World building doesn’t necessarily have to start with the map, and with that in mind I came up with a short list to get me started on building my own. If you are also interested in creating your own worlds, kingdoms, or settlements for your campaign, this may be of some use to you. Also, if you are interested in the typical medieval setting, you might find my other post, The Medieval period in role-playing games interesting as well. It mainly consists of some useful resources to assist in creating more realistic Medieval period/Middle Ages role-playing game kingdoms, settlements, and/or characters.
The idea for this post here, however, is to get some of the main elements of world building covered which can, on their own, be enough to get started writing stories about or role-playing within the world. The following questions are in no particular order but can feasibly be covered from top to bottom without much trouble.
1. What natural resources are available and where are they located?
What wildlife exists within the world, where they can be found, and how the people have found a use for them, if at all? Also, the presence of fertile farmlands, or lack thereof, and how that affects the growth of surrounding areas. Or alternatively, is there also a gathering lifestyle present? Where can minerals be found and how they are gathered? Finally, how abundant or depleted the resources of the world are is another element we can consider.
2. What different races and cultures are there and what languages are spoken?
This will be where we decide if our world just has humans or if it is split into many diverse fantasy races such as Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Halflings, and whatnot. Then regardless of what we’ve decided, what distinct cultures apply to our selected races and what unique languages do they speak? Is there also a common language between all peoples? Are there those who are the offspring of two dissimilar races? Do the different races mingle or do they strictly keep to their own realms? These are just a few things to consider.
3. What countries are there, what governments rule them, and how do they all fit together?
Now we look at things such as what forms of government there are in each country, what classes (ranks and titles) are used, what services the governments provide for the people, and what dues the people owe the government in return. Also, what are foreign relations like and what affect do they have on other aspects like commerce and trade? What is considered a crime and how does the legal systems work? This sounds rather broad but all we really need at this point is a basic outline of anything important to note.
4. What is the history of the world and how much of it is known?
Just a number of important historic events will be enough for this, but we can also go into more depth such as whether or not the people were created by gods, evolved from other beings, or migrated from another place, when and where their civilisations began, how the people spread, and how they recorded their history. Also, do the people of our world know the “true” history of the world and its creation or do they have their own myths and legends?
5. What industries are there and how is business conducted?
For example, we might have different cities, regions, or races that specialise in various crafts, process, or products, and we will have to define what is used to conduct exchanges such as a standard currency. Also, what industries are important, in what areas are they found, and what resources or goods are commonly exported and imported? These industries can include mining, fishing, lumber, farming, or manufacturing, just to name a few.
Another thing we can consider is how business is organised – through trade unions, guild structure, corporations spanning a number of realms, etc. All we need are the basics for now and we can build on the rest as the world evolves.
6. What methods of transportation and communication are used?
Common things to think about are be what kind of animals and/or vehicles are used within settlements and to move between them. Also, how water will be distributed and how news travels around the realms are other items that may pop up in your role-playing or writing. Similarly, where will travellers stay and how are messages and items sent between people, businesses, etc.? Are there books and libraries and, if so, who writes them?
7. What religions and/or philosophies do the people follow?
Depending on what we decide, there can be a lot to cover, including questions such as: are there gods or being similar to gods that are revered, or unknown, and are these gods active, do they require worship and, if so, in what form? Also, are there a number of different religions in the world and if there are, how are they different or similar? The same can apply to philosophies and what philosophers have done and currently do. It all depends on what kind of system we get going.
8. What is the level of technology in the world and what scientific knowledge has been acquired?
One way we can approach this is to think of a period in our own history in terms of technological advancement and use that as a guide. If that is too broad a timeline to start working with, we can narrow it down by simply asking ourselves a couple of questions – do steam engines exist? Are firearms a part of the world and at what level are they? Or are we near the present, with computers and the internet? Or somewhere in the future with a whole host of advanced technology only dreamed of today?
9. What types of magic are there, if any, and how are they governed?
Here we decide how much magic is in our world and how readily available it is – that is, can almost anyone learn it with enough training or can only those born with such a “gift” be able to use it? Additionally, we can use this opportunity to explain where our magic comes from, such as drawing energy from another plane, and how the general populace feels about the use of this magic. Another thing we can consider is also the degree of magic, or how powerful it can potentially be – can the most powerful sorcerer or wizard call down meteors or simply cast a ray of burning light? What is the cost, if any, of using this magic and how spells are actually cast are a couple of other things to consider.
10. What is the daily life of the people like and what do they do to get by?
What kind of society do our characters live in? Is there anything different about the everyday lives and jobs of the people to what one would naturally expect? Are there any changes in how different professions are viewed that would seem out of the ordinary in any other fantasy setting that we need to explain? Here we could just write about anything regarding the lives of the people in our world that needs to be noted that hasn’t already been done in the previous questions (if that is required at all).
As you can see, this has been quite a basic list (it is only ten points after all), but this is what I used when I had no idea where to even begin on my world and it did manage to help me keep my random thoughts in order.
Further reading on world building
Finally, here some other, more detailed resources that are useful when world building.
- A Way With Worlds: World Creation Column: A Way With Worlds started on November of 1999 as a weekly column on creating solid continuities and settings in fiction. It ended in October 2001 but the entire list of entries is still available for viewing on this site.
- Creating Fantasy and Science Fiction Worlds: Our world, its physics, geography, environment, biology, and the human cultures and civilizations on it all connect in complex interdependent systems. You don’t have to detail every aspect of your world, nor does your world have to be totally feasible from a purely scientific standpoint. But if your world can reflect some of that complexity it will make your imaginary world more real.
- Designing a Fantasy World: So you’ve decided to design a world. Maybe you’re a budding novelist. Perhaps you produce computer games. Most likely, you’re a GM running a fantasy role playing game. In any case, you feel you need a setting for your adventurous narrative, be it a planet, a continent, or just a city. This article is addressed primarily to those working in a genre-fantasy context, but science fiction authors are not left out.
- Neuroglyph Game’s World Building series: So as I contemplate starting this new world-building project, and considering my long-developing appreciation for mixing genres, the real question comes down to: “What do I want to include in the setting, and where do I draw the line?”