The Birth of My Own Setting: World Building for DnD 5e

Map Made with Campaign cartographer


Building worlds for Dungeons and Dragons


I came to tabletop role playing relatively late in life. From what I understand, most gamers begin in college or earlier, but I was 33 when I rolled my first Dungeons and Dragons 5e character. I’d actually purchased a few rule sets when I was around twelve years old, living in England. They were old Star Wars and Lord of the Rings books and I poured over them for hours, dreaming of running a game. But my social milieu of the time simply didn’t dig the hobby and so I stuck to Warhammer and Magic the Gathering cards, both of which quickly became way too expensive, their business models far too ruthless. For years video games constituted my primary mode of role playing. And I read a ton of fantasy and science fiction novels.

About a year ago, when I attended my first Adventurer’s League event, I had one of those moments some people describe as “Ah-Has”, an experience of something clicking, of finding something special. I wasn’t just hooked on the game, I was hooked on the whole enterprise of creating a fantasy world for people to play in.

I didn’t wait long to start DMing—about three months, just enough time to have a rudimentary sense of the Fifth Edition rules. Part of this was born from being dissatisfied with many of Wizard’s published adventures and The Forgotten Realms setting in general (at least in its current form). Like everyone, I have a lot of opinions, but rather than take to the message boards, I figured I’d just circumvent the angst and start making my own stuff. And I really do love Dungeons and Dragons. I love the old source books, the sense of history, Wizard’s willingness to allow its license to be used for homebrew creations, and the homebrew community in general. Whatever problems I have with the current published adventures is more than balanced by the overall scope of the DnD world.

Of course, as I began to brew my first game, which was set in a world entirely of my own making, I had no idea what I was doing. The world didn’t have a name; the only race I’d really thought of was human; only one region was mapped out; I had no sense of history, culture or commerce; and the names I was using for cities and regions were ridiculous—for some reason the names really bothered me. All I knew was that I wanted something paradoxical—a unique fantasy world with races other than orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, elves, dwarves and other fantasy staples, which nonetheless could support traditional fantasy rulesets and sourcebook that were packed with orcs, goblins, gnolls, kobolds, elves, dwarves and other fantasy staples.


How to build a world for Dungeons and Dragons


If I was building the world for a novel, this paradox may have stalled or killed the project entirely. But I wasn’t writing fiction. I was running games weekly and this meant I had to come up with content. There were deadlines, otherwise I’d have nothing to present to the six players expecting a story. This forced me to develop the setting, even when I was out of ideas. So things blossomed. The progress wasn’t always favorable. It really was a first draft, almost stream of consciousness, and initially the concept went all over the place. Over the course of seven months or so, my adventures grew tighter, my world more coherent. Perhaps unwisely, I even began to change details mid-campaign—nothing that affected what the players had done, mostly stuff on the margins. But occasionally the name of a city changed, confusing the players (I told you the nomenclature really bugged me), or I wrote out a major plot element that wasn’t working. The latter choice has proven to be prudent as it simply makes the games run better, and frankly the players haven’t cared—they just want satisfying adventures.

Over the summer, I finally named my world: S’Ae’Lien, the Orphan World, a living organism on which has developed a terrestrial crust capable of sustaining life like a planet. To allow other traditional fantasy races space on the otherwise alien plane, I made the setting interplanar. Unlike similar settings, however, I am more interested on who comes to S’Ae’Lien than who leaves it. It is, as the name suggests, a place of orphaned races—people who arrived from different worlds only to find their way home blocked off. The landscape is mostly bizarre. At its center is a world like our own. Travel from this slight sliver of civilization, however, and you find yourself lost in the weird. And although people seem to find themselves marooned there as if guided by an outside force, S’Ae’Lien, the organism that it is, doesn’t always like its guests—at least it doesn’t make it easy for them. It has a consciousness, and an oblique, but definitive sense of right and wrong. It’s not a fan of empires, and so the most populous races have never managed to make too much ground, although even in a limited capacity they have managed to accomplish feats of both beauty and despair. They are in constant struggle against the world itself, and the outcome is often miraculous.

I envision the setting to have enough civilization to enable campaigns or stories of political intrigue and desperate wars. But I am also influenced by the dark, stranger fantasies of writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, even H.P. Lovecraft. Monte Cook’s Planescape Setting for Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Ed. Remains a huge influence, and I’m currently reading through his more recent RPG—Numenera.

Presently, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t work on S’Ae’Lien in some capacity. Whether I’m preparing an adventure for my next DnD session, taking the first tentative steps to write a player’s and DM’s guide for the setting, scribbling notes in the dedicated journal I’ve started, or even planning and writing fiction for the world, I do something. I read source material from a variety of other RPGs for inspiration, trawl homebrew reddit boards and other similar online sites to see what the community is doing, and generally spend a lot of time daydreaming; it’s all-consuming, in a good way.

I’ve written this post because it’s about a year since I started playing DnD. Those twelve months have seen a radical development in my creative life. They are the reason I keep this blog and share my experience running games and immersing myself in the hobby.