How do you build your world?
Is there a set formula you stick to or do you prefer to start with whatever interests you at the time of writing?
Great debates form around world building and how to do it. Different writers and designers build their own worlds in different ways. The below are approaches used by writers and world builders around the globe, but they should only be taken as a guide not a law book.
Macroscopic is also known as “Top Down”. This is where you start at the highest possible level and with each stage move down a step into greater detail. For a fantasy setting this would be starting at the planet level and moving down to continents > regions > civilisations > kingdoms > cities > villages > people... etc.
Questions to get you started
- What does my world look like? E.g.
- Spherical world (like in our universe)
- Flat world
- Hour glass
- Other, etc. etc.
- Is it based our known laws of physics or does it have its own?
- What’s the land to water ratio?
- Is there an atmosphere? What is it made of?
- How does this affect civilisations living on the planet?
Kelios is a flat planet. It does not stand on the back of world elephants nor does it have its own world turtle like many other worlds. It is quite simply flat just like a map. It has an atmosphere that is the shape of a pyramid meaning it is very thin on the edges while the gravitational pull is at its strongest. For this reason spaceports are located in the centre of the world where gravity is at its weakest.
This is the direct opposite of macroscopic. You start your world building at the smallest detail and move up to the biggest i.e from a village up to the whole planet. This approach to world building works if you have a small fragment of a world. Continue to work on the fragment you have then expand it out as you need to.
Questions to ask
- What is the smallest fragment of my world I could build?
- Where is that fragment located?
- Who lives there?
- What’s the name of the closest settlement?
- Who governs the area?
The Red Brewers Arm is a village within an inn. Rather than building houses of their own many merchants, travellers and peasants settling here simply chose to build onto the inn. There are roughly 50 settled residents living at the inn with capacity for another 50 – 100 visitors/clients.
The inn comes under the jurisdiction of Lord Valchester, the local knight, however much of the inn’s government is dealt with by the Inn Council. Due to its size the Inn has its own grounds defended by high walls and an Inn Watch, armed residents who are on a rota to patrol the grounds.
An interesting idea for a kingdom or society is the starting point for Sociological World Building. Start by writing about this society and write as much as you want. Once you have this down you can then expand out to other areas of world building.
Questions to ask
- Is there a real life example I could use for inspiration?
- What is important to this society?
- Who or what holds the power?
- What resources are key to them?
- Who will they most likely be in conflict with?
The Kardinchi are a race of nomadic tribes men living on the out skirts of the Rovinian Empire, a major force in this sector. Every 2 years the clans gather at a sacred stone circle for competitions, inter-tribe marriages and politics. It is at these gatherings that alliances are forged and raiding competitions for the coming years set.
National power is held by the druid circle, though power over each clan is held by the head of the clan. Skirmishes have considerably increased over the past few years with patrols from the Rovinian Empire. At the most recent gathering there are clans who have called for a national war against the Rovinian’s, however the druids have not yet made a decision.
So you have a character in your head that won’t let you live. He keeps pestering you, demanding that you tell his story and give him somewhere to live. That’s brilliant, build a world around them.
Questions to ask:
- What kind of society do they live in?
- What’s their background?
- Have any major events happened in the characters life time?
These type of questions will present you with either a society or setting for your world. From there you can build the kingdom or continent around the characters home.
Character Based Example
Elias is not a noble, nor does he have any desire to meet, visit or interact with nobility. However, he finds himself pursued by a powerful noble widow who will not take no for an answer. In order to avoid her advances Elias has had to doge mercenaries, bodyguards and the washer women as his local laundrette. He doesn’t know how long he can keep going with only one pair of clean underwear left. The thing he will most certainly not do is turn his boxers inside, outside and back to front!
This is world building around a specific event. Examples might include the coronation of a new queen, an unusual situation between two kingdoms, zombies taking over the world or magic might work in a peculiar way. Start by describing the situation and how it has been caused by or how it effects the world at large.
Questions to ask
- What is the situation?
- How does it affect the world around it?
- Is it global or local?
- Is it considered to be a good or bad situation?
James’ soul has been imprisoned and leashed to a given task. Until he completes it he is granted powers beyond anything a normal human could posses. Regeneration, strength and foresight amongst others. However, time is also limited, should the leashed one falter too long they will begin to degenerate into a beast.
From here it is possible to move into building the society for this world. What world exists where someone’s soul could be bound by another? Is this normal or is it illegal? What does it take to cast this “spell”? Who can do it?
Start your world building around the history. This is similar to the situational world building in that you are starting with an event, however for the historical it is a series of events that make up the world history as opposed to a single event.
Questions to ask
- How was your world created?
- Was it actually created or has it always existed?
- How old is your world?
- What are the major events along the worlds time line?
At the beginning of our world, as we know it, the gods had a huge party. After some extensive drinking and merriment a few disagreements broke out. This caused a great war between the gods, well it was more like a competition to see which god could pull the other’s hair the hardest.
The first clumps of hair fall to the floor of heaven were from the god Hariptus and they reformed to create the boundaries of the universe. The hair from Calitan made the planets, stars and other heavenly bodies. While the hair from the other gods present formed to create a different life form.
We’ve all watched a film and thought “that was... COOOL!”, if you haven’t yet then either
1. You should watch more films
2. You’re watching the wrong films
The Literary/Filmic approach is where a world is based upon something that is already out there; be it film, book or video game. You might be a big fan of Tolkien, Stuido Ghibli and Mad Max so your world takes something from each of these and blends it.
If you never plan on selling or publishing anything around your world building efforts then this is a fun approach to train those world building muscles. A Games Master (or simply a hard core fan) will find this approach fun as it allows you to create a world quickly for your players to have a play around in.
Questions to ask
- Do I want to sell anything from my world building efforts? (novel, game, rule book/adventure supplement etc.)
- Is there a franchise I would really love to expand and play around with?
- Will my project be based entirely on one franchise or a mix?
- How strictly will I stick to official cannon?
Harvey is a big fan of Highlander and decided he wants to expand upon the world building in this franchise. Harvey first picks a time before The Gathering, as this will mean there are immortals running around. He’s been studying the ancient Aztecs at school and so this seems a logical time frame to work in – about the 1400’s which is roughly 100 years before the birth of Connor MacLeod.
His main character is an immortal who gained power in Aztec society after he survived being sacrificed and then slaughtered both the priests and the temple guard. Now as a general in the Aztec empire this provides him with a stable platform to hunt other immortals while protecting himself.
The truth is there isn’t an absolute way to go about building your world. Many of the world builders and writers I talk to actually create their worlds in a haphazard manner. They will start their path down one of the approaches and then something interesting will catch their attention and they suddenly move over to another approach.
What world building project are you working on at the moment? Where did you start and did you use any of the above approaches?