How do you efficiently build a fantasy world for roleplaying games? World building can be a massive undertaking and you can put countless hours into it, so you need to figure out much depth and scope you want or need. What are your goals? How can you improve your world by asking questions? Do you want to breathe life into the world with unreliable narrators?
For more about finding the right hook, have a look at my ideas for creating a logline for your world here. Once you have your hook you need to figure out how you want to proceed.
I gave the logline some thought in a previous post. The logline is your hook for the setting, and you need to use that hook as you process with hashing out the details.
The following is a few ideas to make efficient choices and how you go about building your world.
- Ask Questions
- Unreliable Narrators
Depth: Top-down or Bottom-up?
“It is a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 1954
You have two options when you design your world: top-down or bottom-up. In brief, top-down would mean that for design the whole world, or at least a larger part of the world, before you focus in on local areas. Bottom-up means that you start with a small area, then expand the horizon as your story requires it.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014) suggests starting small by establishing a home base, the closest village, a couple of dungeons, and build for there. For the most part, I agree with this approach.
Today I would have started even bigger, perhaps a continent just to make sure the big picture made sense and then narrowed my focus quickly. Preferably to a tiny location: a village, hamlet or a small island. I need to start simple, as I both overthink and add layers quickly, so my world benefits from starting as small as possible.
Example: the Hunt for a Thief
I started small when I first began working on my world back in 86-87. I drew a big island located in the northern hemisphere, decided with was somewhat like medieval Europe, and then zeroed in on a big city. I conjured up mental images of old Mediterranean cities, perhaps like Nice or Venice, I made up some fancy names, and I was ready for my first adventure in my world.
This was not my first adventure as a GM. I had run a few in old Karameikos, but I do not recall any of it. I do remember the first adventure in my world on the other hand. The first character was a paladin, and he was looking for a thief. The paladin tracked down the thief and chased him through the city, had a run-in with a grumpy city guard captain until the paladin finally caught the thief somewhere in the countryside outside the city.
The setting and the adventure was both forgettable, but I think the approach is sound even today. I started big to get the big picture, then I narrowing into just one location, and build for there. I got a city, added some local color, crossed the city limits and got into the countryside beyond.
Scope: The 80/20 Rule
Consider the 80/20 rule, also called Pareto Principle, before you spend hours writing your 20 000 word backstory on fallen gnomish gods.
The 80/20 rule says you get 80% of your output from only 20% of your input, which means there is a considerable drop of utility for every hour you spend world building or preparing your game.
I do not mind (gotta love those fallen gnomish gods) as world building is about the joy of creation, but if you want efficiency, focus on 15-minute brainstorming, and get going with the story.
Some folks just want to see the world burn, and that is perfectly fine in a story or game.
Example: The Sordid Tale of the Bakers’ Guild War
One of my favorite subplots in a past game came out of nowhere in a city adventure. One of the characters started out with a mistress – a bored baker’s wife – as part of his backstory. We briefly stated that pair met a couple of times in secrecy, and the mistress was a good source of information for an ongoing investigation.
Then the fun part occurred. Out of nowhere, it turned out that the bakery was an important member of the baker’s guild, and was, in fact, an intense power struggle inside the guild. People had been killed, and the ambitious baker and his wife stayed in a loveless marriage to get ahead of the other members of the guild. People had gone missing, and the baker’s wife could use a mercenary as well as a lover. The character even spotted dried blood on a flour sack as they fucked in the bakery storage. Later she hinted her husband was a “problem.”
Sadly the campaign took a U-turn, and we never figured out whatever happened in the baker guild war. Such an opportunity wasted. The investigation lasted 3-4 sessions. The details of the actual adventure are mostly forgotten and would have been lost entirely if not for my journal. But the spontaneous little drama with the mercenary, the baker, and the baker’s wife sticks with me still, five years later.
“Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water.”
– Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Asking questions is a proven method of making your world make sense. So what does asking questions mean? What I take from it is that should be asking questions about a character or subject until you have mapped out every unclear aspect. If something is unclear to you, the builder of your world, then you can bet your audience feel the same.
