So you want to build a world, eh? Create a reality from scratch? Play god for a little bit? Perhaps you're writing a novel, making a game, or just doing this for your own enjoyment? Whatever your reasons may be, you've come to the right place! I am your host, the fabulously charismatic (and not to mention handsome) Blitz! Of course, I am not an expert at this; I am not Tolkien, and I have not published multiple works with my own fantasy world. This guide does what the name implies: it guides. There are really no strict rules when it comes to worldbuilding, but if you really want to make your universe come to life and draw and allure the readers/players, stick with me and we will explore this interesting art together.
This is not a complete guide either, nor is it a step-by-step process to make a flawless, interesting world. A world is not complete without your own input and imagination and tweaks, of course!
This is not a complete guide either, nor is it a step-by-step process to make a flawless, interesting world. A world is not complete without your own input and imagination and tweaks, of course!
You've Done This Before...
As members of the RPG community, all of us have participated in worldbuilding to some extent, especially if you've created a roleplay of your own. Nation RP's probably require the most in-depth immersion, but any roleplay involves original elements created and utilized by the writer. It doesn't matter how many fictional elements are in your story. Unless you're writing a biography or recounting an actual historical reference with little to no creative liberties, then you've created your own world—to an extent.
The Reality Spectrum
All stories fall somewhere on what I like to call "The Reality Spectrum." It other words, it's a loose way of measuring how closely a story resembles the reality in which we live and are familiar with. On one end of the spectrum, you have real-world history, facts, biographies, etc. These are stories that are real, that actually happened (as far as we know, anyway), and accurately represent this reality. On the other end of the spectrum, we have something completely bizarre: a universe with different laws of physics, where absolutely nothing is familiar and everything is rooted within fiction. The latter end of the spectrum is actually quite hard, or basically impossible to achieve, as most things that our minds can imagine are rooted in reality in some way, even if it's just the fact that the characters in your story are speaking in English.
A good story usually falls somewhere in the middle. The human mind loves things that are familiar, but it also loves things that are novel. Let me give some examples.
The book To Kill A Mockingbird is fictional yet historically accurate. Basically it "could have" happened in real life, but didn't actually happen. This is the first step down the spectrum.
Games like the Elder Scrolls series or Final Fantasy take place in Earth-like settings. There are trees, grass, oceans, the geographically accurate to an extent. There are humans, and they speak familiar languages. But the settings themselves are made up and other fantastical elements are employed: magic, gods, monsters, etc.
Universes even farther down the reality spectrum would be Adventure Time, where nothing seems to make sense—but even there, there are elements that we are familiar with!
What I'm getting at here is that you have to decide where your world falls. You're here to worldbuild, so already you're starting somewhere that isn't Earth... Right?
Is your planet relatively Earth-like, with humans, with only mild fantastical elements?
Or is your story about a world filled with volcanoes and lava, inhabited by sentient dragon beings?
This is something you have to decide yourself.
With that in mind, you need to create the setting. After all, what good is worldbuilding without a world to build? In theory, your "world" could be as small as a single character and the environment that they experience themselves. It could be a village, a region, an entire continent, a whole planet, or a universe. As the creator, usually you want to start with the biggest possible area you're comfortable dealing with, and then working down, going macro to micro. Examine the following list; you can pick anywhere on the list to start, and then work down the list from that point.
The Universe: Let's say it's basically the same as ours, filled with stars, quasars, galaxies, solar systems, planets. Perhaps life is more proliferated throughout. There isn't much room for variation at this level unless you have something really creative in mind.
The Planet: I skipped stages like "galaxy" and "solar system" because in most cases that don't involve interplanetary and interstellar travel planets other than the one you're focusing on aren't exactly relevant except in a superstitious or cosmological sense. It's up to you. Is your planet habitable? Hopefully it is... Is it rather hot or rather cold? Is it big or small? Does it have any moons or natural satellites? Does it have rings? Hell, you can even consider things like magnetic fields and plate tectonics if you're really into that.
