Build With, Not Without, 5E's Books

Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons books are phenomenal. Wizards of the Coast are focusing on quality, not quantity with this edition and it’s showing. The books are useful to all folk, from Players and Dungeon Masters to readers and worldbuilders. That last word, worldbuilders, is what we’ll be focusing on right now. I’ve recently experienced an epiphany: worldbuilders should build on D&D 5E’s books, instead of constantly, completely reinventing them. This might seem obvious or simple, but I’ve been dumb to the concept for quite awhile. Let me explain…

A Solid Foundation

I’ve started rereading the core rulebooks for 5E, starting with the Player’s Handbook, while building my world. As I was whizzing through the chapter on race, I realized how much work has gone into all of these creatures: what they look like, their cosmic histories, common characteristics, hooks for Players or Dungeon Masters, and much more. And while I love my D&D world being unique, if all of the races outlined in the Player’s Handbook are not recognizable in my own world, what’s the point of it? I realized that I want a new Player in my campaign to be able to pick up the Player’s Handbook, read through the race chapter, and pick a race they think sounds cool without it being completely dissimilar in my setting.

There’s so much there: dwarves live in clans, humans are ingenious and widespread, high elves are aloof and wood elves are xenophobic, halflings live in human lands and pursue simple desires...use it, don’t trash it! Unless you’re going for a one-of-a-kind setting like Dark Sun or Eberron that lays out all of the similarities and differences to a “regular” D&D world, use the Player’s Handbook and all the other 5E books as a solid foundation. Build with, not without, these great resources.

Of course, your world’s history will be different — that makes it your world. It might have different gods and places, villains and monsters, but it should stem from the great 5E books. In addition, all the races outlined in the Player’s Handbook can have their unique quirks in your setting, something I call flairs and twists.

Flairs and Twists

Your world is your own and while I think as worldbuilders we should use the D&D books as a basic foundation, we can add a variety of interesting aspects to our setting without hindering it. Here are some examples of flairs and twists in my world:
  1. Halflings originally lived in the jungle and migrated to a vast plain with their dinosaur mounts. They’re now nomadic herders. They’re like the halflings of the Talenta Plains of Eberron. Lightfoot halflings are those who left this life and traveled to human lands, while stout are the subrace who stayed true and continued to roam the peaceful steppe.
  2. While rare, tieflings and aasimar can be of any race, not just humans.
  3. Dragonborn can be bred from the spilled blood of an ancient dragon.
  4. Most mountain dwarves are hated as much as gray dwarves (duergar) for allying with the draconic Kothian Empire and betraying the other common races. When their dragon allies turned on them, they had nowhere to turn and almost died out.
  5. Wood elves don’t usually worship deities, but spirits of the wild instead.
  6. High elves dabble in psionics.
  7. Hill dwarves serve as protectors of the ruins of the last, great dwarf civilization.
  8. Barbarians are far more common across Eldar because the world is wild.
  9. Tabaxi, lizardfolk, aarakocra, and urson (bearfolk) descended from lycanthropes.
  10. Gnomes were responsible for most of the major breakthroughs in arcane magic, including the mastery of airships, the creation of the warforged, and the construction of multiple lightning rails. Can you tell I enjoyed Keith Baker’s Eberron setting?
Lots of these examples stay true to their description in the core rulebooks and just add an extra twist. Sometimes, that’s all you need to make something compelling! The books provides lots of room for us to do this.

Not a Problem

All this being said, this is, of course, my opinion. My advice doesn't need to be followed and it won't be by many. But this epiphany has helped me tremendously. I'm building a world for me and my players to create stories and go on adventures in; as are you. You can make it be anything you want, but not utilizing the built-out, amazing content in the 5E books is silly to me. From the earliest pages of the Player's Handbook to the chilling locales within Curse of Strahd, there are tons of things to steal or build on.

Read and Reference

It’s stunning how many folks haven’t read the core rulebooks — I urge you to do this, at least once. There are tons of ideas captured inside these pages for both Players and Dungeon Masters. I’m currently rereading all of the 5E books, starting with the Player’s Handbook and ending, probably, with Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus when it comes out. Personally, reading over the Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide (if you’re a DM) once a year is must. They truly help your game and your worldbuilding.

Some of you might be asking: where do I find the time to do this? It’s true, life is busy nowadays, but there’s always a time to read. I think I’ve found a great tactic, too! Instead of scrolling through social media (Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram) for a few minutes throughout the day everyday, pick up a D&D book! You can use the physical book or download a copy onto your phone or computer. There are no excuses! There’s time to read these fantastic references and guides, you just have to make it.

In Summary

Instead of completely remixing the content inside the D&D books for your world, build on it:
  1. Use the 5E books as a helpful guide for you and your players. Try not to make your world too different, but do so if you really want to! Just look at the success of Dark Sun, Planescape, and Spelljammer!
  2. Add some unexpected twists and turns to your races, classes, and monsters.
  3. Constantly reread and reference your books! They’ll give you tons of inspiration and content.
Thanks for reading. Check back next week for my next article. If you're interested, I wrote a brief rundown and speculation piece on WOTC's next adventure; check it out!

