Building Fantasy Worlds in Five Easy Steps
World building can be fun for some, a trial for others and a pain in the ass for everyone else. The idea is simple: put together a memorable environment in which to place adventures. The reality is much worse: try to take an established rule system and concoct out of it a coherent fantasy land that doesn’t necessarily feel like a kitchen-sink smorgasbord. How to go about doing it?!?
Some time back I stumbled across a random setting generator for GURPS, the basic premise of which was quite simple: the generator will take any two or three GURPS setting books, randomly determined, and with that info your job is to mash them together into a single, coherent setting. This could lead to some fun and weird results. (i.e. Weird War II + Dinosaurs + Autoduel = Instant Setting Gold!)
Fantasy RPGs can have a similar theme. Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder and others have one thing in common: lots of race and class options. By limiting what races or classes are available in your setting, you can move your campaign away from “Kitchen Sink Fantasy Land” and into “focused concept fantasy land.” Sometimes less is more. The charts I provide below are intentionally obscure about specific systems, however. For games like Tunnels & Trolls and Legend this is not much of an issue, but for D&D or Pathfinder you may need to match up the closest iconic race or class as appropriate.
As a side note, if you are running a retro Spelljammer campaign or are eyeballing Distant Worlds for Pathfinder, these charts could help spice up a fantasy space traveller’s journey.
So ultimately, the charts below don't so much let you avoid the kitchen-sink fantasy world so much as embrace the concept and then mix it up a bit. A true smorgasbord, if you will.
For fun, make these decisions randomly! Here are five charts that, if you start rolling, will lead you to a set of base rules around which you can build your entire world and environment. Enjoy!
Step 1. Character Races (2D20):
What sentient species are available as player races? Roll 1D8+1 times on the following chart for an average spread, or either roll 2D10 times for a diverse world or 1D4+1 times for a simple world. Alternatively, assume a mono-racial world for purposes of what players can choose rom. You can always assume human is one of the race options and then roll the difference for the remainder. For each race you roll, make three more checks:
Randomized Spread (D20): 1-10 normal (1D8+1), 11-15 diverse (2D10), 16-18 simple (1D4+1),19-20 monoracial (1).
Humanocentric? (50%): On 50 or less the campaign is humanocentric.
Frequency (1D6): This is the “rarity” of that race in the setting, from 1 (almost unique) to 6 (ubiquitous). For a humanocentric campaign humans are always ranked 6.
Variability (50% chance each; then roll 1D6+1): This is to determine if the race is a singular, unique or otherwise distinct species all its own, or if there are multiple variants; the number indicates how many racial/cultural variants there are. Humanocentric campaigns have wide variability.
Traditional Option: If you want, you can pick the “traditional package” from dwarves, Halflings, elves and gnomes first, and then fill in the differences with additional rolls. This will skew your random setting to the conventional side of things.
Table 1: Sample Chart (Generic Fantasy Land)
2 – Dwarves
3 – Halflings
4 – Elves
5 – Gnomes
6 – Goblins
7 – Orcs (and Half-Orcs)
8 – catfolk
9 – Kobolds
10 – Leprechauns
11 – Pixies
12 – Giantkin
13 – Trolls
14 – Ogres
15 – Tieflings (Demon touched)
16 – Celestial Planetouched
17 – Wolf Folk and Gnolls (1-3 wolf folk, 4-6 gnolls)
18 – Tengu
19 – Frog Folk
20 – Dragon Men
21 – Sentient Golems
22 – Lesser Demons
23 – Homunculi
24 – Doppelgangers
25 – Naga
26 – Elemental Planetouched (1D10: 1-2 fire, 3-4 water, 5-6 air, 7-8 earth, 9-10 exotic, below)
27 – Winged Elves
28 – Insect Men
29 – Robots
30 – Worm Men
31 – Grays
32 – Ratfolk
33 – Lava Men
34 – Stone Warriors
35 – Myrmidons
36 – Ghouls
37 – Revenants
38 – Shadow Men
39 – Deep Ones/Fish Men
40 – Seraphim
Exotic Elemental Subchart (1D10): 1-smoke, 2-lava, 3-sand, 4-lighting, 5-mist, 6-mud, 7-chlorine, 8-radiation, 9-plasma, 10-light
Step 2, Magic: How common is magic in this world? Is there more than one type of magical force? Roll to find out!
