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Worlds of Design: Worldbuilding 101 (Part 1)

If you want to make up your own adventures, your own campaign, instead of using something someone else wrote, then sooner or later you’ll need to approach world building. This is “beginners notes” for world building, it's not comprehensive. It's primarily for gamers, but much of it applies to fiction writers too.

Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true.” - J. R. R. Tolkien
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.” M. John Harrison (author of more than 20 novels)
Some people devote big chunks of their lives to world building. Some fantasy or SF novelists have J.R.R. Tolkien in mind (see quote above), and how much time he spent on world building. Remember that a game world is a way to help people write their own stories, or to help you write your own story if you choose, so don't overdo the world-building. Your world is an adjunct to your game, not the goal. It's a means to an end, not an end in itself, unless you're very unusual. Read Harrison’s quote above, if you haven’t yet.

A mistake that many beginners make is to spend vast amounts of time on the world and not get around to what really matters, which is the game or the story. Most people can take the simple route. My friend Jeffro says you only need to know six things about the world to start the adventure. He doesn't specify categories; I don't think he was thinking in categories. In other words, you only need to know enough to let the adventure push forward. You don't need to know all the details about the world. Nonetheless, here are some questions you can ask yourself about a (fantasy) world.
  • What are the players going to DO?
  • Who are the main enemies?
  • Terrain? (Do you NEED a map?)
  • Is there “a war on?”
  • Who/what dominates the local area?
  • How “present” are the gods?
  • Is there a great mystery?
  • How much does magic influence the world?
  • How common are adventurers?
  • What is the speed of communication and transport?
Notice that I don’t mention the history of the world. Insofar as the history doesn’t make a difference to the players, why spend a lot of time on it?

What are the players going to do?

The first question is what are the players going to do? For the majority of game players, I think, games are about doing. They're not there to admire your world, and we can say that of novels as well. Even if you're talking about an entire world, it's part of a novel: what's important are the events of the novel. Occasionally the worlds are so striking that people are there in part to admire that - Larry Niven's Ringworld comes to mind. Tolkien’s world is often admired (in part because of the detail?), and so forth. But this is exceptional.

Who are the main enemies?

This can be anything from individual villains to entire nations or species. Individual villains can be more personal, more “me against him (or her)”. I'm going to get this guy or this girl no matter what. The large villains such as a nation or species can provide the feeling of being overwhelming, of inevitable failure or despair, and that may be a feeling you want introduced your game. I think the Underdark of early editions of D&D existed mainly so Drow could be a major enemy.

What's the terrain and do you need a map?

You probably need a local map (which will have terrain features) but not a world map. Games need a local map because players move about in it; novels often get away only with a large-scale map (so as not to give details away). Of course, if you're doing an RPG you can add to the local map as necessary and you can decide whether the new areas are mountains or something else. Maps are fun, on the other hand, if you make the entire world map now - that'll be much larger than you think- you limit yourself. Science fiction and fantasy author Glenn Cook (the Black Company stories among many others) doesn't like maps because they constrain what he's writing. So he doesn't provide many maps and it's hard to follow exactly where people are, because he's not worried about that he's worried about the events of the novel. Think about that.

Is there a war on?

War is a straightforward and immediate cause of action. It can be a generalized war on evil or can be much more specific. I always think of fantasy role-playing games as good against bad and that's the way I play. War also provides opportunities for action such as scouting the don't usually exist in peace time. War provides a focus that some campaigns lack.

Communication & Transport

I do want to mention communications and transport, which are two big questions. How fast is communication and how fast is transport? In science fiction we can have instantaneous communication, and much slower movement, though not the reverse of course. Movement speed is also communication speed in fantasy. Both are usually slow, as in a medieval world, but it doesn't have to be that way. Imagine a fantasy world with magical teleportation to any civilized part of the world readily available. . .

We'll come back to communication, transport, and the other worldbuilding questions in the next article.
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

I think this is pretty solid, foundational advice on world building. I think many folks tend to want to build the entire world beforehand, without realizing how much of a constraint that is, and how unnecessary it is for a RPG.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Not having the campaign world 'complete' is a wonderful dodge for not having to try and actually use the thing or expose it to the harsh light of actual use. Very much like that half written novel so many people have stuffed in a drawer somewhere.

