in town, through rumors or merchants that are hiring. I don’t know much about what is outside of this quaint village, but I know that I’ll have time to figure it out, depending on what my players are interested in exploring.
This is a pretty good article about building the starting town. Great job!
My first town was built to support my players who were raiding my second dungeon. My second dungeon was much bigger than my first, so the characters needed a place to offload loot and get supplies. Dire dungeon needed the support of… well… the town of Dire. It was about 3 day’s horse ride to a much bigger city, but Dire was only about a mile from the entrance to Dire Dungeon.
I used the D&D Expert Rulebook to help build Dire. I started with minimal detail and structure and then improvised as the players’ characters needed or wanted something else from the town. It would have been nice to have something like your post, though, as a guideline. I stumbled around in the dark using what little information there was in the rulebook.
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Thank you so much! Improvising is definitely a helpful tool in any DMs toolbox, but I think having a solid baseline helps a lot.
The thing that I have no DM skill is in building dungeons. I’ve obviously run through many over the years, but I can’t understand the logic of a dungeon design, either narratively or mechanically.
Thanks for reading!
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