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Collaborative World Building: Dawn of Worlds

My new campaign is starting this weekend, and my group opted to make use of Dawn of Worlds [1] to design the game world.  Dawn of Worlds is a collaborative world building system for use with RPGs, novels, or anything else for which you’d need a world.  It’s system neutral which makes it useful for anyone, and it’s a lot of fun in it’s own right. We used Dawn of Worlds for a number of reasons, and coming away from it, I can say I’ve learned a few things about the best use of the system.

The basic concept of how Dawn of Worlds works is like this: Each turn, each player gets a number of points. Points are used to buy things in the world from terrain features to races, to world-changing events. Turns are grouped into eras. Within each era, costs are balanced differently. In the first era, terrain and climate is very inexpensive, while the second era features inexpensive races, advancements (technologies and similar advantages) and avatars (powerful influences), and the third and final era features inexpensive organizations, armies, and wonders.

Dawn of Worlds spreads the labor of world creation out amongst the whole group, so it makes world creation faster and the end result more complex than if one player were doing it. It also makes sure that players are familiar with the history of the gameworld without having to bore them to tears with endless exposition or giving them a novella to read.

Even if you don’t have a project that needs a world, Dawn of Worlds is a fun game in it’s own right. Especially at the later stages, it’s fun to see the creations everyone made and their histories, and there’s nothing stopping you from cherry-picking your favorite parts to incorporate into other projects.

Dawn of Worlds promotes player investiture by inviting all players to add things they feel are exciting or they’d like to play into the world.  If you have a player that likes the idea of gunplay, they can feel free to add a civilization of gunslinging tinkers. If one of your players fancies the idea of a race of kobold paladins and priests being the greatest force for good in the world, they can contribute that. If one of your players wants a giant civilization with merchants, diplomats, and civil engineers, there’s nothing stopping them. Everyone has the ability to put something in the world that they want to see or play.

In addition, the result of Dawn of Worlds pulls from the collective imaginations of a group of players, not just one. That means that you, as game master aren’t required to come up with everything in the world all by yourself, and that everyone’s best ideas are at the table. These ideas will quickly build off of each other as well. If that race of good kobolds comes to power by overthrowing their masters and driving them out of their city, someone else might make another order of kobolds dedicated to retaking their homeland from the usurpers.

But, not everything about Dawn of Worlds is smiles and sunshine. There are no problems or mistakes that I found in the system, but there are challenges that need to be identified and handled for the game to meet it’s greatest potential. I ran into quite a few of these with my group.  Some we handled well, others no so much.

First is that there’s no mention of, nor adjustment for, size. This includes size of your group, size of your map, and size of your world. We don’t know if the base rules are intended to be used with 3 players or 18, we don’t know if your map is supposed to fill an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, or a poster, and while we know each power effects 1 square inch, we don’t know how many square miles that’s supposed to be. The easy answer is “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Stop being anal retentive and enjoy the game.” but that doesn’t address that these factors have very serious effects on both the game and the game world. My group consists of 7 players, and I opted for an 11×17 map where each square inch was approximately 10,000 square miles of the world (100 x 100 miles).  Our game lasted til turn 16.  Conversely, a friend of mine running his own game has slightly more players but a “freaking huge” (he hasn’t disclosed size other than that) map. His group went through over 20 turns in their first nght of play and haven’t even come close to finishing the first phase of the game (creating raw terrain). Map scale greatly effects the granularity of your world. If a 1′ square is 10 miles across, your end world looks a lot different than mine with squares 100 miles across.
Keep in mind when planning your game, that half the number of squares of land you have, divided by the number of players you have gives you an approximation of the number of turns it will take to add terrain to the entire surface of your landmass. Each Era (type of play) is slated to take a minimum of 5 turns, so I’d aim for that as a rough target for that calculation. Too much smaller, and your players will be finished with creating terrain well before it’s optimal to do anything else. Too much larger and you may move on from boredom long before your terrain is finished, leaving your world with vast stretches of featureless grassland.