This a fine set of opening questions to build a good foundation for a campaign.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Not having the campaign world 'complete' is a wonderful dodge for not having to try and actually use the thing or expose it to the harsh light of actual use. Very much like that half written novel so many people have stuffed in a drawer somewhere.

This a fine set of opening questions to build a good foundation for a campaign.
Yeah. All you really need is where you're starting and what hits the fan to start things off. Some context doesn't hurt, but too much just overwhelms the players, I think.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I like to have a fleshed out history, world map, religion and factions, in order to draw from, to answer questions like those above. I agree that you don't need those things to go adventuring.
 
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aco175

Hero
@lewpuls is this going to be some sort of series on worldbuilding. I like the initial stuff here. I tend to get bogged sown on separating my world from all the others.
 

This article has the most valuable advice on worldbuilding (for a game) that you'll see most likely. I wish someone had told me that, say 20 years ago, but even if they had (and chances are i did come across it) i would have ignored it thinking that there is value in detail, and that i knew better. Well guess what, i didn't.

And what @Fenris-77 said above pretty much hits it in the head.
 

Ed_Laprade

Adventurer
Even when I make a world map it is pretty vague. No actual borders, mostly here's the Elven forest, there are the Dwarf mountains, this is the big Lizardfolk swamp, etc. I want the players to have at least some idea where their characters might be from. Lew always has interesting advice, even if I don't always agree with him.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The one serious quibble I have with the article is where it says not to worry about history.

I strongly disagree.

You need to have at least a vague idea of your world's (and by 'world' I mean the general area where the PCs are likely to be active) history for a number of reasons:

=== if asked or if needed you can explain how things got to their current state
=== you'll avoid the headache of having to reconcile conflicting details you've made up on the fly
=== the world will have more depth, and the PCs/players will get a better idea of how they fit in
=== if done right, your world's history can serve as a bottomless mine for story ideas

You also need a fleshed-out pantheon up front so that anyone who wants to start with a Cleric or Paladin knows what their options are.
 



lewpuls

Adventurer
@lewpuls is this going to be some sort of series on worldbuilding. I like the initial stuff here. I tend to get bogged sown on separating my world from all the others.
One more to this piece, and I've submitted another. Writing one or two more. I don't think of it as a series, however.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
History of the world (Lanefan):

I have a Ph.D. in history, so you can believe I'm "pro-history". But in the 21st century, the average American doesn't give even one shit about history, let alone two. People instead imagine what they'd like history to be, rather than understand what is. Far too many believe more in stupid conspiracy theories than in real history (all conspiracy theories are stupid in the light of actual history).

Given that, how much are game players going to care about the history of the game world? Maybe not much.

Add that in a medieval setting, hardly anyone will know enough about history to say so. The history itself will be mysterious, unknown.

For those reasons, I don't think you need to know much about your world's history to start with. If players become curious, you can work it up as you go.
 

Tonguez

Hero
It seems that the questions posed In OP have missed the most crucial part of Who are the Characters and How do they fit?

Afterall the identity of characters in the Faerun is different to those in Kara-Tur and very different from those in Birthright. Even within Faerun having characters be long time citizens of the local town is a different story to that of ‘newly arrived wondering adventurers’ or ‘the Sheriffs men sent from the Manor”

I suppose that could be incapsulated in ‘What are the Players going to Do” but I think its distinct enough to be a seperate category and knowing something of the history and identity of those places is important to creating characters who actually fit the setting and can develop the game beyond generic vanilla world to something interesting.

So the Questions I would consider important are
  • Who are the characters and how do they fit?
  • What are the players going to DO?
  • Who/what dominates the local area? (This covers nations and rulers, gods, terrain, races and monsters)
  • Who are the main enemies?(that will also determine if war happens)
  • Is there a great mystery?
  • How much does magic influence the world?
While they are fun, I actually dont think Maps are absolutely necessary although a general idea of the terrain helps (Athas being desert is really important), I dont need to know how common adventurers are (just how my players fit) and communication and transport happen at the speed of narrative convinience (ie when they need to happen for the story).

