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Worlds of Design: Worldbuilding 101 (Part 2)

We continue our “beginners notes” for world building, answering questions ranging from the gods to magic to transportation and communication.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.” M. John Harrison (author of more than 20 novels)
These are the questions we were discussing last time:
  • 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 transportation?
Who or what dominates the local area?

The next question is who or what dominates the local area? The player characters are likely to operate only in a local area, at first. Whatever/whoever dominates that area may become a major adversary and certainly controls a lot of what happens, or they may be a great help to the characters

How present are the gods?

In a way this is a background question, but it can be very important. For example, in my D&D campaigns over the course of 40+ years or thereabouts a god has never appeared to the player characters. Even the non-human representatives of gods are rare. Human and other clerics are about as representative as it gets. Player characters (or novel characters) are not likely to be able to do much to the gods themselves, nor to their stronger representatives like Archangel equivalents. I know that in some campaigns characters fight gods, but I'd quote the Hulk after he trashed Loki in a movie: “puny god.” Any god worth the name should be far more powerful than adventurers, surely?

Is there a great mystery?

Is there a great mystery going on
in the campaign? I'm not a reader of mystery novels, but many people are. Of course it doesn't have to be a murder mystery. Although it could be who murdered the King or the Queen or something like that. You could ask “what happened to the famous adventurer,” where’s he or she gone (we’re looking at you, Luke Skywalker), where is the fabled huge gem, what has been killing the locals, where is the “last Dragon?”

How much does magic influence the world?

This has a lot to do with how the game plays. Consider Tolkien's Middle-earth, where magic is very rare. I wrote an article long ago using Moria as an introductory game for beginners. I had to evaluate Aragorn and Gandalf and so on. Aragorn was a seventh level ranger and Gandalf was an eighth level cleric (could not raise the dead) with a Ring of Warmth/Fire. Some people immediately said “oh my God, they're much more powerful.” No, it's just that in Tolkien's world there's hardly anybody who's really powerful, a seventh level ranger and eighth level cleric really stand out. On the other hand, we have worlds where magic is a substitute for technology and it's quite commonplace. This is a big difference in how those worlds work. I recommend that you read my series of articles about stages of magic.

How common are adventurers?

Are adventurers or heroes as common as professional athletes? Ask yourself how many professional athletes you've met. Are they as common as national congressmen and women (only 550 in 330,000,000 people). Have you ever met any one of those? Or are they as common as police officers? It makes a huge difference: it makes a difference in how people treat adventurers, it makes a difference in how polities/states solve problems. If there are bunches of adventurers around the polities may solve problems by sending adventurers. If there are very few adventures they’ve got to find a different way to solve their problems. (Or, perhaps with a lot of money they can hire the rare adventurers).

Transportation & communication again

We come back to transportation and communication. In Dungeons & Dragons, barring a few magic items, both are slow. You can get a magic carpet or a crystal ball, but most people do not have that possibility. On the other hand in Star Wars communication is instantaneous throughout the galaxy using small devices, which is pretty amazing (though easy to jam), and transportation by spaceship is nearly instantaneous. One calculation is that ships can go 25,000 light years a day. The difference is felt especially in warfare. (I have to interject here that Star Wars warfare is absolute nonsense given the other parameters involved; another topic for a column.)

Campaigns vs. Rules

I’ve talked in terms of campaigns, but this applies to a world-setting that’s incorporated into a set of RPG rules. D&D’s original setting was generic medieval fantasy (Greyhawk). There are games where the setting seems to be more important than the actual rules/mechanisms of the game, yet others where no specific setting is involved.

Write your ideas down on a computer or paper rather than rely on memory. There may also be software that can help you in world building. For example, I ran across a recommendation for software called Granthika, it's for fiction writers to keep track of all their characters and events in their novel or series of novels. It might be useful for serious world builders, but I have no experience with it, so I can't say.

Map drawing software can be general drawing software like CorelDraw or Inkscape, or it can be specific like Profantasy software, and can be free or can be commercial. If you Google search “fantasy map software” you'll find some of the free as well as the commercial.

I’ll leave you with a repeat of my admonition: don't spend so much effort on the setting that you neglect the game or the novel. Get on with what's important, the game not the detailed setting.
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


Small God of the Dozens
That Granthika program looks pretty useful, but I don't know that I'd spend $100 a year on it. I may take the free trial and see how much additional work is involved in the use of tags and labels, as that is really the litmus test for how useful it will be to me in the writing process. I normally use a mind mapping program to track this sort of thing, and that works pretty well.

I like your comparisons for how common adventurers are. You could use that for a bunch of things. Higher level mages is something that seems to come up rather a lot in world building discussions.


Rotten DM
If you gawd is present? How hands on is it? When I was homebrewing gawd calls had a 5% of happening. But you may not like their solution to your problem. Ask Floppy the Elf. How do gawds get their power? Are they just are? Or batteries powered by their worshippers?