While we’re on the “Are you clenched too tightly Matt?” issues, don’t wait to address this one if you’re uptight like me. When players place features on the map, they’re allowed to place them wherever they like and they’re allowed to make whatever they like. While that’s cool, you can only have so many jungles right next to artic tundra before your world starts to look pretty stupid. Yes, you can handwave each and every one away with some excuse or another, but it’s far simpler to start with some climactic bands (and tectonic plates and wind patterns if you’re super retentive like me) drawn on your map and labeled so that everyone knows what’s appropriate for each area. Then, if they drop a jungle in an arctic band or a dessert right next to the ocean, it’s because it’s intentional and they have a cool reason in mind, not because they have no idea it doesn’t belong there.  Trust me when I say you do not want to wait till four turns in realize your terrain placement makes your brain hurt and try to clean it up then. It’s not fun.

Something else that’s a potential pitfall is the temptation to move into the next era before you’re finished with the current one. Remember that each era has actions that are most efficient only in that era, so if you abandon terrain building when you’re half done to start making races and cities, you’re not only wasting points (and thus time) on inefficient races and cities, but later you’ll either have a very empty world, or be faced with finishing terrain creation now that it’s more expensive. It’s far too easy to get ahead of yourself. Make sure you’re done with what you’re “supposed” to be doing before you get distracted with the next thing in line. While this isn’t a hard fast rule, keeping to it in general will produce better results than ignoring it.

Another feature of the game that’s well-intentioned but can cause problems is that if you finish your turn with 5 or fewer points left to spend, you get a cumulative (up to +3) bonus to your next roll for points. This means that players have a large incentive to spend down as closely to five points as they can. That’s fantastic because it means more being created and more happening in your world. Where it causes problems is when you have just a few points to burn to keep your bonus rolling, and you need to spend them on anything. This can lead to ill thought out plays and burning off points in ways that are innapropriate. We had a player burn off points several times by corrupting another player’s civilization. This meant that one their turn, that player then had to pay the points to reverse that corruption before they could take their own actions. To avoid this, keep in mind a short list of constructive actions within each era that take just a few points and don’t have prerequisites. That way, when bleeding off points, players don’t accidentally cause each other problems and frustration.

Anther area where things can get sensitive is when one player plays with another one’s creation. No one (generally) minds when you create a subrace of another race, or make a new order in someone else’s society, but as created societies and races start to have life of their own, sometimes they’re going to want to mess with each other. That’s normal and it should be encouraged, as it makes for a vibrant realistic world with the tension neccesary to create good stories and adventures.  In our game, two players made very technology centric cultures very early, so another player created an order of terroristic luddites to make war on them. Similarly, we had the holy kobolds of Bahamut and the evil dragon corrupted kobolds at each other’s throats. After the tension created by the bleeding off of points by corrupting another player’s city I mentioned above, tension between players (not world factions) was high, and as world elements started to clash, other players got caught in the crossfire and became mildly annoyed. This caused me to make a new rule that before you touched another player’s creation, you needed to get permission. That was a mistake. It took all the tension and drama out of the world and future events and greatly reduced the creative options of players. It’s well and good to say that before touching another players creation you should discuss or mention it to them, and that no one should be a jerk to another player, but limiting players in this way wasn’t a good idea on my part.

Fianlly, while Dawn of Worlds allows for players to incorporate anything they want into the world, if the things they create aren’t in the official rules, someone will have to make a writeup for their creations. In some games that’s very simple, but in games in which that could be a painful process, it’s probably best to agree to stick to pre-made items and just twist them to make them unique.

So, while Dawn of Worlds has it’s challenges, just like any other game, the effort is well worth the payoff of a collaborative world full of player investiture and everyone’s best ideas and I strongly suggest your group try it out for your next project.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Collaborative World Building: Dawn of Worlds"

#1 Comment By Karizma On May 1, 2009 @ 10:49 am

I’ve had this in my folder for a while, but I’ve yet to get a chance to use it. Thanks for the review! I’ll definitely keep these things in mind.

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On May 1, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

I love the Dawn of Worlds game. I played it once just to try it out. My next use of it is going to be to build a world for a unique short campaign I’m going to run.

Part 1 – Use a modified dawn of worlds to build the pre-history of the fairy races (ala Hellboy 2) of a land, up to their inclusion as an underground society in a modern city.
Part 2 – Use BESM Dreaming Cities to play a game where the players are kings enforcers in the world that they just built, utilizing the races and histories and factions that were created.