Asking questions will help you iron out wrinkles in your backstory and force you to make a decision where you otherwise would have left problems unresolved. It also forces you to face cliches and make up your mind of what you want from your world.
Possible questions include:
- What are its origins?
- Where is it currently?
- What are its relationships?
- Is there any mentor or master?
- Current activities?
Consider our fantasy stalwarts the Mentor, the Black Knight and the Dark Lord. No fantasy can be without these guys. Right? Right!
Let’s answer some questions.
- The Mentor comes from the Northlands. (origins)
- She is roaming the Great Kingdom looking for the One Crown. (location)
- She travels alone but has friends everywhere, and many authority figures hate her. (relations)
- The Mentor follows the Arcane Order, an ancient society of wizards and sages. (master)
- She seems unconcerned with employment or even wealth, yet she always has enough tobacco for her pipe. (livelihood)
The Black Knight
- The Black Knight is a fallen and corrupted baron of the Great Kingdom. (origins)
- He is hiding in the foothills of the Northlands, building an army. (location)
- The Black Knight killed his own family, and are allied with orcs, brigands and possibly the Other Black Knight. (relations)
- The Black Knight serve the Unholy Ones, who undoubtedly hide his whereabouts. (master)
- The Black Knight is gathering an army to destroy is former home, the now hated Great Kingdom. (current activities)
The Dark Lady
- The Dark Lady is a beautiful fallen angel, now cast out of heaven. (origins)
- She is sleeping deep underground, awaiting her imminent return to the surface world. (location)
- The angels fear her, the Unholy Ones hates her, and the orcs wait for her to set them free. (relations)
- The Dark Lady has rejected her master, but the Lords of Heaven taught her. (master)
- She is currently sleeping, growing in power, and feeding on sacrifices. (current activities)
For another example, let us ask the same questions about our fantasy tropes the elves, dwarves, and orcs. I like dwarves, girls love the elves and orcs are just badass, so I want them in my world. The problem is that they are overdone after 50 years of fantasy fiction, so I have to make sure they are adequately embedded in the world if I want to include them at all.
So again I’ll try to answer some of the questions above.
- The elves come from another world at the dawn of time. (origins)
- They live in the forests northeast of the Great Kingdom. (location)
- They are friendly with the Northmen, uneasy with the Great Kingdom and at war with the orcs. (relations)
- The elves do not worship gods but revere their ancestors. (master)
- The elves’ great undertaking is constructing a magic Crystal Gate that connects this world and their origin world. (current activities)
- The dwarves are native to this world and have an affinity for earth and stone. (origin)
- They live in the mountains of the Great Kingdom. (location)
- The dwarves are friendly to the Great Kingdom, enemies with the Northmen and hate the elves passionately. (relations)
- The Elemental Titans taught the dwarves and later betrayed them after the demons corrupted them. (master)
- The dwarves are skilled alchemists and merchants, with safe and profitable underground trade routes. (livelihood)
- The orcs are native to this world, and evil forces corrupted them. (origins)
- The orcs live beyond the eastern mountains and push westward through underground tunnels. (location)
- They are hostile to just about everyone, except for southern raiders who supply them alchemical goods. (relations)
- The orcs serve the Unholy Ones; ancient gods bent on destruction. (master)
- The orcs live on raiding and are preparing for another major attack on the elves. (current activities)
So are these the characters you want to your story? Sounds bland? Ask more and better questions! Another round of question will dig deeper and hopefully reveal something worth keeping.
- Why did the Black Knight kill his own family?
- Why did demons corrupt the Elemental Titans?
- Why was the Dark Lord cast out of Heaven?
- What is the relationship between the Dark Lord and the Unholy Ones?
- What happens if a Crystal Gate malfunctions?
- What do the dwarves think about the Dark Lord sleeping in their beloved underground?
- Who is the scariest, the Unholy Ones, the corrupted Elemental Titans or the Dark Lord?
- What is the relationship between the Arcane Order and the Lords of Heaven?
- Why does the Great Kingdom tolerate the southern raiders?
Sound familiar? Change the answer if it does not satisfy. Still bland? Maybe I should reconsider adding them to my world. You can make an informed decision once you have run out of questions.
