Worldbuilding: It’s Not Just In Your Head

While a large chunk of my time lately has been spent editing and doing real-life tasks, I’ve been discussing with friends some of the materials I’m reading, reviewing, and editing, and many of these conversations lead to concerns about building a world.

“I can never make something that cool,” I’ll hear. Or, “How can someone come up with something this great?” The thing is, it’s not as complex as you’d expect, and honestly, it can be a fun way to get your group together.

I had a “Session Zero” with a group recently to settle the world for our own game. While some of these ideas are things I thought were common practice everywhere, I’m realizing most don’t even know these are options for a gaming table.

With that, I am coming to you as the NPC, bringing a useful collection of information and tips for you to get out and do your own quests! Your quest this time, if you choose to take it, is to build a world and bring it to me!

Sizes may vary. Photo credit: i naina_94

==Have An Idea==

This is the easiest step of all, but most don’t really count it as one: just have an idea.

Do you want swashbuckling mishaps in outer space? That’s an idea.

How about super gritty post-apocalyptic life in a cartoon world? That’s an idea.

An idea can range anywhere from just a simple concept to an in-depth, multi-novel epic. Both of these are fine to start with, but you really just need something to get the ball rolling. The rest will fall into place from there. In fact, you can expand even the thinnest idea in the next step.

==Now Add Some Meat==

Once you have an idea in place, it’s time to flesh it out. Some prefer to go all-in and write a full, in-depth history of their world, including a dozen novels and a movie.

Others, like myself, go MUCH lighter.

From my experience, you really only need a few basics when building a world. Namely:

  • Major players, whether they are deities, people, or countries.
  • “Current Events,” like recent wars, controversies, or someone rising to power.
  • A few things that show why the world is the way it is, like a nuclear war, a transdimensional invasion, or someone having collected the Dragon Balls.

With those three points, you have a solid framework to build your world!

==Get Out Of Your Vacuum==

One of the things I took away from the number of guest speakers I had the joy of working with in college: “To become a good writer, you first need to be a good reader.”

I cannot count the number of gamers and GMs I’ve spoken to who use a line like, “I don’t want my idea to be corrupted, so I don’t read or talk to anyone about it.” The problem by doing so is they don’t expose themselves to how the idea failed, succeeded, or has already been done. If it’s a tabletop game world, the worldbuilders are doing themselves and their players a disservice by not adding things they would otherwise overlook.

Talk to like-minded people. See if someone has “taken” your idea. Look at things that have nothing to do with your idea.

Read. Talk. Soundboard. Plan.

Don’t let your idea stagnate. Let it grow.

==Now Add Some Rules==

One frustrating thing I encounter with many settings sums up to the phrase “They broke their own rules.” I have full-blown rants on Harry Potter and even my beloved Fate franchise about this, and I am always bothered whenever I see it.

Simply put, create some rules for your world. Can magic only be used by red-headed virgin elves? Is finding a human and making them laugh the only way to remove radiation? Is the only way to go faster-than-light so dangerous no one dare risk it unless it’s truly the only chance at survival, however slim?

These are all “rules” for your setting. Now, keep in mind that rules absolutely can (and sometimes, should) be broken, but if every protagonist or villain breaks one of the ground rules, it removes the importance of that rule in your setting.

Think about what you feel is important to the setting, namely, the elements of “reality” that should impact everyone except a select few.

Take my above examples. In a world where red-headed virgins are the only ones who can use magic, a single, lone, raven-haired prostitute manifesting powers covers both “exception to the rule” and “dramatic plot device.” If FTL is so dangerous that one-in-three ships disappears forever, but there’s a pilot that survived over thirty jumps and may have a system to make FTL safer, you now have an “exception to the rule” that is a “dramatic plot device” and also leads to zany adventures for changing the universe as the players and characters know it.

The setting should have room to grow and your rules may change, but having a few constants in place will open more doors than close as a storyteller.

==Finishing Touches==

Like every project, once you have your framework, you’ll probably want to make it look a bit better. This is where your finishing touches come.

One of these finishing touches is visual aids. Though if you are anything like me, you’ll find it difficult, frustrating, or sometimes downright impossible to create a visual aid. Sometimes it’s a matter of a lack of skill: I cannot draw, so I gave up trying to make a good-looking map or portrait long ago. Sometimes it’s a matter of time: do you really have the time to generate a cavern system and a feudal city and a new island and an image for a major NPC all before your next game day?

