Not every D&D campaign or world map includes nations or regions that break the larger mass into more digestible pieces, but this is one of the features that I’m glad I chose to be a primary element of my current D&D campaign. Inspired by a 3rd Edition D&D campaign run by our friend Dennis (aka The Main Event) where the nationality of the PCs became one of the most memorable parts of the game for me and ended up factoring into the ongoing plots in interesting ways, I decided to present my players with a world divided into various nations each with a unique flair and often divided by racial distinctions. However, one of the elements that I failed to strongly present to my players and that I’m going to discuss today is the idea of giving a unique design and feel to each of those nations when it comes to locations and buildings.
I’m not going to say that every D&D game should have nations as I’m discussing them, but when it comes to precedents the worlds of Tolkien and Robert Jordan are strongly grounded in the idea of conflicting nations so it can’t be a bad idea to build on what they used to improve their stories. I am currently reading through the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan which is one of the main reasons this topic is so fresh in my mind. Throughout the books Jordan does an excellent job of describing (in detail, at length, constantly…) the different styles of architecture, fashion, and attitudes that are prevalent in each nation.
Details Grow Over Time
At first the intricate details that Jordan presents are simply descriptive and help us visualize specific people and places that we are reading about, but without knowing much about the nation as a larger concept they remain simple descriptions and are quickly forgotten. After numerous books and thousands of pages (I’m currently on the 11th book in the series, to give you an idea) these descriptions begin to grow into definitions and characteristics. What this means is that while Jordan will still go through the effort of describing the dress styles or architecture of a specific region, the reader already has a pretty damn good idea of what it’s going to look like from the precedents he has created. I have a strong feeling this same technique could become incredibly valuable over the course of a long campaign or several games set in the same world.
While I attempted to do this in my own game, the one place I fell short was on the architecture of each region. As ironic as it may be, in my own campaign I have developed a style of DMing that does not focus very much on the buildings or architecture. That said, if one of my players reads this and chimes in that they actually do have a very good idea of what the buildings in my game world look like, then I may just be harder on myself with regards to architecture (because damn it, I can do better)!
From Character to Architecture
This discussion is a fairly linear progression from my post back in April titled Give Your Cities Some Character. While that post presents some ideas on world building and how to introduce some interesting elements into your game’s settlements, what I’d like to discuss today is how you can specifically apply architecture to the same ends. As with nearly everything I discuss in this series, the way it is presented to the players is the key element and I feel that with architecture you need to start on the broadest scale possible. Have a town where almost every single building is perfectly square or circular, or other simple but large in scope ideas that can quickly convey an idea.
The absolute best example that comes to mind for this is the way Hobbiton was presented in the Lord of the Rings movies, all of the buildings had circular doors and floor layouts. Take that concept and apply it to nearly anything, for example any regular D&D game could use square doors for dwarven buildings and it makes perfect sense, dwarves are short and wide the same as their doors!
Beyond the Simple Details
After you’ve thought about some of the simple and large scope ideas, you can begin to look at the more complex elements that may influence the architecture of your cities. I always advise starting with a handful of defining elements about the region or city and tying those into the designs as firmly as you can. If you’re designing a dwarven settlement than short heights, stone construction, sharp angles/straight lines, readiness for battle, and an overall stubbornness can all be tied into a pervasive architectural style that could really start to define things in your player’s heads.
Like many elements I’ve discussed in this series, this concept can be best introduced to players through their interaction with it in the middle of a game. For instance if your players discover in the middle of an encounter that dwarven buildings are much more readily equipped for defense against attackers they may remember the details of the architecture more intimately then they would through a simple description from the DM. I would be willing to bet that details like these are easily forgotten after the first 2 or 3 adventures in any D&D game, but once the players have revisited the region that many times they should begin to gain an inherent sense of what defines that region just through the architecture and locations that you present them.
Inheritance of the Game
It would be my hope as a DM that after enough adventures in the game world that the players start to gain an inherent understanding of the game world, and I feel that defining regions and specific aspects for those regions is a fantastic aid in this effort. The more your players understand the game world, the less effort they have to put into envisioning things on their own and as a result the more they share in the world building whether or not it is a conscious effort. One of the best ways to do this might be to have your players DM their own adventures in your game world, literally sharing the world building and as a result improving everyone’s investment and understanding in the game world, but most people wouldn’t have that luxury available to them.
My attempt at building this kind of set up is going to be slightly different. I am currently 45 adventures into my ongoing 4th Edition D&D campaign, which started in July 2008 and will likely continue through the rest of 2011. After 3 years of running the same game, I am definitely exciting to move on to other things but I am also planning the next step for our D&D game as well. I don’t plan on running another extended campaign for quite some time, but what I am going to try is several shorter episodic campaigns that highlight certain regions or even specific periods in the history of my game. My hope is that with the players already familiar with the game world and the various regions, the episodic campaigns will present them with content that is familiar enough they will feel invested in it from the beginning and be able to share in the storytelling and world building along with me.
Click here for the rest of the Architect DM Series.