So to me the less important questions are
  • Terrain? (Do you NEED a map?)
  • Is there “a war on?”
  • How “present” are the gods?
  • How common are adventurers?
  • What is the speed of communication and transport?
But I’m happy to be enlightened further
 


Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I have a Ph.D. in history, so you can believe I'm "pro-history". But in the 21st century, the average American doesn't give even one shit about history, let alone two.
Just as well I'm not American, eh? :)

Given that, how much are game players going to care about the history of the game world? Maybe not much.

Add that in a medieval setting, hardly anyone will know enough about history to say so. The history itself will be mysterious, unknown.
Perhaps, from a Human perspective.

Butt you'll have Elf PCs who are old enough to have lived through a few centuries of it, meaning that if something big (e.g. a massive volcanic eruption in the region) happened 154 years ago they'll know it - whcih means you-as-DM have to have this stuff noted somewhere.

Also, having this mostly nailed down ahead of time makes it way easier to present the setting as a living breathing thing rather than a static backdrop. If in your history you've already plugged in a volcanic eruption 154 years ago followed by a barbarian invasion from the northwest then instead of you-as-DM knowing only this...

"Ruined castle on hilltop, underneath is dungeon from [module XYZ] with modified ground floor, bugbears instead of orcs"

...you can have this...

"Ruined castle on hilltop. Ruin caused by loss vs. barbarian invasion in year 929 while locals weakened due to volcanic eruption in year 928 and subsequent crop failure. Bugbears on site now are descendants of original serving staff, long since gone 'wild'. Clan Forbyderne held castle for centuries before ruin, built dungeon (use module XYZ for this) as tomb for selves as per old local custom."

...without a second's extra work on your part; and you can present as much or as little as you like. Most important, if your players ask you'll have the answers and they won't conflict with anything you've said earlier or will say later.

Even if the players ignore it, it's still there for them - and more importantly, it's there for you-as-DM.

For those reasons, I don't think you need to know much about your world's history to start with. If players become curious, you can work it up as you go.
Which sounds nice in theory, but in practice I've learned that working it up as you go inevitably leads to painting yourself into a corner: some major thing that was relevant six real-life months ago now makes no sense due to subsequent other things that have been brought up since.

Far better to have the framework in place and iron out these bugs before players even get involved.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Woah woah. Too many words. You were all like hundreds of years ago. And I was all like what? And then there was something about orcs, and then i got bored.

Seriously though, I dont agree. You only need details to the extent that they're currently relevant. You dont need 300 years of history tidbits because that's how old a PC might be. Theres no bottom to that rabbit hole. Sure, if you want to add a couple of things you know will come up that's cool. But it needs to matter. The PCs would need to have a reason to ask about X or Y. Unless it's relevant to what's going on in the present the only purpose it serves is random lore spouting, which is not, IMO, high priority.

If you actually track your on the fly history, and keep a living document, you wont have this problem anyway. For me, campaign design is already enough work without making more work that isn't essential to playing the game.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Butt you'll have Elf PCs who are old enough to have lived through a few centuries of it, meaning that if something big (e.g. a massive volcanic eruption in the region) happened 154 years ago they'll know it - whcih means you-as-DM have to have this stuff noted somewhere.

Far better to have the framework in place and iron out these bugs before players even get involved.
I've snipped to pull out what I'm responding to; I hope I haven't mangled the meaning.

The longer lives of some fantasy races (elves practically experience historical deep time, even without the current canon that they reincarnate) were a thing I took into account when I decided how long ago the setting-defining events (the Severance, and the Fiend Wars) were. The perspective I worked out is that the end of the Fiend Wars was long enough ago that for elves it's about like World War I; for dwarves and similar it's like the American Civil War; for humans it's like the Norman invasion of England. Now, the existence of longer-lived races means that's probably not entirely right, even for humans--even if it's twenty-five generations ago for you, that dwarf whose clan lost three elders four generations ago will still tell stories--but I find it helpful to keep in mind.

