“World-building” is a challenge that faces many people: novelists, RPG hosts, screenplay writers, and most other categories of storyteller. Settings are the literal and figurative background of tales large and small, and for all that they are rarely the focus of a narrative the way characters and plot rightfully are, they are critical to that narrative making sense. Worldbuilding can be a forbiddingly large task, but it can be both efficient and rewarding if one keeps a few pointers in mind.
What Is Worldbuilding?
Narrative worlds are not just places. A map can be an important (but is far from a critical) component of worldbuilding, but it is not the only one. A narrative world consists of al of the facts that distinguish it from our world, plus everything that makes each element within distinct from others of its kind. That means a narrative world can include:
- A set of places
- The cultures that inhabit those places
- Arts, whether the products thereof are enduring (painting) or ephemeral (dance)
- Specific art objects
- Technological achievements
- Magical forces and practices
- Cosmic-scale phenomena, such as parallel dimensions, divine realms, and other places that don’t fit on conventional maps
- And more.
A truly complete world would invite examination down to individual grains of sand, the etymologies of individual words in its most obscure languages, the careers of individual persons of note, different manufacturing practices in different points in space and time, and every other dimension someone could investigate. It would be as infinitely expansive as our own world, and it would take similar decades of study to become an expert on even a small fraction of it. Such a feat is impossible for even a team of writers working across generations to achieve, and it is also unnecessary for any conceivable purpose. The map is not the territory, and it never needed to be. But what does it need to be?
What Is Your Goal?
What you want your world for informs a great deal about how it needs to work. A homegrown world is generally meant for a specific purpose: to be the setting of a novel series, to be the background of a short story, to be a world that players in a tabletop roleplaying game explore, to be instructions for a film set and costume designer, and so on. Each intended purpose has different implications for what parts of that world need to be defined, which questions the world must answer, and which ones can be safely ignored. Visual media, for example, needs to define strong visual identities for almost everything in a world: clothing, weapons, tools, flora, fauna, and anything else that might be even fleetingly visible to people interacting with the final product. A world meant for use with a roleplaying game needs to fulfill the assumptions of that game so that the world and the rules (in RPG designer parlance, the “fluff” and the “crunch”) fit together seamlessly. A world meant to undergird an entire series of novels likely needs more breadth and depth than one meant to live its entire life as the backdrop of a single short story. This question of purpose guides and informs all of the others, so it must be settled early in the worldbuilder’s mind. A world can be expanded for new purposes after it is created, but it cannot succeed at its original goal if that goal is not clear to the creator.
What Kinds of Story Do You Want to Tell?
One the medium is firm in your mind, the next step is the message. What kinds of stories is this world meant to facilitate?
Genres set broad expectations about what worlds look like, what sorts of things are found in them, and what sorts of events happen in them. These expectations can be wielded to advantage with one critical axiom: you do not need to define anything that works the way people assume it works. People’s assumptions will carry them to the correct conclusion, so it is wise to save one’s words and energy for those things that differ from genre patterns and especially things in modern settings that work the way they work in our world. In many cases, using a facsimile of the modern world, or a basic concept of genre conceits, as a starting point for one’s explanation of what makes one’s world special is an excellent way to deliver a lot of information quickly.
Now, Go Deeper
World-building necessarily has a back end and a front end. The front end is the part that people interacting with the finished product get to see. Done well, it is a polished, unified product that conveys the desired impression, often of a world bigger than the one story immediately at hand and where the things on the surface, or that are not explained in detail in the main narrative, have an internal logic that could be explicated if someone wanted it to be. One example is the Star Wars universe, with its vast multiplicity of weapons manufacturing corporations, secretive mystical orders, histories of individual planets, and more, which only impinge on its main story in a few places but provide ample room for side stories in other media.
It can be tempting, as a world-builder, to overload on details. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other large, detailed universes encourage an idea of worldbuilding as a massively granular endeavor, where every twitch of the narrative has dozens of pages of footnotes linking it to other events in the world’s past, present, and future. This can be both overwhelming and counterproductive. The front end does not need anything that does not facilitate the specific stories being told. Stories become clunky, unwieldy messes if every detail of their world is included and given equal prominence. This is where the back end comes in.
The back end is the Wookieepedia to the Star Wars film canon. It is reams of notes, as organized as they can be, tracking the inspirations, backstories, and more that do not or cannot fit in the front end. The contents of these notes may never take center stage, even if a world becomes the setting of more than one story, but they still hold value. These notes inform and inspire things in the front end, and even more importantly, they help enforce internal continuity and consistency. Which details belong in front or in back depends on the stories one is telling and what one has created. A well-orchestrated back end results in a front end and a narrative that feel more cohesive and which can more easily be taken in new directions via new narratives.
A Note on RPG Worlds
Role-playing game settings require special care. By their nature, they are meant to facilitate many different stories, and place themselves in the hands of many different storytellers. This is true even of homebrew settings whose creators do not share them, because the players who participate in games set in these worlds take part of the storytelling process for themselves. These worlds are also, almost invariably, tailored for specific role-playing games, with specific rules that become part of the world’s assumptions, canonical in their own right. Worldbuilding becomes entangled with game design in this kind of world, and the best RPG settings blend the two to the point of inseparability.
RPG worlds must address the assumptions of their rules, or they cannot work as RPG worlds. For example, the rules of Dungeons and Dragons assume that demons exist, are evil, and come from a realm distinct from that inhabited by mortals such as humans. A D&D setting where this is not true is one where this deviation from assumptions not only has to be explained so that people interacting with this world understand it, but that must be dealt with via setting-specific changes to the rules. Failing to address situations like these leads to characters summoning beings from nonexistent realms, becoming werewolves in worlds with no moon, and calling on divine favor in worlds with no gods.
Writing an RPG setting differs from writing a world for other media in another important way. RPG settings are full of hooks meant to set up stories that others will complete, rather than complete stories in their own right. This role in assisting other storytellers means that the back end / front end distinction applies differently to RPG worlds. While they are in use, they have a front end (what players have already interacted with) and a back end (everything else). When presented as settings for others’ use, however, the distinction collapses. Those who would use pre-written RPG worlds need the back end, and so, it must be presented intact.
The best RPG worlds guide the people interacting with them toward certain kinds of stories, just as the worlds created for other media do. That means populating settings meant for courtly intrigue with a hierarchy of nobility and court officials with agendas and relationships, settings meant for exploration with sites to explore and paths to walk, settings meant for combat with enemies to fight, and so on. The same world can be all of these things in an RPG, but providing some of this content in detail provides both the content itself and a signal that this is the kind of story that makes the best use of what this world has to offer.
A novel about unraveling a mystery in an alien culture’s art museum might benefit from a detailed history of its world’s art styles, biographical snippets about its artists, and some background about a feud between schools of art criticism, but most or all of this effort would be wasted in a story whose focus is a military campaign between this alien polity and its neighbor. Conversely, the art mystery probably does not need a detailed rundown of its home country’s armored and infantry divisions. Worldbuilding is, more than anything, an exercise in knowing what one’s goal is and working toward it. It is a creative endeavor and one that requires an organized, careful approach to fulfill its potential. I wish you luck in the attempt. Stay tuned for additional explorations of what it takes to write a detailed setting.