One thing all DMs (and plenty of players) enjoy about homebrew RPG settings is the process of worldbuilding. Several years ago, I hammered together the initial idea for a fantasy world based on our own world. The geography is the same; the populace, flora and fauna? Not so much. Here’s why this might be the best idea I’ve ever had.
To be clear, when I say this is “the best idea I’ve ever had,” I’m not trying to pat myself on the back. I’ve had tons of bad ideas, but this one seems to have worked out really well. In fact, I can hardly take credit for it, since fellow Viking Ryk Perry has taken it over for long stretches and fleshed it out to a far greater extent than I had. So far, the world has been around for an entire years-long 3rd edition D&D campaign and survived a huge magical cataclysm prior to returning (several in-game years later) for 4E. That’s certainly more longevity than any other campaign world I’ve created.
But this article isn’t about my campaign world, it’s about why you should use Earth for your own, and how to make it work.
1). It saves the DM a ton of work. Right off the bat, you don’t need a world map. Just find a nice World Atlas and photocopy some key pages. You can then draw new borders or geographical highlights right on those sheets. If the players are traveling through Europe and want to visit a large city, you don’t have to make up a city name, location or general character. Just have them visit Prague. You don’t even need to know what Prague was like in whatever vague historical era your campaign takes place in. Prague in your world is just like what you imagine Prague might have been like in 1,255 if dragons and wizards really existed. What’s the weather like in Japan in the winter? Just like it is our “real” Japan. What does the Russian villain talk like? Just like Drago.
2). It gives the players an anchor. I’m a big fan of adding certain levels of realism to RPGs, as long as they don’t detract from the fun. Small details can make it much easier for players to really imagine themselves accepting a quest from the king or walking along forest path in search of a ruined temple. A world based on Earth has a whole bunch of those little details automatically built in. Whether its the irritating attitudes of those snooty French nobles or the searing heat of a walk through the Sahara, little bits of common knowledge and stereotypes play into the DM’s favor.
3). You can defy expectations to create fantastic scenarios. Imagine you’re a DM creating an adventure around some anomalous winter conditions. You can have an NPC explain to the players that it’s normally very warm here, and this sudden snow must be supernatural in origins. That’s fine. But imagine instead that your characters are on a ship sailing to Cairo. As they approach the city, they sail into a massive blizzard, and can’t get into the harbor because it’s choked with ice. You don’t have to explain why this is weird — the players will immediately know something is up and want to investigate.
4). You can play with mythology. There are obvious to do this — throw a labyrinth and minotaur into an adventure in Crete, or battle some frost giants in Sweden, for instance. But you can also alter your world to capture the feel of mythology. There’s a great example of this in our campaign: I originally made the United Kingdom a realm ruled entirely by elves, which I thought captured a nice Celtic, druidic flavor. Ryk took this a step further and made it into a mist-enshrouded magical elven kingdom that fades in and out of our reality (in 4E, it’s a place where the Feywild overlaps our world a lot). This is such a great way to make Earth fantastic: it’s our world the way we imagine it in fairy tales and glorious epics.
5). Most fantasy worlds end up with a bunch of Earth analogues anyway. Even the Forgotten Realms fell victim to this, with Kara-Tur, Al Qadim and other expansions. At some point, your players are going to want to fight in Roman gladiatorial combat. Yeah, you could invent a reason for that to exist in a fantasy world, but you really want to visit Rome, so why not just visit Rome? Why create “a mysterious land far to the east that’s similar to China,” when you could just have “a mysterious land far to the east called China”?
6). (Bonus reason) Earth is pretty fantastic all by itself. Soaring mountain ranges, verdant jungles, roaring rivers, bizarre plants and animals — you don’t need to make anything up to have a world filled with wondrous and amazing things. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t tweak things to make them even weirder. Mount Everest? Made of one giant white diamond. The Alps? Entirely populated by evergreen treants. African animal migrations? How about flying antelopes that follow storm clouds through the sky, drinking directly from them?