RPG Design: How do you build a new world?

RareBreed

Explorer
For those who have built their own worlds (not campaigns, but entire worlds from whole cloth), how do you go about it? I guess a more meta question is, does the world evolve to fit the story, or does the story emerge from the world? I think obviously it's a little of both, but does one influence the other more depending on what you are trying to invoke? Are there pros/cons to establishing the world first as opposed to the characters/story?

For world building, what do you design or think about first?
  • A rough idea of a story you want to tell
    • Genre
    • Tone
    • Themes or motifs
    • Central characters of the story
  • The world
    • The nations and major cities
    • Prominent NPCs
      • backstories
      • relations with each other
    • History
      • timeline of how the world became the way it did
    • Metaplot
      • Do you know what the future holds, or is that what the characters will determine?
    • The races/cultures/ethnicities/heritages (or whatever you want to call it)
      • Relations with others
    • Socioeconomic structures eg
      • are there stigmatized groups
      • is there a caste or nobility
      • how does the economy work
    • How do characters learn their vocation or skills. For example:
      • academic, apprenticeship, familial, involuntary (eg draft, government selection, noble training)
    • How does the government work. For example:
      • feudal, representative (Republican) or Athenian style democracy, theocracy, dictatorship, oligarchy
    • Religions and how it interacts with the government (if the government isn't a Theocracy)
    • Organizations and factions, For example:
      • noble houses, guilds, trade unions, etc
    • Militaries
      • How are they organized, how strong is it, is it voluntary or conscripted, etc

A lot of these topics are kind of interdependent, and I've always found it difficult to know where to start. I've even wondered if people just write the story first, and then the world as they go along. Obviously, as the world evolves, more information will be added, but consistency and internal logic is important to me.

As a secondary question, can anyone recommend some good books or sites on world build design, either from a gaming or novelist perspective?
 

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Reynard

Legend
For many people, world building is a hobby in and of itself. it just so happens that it dovetails really well with both fiction writing and GMing. I think a good example of this is Ed Greenwood and the Forgotten Realms: he started creating the Realms long before he discoverd fantasy roleplaying.

For my part, I tend to come up with an idea for a "story" (in the roughest meaning of that word) and build a world to fit it. But generally my worlds and campaigns are very short lived: I run mini-campaigns at conventions, encompassing 3 or 5 4-hour sessions, possibly double that if it goes two cons. the world exists to enable to themes, tone, action, and situation/plot I want for that specific purpose. Unsurprisingly, these worlds are shallow and have focused development in the parts relevant to what PCs are going to interact with.

I do have an indie science fantasy novel out, though, and my world building was more detailed for that -- but I did most that world building as I wrote the first draft. I had broad ideas about the world, but whenever I needed detail I would create it largely at that time. Then I did continuity editing on the second draft.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Start locally. If you don’t need it for the next session, you don’t need it. Run a campaign in one area until it’s fleshed out. Run the next campaign in a new area until that’s fleshed out. After several campaigns on the same world or in the same setting you’ll have things fleshed out and you can connect them and hope from area to area.

Stars Without Number and Worlds Without Number are fantastic resources. As are the various world-building guides. Random generation works wonders for filling out the blank spaces on maps.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Worldbuilding for me is in a bunch of phases. Here's a "standard" D&D-type campaign, though it can (and always does) vary based on other aspects, like I'm currently running a frontier/exploration game that definitely modified this.

First phase is very broad strokes, view from 50K feet sort of thing. What I want is things made of plot hooks and awesome. I want players to hear about this without being overwhelmed, and be able to go "I want my character to be from there" or "I want to adventure there". Just enough of a framework for them to hang ideas on. Details are my enemy at this stage.