I think this will give the players a HUGE sense of immersion in the world they are playing in.

#3 Comment By Terwox On May 1, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

I have only read Dawn of Worlds, but I have played Universalis a few times. Great game. Universalis is not as tailored to generate geography without simply creating those rules yourself on the fly (realistically, you could port Dawn of Worlds’ rules for that part straight in, using point costs for chips, but eh.)

Universalis shines for getting some characters and direct backstory setup as well as other races and conflict. Worth checking out.

#4 Comment By trisj On May 1, 2009 @ 2:11 pm


This is the coolest thing I have seen in a bit. If I was more vulgar, I would say I was having a nerdgasm over it. Needless to say, I am excited to use this.

#5 Comment By NeonElf On May 1, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

I’m currently running this game via email. To limit the tit-for-tat problem you were having, turns are simultaneous and non-attributed. Thus someone corrupting another players race has no fear of retribution, and it gives another whole dimension to the avatar (since it is obvious which God they represent).

I have a website, and an FAQ section that I wonder if anyone else had these questions arise. I have one player who’s a rules lawyer so almost all the questions came from him. Please visit [2] if you’re interested. There are maps, (made with CC3) and a complete history.

We’re kinda on hiatus since Christmas as I got too busy to run it but I’m hoping to get back to it.

#6 Comment By Rafe On May 1, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

What game system did you use Dawn of Worlds to support, Matt? D&D? I’ve read Dawn of Worlds, but I haven’t had a chance to use it. I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, though, in terms of creating a fantasy world, but I haven’t heard anything in terms of any other world.

#7 Comment By Grim On May 2, 2009 @ 2:42 am

I had great fun playing in a Dawn of Worlds thing to set up our first 4E game, some things that came up for us were:
1) Stupid stupid players. Seriously, talk to your players first about what the “intended” tone of the world should be or you will end up with a race of zombie hitlers flying around in Zeplins before you even finish shaping the terrain
2) Create Avatar -> Command Avatar (Create Race) is totally cheap, giving you a 1st age race for only 12 points and makes other people look stupid when they realize they didn’t think of it first
3) Scale. We had so many arguments and so much trouble, it really is something you want to hammer out asap
3) Respecting the input of your players. After we were finished building the world it fell to the DM to actually make it into a real campaign setting – but instead of building on what we had he just removed / changed most details of the setting and ignored the cool gods we had set ourselves up as (never once ran into a cleric of the god of Heavy Metal! Can you imagine)

#8 Comment By itliaf On May 2, 2009 @ 10:36 am

@grim I second #’s 1,3 and *cough* 3. Thanks to Scott’s recommendations we ran this game last summer to setup a new 4e world for my game. My problem is that I was too busy coming up with crazy side rules about how players could act as a specific diety and gain bonuses on certain actions to actually decide on a tone ahead of time. For some reason my players most enjoyed creating ridiculous terrain features and sort of checked out during the race and city building phases (or the world was so f-ed up by that point that any meaningful political histories were basically impossible). So I got an offshore island that was one leveled walmart parking lot (complete with cart corrals and blue-vested gnome tenders) a hundred mile wide super volcano, and a lovely fairway extending up the eastern arm of the continent.
Also, if i play again (and it was a blast, so I hope to) I am toying with a system of zero sum points to encourage competition.
We used poker chips to track point pools. Having counters like his is a simple way to speed things up on the accounting end, and players are more likely to spend if they don’t have to write down every expenditure they make.

#9 Comment By pseudodragon On May 2, 2009 @ 11:50 am

While this all sounds very cool, some of us have never played or even heard of Dawn of Worlds. Could you please provide some basic information about this game, like it’s genre (computer, boardgame, etc), who makes it, where one can review it or obtain it, how much it costs, etc? Otherwise, I feel like a high school kid who got invited to the hottest party of the season by the prettiest girl in class who neglected to give me directions to get there!


#10 Comment By Taellosse On May 2, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

[3] – He linked to it in the first sentence. It’s a free PDF that outlines the rules of how to play. It’s a system-agnostic method of collective world building, essentially, though I’d say it probably works best for a setting that’s going to be more or less traditional fantasy or some near-variant.

