Way back in 2001 when we started playing in the town of Adris, all I had was a sketch of the main street and a vague idea where the three roads out of town went. But, true to the First Rule of Dungeoncraft, immediate relevance only extended as far as Adris's main streets and the tiny mining village of Logan's Pass up in the mountains. And that's where the adventure began.
I decided to embrace a new approach. I typically operate top-down instead of bottom-up when designing. I had an idea of where the universe fit into the bigger planar picture, but that's about all the detail I had when I started. I let the game tell me what needed attention, and I tried to design one game ahead of the players. I think I pulled it off fairly well, though there were times I just hit a creative wall. Hopefully those times weren't painfully obvious.
The first adventure in Logan's Pass (The Burning Plague for those playing along at home) introduced a warband of goblins who were basically caught between the human villagers outside the mine and the bigger baddie further in. From that one feature in a prepared adventure, I postulated that the goblins were expanding their influence. And how do goblins expand? They do it the old-fashioned way: they invade places.
And just like that, there's a race war happening in the background as the gnomes have been displaced by the goblin hordes. Grond will remain in gnomish hands for as long as they can manufacture ammunition for the giant iron golem that the city was built on, but that's the only city the gnomes have left. Every other gnome has become a refugee.
Boom. That's how you add a feature to your world. Go big or don't bother.
The world grew from the PC's perceptions and the players' decisions about which hook to follow next. So we looked at the Gnomish Confederacy and how it got screwed by hordes of goblins. We took a trip to the Dwarven Kingdom and discovered that the drow experimented on dwarves to splice together a dwarf/drider abomination which angered Wulfgar to no end. A band of orcs were setting up shop in the no-mans-land between the human kingdom of Arket and the Dwarven Kingdom, a 50-mile border that the dwarves abandoned by treaty after the war and which the humans didn't have the numbers or motivation to settle. Some orcs were gifted by Set with special powers to keep the tribes working together - the Cult of the Burning Fist was born. Dragons came into reality early as some goblins bribed a white dragon into creating an unseasonable blizzard to cover the theft of magical tomes from Adris's local Mage's Guild. Pandora's elven mentor fell victim to Lycanthropy and the party needed to dispatch him. All of these hooks came from or were expanded by the characters' backgrounds.
We had a basic lay of the land, but then we started adding details that made the world pop. The town of Splitrock had a druid circle and healer's college, which sprang from a random roll on the NPC level table from the DMG. And since I had just returned from Watkins Glen and a wonderful eating experience at a place called Mr. Chicken, I made a restaurant in Splitrock that served the best chicken in the world. Everybody looked forward to debriefing over a table of chicken at Martha's. You can't buy details like that, but if your players buy in to something you've created and give it life, you win.
Then the party discovered the Druid Bowls. These scrying devices were scattered throughout the world so druids could keep up with natural happenings and help each other out. And they talked to people thousands of miles away and started learning about the world. They found problems across the planet and teleported hither and yon to try and deal with a few of the larger issues.
They met Sarah and Bob. Turns out Sarah broke the quarantine and came to this planet to discover what the heck was happening and report back to her bosses via Mind Link. With the party's help, she discovered that someone was breeding displacer beasts and somehow using them to cloak mechs. She died trying to prevent a shuttle from leaving the atmosphere. Later, under a pyramid in the Sindari Desert, the party found a robot dwarf named Bob who maintained a library of all the knowledge in the universe. Bob interfaced with the elf-maintained library planet to keep up to date, though he had been told to hide as much as possible while doing so. The party saw a satellite map of the world and started asking questions of what was beyond the sky. Turns out there's quite a bit happening out there with hundreds of populated worlds to explore and an ancient enemy resurfacing to start a war between the stars. And Bob maintains a communication chamber to talk with representatives from other planets.
Right about then I could hear the players' minds blowing out. I love that sound.
The moral of the story? Keep ahead of the players, but don't get too attached to what happens next. You'll be more sane. I'm working out how to communicate and organize Schrodinger's Gun GMing, so stay tuned for more in-depth theoretical discussions in that vein.
An aside: I love how these posts just spill from my head. I try to internalize as much of the adventure and the world as possible for flexibility's sake. It's much easier for me to improvise if I don't need to refer to notes. A side effect of that approach comes out in posts like this - the info is still in there, it just needs an outlet. Oh, look - here's an outlet now!
Thanks for reading!