Ages ago, in 1993 or 1994, a group of friends and I got together to start up a new campaign using Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1e). There were a few people interested in undertaking dungeon master duties, myself included. So I proposed the idea of making the world-building collaborative between the entire group.
We began the process with a blank sheet of letter-sized paper. The game masters were each assigned a quadrant and asked to sketch in their corners of the world. Of course, the process didn’t go precisely to plan. In the end, we had contributions from myself, another game master, and two of the players. The prospective game masters performed their assignments: I sketched what I thought was the northeast corner of a continent, and I named the two land masses The Niraih Commonwealth and their neighbors, the Crymsah Baronies–without any concept of who or what these peoples were. The other game master took the diagonally opposite corner and sketched in his nation: Zirconia. He populated it with place names from his home town—St Mary’s County—and bad puns like Swine Lake and Spud Zone.
One player added a large island nation to the center bottom area of the page. He drew in a few mountains on the island and called it simply “Hardrada.” The final player was the most artistically talented (and determined) of the four of us. He ran with what we had sketched in, filled in the other two quadrants with the areas like The Great Purple Desert, The Oaklands, the Savage Lands and The Jagged Lands. He also flipped the compass rose so that north pointed to the bottom of the page and then inked the whole thing with a black BIC rollerball fine point pen. It was far from a masterpiece, but it had some charms.
The proposed campaign for which we created the map only held together for one adventure— The Lost Island of Castanamir (which is an island adventure ironically not represented on the map, due to it being lost and all…). After the original crew dissipated and went off to other games, there were a few folks still interested in carrying on, so I cadged the map. We have played on that map ever since (and remain forever indebted to our original co-creators).
This re-constituted group set out to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in our own, novel world—a process that had been undertaken countless times, by countless groups before us. It must have been an easy path, yes? Well, the start of the campaign was rough. Each player jumped in with their own rather challenging contributions: Two of the players wanted to employ non-standard D&D classes—the kensai and the bushi from OA—another wanted to play a lizardman priest, one wanted to be a gnome illusionist and one simply wanted to be a hobgoblin fisherman. Oh, and the bushi player asked if his character could also be a cambion demon. None of which was discussed as part of an overall campaign concept. They dove headfirst into the gonzo, kitchen-sink nature of AD&D. You see what I had to deal with back then?! However, despite my misgivings, I ran with all of their requests, though I added in a few wrinkles of my own—mainly ideas on how to unify and ground the gonzo.
(And FWIW, these players and their requests became incredibly influential on the as yet to be designed Burning Wheel Fantasy Roleplaying System.)
So, I want to talk about one of the wrinkles I introduced to help make some sense of the fantastical patchwork quilt we were collectively sewing together: the fantasy religions of this new world. Two of the character choices were overtly tied to religion in D&D: The kensai and priest/cleric. The kensai’s martial arts were fueled by divine might. And, since we were playing AD&D, the priest/cleric was just a spellcaster with a long list of many (many) (too many) options that were vaguely tied to the divine favor of a set of indistinct gods.
I confess that, in my youth, I was obsessed with Deities & Demigods and its many pantheons. But I knew I had to kill this darling sacred cow; I needed a way to ground these characters in the world they were about to step into. As the main dungeon master for this campaign I felt I needed to clarify some of the nebulous aspects of the divine magics—and I wanted to de-Christianize some of the default assumptions about divinity in the world. Our world should feel distinct, new and credible. Laying out the fundamentals of its cosmology seemed the best place to start if—and only if—I could make these forces feel personal to the players and their characters. It’s a common misstep in fantasy world-building to talk about god wars and cosmic forces in big sweeping terms as events that happen in the past or in the remote background. I wanted the powers that governed our world to feel present and representative, both shaping its cultures and being shaped by them.