#11 Comment By pseudodragon On May 3, 2009 @ 11:26 am

Oops, I missed that. Thanks.


#12 Comment By Aramax On May 3, 2009 @ 11:48 am

The stew is MEATY today!
Thanx for the info ,Ill be happily world building w/ my buds.

#13 Comment By Scott Martin On May 3, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

I’m glad you made it to phase 3– our session ran long and we barely made it through the second era. It was good, but left a lot of development still in the GM’s hands. That was OK, but not as collaborative as I’d hoped.

#14 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 4, 2009 @ 9:43 am

@ Rafe – My group wanted to play a new DnD 4E game, but wanted to make heavy use of PHB2 options. Since there’s SO many options already for 4E (and so many of them are annoying fanboi crap) we used DoW to create a custom world where only the stuff they actually wanted to use got put in. Turns out, only drow got left out, probably because I threatened to murder anyone who included them.

@ Grim – In any collaborative effort, not having a clear agreed upon goal/tone/etc… can create vision issues. It’s even more important than normal games.
I had the opportunity to ask one of the creators about the game on [5] a while ago. Turns out the Command Avatar-Create Race combo is intended to work only once per player per game, so it’s not as broken as it might otherwise look. I think it’s prmarily in place so that someone can create an elder “here since the mountains were young” race, but in reality it usually just gets abused to skip era 1 by impatient players.

@ Pseudodragon – Oops! Guess I should have been more clear with that link “You can download it here” or something. I have been properly chastised. 🙂

@ Taellosse – Thank you for helping out Pseudodragon.

@ Scott – We actually built the world over several sessions and a forum thread over the course of a month or so. I’ve never seen evidence that the time estimate of “about six hours” is anywhere near accurate. However, I always give the creators the benefit of the doubt and assume I’m doing something horribly wrong.

#15 Comment By Deranged Archivist On May 4, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

@ Matthew- I’d be very interested to know the details of the world you devised, and how the game itself unfolds.

#16 Comment By Swordgleam On May 4, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

I played a game of Dawn of Worlds. We had a blast, and created a really fun world.

I think you all have to more or less agree on tone beforehand.

The one issue we had was a player who didn’t really know what to do, so just spent all her points on advancements for her race. The other players wanted the world to have a ton of stuff, and so spread their points around. It led to one race that was more or less invincible, and a little angst before the differing motivations were resolved.

I still really love the origin of undead in that world, and plan to steal it for something someday.

#17 Comment By Monoxide On May 4, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

I was involved in the project and I mustsay this is the most fun way I know of to build a world. While several people were guilty of ‘taking’ from other settings. I felt that was quite alright because at the end of our last turn. All the barrowed materail somehow got re-flavored. The only thing to make it go faster, I would say, is by having several people split the book keeping. We had Matt do all ours and it put too much on one person.
We started a wiki on obsidianportal.com/campaign/sermithra. If you want to check out the work we started. The wiki is far from complete but should give you an idea.

#18 Comment By Havukin On May 5, 2009 @ 10:43 am

I’ve read through Dawn of Worlds and am quite eager to test it and then use it to create a world to play or GM in.

[6] – Will you share your secret about the origins of the undead with us?

[7] – I think there is a typo in the url to your campaign wiki. I assume it should be obsidianportal.com/campaign/seramithra. Are you going to add a description of how your Dawn of Worlds went through (what happened and when) in some form to the wiki at some point?

#19 Comment By Monoxide On May 5, 2009 @ 11:19 am

Try that. If it still doesn’t work I’ll see what Matt can do as he’s the wiki master.
Our Wiki for this world is really only designed to aid us in our 4E campaign. So we will not be posting our DoW turns, but you will see NPC’s, PC’s Wonders etc….Right now it is a work inprogress.

#20 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 5, 2009 @ 11:51 am

That last link should be correct: [8]

I’ve got a complete set of notes from start to end. Once this weekend’s adventure is ready to go, I’ll be adding some stuff to the wiki. Last couple turns, adding to some lists, and hopefully a map and timeline.