The Continent: The main landmass where the story takes place. Could be a supercontinent or one of many smaller continents. Hell, it could even be a relatively small island. It's probably useful to catalogue and make minor notes of other continents in your world. People tend to travel and you'll want to account for that. But if you don't plan on ever visiting them in your narrative, it's safe to not flesh them out as much as your main landmass. At this level or the following level it may become useful to begin to put together a rough map of what the area looks like. Make it only a rough map! Don't worry about the nitty gritty of intricate geographical features yet. Have fun with it! (More on maps later)
The Region: This is an umbrella term. It's basically anything smaller than a continent but bigger than a city. It could be a country, a kingdom, a province, a state, even something like "East of the Nile River." You'll usually want to describe all regions within your landmass relatively equally, since we're zooming in on our scale now and the complexity and interconnectedness increases. Have an idea of what the climate/geography of each region is, how populous/cosmopolitan/urbanized they are, any local cultures native to each region, etc. Does the climate or geography impact the culture or what races inhabit the area? Also think about how the regions are connected to one another. Are they independent, all having their own ruler? Are they all territories of an overarching empire? Is one region at war with another? If so, why? How were the borders of each region drawn? Are there people in one region who wish to be part of another? You don't need to be too picky on the details yet, but just have a general idea in mind. It's details like these that add the spice to your world.
The Cities and the People: Think of the major cities of each region, and what kind of people/humanoids inhabit them. Also consider the relationships between differing ethnic groups. Think about what major landmarks exist in each city, as well as the infrastructure. What is the city's industry/source of income? Is it better for farming? Fishing? Tourism? Is it more of a rest-stop for travelers? Who governs the city? Are the citizens content with the city? Is it well managed or crumbling? Also think about why things are the way they are. Why was this city built at the junction of two rivers instead of at the main river delta further downstream? Is a city built on one side of a mountain because it receives more rain? But again, don't go into too much detail yet. Throughout all of worldbuilding, the question "why?" is very important, I daresay more important than asking "how".
The Character and the Conflict: Your protagonist should have the highest level of detail at this point, as, after all, they are the focus of your story. Know their life history, their personality, and how their life has shaped their personality. Know their opinions, their feelings, their emotions; become your character. This, of course, is something most of us here at the Guild do regularly, so this probably isn't too hard. However, if your narrative doesn't exactly revolve around any one protagonist, that's fine! But—you always want a conflict. And I don't just mean war. A conflict is simply a problem that is desirable to be resolved... It could be as simple and as cheesy as a peasant male who wants to win the heart of the local princess or something like that. Storytelling isn't the art of recounting epic adventures always. Your type of conflict also dictates how much of your world you need to develop; in my example of the peasant male in love with the princess, you probably don't need to work out the entire history of the kingdom, the pantheon of gods, blah blah blah. Unless you want to! And especially if those things are relevant to the storyline. Perhaps the peasant seeks the help of a certain god for help? It's up to you! Again, at the end of the day, you have the final say of what goes in the world. You're the one who makes or breaks it.
The relationship between character, setting, and conflict is crucial. The conflict and character determine how much of the world you need to develop. The setting impacts your character and the way the live and influences how the conflict even came to be. They're all connected and lie at the heart of building your world. Once you get an idea of this, then you can move on.
Tools You Can Use
Pencil and Paper
Nothing beats the rustic and organic feel of hunkering down and cracking out a pencil and paper and drawing a map for yourself. It's actually a wonderful tool for getting the creative juices flowing and you have literally no limit except the borders of the paper. However there are a couple issues with this; for one, humans aren't perfect. Chances are you're going to make mistakes and your map can only take so many eraser stains. If you're an artist, drawing a map could be a cheap, fun breeze. But if you're like me, and your hand-drawn maps looks like something a kindergartner could think up, basically an amoeba with rivers scarring its surface... Well, this may not be the best of options.
Coastlines and fractal-like natural features that really bring a map to life can be hard to emulate as well. Of course, there are some solutions for this. One creative thing I've seen is to take small objects, like beans for example, and scatter them on your page. Clump them and arrange them however you wish. Then take your pencil and trace around the edges of the clumps of beans; this well create a random and rugged-looking coastline, possibly with some islands nearby!
If you're a bad artist with a tight budget; fret not! There are still plenty of computer-aided tools that are 100% free at your disposal if you know where to look. However no online tool has all of the freedom that drawing your own map does, but they can really help to inspire some creativity if you're looking for some.
Inkarnate (May be picky depending on your browser)
Inkarnate is a wonderful, free, online tool that only requires account creation to utilize. With this tool, you start with a blank canvas of open ocean and can add land to your heart's content; after this, you can add terrain contours and then some images such as trees, mountains, markers, and text to bring it to life. The biggest downfall of this tool, however, is that land-shaping is quite hard. You are forced to choose between circular of hex brushes when painting land/sea, and the size of the brush. It's hard to paint a pretty coastline unless you use very small brushes and take your time sculpting the coast inch by inch. Also, as far as I know, there is no "river" tool, and rivers must be crafted by hand, by "deleting" a thin sliver of land with the brush tool turning it into water and trying to make it look nice. I gotta say though, this effort can really make the map look great if you take your time and focus with the coast and rivers. After that, the rest is cake.
