This week I consumed two seemingly unrelated pieces of media that got my creative juices flowing around the concept of homebrewing in Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, or the like.
The first was Numbers 13:18-20 in which Moses dispatches some scouts to Canaan with the following orders:
See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not?NIV
In other words, Moses was like, “Tell me all about this world on the other side of the river! I want details!”
The second piece of media was 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids which, in my opinion, did an excellent job of thinking through Moses’ questions (though surely not directly) when the kids finds themselves wandering through the jungle of their overgrown backyard while they were a fraction of the size of an ant.
As they try to make their way back to the Szalinski residence, they discover a whole new world brimming with detail and life! Everything from topography to “natural” events and creepy crawlies.
The epic trek from the Szalinski’s curbside trashcan to their back porch provides us with all sorts of attention to detail that will serve any homebrew effort extremely well.
You gotta have a map, of course! And the internet aboundeth with unique ways of generating your maps (here’s one of my favorite methods). We’ve even written about it a time or two. But more than having established boundaries and biomes, maps give us the opportunity to give a world character.
In Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the teens spend a lot of time wandering through a veritable forest of towering, uncut grass. But they also have questions raised about the source of a mysterious river (one of them joking that it could be a stream of dog pee for all they know) and stumble into underground tunnels that were formed by earthworms.
You get to provide not only the topography itself, but the reasons for its current state. Sure, tectonic plates are a fine way to explain how your mountain range came to be…but wouldn’t it be far more interesting to pivot from geology to mythology for its cause? And who (or what) is responsible for the cave systems in your world? Not everything has to have a non-traditional explanation, but keep an eye out for features that could have a bit of lore beneath their surfaces.
Your map is imperative, but it can also be so much more than a tool by which the characters navigate. It can also tell a story.
Another really neat trick Honey, I Shrunk the Kids pulled is populating the backyard with notable landmarks both familiar and new to the kids. At one point the Szalinski kids are able to determine their exact whereabouts in their backyard by noting that they were at the bottom of a certain piece of flagstone. Familiar; something they would have included on a map of their backyard when at their regular height.
But the map they might have drawn to define the landscape while microscopic would have included a few other notable landmarks like the creme-filled cookie, the LEGO brick, or the discarded cigarette; things you can’t possibly see from the bird’s eye view.
I think you could play with this in a couple of different ways:
- Including landmarks that are visible on your “bird’s eye view” map will naturally draw the attention of your players. They’ll have questions about what it is at minimum and their presence alone immediately establishes them as a points of interest that will likely be explored during your campaign.
- Alternatively, you can reveal certain landmarks that might not be visible from that bird’s POV. You can have a small list of interesting landmarks along with purposefully paired encounters at the ready to break up long distance travel with something other than a random encounter. Your party thought they’d have a relatively uneventful few days’ travel through a forest, but then you reveal that they stumble upon a ruin hidden by the canopy above that houses secrets, creatures, items, etc. You can drop them in anytime and anywhere you’d like because they’re not cemented in place by the map itself until you reveal them!
Natural events make your homebrew world feel alive as opposed to feeling like pre-rendered backgrounds upon which you stage combat. Weather, for instance, is a super easy touch that fills out the picture that is your world with detail.
But you can also stage natural events that require a response from your party; like the sprinklers or lawn mower that terrorized the kids in the movie. While they weren’t strictly natural events, they played the part (a monsoon or a tornado respectively, if you’d like).
The ant (the very cleverly named “Antie”) scouting out the cookie could also be classified as a natural event. What do the wild creatures in your world do when no one is looking, and what happens when they do suddenly have an audience?
I’ve written an entire post that I believe falls under this heading all about thinking through what is happening where your party isn’t, so I’ll point you there, too.
Creatures and Encounters
Which leads to the last world-building element that this post will address: the denizens of your world!
Here’s the thing: The Monster Manual has lists of creatures separated by the biomes in which they can be found. Finding a creature for every space of your map is not an exceedingly tedious or difficult task.
But being intentional with them beyond their logical locale, while requiring a bit more work, can make a big, big difference.
This is one thing I think some published adventures tend to do slightly better than a lot of homebrews. I love it when they provide stat blocks in the event of combat, but also provide a check of some sort to keep the encounter from necessarily being a violent one. Taking the time to add a similar non-combat option to some of your creatures is a neat touch.
When the kids role up on Antie, they first treat it like a combat encounter. It didn’t go well for them to say the least. But then they switched gears and used a hunk of the giant cookie to turn Antie into a mount. And then when the scorpion later attacks, Antie fought on their side! Double win! Actually, this also lead to an emotional narrative beat so triple win!
Earth Nerd Clave’s post on the H.A.S.T.E. method applies here, as well.
The point is: Don’t just throw monsters at your party all willy-nilly or everything just feels like a random encounter. Have a little narrative something-something behind them – a motivation, a conflict, a goal, a purpose, etc.
It’s kind of amazing how well plotted the adventure through the Szalinski backyard is when you watch the movie. Even small touches like pollen being too large for the allergic kid to inhale or blades of grass being large enough to serve as slides really help sell the situation. They thought of everything.
Similar details can leave your players really appreciating the attention you gave to your fantasy setting. You didn’t just scratch a few notes down on a napkin. Your world is what you make it.
How well could you answer Moses’ questions regarding your homebrew realms? Put it under Szalinski’s magnifying glass and get to work!