Building a Fantasy Campaign World VI: Room for Monsters

Perfect worlds don’t need heroes, and they certainly don’t need adventurers. Functioning kingdoms do not need to hire mercenaries to do the jobs of soldiers or a police force, civilized areas do not need a half-dozen heavily armed warriors acting as caravan guards, and very few hamlets or villages are threatened with slavery and death in a happy countryside. By the needs and conventions of the game, D&D worlds have to be seriously flawed, and even kingdoms ruled by a kind and just king must have their problems. Even campaigns built around delving into forgotten ruins seeking treasure and magic suggest a non-utopia based on the fact such a dangerous occupation is appealing, which says that there are few safer ways of earning that wealth. After all, the life of an adventurer is akin to Hobbes’ natural state of mankind: nasty, brutish and short.

While some of this is story-based imperfection falls under the onus of Conflict(see Part 2), it also requires something so important every edition of D&D has had multiple books dedicated solely to it: monsters. When designing a fantasy campaign setting there it is simply not enough for there to be monsters, there needs to be room for monsters.

This is the Sixth Part in a series on fantasy world building.

Table of Contents

This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below

Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous

Here Be Dragons

Ancient maps were often illustrated with monsters in the unknown regions and wild areas of the world. This is something D&D can and should make literal. In a good campaign setting there should be unexplored places, uninhabited regions, and places where there be dragons.

If every square mile of the world has been claimed, inhabited, and occupied then where are they goblins, orcs, and gnolls? Where do all the monstrous humanoids live? Are they all squeezed arm-to-arm in the areas humans don’t want to live and/or in the thin border regions between the nations? As mentioned in the Part 4: Races, D&D has a lot of humanoids and frankly some of them need a little extra space.

Wild space serves a few purposes. First, there is the aforementioned room for monsters. Second, there is room for independent settlements: the archetypal small frontier town that is undefended and needs heroes. Third, it allows the PCs to explore this otherwise uncharted or impassable region. Fourth, it allows room for growth, either established nations, new nations, or players’ nations. Empty or wild territory is space the PCs can claim to build a keep, found a town, or establish a kingdom. In short, wilderness allows the PCs to be the PCs, and justifies some of the tropes of the game: brave yet mercenary adventurers doing tasks that no one else will do without back-up or assistance.

Wild spaces do not necessarily need to be unexplored. They might also be areas too difficult for a nation to claim or an empire to hold, such as isolated valleys or regions on the far end of a mountain range, desert, or swamp. They might even be said mountain ranges, deserts, or swamps. Wild spaces might also be the remains of fallen empires or lost territory. This was the hook of most of the Points of Light pseudo-setting, where the empire of Nerath had fallen long ago leaving its cities and people undefended. In real world terms, when Rome fell it left many territories that used to be under the protection of the empire but were suddenly left to fend for themselves.

In practice there’s very little difference between wild areas that have always been wild and wild areas that were once civilized. In both cases they’re places the heroes have to rely on themselves and cannot easily run back to safety. However, they do lend themselves to different stories and have different tones.

Monsters in the Wilderness

One of the classic D&D modules is the Keep on the Borderlands. The title says it all: there’s a solitary fortress at the edge of a nation, a last bastion of civilization before the wilds. It stands alone against the barbarous forces that threaten decent folk. Outside the influence of the keep there are three different competing groups of humanoids, each one being a threat to the keep and the lands beyond. It’s a situation where adventurers are needed.

While it’s not going to automatically shatter your game is a dire bear or dinosaur appears in the middle of pastoral farmland a short distance from the capital city, it is odd and should be avoided when possible. Some monsters work fine in farmlands or civilized areas, and some work better far from large numbers of people. And even if you’re planning an urban game of intrigue and politics, knowing where the nearest wild area is located is a good idea. You never know when the PCs will suddenly decide they need a unicorn horn for a wand of remove poison or some displace beast hides so the crafter can make some nifty armour.

The wild might be at the fringes of the known lands, where only a rare few have ventured before. In most cases the land is unknown in the same way North America was unknown pre-Columbus, it was unknown to one population while another group lived there and knew it quite well thank you very much. The same could be said of much of the Germanic regions of Europe during the time of Rome: lots of people lived there but the land was very much wild to the Romans. Of course the “indigenous people” of said wild area need not be humans but could be elves or orcs or some unfamiliar demihuman race. Check out Isle of Dread for a good example of a game based around exploring the uncharted and unknown.

Creating wild space is especially important from an ecological standpoint. A huge hydra that’s over fifteen feet long has roughly twenty-seven times the mass of a human (3x3x3), and would consume a staggering amount of food. Such a terrifying predator would have a sizable territory and would tolerate few intruders. The wild space needed to accommodate several owlbears, a hydra, some ankhegs, a displace beast pack, and a bulette would be massive, let alone something like a gargantuan red dragon. Returning to the hydra, reptiles often need to eat fewer meals but often consume large quantities, close to their own body weight. A hydra, eating its weight in meat once a month could consume as many as 40 cows in a year or over three hundred goats or sheep (a little over one a day).

Now, a little hand-waving can occur here, as you don’t need space for all 600+ monsters from the 400-page Monstrous Manual. Heck, you don’t even need space for all the monsters that exist in your campaign world (as not every world need have every monster). You only need space for the monsters the PCs will fight. If the party is only going to fight a behir, a froghemoth, and a pack of dire wolves then you only need territory for a behir, a froghemoth, and a pack of dire wolves.

Monsters in Dungeons

For the most part, the unknown and unexplored will be the minority of wild space in the game and most of the uncivilized regions will be areas that were once conquered but have since fallen. This might be a recently collapsed empire or the remains of some fallen kingdom that vanished thousands of years before the start of recorded history so even its name has been lost in time. The timescale is largely irrelevant, as the big difference between fallen lands and never-risen lands is that at some point the former would have had buildings.Greyhawk is a good example of this, where every square inch of the Flaness was once part of some fallen or forgotten empire.

