Welcome to the first installment of what I hope to be a multiple part series on how to suck less as a Game Master, Dungeon Master, Keeper or whatever the system you chose to play in has designated you. The idea for this type of article came to me long ago as I myself found that some of my players were simply not pleased with my own style of GMing. Rather than blame it on the players (hey, it might be their fault), I decided to develop and adapt several different styles to please different crowds. I mean, I’m probably not the best GM around. But I suck less than I used to.
This first installment is centered around Worldbuilding, which is often one of the first missteps that a too-ambitious GM can make. You see, there are reasons companies like Wizards of the Coast create entire sweeping campaign settings. That’s because its a hell of a lot of work to create entire worlds with several different races with vast and varied histories. Yes, it is fun and you’ll feel damn creative as you get started. But by day two, you’ll start to realize that there is no way you’ll be able to set this world up in time for the first session. Worldbuilding takes months, even years to create something that feels truly alive, if its all done by one individual. Which leads me to option one of three that I have decided to present you.
Option #1: Build it with your players
There are a number of ways to go about this, and none of them are truly wrong. The most straightforward way is to simply gather your players, ask them what kind of world they would like to adventure in, and go from there. Each player can design their own kingdom, nation, race, whatever! It doesn’t really matter which direction it goes, because everyone has there own beliefs and ideas. Making something with your players is likely the best way to build a world in my book. That way, everyone gets what they want in some form or another. The only issue? Putting it all together and having it make sense. In that way, a majority of the work is still on you, GM.
But you see, there is another way. A way that is itself a self-contained game that writes your history for you. And that is Dawn of Worlds. Go ahead, click that. I’ll wait for you here.
Done reading it? Liar. I know Internet-folks don’t read. But if you ever do get the time to read that pdf, and I strongly recommend it, you are in for a treat. In essence, you play a god or other mythical force of your own design, working with or against the other gods (players) to create your world. It can be as simple or complex as you like, and there is literally no limit to the number of your own rules you can implement. Best thing about it? Its completely free, requires little more than paper and pencils (or it can all be done play by post, e-mail, or whatever social medium you desire) and your creativity. Create races, destroy lands, summon avatars, you choose! Its a beautiful system that works better than any other I’ve tried for world design. Oh, but once you are finished, it wouldn’t hurt to…
Option #2: Get a database
If you absolutely must do everything yourself, you will thank me later on for getting a database to keep together all your information. I suggest Masterplan. Sure, its built as a tool to bridge every aspect of 4th edition together in a seamless program that quite literally ends up being all you need to play the game. But because of how it is designed, you can alter virtually every aspect to fit in with your system. It can keep track of every NPC you have thrown at your players, every tidbit of history you have mentioned, every new mechanic you have designed, and so on. Whatever type of information you desire to use in game, it is accessible at your fingertips (so long as you use a computer while GMing… which you really should).
Otherwise? Obsidian Portal is good, I hear. Its a great way to share information with your players, especially if you play online. I personally haven’t worked with it at all, besides making a still empty page from two years ago. Procrastination.
In the event that neither option #1 or #2 appeal to you, have about you just…
Option #3: Use a published setting!
I think the title really says it all. Using a published setting is probably the best way to be an efficient GM while simultaneously entertaining your players with a fairly compelling setting. And most settings give a whole lot of creative room as to how you can run them, allowing you to set up some crazy situations and alternate realities that, while breaking “canon” (which you really shouldn’t stress out about with a pen & paper RPG), are incredibly fun. Making your own stories in a world you’re already familiar with is extremely entertaining for both the GM and the players. Really, give it a shot. Especially if this is your first time GMing.
And it doesn’t hurt to use a setting created by other GM’s either. They can often be quite strange and fun, depending on what you pick up. Frequenting GM boards at your favorite gaming website is a great way to find little odds and ends to eventually piece together your own setting as well.
If you’re interested in building your own world, your best bet towards understanding how to do this would simply be to read the associated section of what equates to a GM’s guide book for your system. The 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide is a particularly good read for any GM or DM (regardless of system), as it gives a lot of great tips for creating your own worlds, as well as other items not discussed in this article important for all players and GM’s. On the topic of 3rd edition, the Ghostwalk Campaign Setting is lovely. It is loaded to the brim with fluff and offers a world that shows how a simple change in the cosmology can create a completely unique gaming experience. Its a shame it didn’t catch on, or else we might have a 4e campaign where everyone is dead! Before the game starts!