That's my dog, Walter
I like to think of gods as a pantheon, rather than on an individual basis. My pantheons represent different concepts, both physical and philosophical, and can create a theme when looked at as a group. The larger concepts are important and powerful gods and often exist in a duality. Light and Dark, Life and Death, are more omnipresent than human constructed philosophies, Judgement, Patience, Bravery, Corruption. The more specific the concept the less important and powerful the god.

I also picked up a book on symbology that has been useful. I think using symbols is a good way to get the players interested in the world. They see a symbol carved into a stone door and they will immediately want to make a knowledge check about it. This gives me an opportunity to do a little exposition and possibly arm the players with practical knowledge about what may lay ahead.

" The carving of a warhammer adorns the stronghold's imposing doors. It is the symbol of Abraxus, the god of merciless judgement. Prepare your axiomatic slingshot!"


Something I'd like to try...

Start with a fantasy world map not attached to any particular publications. They're easy to find online.

Tell my players the basic style and theme. For example, this is a good vs. evil story about a destructive organization taking down the royal leadership of a benevolent kingdom. Or: This is a treasure hunt campaign where you search for relics from a lost dragonborn civilization in a cursed land.

Let the players collectively decide where they want to start on the map and determine the nature of that place. Have them create characters, creating whatever details they wish: the gods they worship, where they grew up, what it was like there, how they ended up on the place they've chosen on the map.

Improvise the rest.


One thing that I LOVED that Primeval Thule introduced was the notion that the gods are far away and uncaring. Which means that clerics and other divine casters are essentially cabalistic cults who have discovered a means of accessing divine magic and then pass that knowledge on to other cultists. Essentially they are wizards with a slightly better PR department.

But, what this means is, a cleric in question is in no ways actually beholden to the tenets of his or her faith, other than by personal choice. It's not like the gods will take away your magic if you don't do their bidding. They aren't bidding anything. So, you get chaotic evil cults within good faiths and vice versa.

Makes clerics a lot more interesting IMO.


I feel pretty much the opposite. My favorite iteration of the Cleric is in Freebooters on the Frontier. The player defines their deity by giving it an alignment (Good, Lawful, Chaotic, or Evil) and two player defined domains and a holy cause. Instead of spells Clerics get Favor which can be earned by serving deity. It can be used to improve actions that fit into your domains or to invoke (call upon your deity).

Invoke said:
When you call upon your deity to manifest their power, say what you want to have happen and how it falls within at least one of your deity’s domains. The Judge will assign your request hubris from 0 (trivial) to 6 (miraculous). Then, roll -hubris, +1 if you bear your holy symbol, and +1 if you occupy a place sacred to your faith: on a 10+, your request is granted with duration 3; on a 7-9, your request is granted with duration 1, but your deity demands proof of devotion—the Judge chooses 1 from the list below; on a 6-, mark XP, and the Judge makes a move.

  • Sacrifice: take -1 ongoing to Pray until you destroy or tithe something of the Judge’s choosing (silver, blood, something of symbolic significance to your faith, etc.)
  • Exemplify: take -1 ongoing to Invoke until you satisfy your tenet
  • Atone: take -1 ongoing to Invoke until you gain at least 1 favor
  • Evangelize: take -1 ongoing to Invoke until you Convert a nonbeliever
  • Redeem: you may not Invoke again until you complete a trial of the Judge’s choosing
  • Suffer: perma-burn 1 point of an ability of the Judge’s choice


Scrivener is good as a writing tool, but requires a bit of commitment to make best use of its organisational benefits. Aeon Timeline is also interesting. Of course, you can just as easily keep events straight in a really big spreadsheet or as a big wall covered in Postit notes!


Of course, one could have a world without deities? or one where they only exist because people create them to fill a need? And where they get power from being followed so more followers = more power?
or a world where the divine is like the Jungian collective unconscious? That could be challenging to make work!


When I read that clerics in Primeval Thule are cabalistic cultists serving distant deities, and I think "that's awesome." When I read that players of clerics in Freebooters on the Frontier have mechanics that engage service and devotion to a deity, I think "that's awesome." I like both approaches to clerics, because they both communicate something meaningful for players about how clerics and faiths in their respective worlds operate.


When I read that clerics in Primeval Thule are cabalistic cultists serving distant deities, and I think "that's awesome." When I read that players of clerics in Freebooters on the Frontier have mechanics that engage service and devotion to a deity, I think "that's awesome." I like both approaches to clerics, because they both communicate something meaningful for players about how clerics and faiths in their respective worlds operate.

Heh, I know what you mean. Reading about the Freebooters clerics makes me want to change my mind about my campaign. :p I think, for me, where it comes down is I'm rather tired of players playing clerics especially, as just a fighter with some healing powers. Never referencing their faith, never making so much as a nod towards the fact that this is a spiritual character.

So, instead of fighting it, I'll buy right into it. You want to play Father Generic? Go right ahead.


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