World-building 102: Always have a plan

Posted on Friday, September 12th, 2014 at 15:22

Last time I talked about some of the features that a world needs. This time I’m going to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Unfortunately that means this is a pretty big post, I’ll try and keep it funny.

Why Am I World-building?

That is a very good question, why are you world-building? Authors, and GamesMasters, do this for a variety of reasons, not all of them are necessarily the best reasons to be doing anything.

Thorns map from The Hobbit

This is what started the map in the front of the fantasy book. The Hobbit.

  • Writing a ten book fantasy series and feel you have to have a map, glossary and appendices on the various languages and cultures? You don’t actually, but a lot of readers are starting to expect this, I’ve even heard the classic line “That’s not Fantasy, there isn’t a map in the front!”.
  • You want to make a fantasy world that feels full of hidden details. This is most often the best reason to try world-building, but you don’t have to detail everything to make a world feel rich and sumptuous.
  • Don’t detail everything and the Characters/Players will run straight to the edge of the map. Another great reason to be world-building in detail. Role-playing worlds are often highly detailed, at least at first glance, you’ll soon find that even professionally built worlds still have room for “Here be Dragons”. Of course, where do players want to go and explore? Yeah, you got it…
  • It is essential that this culture has thirty different clans, and I must know the individual colours and heraldic devices of each of the clans so I can write this battle. No, it really isn’t. My guess is you are actually using your world-building to procrastinate writing that battle, but it is possible that you are GRRM and know what you are doing, in which case what are you reading this post for? Haven’t you got characters to kill?
  • The world feels like it already exists, I’m just exploring it a little before I start setting a story there so I know what parts to include and what to gloss over. Personally this is where most world-building rests for me, I see the place in my mind’s eye, but then I have to go in and sanity check the place, make sure the walls stand up straight and the dragons don’t self immolate the first time they fire up the flame-breath.
  • This story is about a Hivven Pact-warrior, I know that much, but I’m not sure yet what a Hivven is, who the Pact is with, or who the ancestral enemy of the Hivven Pact-warrior is. This is a great place to be world-building from, you have a story idea that needs a world to support it and explain it. My favourite sort of world-building, I think.
  • If you have a great idea for a world based off our world, but there’s a couple of changes to history. Possibly the ideal reason to be world-building is the ‘what-if’  or alternate histories. What would the world be like if Poland had repulsed the German invasion with UFO technology, what if the Ottoman Empire had Steampunk technology in the 19th century ruled by Mechanimal AIs, and or if Vlad the Impaler really was a Vampire, would Romania have got entrance to the EU?

Building Towards and Away

When world-building you can break up the building process into two parts.

The first part is building towards a specific goal,  for example if you want to set a story in a world much like medieval Europe, then you can build towards mimicking medieval Europe. You can research European history and cultures and simply change the names and the flags and write a convincing medieval fantasy. It’s really that easy. You can also be building a world to support the specifics of the story (answering the question “what is a Hivven Pact-warrior” for example). To do this you need to think about the world and move through the features of your world asking and answering questions to hone your view. Where and what is Hivven? What is the Pact a Pact-warrior makes? Who are their enemy? What do they eat? What do they wear? Who makes their homes? How are they governed? And so on.

You can think of it as building up the layers of the world towards your goal. You can also work towards a hybrid between two (or more) other ideas, like a cyberpunk wild-west setting, or post-apocalyptic Cthulhu mythos, be as specific as you like in your own notes and thoughts, it is okay to say things like it’s a hybrid of Harry Potter and Star-Wars in your notes, JK and Disney can’t read your notes and sue. Just make sure your final world is different enough to both to be something new (unless you are writing Jedi Academy novels for Disney or something).

Gryphon rider

A griffin rider in full field plate

The second part is building away, you look at your medieval European society and decide that you are going to bring an invasion of Griffin-riding nomads. History has no Griffin-riders, so you will now have to build away from history. You can start by picking a nomadic culture from earth, perhaps the Mongols, or Bedouin, but then you need to think about how that culture must change away from our world considering that their mounts are carnivorous flying animals,  not camels or horses. Would the Bedouin develop silk parachutes and air-drop into battle? Would they perfect the bombing run? How do they keep warm up in the air? Do they have goggles? If the Griffin riders have full air superiority how can the Europeans hope to defend themselves? Would they capture their own Griffins? Would Castles gain thick armoured roofs to towers to protect archers? Or perhaps razor-thin wires strung between turrets. And what about modern thoroughbred horses, would they or the sport of horse racing exist if Griffins hunted wild horses?

Stop for a moment and think before you begin world-building, can you answer these questions?

