Worldbuilding Is Only Done When The Campaign Is Over

I have created an entire Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting (multiple major and minor plots included) from nothing but a pile of unrelated notes that aren’t even from the same genre in about a week. It was an exhausting, draining, and incredibly focused week of non-stop effort, but I managed to get it all done. It helped that it was similar to some other ideas I’d been wanting to explore, so I managed to swing the perfect trifecta of “interested,” “excited,” and “well-rested” required for a feat like that. Most of the time, it takes me a bit longer than that to get a campaign off the ground, from concept to ready for the first session (Session 0), but it rarely takes more than a few weeks. That said, the settings are never done. There’s always more work to do, more research and development to continue to chip away at, and so many basic ideas that need to be fleshed out.

I don’t mind starting when the world, plots, and places are as bare-bones as that because I prefer to continue my development while the campaign is running. If I have everything figured out at the start of the game, there’s no room for my players to add things, for requests, or for spur-of-the-moment inspiration. Something you’ve stitched in after shifting things around or cutting something out almost never feels as incorporated or natural as something you added to an unoccupied space. Having blank spaces means I can make sure my game is one the players want to continue playing by shifting the story and the world itself in the directions they’re moving. This is a lesson I learned from my own mistakes during my early days as a Dungeon Master and is something I continuously reflect on as I prepare to run my various games.

The way I like to look at it is as if I’ve taken a block of wood or stone and carved away large chunks until you can see the general shape of what I’m making. Once I get the players situated in the world, I take the pieces they’ve brought to the table and use them to refine it further, adjusting the shape to make sure it is one that can contain the stories they want to tell. Then, once I’ve gotten the shape marked out, I spend time as I have it adding fine details, carving away the unecessary pieces, and breathing life into it. Only once the game is done is my work finished, only then do I put away my tools and decide whether to keep it or throw it away. But between the point where the game starts and the day I’m done, I keep working on it, chipping away at it, and slowly turning it into the vision I have in my head. Like a sculptor obsessed with perfection, I do a little bit of work at a time. Each change comes after a great deal of careful consideration and even more time spent simply thinking about what my goal is. A flake or two a day so that the final creation is perfect. You can’t add material back once you’ve removed it, after all.

Except you can totally remove material once you’ve added it to a Tabletop Roleplaying Game campaign, so my approach is a bit more reckless abandon followed by a period of pensive reflection. After that, I edit it or delete it and then move on to whatever bit is next. Though the action and scale are very different, it still feels similar. A campaign is so big and can take so long to complete that even a week of constant, high-producitivity work can represent only a small fraction of the whole. Even an afternoon of picking away at the details, filling out various forms and documents I’ve made to organize my information, and setting up various data I might need later is a single stroke of a hammer and chisel.

Honestly, I just like to image myself as a deliberate, considerate craftsperson who applies a carefully honed blade using finely tuned skill to creat a small but perfect cut. As is clear from my blog, my main strength is quantity production that is tempered by decent editing and not being afraid to toss out something I spent a lot of time on because it’s either not working or not something I want to share. Unlike a lot of people I know, I’m not afraid to admit to a mistake I spent a long time making, nor am I afraid of having to start over. I’m not afraid to do a bit more work, nor am I overly attached to work i’ve already done. If it works, it works. If not, I’ll put something else together.

Maybe I need a new visiual metaphor for the way I work on my campaigns. This is fine for now, but I might spend some time over the weekend figuring something new out. I’ve (hopefully) got a bunch of Dungeons and Dragons stuff this weekend after a few weeks away from almost all of it and that always gets me fired up and productive.

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