How To Build a World: The Basics

Geek Culture

Kids love to build their own worlds. They do it without prompting as they “play pretend” with toys and with one another, but some excel and go on to greatness. Everyone takes joy in a good story, but one that is set in a dynamic, believable world really stands out.

When he was a young boy, C.S. Lewis and his brother created the world of Boxen, inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. Lewis later went on to integrate many of his childhood creations into his Narnia books. At age 8, Ed Greenwood wrote of the “stoic swordsman Durnan, the blustering old rogue Mirt, and the all-wise, ancient wizard Elminster.” Today, those denizens of the Forgotten Realms are familiar to millions of Dungeons and Dragons players worldwide. Both authors are well-known for their stories, but they’re even more renowned for the worlds that they created.

Since August is World Building Month and I’ve been hard at work on creating the setting for my new D&D campaign, I’ll be detailing the hobby, discussing some well-known created worlds, and outlining some tools and tricks that modern worldbuilders can use to craft their own imaginary universes. Read on for an introduction to the basics.

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So, why build a world? For GeekDads (and moms), this is a great opportunity to spend some engaging creative time with your kids. If you have a kid who is involved in a roleplaying game like D&D, this is also a wonderful way to put them into the Dungeon Master seat and let them tell some stories of their own.

One other thing I’ve noticed in my years of world building: creating a new universe makes you ask questions about your own universe. Whether it’s philosophical quandaries about gods and warfare, or curiosity about real-world historical events, building your own world inevitably teaches you an awful lot about your own.

Now, the level of detail for your freshly-minted world depends on the age and attention spans of your participants. My own son, at two years, isn’t quite ready for a cohesive gazetteer-style “world bible”—he’s content to build tiny, throw-away worlds consisting of his toy cars and the garage the cars inhabit—but your mileage may vary.

Before you begin, you should think about your approach. The two basic philosophies for creating a world are the “outside-in” and the “inside-out” methods. I’ve found that your personality and how you plan on using the world itself will determine the best method for you to use.

Outside-In: Start at the top and paint your world in broad strokes. Create a map that outlines all major continents of the planet, define the nations, determine climate and race, touch on religion and myth and creation.

After you’re done with the big stuff, focus on the details. What cities or towns exist within the nations that you created earlier? Create a time line and find out what happened during the Second Age of Man. You put a snowdrift on your map, smack dab in the middle of the otherwise-arid Desert of Drer. Why?

The benefit to the outside-in approach is that your world is very well-defined and cohesive. This makes for fewer plot holes and more realism.

While this completism is certainly satisfying for many, the drawback is that it takes time. A lot of time. There’s a reason why Wikipedia has nearly 2.5 million articles. A world that has seen even just a few hundred years of history will have thousands of notable people, places, and things. If that seems like a bit too much work, then the inside-out approach is for you.

Focus instead on one location of the world and give it as much detail as you can. Along the way, develop back stories and personality for important figures and features of the world.

Areas and individuals outside of your initial area are blurry and out-of-focus for now. When you need those parts of the world—usually when characters in your roleplaying campaign or stories reach them—you’ll have to flesh them out in more detail.

Benefits? It’s easier, for sure, and it’s more efficient. If no one ever makes it to the Steppes of Jarkas to investigate the evil temple of the Blind God, then aren’t you glad you never wrote up ten pages of descriptions? By focusing on the starting area, you can also hop right into the action.

Sometimes, though, when you don’t prepare information ahead of time, you can feel rushed to detail new locales and the world can begin to feel inconsistent. If your characters somehow make a side trek to that temple, you haven’t put a lot of thought into this Blind God fellow, so unless you’re good at adapting and improvising, the whole scene might fall flat.

Both methods have their ups and downs, and many people feel that a combination of the two is the best approach. Start with an overview but don’t worry about details for every little thing. Then switch over to inside-out mode and focus on the part of the world that really strikes your fancy.

Regardless of how you begin, focus on milestones. Try not to get sidetracked by each detail that you come upon. I have a hard time following this advice myself and it can be very time consuming. You find yourself discussing the world’s pantheon, only to be distracted by a specific god or goddess. Unless you leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs, you might find yourself utterly lost within your own creation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it’s not very effective at getting your world fully fleshed out.

You don’t need to be as compulsive as Tolkien, inventing everything down to the genealogies and languages of Middle Earth’s inhabitants. When Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman set about establishing the fantasy world of the Dragonlance novels, they took some cues from the Good Professor. They also realized that the modern reader doesn’t really care that the Quenya language has ten basic vowels, six diphthongs, and uses the Tengwar alphabet. Thus the elven languages of Dragonlance were developed with less philological fervor.

Focus on the things that interest you. Tolkien loved his languages, so he started there and built up cultures around them. If you like warfare, start with an epic battle and then figure out who was fighting who and what they were fighting about. If you like magical weapons, start with a cool artifact and then create a back story. Fascinated with monsters? Dragons are a good place to begin.

Next up in the series, some major questions you should ask about your world as you go about creating it, and some tools you can use to organize your burgeoning world.

See also:
How to Build a World, Part 2: Questions to Ask
How to Build a World, Part 3: Working with Wikis

Photos by Nicole and Albert!

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