Feeling overwhelmed? That is a warning sign. Info dumps are not good storytelling. Explain what you need to get the story moving. Explain the rest as needed.
“Never Explain Anything.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
“Facts” is another thing to consider when presenting the world. Facts can be tricky, even in the real world, and even more so in an imaginary world.
It is probably a good idea to establish facts when you create your world. Who killed whom, and when. What is the favorite cuisine of Sea Princes of the South? Are the orcs green-skinned or grey skinned, or both and why?
The presentation, on the other hand, does not necessarily need to all be factual. Unreliable narrators are a way to tell the story where the story cannot be trusted as it is presented.
For example, in the computer game Dragon Age II, the story is told in a framed narrative told by the dwarf Varric. We still do not know what happened by the time we have finished the game dozens of hours later. We only know what Varric tell us. Another trick from the Dragon Age franchise is writing the setting codices with an in-setting voice. You never know what is true, unless you experience it firsthand with your in-game protagonist and even them facts may be unclear.
Another example is the Elminster’s Notes in the first edition Forgotten Realms books, where Elminster gives us his take on the world we read about. His thoughts. Elminster many not be a guy to be trusted.
Unreliable narrators are also a valuable GM tool. They are essential both because NPCs are not all-knowing, and the GM may have a poor memory. You can make up stuff and not care whether it is true!
In hindsight, I would have followed the same approach today as I did when I first started. Starting small and focusing on only what I need is good advice. Background and details will stack up quickly anyway once you get started.
Still, there are two things I would have done differently.
First, making a huge picture at the beginning. Nothing elaborate, but perhaps a continent sketch with regions and significant geographical features. This is helpful because this makes sure your starting area will fit later additions when you consider the trade, climate, technology and so on.
This defines the starting area and highlights differences from later areas. If you do not give this any thought, you might end up with a bland version of medieval Europe everywhere, when you, in fact, wanted distinct regions with seafaring Northmen in one area, holy knights in the second area, grubby merchant princes in the third area, and so on.
Second, I would have cut more tropes at the start. I used the basic D&D 1983-version starting out with few changes. Which means gnomes, halflings, flying carpets, fly and teleport spells, djinnis and all kinds of stuff that does not fit my later idea of a cool and gritty sword and sorcery world.
Sure, nothing retcons can’t fix, but getting it right the first time around is better.
- Your First Dungeons & Dragons Game
- Creating Fantasy Maps
- Creating a Fantasy Setting
- Fantasy Races For Your Roleplaying Game
- Creating Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starting Areas
The Reading List
Philip Athans’ The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction: 6 Steps to Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller! (2010) by Phil Athans is a good read for anyone interested in writing fantasy. Athans is a familiar name for anyone reading Forgotten Realms novels.
Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy’s Writing Fiction for Dummies (2009) is worth checking out if you are looking for an all-in-one guide to the basics of writing fiction. It covers a lot of ground for a newbie writer like me.
Speaking of Varric and Dragon Age, Bioware and Bioware writer Mary Kirby will in the summer 2018 release Varric’s book Hard in Hardtown. Judging by the in-game codexes, it should be a hard-boiled crime story about city guardsmen investors set in Kirkwall. The main characters are likely to be Varric’s version of game companion Aveline and her husband, Donnic. Obviously, I have not read the book as I write this, and Bioware may now have pushed the joke beyond the breaking point, but the book is probably worth checking out.
Roleplaying Game Books
For game books I come up with three alternatives, although only the first is satisfying from a world building perspective, at least when you consider the page count:
The World Builder’s Guidebook (1996) by Rich Baker is worth checking out for anyone interesting in building a gaming world. The books offer 96 pages of solid advice on world building and a booklet of worksheets and map grids. Although it is an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons book, the game references are minimal. This book is for designing the world, regardless of system.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide (2014) warrants a mention as it is the core book for Dungeons and Dragons game masters. That said, it is surprisingly light on the topic of world building.
The Pathfinder GameMastery Guide (2010) may, in fact, be a slightly better book for world builders.
The two latter books are both excellent, but your mileage may vary depending on your game system of choice.