Until then, farewell!

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Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

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Wizards of the Coast's Latest Adventure is Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus

I've always toyed with the idea of beginning a campaign not on the Material Plane: slaves of a mad efreeti in the City of Brass, randomly lost in the depths of a grove in the Feywild, or sailing on a ship on the endless seas of the Elemental Plane of Water. The designers of Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition basically beat me to it. Wizards of the Coast just announced their next adventure and it's an interesting one. Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus is coming to stores and online shops soon. Here's what you need to know about it:
  1. The adventure releases on September 17, 2019.
  2. It begins at 1st level and ends at 13th.
  3. It begins in the port city Baldur's Gate in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting.
  4. Player characters will quickly delve into the first layer of the Nine Hells, Avernus.
  5. The adventure deals with the Blood War.
  6. It looks and sounds amazing. "Mad Max mixed with Dante's Inferno" is how Jeremy Crawford describes it.
  7. Chris Perkins says, "This adventure was written with new DMs in mind."
  8. There are lots of different villains, allies, and characters who could become both.
  9. It's a sandbox campaign.
  10. Zariel may or may not be the "big bad" of the adventure.
  11. It has an amazing alternate cover!
Let's delve into some speculation now that we know the facts.

Is 13th the End?

Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus releases on September 17, 2019. It follows the naming convention of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Perhaps this is no coincidence. I think a second adventure will be announced, taking insane adventurers deeper into the Nine Hells of Baator along the River Styx, past Avernus and into Dis, Minauros, and more! I really believe if we're going to the Nine Hells, we won't be ending the story at level 13; it must be level 20! Come on, WOTC, make it so. Baldur's Gate: Asmodeus' Bargain...I can envision it.

The Forgotten Realms, Again

I know a lot of people were expecting something else: Dark Sun, Eberron, Planescape...but we're getting another Forgotten Realms book. I understand this, but I'm sure they'll do as they've done in the past adventures and include brief blurbs on how to incorporate this adventure in other settings. And really, when you're in the Nine Hells, it's kinda setting agnostic...but if Baldur's Gate does end up playing a prominent role (as the title implies), maybe it'll be more difficult. Don't fret, though; I believe a different setting should be upcoming...most likely Eberron or Planescape. We'll see, though.

Learning More

This adventure will definitely use a lot of material from other 5E books. If you want to learn more about demons and devils, check out the Monster Manual. It has tons of info about the core, more popular fiends across the Outer Planes. The Blood War, which will play a part in this adventure, has a whole chapter dedicated to it in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes; it's great. That book also outlines the archdevil Zariel and gives her a stat block. I'm sure we'll learn more about this fallen angel in Baldur's Gate: Descent Into Avernus.

If you want to learn more about the adventure itself, check out the D&D Beyond YouTube playlist; it has tons of videos about the adventure live right now.

Thanks for reading. Come back Monday for an article all about using the 5E D&D books as worldbuilding tools. It's a good one.

Until then, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to

Your D&D Campaign's Starting Point

The point where you start your campaign can say a lot about what it will become: a run-down town on the edge of a rocky wasteland crawling with bulette-taming goblins; a tropical archipelago controlled by a trio of powerful lich-lords; a settlement in the frozen north overrun by vile lycanthropic creatures; a hub of trade and commerce in an otherwise desolate desert; a port recently annexed by a dragon empire. Those were all the locations I chose to begin my various Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. It’s time we built a new one, together.

Thus far in the Worldforge series, we’ve established a set of tenets for our world, designed a pantheon, created a setting map, and fleshed out a few of our world’s major powers. Those were all broad strokes meant to give you an idea of how your world will work. Now, we’re going to zoom in on a small piece of our setting: where our next adventure or campaign will begin. Once we’ve completed this step, we can begin our actual campaigns!

After this article and the next, the Worldforge will begin focusing on other aspects of worldbuilding, from how to create a compelling ruler and the role rivers can play in adventures to the finer uses of magic in our worlds. Okay, Dungeon Masters, let’s mold our campaign’s starting point.

Where to Begin?

The first step here is to think about where your campaign will begin. What climate? What landscape? It might be a good idea to hold a session zero at this point, which I delve into in this article. Which environment you choose might depend on what you and your players want to do. Trust me, this decision can impact your campaign for months and even years to come. Take the time to think about it.

If your group is searching for a swashbuckling adventure filled with sea monsters and boardwalk sword fights, you might want to start in a tropical archipelago or a coastal area. If everyone seeks elements of survival and desperation, beginning in a scorching desert might be the right place. Lots of campaigns kickoff in generic fantasy landscapes: green fields and forest surrounded by rolling hills. As long as you and your players are cool with that, starting there (especially if this is your first campaign) might be simplest. Your players can always roam to the haunted swamp or the frigid tundra rife with yetis and orcs.

