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Don't Be Afraid to Change Your D&D World

Dungeons & Dragons worlds are malleable. Being creations of imagination, they are subject to change at will. An enchanted valley rife with woodland fey can easily become a desolate wasteland scoured by devastating magic years ago; all it takes is a decision by its creator to change it. However, being Dungeon Masters, they must be sure to enact this one key rule: once characters interact with a part of the world, it becomes a real part of the world. If the party enters the enchanted valley and meets an elf queen and her fairy servants one day and returns to the area a week later and it’s become a desert skittering with thri-kreen, something is wrong. Once characters visit a place, meet a person, or use an item, it can’t be changed nonchalantly. Before that pivotal moment, the world is malleable.

Changing the World

I had this important realization as I was soaring over the Pacific Ocean toward Hawai'i. I brought along the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide to reread and, as I pored over the first section, I realized I wasn’t building the world I wanted. I’d gone crazy with the number of nations, civilized places, and societies in a world I wanted to be dark and wild. I didn’t want points of light to be illuminating the darkness, I wanted specs of light in a sea of unending wickedness and despair.

However, I had a brief conundrum. But my players have been in this world for so long, how could I change it now? Well, of course, they’ve only seen a portion of it. The tone of it won’t change for them. Those places won’t change for them. The people they’ve met won’t change. The only information I’m changing is information I or a select few players know about. And that’s the key: it’s me and a few players, not their characters. I came to the realization that I’ve always held true to an important rule in D&D: once a character interacts with something in the world, it becomes a part of it.

If the thing I want to change hasn’t been touched while playing, I’m free to change it. Thus, when I was flying to Hawaii, I began rewriting my setting guide. There were no longer 20+ nations on Aphesus, the main continent of my world — there were nine. And these nine were far more disparate and small than they were before; countries with bandit-ridden roads, diabolical prophets, and far apart regions of safety. They all were frightened by an overarching threat: the great dragon empire, and empire that’s been present in my home games for over two years now. See? The minutia, the tens of nations my parties haven’t visited could be changed, but the dragon empire, a keystone of our game, couldn’t.

As I changed my D&D world, I had fascinating new ideas and was reminded what kind of world I really wanted to make. This remastering of my world felt freeing, despite me tossing many hours of writing and creation away. And while I say this, I’m not truly throwing away anything. Everything I wrote is still available to me and I can always go back to it for inspiration on my new take on my setting. I’m super happy with what I’m making so far, and I’m doing it without trivializing my world to my players in the slightest. It’s still the same world they’ve always adventured in, with all the places and people they’ve come to love and hate — just better on the back-end.

I'd like to emphasize that this rule only applies to things the characters have encountered, not the players. Sure, maybe you've discussed the disenfranchised, honor-bound goblinoid culture on a far off continent with a player, but that doesn't mean it's canon. Their character hasn't encountered it in the world, the player themselves heard about it in the real world. That doesn't count.

If you’re curious in the difference between my present day setting and the setting in the past, here are the two campaign guides for reference:

Those of you who regularly read my articles will probably recognize the former guide. I reference it constantly and have completed a plethora of worldbuilding topics all about it. As I look over them now, almost all of them are staying in the new version of my world. I’m really just cutting the bloat and focusing on what I really enjoy about my world, in addition to what my players love about it.

The Dungeon Master's Guides

As mentioned earlier, this radical change was brought about by reading the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s an amazing book, probably my favorite of fifth edition D&D. If you haven’t read it in a while, give it a ponder. It might make you realize what you want to change about your D&D world and give you brand new ideas to implement. On top of reading this, I’m looking into the third and fourth edition DMG’s again. I remember the 4E guide being incredible, not only for worldbuilding and new ideas but for how to run a believable game using the mechanics. The 3E guide, I barely remember. I think I only read portions of it when I was eleven or twelve — it’s definitely time to reread it. Maybe it will give me more ways to enhance my homebrew setting, too!

And that’s really what this article is about: giving you ideas on how to enhance your setting. I’m giving you permission to change whatever you want about your D&D world as long as the characters haven’t interacted with it. Don’t turn that valley they traveled through into a desert — it won’t go over well. Changes like this radically destroy trust between the Dungeon Master and players. With the destruction of that trust, no one will believe they’re playing in a living, breathing world that their characters are a part of. They’ll think it’s just a game that can change on a whim, regardless of their actions or choices. That’s not what we want our D&D settings to be.

Until next time, stay creative!

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