I’ve talked before about building my own campaign world for my D&D 5e campaigns. While I did flesh out a full world and campaign history, I didn’t detail every bit of it at once. That would have kept me from getting to the second-most fun part of creating a campaign world, playing in it. Instead, I use something I’ve termed the “concentric circle” approach. You can also think of it as the “fog of war” approach, but I like my first analogy better so I’ll run with that.
Basically, think of your campaign world as being contained within a series of concentric circles, like an archery target. The bullseye is wherever the players are going to start in the campaign, and I mean “start” in every sense; physical location, where their characters fit in society, their community, and so on. Once I’ve figured out where the bullseye is, I build my world from the bullseye outward. The most detail and attention is paid to the parts of the world in the bullseye which is, not coincidentally, the parts closest to the characters. I flesh that out as fully as I can, often with the help of my players’ character backgrounds.
So what is considered inside the bullseye? In terms of physical location, anything of interest within a day’s journey of the characters’ starting point. In terms of community, any family, friends, or contacts the characters might have within that physical location. Social standing, the details of day-to-day life at the characters’ social stratum. So if a character is a noble, I need to figure out details of how the nobility works inside the bullseye (it may work differently elsewhere). If a character is a peasant, what is their life like and how does it affect the story?
The next circle out from the party gets less detail, but still gets filled in. How much is encompassed in each circle is largely up to you, but for the sake of argument let’s say in physical terms it’s 2-3 days travel from the party’s location. I’ll make sure I have names for all the locations, some handy rumours about those locations, main NPCs fleshed out, and so on. Again, not as much detail as the bullseye, but fleshed out enough that if the party suddenly decided on a road trip I could keep things interesting and answer most of the questions the players come up with.
I think you get where this is going, right? Each circle further out from the party gets less detail, until at the outermost circle I might just have names for the locations and that’s it.
Why would I create my world this way? Simple. No, really, that’s it: I like to keep things simple. The characters are the stars of the campaign show, so it makes sense to fill in all the details immediately around them, since those are the details they’ll encounter right away. Take physical location: if the characters start in the village of Homesweethomesburg, why spend any pre-campaign prep filling out all the details and nuance of Nevergonnagothereville, located hundreds of leagues away from the party? Slap a name on that city, maybe give it one or two details you can relate if they ask about it (“Nevergonnagothereville has a thriving doll-house industry and is renowned for Jacobi, a champion throat singer.”) Spend your time bringing Homesweethomesburg to life; give it character and depth, make it lived in.
There are benefits to this approach for both you and the players. You get to cut down on a bunch of prep that might never get used (though see later questions in this series on what to do with extra prep), and stick to campaign prep that immediately affects your group. And the players start the campaign in what feels like a fully developed campaign world. Well of course, because the characters only see what is immediately around them, and that’s what you filled out. Once the characters start to move away from Homesweethomesburg, however, the bullseye moves with them. Now you have new information to flesh out. But if you follow this model of world-building, you’ll only be building the parts of the world that matter to your players.
There is a secondary benefit for me. Because I started two different campaigns in the same world but in different locations, I got to detail more of the world than I would have otherwise. So I actually have a bunch more of the world solidly in place than I would otherwise. If either of my player groups decide to go completely off on a tangent, I have a better than average chance of them heading to a place I have reasonably fully realized.
Next week I’ll talk about my steps leading up to the first session of a new campaign, and how to add your players to the mix.