Table 2a: Nature of Magic:
1-10: Magic is common and people are used to it.
11-15: Magic is uncommon and people may fear it.
16-18: Magic is rare, and people fear and respect those few who can wield it.
19: Unique! Magic is unique and is unavailable save for specific instances or conditions.
20: Non Magical Universe! This universe operates on purely modern laws and physics. This may mean that things like planetouched creatures come from other dimensions or are aliens, and that perhaps magic in the world is actually a product of lost technology.
Table 2b Types of Magic: Roll 1D4 times below to see:
1-5: Classic arcane magic
6-10: divine magic from the gods
11-14: eldritch magic from the far realms
18-19: technology so advanced it looks like magic
20: “realistic” magic from the real world, in which magic is the product of reading subtle patterns and coincidences as part of a design.
Step 3, Character Types:
This is a bit trickier. Some games are full of classes (D&D, Pathfinder) and some eschew classes entirely (Legend, BRP). To make up for this, I’ll offer a range of typical class/profession types drawn from several games. To use the chart, choose one methodology as follows:
Random Determination: Roll 1D10: 1-6 average, 7-8 classic, 9-10 permissive
Option 1 (Average): Roll 2D4+4 times on the following chart and pick one appropriate title from each choice to pair with an equivalent class, profession or type in your preferred game.
Option 2 (Classic): For a focused old-school experience, Roll below but aim for only 2+1D4 classes, and you must have one of each “core” type (a cleric type, wizard type and fighter type and optionally rogue type); re-roll as needed until you have one of each.
Option 3 (Permissive): All classes on the list are permitted!
Table 3: Class/Profession Options
1 – Ranger/Archer
2 – Fighter/Warrior
3 – Barbarian/Berserker
4 – Warden/Nature Magic Warrior
5 – Druid/Naturalist
6 – Shaman/Spirit Mage
7 – Wizard/Sorcerer
8 – Cleric/Priest
9 – Paladin/Templar
10 – Assassin/Hunter
11 – Oracle/Prophet
12 – Witch Hunter/Inquisitor
13 – Artificer/Alchemist
14 – Thief/Rogue/Swashbuckler
15 – Spellblade/Magus/Paragon
16 – Soldier/Mercenary
17 – Commoner/Citizen
18 – Merchant/Craftsman/Expert
19 – Warlock/Witch/Hexer
20 – Captain/Nobleman/Knight/Warlord
Step 4, Cultures:
Now to determine the core culture of your campaign, and possible secondary cultures. The premise here is to determine if your fantasy world is simple or complex, and from there to determine just to what extent:
Table 4a. Campaign Cultural Complexity (D20)
1-10: Typical Range; Roll 2D6 on Table 4b below for a range of cultural types available in the world and table 5c for technological complexity. Two of these cultures (the first two rolled) will he dominant/primary to the campaign.
11-18: Simple Range; Roll 1D4+1 cultures from Table 4b; the first one is considered primary.
19-20: Monocultural: The campaign is dominated by or revolves entirely around a single culture shared by all (more or less). Roll once below.
Table 4b: Cultural archetypes (D20)
1 – Cassic fantasy medieval
2 – Colonial Expansionist region (pick randomly from one other culture for source/origin)
3 – East Indian Vedic inspired
4 – Middle-Eastern inspired
5 – Pseudo Egyptian
6 – Pseudo Greek
7 – Pseudo Roman
9 – Pseudo Viking
10 – Pseudo Japanese
12 – Psuedo Chinese
13 – Psuedo Mesoamerican
14 – Pesudo Pre-Columbian Americas
15 – Renaissance Period European Style
16 – African inspired
17 – Polynesian inspired
18 – Dystopic or Decadent Advanced Civilization (i.e. Melnibonean, Acheronian)
19 – Barbarian Culture (ala Goths, Gauls)
20 – Ancient Mesopotamian inspired
This next table dictates the average technology level of most lands; roll on this chart once for the whole world, or once per culture (you may veto any roll that sounds crazy to you, but I encourage you to think outside the box on this, too!)
Random Technological Diversity (D20): 1-15 roll once for dominant tech, with a 20% chance each culture will be different; 16-20: roll individually for each culture.