Even though we were all new to this world in one sense, the characters would have grown up in its cultures, traditions and religions. On one hand, I wanted them to feel like they were from a place that had ideas about how the powers of their world worked. On the other hand, I knew that I needed to get an immediate handle on the madness that unfettered D&D can introduce into a campaign with its kitchen sink aesthetic and blatant power creep. So after we discussed it a bit as a group, I proposed a drastic simplification: This world had only four elemental gods—Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. Going further, to push us away from most religious traditions, I suggested that these forces of nature were not personified in their religions, only represented in symbols. The players agreed that this seemed like a good place to start.
After my proposal, we examined each character’s relationship with the cosmology. The player of the lizardman priest decided he would follow Water and cast all of his cleric spells in the idiom of water. The kensai player liked the idea of the God of Wind fueling his leaps, kicks and furious blows—though we soon discovered that he had an odd theological stance for Wind. I proposed to the player of the cambion/bushi monstrosity that demons were servants of Fire. He agreed that this seemed sensible. The hobgoblin and gnome players made it clear they were not very much into this god bullshit. They asked if they had to worship a god. After pondering a moment, I said no, they did not. However, I was careful to note that there were no atheists or modern cynics in our nascent world. The gods and their powers were real, whether they prayed to them or not. They seemed satisfied with this middleground.
So off we went, now with the characters tied into the cosmological fabric of this world—and with a culture taking shape behind them. Four elemental gods added to the choices the players were making. For example, they implied that this land had four great religions, which we declared to be the Temples of Earth, Water, Fire and Wind.
When starting this campaign, we made simple, bespoke choices that many of us encounter at the beginning of a game. But for us, we inadvertently set up a fundamental structure that continuously invited us to explore powerful ideas and collaborate on their meanings.
The kensai player very much wanted to play a righteous fighter, in the mold of many of Jet Li’s on-screen personas. He insisted that his god was an arbiter of order. While I had some trouble marrying the wind + order concepts, I didn’t argue or shoot him down. I let him kick the crap out of the bad guys in the name of order…though I planned a theological reckoning for later in the campaign. He claims now that, in retrospect, he watched Conan the Barbarian too many times back then and was obsessed with the character Subotai’s philosophy.
The lizard priest player decided very early on that his Water god was a different aspect of Lord Water than the one venerated by the Niraih Commonwealth. He decided that his lizardman was a wanderer and not from the area in which the campaign began. So, we found a place to the north for him to call home, a city named Sif. And then he declared that in addition to the magical aspects of water that one might expect—summoning rain, walking on water, breathing water, etc.—he was also a priest of luck. He insisted that luck was a domain of Lord Water. I recall being floored by his suggestion. I did not expect this, but I fucking loved it. This inclusion opened up that character, transforming him from a trite holy figure to a gambling, drinking, risk-taking, impulsive, complicated bad-ass. In fact, I’ve incorporated this type of priestly posture into the fabric of the religions of Water as we’ve developed them.
For the demon-bushi, I decided we needed to ahem turn up the heat. While he was not a priest or fueled by D&D-esque divine magics, a demon child must by its nature be tied into the cosmological forces and laws. So I proposed a longer, more cultural arc to bind him in: I declared that the religion of Fire was banned by the Niraih, due to accusations of demon worship. Thus he had to keep his nature secret lest he be persecuted by priests of Earth and Water. In doing so, I inadvertently set up a history of the Niraih peoples, implying many questions: When was this religion banned? By whom? Was demon worship really the reason? The implied answers, in turn, created the hint of a culture of suspicion with the potential for real consequences for those caught up in it.
Within the first half dozen sessions of our campaign, these divine powers began to take shape in the following ways:
- Water: Lord Water, Hai, Hossar—seas, oceans, rivers, rains, sea travel and luck. Holy number: 3
- Wind: Lord Wind, Taepoong—wind, clouds, breath, order, justice. Holy number: 4.
- Fire: Lord Fire, Abzu (The Lake of Fire)—fire, purification, vulcanism, forges, healing, health and sorcery. Holy number: 5.
