Excerpts Archive | 10/11/2010
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D&D World
DM Kit Excerpts

The Dungeon Master's Kit contains everything you need to get started as a Dungeon Master (except a place to play, dice, paper and pencils, and players!)—including advice on running a game, rewarding players, and building adventures.

Chapter 2: the Dungeons & Dragons World, describes the game’s world as a place of magic and monsters, of brave warriors and spectacular adventures. It begins with a basis of medieval fantasy and then adds the creatures, places, and powers that make the D&D game world unique. As the setting for your games, you may wish to learn more of this world—of course, to either fully incorporate or adapt to your adventures, as you see fit!

Exploring a bit deeper, here’s an overview of the D&D world as described:

A Dark World. The current age has no all-encompassing empire. The world is shrouded in a dark age, between the collapse of the last great empire and the rise of the next, which might be centuries away. Minor kingdoms prosper, to be sure: baronies, holdings, city-states. But each settlement appears as a point of light in the widespread darkness, a haven, an island of civilization in the wilderness that covers the world. Adventurers can rest and recuperate in settlements between adventures. No settlement is entirely safe, however, and adventures often break out within (or under) cities and towns.

The World Is a Fantastic Place. Magic works, servants of the gods wield divine power, and fire giants build strongholds in active volcanoes. The world might be based on reality, but it’s a blend of real-world physics, cultures, and history with a heavy dose of fantasy. For the game’s purposes, it doesn’t matter what historical paladins were like; it cares about what paladins are like in the fantasy world. Adventurers visit the most fantastic locations: wide cavern passages cut by rivers of lava, towers held aloft in the sky by ancient magic, and forests of twisted trees draped in shimmering fog.

The World Is Ancient. Empires rise and empires crumble, leaving few places that have not been touched by their grandeur. Ruin, time, and natural forces eventually claim all, leaving the Dungeons & Dragons game world rich with places of adventure and mystery. Ancient civilizations and their knowledge survive in legends, artifacts, and the ruins they left behind, but chaos and darkness inevitably follow an empire’s collapse. Each new realm must carve a place out of the world rather than build on the efforts of past civilizations.

The World Is Mysterious. Wild, uncontrolled regions abound and cover most of the world. City-states of various races dot the darkness, bastions in the wilderness built amid the ruins of the past. Some of these settlements are “points of light” where adventurers can expect peaceful interaction with the inhabitants, but many more are dangerous. No one race lords over the world, and vast kingdoms are rare. People know the area they live in well, and they’ve heard stories of other places from merchants and travelers, but few know what lies beyond the mountains or in the depth of the great forest unless they’ve been there personally.

Monsters Are Everywhere. Most monsters of the world are as natural as bears or horses are on Earth, and monsters inhabit civilized parts of the world and the wilderness alike. Griffon riders patrol the skies over dwarf cities, domesticated behemoths carry trade goods over long distances, a yuan-ti empire holds sway just a few hundred miles from a human kingdom, and a troop of ice archons from the Elemental Chaos might suddenly appear in the mountains near a major city.

Adventurers Are Exceptional. Player characters are the pioneers, explorers, trailblazers, thrill seekers, and heroes of the Dungeons & Dragons game world. Although nonplayer characters might have a class and gain power, they do not necessarily advance as adventurers do, and they exist for a different purpose. Not everyone in the world gains levels as adventurers do. An NPC might be a veteran of numerous battles and still not become a 3rd-level fighter; an army of elves is made up of soldiers, not fighters.

The Civilized Races Band Together. The great races of the world—humans, dwarves, eladrin, elves, and halflings—drew closer together during the time of the last great empire (which was human-dominated). That’s what makes them the civilized races—they’re the ones found living together in the towns and cities of civilization. Other races, including dragonborn and tieflings, are in decline, heirs of ancient empires long forgotten. Goblins, orcs, gnolls, kobolds, and similar savage races were never part of that human empire. Some of them, such as the militaristic hobgoblins, have cities, organized societies, and kingdoms of their own. These are islands of civilization in the wilderness, but they are not “points of light.”

Magic Is Not Everyday, but it Is Natural. No one is superstitious about magic, but neither is the use of magic trivial. Practitioners of magic are as rare as fighters. People might see evidence of magic every day, but it’s usually minor—a fantastic monster, a visibly answered prayer, a wizard flying by on a griffon. However, true masters of magic are rare. Many people have access to a little magic, and such minor magic helps those living within the points of light to maintain their communities. But those who have the power to shape spells the way a blacksmith shapes metal are as rare as adventurers and appear as friends or foes to the player characters.

