RPG Design Journal #1: Ideas & Themes


There are many places one can begin when building a world for a game, sometimes you can even start many places at once. Some designers may build around a theme, others begin with a map, characters, or historical period of interest. When I find something that interests me – something I feel would be worth exploring in a game – I usually make a note of it somewhere, in a notebook or online. This way, when I begin working on a new setting, I can look at the various topics, ideas, characters, and sources I’ve already compiled beforehand to see what pieces fit together to build an interesting world.

Often I find that other DMs (or writers in general) try and avoid directly taking inspiration from other works. I do not recommend this approach. You’ll likely end up being frustrated, and I guarantee most of your decisions will have some resemblance to another work whether you want them to or not. Remember: originality does not exist, ideas are not born from nothing. The best artists are those that can steal from other artists without being caught. Take something you enjoy and then make it your own – that’s true innovation.

For this world I drew upon a myriad of sources to come up with the ideas I want to explore. One of the first elements I knew I wanted to include was “monster migration.” While flipping through the 5th edition DMG one of the tables of example adventure ideas suggested having the adventurers deal with a herd of monsters migrating into a populated area. In most of the games I’ve played monsters are usually encountered as solitary creatures, maybe with a few humanoid handlers. The concept of a monster migration – a world where people knew that dangerous creatures would come and go seasonally – was very interesting to me.

Building upon this idea, we must consider where these monsters come from and where they go. In order to keep things limited and easier to handle I decided that the monster’s should emerge from an uncivilized area – a huge forest in this case – down into inhabited valleys. This way there is a clear source for monsters (the forest), an element of mystery (the forest is an unknown), and, therefore, the possibility for adventure.

The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition could serve as a potential source from real-life to develop the forest for the monsters.

So we know that this is a world with an unexplored wilderness, and we know that monsters are a seasonal problem. Let’s take a look at the inhabited regions then. These are people who know that they live in danger constantly, so they will probably have some sort of organized force to fight monsters. This could be something to explore for modifying or making new classes and prestige classes. Since monsters are a big deal I really want to play up how dangerous they are, I’m thinking this world should be very dark and mysterious. The worlds, creatures, and styles of Bloodborne, Dishonored, and Ravenloft can serve as other sources of tone and information. To make the monsters more dangerous and mysterious we’ll make their numbers very large – every year more of them emerge – and they’re imbued with keen intelligence and purpose. The cities in the inhabited regions have to spend the safe seasons saving up food, resources, and men to withstand a siege of monsters. The inhabitants are probably very superstitious and wary of outsiders – they fear lycanthropes, shapeshifters, changelings, and undead that can pass as human. They see such creatures as “sleeper agents” that weaken them from the inside.

The Pandyssian Continent from Dishonored is dangerous and unexplored – a perfect stepping stone to build off of.

So we have an obvious external conflict set up – monsters against people – and internal conflicts – people turning against their own out of fear. This society might also have a cultural conflict: modern science vs. folklore. We’ll put this third aside for when we begin to deal with technology and magic.

How does this society manage to survive and grow in the face of such opposition? Its facing constant opposition from outside, and its afraid and culturally suppressed inside. I’m going to say that this land is a colony for a much larger and more powerful Empire. These local states and cities can get extra resources and support from their homeland, but are also out of touch and technologically inferior. This sets up another nice conflict – the possibility of revolution and independence. Some colonies are probably more independent than others, some need the Empire’s support to get by, others don’t. This is our third conflict: colony vs. empire.

So let’s take another look at what we have:

  1. There is an inhabited region with cities and an unexplored forest.
  2. Monsters migrate back and forth between the two in cycles.
  3. The cities are in a constant struggle to survive the siege of monsters.
  4. The fear of these people has made them bitter, xenophobic, and superstitious.
  5. This land is a colony for a larger empire.
  6. Some parts of the colony desire independence, other parts are fiercely loyal to the empire. Some are divided.

This is a good skeleton to begin building off of. These ideas will change, and many other parts are sure to be added, but we have enough to begin designing a world with. As we continue we’ll begin making a map, thinking about the types of monsters in the forest, discussing race and species, and start working on a major city for the players to explore.


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