#21 Comment By kyldere On May 7, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

Hello. I am one of the co-creators of Dawn of Worlds. I would like to thank you for your honest review of the game system. All of the creators (myself included) know that the game is not perfect, but we’ve had a good time creating worlds using the system every time that we’ve done it.

The scale issue has come up on more than one occasion while we were creating worlds. In the end, it was decided that scale was probably best left up to the playing group, and the 1 inch rule be treated as a guideline (Roughly).

In our play testing, we were pretty much in constant communication during the first age. If a player decided to place a tropical jungle next to an arctic tundra for the fifth straight turn, a sidebar conversation would come up where questions like “Just what do you think you’re doing, Bob?” would be issued and valid responses demanded. But, remember that during the shaping of the world, fantastic scenery and breathtaking landscape can easily be crafted (as well as destroyed).

That all being said, I generally found the first age to be the slowest moving one, and the risk of players getting bored is great.

The idea about 1 and 2 point ‘bleed’ powers to keep the end of turn point total below 5 is a very good idea. I will try to bring this up next time we meet.

Part of our inspiration for the game comes from the classic mythologies, where the gods rarely got along with one another (unless they were scheming against other gods). The conflict that arises when one player tampers with another player’s ‘pet’ race parallels this environment. Unfortunately, we’ve also had our share of player tempers flare due to meddling. We have also had players save up points for several turns and then all but annihilate the aggressor’s creations. While not pretty, events like these do tend to create terrific history and spawn realistic religious tension in the game world.

We believed that we couldn’t possibly cover every case that a player might conceive, so we decided to just include some guidelines for powers. It was never intended to be an exhaustive list, only one that highlighted some of the more common examples. However, if you’d like some more cases included, feel free to let us know.

Again, thank you for the review of our game.

#22 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 8, 2009 @ 1:08 pm

@kyldere: Wow. Thanks for stopping by! It always excites me when the creators of products I like take the time to give their input.

My group really enjoyed using DoW, and are even talking about doing it again sometime soon, so thanks again for the great game!

If you’re thinking of revising it, I’d say that all of the “issues” I cite are more along the lines of “put another paragraph of clarification in the instructions issues” rather than “There’s something wrong with your system issues”, which is why I said “There are no problems or mistakes that I found in the system, but there are challenges that need to be identified and handled for the game to meet it’s greatest potential.” Taking a few sentences to clarify some rules of thumb on scale and how to adapt it to your group, the kind of things you’ll want to have on your map or have already discussed at start time, and some other points will help players get the most out of what is a fantastic system.

As for actions to add, I think you’ve hit a good mix. The few things we tried to do that we couldn’t figure out how to classify we just called events and left it at that. We also had someone ask to use “create wonder” to create rivers in era 3, paying 2 points for what would have been 8 otherwise, but we handwaved them as “aquaducts” and said it qualified. It wasn’t a big deal.

Thanks again for dropping by! I hope you enjoyed the stew. I know the stew enjoyed your game.

#23 Comment By d23 On May 30, 2010 @ 5:50 am

Hi guys, I tried out this system with my group

#24 Comment By d23 On May 30, 2010 @ 6:07 am

Sorry about the extra post on top… I think I accidentally shift-entered to post it before I finished typing my post.

Anyway, I tried out this system with my group last weekend, and I feel that this system is really good as it allow players to be more attached to the game.

Unfortunately I think this system is flawed because the goal of it is to generate conflict (which leads to history), and this conflict will invariably lead to arguments and conflict between players. What happened in my game was that Players tended to want to protect their creations and took offense at other Players interfering with their pet races. As our offline friendship was more important, players who originally intended to screw around with the other players’ race decided to undo their move and spend their points doing something else.

Also, at the start of the game, I also defined the playable races in the campaign. This led to the players creating the races which their would-be adventurer will be, and heavily advancing their race over others (I suppose in the hopes that their character would have some sort of in-game advantage). As such, at the end of Age 2, the races of good had armies which could overwhelm the races of evil. In Age 3, these armies began to clear out the evil races, and I had to stop the game from continuing. I told the players that I might disregard Age 3 and either continue the adventure from Age 3 or re-write the history.