A Dungeons & Dragons World of High Adventure

My Approach to Building a Better Enderra

Before I get started working on a design for Enderra, I want to lay out my thoughts on what I want to achieve, and how I will go about it. I believe this is helpful to stay focused. It also gives you an idea of what to expect.

A Fresh Start

The original two incarnations of Enderra were used for a GURPS Fantasy campaign and two Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition campaigns. (I also used it for some fantasy stories I wrote, and it replaced Aysle in my TORG campaign.) These old versions of Enderra were fun for us to play in, but they were pretty standard fantasy role-playing game settings. Before we started to play the D&D campaigns, I fast-forwarded Enderran history by a thousand years. I updated the setting, retconned a few things, and improved it a lot. But it was still the same world it had been before.

I’m going to take a different approach this time – I’ll start over from scratch. And I will lock away my old material, and ideally not look at it at all. There are no “holy cows”, no sacred elements of the old design that I will carry over.

The only thing I will re-use is the name “Enderra” – because I like it, because it’s difficult to come up with good names, and because I own the .com domain.

Other than that – complete tabula rasa. Reset to zero, and start anew.

My Goal

Building a world is a complicated, time-intensive hobby, and it’s very easy to get bogged down in detail and never get anywhere. Trust me, I know. And a world is a big place – just open up Wikipedia and read up on Earth. You have to limit your scope, or worldbuilding becomes an endless project. The goal is always to create usable content.

Enderra should be used in actual games. Either as a stand-alone setting, or at least in cannibalized form in someone else’s setting. Maybe I will be the only person on Earth who wants to run a game in Enderra – if I have that urge and set up a campaign, I have reached my goal. Of course it’ll be way cooler if at least one other person finds anything I publish useful.

To keep myself on track, I’ll create a checklist of topics I want or need to cover. The list won’t be cast in stone, and I can always add or remove items. And it’s perfectly okay to add things not covered by the checklist – once I am done with the checklist. I want to make a serious effort to “get it done”, and not I might even go back and add extra stuff – once I have achieved my goal and finished that worldbook PDF.

Everything I post about the setting should be actionable. That is, everything should be usable in another’s campaign.

Top-Down vs Bottom-Up

There are two basic approaches to world-building, “Top Down” and “Bottom Up”. They describe where you start, and in what direction you build from there. “Bottom Up” is the traditional approach, where the Game Master build a small local area for low-level player characters, and then expands the world later. “Top Down” is the opposite; you start building the wider world and then zoom in on the details.

Enderra will be built from the top down. I will decide on the “big picture” and then fill in the details. This principle applies to everything, not just the world, but also its continents, cities, peoples, deities, and so on.

One Fantasy World, Many Fantasy Settings

Image of Ruins

We often use the terms “setting” and “world” interchangeably. I don’t think this is correct. A “setting” is an environment with a specific genre, a certain look and feel. For example the pseudo-medieval fantasy kingdoms that are so prevalent. And in many fantasy worlds, there is only a singular setting, a singular story if you will. If the authors or game designers want to tell a different story in a different genre, they usually invent a new world, one tailor-made for that specific story.

(More often than not, an author or a company who have a successful product will just focus on that anyway, which probably helps to reinforce this perception.)

One example for multiple settings existing in one world – or franchise – is the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting.

It started out as a set of standard pseudo-medieval kingdoms collectively referred to as the “Forgotten Realms”. When this setting became popular, the company used the “Forgotten Realms” brand to sell different settings. They added a Mongol setting (“The Horde”), an East Asian setting (“Kara-Tur”), an Arabian Nights setting (“Al-Qadim”), and a Mesoamerican setting (“Maztica”).

A character who lives in any of them could, in theory, travel to any or all of the others, experiencing wildly different adventures and cultures as they do so. To the best of my knowledge this rarely happened, and we could have a long discussion about the reasons – and about the handing of the Forgotten Realms by TSR and, later, Wizards of the Coast – but I still think that the basic approach is sound.

Why? In no particular order:

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. World-building takes time and effort. If you can reduce the load, you can spend more time telling your actual story.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By adding new stories, new location, even entirely new settings to an existing world, you do enrich that world. This feels axiomatic. But, say, you have a bustling port city for a guild of thieves campaign. The city is rich with trade, and our protagonists siphon some of that off in daring heists. You never specify who the city trades with, it is of no relevance to your characters’ thieving exploits. Later, you tell a story set in a Thousand and One Nights style environment. Merchants again play a central role. You decide that they trade with the rich port city from your thieves campaign. Suddenly, both settings are part of a bigger world.

Enderra will contain multiple settings. The old versions of Enderra were at an in-between place. Enderra was originally designed from the bottom up, but I still had a vague notion of what the greater world looked like. Most of our campaigns played out in a standard Dungeons & Dragons pseudo-European society, but there was an age of discovery going on, a “East Asian” land, a wilderness exploration forest, and a mage-run empire, to name some examples.

New Enderra will be created from the top down, and it will contain all settings I am interested in – as long as they fit together at all. I’ll leave some room for later expansion. However, to stay focused on creating a “complete” setting, I will choose one and work on that more or less exclusively. Those other places will make great follow-up projects.

