The Major Powers in Your D&D Setting


The dry chamber was silent. All the grand chairs were filled, the table was littered with maps, pins, papers, and quills; yet no one spoke. They were all here, representatives from the greatest powers across Aphesus: A mighty dwarven battlemaster from Utgarda; a bloodthirsty gnoll warlock from Dol Dohur; a shy, enigmatic wood elf from Daioda; a zealotos life cleric from Lorinth; a wild halfling atop his raptor from Zinae. Yet no sound emerged from any of them. They all knew the severity of the disaster that brought them together — the decimation of the gnome country Klavangra — but none could muster the courage to speak. In this sultry, remote outpost, they sat, stunned and unsure of what to say or how to approach the matter at hand. Eventually, the silence would break; these are powerful people after all. Surely they’d know what to do. Here in this arid desert hideout, peace would be brokered...or war declared.

Thus far in the worldbuilding process, we’ve formed core tenets, established a great pantheon, and drawn a basic map. All of these have been broad strokes. Before we start adding depth to our world, we’re going to slide the brush across our entire canvas one more time. In this installment of the Worldforge, we’ll be creating the major powers of our Dungeons & Dragons setting; these will be the movers and shakers of our world, the cultures that are most widespread. Let’s make some powerful cultures!

Defining a Power

A major power can be anything from an influential city-state to a titanic empire that sprawls across your entire setting; we need to make a few. These notable cultures will likely interact with the actual player characters in your group more than deities — or even maps — ever will. Most of the conflict and intrigue in your setting should stem from these powers colliding, collapsing, and being born anew.

So, what is interesting to you? Look at your world and what it’s about. What kind of cultures do you want to fill it with? Most D&D worlds are rich with diversity: orcs and elves, halflings and tieflings, humans and dwarves. My general rule is to give every common race a single major power. The orcs control an enormous stronghold that once was held by dwarves. Dragonborn rule an entire empire that threatens every civilization that exists. That’s the first step to defining a power: you need to think about what that power is and who controls it. Here are a few examples:
  1. Nation of gnolls in the desert.
  2. Theocracy of halflings.
  3. Nomadic tribe of goliaths in the mountains.
  4. City-state of halflings in the jungle.
  5. Cabal of genasi.
  6. Magocracy of sorcerers half in the Material Plane, half in the Inner Planes.
  7. Country of warmongering humans.
  8. Empire of peaceful, idealistic gnomes.
After you’ve decided what the power is and who controls it, you need to create its culture. How does the nation of gnolls in the desert act? Do they worship gods, spirits, or the stars? Are they a militaristic society or do they thrive on hunting wild beasts and straying from conflict with other powers? As is the norm with worldbuilding, all you need to do is think up and initial premise and ask yourself questions about it to give it more depth.

When creating powers, I’ve found the following strategy incredibly useful, engaging, and fun. Take one or two cultures you know about, splice them together, and add a fantastical twist! This makes for interesting powers in your setting without too much work on your part and can give you a baseline to further develop after you’ve created a few of them. Read about ancient Egyptian culture and their devotion to the pyramids and monumental statues, combine that with the Mongol’s mastery of cavalry, and give your city-state of halflings in the jungle pterodactyls to ride. Voila — you have an interesting power; you can build on it later. Make some more!

Example Powers

Stuck trying to create a power or two? Take a gander at this short list for ideas:
  1. Empire of thri-kreen that look to the stars and constellations for guidance, construct enormous planetariums, and seek the destruction of all deities.
  2. Guild of warforged who live in the sewers of a major city and manipulate the politics of it from the tunnels below. They construct odd, “warforged” animals like rats and birds to spy on their enemies — and allies.
  3. Country of elves and dwarves who live together in a forested mountain chain and share a common history. Everyone speaks Elvish, the most common weapon is a battleaxe, and the professions of mining and artistry go hand-in-hand.
  4. Human jungle nation that relies on a chained devil for energy and magic.

In Summary

The last, large stroke across our world is the creation of a few major powers. Remember the following points:
  1. A major power is an culture or faction that will play a substantial role in your setting.
  2. Think about the what and who of a culture before you do anything else. Is it a diverse country? A city of gnomes? A guild of half orcs?
  3. To develop provocative powers, take two cultures you know about, splice them together, and add a fantastical twist! The possibilities are endless.

About YouTube

For the past few weeks, I've been uploading a new video to my YouTube channel on Friday mornings. Each of these videos is simply me reading my articles, starting from the beginning, and then elaborating on them at the end of the video. Sometimes, I've changed my mind on a topic, other times my opinion remains the same. If you're interested in listening the the articles read aloud, check it out!

Next up in the Worldforge series, we’ll be zooming in — creating a starting point for a campaign or adventure in our campaign setting.

Until then, farewell!

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