My hot take opinion that makes me a persona non-grata in any tabletop GM forum is that world-building is almost completely a waste of time. Before the mods ban me, hear me out one moment.
The player experience is linear. Looking back on the campaign, the party’s history will be a time line of where they went, snaking their way around the game world. The players don’t interact with the whole kingdom, not directly, they interact with the objects around them that they’re seeing. If a town is never visited by the players, any details of that town are wasted. That’s time you could have used to add more touches to the parts that they actually saw. A map isn’t a world to the players, it’s a tool in order to optimize one part of a task: how to move from point A to point B and continue their personal timeline and personal goals. To them the game is a series of vignettes. Make those interesting.
Not saying that you should GM in a vacuum. Just that a town that’s not visited can be completely summed up by “they export horses and are loyal to the crown”. You don’t need to draw it or add anything else. On the other hand, if you know the players are about to enter the town next session, do get all the details out. What are the inns called cause you’ll probably need that? What’s an interesting fact about each one? What’s an interesting patron they can talk to in each one? Two dwarf actors are furious that they didn’t get paid and are fuming at the table just looking for an excuse to get in a fist fight. A farmer is trying to sell a goat and suspiciously low prices. There’s a cheese eating contest but holy moly that cheese looks gross. Great, now all 3 inns have something worth talking about. Any cool shops? There should be at least one. Doesn’t need to be a rare magical item, it could just be a guy who sells beautiful painted eggs and a weird egg-yolk based liquor. That’d work, that’s memorable and gives an idea about the local culture: make a note, this town is good chicken farming country. Anyone you already know they player are meeting? If so, what do those people want and what are they willing to give up to get it? What do those people not know and would learning that information change their minds? You never know what the players might bring up in conversation. Now how about the town proper: what interesting gossip circulating? Who needs help in the town right now? Any unsolved crimes? How about unjust laws making the people angry? Eccentric piece of lore? Near forgotten minor religion still going? You don’t need to know the ins and outs of everything. Leave the detail of whether the religion is good or bad for now. It exists. If they investigate, we’ll figure it out. Another simple example, you could say: “the well has a weird smell to it as you pass by”. Leave it at that for now. If the players investigate long term, you’ll have to figure out why it has a smell (quite possibly on the fly). If they don’t, don’t worry about it. Do make a note though for yourself. If the players come back 2 months later, that well is still stinky. This time you can’t just say “you find more of the cheese in there” or “a creepy goat creature is standing in the low water hissing at you” (depending on which inn the players went to). Both of those are “oh, mystery closed, let’s move on”. No, this time it should be a bit more important since it happened twice. Now there’s a weird artifact in there and it’s releasing foul steam. But who put it there? What does the steam do? Don’t worry if you don’t know, if the players investigate, you’ll all figure it out together.
Everything should have an interesting thing about it, if the players choose to look for it. And I mean everything. What makes a game world a breathing living thing is countless details like that, not a full street map you can look at behind the GM screen.
Another example: I don’t use “roll to see if you find traps” and on find follow up with “oh there’s holes in the wall, probably an arrow trap” for instance. If there’s an arrow trap, I will tell you that the brickwork on one wall is particularly shoddy with gaps in the mortar. The reason as a player you might not notice is cause I’m also telling you that there’s a beautiful mechanical skylight that’s creating intricate moving patterns on the floor, almost but not quite like the movement of the planets, there’s an artificial waterfall on the wall opposite you, and you briefly hear rapidly receding footsteps from the hallway up ahead. Now that trap is up to the players: did you remember the shoddy brick work that leaves suspicious gaps between the bricks? Do you take a moment to look at those swirling floor patterns that are hiding the pressure trigger? If not and you were too busy thinking about the the solar system part, or maybe you’re worried about footsteps and trying to chase the stepper, then the trap goes off. But if you did catch it though and you said “wait a minute, what’s up with that weird wall, everything else so far had nicely smoothed stone right?”, that’ll much more memorable than “you beat a 16, you find the trap”.
And that’s the part that matters. Memorable.