Then session 0 with the players. Where we discuss the world, what they are interested in, and make characters. I give my players a lot of narrative control around their characters and other things. Start of one of my current campaigns, one player wanted an order of knights that guarded these netherportals where you left behind you old life to join. Easy, even if pretty derivitive of GoT. Another, a druid, wanted the moon to be the skull of a decapitated god and the land to be their body, so that druidic magic literally was a connection with the divine flesh. A little bit of thought if this interfered with anything else, and then sure, why not. Huge change, but it impacted nothing that I already on line, so why not incorporate it? Player buy-in on ideas they come up with is very high. Having engaged players at this point is a blessing.

This gives me big vision ideas about the direction the campaign can go. I make sure to tie in what the players suggest, as well as specific character arcs.

As part of that I'm thinking about what types of questions the uniqueness of this setting is good to answer, stories that fit better here then a generic world, especially giving the nature of our protagonists. I want to lay out story elements that the players can pick up that wont' be found in a generic setting. Eberron and Dark Sun are good examples of published setting where you can tell stories you can't elsewhere.

I start to work out some ideas for those stories, but really just ideas into "Act II" - none of it will be true until it hits the table anyhow, but I do want things I can foreshadow and have reasons for why. I really do Schrödinger's plots, where until something is established by play I feel free to change things, and I'm not afraid to kill my darlings - in other words get rid of NPCs, plots, scenes and the like that I envisioned but won't serve the purpose of the game as it progresses. I do want things I can foreshadow and have reasons for "why" things happen - even if that reason ends up having been replaced and "never" been true later in the campaign.

Since I have an idea of the group and how (/if) they know each other, so I can figure out where they are starting. I flesh out the area, adding some details on a moderate-big scale, then more on a smaller scale, and so forth until I have a well fleshed out starting area.

So then I work out some starting adventures, flesh out the world for what I need for those, and work out some character arcs to weave in around everything else which also often requires making organizations, understanding politics and tensions, and otherwise adding details to the world.

Then, as the group adventures I pay attention to what the players seem most interested in. I make sure to seed that liberally into adventures, and further flesh out the world both to deal with their explorations and travel as well as to support stories about their goals and to further their character arcs.

In the end, I may have parts of the world untouched, and others crafted in loving detail. But it really happens over the course of campaign, directed by player interest, character actions, and the consequences of them.
 

Yora

Legend
I think the very first thing to think about when creating a campaign setting is what you intend to happen and appear in adventures. Scenes, situations, and encounters that could happen during adventures and a certain style or feel you want to evoke with them.
Then you can start thinking about what elements the world needs to make these situations appear naturally and frequently. If you envision campaigns with large clashing armies on big battlefields, then the setting will need plenty of great military powers and it will be very useful to create considerable detail for how these armies are build up and structured and what they are fighting over. In contrast, when you make a world for campaigns in which the PCs are mostly involved in events happening in dark alleys at night or pitch black sewers and catacombs, than any such information about armies and their battles wouldn't provide anything that the players will look at closely and have questions about.
 

aco175

Legend
Ray Winninger's Dungeoncraft articles from the late 90s is a great place to start. It is 29 articles on how to start and why to start. I suggest reading all of these first. There are also books like the Lazy Dungeonmaster and such that help with campaigns more than I think building the world.

I suggest a large map the size of a continent, not the whole world but a large chunk like Europe. Forgotten Realms (FR) did this and got by for many years and managed to fit many cultures in the world before they needed Kara Tur or Maztica, or even Zakura. I would then pick a central place to a Rome-type empire that managed to spread the 'old empire' across most of the lands. This may account for many ruins, the common language, and common gods. Break up the land with several new kingdoms and lawless areas and make 5-10 cool things about each as some sort of overview.

Figure out which one you and your group likes best and pick a region in it to make a better map and your first campaign area. Name 5-10 things about it and then zoom in closer and closer until you have the first town and dungeon for your game.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
For those who have built their own worlds (not campaigns, but entire worlds from whole cloth), how do you go about it? I guess a more meta question is, does the world evolve to fit the story, or does the story emerge from the world? I think obviously it's a little of both, but does one influence the other more depending on what you are trying to invoke? Are there pros/cons to establishing the world first as opposed to the characters/story?

