How to create a D&D campaign world – a step-by-step guide

How to create a D&D campaign world header image

A wonderful and inspiring part of the roleplaying game hobby is worldbuilding, however many dungeon masters feel it’s a daunting task to create their own campaign world. In this guide I will do my best to outline my method of building fantasy worlds. I hope it will help you by making worldbuilding more inspiring and less of a chore.

My core worldbuilding philosophy: start small and expand

In my opinion the biggest mistake many worldbuilders do is biting off more than they can chew. If you create a huge world map and then try to fill it with everything that could possibly exist in a world you tend to either overwork yourself and lose interest, or stretch your imagination too far and end up with something quite bland “like butter scraped over too much bread”.

Not only does “starting big” risk draining your inspiration, it is also (most of the time) unnecessary. A typical adventuring party in a quasi-medieval D&D campaign won’t visit every far corner of the world, and even if they do this is not something you need to plan out years in advance.

A campaign world isn’t necessarily a “world”. It might not even be a country. It might start out as just a small town and its immediate surroundings. We could call it a “campaign environment”. It might or might not develop into a world but for starters let’s concentrate on what you need rather than what you might need in the future.

What you need is a playground for your players’ first few adventures.

A list of things that you probably need to know right now:

  • The overall theme or genre (high/low/dark fantasy, steampunk, etc.)
  • What monsters lurk in the woods just north of town
  • The name of the local innkeeper and some other important NPCs
  • The most relevant deity in your starting region, and how it is worshipped

A list of things you probably don’t need to know right now:

  • The name of the king in a neighbouring country
  • What lies beyond the sea or the mountains far to the west
  • Every significant faction in the country and how they interact with each other
  • Details on every organized religion in the world

Creating your homebrew campaign world – a step-by-step guide

Step 1 – the overland map

Create an overland map or get one online. A few (7-10 or so) hexagons of terrain will do. Each hex is 6 miles. Fill the hexes with the general type of terrain you want for your theatre. Woods, mountains, grasslands, hills, moor, swamps, etc. Add a few interesting landmarks.

Note: you don’t need to use hexes if you don’t like them. I find them really useful for making maps and tracking both travel and exploration in a campaign, but if you prefer to measure distance differently go right ahead and choose another method.

Fourtower Bridge Hex Map

Step 2 – the starting town

Create a small town and a handful of non-player characters (NPCs). Some of these NPCs need help with stuff, and they need adventurers to take care of their problems. The NPCs are some of the best roleplaying tools you have to shape your campaign and influence players/player characters.

Here’s a town you can use if you don’t want to create one from scratch: Link to Fourtower Bridge.

The Bulette's Barrel inn - isometric map
“Meet the locals” – the inn is often a central location for roleplaying in a fantasy campaign. A great place for the players to learn more about the world.

Step 3 – adventure sites

Make up a few adventure sites and connect some of them to the NPCs in town. A deserted mine, a desecrated temple, a ruined old tower, a brigand hideout, etc. Draw some simple location maps and mark the sites on your overland map. Place treasure and monsters.

Note: You don’t have to make up all of these adventure sites from scratch. There are plenty of free resources online, or you could buy short adventures from websites like DriveThruRPG.com. You can also find a lot of free maps and adventure sites on this website, for example The Haunted Cloister, that can easily be dropped into most fantasy campaigns.

Top-down dungeon map of a druid's cave
The druid’s cave is a small adventure site, perfect for an evening of gaming

Step 4 – build your world by playing in it

Start playing. The player characters are a bunch of adventurers in search of gold and glory. They arrive in town and have just enough money to spend the night at the inn. Drop rumours on them. Let townsfolk seek their aid. And then let them decide what to do next.

Breathe life into your little world but don’t plan everything ahead. Roll on random tables. You deserve to be surprised just as much as the players do. Between games always keep a notepad with you. Write down cool stuff you come up with. Inject it into your campaign. As you come up with new places to explore, draw new hexagons or add to existing ones on your overland map.

Ask the players what they want to do. Let them inspire you as you expand on the overland map. What do they look for, and how can they get it? What lies beyond the mountains in the west? What’s the origin of the strange idol they found in the abandoned mine?

Build as you go. Make stuff up. Allow yourself to get surprised. Use free stuff from the community. Work with your players. Build a world – not a story. You don’t need an endgame yet (if ever). You have a lot to discover, so enjoy the ride.

