How Theme Can Make Your World Unique

Welcome to this week’s installment of “Only On Tuesdays!” This week we will discuss how applying a common theme to your world will help to give it focus, cohesiveness, and make it stand out above the rest!

Forgotten Realms #3,476

One common issue that I see in many D&D world is that they all functionally feel the same. Even my world, which I have spent hundreds of hours on, is effectively the same as a world that has just been created by a brand new Dungeon Master. A large part of this I feel, is due to a lack of a proper theme directing our worlds. When I first began building my world, I only intended for it to be a place where adventurer’s explore. As time has gone by I have developed aspects of the world in further detail, but the feel of the campaign is very similar to that of one that has been played in the Forgotten Realms.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the problem lies in the fact that everyone’s world tends to follow this pattern. Very few D&D settings are truly unique, and I feel that this is in large part due to everyone effectively using the same source material. Many D&D settings are based off of the assumptions laid out in the core rulebooks for the game, and this can lead to many games feeling very similar in tone and locale, even if the campaign is being done by a completely different DM.

So how do we change that? How do we make our worlds something that our players will look back upon 20 years in the future, and be able to easily distinguish from the hundreds of games that they have played? I believe that the key to this lies in coming up with a theme for your world, and designing with it in mind at all times.

Using Theme In Your Worldbuilding

In order to create a world that is unique in both flavor, and feel it is important that we define a central theme to the campaign as soon as possible. A world without a strong theme, but with all of the traditional D&D and Fantasy tropes will simply be a hodgepodge with no synergy. However, with a strong defining theme it is not only possible, but plausible to include any elements you wish, as long as they tie themselves towards the central theme in one way or another. 

Coming up with a theme for your campaign can be a difficult task, but once you do discover the theme for your world and/or campaign it becomes that much easier to build for it. You also have to make sure that the theme you are deciding on, is a theme that your players are comfortable with. If you build a gothic horror world, but everyone was expecting steampunk, the campaign won’t be as fun to play in. One of the simplest ways to come up with a theme that everyone will enjoy is to talk to your players. Ask them what kind of themes they would like to see in your campaign, and then build on that. This way your players at least have an expectation of what they are getting into.

Designing with a theme in mind will help you focus your worldbuilding on what matters. Instead of shoving every single fantasy trope you can into your setting, you can choose to zero in on the stuff that directly applies to your theme, and drop the rest. While it may be cool to include Medieval powers vying for control, it’s just not something that would fit in a world such as Conan, or Dark Sun. By focusing on the tropes that do matter for our world, we can create an experience that is far more focused, than that of a world with all of the tropes added in with no rhyme or reason to them.

Example Themes

– Gothic Horror: Barovia (D&D)
– Those who are Broken, will only come back Stronger: Roshar (The Stormlight Archive)
– A Dying World: Dark Sun (D&D)
– A Primal World: Hyboria (Conan the Barbarian)
– Whimsical: Oz (The Wizard of Oz)
And Many More!

In these worlds it is very clear to see how the theme has driven the worldbuilding, and vice versa. Despite all of the fantastical elements that are present in these worlds, they all seem to fit because they tie into the theme of the world. If we tried to add Gothic Horror elements to a world such as the Wizard of Oz, it would not fit very easily. Theme is important to worldbuilding because it gives you direction on what is possible in your world, and it also allows you to experiment and break tropes in order to make the world more unique.

Giving The World Attributes

Once you have your theme nailed down it is now time to populate it with elements that your players will want to explore. If you have the time, it can often be a fun exercise to simply go through and design each and every detail in your world down to the articles of clothing that differentiate a High Priest from a Noble, or detailing the every day lives of a citizen of Arboria. But not everyone has that kind of time. A fine substitution for this I feel is to use /u/FamousHippopotamus’ guide on creating a map in his article “The Map Tells Me”.

In this article Hippo goes on to show how one can quickly create and populate a world. He will first start with a map, and then on that map he will ask himself “Does a swamp belong on here?” If it does he will write it down. He will then name the locations with whatever will come to his head such as Scorpion Tower. As soon as that final step is finished he stops working on the map. He has no idea what each place is, or what it means, but when the players reach one of these locations with a name he will be able to quickly improvise something that is appropriate to the adventure. He goes through it in a lot more detail on his post, it is defiantly something that you should check out.

This method of world creation is not only simple, but also flexible. If we want to expand on Hippo’s idea we just simply need to tie it into our theme. If our theme is Wuxia for example, it wouldn’t make sense to include a simple gladiatorial arena. However if we can tie it into our theme, then it makes sense in the setting, and can be a unique location. For example applying a gladitorial arena to a wuxia setting could be something along the lines of grand masters fighting each other in order to attract students to their respective schools. (Inspired by IP Man). It is now something that fits into the world, and makes the setting feel more real.

Using theme in this way allows us to create worlds that are not only more cohesive, but also more creative. Because we are limiting ourselves on what tropes we are allowed to use, we are more determined to find the tropes that best fit us and our campaign. With less things to focus on, it also becomes possible for us to really enhance certain aspects of our game. With a clear and defining theme, the rest of your world will come easily.

Conclusion

Fantasy is such a wide genre, that the amount of options available can be staggering. However, despite this freedom, many people choose to stay with what’s familiar, and will functionally create a world that is very similar to 1,000’s of other worlds. Designing a unique world can be a difficult challenge, but can be more easily accomplished through the use of a theme. A good choice of theme will allow you to build a world that is more focused and contained, which will translate into a more detailed experience. When adding new elements to your world, always ask yourself how this ties to your main theme. Doing this will help to ensure that your campaign stands out from the rest.
I wish you the best of luck in your games, and in the design of your world! Let me know what themes your worlds have, and how you have used that to your advantage in your games. What are your favorite fictional worlds, and what themes are present in the worldbuilding that make for a better world? And, as always, have a great week, and an amazing Tuesday!