For world building, what do you design or think about first?
  • A rough idea of a story you want to tell
    • Genre
    • Tone
    • Themes or motifs
    • Central characters of the story
  • The world
    • The nations and major cities
    • Prominent NPCs
      • backstories
      • relations with each other
    • History
      • timeline of how the world became the way it did
    • Metaplot
      • Do you know what the future holds, or is that what the characters will determine?
    • The races/cultures/ethnicities/heritages (or whatever you want to call it)
      • Relations with others
    • Socioeconomic structures eg
      • are there stigmatized groups
      • is there a caste or nobility
      • how does the economy work
    • How do characters learn their vocation or skills. For example:
      • academic, apprenticeship, familial, involuntary (eg draft, government selection, noble training)
    • How does the government work. For example:
      • feudal, representative (Republican) or Athenian style democracy, theocracy, dictatorship, oligarchy
    • Religions and how it interacts with the government (if the government isn't a Theocracy)
    • Organizations and factions, For example:
      • noble houses, guilds, trade unions, etc
    • Militaries
      • How are they organized, how strong is it, is it voluntary or conscripted, etc
None of the above.

I start with a map, and let that map pull my imagination where it will.

Everything else on your list eventually flows from the map and what it inspires.
Obviously, as the world evolves, more information will be added, but consistency and internal logic is important to me.
This.

One way to achieve this is, once you've decided on some basic non-map-related elements such as genre etc., to use something of a top-down approach: start with the cosmology and pantheon(s) and let those shape a lot of the smaller stuff.

Starting very local - e.g. with nothing more than an adventure site and a town - is always good and for some purposes might be all you ever need, but keeping things consistent can become a headache if-when things expand from there.
 

Atomoctba

Explorer
It depends of the campaign...

If you pretend to run a game similar to Kingmaker, you do not need a whole world. Just the region that will become the kingdom and, perhaps, know what exists just the other side of the borders. You do not need to know how the things are thousand miles away.

If you want the whole campaign happens inside one large city (unusual, I know, but doable), you need just to know the city's layout and perhaps some names for other regions from where NPCs, merchants, and rumors came.

Once, I runned a campaign from 1st to mid-tens levels where all the PCs where stuck in an inescapable demiplane. Essentially an extraplanar prision doubled as a megadungeon. I just need to know what was inside that dungeon and some bits about the outside world region that threw people inside the prision.

Of course, if your idea of campaign is more classic, with lots of journeys and exploration, you will surely detail better a large chunck of the world. Even so, I would suggest "start small". Create the immediate region where the campaign will start. Put some other points on the map, not fully developed yet, just random ideas you will mature with time and when needed.

And, your mileage can vary, but I DM'ed for lots of different people in the last decades and about 80% (to more) of them will not put effort in read your gazette about your own world. Do not take for grant they will know what is the city X or where it is the first time they heard about it in game (even if you flagged to them in the session 0 as common knowledge) and they will not even remember it the second time it is mentioned, except if the first mention/interation had significant impact on their PCs. So, while you can go to minutiae details if you like it, do not expect players share the same historical-geographical desire to know as you. If you do not get satisfaction in a very detailed world, create just enough to the story works with your players.

Just to end with a personal quirk of mine, I do not like to create worlds with decalques of real places or cultures. I avoid a past where not-Rome dominated until it was ruined or "here is not-France engaged in a not-Hundred Year Wars with a not-England". And wait for the not-Vikings or not-Golden Horde. I mean, there is absolutaly nothing wrong to use world decalques (assuming you respect the cultures you are imitating) as they are easily recognized by the players. But just not for me, specially if the "easily recognized parts" can lead to wrong assumptions, once most decalques are similiar but not identical.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
For those who have built their own worlds (not campaigns, but entire worlds from whole cloth), how do you go about it? I guess a more meta question is, does the world evolve to fit the story, or does the story emerge from the world? I think obviously it's a little of both, but does one influence the other more depending on what you are trying to invoke? Are there pros/cons to establishing the world first as opposed to the characters/story?
How do I build a new world? Very carefully.

