A Look at Worldbuilding

Questions, always with the questions…  They’re what drives us forward as a species. Humanity lives for questions.  This time the question is: World Building.  How do you do it and where do you start?  To make it clear, this article is opinion based on our own experiences (Angel’s Citadel – Josh & I) and the entire article is how we do it. I know that there are other people out there who do it differently and I hope that they weigh in with their own comments. I’m going to cover both types of world building Josh and I do: from the worlds we build and are building for our Hope’s Horizon full book and any others that are for consumption by the gaming community at large, and the worlds we build for our fiction writing (that may or may not ever see the light of day, or be translated into a “playable” form). Also, to be clear, Josh and I are different people with a lot of shared interests. One of those differences is how we approach world building.

The first topic I’m going to cover is building worlds for tabletop roleplaying games. The first question that I ask is “What is the TTRPG I’m going to be building in”, because a world for High Fantasy is a large difference from a Science Fiction world in space. They might have the same basic generalities, like landmass, cities, etc…, but the world itself will be different and should feel different. Unless you’re making a conglomeration of the two (Numenera’s Ninth World is a decent example of this). 

I start my world building with lists.  I like lists.  I like bullet points and sticky notes and words, lots and lots of words. I cover generalities of what I want my world to have or not have. Magic vs Science, overall feel, and the like.  Josh, on the other hand, likes to start his world building with maps, land masses and city locations, then adds words about what things are, like naming the cities. His other focus at the beginning are the “big organizations”.  Kingdoms, power players, and the like and what it is that they want.  For him, that sets a tone in his worlds as well.  That’s why we make such a fantastic team when it comes to these things.

Now, some people will tell you to start small, with a single city, then develop the world on the fly. Others will say start with an overview then narrow it down. I say, try both then use the one that works best for you. We almost always start with an overview. This is what the world looks like, this is what the world feels like, this is where various cities are. Then we narrow down to that single city the players are starting in.  Along the way, we don’t codify too many details because the players may never even need them, but we want to know both where they start (and a bunch of details about that) and where that place is in general relation to everything else (broad brush strokes are the key here).

Just so we’re clear, building a world can be a time consuming task.  It’s not just the map, or the design, or the cities, but the bits, pieces, and baubles that go into a good world to make it feel alive. Things that are often hot button topics. This includes things like Speciesism, Religion, Politics, History, and even real world events coloring the world you build. I would try to warn you against offending people, but I’m going to be honest… you can’t. Somebody will get offended by what you do. Either someone will think you’re being some kind of -ist or -phobe because you cover a sensitive topic, or you’ll be accused of being a Social Justice Warrior because you’re trying to be careful when you cover that sensitive topic. That being said, in our opinion, there is absolutely no excuse for being an asshole.  Using safety tools to set expectations in your games is a smart idea even if, the longer a group is together, the less-likely it is that such lines will be crossed simply from a standpoint of familiarity.

First, let’s talk about Speciesism: in Hope’s Horizon, we have it. The Sylphine of Pangoria don’t allow other races to land on their planet without special permission.  Why?  Because they think other races, especially humans, are destructive, insane barbarians and don’t want their home destroyed.  At the point in the timeline where you play in Hope’s Horizon, Humanity has already destroyed Earth once and had to rebuild it after discovering the technology required to terraform a planet. Vol’Dari and Humans typically don’t get along because they had a war, and the humans destroyed two Vol’Dari cities on their home planet of Goteragh. (Yes, we pulled that directly from the history books, no we’re not going to apologize. Humans have always excelled in destruction… and in life.) However, they are different species, and the Vol’Dari in that war were no less vicious toward humanity despite their inability to reach Earth.  We have avoided bringing up race because quite frankly judging someone by the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes is the dumbest thing EVER. We all bleed red.

Next up is religion.  It exists.  If you have it in your setting, yay.  If you don’t have it in your setting, yay. Just remember, all religion has been filtered. So when you create your religion, you need to create it from the standpoint of a worshipper or perhaps the clergy, not necessarily a God standpoint. Or, if you opt to do it from a God’s standpoint, then by the time it gets to your people it’s gone through a game of telephone and your world has the effects of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Well, again, that’s how we do it, basing it off things we’ve researched in history.

Then we’ve got politics.  It’s everywhere because what politics really is is the way people get around disagreements about how society should function.  Include them or not, that’s up to you but if you include them, remember a few key questions. What is the loudest agenda? Who supports that agenda? Who is against this agenda and why? Who stands to gain or lose from this movement? Even kingdoms have politics, usually among the advisors to the king, or the nobles.  It isn’t just kingdoms either.  Most fantasy realms have guilds and organizations that often have a form of political disagreement among their ranks.  

Sometimes, the real world bleeds over.  You’re going to have it, you can’t avoid it. Why?  Because our opinions color who we are.  All you can do is make sure that what bleeds over fits the theme of your world. It’s part of the research as you create. No one will ever tell an original story. However, no one else will tell that story exactly like you do. Building worlds is the same way. We draw from our own world, our own experiences to create that place, either from games we’ve played to movies we’ve seen, to real-world events we’ve experienced or researched.

Now, to talk a little about building worlds for your books. In a lot of ways it’s similar to creating it for your TTRPG however, there’s a few key differences. One, you can’t just plop out a map for your reader and say ‘You are here!’. Instead you have to describe the location, in varying levels of detail, some places may only need a word or two, other places, you might need paragraphs. Two, your protagonist and antagonist are going to come from your head, not just encounters for your players at the table. One of the things that we learned from Tolkien is to allude to the larger history of the world even if you don’t detail it.  Even a simple name (like the Watchtower of Amon Sûl, more commonly known as Weathertop) hints at a history and a depth of the world without him actually having to detail it.  You can do the same thing (it’s one of the reasons a list of names of places is such a great thing to have at your fingertips).

So, how do we, Josh and Joann get away with both creating worlds for our players, worlds for our stories, run a blog, and run several games?  Well, the answer is simple.  We do what some would call cheating, but what we call judicious application of tools. We use a lot of tools for building our games, our encounters and our worlds.

First, mapmaking software. Josh’s favorite of all of them is Campaign Cartographer 3 Plus. It’s available on ProFantasy’s website, but if you watch, you can occasionally catch it on a Humble Bundle for a really deep discount.  There are other tools, however:

Generators:

  • Our favorite one is Donjon. This guy has worlds, dungeons, adventures, and names for Fantasy, Science Fiction and Weird Fiction.
  • This person has the best name generator. It’s got names for a crazy amount of things, including odd things like Gods and Goddess
  • This is another human name generator that Josh has been using recently that he likes.
  • You can also use this one to create complete planets.
  • Here is another planet generator.
  • And another one
  • And this one lets you create whole chunks of space and is based on Kevin Crawford’s Stars Without Number (which we’ll cover in a shortly upcoming review).
  • There are even Character Generators like this one for the Cypher System.

And overall, if you’re looking for one example to take you through an entire worldbuilding process, this is one that we’ve looked at: https://scribeforge.ink/.  There are a ton of worksheets and things to think about.  Last, and probably our favorite overall worldbuilding tool is Arium: Create by Adept Icarus.  If you haven’t seen our review for this, you can check it out here.  TL;DR: Run, don’t walk, over to Adept Icarus’ website and pick up a copy.  I hope this helps you.  Happy Gaming!

  • Joann Walles

Now on DriveThruRPG, from Angel’s Citadel… A brand new, original setting for the Cypher System! The Hope’s Horizon Starter Kit requires the Revised Cypher System Rulebook from Monte Cook Games.

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