After that, it’s time to pick the actual starting location. Most adventures begin in a small town or village; some start in a city. A select few kickoff in the depths of a dense forest or the clutches of a deadly dungeon. As you can probably tell from this article’s introduction, I almost always start campaigns in a settlement. This is because doing this doesn’t throw players into the midst of an ongoing plot. When I run a campaign, I want the players to gravitate to stories, NPCs, and places that they think are interesting. Starting in a neutral location like a village allows this to happen.

Of course, the starting location also depends on the level of the party. Novice rogues, sorcerers, and barbarians (levels 1-4) usually begin in villages, small towns, or the wilds near them. Experienced adventurers (levels 5-10) can start in cities or places of wonder. Powerful parties (levels 11-16) most likely start adventures in the capitals of countries or even the various planes of existence. God-tier adventurers (levels 17-20) almost certainly begin in the most important locations in the world or the planes of existence.

Once you’ve decided where your campaign will begin, it’s time to add a pinch of spice to it.

The Background Conflict

Notice all of my campaign’s starting points aren’t just places. My players don’t begin in “the frozen north” or “a tropical archipelago.” They start in “ settlement in the frozen north overrun by vile lycanthropic creatures” and “a tropical archipelago controlled by a trio of powerful lich-lords.” These starting locations aren’t just regions or dots on a map, they’re living, changing parts of my world. Your starting location needs a backdrop to it, an overarching conflict that may or may not heavily influence the campaign; only then will it become a starting point for your campaign.

Think creatively. There are plenty of interesting elements you can add to the background of your starting location to give it that extra spice: a war, a revolution, a new leader, or the influence of a powerful organization. Perhaps an ancient prophecy is finally occurring that affects the location the characters start in. A good example of this is the red comet in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. A comet appears in the sky and signals different things to different people, kicking a plethora of different events into motion.

Let’s look at a good D&D example. Say your campaign’s background conflict is a war between a fiercely theocratic human nation and multiple wood elf tribes of the huge forest nearby. The human’s claim a lost relic of their patron deity is buried deep in the woods, but the elves refuse to let the humans desecrate their woodland realm. In addition to the main plot or the quests the characters gravitate toward, you can provide them with opportunities to help or hinder either side. Let them witness the affects the war is having on the nation and the forest. It doesn’t need to take the forefront, taking precedence over the plot to stop the drow of the world below from summoning an Aspect of Lolth, but perhaps the drow are using this war to their advantage.

The fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has a fantastic section on “World-Shaking Events” that provides lots of inspiration for background conflicts. Check it out!

With a background conflict set, it’s time to put the finishing touches on your campaign’s starting point.

Character Ties

Why are the characters beginning here? Why do the characters care about this place? Who do they know? All of these questions need to thought about before the campaign begins. One of the keys to a successful campaign is ensuring your characters feel connected to the world. I delved into how a player can do this in last week’s article, but it’s not only their job. You need to make an effort to make sure your players’ characters are a part of your setting. They need to understand where they’re starting and how it’s incorporated into the wider world.

But before that, I’ve found that players love making a few NPCs, locations, and stories around the starting point of the campaign. Let them, as long as it fits in the overall feel of the setting. Perhaps their character has a feud with the hill half-giant butcher who’s employed solely because of his strength and want to not waste any part of the animals he cuts. Maybe they’ve heard rumours about a mysterious manor sinking into the bullywug-filled marsh to the west. While you are the Dungeon Master, you should give your players opportunities to make some of the world too; it helps get them invested.

Afterward, talk to them about why they are there and why they care about this place. If you’re starting in a small village with an orc problem, maybe someone they care about lives in the village. Perhaps they have beef with the attacking orcs. The key here is to ensure they have a reason to be there. An adventurer without a purpose is boring and bland. They should have motivations, however minute they may be. In the next Worldforge article, this is what we’ll be exploring: how to create a compelling 1-2 page handout for your players. Its pages will be filled with inspiration meant to inspire your players, to give them ideas about why they’re where the adventure begins if they can’t create one on their own.

In Summary

All D&D campaigns have a starting point. Where will yours be in your fantastical setting? Remember the following points:

  1. Think about where in your setting your campaign will begin. Who rules? What’s the environment? Consider what you and your players want to play during this step (swashbuckling action, high adventure, gritty survival, et cetera); it will influence where you begin.
  2. Create the background conflict for your campaign, a multi-layered event that may or may not influence various aspects of the characters’ adventurers. A war, a discovery, an ancient omen coming true are a few examples.
  3. Try to tie the characters to the starting point. Answer why they are there, who they know, and why do they care about it? It’ll help invest both the characters and the players in the campaign.
That’s all for this article, folks; thanks for reading. I’ve been getting lots of views, shares, and comments on my recent articles which makes me a happy human. Please continue this positive trend! I’m starting a new job next week, and need all the motivation I can get to continue releasing these on a timely schedule.

Next week, I believe we’ll be talking about worldbuilding again, but it’s going to be more meta. I’ve had a revelation on the topic and I’d like it to discuss it with you all — I think. No promises.

Until next time, farewell my friends!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to