Published on July 25th, 2016 | by Luke Turpeinen3
Building Your Own World
Many tabletop gamers at some point decide to make their own world or setting. Gamers may decide to create new settings because they are going to start a new role-playing game and want an original world to adventure in, or because they are creating a board game and want its theme to have depth, or because they want to create some other fiction like a comic or novel based on ideas generated through gaming and reading. No matter how you get interested in it, world building can be a very satisfying part of game production- or just fun by itself!
During world building you will need to determine the size and scope of your world, who inhabits it, and what makes it interesting. Size refers to the geographical area of your “world”- which can be anything from a city to a country, a planet, the galaxy, a multiverse… whatever suits the needs of your game. Scope refers to the breadth of time that you will flesh out- will you show just one era of the world, or is its rise out of the modern era going into the age of space colonization part of the setting? Who inhabits it refers to all of the human and non-human entities, and groups, that make up the societies of the world.
World Building Games
Before we get really into what it takes to start organizing your thoughts while world building, let’s take a look at a tabletop game that already exists that may help you out. The story game Microscope by Ben Robbins is a group-based world building game. In Microscope you build a story collaboratively– but not cooperatively. As in, each player is contributing ideas to the same world, but aren’t really working together as much as you’re working along side each other.
For example: Player A could introduce a character to the world that is really important, which Player B then kills off with their next action. Thankfully, Microscope is also non-linear and pretty well fractal, so just because you know how your character dies doesn’t mean you can’t plan out all the rest of his/her life between the point where they’re introduced to the moment they perish. The main draw of a game like Microscope is that it allows people with slightly different ideas of where to take a setting to add their ideas, with clear rules on what can or can-not be done/added/changed. I’ve found this especially useful for coming up with RPG settings, as the players really get invested in the world when they help create it.
If your game does not cover a very large “world” or a large span of time, you may consider using a different world building method. Another story game by Ben Robbins, Kingdom is a game where you work through the problems of a community. Together players establish a lightly defined world (old west town, medieval castle, starship) as well as a major and a couple of minor problems and attempt to solve them. There are only a couple rules, but those that exist force very rigid restrictions on what you can narrate on your turn.
Kingdom is much more linear than Microscope is- there isn’t any of the fractal back-and-forth, and stories play out more like a TV show or book. It’s actually one of my favorite RPGs to hand off to new players, as the minimal (but strict) rules are easy for newbies to understand, and help make a more dynamic community. Though like Microscope, it’s good to remember that the goal is to make stories that are interesting, not necessarily to find a way for your character to “win”. Kingdom would be a good way to establish a complicated status quo for your characters to challenge.
Size & Scope
The first thing that you need to do when building a world is deciding how “big” conceptually it will be. When making a fantasy setting, for example, you may decide that you want to flesh out the entire globe, but only detailing a small part of that world is also perfectly fine. Even great fantasy authors that spend an enormous amount of effort on their worlds don’t show the whole world’s geography most of the time (Tolkien, Lewis and Martin f’rex), despite having thousands of years of history in the parts they do cover. So don’t think you have to have a story for every nook and cranny- determine the part that is important for what you’re doing and stick to that.
If the stories you want to tell are mostly about a group of adventurers going from hamlet to village, righting wrongs and slaying monsters that live in ruined castles, then you probably don’t need to know much about the geography of the whole world. On the other hand, it’d probably be prudent to know when those castles were built, why they were built and by whom. So even though you don’t need to nail down a lot of land features, you’ll want to know the history of the area. A different story- about astronauts discovering uninhabited worlds, say- would instead call for a focus on land/space features over historical features.
We’ll go into map making more in-depth later, but there are a couple of basic ideas for a terrestrial world that you’ll want to know before getting too far into the process. You’ll probably have an easy time making continent shapes, and the first step after that is to add mountains, rivers and large lakes. Rivers come from multiple mountains, and converge before emptying into the sea (they don’t split until they hit a delta plain). Mountains prevent rain from going over them, so one side is usually more dry than the other.
Cities tend to be built next to trade routes, which can mean anywhere with a good harbor (preferably a bay of some sort), or any where that two trade routes cross each other. Where a river meets the sea, where a road meets a river, or where a big road meets another important road are other good spots for a city. Villages will pop up whenever it takes longer than a day to travel from one location to another, as someone will eventually decide to add an Inn on the road to serve travelers. Thus is a kingdom built over time.
Interesting People & Places
No matter the size and scope of your world, you’re going to want to populate it with exotic scenery and wondrous people. The way I fill out these parts of the world is by first determining what kinds of homes people have, and what kinds of allegiances they enforce between each other. Many cultures consider a person’s most basic needs to be their individual responsibility, within the perimeters of the culture. Factions arise to fill the additional needs of a group, and for most governments this need is one of defense or protection. Once that need is met, more factions (often times sub-factions or off-shoots) will arise in response to other needs of the group.
Again, this principle is scalable- a fantasy community protects its villagers from raiders or monsters, while a galactic empire protects its citizens from other empires and rebel insurgents. Really, you can go right on up Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs when writing up your setting, adding in various organizations to fill those needs as you go.
As mentioned, the City Guard or the Imperial Army could take up the cause of defending the realm (safety). Maybe a family group or a clan, neighborhood or small religious community could give characters in your world a sense of belonging. Churches, adventuring groups, employers or nobility might lead to characters gaining honor or prestige. Which organizations you add to your setting in order to fill these needs will largely define the tone off your world.