As some of you know, I’m currently worldbuilding my own Dungeons & Dragons setting, that I’m building simultaneously Top Down (meta concepts and ideas) and Bottom Up (starting town and local area). Basically whenever I get an idea of inspiration, I find out how it fits into my new world.
Well, I’ve realized that there are a lot of assumptions that the very game system of D&D makes about your lore, and these are things you have to decide actively. Is your setting going to go along with these assumptions, or are these untrue, which could have ripple effects across mechanics and other assumptions.
Gods Oversee the Worlds
The first assumption, is that there are multiple gods, or deities, in your world, which each have their own portfolio of aspects of the world that they control. The idea starts with a very GrecoRoman pantheon, but it can be much more diverse.
At the very minimum, it’s assumed that there are gods that specifically, but not necessarily exclusively, control each of the Cleric Domains:
- God of “Arcana” or Magic (Sword Coasts Adventurers Guide)
- God of Death (Dungeon Masters Guide)
- God of the Forge (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
- God of the Grave (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
- God of Knowledge (Player’s Handbook)
- God of Life (Player’s Handbook)
- God of Light (Player’s Handbook)
- God of Nature (Player’s Handbook)
- God of Order (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
- God of Peace (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
- God of “Tempest” or Storm (Player’s Handbook)
- God of Trickery (Player’s Handbook)
- God of Twilight (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
- God of War (Player’s Handbook)
Speaking of gods, there are three legendary figures that are built into the magic items section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Orcus, Demon Prince of Undeath, has his Wand of Orcus. This comes with it the idea of necromancy, which is usually fairly standard, and Demon Princes, as well as the Abyss. So now do you just remove the Wand entirely, or do you keep it, but give it to someone else? Is Orcus a powerful figure, but not a Demon Prince? Is he a Demon Prince, but not from the Abyss? Is all of it canon in your setting? So many questions!
Then, there is the Hand and Eye of Vecna. Vecna is a Lich that became so powerful he became a Lesser Deity. Vecna is also originally the author of the Book of Vile Darkness, might have been taught by Orcus, is a sworn enemy of the Raven Queen in 4e, and invaded Sigil, the city in the center of the Multiverse, ruled by the Lady of Pain. This has so many strings attached to it, and each one leads to a series of questions.
Lastly, and still related, is the Sword of Kas. Kas was Vecna’s lieutenant who, as happens with villains, betrayed him, and used his sword which VECNA GAVE HIM AS A GIFT to cut off his hand, gouge out his eye, and kill him. Kas doesn’t have much lore outside of his relationship to Vecna, but it is still listed in the DMG, so it seems logical to have them together in a double-or-nothing situation.
Much of the World is Untamed
Did you know that 25% of US soil is unprotected forest and timberland (Bloomberg)? Of the roughly 1.9 billion acres of land in 48 contiguous states, about 1.7 billion consist of:
- State Parks
- National Parks
- Wilderness Areas
- Rural Highways
These are the areas of land that your adventuring party is traveling through, as they go from adventure to adventure. We don’t really think about this, because 80% of Americans live in the 3.6% most Urban areas of the US. When we travel between Urban areas, it’s either by road, which has villages and towns along the highway, or we fly, because there’s just so much space. Walking from Los Angeles to New York City, the two biggest US cities, takes about 913 hours (according to Google Maps), or 114 8-hour days, or almost 4 months.
Some settings are emphasized as “Points-of-Light” settings, which means that the cities, towns, and villages are few and far between, with dark and scary wilderness in between, and usually take multiple days to travel from one to the other. Others that don’t consider themselves as such, generally don’t actually have more full maps, but just don’t focus on the travelling aspects of the game, like Eberron, which has a Lightning Rail, which is basically just a train that crosses the continent and hits most major cities, skipping the whole camping aspect of travel.
Speaking of, there are also basic monster assumptions that you’ll find in the wilderness. Some creatures naturally create settlements, while others will try to find safety in numbers and natural environments, and steal/kill innocent passersby. The biggest assumption, is that if something is from the Underdark, it is Evil with a Capital E. Might makes right, slavery and torture, eating babies, everything. This comes with it the assumption that there is an Underdark to begin with, a network of caves and caverns that span most of the continent, with entire nations and ecological systems as well.
The World is Ancient
As many people know, the average D&D setting is often referred to as “Medieval European Fantasy,” primarily due to the swords, kings, and Arthurian fantasy, but one aspect of Medieval Europe, or the Dark Ages, is that everything cool that happened, happened a long time ago. The Dark Ages were a time of stagnation, both culturally and technologically. When people thought of exciting times in history, it was by and large the Roman Empire, which was now reduced to ruin and history. This is why in D&D, the most common way to adventure is to go explore a ruined castle, now a dungeon, and hope to find some ancient magical artifacts that you could not hope to recreate yourself, and take them to go to scarier ruins.
Many people use Tolkien lore as inspiration in their settings, understandably so. In Tolkien lore, the story of Frodo and the One Ring, the war against Sauron, was really just an elaborate replay of the previous war of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. Bilbo acquires the ring almost 3000 years after Isildur cut the Ring off of Sauron and kept it for himself. But even that fight, if you notice, was called the Last Alliance, because it was just a replay of the previous war of the Valar against Melkor, whom Sauron was just a lieutenant of.
So the cultures of the Elves and Dwarves are ancient and long lasting, whereas the cultures of Humans feel much more recent and contemporary. This continues into assumptions about the races in Lord of the Rings, like how Elves have elaborate cities in forests, Dwarves have elaborate strongholds under the mountains, halflings (hobbits) have small simple villages, and humans live in open fields for farming. I should mention that it’s assumed that Gnomes are tinkerers, which comes from Spelljammer.
