Playing God, Part I - Basics

2013-Oct-21 -> from the building-worlds-for-fun department Tags: playinggod roleplaying dnd worldbuilding 

There's a little part of all of us that wishes we could change the world. It's the gamers, role-players, and writers who have figured out a way. We are the architects of worlds, and though I'm calling this series Playing God, it's hard to describe us as gods, since even the deities bend to our wills when creating a new world. World building is one of the toughest, most monumental tasks that any writer or role-player can take on, and it's my hope that this series will not only help existing world-builders improve their craft, but perhaps even get some new people involved.

What's it All About?

Building a world or universe is a massive undertaking. Consider our own universe from the top down: The universe is made up of empty space, interspersed with galaxies, which in turn are made up of billions of stars, each of which might have one or more orbiting bodies that make up a solar system. Each planet has its own conditions: gravity, atmosphere, weather, land masses, water, life, economics, religions, races, animals, microbiology, geology, technology, and maybe even a little magic. Crafting all the intricacies of a world down to the finest details can take years.

You don't have to do it all at once though. I've spent the last twenty years building worlds and writing stories for games, and I have yet to come to a point where I would consider my world-building to be done. The thing is, once you get started you'll realize that if you focus too much on getting every detail right, the world will feel less organic. Living worlds are always in flux, so it's really hard to get the details down before they change again.

The Reason

There are many published settings and worlds out there for you to choose from, so why build one of your own? Actually, you may find that using a published system is right for you. That's perfectly fine. Some of us just can't. We need the control, and the reward that comes from starting with a blank sheet of paper and making something beautiful out of it.

Start at the Beginning

World building needs to start somewhere, and this is where a division begins to form. There are two types of world-builders: writers and thinkers. Whether you are one or the other will depend a lot on how you process information. Writers will jot everything down, and will likely have binders or notebooks packed with notes, sketches, stories, tables and anything else they need to make the world run. Thinkers, on the other hand, will have very few notes, and will keep a large portion of their world in their head. Personally, I'm a thinker.

Whatever your process is, the start of world building should be a goal. What are you trying to accomplish by building the world? Is it for a game with a small group of players? Are you trying to create something that you can publish for the world to use? Are you writing a novel which is set in your world? Once you figure that out, the goal is simple: build as much as required to accomplish your purpose, and nothing more.

That's the deadly secret of world building: you don't need to flesh out every detail of a world in order to make it feel real. You only need to fill in the details required to accomplish your goal. The thing is, if you are filling in details that will never be read or used, what's the point? You can drive yourself mad trying to fill in every detail. It would take you a lifetime, and you still wouldn't get it done. Once you have enough detail in your world to satisfy your goal, stop.

Choose an Approach

How to actually go about starting your world will depend a lot on what kind of personality you have. You can start with the high-level concepts and then break them down into details (a top-down approach), or you can start with the details and work your way up from there (a bottom-up approach). Both approaches have their merits, and will both produce a usable world.

Using a top-down approach is better suited to building a world that you plan to publish. It will produce a world that is broken down into details that all support the high-level concepts. Some people work better this way, and can produce a nicely meshed, believable world using this approach. The downside to this approach is that it's a lot of work before you have something that is usable in a game or story.

The bottom-up approach is what I use, because that's how I think. I have details that I know I want to include, and so I start from there and work my way up. This approach tends to work better for stories or novels, as there is less work up front in order to create a functioning world. It's faster than the top-down approach, but can leave you filling in a lot of details on the fly, and can create some consistency problems if the details you want don't work well together.

What's Next?

As you get further into world building, you'll discover new things about your world, and new techniques that can be used to make that world run smoother and feel more realistic. In the coming weeks, I'll be posting additional world-building articles about geography, landmarks, cities, history, races, religions, deities, magic, politics, and much more. I hope you'll stick with me, as I have a lot more to give.

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.

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