In fairness, I don't build world-s. Too much work. Eating them, ala Omnicron, that's a different story. Anyway, I don't start with stories; I start with cool world/setting-elements. Just because that's what interests me. One can write a cool story from anything, so I'd rather start in a cool world.

Pros and cons? Some story elements are going to seem weird if the setting doesn't agree with them. "I want to write a cool Sherlock Holmes-style mystery." Buuuut... there are first-level spells that point the caster from evidence to the culprit? Well, Sherlock seems out of a job now.

As a secondary question, can anyone recommend some good books or sites on world build design, either from a gaming or novelist perspective?
Anything that analyses J.R.R. Tolkien's work. THAT'S world-building.
 

RareBreed

Explorer
I do have an indie science fantasy novel out, though, and my world building was more detailed for that -- but I did most that world building as I wrote the first draft. I had broad ideas about the world, but whenever I needed detail I would create it largely at that time. Then I did continuity editing on the second draft.
Did the world evolve out of the story more, or the story out of the world? I guess another way to ask it is, did you find that your story was first in mind, and then you built up the world around that? Or while creating the world, did that give you further ideas about your story?
 

RareBreed

Explorer
First phase is very broad strokes, view from 50K feet sort of thing. What I want is things made of plot hooks and awesome. I want players to hear about this without being overwhelmed, and be able to go "I want my character to be from there" or "I want to adventure there". Just enough of a framework for them to hang ideas on. Details are my enemy at this stage.
Interesting idea. It sounds like you do a lot of dynamic building based on player interest and feedback, which honestly, I hadn't even considered. I was thinking more of creating some major scaffolding first before even letting others know what the world was about. Which in hindsight, probably isn't a great idea since others may be totally uninterested and can't provide feedback.

On the other hand, I would be afraid that the vision of the world/story may become a "design by committee". So I guess it's a little bit of a toss up: should I lean in more as an entertainer/director using the players' desires as a guide for building, or more as an architect only revealing the final product (not that those two are mutually exclusive or have zero overlap)?
 

RareBreed

Explorer
And, your mileage can vary, but I DM'ed for lots of different people in the last decades and about 80% (to more) of them will not put effort in read your gazette about your own world. Do not take for grant they will know what is the city X or where it is the first time they heard about it in game (even if you flagged to them in the session 0 as common knowledge) and they will not even remember it the second time it is mentioned, except if the first mention/interation had significant impact on their PCs. So, while you can go to minutiae details if you like it, do not expect players share the same historical-geographical desire to know as you. If you do not get satisfaction in a very detailed world, create just enough to the story works with your players.
Yeah, this is definitely something I've noticed even when using other published worlds and game systems. Players mostly are interested only in whatever has consequences for them. If it can't heal them, earn them glory, make them richer or more powerful, it's just a blip on the radar.
Just to end with a personal quirk of mine, I do not like to create worlds with decalques of real places or cultures. I avoid a past where not-Rome dominated until it was ruined or "here is not-France engaged in a not-Hundred Year Wars with a not-England". And wait for the not-Vikings or not-Golden Horde. I mean, there is absolutaly nothing wrong to use world decalques (assuming you respect the cultures you are imitating) as they are easily recognized by the players. But just not for me, specially if the "easily recognized parts" can lead to wrong assumptions, once most decalques are similiar but not identical.
So interestingly, a secondary world I have envisioned (not the one I'm currently working on, but one that is also dear to my heart), is lifted heavily from 13th-15th century Nusantara, which is the ancient word for the Indo-Malay-Filipino Thalassocratic "empire" (for lack of a better word). It's a bit of an amalgamation of the Sri Vijayan and Majapahit empires, with neighboring empires also having their analogues of South East Asian empires. For example, the Champa of Vietnam, the Ayutthaya of Thailand, Angkor of Cambodia/Laos, and the Chola of India.