Conflict Shapes the Worlds History
This means two things. One, the idea of war as major markers in history is common, as some believe that War is the natural state of nations. Cultures being born or dying out, tends to come during war time. One popular story we see this in is Star Wars. The Republic ruled the galaxy for almost 1000 years, and it looked like it did at the beginning of The Phantom Menace. Suddenly, the Clone Wars comes, and the Republic dies, the Empire is born, the Jedi Order has fallen, and a Sith Lord rules the galaxy. Conflict has shaped the galactic history.
The other part to this, is that Conflict is found everywhere in a classic D&D setting, which leads to the possibility of adventures and drama. Some assumed rivalries that you can consider include:
- Elves Hate Drow (part of the “Everything from the Underdark is Evil”)
- Dwarves Hate Duergar (more Underdark)
- Dragons Hate Giants
- In Forgotten Realms, the Thousand Year War was between Dragons and Giants because the Dragons wanted to rule over the Giant civilization
- In Eberron, the Dragons destroyed the Giant civilization in Xen’drik
- Devils Hate Demons (Law vs Chaos and the Blood War)
- Chromatic Dragons are Good, Metallic Dragons are Evil (which comes from the rivalry behind Bahamut and Tiamat)
So now think, are these things true in your world? Who hates who? What wars are prominent in history? I think it’s safe to keep Conflict as a common theme, because it leads to drama and opportunity for adventure, but it’s up to you who is in conflict with whom.
The World is Magical
The world is a magical place. There are different levels of magical settings, from Arthurian/Tolkien where a magic user is rare and socially important, to Eberron where any spell under third level is extremely common and necessary for modern life. Some have floating islands that are inhabited by Aarakocra (birdfolk), or have portals to other planes of existence that are accessible if you know where to look.
Also, there are multiple types of magic, each with it’s own assumptions. For instance, is Necromancy (undead magic) inherently evil? That comes from Western Judeo-Christian beliefs that death is permanent unless you are a god, and altering that can only be for evil purposes. Perhaps you believe that Enchantment is the evil magic, because it’s about mind control, taking away somebody’s Free Will.
Are there the eight core schools of magic, or are there others like:
- Dunamancy – magic that commands the power of potentiality and actuality
- Chronomancy – magic of time
- Ferromancy – basically Magneto
Or are there no divisions between schools of magic? Is magic just magic and putting artificial limits on it seems unnecessary?
One thing I never really thought of, is that there are a set of wizards that exist, somewhere the world, because they have recently created spells, and the spells bear their name.
- Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting (Elemental Evil Player’s Companion)
- Aganazzar’s Scorcher (Elemental Evil Player’s Companion)
- Bigby’s Hand (Player’s Handbook)
- Drawmij’s Instant Summons (Player’s Handbook)
- Evard’s Black Tentacles (Player’s Handbook)
- Galder’s Speedy Courier (Lost Laboratory of Kwalish)
- Galder’s Tower (Lost Laboratory of Kwalish)
- Hunger of Hadar (Player’s Handbook)
- Arms of Hadar (Player’s Handbook)
- Leomund’s Tiny Hut (Player’s Handbook)
- Leomund’s Secret Chest (Player’s Handbook)
- Maximilian’s Earthen grasp (Elemental Evil Player’s Companion)
- Melf’s Acid Arrow (Player’s Handbook)
- Melf’s Minute Meteors (Elemental Evil Player’s Companion)
- Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion (Player’s Handbook)
- Mordenkainen’s Sword (Player’s Handbook)
- Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound (Player’s Handbook)
- Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum (Player’s Handbook)
- Nystul’s Magic Aura (Player’s Handbook)
- Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere (Player’s Handbook)
- Otiluke’s Freezing Sphere (Player’s Handbook)
- Otto’s Irresistible Dance (Player’s Handbook)
- Rary’s Telepathic Bond (Player’s Handbook)
- Snilloc’s Snowball Swarm (Elemental Evil Player’s Companion)
- Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (Player’s Handbook)
- Tasha’s Caustic Brew (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
- Tasha’s Mind Whip (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
- Tasha’s Otherworldly Guise (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything)
- Tenser’s Floating Disk (Player’s Handbook)
- Tenser’s Transformation (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything)
Now, these wizards do not need to be specifically the same people that they are in Greyhawk/Faerun where they are from originally. However, it would be a good idea for you to figure out, on some level, who these people are. Are they still alive, perhaps working together in a secret order of wizardry? Are they dead, but all from the past few decades? We might not remember who created the first carriage, but we do know that Henry Ford created the Model T, or Gutenberg’s Bible.
Lastly, the big thing with a magical world, is the alternate planes of existence. The world as we know it, is called the Prime Material Plane.
Then there are two other planes that closely resemble ours, called the Feywild, and the Shadowfell. Sometimes the Feywild is called the Fey, or the Positive Energy Plane, and it’s usually a place of light, color, magic, and any Fey/Fae mythology that you can imagine. Then the Shadowfell, or the Plane of Shadow, or the Negative Energy Plane, is a place of darkness, apathy, muted colors, and death, and it’s usually where you find dark powers lost to eternity, like Strahd in Ravenloft.
Around those planes are planes of pure elements (Water, Earth, Fire, Air) as well as the Astral/Ethereal Planes which are more vague as far as what they contain, but usually relate to outer space.
Lastly there are possibly over a dozen outer planes, which change depending on your cosmology and the gods in your world.
Now, these aren’t all of the lore assumptions in D&D, but they are certainly the most popular, that will affect what adventures you can run, what magic items you can use, and what your players might be bringing to the table.