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RPG Design: How do you build a new world?

RareBreed

Adventurer
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
Supporter
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

Adventurer
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

Adventurer
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?
 

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