Of Genres and Kitchen Sinks

This leads to the question: What sort of setting or settings?

Most – though not all – Dungeons & Dragons settings are epic fantasy “kitchen sinks”, that is, they are derived off of Tolkien DNA and contain everything under the sun and then some, presumably in an attempt to appeal to a broad audience. This does make sense if you are Wizards of the Coast and want to sell as many books to as many people as possible.

And for the same reason, it may feel like it’s a good idea to include everything that’s in the Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook – Races, Classes, Spells, etc – in Enderra. Or even everything the official D&D rules books provide. It would allow players to play whatever they want, and build characters without knowing any of the Enderra specifics.

However, this severely limits what I can do with my world. Think A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones), or Conan – both are very human-centric and have little to no magic. A fireball-slinging wizard would be very much out of place in either of those settings.

It’s also easy to argue that the world does not need another Middle-Earth or Forgotten Realms clone.

Limitations are usually good. If you are constrained for any reason, it encourages (even forces) you to be creative.

I don’t like my fantasy too epic. I have always leaned towards lower-magic campaigns than Dungeons & Dragons provided. This has changed somewhat with D&D 5th Edition, which has severely dialed-down the power level of the game anyway.

Epic fantasy is fun, too. That said, there is nothing wrong with epic fantasy, and it, too, can be very fun. I really like Dragonlance, for example. Whether something like that is appropriate for Enderra remains to be seen.

I will evaluate everything in the D&D Player’s Handbook – and other books – and decide what is and isn’t available in Enderra. I will err on the side of staying faithful to the Player’s Handbook, but maybe not even that. I could – and maybe will, some day – make a case for sticking with the SRD and building on that.

When In Doubt, Add Conflict

When building a world, I love internal consistency and “plausibility”. A fantasy world has to be believable – that is, players have to be able to suspend their disbelief in something that is clearly not real – to be enjoyable.

But sometimes, the most likely or most “logical” explanation for any given thing is not the most fun. A king could just die, leaving an inexperienced price on the throne. Sure. But we can ramp that up. Maybe the king was poisoned, or the prince favors some other nobles, or he is a thrall of a wizard, or an illegitimate son, or a changeling. You get the idea – there is always another complication that can make a situation more interesting.

Conflict fuels storytelling. If there is no conflict, there is no story. So I have to make sure there is plenty of conflict.

Check design decisions for plausibility. Even when things follow the rule of cool, I will want to put things into perspective. I absolutely want to avoid “science fiction writers have no sense of scale“.

And sometimes, things just exist because they are cool. If I ask myself whether or not to include something in Enderra, I should ask myself “is this fun?” That, then, is the answer. It has to be cool. It has to be fun.


I think this covers the basics. I may come back and edit this post later, if I discover something I missed. Let me know what you think.

And now, let’s get started, and build ourselves a fantasy world.

2 Comments

  1. Sebastian Romu

    It took me a while to actually get around to reading this update, but I’m glad I did. I like your idea. As someone who has purchased a domain branding my own world I get the “keeping the name”. There’s a hint of “endures” in the name as well so, that groks with me.

    My own world began in a similar manner to Enderra, as a AD&D (1st/2nd ed) replacement world for gaming. I wanted something different from the Forgotten Realms(tm). I began creating what was essentially my own D&D campaign setting, which opened the door to worldbuilding in general. As I learned more geography, politics, religions, sociology, etc my focus shifted from epic high fantasy to a more realistic low-fantasy world, with some higher fantasy elements.

    I have been asked what genre my world is, to which I answer “all of them”. I, or anyone else, could tell stories in all the various genres, but set them in the world I have created.

    Have you considered making Enderra “rules neutral”. I am trying to keep my world that way for accessibility reasons, but also to keep it from being diluted by all the top-loaded content if I were to strongly associate it with a popular gaming rules set. That being said I do have a favourite rules set I use when running games set on my world, but keep such content out of the wiki. There is certainly some marketability for conversion books or rules to adapt it to certain game systems is a future option.

    Anyway, I’m rambling a bit, so I’ll wish you many great things with your latest re-visoning.

    – Sebastian

    • nils

      Yeah, your world’s “origin story” reads very similar to Enderra’s. I loved Graybox Forgotten Realms, but using a prefab system was really never an option for me. And then practice kicked in and here I am, 30 years later. Lower powered is also generally good – these are stories about people, not supermen. I’m much more interested in re-reading, say, Conan stories, than I am re-reading Dragonlance. What’s your opinion on fantasy races vs humans only, or mainly humans?

      In general, I believe that all worlds are “rules neutral” anyway. But in order to make Enderra useful, in the sense that a Game Master should be able to take something I create and drop it into their game, I’ll have to assume some sort of system. D&D is the obvious choice. And I like Dungeons & Dragons – even if I don’t agree with all their design decisions, let alone their world building assumptions. All fantasy role-playing systems do have some sort of worldbuilding assumption built in, and even if it is only in the classes they use, the monsters they detail, or the magic system.

      I’m still mulling things over a bit, what I’ll probably go with is Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, but change a lot of the assumptions – races, classes, spell lists, economy, technology.

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