This site is awesome y'all. This link will take you to a fractal world map generator, which, when given some starting parameters and a randomizing seed number, will generate a gorgeous world map that looks pretty damn real. The site is also filled with all kinds of other fantasy world tools, like demographic/dungeon/name generators, and more. As a bit of warning, this is the "fractal world generator." On the site, there is a "fantasy world generator" that is quite similar to this tool. However, the "fantasy world generator" often crashes and leads to an error page and only works a fraction of the time for very little benefit over the regular "fractal world generator."
This is a little-known map generating er... demo thing I found. The controls of it are a little odd and I don't understand 97% of the code talk that the author is explaining, but it's certainly worth toying around with and seeing what kind of results you get. This tool is especially good at fractal erosion, creating long, winding rivers, and placing cities in logical locations on the map. A strategy I used to use with this is create a map here, but then use it as a model to recreate and bring it to life with another tool like Inkarnate.
We often don't want to pay for things nowadays, but the general rule is that if you pay for something you get more in return. So pay-to-use mapmaking software is something worth including here.
Photoshop is basically like MS Paint but so much more powerful. I've personally never used Photoshop to create a map but it's definitely possible. Try searching YouTube for some helpful tutorials on how to use this application to create fantasy maps; there are many methods for doing so. I would recommend using a tablet with this software as using your mouse at this level would probably be quite tedious.
Fractal Terrains 3 (Link won't work in Chrome, I think.)
FF3 is an amazing software. At the touch of a button, it generates entire worlds before your eyes. The damn program even generates climate, rainfall, altitude, and temperature data. You can add textured climate overlays and a cloud overlay to basically make the map look like a satellite image. The app can even generate realistic rivers based on rainfall and altitude gradients. If you don't like the world in front of you, you can edit it yourself or generate a completely new one. The major downfall to this app is despite how powerful it is, generating worlds is all it does. You CAN'T add cities or label it... As far as I know. Hell, even if you're not worldbuilding, it's just fun to play with!
Campaign Cartographer 3 (Also won't work in Chrome, I believe.)
Made by the same company as FF3, CC3 offers basically everything that FF3 doesn't. In CC3, you can draw maps, add and label cities with beautiful artwork... The best news is that FF3 can export its map into CC3; so if you have both, you literally have the best of both worlds. If done right, you can make some amazing maps with this software. It is easy to learn, but impossible to master though, so I'd recommend googling some tutorials on how to fully utilize it.
If you're anything like me, then you're a snob when it comes to geography. Unless your universe has different laws of physics, the geography should be accurate... If not, there should at least be some kind of explanation. I understand, yes, we all want to make floating castles or cover a plain with huge, looming rock arches that don't really make sense but look cool. That's fine, and that's not what I'm exactly talking about.
I mean to say if you want your map to look realistic, you have to emulate Earth in a bit. Mountains occur in ridges and are the backbone of a continent, not just randomly spread throughout. Rivers flow downhill until it either reaches a body of water or is absorbed into the ground/dried up. Rivers also rarely split into two streams. Tributaries are when two separate rivers join into one, not one splitting into two. (The biggest exception is river deltas, but those are caused by river sedmient forming land that forces the river to be split by default because it forms in the middle). Mountains also drastically effect climate depending on which ways they run. Also you obviously cannot place a desert (arid/warm) right next to a jungle (rainy/hot) and an arctic tundra (arid/cold) unless you have some kind of magic/curse/crazy geographical reason for it. Referring back to the reality spectrum, your map doesn't have to be perfect and 100% accurate... You can have floating castles if you want! Just base it enough in reality that it still looks appealing and somewhat relatable.
Naming isn't that big of a deal really, but adding names to regions, towns, places, and people can be fun and meaningful. For the most part, make sure names reflect the local culture. For example, a desert oasis town inhabited by lizard-men, and scimitar-weilding, robes-wearing human hunters should have a name reminiscent of Earthly cultures in similar locations, such as Arabic. "McDougal" probably wouldn't be a good name, whereas "Matruuk" (an actual Arabic word) sounds much more appropriate. Please, please, for the love of all that is holy, don't go crazy with the apostrophes. "Ka'jami'ik'b'laer" is both unpronounceable and ugly to look at. Remember that, well, at least in English, an apostrophe represents a contraction of a longer word and is therefore not pronounced, or represents a glottal stop: "Maal" is one syllable (maaahl), whereas Ma'al would be two syllables (mah-ahl). But this is really only just a personal pet peeve of mine, so follow what your mind tells you to do.