Goes without saying that I’m a “storyteller GM” vs a “hack-and-slash GM”, which I hope you can now see goes deeper than just “write meaningful NPCs”. Real world example that gives heart palpitations to H&S style GMs: if a dungeon looks like it’s just barely too long for a session, I will either shorten it to make it fit in the usual time span (less if my players look tired, more if we’re kicking along especially great), removing a few rooms or simplifying an encounter by having the bad guys immediately run away, or alternatively write a whole new wing with some more narrative to make stretch out into the full next session. It’s awkward to leave something just barely unsolved and then finish it 30 minutes into next game, so either of those two options is a better use of my players time, and a challenge for me to think on the fly and not violate any common architectural principles while I’m at it. What matters is their experience, not the dungeon that I created earlier.
A topic I touched on earlier but I want to expand cause it’s so important: you don’t need to know everything up front as GM. World building shouldn’t happen before hand, it should happen based on what the players made important. Feel free to set up a hook and not explain it to yourself until the world story advances further and players run across it. Last campaign one thing I decided right at the start was that “there’s a legend that talks about 4 people, but in reality there were 5”. I didn’t pre-plan how that happened, I didn’t even know for sure which of the 5 was the one who’s no longer remembered, just that that was the case. As the game ran on, about halfway through I finally figured out what happened: the fifth legendary figure wanted to undo his actions from a pivotal day and stole great power from the demon prince of forgetting in order to erase himself from the people’s memories. Could I have come up with that 6 months in advance? Maybe. But it’s possible whatever I pre-wrote ended up not being the direction the players go, and either it would have felt tacked on, or I’d be forced to railroad my players to that the story could unfurl. In practice by the time that question came around the idea of who was and wasn’t there that day in the legend became important, the demon prince of the forgotten was a force the players interacted with, and the concept of karma, consequence, and the relationship between power and accepting your past actions was pivotal to the campaign. I had a good deal many other such (originally minor) hooks, some of them became important, some of them just fell by the wayside.
Btw, my other hot take is that miniatures detract from combat. That goes over about as well.
Another couple random tips while I’m already past what anyone else will ever read: don’t just stop world building, but also don’t write plot. I mean, not grand master plot one year in advance up front sort of plot. Instead write a big problem or crisis, something that puts the world severely out of balance, then populate the world with interesting, powerful, good intentioned but flawed people, have them try to solve the problem little by little each session while the players interact with them. At the end of the session write notes to yourself as to what’s happening. Interactive story telling. “The players help guide the story without knowing they’re doing it”, not “the players allow you to tell the story you already want to tell”.
Do the players really like (or really hate) an NPC? Let’s make something important happen to that person. Players think a weird religious cult is awfully suspicious? Well, now they’re right, it is suspicious. Maybe that NPC has something to do with it. Figure out what it is for next session.
Alright, so there’s exceptions to those anti-world building rules, and it wouldn’t be a proper nerd post without going into minutia and rules lawyering, so let’s dive into the weeds for one paragraph. One exception to the world build rule is the current One Ring game that definitely requires maps because route planning is critical to the player experience (similar to how much of a role it played in the LotR books, which are essentially just story about how to best go from point A to point B for 1800 pages). Games that emphesize survival elements, doubly so those that exist in modern or high technology settings where maps are expected, (Twilight 2000 for instance) also benefit from a 2d, map heavy approach. The players risk vs consequence planning decisions matter more in those. Flipside, games that don’t accentuate survival elements probably don’t need it, even if it’s future. Shadowrun or Starfinder all don’t need that stuff. They’re all also pseudo-sci fi, more like a fantasy world with uzis and/or lasers but that’s neither here nor there. Not a criticism, all 3 are great. But they’re no T2000 or Eclipse Phase.
Oh. And one last thing and the most important single tip I give GMs when they start: never, ever do the awkward first meeting session. Always start things on day 1 “you guys know and trust each other”. If a new player joins, start with “you guys all know each other from way back and trust each other”. Anything else is always super awkward and often borders on in-game bullying.