Where Do They Come From?
  • Where Do They Come From?

    I've discussed topics in worldbuilding, and I hope they're interesting and educational, but today I'm going to discuss the process of worldbuilding, and how I go about it.

    I usually have an end goal when I worldbuild. It can be anything as grandiose as "I want a story about how human bodies and humanity becomes a liminal thing in a dystopic cyberpunk world" or as limited as "quasi-Asian fantasy setting". That immediately sets the scene for my next question, which is "When?" Is it futuristic, like cyberpunk, or feudal, or some alternate timeline?

    This leads directly into my next question, covered by my first column: "Where do they go, to go?" As mentioned in that column about sewers and bathrooms, the answers to that question will inform infrastructure and city planning, clothing and hygiene, food, farming, plagues, and the tenor of the setting. Using the example of the cyberpunk setting with the bathroom question brings up an interesting wrinkle, too. What about full-conversion cyborg characters? Do they even need the bathroom any more? Is that something that a person never thought they would miss?

    This first step will require a little research, depending on the setting, or a little extrapolation, if the setting is futuristic. Cyberpunk occurs 20 minutes into the future, and therefore can build upon current industrialized cities, whereas a highly magical fantasy setting may include sewer-clearing sapient oozes, toilets flushed with Create Water spells, and Prestidigitation cast upon the water closet to banish all smells.

    From the toilet, and its condition and how one uses it comes the question of clothing, which allows you to infer things such as climate and weather. Wool and furs implies cold climates, while loose wraps of cotton or flax imply heat and humidity. Silks can be worn in most climates, but who has access to silk in your world?

    Climate dovetails into food and farming - what crops do they grow, what do they eat, and how do they farm? A village surrounded by flooded rice paddies has a completely different feel from one surrounded by pastures for cattle. For one, the village surrounded by pastures would make a far better battlefield.

    Each of these factors helps you paint in the details of your setting. You can go from food and farms to taxes and tithes and how those are collected, which helps you build a government to fit the campaign. Are there bailiffs to collect taxes? Is it collected in money, or in kind? Or does the crown simply confiscate grain come harvest-time?

    A government that confiscates grain at harvest-time thinks very little of its citizens, who might be treated as serfs. Taxes paid in kind would require the storage facilities to hold fruit and grain and sides of beef and pork. And taxes paid in coin requires minting facilities, and controls on the purity and weight of coinage. Are forgers punished? If so, how?

    All these facts come together to give you a nice armature to hang the rest of the setting on. From there on you can fill in the blanks, fleshing it out and adding NPCs with which to populate the world.

    Another technique I use is the Mindy Method, named for the character from Animaniacs. It consists of taking an element of the plot and asking why, repeating the question until one arrives at a root cause. Say that you want to restrict the PCs to a given area before you let them range out into the rest of the setting. Why can't they leave? A quarantine would work, so let's go with that.

    Why is the place quarantined? Quarantine involves disease that could range from the pox to the plague, to terrifying infectious zombie bites. Since we can ignore the constraints of reality, let's go with the zombies.

    So why have the zombies appeared now, and not earlier? The timing suggests that the zombie outbreak was a recent thing. Why now? Well, what if the zombies were entombed in a catacomb sealed with a heavy rock, and heavy rains and erosion caused a landslip to expose one of the tunnels?

    Who awakened them? An enterprising tomb-robber PC, perhaps, and there you go!

    contributed by M.W. Simmes
    Comments 6 Comments
    1. colinbuckler's Avatar
      colinbuckler -
      Always ask questions and explore the responses. Rudyard Kipling:

      I keep six honest serving-men
      (They taught me all I knew);
      Their names are What and Why and When
      And How and Where and Who.
      I send them over land and sea,
      I send them east and west;
      But after they have worked for me,
      I give them all a rest.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      The Mindy Method sounds very solid, but I got lazy recently when it came to world-building and just used someone else's. Next option was to order one from Magrathea.

      I'd love to see a discussion on random world generation, if you're looking for a topic!
    1. Gammadoodler's Avatar
      Gammadoodler -
      Thank you very much for this set of articles and the illustration of your approach. I very much like the idea of thinking backwards from the aspects of the world that most (ahem) intimately touch the PCs to the mechanics that caused those aspects to be there.
    1. M.W. Simmes's Avatar
      M.W. Simmes -
      Quote Originally Posted by Gammadoodler View Post
      Thank you very much for this set of articles and the illustration of your approach. I very much like the idea of thinking backwards from the aspects of the world that most (ahem) intimately touch the PCs to the mechanics that caused those aspects to be there.
      Okay. I love your phrasing. (:
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      This bottom-up method, as opposed to the more common top-down, certainly raises some interesting questions.

      At the other extreme is Jeffro's method of setting, that you only need to know about six things to get the game going.
    1. CAFRedblade's Avatar
      CAFRedblade -
      Hadn't heard of the naming of the 'Mindy method' for the Why Cubed, asking Why three times to follow the thread to a base that's possible, and can provide other avenues. That combined with the basics of Who, How, What, & Where. Starting either small or big, these can help, along with some tables of randomness to get a few neat things to try and fit together like a puzzle.
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