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Tenets of D&D Settings


The worlds of the grand DUNGEONS & DUNGEONS multiverse are vast and diverse. One might be spherical in shape, cursed by an apocalyptic deity, and barely populated on the surface. Another could be rife with powerful wizards, gods that walk upon the physical world, and a world-spanning conflict between good and evil. Your setting might be small, contained to a single continent where orcs manipulating blood magic preside over a tired population of humans, dwarves, and elves who can’t decipher what magic is or how to use it. On the other end of the spectrum, my world could entail an enormous continent with hundreds of islands that surround it, on which magic is prominent, the old gods are dead, and monsters lurk in every forest, valley, and river.

These core pillars of your D&D setting are something I call “tenets,” and today we will be establishing the tenets of our D&D settings together.

But before we do, there’s something rather titanic I’d like to briefly discuss: Tomorrow, not today, sadly, marks one year of RJD20.com and everything it spawned. Over the last year, we’ve discussed charming beginners with our wonderful hobby, designing epic, evolving encounters, playing monstrous player characters, the awe-inspiring uses of aboleths, and much more. 38 articles about D&D were published, about 119,000 people have visited the site, and the top two articles were Aboleths: Deities of the Deep (10,183 views) and Holding a Successful Session Zero (8,789 views). To many folks, this might be insignificant, but to me, the amazing comments and number of views I’ve received floor me. When I started to publish articles on January 12, 2018, I never predicted that I’d get this much reception, this much love, and this much support. Thank you all for an amazing year; here’s to everything else to come. Cheers!

Alright - the joyous tears have subsided. Let’s return to talking about the tenets of D&D settings. This is the premiere installment of the Worldforge series, in which we’ll slowly build an entire D&D setting together. In the beginning, I’ll be following the 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide; eventually, we’ll branch off from that book.

The setting I will be making is called Aphesus. Wrack your mind, search the web, and imagine what your setting will be called. Then, move on to the next section; it’s time to forge a world.

Gods, Magic, and Monsters

When first designing your world, you might have a clear picture of what you want it to be. Perhaps a broken setting with little magic and an abundance of death and danger or a world purely comprised of water and a few islands and ships sound interesting to you. That’s good! You should have a basic idea of the setting you want to build and play in before you begin; it gives you a baseline when outlining the tenets of it. My world, Aphesus’, main idea is that dragons, a creature long thought extinct, returned to the world, latched their claws into it, and took over the setting. That’s all you need to start: A sentence of description that evokes an idea or image in your mind’s eye. If you’re having trouble coming up with a setting concept, here are a few examples:
  1. A world covered in eternal darkness where undead are dominant.
  2. An archipelago where all magic is strictly forbidden.
  3. A realm locked in a state of constant war between a nation of warforged and the nation that initially created them.
  4. A continent that’s completely unexplored but inhabited by wicked, wild creatures and native people who don’t take kindly to visitors.
  5. A moon where those who don’t deserve the pleasures or plagues that the typical afterlife brings live.
  6. A world split in two by a god’s weapon that is connected by two heavily-guarded and sacred bridges.
Okay - you’ve come up with your setting’s name and basic premise. Now, it’s time to build on to that by adding tenets. These are the core pillars of your setting: Aspects that are mostly unchanging and true throughout the place. The 5E DMG suggests that a few of these tenets should be related to your setting’s view of gods, magic, and monsters. ‘Tis time to ask some questions.

The Gods & Goddesses

Are the gods real? If no, how do clerics gain their divine power? If yes, do they walk the world alongside mortals, or do they live in planar realms? Do people worship them? How far do they go in interactions with mortals? Gods are incredibly important in D&D, mostly because they are the source of a player character class’ abilities, but also because they can be the source of a plethora of plot hooks. Priests of Talmora are seizing children in the streets because their goddess said a terrible curse lurks in one of them. A cult of Asmodeus begins sacrificing clerics of a specific religion to appease their devilish deity. An entire nation based on the laws of Torm’s teachings goes to war against a neighboring city-state after they violate Torm’s moral code. On top of plot hooks, gods also contribute greatly to the cosmology and origins of your world; they shape the planes that surround the Material Plane and, perhaps, helped create your setting in the beginning. Whether or not gods exist is the first question you should ask yourself about your setting. We’ll get to creating and fleshing them out later.

In Aphesus, the majority of the old gods were slain by the dragons when they reappeared. Some escaped to distant, planar reaches like the depths of the Infinite Abyss and the High Heavens, and others now hide on the Material Plane. Incredibly powerful dragons usurped most of the dead deities’ power, and now serve as the “true gods” of Aphesus, while the old gods who survived are called the “damned deities.”

On Magic

The next question to ask yourself is, “How magical is my setting?” Is it low-magic? If so, this means spellcasters are scarce, maybe even outlawed, magic items are few in number but extremely powerful, and day-to-day folk are terrified of even the most mundane magical spells. Is it high-magic? This leads to magical artifacts being found throughout the world, perhaps airships are a common method of transport, and wizards walk openly on the streets escorted by iron golem guards. Of course, there’s a middle ground, but you want to think about how prominent magic is in your world. This means a lot for your players: If someone decides to play a wizard and wizards are hunted in your setting, they’ll most likely want to know that before the campaign begins.

In Aphesus, magic is used in all societies: Tribal civilizations use blood and nature magic to enhance their connection to the wilderness, grand empires use evocation magic to overpower foes in wartime and magical artifacts and items like enchanted swords and elemental airships to greaten their empire, and almost everyone’s life is touched by basic forms of magic, whether it be mystical creatures like owlbears and gargoyles or consequences of magic like everlasting torches and warforged warriors. I’d say Aphesus is a high-magic setting.

Wilderness and Monsters

Finally, you should decide how prevalent wilderness and, in turn, monsters are in your setting. Is civilization more common than wilderness? If civilization is abundant, then most of the land is probably covered in pastures, settlements, and huge cities. Most of your adventures will take place in an urban environment or some dungeon within it. That also means when your group travels outside the bounds of civilization, it’s truly special. Another question is: Are monsters almost always found in the wild? If your group steps outside of the town’s walls, will they be assaulted by wild animals, orc tribes, owlbears, dragons, lizardfolk, or worse? Are encounters in the wild rare and deadly? Think about this.

In Aphesus, wilderness is far more prevalent than civilization. Sure, there’s the draconic empire of Koth, a few countries, and city-states, towns, and villages scattered throughout the vast wilds, but wilderness, in my view, is far more interesting than civilization. Snow-capped mountains littered with ancient, monastic ruins of frost giant seers, endless plains ruled by centaurs, sheltered, haunted woodland bogs skittering with large lizardfolk - the possibilities are endless and more intriguing than a surplus of civilization. Wilderness is greater than civilization in most cases when it comes to D&D play.

In Summary

For your D&D setting, you need to outline its core tenets, or foundational pillars. I suggest you start by asking yourself three questions:
  1. Are the gods real?
  2. How is magic used and perceived?
  3. How prevalent are the wilds and the monsters within?
Answer those, and you’re well on your way to building your own D&D setting. In the next installment of the Worldforge, we will delve into creating a personalized pantheon for your world.

Until next time, farewell!

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