Table 4c: Technological Complexity (D20)
1-4: Stone Age
5-8: Bronze Age
9-12: Iron Age
13-16: Steel Age
17-19: Reinaissance Era
20: Special (Roll D6: 1-3 Steampunk, 4 Industrial Age Victorian; 5: World War I level Tech; 6: retro futuristic)
Optional Table 4d: Religion by Culture
If you want to know a bit about religion and deities in the world, roll a D20 once for each culture:
1-6: a pantheon of gods with 2D10 deities
7-10: 1D4+1 different rival religious groups vie for control of the culture
11-14: monotheistic deity dominates
15-17: spiritual/animistic worship dominates
18: a hodge podge of borrowed religions from other lands
19: A cargo cult religion dominates the land
20: A non-religious philosophy dominates the land
Step 5. Distinctive Features:
Every good fantasy world has a quirk or problem. Roll on the following table once for a single primary feature, or roll 1D4 times for a range of interesting problems:
Table 5: The Features! (D20)
1 – Evil overlord threatens to conquer the world
2 – ancient immortal fallen angel seeks to enslave the world
3 – lost powerful artifact could ignite an apocalypse in the wrong hands
4 – the dragons seek to enslave the civilized world
5 – the kingdom or civilizations of the world are on the brink of a world war
6 – the lands are just recovering from a devastating war and the artifacts of that war remain a threat
7 – massive racial animosity between cultures and or species causing conflict
8 – invaders from (Roll D6: 1-space, 2-planes, 3-another continent, 4-spirit world, 5-underworld, 6-the future, 7-the past, 8-inside the mind)
9 – Mythosesque deities threaten to awaken and (roll D6: 1-2 enslave, 3-4 possess, 5-6 destroy) everyone
10 – Ancient prophecy of doom looms nigh! Someone must stop it from happening
11 – The sacred calendar ends soon and a new magical shift will wipe out this world and begin a new one; cultures and species alike are freaking out.
12 – world either (Roll D6): 1-3 grew from the ashes of a post-apocalyptic era long ago or 4-6: is a young world newly created by the gods only a 1D10X10 centuries ago.
13 – Terrible (roll 1D10: 1-4 plagues, 5-7 curses, 8-10 diseases) wrack the lands
14 – A plague of monsters threatens all (1D6: 1-vampires, 2-zombies, 3-werewolves, 4-roll on the Table 1 chart; 5-demons, 6-dragons)
15 – this is a desert world, with very little water
16 – this is a water world, with very little land
17 – This is an arboreal world, dominated by forests
18 – this is a cold world, in the middle of an ice age
19 – Fickle gods toy with man on a regular basis while waging their cosmic wars
20 – Regardless of how common it is, magic is feared and dangerous (Roll D10: 1-2 magic causes corruption; 3-4 magic is culturally prohibited; 5-6 magic is granted by dark gods; 7-8 magic is granted by demons; 9-10 magic slowly destroys those who use it)
And now you are done! Here’s a few sample settings I’ve rolled up from this chart:
Cytaria, Land of the Vast Ocean
Races of the Land: Humans (Freq 6, Var special), ghouls (Freq 4, Var 6), orcs (Fre 3, Var 1), ogres (Freq 4, Var 0), and pixies (Freq 1 Var 2); the land is humanocentric
Magic: Magic is Uncommon and people fear it. Magic comes in three flavors: divine, eldritch and psionic
Character Types: Permissive…all classes/types are permitted!
Cultural Complexity: only two principle cultures (simple) with a world tech average of iron age; one is a pseudo Chinese(iron age tech, dominated by 2 religions) and the other a pseudo Roman analog (renaissance era tech, animistic religion).
Features: This is a water world, and the current cultures survived a post-apocalyptic era.
Introduction to Cytaria:
This ancient water world was once a paradise for the races of the world, among whom man has always been dominant. An ancient apocalypse devastated the old world, and sank the great continents leaving only a chain of islands along which most of the surviving people live. Two dominant cultures persevered through this ancient event, the proud imperial kingdom of Artorios with its proud faith in the spirits of nature, and their eastern rivals, the Ken’Lan Empire, torn apart by war between two dissident religious factions. Artorios today is a kingdom on the cusp of a great renaissance in trade, discovery and science, while Ken’Lan remains held back by traditionalism and cultural moors, still focused heavily on iron age advancements.