  • Am I building towards a definite goal, or exploring away from one?
  • Am I building a world to support my story or am I building a world to spark ideas for stories? The first is more important for writers the second for gamers.
  • What parts of my world are similar to, or inspired by, real world cultures or places? Identify what research you need to do and do it, then build towards what you have researched.
  • What parts of my world culture are different to the real world culture, what new questions does that ask and what research do I need to do to get the answers?
  • When will I know to stop? – the answer to that question is discussed below.
  • Of course the most powerful way to use the towards and away technique is to build towards your goal story, but then examine your world and work away for a while. You use the working away to sanity check your world and story, if you have stated that this is a world with magic, does that magic render your story moot? Does it allow the protagonist to solve the plot in the second act , or worse the first? If it does then you might need to remove that magic from the world, or perhaps add a cost that makes it unlikely the hero would choose that route so early in the story.

Gaining An Overview

3 musketeers

What was happening in Paris in 1625? Maybe these fellows know.

From the moment you start work on your world you need to get an overview of your new world. This overview can start very simply, but as time goes on it will get more complex. Your overview begins as just your initial idea (as discussed above), so it might start as “Dark fantasy world based on Colonial America history and Algonquin myth” , “Paris 1625”, or “what would the Middle East look like if the Crusades hadn’t happened?” but as you develop and research the idea you will gain a better idea what that means.

It’s probably worth pointing out that your overview is not necessarily a document (although you can surely do that if you like), but is your impression of the world and what it feels like, looks like and so on. It helps you to see where you are going, identify potential problems or areas of particular interest, and move on in preparing your Setting bible and plotting out your stories.

There are two basic ways to proceed with world building from your basic overview, one is a Top-Down approach, which I’ll discuss further down, the other, and in my mind more important, because of my years of role-playing games is Bottom-up building.

Building From The Bottom-Up

In a role-playing game bottom-up building happens all the time. Here’s an example:

Medieval street scene

I wonder what the miller’s name is and where that Knight is off too.

The players have wandered into a small village on the edge of the map and they look around, asking what they can see. The GM explains that its a fairly typical village, there is a small church dedicated to a local Saint/god, a village pub and some houses, including a blacksmith’s shop. Immediately, the players will ask, “Which Saint/god is it?”, “What is the pub called?” , “how many houses and how good is security on the biggest?” and “Can the Blacksmith repair my armour?”. Now, a well prepared Referee with lots of time for gaming may have detailed every aspect of the village and know these answers, they even have names picked out for all fifty-four NPCs (see he even knows how many people and buildings there are) but most of us don’t have that luxury, instead we decide on the fly the answer to these questions (but we note down the decision so that we know the answer we used later) so that church instantly becomes a Temple to Voort God of Flatulence. The decision is noted down, and that let’s our Ref decide the Pub should be called ‘The Ill-Wind Arms’ and so on.

You can build a whole world like this creeping from village to village, naming towns, gods, heroes and creating legends as you go, but such a lack of planning can be chaotic,  you find you have suddenly introduced an enemy that should have been foreshadowed, that forest should have been called Dragonwood, not Merrywood, or something similar. Or that the people in one village have a different name for the village to the west than the people had in that village. So the way to avoid it is a little Top-down planning.

Top-down planning & Drilling Down

A fantasy map

Not one of mine, I stole this because it was pretty

The classic example of top-down world design is the idea that you sit down and draw a rough map of the whole world (or at least one continent – an ‘old world’ style world) then you start filling in more and more details. You don’t necessarily want every millimetre of map to be detailed, but the closer to the locations you are taking the story the more details will be required. I plan on giving some hints on good world-cartography in a later post about Geography, so I won’t talk about it much here.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need a map, you might be more comfortable with a spider diagram that describes the world, with detailed sections of the diagram that talk about specific kingdoms or aspects of the world in greater detail.

Top-down design works best by considering the largest, most important details of your world first (those features I talked about last time are examples) and then let’s you drill down to the finest details. It can be a very thorough way to get an overview, it can also give you a sense of progress, but it is often unnecessary.

If you are writing a fantasy story set in a fictional city we might want to know who the neighbours are, but we don’t need to know details about every clan on the continent, unless we have a reason to need to know, like the city council must include a representative from each clan and the protagonist wants to be head of the council. Otherwise, details are necessary for the closest clans, or the most politically or militarily powerful clans, but we don’t need to know about those thirty people in the village of Ffarchelm that worship Saint Cheryl the patron saint of incomprehensible accents (unless you are Douglas Adams, in which case, what are you doing reading this? Everyone thinks you’re dead!).

No matter how much top-down planning you do, there will always come a point when you will have to add more detail. This is especially true in role-playing where having detailed every single person in town, written character sheets and personality notes for everyone from the blacksmith to the daughter of the barmaid that only works lunchtimes, you can guarantee that your players will ask the first NPC they meet a question that you should have an answer to, but just didn’t think important,(like when the last time a bunch of adventurers came through and what they were doing there). When this happens, jump to Bottom-up building, and write your answer for later, being careful to change your Top-down notes if it interferes.

What Is A Setting Bible And Should I Write One?

Simply put: a setting bible is nothing more than your notes on the world, and of course you need one.

