Worldbuilding is simultaneously the most exciting and frustrating part of writing a D&D story. Not only are you creating a world of your own imaginings, but you must breathe life into it with the history, people, and towns that will all evolve as your players begin to influence it…and you are never fully done!
There are as many approaches to worldbuilding as there are styles of storytelling: top-down, bottom-up, event-driven, character-driven…the list goes on almost indefinitely and most worlds are built with a blend of several different approaches. While this post isn’t meant to cover the entirety of worldbuilding, I do want to talk about things to consider when creating a world for a family campaign!
One thing I’ve learned is that younger players often interact with the world in different ways…and if you have a group with mixed ages (such as my Heroes of Iyastera Family Campaign groups, with both children and their parents), you want to ensure you have a good balance of both simplicity and complexity for your story.
Here are some things I think about when creating a world for mixed-age groups:
First things first: what kind of setting do you want to use? You can tell just about any kind of story with the D&D framework, it’s just a matter of preference!
Most D&D games do highlight fantasy settings, often set in a pseudo-medieval time period, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick to that paradigm. Pick a setting that both you and your players will enjoy! If you don’t care for the genre, your heart won’t be in your writing…your players will be able to tell the difference.
When it comes to younger players, this much is certain: they want to play in a world that enables them to use abilities they don’t have in real life.
They come to the table to play as daring heroes (or villains), so be sure to create a setting that has enough fantastical qualities (without necessarily limiting yourself to fantasy) to support their imagination.
When you also have more experienced players, remember to temper the fantastical with some realism. Even in a world where magic and dragons exist, things still follow some sort of logic and reason (unless you’re in the Feywild…then all bets are off). If your party has suddenly come across a magic carpet, be sure to provide an explanation for how it got there.
High vs Low Magic (or Technology)
One way to ensure your world has that right level of wonder is by determining how magic works. If you want to go with a steampunk or cyberpunk type of setting, how advanced is the technology? What kind of abilities and tools are at the party’s disposal? Is your world filled to the brim with magic or advanced tech that anyone can access, or is it a rarity used only by a minority of the population? Where does the magic come from?
When I’m trying to decide between a High or Low-Magic world, I think in terms of availability or accessibility. How common are magic items? Is arcane ability something that a large percentage of the population can tap into, or is it something only a few obtain?
In a High-Magic world, spellcasters, mythical creatures, and magical items might be found in abundance. Think about the Harry Potter series– although the vast majority of the population doesn’t seem to be aware of it the world seems to be popping at the seams with magic.
In a Low-Magic world, these things might be much more uncommon. I’d like to note here that “Low Magic” doesn’t have to mean “No Magic”. Magic might still exist in the world, but instead of enchanted swords being a dime-a-dozen, they’re much harder to come by. Or perhaps the source of magic itself is harder to access, and the use of stronger spells comes at some sort of cost.
For an example, let’s look at Iyastera, the homebrewed setting I use for the family campaigns and one-shots:
“Welcome to the Realm of Iyastera. These lands were once lush and prosperous, inundated with a natural magic that graced fields, forests, and seas with an abundance that sustained its people for generations.
…but that magic was drained over the course of a decades-long war– now remembered as the War of the Magi– which wreaked havoc across the four kingdoms and ended with the deposition of the former royal families. Now, nearly two centuries later, the realm is finally healing and enjoys a semblance of peace and cooperation. While much of the natural magic of the world was drained through the course of the war, it is slowly starting to replenish.”
From an accessibility standpoint, Iyastera is currently a Low-Magic world. It isn’t that magic itself is rare, but it’s going through a period of renewal. Magic in Iyastera is a natural resource that takes time to replenish, so while there are plenty of people with the ability to harness it, the resource itself is limited.
In this kind of setting, learning a new spell or gaining a new item should be treated as more of an extraordinary event, which will emphasize the heroic nature of your adventuring party. If you choose to go with the High Magic option, you’ll need to find other ways to make your party’s achievements feel special– whether that is through strange events that seem to follow them or another sort of unusual ability they acquire.
Regardless of what the basis for your setting is, you now need to decide how those decisions impact the daily life of your party and the NPCs they meet. Remember the classic adage of “showing, not telling”: it’s not enough to simply tell the party how the world works. With new and experienced players alike, you need to be able to show them what it means for them. They will internalize the dynamics of the world much more fully if they can see the impact it has on their decisions, and vice-versa. The world should also move externally to the party…life should progress in a town whether or not they have a hand in it.
Another example from Iyastera: Because magic is now starting to return to the world, things that had disappeared over a century ago are also starting to reappear. Boundaries between realms are starting to thin and beings that had become the stuff of legends are creeping back into reality. This means that extreme cases of magic or magical creatures are going to cause quite a stir…and if the party comes across something of that sort, they know that they’ve found something strange and unusual that most of the NPCs they meet won’t have experienced. There are also consequential events happening in other parts of the realm that they have yet to realize.
Who’s in Charge?
Time to think about politics: who is “in charge” of your realm? Is there a monarchy or a council of some sort? Who makes the decisions and how are those decisions enforced? These are things you want to think about, that your more experienced players will appreciate. Just remember to keep it as an indirect influence, at least at first. While introducing factions and political struggle is a great way to add complexity to a story, younger players won’t want to jump head-first into politics right away. Let them explore the world from a more localized scale first, and have those mechanisms running in the background until the story matures.
With all of the points covered above, the most important thing is a balance between the fantastical and the realistic. You don’t want to make the world too restricting when creating for a mixed-age campaign: have enough flexibility and sense of wonder to accommodate wild imaginations, but with just enough structure that they still must think creatively when solving the dynamic challenges in their path.
There is so much more to be said about worldbuilding, but I hope you enjoyed these tidbits! What kind of experiences have you had playing D&D with mixed-age groups? What kind of worlds did you discover?