The point of differentiating between the two types of wild (and thinking about fallen empires) is related to the BIG question every campaign setting simply HAS to answer: where do dungeons come from? Dungeons are such a big part of the game but are fairly illogical, so some thought has to be put into explaining why there are all these ruins filled with monsters dotting the land. Who built them? Why were they built? Where did the builders go? And, most importantly, why are they now filled with a bizarre menagerie of monsters?

Different campaign settings have solved this in different ways. Dragonlance has the Cataclysm, which shattered the world and destroyed whole cities. The “dungeons” are ancient keeps, cities, and the like now forgotten or buried or sunken. Eberron does not have many dungeons on the main continent – being less of a focus of the campaign – but Xen’Drik to the south has ancient ruins of the fallen giant civilization covering its landscape (but Khorvaire likely has quite a few ruined military fortifications such as keeps and bunkers). The Forgotten Realms has the remnants of various fallen empires, many factions and individuals that like defensible locations, as well as the Underdark.

The verisimilitude of dungeons varies between games. Some DMs prefer realistic dungeons with their own ecology, explaining why the gelatinous cube has not wandered into the caverns filled with evil fungi and had itself a mushroom feast. Others don’t care and will happily squish a huge-sized beholder into a room that only has medium-sized doors. Still, if you’re designing an entire campaign world, it doesn’t hurt to add a few details justifying and explaining away dungeons. You don’t need to explain away the existence of every dungeon in the world, but a solid go-to explanation is handy for those times inspiration is lacking or you need something on the spot.

Similarly, it helps to have a few Name dungeons: famous locales that have attracted adventurers over the years and still have mysteries to be solved and treasure to be found. Undermountain in the Realms is a good example, as is the dungeons under Castle Greyhawk. While a big mega-dungeon is not required (unless you’re planning that kind of campaign) it doesn’t hurt to have one.

Wilds & Dungeons of War World

In a world where open warfare has raged for a thousand years without slowing there should be plenty of wild area. National borders would have varied several times, but most have likely shrunk until reaching a fortifiable position. There will be lengthy stretches of territory that is too remote, of no strategic use that are ignored, or hard to defend against enemy attacks and so the land remains unclaimed. But people likely still live there, and its space for the various humanoid races to live and thrive. Knowing of this blog entry, I also purposely left some gaps in the map, in the mountains and some plains, where there could be wild unclaimed territory. Areas ruled by goblins and orcs, where there might be small city-states and villages of humans, elves, or halflings.

With the civilized nations continually being at war (aside from relatively short periods of peace or ceasefires, where the fronts move elsewhere) many people likely grew tired of the constant battle and left to found their own settlements where they could live in peace. To avoid being caught in the crossfire of a war, these small towns would be located in the wilds and be the kind of places that needs adventurers the most (as well as the kind of rough places that might breed adventurers).

For dungeons, there can be the usual ruins. Since my dwarves are the typical fallen race, there are many ancient dwarves metropolises that were lost to goblins or sealed to prevent their loss. And there might be the typical dungeons created by mad wizards and evil clerics.

With so much war, defensive structures (keeps and castles) would regularly be constructed, but when territory shifts they’d fall into disuse being claimed by individuals, bandits, or monsters. These make for lovely small dungeons. In a fantasy world, it’s easier to justify these fortifications extended underground, as it’s just an accepted trope and there’s magic as a fall-back excuse. On larger fronts there might be the equivalent of extended trenches. The trenches of World War I became fairly well established after a couple of years, so during a decades long war (such as the one between Guimarn and Kaledon) they might have constructed some truly impressive trenches and bunker complexes.

With the above trench idea in mind, I’ll invent a new nation on the spot. Or rather a fallen nation to the southeast of Kaledon. I’ll say there was a nation at the base of the mountains, which waged a lengthy war five-hundred years previously with the nation that became Kaledon, the elves to its north/north-east, and the plainsfolk to the west (possibly prompting their crossbreeding of orcs and humans). This nation, having the mountains to the south, had access to stone, which they used to build a massive series of trenches along their borders to house their armies and defended their wide frontier, while also launching invasions. The nation finally fell, leaving behind a series of several bunkers, some rumoured to be filled with treasures from sacked cities, enough weapons to equip a battalion, or other MacGuffins.

Stepping back, I mentioned the idea of isolated settlements where people could live in peace. You can imagine a hidden and isolated city that became a refuge, which grew because of its security, likely a hidden valley possibly augmented by magic. Think Machu Picchu, but with magic. Rumours of its wealth spread (gold mines, trade routes, not spending all its money on weaponry, etc), possibly true but possibly just jealous rumours. Then, one day, people stopped hearing from the Hidden City, and anyone who investigated never returned. Were they destroyed because their hidden location was too strategically strong? Or did some other threat emerge? Or have they just sealed their borders? But the wealth of the entire city might be waiting to be claimed.

I’d also like a dungeon complex under the capital of Guimarn. It’s a nice central nation that has seen much traffic and the city itself is a nice defensible place, which means it was likely inhabited repeatedly over the centuries. But with constant war it has suffered the fate of many large cities and has been sacked time and time again. The current city has been built and rebuilt and rebuilt several times, always overtop of the old. And now the ‘old city’ is atop an artificial hill made of three or four layers of old cities with forgotten streets and sewers and the like. And not all of the inhabitants might have been human, as some of the oldest ruins deep underground might have unfamiliar and strange architecture tens of thousands of years old.

There might also be dungeons left by far older inhabitants, the races that inhabited the lands before humans came, but that’s a discussion for a later blog.


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