The work of building a world is usually left to the DM. DMs can spend large chunks of their life building the perfect world for their players to play in. They create maps, histories, classes, races, continents, nations, power groups, and plots.
It’s a lot of work, and often thankless as well. Even once you’ve handed out the condensed campaign introduction document, the players will never be as deeply immersed in your personal world as you, as writer of it, is.
Build a bare-bones world
In our last campaign I tried something different. I wrote a very quick bare bones history of the world. Here’s the original entry from my design notes. This campaign was following from a failed Shackled City campaign, where a gate to hell was opened at the end of the campaign.
The Great Gate opened and Demons enslaved The World That Was. The powers of the Astral Sea won the millennia long war, at great cost: The world was catastrophically flooded, and the population decimated. Now, a few generations later, the people of the New World are recovering, spreading out across the vast archipelago that The World That Was has become.
This led to a map, upon which I slapped some hurriedly invented names. I then presented this to my players as a post apocalyptic pirate infested archipelago.
Now it was time to get the players to join in…
Getting the players to join in
I instructed my players to make characters, and to choose an island they were from and detail that if they wanted to, as well as anything else they wanted to create for the sake of their backstories. This could be places they’d visited, NPCs, or even whole islands they have lived upon.
It would not have been possible to collaboratively work on a world like this without the help of something like a wiki that everyone had access to. A wiki is a great resource for a campaign, but even greater when you can get all your players to join in and add bits here and there.
One of my players decided to play a Dragonborn, so chose an island and created a whole recent history tied in with his backstory. He even detailed such things as maps of the Dragonborn castle, which I was able to then use for encounters during play.
Now for the Dragonborn player, that part of the world is as real to him as it would be to any DM that had created it themselves.
Once your players are able to contribute to the world building, then the ownership that that gives them encourages them to be more immersed in the world, and as they are more immersed they also want to create more and it begins to feed itself. You’ve created a monster!
So I encourage you to give it a go, build a bare-bones campaign world and let the players help flesh it out. You then end up with a rich world the players are interested in and know parts of in great depth. Your precious DM prep time can then be used to create exciting stories in the world that you and your players have built!