Diversity and Culture
With different people comes different cultures. And they don't live on Earth, so expect them to have some different beliefs and stories than us.
History and Mythology
This is sometimes the hardest part and the easiest aspect that wordbuilders want to ignore or "let develop on its own." After all, history is a long time usually. And there's oftentimes so many differing viewpoints to it and so many things happening simultaneously that it's easy to get lost within it. But having a world history can definitely add some spice. Depending on how technologically developed your world is, it may have either a scientific or superstitious view on the origins of your world. How was the planet and landmasses formed? Did the tears of a god form the oceans or was it caused by the cooling of the atmosphere? What is the origin of humans, other races, and magic? What is the history of the kingdoms and wars and what were their effects? What parts of history were forgotten, forcibly erased, manipulated and rewritten? What parts of history are disputed (usually most are)? Be sure to write all of your ideas down so you don't forget!
This can be an important one, depending on what type of world you're creating. It's up to you to decide what factions/races believe in what. Is there a pantheon of gods? Are they actually real and influence the world actively or are they merely just beliefs? Are there demigods? Do humans and elves believe in the same set of deities?
Also remember religion is something people can be fervent for. Wars have literally been fought over religion and other beliefs. In Skyrim, the banning of Talos worship is essentially what sparked a civil war. I mean, think of the Crusades or jihads. They are religiously ideological wars.
This is something obvious but worth mentioning. Is your world inhabited solely by humans as the dominant intelligent race? Or are there others. You can incorporate "typical" mythical creatures such as elves, dwarves, etc. Keep in mind that races often have their own cultures and beliefs, and perhaps even within races there are different factions and beliefs. Think of how in Skyrim, Nords and Imperials are both essentially human but are quite different. Also remember, and this is an unfortunate fact, racism exists. Humans are perhaps untrusting of elves. There may be pogroms. There may be untrue stereotypes.
Legends and Misconceptions
People disagree. People talk. Not all legends are true. Not all people within the same religion necessarily believe the same thing. Some people are most superstitious than others. This seems obvious being told to you, but this is a factor so often forgotten when writing a story. Perhaps there are humans that believe that elves are demon-human hybrids, others who believe elves are genetic mutants of humans. That sort of thing. You, as the creator, don't even need to explicitly state what is true. It's the mystery that makes it fun. Skyrim, again, has a good example of this. Many people, specifically the Nords of Skyrim, believe Tiber Septim achieved feats so monumental that upon death he ascended to godhood, achieving divinity under the name Talos. However the High Elves are offended by his worship and don't believe this happened; some believe worship of Talos takes away the due worship deserved by the other eight Divines. There is dispute, disagreement... This is typical of many cultures.
Magic and Alchemy
An important aspect included in many fantasy worlds. Magic can span from anything from spells to superpowers. If you're making a game, it's important to come up with some kind of system for your magic that places reasonable limitations and guidelines for usage. If it's just part of your story, though, that may not be as necessary. Magic and spells are often divided into classes or schools, such as Elemental magic and Illusion magic, that sort of thing. Always remember to include people's opinions of magic. Is it something that is feared by some people? Is it a commonplace talent? Is it a renowned blessing and powerful gift only held by a few? What is the origin of magic in your world? How useful is it and what is the potential of magic? Does it have any weaknesses?
Technology and Weaponry
Considering the technology within your world is crucial. Perhaps some cities/regions are more developed and richer than others. Final Fantasy 15 showcases a world that is quite technologically advanced, with cars and modern cities, towns, and rest-stops, yet does not lose that fantasy feel. Do not be afraid of including technology in your world. It doesn't have to be all wooden villages and candlelight. Also consider the weaponry in your world. Are battles done mostly with sword and steel? Or by guns, machines, explosives and lazers? Or by magic? Or a combination of all of them? The weaponry is also defined by the technology. Final Fantasy 15, again, includes sword, firearm, and magical combat, so don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.
Let The Imagination Flow!
That's it folks! Put on your thinking caps and get to work at creating. It may take a couple of times and you may lose motivation, but honestly, sometimes ideas that say drab or old to you because you've seen them so much are still novel to the people you are going to show it to. And always remember, you ar the boss of your world.
I will log any important edits I make here. Feel free to comment and point out anything that's missing (or errant) and that you think I should add or fix. Good luck and I hope this guide at least a tiny bit helpful for y'all!
- Dec. 28, 2016 - Grammar