This entry is part 5 in the series GM Toolbox
GM Toolbox

What tools go into your GM toolbox?

Written by Michael Beck, with contributions and editing by Da’Vane.

GM’s Toolbox, looks at tools, tips, and techniques you can use to improve your games. Toolbox offers you a skeleton for running a campaign, rather than fleshed out tips. This series is presented in a discussion style, and we ask you to contribute with comments about your own tools, tips, and techniques at the end of this post.

World building is an important part of a GM’s role. You can’t play in a vacuum.

In this part, we will first start with tools for plain geographic designs (from planets to buildings) with which to populate your campaign world.

In part II next week, we will go into tools for large scale social structures all the way down to small scale social structures (from relations between nations to guilds and other local organizations, as well as details on cities and the people within).

In part III, we will follow a similar way for tools to pass on the history of the world (from legends and myths to the last-spoken gossip), as well as how to create and place items and dungeons related to these tales.

Planet Building

If you are doing a top-down approach in creating your setting, you may want to build the whole planet.

A planet building tool should provide you with a lot of information on a large, rough scale, such as:

  • Form of the planet or world
  • Shape and location of continents
  • Climatic regions and their seasonal variations
  • Geographic features such as lakes, rivers, hills, mountains, glaciers
  • Flora and fauna
  • Wild and civilized areas
  • Location of the important races and kingdoms
  • What the sky looks like (stars, moons, and other celestial bodies)

Also, your tool can sometimes provide the progress of these features over time, which is especially useful for creating the history of the world.

Michael: I’ve only followed the top-down approach from planet level once. After tinkering around a bit with some Earth-like world generators in Civilization IV, I decided for a different approach.

Armed with the Internet, I started to learn about continental drifts, sea currents, winds, climate and weather, erosion, and so on. Besides learning a lot of interesting things, I was finally able to create a nice Earth-like world.

Nevertheless, in terms of world-building, I don’t think it was worth the effort. Since then, I don’t follow the top-down approach from the planet level anymore.


Da’ Vane: I like the idea of using a random map generator like Civilization IV as a GM Tool, but you need to know the limits of the information that these provide.

In the case of Civilization IV, you are basically just getting a world map, but this might be all that you need. In fact, when it comes to planet-building, given the length of most campaigns, you often don’t need to know about advanced concepts like continental drift, sea currents, winds, climate, and erosion for your campaign, since this knowledge almost never makes it to the players in any usable format.


Johnn: I agree that realistic world physics does not impact gameplay other than those encoded by the rules or brought in as assumptions or house rules. However, some GMs get a big confidence boost from knowing their world would pass a simulation test.

Another group who would be up for the top-down challenge would be world-building hobbyists. These folks love detailed constructs just for the sake of building them. Often, they are inspired by a what-if question and then model out and design an answer. For example, what if a massive permanent ocean whirlpool forced wind currents and water currents into an unnatural pattern?

Two tools you should look at for this is Fractal Mapper and Astrosynethesis.

Continents Building

This tool covers the building of a geographic area, which is still large enough to contain different races, kingdoms, and similar political entities, including larger geographic landmarks such as forests and mountain ranges and smaller unique features.

The features you want from your tool are similar to those listed above under planet building. In addition, it should give you:

  • Some feel for scales and distances.
  • A more detailed history of the nations over a large scale of time.
  • Rough positions of unique features (e.g. the heists of the old dragons, the fountain of youth)

Michael: In my actual D&D-campaign, I only built a part of one continent with a few nations on it. By doing this, the continent is still expandable if I need it to be bigger. All in all, I did not spend much time on building up the continent, but I used my knowledge from planet-building though (such as how mountains align and influence climate). Similar to planet-building, I don’t see here a strong need of continent-building, but it can be fun.


Da’ Vane: Continent-building can be scaled up and down greatly, so the tools you have for continent building can be used to create a small geographic region such as a large continent or vast ocean, all the way down to the geographical region such as the outskirts surrounding the PCs starting village, if you are taking a bottom up approach. There is a great deal of similarity with planet building tools though, so these can often be used for multiple purposes.


Johnn: What I like most about continent building is supplying quest sites. People past and present will always use landscape to help decide where to build and hide things. By figuring out natural features in the landscape, special places for quests naturally appear to the world builder.

For continents, I like old school pencil and paper. Maybe whiteboarding, too. I sketch out rough continent shapes and lay down a scale. I draw crude mountain ranges. Noting coastal areas, wind patterns and mountains, I can then quickly note the wet and dry spots. Wet spots get more life. Dry spots less.

I then note forests, arid zones and bodies of ice and water.

A GM need only learn basic geography like this once, then can make a fairly real continent map in minutes. As a bonus, learning briefly how wind, water and tectonic activity shapes land masses lets a GM start from day 0 and create a basic evolution of a continent.

Start at day 0. Increment by 100,000 years. Assign this time period a rough climate state for the continent: hot, cold, wet, dry. Update the continent accordingly. Increment another 100k years. Update the continent. Increment a third time and you have big blocks of continent landscape history.

