Designing the setting: top-down vs. bottom-up

There are two basic approaches to setting design when it comes to starting a new campaign. The first, as immortalized in the DMG, is the “pinpoint” approach to campaign design.

“The milieu for initial adventuring should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants — your available time as compared with the demands of the players. This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby. As background you inform them that they are from some nearby place where they were apprentices learning their respective professions, that they met by chance in an inn or tavern and resolved to journey together to seek their fortunes in the dangerous environment, and that, beyond the knowledge common to the area (speech, alignments, races, and the like), they know nothing of the world. Placing these new participants in a small setting means that you need only do minimal work describing the place and its inhabitants.” (DMG, pp. 86-87)

I daresay this is the source of the whole “you all meet in a tavern” cliche, even if its original origins may have been mislaid over the years. The section continues to describe the method by which the campaign world is slowly detailed; the basic gist of it is that the world only needs to be described as far as the player characters need it to be. The dungeon master need not flesh out the world until the players are likely to need it fleshed out. This is the bottom-up approach to setting design. You start with a village and a dungeon, and you work from there. It’s an approach that should be well familiar to those of us who cut our teeth on the Village of Hommlet, long before there was any Temple of Elemental Evil to move on to afterward.

Back in 1979, this approach made sense. There were no published D&D campaign worlds other than Judges Guild’s City State of the Invincible Overlord, and that fit into the “detail a single area, and move out from there” approach. There was no grand overview. No sense of how the City State of the Invincible Overlord fit in with the City State of the World Emperor, and how either of those political entities interacted with the Barbarian Altanis or what the heck were the Isles of the Blest. Isolated spots, like the city-states, were incredibly well-detailed, but the grand overview was lacking. It was a world built of pinpoints, built from the bottom up. (The way the wildernesses were described was singularly appropriate for what we now call sandbox play, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

Of course, with the publication of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting, that changed. Now there was a coherent framework, built from the top-down. You knew where the City of Greyhawk was relative to Verbobonc and Urnst, and had some idea of the politics and factions and races, and how they all fit together. When the boxed set came out a couple years later, the picture was even more complete, as it saw fit to include gods and goddesses and much more detail.

I would say that the initial publication of the World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting folio represents a watershed in campaign design theory. It overturned the established order. No longer was a village and a dungeon enough to start a campaign; now you needed at least a continent, or a couple of kingdoms at the most bare-bones level. Gary Gygax himself established the new theory of campaign design in 1983, in an article in Polyhedron magazine entitled “Setting the Milieu”.

“Rather than working haphazardly from a dungeon to a world in ever-widening concentric circles (and I have done this in the early days), the DM should broadly outline his or her universe, sketch out the world upon which initial action will occur, generally detail a continent, develop a section of that continent (perhaps four or five states), prepare a full history of the central area in which the adventurers will find themselves, and then begin recording the minutiae of the campaign. Highly detailed work must be done for the major urban and rural settings of the heart of the action.” (Polyhedron #12, p.16)

What a difference four years makes!

I must say, once the World of Greyhawk folio came out, I don’t think I ever even attempted to run a game that didn’t have a continent-wide map (or at least a sub-continent). Until a couple of years ago, that is. When I decided I was going to run an AD&D game, I put together a town, a dungeon, and a quick wilderness map. That was it. After a couple of gaming sessions, I plopped the whole thing into the World of Greyhawk, but only out of love of that particular setting; I could very well have stuck with the original conception and see where it took me.

That, I think, is the heart of the difference between the two approaches. The top-down vision of campaign design gives the dungeon master the final say in the broad brush-strokes. The kingdoms, the religions, the planes of existence, are already at least sketched out. Sure, they can be changed, but even the act of putting them down on paper gives them a certain permanence. The bottom-up approach, on the other hand, might be seen as giving the players a certain hand in the development of the setting. Your dwarf fighter wants to be a disinherited prince from a dwarven kingdom? Well, you could try to shoehorn that into an already-established setting, but if the setting consists of a town and a dungeon, then your options as a DM are a bit more broad. This speaks to the “say yes” philosophy of DMing.

My current game is on hiatus for a variety of reasons. I wonder if it wouldn’t be nifty to restart it with a bottom-up approach. What do you all think? I map out a village, a 30-mile wilderness, and a dungeon. “You all meet in a tavern, and decide to go to the village and explore the dungeon.”

Then just say “GO!”

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

13 thoughts on “Designing the setting: top-down vs. bottom-up

  1. I enjoy that kind of approach. Keep it simple, but with depth. One of the campaign I ran I had drawn up four contenitents, over a dozen kingdoms and all the territories in between. The campaign took over three years (we did have months off), but of all that time they only left the kingdom they started in once. I did like having the rest mapped out only so I could have outside forces effect the player's area.

  2. Gygax was correct the first time. Go with the bottom up approach.

    I think the top down wastes a lot of DM time.

    Map out two weeks in every direction and go.

    Check out Chatty DM's old-school game chronicle. It will give you a chuckle about the "you meet at a tavern" cliche.

    I used the "you meet at a tavern" cliche in my most recent campaign, with a twist.

