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.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
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.

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Small God of the Dozens
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.


Tension, apprension, and dissension have begun
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.


@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.


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.


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.

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