5E D&D campaign setting worldbuilding

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Over at Nerdarchy the YouTube channel Nerdarchists Dave and Ted discuss changing up your fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons games through worldbuilding and getting weird with your campaign ideas. According to the 5E D&D Player’s Handbook “the many worlds of the Dungeons & Dragons game are places of magic and monsters, of brave warriors and spectacular adventures. They begin with a foundation of medieval fantasy and then add the creatures, places, and magic that make these worlds unique.” With such a succinct description for the Worlds of Adventure where our campaigns take place and stories emerge we’ve got a great starting point for developing our own ideas for nonstandard games. Since we’ve got a tremendous number of posts here on Nerdarchy the Website exploring nonstandard campaign ideas along with tips and suggestions from the video this feels like a terrific opportunity to mash all these things together. So let’s get into it.

Making a 5E D&D campaign setting your own

One of the reasons we enjoy creating so much content is time. We’ll never have enough time to put even half of the ideas from videos, website posts and Patreon content into our own games or run entire campaigns based on them. Developing these ideas and sharing them stays true to one of the inspirations for starting Nerdarchy in the first place — we’ve always loved discussing the RPG hobby and we’d be doing it anyway. Turning on the camera or writing out those thoughts gives us the opportunity to connect with other nerds and trade ideas and thoughts we can all bring back to our own games.

When it comes to nonstandard or even weird campaign ideas for 5E D&D we can take apart the Worlds of Adventure description from earlier and illustrate how even a few small changes makes a big impact. In the video Dave and Ted give a few pointers for avoiding pitfalls when it comes to worldbuilding and changing up the default assumptions about the game and setting. They also touch on several established D&D campaign settings like Dark Sun, Ravenloft and Eberron, each a great example of how starting with the same basics can result in wildly different settings.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to start small. You don’t need a compendium detailing everything about your campaign setting before players can undertake adventurers there. Keep these tips in mind while you check out these 5E D&D worldbuilding and campaign ideas.

Foundation of medieval fantasy

“Medieval Fantasy is defined less by its characteristics and more by it setting: namely, the medieval historical period. This sub-genre has had a great influence on the fantasy genre as a whole. Indeed, many fantasy stories have a setting, that while not strictly medieval, has noticeable influences and resemblances to that time period. The sub-genre has grown beyond the literary formats to include movies and games. The European Middle Ages tend to the be setting for these stories. Featuring the culture, social structure, monarchial government, and warfare of medieval Europe. Medieval Fantasy stories blend the historical with the magical and often European folklore.” — BestFantasyBooks.com

Changing the foundation of your 5E D&D campaign might actually be the easiest way to personalize a setting with just a few broad stokes of worldbuilding. The components of the game that evoke a medieval milieu aren’t even really represented mechanically in the rules so this is mostly fluff. In fact I’m willing to bet a huge number of D&D players only land in the ballpark of medieval fantasy these days. This is especially the case when it comes to culture.

I can only speak to the games I’ve participated in and seen played and campaign settings reminiscent of real world Middle Ages are not represented very much at all. If I’m honest this is a great thing. In those times clergy and nobles were at the top, with a great many peasants at the bottom working the land and living in poverty not much better than their animals. Scientists, merchants, craftsmen and yeoman farmers made up what was basically the middle class. Over the years as players and play styles changed and evolved I feel like people seek more from their escapist gaming than simulating this sort of world.

Deciding who holds power and how they use it can inform everything else about your 5E D&D campaign setting. Taking a look at chapter 1 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide you’ll find a section on Forms of Government that can inspire you to change the foundation of your world. In my games I like to assume there is a meritocracy system in place on both macro and micro levels by default. The result is a generally positive world where the brightest folk do their best for society and are rewarded for these efforts. The added benefit to this rosy perspective is when characters encounter harsher societies the differences are clear to see and understand.

Another aspect to consider are the races of the world. What peoples have risen to places of prominence and how they influence the world makes a huge difference. During video planning we looked at Talislanta, a fantasy roleplaying game from the 1980s. One of the game’s big selling points was its slogan “No Elves.” None of the typical fantasy races exist in the setting — including humans. More recently in our Those Bastards! game the world our Dungeon Master presented a similar feel. We visited an aarakocra city and a city populated entirely by elemental and planetouched folks and traveled through environments far removed from standard medieval fantasy fare. DM Megan didn’t show us a tome they’d compiled with all the ins and outs of the world but we all became heavily invested and curious about the setting. Experiencing these differences made the world come alive and I daresay even more vibrant because we didn’t have a comprehensive reference resource. Through our characters and our own perspectives we contributed to developing the setting in a really fun, collaborative way.

At the end of the day I suspect many, many players of 5E D&D take “medieval fantasy” with a grain of salt and lean much more towards the fantasy part than the medieval. The Middle Ages frankly sucked for the vast majority of humanity, especially compared with how the world is today even taking into account we’ve certainly got many problems and challenges still to overcome. I might know a bit about medieval history and European folklore and some might find its way into my games but I’m much more excited about the fantasy end of the equation.

Places of magic

Magic changes everything. Even the most authentic medieval setting undergoes a sea change with the inclusion of magic whether in the form of spells, locations and objects of power or whole other planes of existence. Places in your world strongly affected by magic do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to creating a weird or nonstandard campaign setting for 5E D&D. In Dark Sun the world of Athas is a scorched desert because of magical catastrophes. In Ravenloft magical Mists keep anyone from leaving the lands of Barovia. Over at Nerdarchy Live we just completed our Those Bastards! campaign and in that world the elemental planes touch on the material plane very dramatically and in my own games the Dreaming World — my take on the Feywild — frequently overlaps with the Waking World.

