I don’t know who needs to hear this but, world building is not session prep. World building is a completely separate task from getting ready to run DnD. World building is important, but it’s no substitute for the traditional session preparations that you need to go through as a DM. Let’s look at the common pitfalls associated with confusing of the two.
The Trap of World Building in DnD
A lot of people run their own campaigns with custom settings. This is one of the best parts about DnD! You can build whatever scenario you want and set your players loose in it. If you’re a veteran DM or just starting out, you’ll soon find yourself pouring hours into crafting intricate details and writing backstories for every villager. While a part of DnD, I would caution that it does not help you run the game.
World building is a large part of the fun for storyteller DMs. Epic journeys and adventures typically involve some amount of world crafting to make these stories able to be told. But when you’re crafting story details you’re often not looking at mechanics and gameplay. Under the hood, DnD has a lot of moving pieces and intricate parts that fit together just right. The trap of world building is that it doesn’t ask you to think about gameplay.
Gameplay and Session Prep
When you prepare for a session you review your notes, read up on monster stats, write out snippets of dialogue, and map out different scenarios and encounters. These things are decidedly not world building. While they are interfacing with your world, these are more like the functional notes and homework required to get things done.
Session preparation is work and few people find it to be the most fun part of DnD (some people even avoid it like the plague). But session preparation is a necessary evil if you want your game to run smoothly. You don’t get Matt Mercer or Brennan Lee Mulligan style DMing by skipping session prep!
Balanced as All Things Should Be
Now that we’ve talked about what world building and session prep actually are and why they’re different, we need to touch on how they get conflated. DMs can run into problems early on by doing them at the same time. If you have custom settings, world building needs to take place before your session, just as your preparations do.
You might be tempted to just cram the two together. After a little while you’ll end up with an impressive amount of notes about all sorts of things: histories, backstory, legends, and lore! While super cool, often they’re looked at as an outline for your players. The problem here is that none of that is actually going to mechanically tell you what your players will do. It’s not a scenario chart. It’s not encounter notes. It’s not stat blocks.
If you’re reading this and saying to yourself “Well, obviously!” then great, you get it! But we’re talking about this because it’s easy to do the fun thing and create worlds while putting off the hard tasks of figuring out shop prices or calculating CR scores.
A lot of the common issues here can be solved by balancing this process out. Split the process into two separate steps and make sure you don’t get carried away with either one. Do a bit of world building and then stop and start planning your session. If you make sure to keep these things separate, you’ll easily avoid overindulging in world building at the cost of your sessions.
A Simple Issue with a Simple Solution
If you ever find yourself deep in world building but have nothing planned for your next session, then this post was for you. Remember to stop yourself along the way and think more clearly about mechanics and the path your players might take. If you get too far ahead with world building, you almost always end up making more content than your players will ever see. Keep your worlds contained to what can be explored and remember to try and be prepared for your next session.