I am actually part Filipino, but where my grandparents came from only relatively recently (ca 1913) became part of the Philippines. Previously, it had been part of the Sultanate of Sulu who previously controlled Sabah in Malaysia. I've often felt that there's been an incredible lack of role playing setting to any Asian setting other than Japan or China. South East Asia is a fascinating place, a kind of cross roads and admixture of India and China, with later European and for Nusantara, Arabic influences.
 

Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Interesting idea. It sounds like you do a lot of dynamic building based on player interest and feedback, which honestly, I hadn't even considered. I was thinking more of creating some major scaffolding first before even letting others know what the world was about. Which in hindsight, probably isn't a great idea since others may be totally uninterested and can't provide feedback.

On the other hand, I would be afraid that the vision of the world/story may become a "design by committee". So I guess it's a little bit of a toss up: should I lean in more as an entertainer/director using the players' desires as a guide for building, or more as an architect only revealing the final product (not that those two are mutually exclusive or have zero overlap)?
Some game systems, like Apocalypse World (and many of the PbtA games after it) take a very different view and the GM is expected to just prepare fronts - areas of danger and change - and the characters interacting with them determine what's going on. It's like leaving a blank spot on the map to be filled in later, but it's about plot.

But even with traditional DMing it's still the DM determining what hooks to put forth and such. It's just that you can weave it around the player and character interests. I often prepare several hooks each enough to run for a session, and them deciding on which of those choices gives me both direction for finishing that adventure as well as notes of what interests them for future ones. If they are more interested in rescuing the Child-Empress from her overbearing Regent than other hooks, you know where they are focusing and what to flesh out.
 

Hand of Evil

Hero
Epic
Don't build a world, build a setting to play in and grown the world. Yes, you can map it out but don't go into the details that you do for the area being played. What type of game and system you want your players to be in. Come up with your "hook", that thing that will get the players to come.

Think about history, why the land is like it is. What races came first. What civilizations make up the culture. How far back in time does the area go? Steal ideas from history and other places.

There are a number of World building site /books and old threads on the subject.
 

Reynard

Legend
Did the world evolve out of the story more, or the story out of the world? I guess another way to ask it is, did you find that your story was first in mind, and then you built up the world around that? Or while creating the world, did that give you further ideas about your story?
The broad strokes of the world were set in my mind/outline, but the details coalesced during the first draft phase. I knew that the ancient Augmented Reality Net would be the equivalent of the Ethereal Plane, for example, but the way that worked and looked came into focus when it appeared in the story.
 

Atomoctba

Explorer
So interestingly, a secondary world I have envisioned (not the one I'm currently working on, but one that is also dear to my heart), is lifted heavily from 13th-15th century Nusantara, which is the ancient word for the Indo-Malay-Filipino Thalassocratic "empire" (for lack of a better word). It's a bit of an amalgamation of the Sri Vijayan and Majapahit empires, with neighboring empires also having their analogues of South East Asian empires. For example, the Champa of Vietnam, the Ayutthaya of Thailand, Angkor of Cambodia/Laos, and the Chola of India.
Coincidentally, just yesterday I was reading the Mythic Polynesia book for Mithras, lol.
 

RareBreed

Explorer
Coincidentally, just yesterday I was reading the Mythic Polynesia book for Mithras, lol.
I saw this too and almost bought it, until I saw all the comments. Seems like the authors were drawing from some (possibly?) outdated and racist sources. I say "possibly" because there appears to be some claims (mostly by Maoris) of some of the information appearing in the book being racist and/or untrue.

I did briefly look at some of the criticisms, one of them from a blogger of New Zealand Maori descent. When I did a little digging, there's some contention about the claims of what happened to the Moriori people. It's been awhile since I read it the blog, but IIRC, there's a claim that it's a "myth" that the Maori people nearly made the Moriori people extinct. It reminded me a bit of the Turkish/Armenian issue, though pretty much all historians are going to side with the Armenians. I haven't done enough research to see whose claims are more valid with the Maori/Moriori peoples.