Magic represents the most impactful part of worldbuilding in 5E D&D. Magic can account for anything and provides easy to express and understand notions for players. My favorite D&D setting, Spelljammer, relies heavily on magic to explain the nonstandard components. One of the best suggestions I can share for incorporating the effects of magic on a campaign setting is Pinterest, the image sharing social media service. I guarantee you’ll discover fantastic art and illustrations and your creative ideas will take off. For example check out this map of Mistgate by Venatus Maps. Once you start considering how magic interacts with your world the setting quickly grows out of mundane medieval fantasy and into a canvas for your imagination. Don’t hold back describing these fantastic places to players either. When you can instill a sense of wonder in the players themselves it carries over to their characters and the next thing you know they’re invested in the world.

5E D&D campaign setting worldbuilding

Places of monsters

Monsters affect campaign settings and provide context for adventures. There’s a great deal of suspension of disbelief when it comes to a standard 5E D&D setting from the perspective of ecology. How many monsters live in the world anyway? I’m no biologist but it’s always seemed strange to me how the worlds of D&D can be home to civilizations of several so many humanoid populations and so many types of monsters in a sustainable way.

Maybe in your 5E D&D world monsters are more individualistic. Instead of manticores, bulettes and froghemoths they are singular creatures. The Manticore, The Bulette and The Froghemoth are legends and myths that formed around one creature, not an entire species of them. Even something like a giant constrictor snake could be such a creature. In Those Bastards! the party learned of a dangerous serpent living in the jungle named Bird Eater that threatened the nearby aarakocra city. When we encountered the beast and managed to slay it we were excited and felt a great sense of accomplishment.

Curating a list of monsters for your 5E D&D campaign can go a long way towards creating a nonstandard setting too. In the gothic horror setting of Ravenloft, monsters like werewolves and undead establish the kinds of terrible supernatural perils of Barovia. In Dark Sun every creature possesses a measure of psionic power — even the plants! — and monsters contribute to the brutal nature of the world.

Places of brave warriors

The brave warriors of your 5E D&D campaigns are the player characters themselves. To foster your goal of crafting a nonstandard setting you might curate the character options available to players or if you’re more broadly inclusive think about how these options interact with your world. Where do wizards study and learn their magic? How do the average folk and those in positions of power view sorcerers? Are rangers part of a loose organization of wardens who guard the wild places of the world? Do rogues risk incurring the wrath of criminal organizations when they operate independently?

One of the best ways to make character choices meaningful in the context of the setting is to wait until after the players make their characters. Then you can talk with them and find the answers to those questions together. If no one is playing a wizard there’s less need to figure out how those arcane spellcasters fit into the scenario. Many of the products we create include material for DMs and players alike for this very reason. For example in Wizard’s Wake adventurers visit a tropical island with a mysterious magical shipwreck to explore. Included in the book are two new playable races, an aquatic lizardfolk and sealfolk, along with Circle of Salt and Travel Domain subclasses for druids and clerics. These represent options whose origins come from the setting itself.

Places of spectacular adventures

This is where all the components come together. Cultures and societies, magic and monsters and the heroes who encounter them all connect to result in the memorable moments we remember for the rest of our lives. Presenting a 5E D&D setting to players and dropping their characters into it produces spectacular adventures often all on its own. The best games I’ve ever participated in felt like our characters simply exist in the world and provide players with a way to interact with the surroundings.

If you consider the basic components of the game we went over here it’s not hard to see how easily players can take the ball and run with it to discover their own unique journeys. An unusual quality of culture or society might draw characters into political situations or conversely take to the wilds and carve their own destinies away from civilization. Magical phenomena can capture imaginations and lead in wholly unexpected directions as it did for me once when I described an enormous tree growing in the distance amid otherwise flat grasslands. Compelling monsters frighten and embolden characters to learn more about them and uncover lost lore and secret stories rather than becoming a bag of hit points in their way forward through an adventure. And brave heroes discover there’s more to their choices than mechanical benefits when they find those choices establish their place in the world too.

Get weird with your 5E D&D

If you take anything away from these ideas I hope it is this — don’t be afraid to share your imagination at the gaming table. The meaningful decisions you make about your campaign setting become the hooks players need to immerse themselves and this is where the collaborative storytelling takes off. This spirit of creativity informs pretty much everything we do and you’ll see this perspective throughout the products we make. The adventures we design take place in all sorts of scenarios like frozen tundras, tropical islands or cities of the dead and the reason we always say they’re ready to drop right into your game is because we do the same in ours.

In my experience DMs tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves to try and account for any detail that may come up and creating your own campaign setting can feel incredibly daunting because of this. I know because this happens to me every time I run a game too. But I’ve learned over the years one of the most important things I can do as a DM is trust the players. Whether the campaign setting you present is nonstandard and weird or the traditional medieval fantasy 5E D&D is built on there’s no telling what stories will emerge.

[NERDITOR’S NOTE: When you sign up for Nerdarchy the Newsletter you’ll receive a special coupon for $9.99 off your cart at Nerdarchy the Store. You can pick up the products mentioned in this post like Wizard’s Wake, Death Pit or any of the other dozens of our books ready to drop right into your 5E D&D games here.]

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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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