- Earth: Lord Earth, Cley—paths, gates, stone, earth, wood, fertile land. Holy number: 6.
Simple and perhaps even a bit awkward, but full of potential. These concepts of natural elements, their associated emotions and folk beliefs accidentally provided us a structure for our world—or at least this corner of it. Crucially, as we played our sessions, I believe we explored and added to these concepts using two unwritten precepts:
- We did the minimum work. We only answered the questions directly before us. We didn’t try to flesh out the whole world in one go. If we needed to know more about the other priests or the other religions, etc. for an event in an ongoing or upcoming adventure, we added the new detail then as we needed. But beyond that we didn’t concern ourselves about what was happening outside of the action, for example, in the far-off Great Purple Desert, The Jagged Lands or Zirconia.
- We collaborated. In the default power structure in AD&D, the game master has total and final say. I find this stance exhausting. So when the players expressed interest in a part of the world, I would ask them questions about their peoples, their traditions, their religions, etc. and invite them to add new details to the world. Of course, I reserved the right to challenge those beliefs (!) in order to create dramatic adventures, but I never overrode them outright. Gradually, it became clear to us all that this world was (is) a shared creation, even if our contributions differed in scope and timing.
Over the next 20 or 30 sessions of the campaign, I invested heavily in the framework we created. I used it to underpin the ultimate stakes of the campaign: banned religions, a world out of balance, jealous gods, an epoch ending, a mortal war to decide the fate of the gods, a gate to Hell fueled by sacrificial victims and a demonic desire to cast off the shackles of these petty immortal tyrants and destroy the world they built by summoning…
…but, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Nearly 30 years on and we’re still playing in this campaign. The Hellmouth is closed and the demonic plot thwarted—though narrowly—and a new epoch is upon the world. Today, a sorcerer, an elementalist, a priest and a newly gifted Forsaken are trying to end an apocalyptic arcane storm that has destroyed the Niraih Commonwealth. And, true to our origins, we’re still discussing the theological and cosmological stances (and actions) of the priests and their gods. Just this morning I wrote to the former kensai-player, our authority on Lord Wind (who is currently playing the elementalist in our ongoing campaign). I mused that:
“I was reflecting today on how the Wind Cult could theologically stand on the side of justice while maintaining their obeisance to Lord Wind.”
He was, of course, delighted and we delved into the nuances of our invented theology.
I hope that this maunder through my murky RPG past might benefit players of Burning Wheel and other games that require world building, so let me try to sum up my thoughts:
- When world building, start with a conceptual frame that contains lots of empty space. That’s what our original map was. It gave us the necessary constraints so we could point to squiggle on it and say “I wonder what’s going on here?” And I think a frame is productive because blank pages are terrifying. A light frame does wonders for the imagination.
- When introducing new concepts (cultures, religions, traditions, etc.), use the same philosophy as the original frame: make these ideas big and broad and add details as you go.
- Go slow. Stop and explore situations in great detail. Play out the consequences. Don’t rush to finish a plot or prematurely fill out the details of a nation, religion or people. In this case, specificity is key. Think deeply about small things.
- Develop your world as you go. But build out only what you need for the moment—or perhaps “ink in” is a better metaphor in this case. Ideas on the periphery may be sketched or even just leave big blank spaces to fill in later.
- Collaborate…with authority. Collaboration is great. For a long term campaign to truly thrive, invite each participant to contribute details to the corners of the world that they care about. Talk about your campaign world outside of the game. Build on each other’s feedback and reincorporate it into the game itself. That said, I believe there needs to be someone responsible for shepherding and preserving the shared world. That role is usually undertaken by the game master but it can be another player.
I hope you find these memories and insights to be practical and useful in reflecting on your ongoing games or for games you hope to begin soon. Creating this “living,” shared world with my friends is perhaps the powerful creative journey I’ve undertaken. I hope that I’ve provided you with some tools to support the same for you and your friends!