Thankfully, there are tricks for visual aids, and you’d be surprised at how much they add to your game.

For those of you who struggle with drawing like me, there’s a number of map generators available, ranging from dungeons to cities to entire planets (or even smaller land masses with the right settings).

I like that aforementioned planet generator, as it can give some fun stuff.

If you prefer to get your hands dirty, there’s the classic pasta trick with making a world map or land mass (note: this link has some NSFW language). I’ve also seen it with rice, candy, and even dice (which is a really fun way to do it, honestly).

So now that you have maps, what about the characters that the PCs will meet? We still have you covered, thanks to some useful tools like Hero Machine and Hero Forge. Many of you may remember that I’ve spoken of Hero Forge during a previous review, as it allows you to not only make a model for your character (based on previously created assets) but to purchase a mini for it. Hero Machine, on the other hand, works as a 2D option instead, allowing you to create a character and color it in (and of course, print it).

In addition to the visual aids that you may (or may not) want for your world, there’s the expansion of previous bits of the setting: history, major players in the world, and rules (and their exceptions).

==Seeing It In Action==

I am notorious for kicking around game ideas but never being able to get them off the ground. A few friends and I decided to attempt to change this by starting an RPG.

As a group, we agreed that “Modern Fantasy” was the way the game was going to be. With this, we weren’t going to settle for things like World of Darkness or The Dresden Files, but rather a medieval fantasy that has reached the modern day, with all of the dressings of those settings with a modern backdrop.

The group loved the pitch, so it was my job to get it rolling. I had an Idea, but I needed to add some meat.

I started by putting together a few surveys for my players. Just a couple of very short questions (mostly multiple choice), like “How long as the world been like this?”, or “How common is magic?”, and “What sort of non-human races exist?”

After getting the feedback, I scheduled a time for Session Zero, specifically a session dedicated to character creation and, in this case, worldbuilding. As “homework,” each player had to have the following:

  • A basic idea for their character, like “World’s Worst Witch” or “Chosen Scion of Shub-Niggurath”
  • Have 1-3 “Facts” about the world
  • What type of globe-spanning organization they wished to be a part of

Of course, as the players debated, I prepared by having my own Facts for the world, a few little gems for them to sift through, and decided to make a world map of my own (via generators, of course) to give them a sense of scale.

During Session Zero, I had each player take a turn to read their Fact. After the Fact was read, the group had an opportunity to talk about it, including the power to give a veto or offer some edits, especially if it would ruin a character design or flat out was the opposite of what they had. This gave each player the feeling of investment into the setting, while also giving me, as GM, the ability to weave ideas that were not my own into the setting.

Some of these were things I would have never looked at, such as how the mail is delivered in this world, or how/why there are people working low-wage jobs, while also giving player-driven reasons for major parts of a plot, such as how powerful beings keep each other in check.

After each player had their Facts laid out (and when needed, edited by the group as a whole), I dropped my three Facts…which were incomplete. As I wanted my players to truly be invested, I had key points of each Fact missing, such as what type of magic was banned by a global council, choosing two groups that are at a major tipping point that could lead to open hostilities, and a big one: “how well does magic and technology blend?”

The group finished these comments, and in some cases, used them to create addendum to their facts…and final decisions to their characters.

Even though we are using the rules for Dresden Files Accelerated, no one wanted my cat as a familiar when they made their final decisions. Their loss!

We ended Session Zero with character creation, leaving everyone with a fleshed out character (with some Rules Exceptions and Plot Devices thrown in for good measure) and a mostly-fleshed out world.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the World Facts document I had put together after the session. We haven’t gotten back to the world due to real-life scheduling issues (all of us are in different parts of the country), but we are still talking about it and are extremely excited at the possibilities it presents.

==Now Have Fun==

There you have it, brave adventurers, scribes, storytellers, and variations thereof! These are my tried and true steps for creating a world. While there are some gaps here and there (as some projects require different processes, of course), the concept at its core has helped me with nearly every world building project I have done to date.

Now go out, build some worlds, and have fun.

Anthony, better known as LibrariaNPC, wears many hats: librarian, gamemaster, playtester, NPC, and our Editor-In-Chief. You can support his work on Patreon, his tip jar, or via Ko-Fi.

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