  • Some people favour actually writing an encyclopaedia, or database, on their world. If you are writing a long series this can give you another book to add to the series essentially for free, (think about all those encyclopaedia and companion books that exist out there).
  • Other people think that things from the setting bible should go in glossaries and appendices on the main book (yes, Tolkein did do that, but he was a scholar, it was what he was used to doing, he didn’t invent it).
  • You can scribble notes on the internet/tablet/PC, make folders/directories of all the extra little facts like character names and histories, perhaps an image for a face-claim (who is the actor that would play them in the movie), place names — occasionally a map — with descriptions of the places and maybe some images that look like the place, spider diagrams or bullet pointed lists of political maps and family trees.
  • Or keep a working notebook for each world-building project, like I do. This is where I take notes from bottom-up design, research and story ideas sparked by the material. Use the book as a space to solve plot and world-building problems by ‘thinking on paper’ (which is the author version of arguing with yourself), and to think out issues arriving from political, cultural and technological decisions. None of these notes in my work ever make it directly into the novel or game, but they influence the writing and gaming experience making it feel deep.

Zen And The Art Of Research


You never know what you will find when researching

There is an old writing saw that we should all write what we know, of course, we all have to occasionally write what we don’t know. When this happens research is essential. Research simply turns what you don’t know into something you do and then you can write that.

There was a time when ‘writing research’ meant ordering dusty tomes from libraries and trips to distant countries and cultures (and if you can afford it the last one is still really helpful), but these days it is far simpler to just google up the details and drop them into your tale.

Google (and the other search engines) are the most powerful tool in your world-building arsenal, more important than map-making software or a word-processor, so rather like your copy of GIMP or Word you should learn how to use it properly to get the most from it.

  • Identifying your keywords, vitally important to any search is to know what you are searching for, you’ll find it a lot easier to find details on the physics of travelling at the speed of light if you know to research “General and Special relativity”. So never be afraid to get a cursory overview of the subject, without making notes to learn more advanced or specific terms. Hobbyists and Professionals often use different terms, learn which ones you need to search for your purposes.
  • Negative Keywords. If you find that when you search for a term the pages are full of some unrelated thing (like a particular brand or book) then remove that brand with a negative keyword, usually you will be amazed what vanishes when you add “-shop” or whatever. You can use multiple negative keywords in a search and will learn to guess when you need them.
  • Search particular sites. If you know you saw an article on a particular site then search there rather than on Google, or restrict google with the “site:sitename.whatever” search terms.
  • Can’t think of the right word? Try a reverse dictionary to seek terms for research.
  • Find and read books that have used these ideas before, if you want to write about dragons you can find novels, bestiaries, articles and movies to incorporate ideas from.
  • If all else fails try the advanced search pages and not the normal ones, and read the help on search terms on google.
  • Virtually visit your locations with Street view as well as looking at maps and photographs, it can give you a better idea of scope and scale.

 When Is A World Built?

Far side cartoon: In God’s Kitchen

Even the best world-builder’s occasionally get it wrong.

That may be the trickiest question of all. When you should stop with the research and world-building and start writing/playing is down to you. Personally I can start moving on when I feel the major points are covered, but there are still a lot of details left to work out.

Bottom-up building will carry on as you write or play, but if you have cracked the big picture then the details you invent should fit inside that framework without breaking it. If you hit a snag try to ignore it and move on, you can go ahead and revise the World later, perhaps the populace is simply misinformed somehow, but calling a halt to a game or draft because of a world-building problem shouldn’t happen unless you can fix it quickly.

The scope of the story governs when a world is baked, if your protagonists are going on a world-spanning adventure chased by a shadowy clandestine conspiracy then you will need a lot more planning and building than if they are just going on a journey of self-discovery at a college campus. Although the second may need more detail in the single location than any of the locations in the first, and we will probably need more depth to their characters.

You can, and should, revisit world-building each time you write a story, chapter or session notes. What events have occurred that change the world, what has a knock on effect, where will the unexpected consequences emerge, are all questions that you should ask in downtime or breaks. Always revisit the world-building step between drafts, and blend those Bottom-up builds into the Overview and think about how that may change the earlier draft in the next. Do you need to add references, foreshadowing or characters of that nationality you invented earlier? What needs to change to expose the players or readers to that change?

The 6 Steps To Better World-Building

  1. Are you building towards or away? Get an Overview.
  2. Start working Top-down to expand your Overview.
  3. Research the details of your Overview, and the questions it has raised.
  4. Refine the Overview and focus on the areas your story will need.
  5. Remember you can work some details out Bottom-up, not everything needs to be planned in advance.
  6. Don’t be afraid to revise the world if you find a problem, cuts and changes are okay, if Greek myth and Gary Larson teach us anything it’s that gods are flawed, just like we are, and our world(s).

Next time I’ll be talking about The Fundamentals, the rules of your World, how to identify them and how to change them.