  3. If you made it a PBEM, I'd play :-)!

    On the more general topic of setting design, one I've toyed with for a long time is a fallen empire model. Briefly, you have a widespread empire which fell into tyranny and madness under a lich king (no, I won't deny being partly inspired by the ultimate fate of the Great Kingdom 😉 ). In the course of a long period of oppression, this mad monarch scatters the land with all sorts of bad places and things, explaining randomly strewn dungeons, magical locations, etc. He and his minions engaged in an orgy of opening portals to the lower planes, summoning fell creatures, worshipping dark gods, breeding and hiring humaniods, etc.

    Eventually, a resistance movement grows into an all out war of liberation, which ultimately succeeds after a long, ugly fight. The campaign opens the day after the heroes of the revolution have slain the lich king at great cost.

    Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. After a long, magic-heavy war, the setting is basically post-apocolyptic. There are still many enclaves of the fallen empire, roaming creatures and bands of humanoids/bandits. Local power structures suppressed by the empire are reasserting themselves, as are old feuds and new versions of both are springing up. Magic-blasted ruins and untidy battlefields abound.

    I like this because it combines many of the traditional elements of FRP in a setting logical enough to make sense and flexible enough to be very adaptable to the actions of the players. The fallen empire explains a common language and currency, but does not preclude local variation. The post-apocolyptic feel allows just the sort of isolated startup you describe here, because there would be many isolated enclaves that were cut off by the war. And the nature of the setting allows intrepid, up and coming adventurers to play a significant role in defining the future of thier society.

  4. I think it depends on what the DM thinks of as his role. Is he the story-teller or the playground supervisor? DMing from the top down can be a lot of extra work that is completely unnecessary for the players to have fun, but some DM's get a little reward for their efforts by having the fun of writing a little secret story for their own amusement (that may never be revealed).

  5. I think that bottom-up is generally the way to go for several reasons:

    1. When the Referee puts too much time and effort into designing "his" world, he tends to want others to love it as much as he does. But odds are, they won't. They don't want to memorize your funky calendar; they don't remember the name of that flower you made up. You aren't Tolkien and this isn't a novel. If you want to write a novel, then do that instead.

    2. Bottoms-up means that you do work on things that will actually matter to your players. Does it matter the way the Xolphroxian Church suffered a schism two centuries ago due to abstruse doctrinal issues? Probably not. The players care about where they can get equipment they need, where they can unload treasure or find hirelings, or where they can go next.

    3. Bottoms-up means that the setting "reacts" to the players. They decide to research that fallen empire? Then do some creating. But if they don't care, then don't expect them to want to know all that great stuff you spent so much time on. My experience is that players will always go left when you figure they will go right. If you haven't mapped everything out, then you can fill in the blanks where the players express interest

    4. We're all busy. Creating top-down means a lot of work that never sees the light of day. If that's just fun for you, then fine. But if it comes at the expense of useful work, then it isn't.

    Just my four cents. 🙂

  6. I always hated the laid out lands because it became a pigeon hole you had to fit your players and adventures into. While I appreciate the thorough design of Judges Guild Wilderlands and Greyhawk, but I never like playing in them because all the material was readily available to players as well. It's like playing in Tolkein's Middle Earth the setting is a burden and hindrance to your own creativity and story.

    That is certainly not the case when you build bottom up. Everything is flexible and more interactive/ re-active with the players and their decisions. This does require much more on the fly creativity from referees, but isn't that part of the fun?

  7. Well, I've always built top down, but only in generalities. Basic political entities, religions, topography (again, roughed out, no specific details). This allows me to give the players some flavor, but not enough to force them into a place. Whatever province they start in is finished (locales, major NPCs, etc). This is done for a radius equal to whatever distance they could travel during the adventure. For the following week, I then do the same for where ever they ended up.
    My adventures tend to be more story driven, rather then Dungeon crawls (pbem)and there is a fair amount of out of game stuff going on at any time. This setting has been in use since 1977, so it is pretty much "done," but this is the way I've always done it.

  8. I like to mix and match both options, and use one or the other depending on the kind of campaign that I'm going to run, and how long I think I'm going to be behind the screen.

    Ed Greenwood's "Plan Before You Play" in Dragon #63 offers some good advice about building your own Greyhawk Folio-type environment, while the recently-unearthed EGG article in Europa 6-8 (April 1975) offers some more insight into his bottoms-up approach: (thanks to Andy over on DF for initially sharing the link!).


  9. That Greenwood article in Dragon 63 was one of my favorites during my formative years. He was so spot-on in so many of his details; it's hard to believe he only had the one campaign. It seemed like he had honed his skills over and over again to gain those insights.

    Never heard of that other article before, Alan; I'm off to read it now.

  10. Not too long ago, I discovered a book titled “Imaginary Worlds” by Lin Carter which I believe might have had an influence on Gygax and other early RPG designers. Published
    in 1970 and details quite a bit about world design from the fantasy writers perspective going so far as recommending writing as much of the world as needed and even drawing a map as well as other bits of advice that I've seen mentioned over the years in various publications and on-line forums. Pick up a copy if you can, it’s good reading.

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