Bonus tools: random tables and rumours

Random encounter tables

Random encounter tables have been a staple of fantasy roleplaying games for many years. They are not just relics of old, but actually really good tools for worldbuilding that animate your world and make it feel more dynamic. By creating random encounter tables you define what creatures inhabit an area of your world and you make it significant. The probability of encountering a certain type of creature tells a lot about your world.

If there’s a high risk of encountering orcs in your campaign environment it should be reflected in the encounter tables, let’s have a look at an example:

Random encounter table – west moorland road

Roll 2d6

2-6No encounter
7-8Merchant caravan
9-10Orc raiding party (2d6 orcs)
11Troll
12 Hill giant

What does the above random encounter table tell us about the campaign environment? Well, first of all it seems commerce and travel is a thing in this part of the world – there’s a fair chance of bumping into merchants. We also learn that orcs seem to be the dominant non-human race in the area, and that they’re on the prowl making travel risky (but not risky enough to fully deter humans from travelling). There are also more powerful monsters (trolls and hill giants) lurking nearby, but apparently they’re not common enough to outcompete the orcs – perhaps they are allies? It’s just a simple table, but all of the above are important and defining elements of your worldbuilding.

Remember that you can have random tables for more things than encounters, such as weather and other types of events. For example, a random weather table tells a lot about the climate in your campaign environment. If you’re aiming for an occult feel to your campaign perhaps a table of mystic omens would make sense to create.

Rumours

The Internet doesn’t exist in a fantasy medieval world, and the adventurers can’t google “nearby adventure sites and treasure”. Rumours are perhaps the most common source of information and will play an important role in determining how the players will decide on what to do in your world. They do not know about the old tower ruin two hexes to the north unless you somehow tell them about it, so creating such rumours for them to pick up when interacting with NPCs is a good way of helping them learn about the world beyond the hex they’re currently exploring. Again: The NPCs are some of the best roleplaying tools you have to shape your campaign and influence players/player characters. Plant rumours to guide players without forcing them in a certain direction.

Not all rumours are (nor should be) true. Some have just grains of truth in them, and some are just nonsense. However all of them help bring your world to life.


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8 thoughts on “How to create a D&D campaign world – a step-by-step guide”

  1. Thankyou for writing this! It confirmed much of the way that I created our home brew…and gave me some nee ideas to think about. Just…brilliant!

  2. The #1 thing i struggle with when world-building is, how dense should a hex tile be? How close is too close for towns or roadside inns to each other in typical medieval settings? Would it be unreasonable or unrealistic for EVERY 6 mile hex to have a feature? That starts to feel like an elder scrolls map where there’s some type of landmark waiting to be explored every 5 feet.

    1. Well, I’d think it would depend on the environment and type of campaign you want, i.e., urban sprawl, rural countryside, mountainous steppes, old-growth forest, cyberpunk, hard sci-fi, high fantasy, steampunk, etc. I prefer a two- or three-to-one hex map myself. Say, one hex has a prominent feature while the bordering two or three deep all ’round don’t. But if it’s a village or cityscape, of course it’ll be more dense. You know what you want! Fill it in and make some random rolls to spice it up! Cheers and happy holidays!

    2. That should be easy enough to manage through realistic planning. Roadside inns are made to house travelers for the night, so they should be roughly 1 day of travel from each other or towns. Same goes for other locations: what is the ideal travel time to put in before your players reach a dungeon or a river crossing? Whatever the answer, you now have something to influence the distances on your map 🙂

  3. This blogpost is a great advice for beginning GMs. Too many try to follow the example of JRR Tolkien who first invented a language, then a world to go with it, then 3,000 years of history of that world…years of work, all before he wrote his first “adventure module.” Very cool, but not the example to follow.
    One of the ways I expand my world as needed is to have cards with inspirational images or phrases to use in random encounters. For example, I had in my file an old image of a scowling, dark-browed man with a bristling beard. When my PCs had a roadside encounter, I pulled it from the stack and improvised. “You meet this guy. From his livery you can see he’s one of Duke Orlando’s men; the Duke has a reputation for hiring thugs like this.” Just like that, the kingdom has expanded, there is a robber Duke nearby and the seed for a future encounter is planted.
    The point is to give yourself a few extra prompts that will help improvise; then you won’t feel like you need to map out the whole world ahead of time.

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