The Titan’s Toolkit: An introduction and the Regional Magical TraditionWritten by Tom OHara - Published on January 20, 2014
I love world building. As a history major and a huge Tolkien nerd, getting to create civilizations is a dream, and it’s absolutely my favorite part of being a DM. I still appreciate published settings, but building one of your own is an enormously rewarding experience. Starting from scratch to build entire cultures and histories is educational, draws upon your imagination, and has tangible benefits at the table. That’s right: worldbuilding isn’t purely an exercise in ego – if it’s a collaborative process that includes players, it makes everyone more invested.
My goal with this series of articles is to help you build a setting of your own. Specifically a setting that is both internally consistent yet supports the kinds of characters that your players want. One which is too rigid, either out of a literal interpretation of a published work or the refusal to change your own material, is just as bad as one which is made up entirely on the fly, where nothing has consequence and the world is inconsistent. The setting I’ll try and help you make is one which follows the middle way, between absolutely inflexible and totally meaningless.
So, enough with the rambling: let’s get to the nuts and bolts.
I have a problem with magic as presented in core D&D. The default assumption seems to be that a sorcerer is a sorcerer; a druid is a druid, etc, regardless of differences in time and place. An Elf Wizard, trained since childhood by his mother in Arcane traditions passed down for centuries through a family line, casts the same spells as a Human Wizard who went to the finest magical university his wealthy parents could afford. A wizard born 1,000 years before the start of the campaign often used the same spells as the party’s wizard. It’s almost surreal – and maybe that works for you. If you want a setting where magic is a sort of constant, where there are only so many spells, and all members of the same class draw from the same list because there literally are no other spells, is by no means an invalid choice when putting together your world. But it is a choice, and alternatives can do wonders for the verisimilitude of your setting.
Consider this: in a game with as much supplemental support as D&D, there’s a great opportunity to make different regions feel more distinctive from one another, and make the past feel more separate from the present. Rather than opening the floodgates of feats, spells, and classes from countless splatbooks, if it’s not already separated as such divide material up among your various regions: it’ll create a real sense of otherness when the players travel to a new country and find that rather than the Fly spell, they grow temporary wings or conjure a Floating Disc that whisks them around the sky. In settings where magic seems to be fairly ubiquitous, a place’s magical traditions should be a pretty substantial part of its culture, and to some extent, reflect the values and history of the place that produced those traditions. Limiting class and school/deity selection is another, more restrictive way to give distinctiveness.
What is true when creating differences between local styles of spellcasting is also true of creating historical styles. In a genre where tomb robbing and dungeon crawling are substantial parts of many games, there are plenty of opportunities to run into ancient spells as well as the obligatory ancient magic items. If there are ancient magicians still alive (or Undead), a great way to reinforce that ancientness is by having them cast spells lost to history: when the mummy lord’s strange chanting causes the rogue to uncontrollably vomit beetles, that sends a message to the party that they are dealing with someone more than just another wizard of the same level. Introducing custom magic like this makes players more interested in the world, and therefore in your game. And that can only be a good thing.
Well, except for that rogue.