World Building 101: Incorporating New Content

Roleplaying games evolve continually. Even “dead” editions, that have been retired by their publishers, can still see unofficial support from fan communities. For systems still in print, new content tends to emerge on a regular basis, and it’s inevitable that at some point, player and DM alike will see something new that stirs them sufficiently to warrant inclusion into the existing campaign. For magic items or powers, this is pretty straightforward, but for new classes or character races, it can lead to complications.

Sometimes this is not a problem. If your campaign world is sufficiently large or open, introducing new elements may be as straightforward as simply saying that the new element has always been present but has not been important until just now. With more deeply established settings, with detailed histories and background, it may not be so simple—you may have to explain exactly why nobody has ever encountered the new race or class before now. There are really two steps involved in integrating new material into your campaign. Both are vital, but they occur at separate points in the creation and detailing of your world.

Prepare in Advance: Since it’s almost a given that new content will emerge during the course of your campaign, it makes sense to design from the ground up with this fact in mind. In fact this should almost always be a consideration anyway, especially if you want to allow your players to provide input into the setting. By leaving room for new ideas, you make it that much easier to incorporate them later on.

Make it Fit: Some campaigns are loose enough that introducing a new element requires only the act of including it in a game for the first time. “Oh sure, you’ve seen plenty of bug-men around, I just haven’t been pointing them out” can be sufficient explanation and justification for the introduction of a new player race, for example. However, especially if the new element is being used by a player character, it’s probably worth going the extra mile to properly work it into the setting, by giving the new element its own defined place in the world wherever possible. Create a history and story explaining the new race, or describe the way the new class fits into society—make them as much a part of your campaign as those elements that have been there from the beginning.

This can still present problems, though. If you’re running a published campaign world, for example, or if a new bit of content would invalidate established details of your world for whatever reason, then the integration process becomes more difficult. It may be tempting to simply tell a player that you can’t include the new content, but this is not an ideal solution, as it shuts down ideas from your players. Fortunately, there are ways that this can be circumvented, many of which provide potential plot hooks as a side effect. Some of these ideas have a large impact on your campaign setting, others are fairly minor, but most of them should be able to fit into any campaign world with a bit of effort.

  • Stranger in a Strange Land — Perhaps the new player is not native to your campaign world. Planar travel is a fairly common concept for D&D, and the idea of a new character who has been transported out of his or her home and into a strange environment can be excellent for creating story hooks and explaining their presence. Maybe the PC playing the new character is a lone refugee, trying to find a way back home—what happens if, at a climactic moment, they are forced to choose between that and helping their new friends? Perhaps a large group of the new race were dropped wholesale into the world, and now must forge a place for themselves and find a new homeland among the people already living there—many conflicts could arise from such a situation, that could draw in the player characters to help sort things out.
  • The Last of Their Kind — Perhaps the PC using the new content is part of a dying race or tradition, or the last survivor of a massacre seeking others of their own kind to rebuild. Alternately, perhaps they were believed to be extinct for centuries, and have just now begun to return to the world. The PC may not even know what has become of their people—maybe they were found in some sort of magical stasis by the other PCs, unaware of the passage of ages and uncertain of the fate of everyone they knew.
  • The First of Their Kind — Conversely, the PC could be the first of a new race—whether created by magical experiments, divine intervention, or simply coming into being with no knowledge or recollection of the cause. Who created them, and why? What is their place in the world? The mystery of their creation, the fight for freedom from their sinister creators, or forging a place for their kind, could all serve as a backdrop for adventures.
  • Homecoming — Perhaps the “new” race or class is actually an ancient one, that departed from the world millennia ago to explore the planes or contemplate the nature of magic, or for other inscrutable reasons. Perhaps they separated themselves from time in order to avoid a disaster, or perhaps they were forcibly separated by some external force. Why have they come back now, and what are the consequences of their return?
  • Magical Disaster — A magical experiment or ritual gone wrong creates a rift to another world, or mutates existing life—or even creates it where there was none. Perhaps the disaster’s cause is not by any mortal agency—the death of a god may bring about chaos, or it may be some prophesied doom that befalls the world. What are the other consequences of the disaster? Will the world be forever changed by the chaos ripping through it, or is it a localized event that wipes out a single kingdom but leaves the rest intact? Even searching for the cause of the disaster, or a way to contain the effects, could be interesting stories.
  • Hidden Temples or Lost Empires — Perhaps the new race or class simply exist, but hidden away from the world. Perhaps they prefer secluded monasteries that most people do not even realize exist, or perhaps they have some reason for their isolationism. What drives a PC from one of these groups out into the world at large? Is there some disease that must be cured, or a prophecy that must be fulfilled? Is it some sort of vision quest, or an exile for some transgression against a taboo?

These ideas are by no means exhaustive, but they make an excellent starting point for including new content into existing settings. Be careful not to let a single PC’s storyline dictate your entire campaign’s direction, though—remember that each player deserves a chance to shine. Integrating a new race or class into your campaign may provide a great story hook, but the focus should remain on the group as a whole, not any single player.

Comments (1)

Andy (March 11th, 2010)

The idea of an evolving campaign world is really cool. I love how one little thing can herald in a bunch of change.

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