Magic is not common throughout Cytaria, and most commoners are fearful and suspicious of those who learn the art. There are many breeds of sorcerer in the land, but all practice magic granted by the gods, magic stolen from the demons of the Far Realms or the inner magic of the Ken’Lan, a psionic magic taken from the spirit within.
Cytaria’s lands are dominated by humans, but aside from humanity there are many survivor races of old, including the rare pixies from the fey realms, and the more numerous orcs, ogres and ghouls. There are many breeds of ghoul by region, the seelie and unseelie pixies, the tall black orcs and the shorter green orcs, and the less variant ogres.
The Lands of Gazadon
Races of the Land: Gnolls (Freq 2 Var 6), Insect Men (Freq 5 Var 0), Doppelgangers (Freq 2 Var 0), humans (Freq 4 Var 0), lesser demons (Freq 1 Var 5), ratfolk (Freq 3 Var 3), stone warriors (Freq 2, Var 1), and ogres (Freq 5 Var 0)
Magic: Magic is common and people are used to it. There are only two “arts” of magic, being tradsitional arcane casting and the darker eldritch arts.
Character Types: (classic array) Assassin, Shaman, Thief, Alchemist, Druid, Knight
Cultural Complexity: typical complexity, world average tech renaissance level; Greek-like (2 religions), Mesopotamian-like (4 religions), Chinese-like (stone age and 4 religions) and Viking (monotheistic)!
Features: Terrible curses and diseases wrack the lands. A plague of planetouched elementals (lighting men) are overrunning the land! Mythosesque deities threaten to awaken and enslave all.
Introduction to Gazadon
Gazadon is a rough place to live. Humans are not a majority in Gazadon, and they’re not even as common as the Sulari Insect Men who rule over them! Indeed, the ogre barbarians of the wilderness are more numerous in this lands than humans.
The world of Gazadon is dominated by eight races, including the dog headed gnoll men who come in many breeds, the mysterious doppelgangers that masquerade among other societies and races, humanity itself which is the singular race of dusky skinned me descended from a lost empire that fell to the invading Sulari, the lesser demons of the Na’quar, the prodigious ratfolk and their sea kingdoms, and the enigmatic stone warriors of Aravosk, relics of a forgotten era.
Magic is ubiquitous and everyone can learn it with some ease; even slaves are allowed to learn some magic, albeit not battle magic. All magic comes from learning the basics of arcane energy, but some mages seek more powerful magic through eldritch studies of the cosmic gods of old.
Adventurers in this land belong to one of the six great professions, the assassins, shamans, thieves, alchemists, druids and knights. In this land, the role of shaman and druid is blended with the qualities of both mage and priest, but alchemists are considered true students of magic.
The world at large is at a level of renaissance level technology thanks to the Sulari Empire, which dominates from its city-states in a sort of early republic ruled by the insect men and their human slaves. The arid desert kingdoms of Chathwa are a splinter branch of unified sulari and humans with some ogres and Na’quar demons in their ranks. The distant lands of Amasa’tenaru are still in an idyllic stone age but here men, ratfolk, ogres and gnolls exist free of Sulari domination. Last but far from least the arboreal kingdoms of the barbaric and Viking-like ogres of Nojnasar stand ever-ready to overwhelm the Sulari and bring down the gates of their empire. The Nojnasar worship the All Father deity Ramnos, whom they revere as the sole deity, unlike all other lands that worship multiple gods and pantheons.
Amidst all this chaos there are numerous threats to the land that arise all the time. A mysterious wasting disease spreads throughout the empire like it is unstoppable, and there are rumors that the desert kingdom of Chathwa labors under a mysterious curse. The eldritch alchemists of the land are determined to steal the secrets of the ancient star gods, but greater numbers of cultists pledge themselves to the awesome and dark power of these beings, to call them down from the sky. Elsewhere, across the entirety of the world mysterious planar rifts open up and an invading army of elemental humanoids called the Zviq’arzen are forcing their way into the world to take over from the Sulari as the new rulers. Heroes are needed!
Walla! Instant Plot-Thick Realms for High Adventure.