Then walk through three time periods of civilization, 10,000 years per period. The land can still change in 10,000 years – mountains and oceans not so much, but water bodies and forests and minor land features a lot. More important, you’ve got six versions of the continent to place cool adventure sites.

Again, this takes just minutes after learning the basic principles once.

I then switch to software to build a polished version of a current day continent. I have not done world building in about 8 years, but if I were to do it today, I’d follow this process.

Oh, one more thing. I’d add magic into the mix during time periods and when eyeballing climate and event effects on landmass and water.

National Infrastructure

The GM’s national infrastructure tool should still provide the above features of planet and continent building tools, but there is some more information the tool should provide us on this level:

  • Location of settlements
  • Location of locally unique features (volcanoes, deltas, places of strong magic power)
  • Traffic routes between the settlements
  • Location of counties, provinces and states
  • How the kingdom is fed and where its resources are

Michael: I used my rough continent map to work out the kingdom the group started in. I applied some basic knowledge from high-school geography here:

  • Settlements, roads, and borders love rivers
  • Settlements at intersections of trade routes are often prosperous and important
  • Mountains make great borders

I actually did two maps of a nation.

1)     A geographical realistic map that we are used to in modern society

2)     An old-style map, which strongly reflects the opinions of the cartographer.

The second map is for my players, and they will probably never receive the whole map at once, just bits of it.

For more information on why you might to use such a second map, read The Psychology of Maps. And as an example, see the more or less famous Ebstorf Map with a large picture of the map.

For my Cthulhu campaign, which takes place all over Europe, documentaries, history books and the almighty Internet are extremely useful tools, but normally on a much smaller scale. Nevertheless, one can use these sources to get inspiration for fictional states (and learn a lot general knowledge by the way).


Da’ Vane: Once again, many of the planet and continent building tools can be scaled down to dealing with the area within a nation. If you play strategy games, like Civilization IV, you can use some of the knowledge gained from there to help build up a national infrastructure, because this is normally a big part of such games.

Thus, you might find some merit looking into strategy articles for these games and learn some of the most common tactics that are consistent across the variety of games. Just be wary of what abstractions these games normally have – and the consequences of them.


Johnn: Don’t forget to follow the resources. Where wealth can be had, people will travel to and live nearby.

Aria Worlds comes to mind as a great book resource for GMs here.

Building Placement

What does the palace of the king look like? The thief steals their way through headquarters of the mages’ guild (probably a bad idea). The PCs are hunting a murderer through the twisted corridors of a gnomish brewery. Sometimes, you just need plans for a single building or complex. A tool for this should provide you with at least:

  • The number of rooms and their relative positions to each other
  • Entrances and exits of each room
  • Vertical arrangement of each room
  • Obstacles and features within each room

Also some extra information is quite useful: How hard is it to break down doors, what are the rooms used for, are all exits and entrances open by default?

Michael: I think of myself as being able to plan a building pretty quickly from scratch. It may not be the coolest building, but it will make sense. (Maybe my time spent playing the Sims as helped here?)

So I don’t really have a tool here, but rather some hints:

  • Every building has some purpose, and this purpose defines how the building is constructed and what the building looks like.
  • This purpose may not be the same as how the building is currently being used, in which case, the new user may apply some changes to the building’s construction and appearance.
  • Don’t forget the basics of the building: Entrances and exits, corridors, stairs, kitchens, toilets, rooms to live in, and so on. We had a lot of fun in one session, where the GM constantly forgot to add toilets and put four heavy-armed soldiers in a 2×2 meter room, with only one entrance…


Da’ Vane: The Sims, indeed any sort of simulation game that has a building construction element to it, is quite useful for teaching you the need to create rooms for various purposes.

I would heartily recommend Evil Genius for this purpose, since building a lair for minion management features things that are quite often forgotten when you are busy creating the rooms for the primary purpose of your structures to carry out your villains’ master plans – shame there’s no toilets in there, but you do have everything else.


Johnn: I also like to think of culture, available building materials and technology level.

To see how culture affects architecture, just look through children’s books and Disney cartoons.

Most structures use affordable materials, which means whatever is nearby. So, wood, hard stone, soft stone, clay and other materials. Use this trivia to make buildings in your cultures distinct.

Technology also helps you design building sets that help create mood and atmosphere for your setting. Think how an adventure amongst mud huts would differ from one in luxurious rooms in a multi-level brick and metal building.

About the Authors

Michael Beck considers himself a novice GM, but is encouraged in sharing his tips at (German language). Having played RPGs for roughly 10 years now, he accepts the challenge of living with his girl-friend, two cats, a non-finished PhD-thesis and two running roleplaying campaigns.

Da’ Vane, or Christina Freeman in the real world, is the owner of DVOID Systems, and the primary writer of their D-Jumpers series of products. With an academic background in science, especially socio-psychology, she is what many would regard as a “know-it-all.” However, the truth is that she doesn’t know everything about everything, but she knows a lot about a lot, especially about her passions which are games, stories, learning, and people. She is a consummate geek goddess, and yes, she is single if you feel like tracking her down and hitting on her some time….

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