I didn't work out all the events--that way lies madness--but there are things all around that tie back to that and to events prior. I didn't try to work out everything all at once, or even before the first campaign started; there are regions I know exist but haven't even worked out their names or shapes; there are regions that have names and even some ideas about the cultures but nothing more. Worlds are big, and you don't need to have more ready--especially at the start--than you need to convey the all-dimensional size of the setting. To an extent you can get away with never prepping much past the limits of what the characters experience.
 

History doesn't need to be established beforehand. Just what’s needed. Anything else can be established on the fly. I don’t think establishing things on the fly is really significantly more subject to contradictions. My entire Blades in the Dark campaign is established almost entirely in the fly, or at my most prep-heavy, immediately prior to a session. I haven’t run into any contradictions yet.

My 5E D&D campaign, however, has had a few minor ones. All easily explained and altered as needed, so none were a big deal. These mostly were things that I could have simply let them stand as they were, but they didn’t match some preconceived idea I had in my head about events. So my players weren’t even aware of the contradictions so much as I was.

My 5E campaign revolves around some ancient godly actions and conflict, and the PCs are discovering relevant bits through play. But beside the actual relevant lore, the history of the campaign is mostly unwritten.

I think history can play a part in a game, though I think you have to be careful about being too self indulgent; to me te history has to be engaging enough to justify its inclusion, or minimal enough so as to not be confusing or overwhelming. It’s a tool that can be used, but it’s definitely not as foundational as many consider it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
History doesn't need to be established beforehand. Just what’s needed.
In an ideal situation, this is fine.

Problem is, until the puck's dropped and play's underway you don't have any way of knowing what's going to be needed - i.e. what the players are going to latch on to and ask about.

Now if you're just running a hard-line AP and that's it for the campaign, that's different; you might not need much history (or much else!) at all.

But if you're running something more open-ended, or any kind of sandbox, the framework becomes more essential.

Anything else can be established on the fly. I don’t think establishing things on the fly is really significantly more subject to contradictions.
My own experience tells me different, and rather loudly. :)

Also, keep in mind that to me the retcon is the worst form of DMing evil.

My entire Blades in the Dark campaign is established almost entirely in the fly, or at my most prep-heavy, immediately prior to a session. I haven’t run into any contradictions yet.
Either you have a far better memory than I have, or you're far more adept at taking notes during play (I'm awful at it), or you've been lucky so far. :)

My 5E D&D campaign, however, has had a few minor ones. All easily explained and altered as needed, so none were a big deal.
See, this is what I'll do almost anything to avoid: having to retcon or change something I've already told the players.

My 5E campaign revolves around some ancient godly actions and conflict, and the PCs are discovering relevant bits through play. But beside the actual relevant lore, the history of the campaign is mostly unwritten.
Where as DM I'd want to know how all those deities related to each other, where they came from, where they are now, etc., and as player I'd probably be asking about all that.

I think history can play a part in a game, though I think you have to be careful about being too self indulgent;
Why not be self-indulgent? The campaign history is 95% for the DM's use behind the scenes* - it doesn't matter if most of it is never told to the players, provided it's there for you-as-DM to use and build on.

* - same as something like Lord of the Rings: Tolkein built a massive history of Middle Earth, and while elements of it show through in the books you never learn all of it - you just know it's there. He-as-author, on the other hand, used that history to inform the story he wrote in LotR; then expanded on it later with things like The Silmarillion.

Then, when some historical piece does become relevant, you-as-DM have it right to hand and aren't left floundering trying to make stuff up and hoping it meshes with everything else.

An example from my current campaign: during my setting design I nailed down the local area's history pretty solid for maybe the last 1100 years (the now-decaying local Empire was founded out of historical events 1082 years ago [at campaign start], and I'd worked up the Empire's history in broad terms).

Five years into the campaign I unexpectedly had a PC manage to blip himself 647 years back in time (long story...); as I already knew the general history etc. I was able to fairly seamlessly jump right into telling him what he saw and what was different; when he realized he'd jumped in time he thought to ask who the current Emperor was and I had the answer right there; that sort of thing.

Having to make all that up on the fly - and take notes on it - would have made that session painful to DM and (probably) just as painful to play.
 

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