Campaign Design: Prevalence of Magic & Cosmology

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on March 6, 2009

What would a fantasy setting be without magic and divine beings fighting their celestial wars? At this point you have decided which historical and fictional elements to use in defining your campaign world. You are now ready to start fleshing the world out in greater detail.


To say that Dungeons & Dragons has a heavy reliance on magic would be an understatement. Magic helps define many of the conventions of the game that are otherwise unexplainable. Whether it’s a portal to a far off land or a sword that enhances the abilities of its wielder, magic has a defining place in D&D lore. The question to you, as a campaign designer, is how much magic does your world need?

In many works of fiction, magic is rare, and something that only a few talented individuals understand. This mastery sets them apart from others in their world. The Dragonlance campaign setting is such an example. The test of high sorcery in this setting is a challenging one and failure means death. This limits the amount of spell casters that exist in the world. If the level of magic in your world is low, then you need to determine how NPCs view practitioners of the arcane arts. Are they held in high esteem? Is the number of magic users low because they are seen as deviants and hunted?

Eberron is a campaign setting that abounds in magic. Most modern day technologies are explained with magic in Eberron, everything from street lights to airfare to mass production. Seeing someone practice magic in Eberron is a common sight and is not restricted to just those in positions of power or the PCs. Common craftsmen are able to harness magical forces to enhance their work or repair mundane items.

Determining the level of magic in your campaign world is a critical decision that will have an overreaching effect on all your other decisions. Once you’ve decided you will need to determine how the different aspects of society view magic users. Are spell casters loathed or viewed as deviants? Perhaps they are the ruling class or it may be that magic is so common that it doesn’t warrant a second glance. Your decisions will have a large impact on the development of any spell casting PCs and the campaign as a whole.


D&D has a fairly well established Cosmology which can be referenced easily through the Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Manual of the Planes. It’s a good idea to have these three books on hand as you work on this aspect of your setting.

The simplest solution in defining the cosmology of your campaign setting is to use that which already exists. The deities listed in the PHB cover the major themes that are relevant in a fantasy setting, so some might argue that there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.

If you do decide to develop your own pantheon of deities there are plenty of places to pull inspiration from. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse and Hindu all have multiple deities representing anything from war, harvest and the sun. You may want to include a monotheistic religion similar to Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

In developing your own deities you will need to determine the relationships they have with one another. The deities of the sun and night usually don’t get along, though they are often related. Each deity requires a back story, symbol, favoured weapon and alignment. And don’t forget that in 4e D&D all deities provide their faithful with a Channel Divinity power available as a feat.

Be careful how many deities you create. The Forgotten Realms in 3e had far too many deities and the pantheon was far too diluted. Fortunately, WotC cleaned that up with 4e and it’s a little easier to see what all the different deities represent. In my opinion, Eberron offers a nice balance of deities, including a mix of deities in a pantheon and monotheism. Toss in a few cults and there is just enough variety to keep things interesting without getting too muddled.

What experience have you had in developing a magic system for your campaign world? How did your players react? Similarly, have you ever developed your own cosmology? What challenges did you face? We’d love to hear from you and have you share your thoughts with the community.

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