Gods and Primordials Shaped the World. The primordials, elemental creatures of enormous power, shaped the world out of the Elemental Chaos. The gods gave it permanence and warred with the primordials for control of the new creation, in a great conflict known as the Dawn War. The gods eventually triumphed, and primordials now slumber in remote parts of the Elemental Chaos or rage in hidden prisons.

Gods Are Distant. At the end of the Dawn War, the mighty primal spirits of the world exerted their influence, forbidding gods and primordials alike from directly influencing the world. Now exarchs act in the world on behalf of their gods, and angels appear to undertake missions that promote the agendas of the gods they serve. Gods are extremely powerful, compared to mortals and monsters, but they aren’t omniscient or omnipotent. They provide access to the divine power source for their clerics and paladins, and their followers pray to them in hopes that they or their exarchs will hear them and bless them.

It’s Your World

The preceding section sums up the basics of what the game assumes about the Dungeons & Dragons game world. Within those general parameters, though, there’s a lot of room for you to fill in the details. Each published campaign setting describes a different world that adheres to some of those core assumptions, alters others, and then builds a world around them. You can do the same to create a world that’s uniquely yours.

The Details: Where the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks talk about the world, they drop names that exemplify the core assumptions—such as the tiefling empire of Bael Turath and the Invulnerable Coat of Arnd. Just as you can alter names in published adventures to suit the flavor of your campaign, you can change the names of these assumed parts of the world. For example, you might decide that the tieflings of your world have a culture reminiscent of medieval Russia, and call their ancient empire Perevolochna.

Aside from these changeable assumed details, most of the specifics of the world are left to your own invention. Even if you begin your campaign in the town of Fallcrest (page 61) and lead the characters on to Winterhaven and Hammerfast, eventually the adventurers will move off the map in this chapter and explore new lands of your own creation.

If you follow the core assumptions of the game, sketching out the world beyond your starting area is a simple matter. Great tracts of wilderness separate civilized areas. South of Fallcrest, the adventurers might travel through a forest on an old, overgrown road they’ve been told leads to the city-state of Ironwood.

You can throw adventures in their path along the way, then draw them into another grand dungeon adventure when they arrive in what turns out to be the gnoll-infested ruins of Ironwood.

You can draft a map of the whole continent at or near the beginning of your campaign. You don’t have to, of course, but even if you do, it’s a good idea to keep it sketchy. As the campaign progresses, you’ll find that you want certain terrain features in specific places, or an element of the campaign story will lead you to fill in details of the map in ways you couldn’t have anticipated at the start of the campaign.

Just as when you prepare an adventure, don’t over-prepare your campaign. Even in a published campaign, the large-scale maps of regions and continents don’t detail every square mile of land. You can and should feel free to add details where you need them—and alter them when your campaign suggests it.

Altering Core Assumptions: One definition of speculative fiction (of which fantasy and science fiction are two branches) is that it starts with reality as we know it and asks, “What if some aspect of the world was different?” Most fantasy starts from the question, “What if magic was real?” The assumptions sketched out on these pages aren’t graven in stone. They make for an exciting world full of adventure, but they’re not the only set of assumptions that do so. You can build an interesting campaign concept by altering one or more of those core assumptions. Ask yourself, “What if this wasn’t true in my world?”

The World Is a Fantastic Place. What if it’s not? What if the adventurers all use the martial power source, and magic is rare and dangerous? What if your campaign is set in a version of historical Europe?

The World Is Ancient. What if your world is brand new, and the player characters are the first heroes to walk the earth? What if there are no ancient artifacts and traditions, no crumbling ruins?

The World Is Mysterious. What if it’s all charted and mapped, right down to the “Here there be dragons” notations? What if great empires cover huge stretches of countryside, with clearly defined borders between them?

Monsters Are Everywhere. What if monsters are rare and terrifying?

Adventurers Are Exceptional. What if the cities of the world are crowded with adventurers, buying and selling magic items in great markets?

The Common Races Band Together. What if, to use a fantasy cliché, dwarves and elves don’t get along? What if hobgoblins live side by side with the other races?

Magic Is Not Everyday. What if every town is ruled by a powerful wizard? What if magic item shops are common?

Gods and Primordials Shaped the World. What if the primordials won, and hidden cults dedicated to a handful of surviving deities are scattered through a shattered world that echoes the Elemental Chaos?

Gods Are Distant. What if the gods regularly walk the earth? What if the adventurers can challenge them and seize their power? Or what if even exarchs and angels never sully themselves by contact with mortals?

From these base assumptions, the DM Kit goes on to describe the gods, civilization, and a closer look at one place in the world: the Nentir Vale. But we’ll leave this chapter for now—and return next time, for a new look at magic items!