Oddly, I wanted to jog my memory and look up the comments on drivethru, but it looks like The Design Mechanism has taken Mythic Polynesia down, so it's no longer for sale. Interesting...

But back to Nusantara, GURPs has a Hot Spot PDF that covers the Sri Vijayan empire if you're curious.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
  1. Catch the world-building bug!!!
  2. Obsessively daydream about it!!
  3. Start feverishly writing!
  4. Update and impulse-buy cartography software.
  5. Spend hours watching YouTube training videos and reading user forums..
  6. Go crazy with map building...
  7. Buy/subscribe to a campaign-management / world-building tool....
  8. Spend hours watching YouTube training videos and reading user forums . . .
  9. Go crazy with data entry -
  10. Realize you suck as a cartographer but let your ego and love of your world convince you that it is worth spending a lot of money to hire a cartographer to make a professional world map you can print with a large-format printer and hang on your game room wall --
  11. Realize your how large your world is and how hard it will be to create all the adventures and minor locations from scratch —-
  12. Subscribe to ENWorld and scour DTRPG for plug-in content - - -
  13. Get a new job that is very demanding and requires lots of travel ~
  14. Realize it'll be challenging enough to find time to run the game much less find time to prep everything from scratch ~~
  15. Read the Lazy Dungeon Master books and articles ~~~
  16. Clutch pearls. NOT WITH MY BABY!
  17. Buy a published setting and published adventure path and run that.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Interesting idea. It sounds like you do a lot of dynamic building based on player interest and feedback, which honestly, I hadn't even considered. I was thinking more of creating some major scaffolding first before even letting others know what the world was about. Which in hindsight, probably isn't a great idea since others may be totally uninterested and can't provide feedback.
Build the world first, then find out who's interested in playing in it.

The other - and IMO bigger - variable is which rules system you want to run. You could have the greatest setting ever but if the players don't want to play the game system you're running, you're hosed.
 

gamerprinter

Mapper/Publisher
Consider I'm in the middle of building a Wildspace system for Spelljammer supplement I will be publishing on the DM's Guild, that I'm wrapping up now. I decided I wanted 2 star systems with overlapping outer orbits, and inside a massive nebula. Last year, I published The Planet Builder supplement for Starfinder which allows the user to generate entire, scientifically viable star systems, though as a generic set of rules it's usable for any space based game. So I used those rules to generate the 2 star systems, and choosing on my own that the outer orbits overlap. The tables will generate planets and moons, describing the material it's made of, the core of the planet, the atmosphere, the weather, the amount of annual rainfall, whether there are simple and complex lifeforms, and if a sapient being, their technology, their energy source, even their politics.

I decide that I need several defined civilizations, including MezoAmerican human culture (Olmec, Aztec, Maya and Chacoan), a feudal Japanese civilization, a world of sahuagin, a colony of Drow, a Spelljamming Egyptian inspired race, and a dead planet with extinct civilization, and ruins of high technology. I've got a world of druids, and another pirates. Total is 11 inhabited planets and moons and 7 separate cultures. I then decide on megastructures and major plotlines that each culture fits within. Now this is intended to be an overview of the entire Wildspace system rather than a world by world focus as you'd expect for a setting guide. (Actually this is a custom Spelljammer ship book with full deck plans, and the Wildspace system as add-on content.)

Much of the nitty gritty, defined plots, known allies and enemies just kind of show up in my head as a focus on each world. I've got about 5 months in development of this setting, and plan to release it very soon, (this or next month). Designing setting is one of those activities I enjoy the most, and I do it all the time, and I sometimes publish those settings.

Here's a map of the binary star system with overlapping outer orbits inside the Phoenix Nebula...

While many of you will struggle developing your one world, imagine building for eleven, simultaneously!

peregrine-binary-system.jpg
 
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