Let's Build a World! Part 1

Building a world can be a powerful experience, whether we always realize it or not. It’s a pastime that most of my nerdly-inclined friends have done at one point or another. Like me, many of them (and I’d suspect many of you likely to read this) have spent quiet times, like laying in bed trying to fall asleep, as time to build characters and stories. In essence, you play out movies in your head. But even creating little stories on the fly like this requires a certain amount of world building.

More substantial world building happens for those among us who decide to run a tabletop game as a Game Master. Even when using a pre-created setting, there is still a certain amount of personal interpretation that needs to occur; a ‘filling in’ of the gaps, to put your own touch on the game or make it fit your party.

A project I’ve spent time on already during those quiet times, and one I’ve always wanted to do formally, is to take the next step: building an entire RPG setting from scratch. The goal here is to create a large, compelling world that players and GMs will want to explore and take part in. It will be large scale--not simply a few cities or a small island, but all of the landmass of an entire planet. This is, obviously, a large project, and starting it might be biting off more than I can chew. But hey, it should be fun! And I might learn a bit in the process that will make me a better player, GM, and creator.

With this first post, I’d like to lay the groundwork upon which to build. I will start with concepts and goals, ‘big picture’ sort of stuff. Later posts will then involve branching out and exploring specific topics like civilizations, history, religions, landscapes, etc.

So let’s start at the beginning. What sort of world am I trying to build, and why? I suppose I should start at the intended system of play. I primarily play Pathfinder, and I feel that in general a Pathfinder-appropriate setting will be easily translatable into whichever version of Dungeons and Dragons someone would want to play. And for that matter, most of the world I would like to build should be able to translate into any other similar game system that is primarily medieval in feel.

A little extra background here: it is interesting that I will approach this from a medieval perspective, because, as mentioned above, I’ve actually already spent some informal thinking time on this setting previously. All of my previous world building has been to designed to support a story that I have ‘written’ in my head that is set in a renaissance/steampunk sort of setting, one in which technology is developing at a rapid pace and magic doesn’t exist. So part of the difficulty here is that I will be diving into the ‘history’ of a setting I’ve already partially designed, and exploring what those characters I already created in this world would consider an age of myth and superstition.

And that in and of itself is a lot of fun to think about--depending on the period of time in a world, magic exists or it is seen as superstition. Did it ever actually exist? Did it fade away with time? Or were those adventurers of old just running around believing in magic, not understanding that they were simply observing natural phenomenon.

Another core design tenet that I try to stress in any world building I do: logic and ‘realism’. I place realism in quotes because, let’s be honest, we’re talking about creating a world with magic, elves, orcs, and more. The goal is to build a world that makes sense. Where certain races exist where the logically would. Where certain religions believe what they believe for understandable reasons. Where mountain ranges exist because they should exist from a geological standpoint.

A major theme in this world that I have always had, and it is one that I really want to carry over, is one of scarcity. Originally this was to be able to play with the idea of technology in interesting ways, but it also serves to create political drama and inform character backstories. This world is a small one--there isn’t a lot of land to go around. That means that it is mostly water, and a good chunk of the dry land is either mountainous or swampy. People have struggled to build what they have, and live on a knife edge of survival.

Now, speaking from an earth science standpoint, a world that is mostly water but also features some high mountains would have some wild weather. With more warm ocean to hang over, storms would grow larger and more powerful that we know on our planet; again making it a difficult and dangerous place to live. And maybe all this struggling means that survival of the fittest had to hit high gear, and maybe that means that biodiversity is through the roof. That would explain how we managed to arrive at a world with several different distinct sentient races, wouldn’t it?

So now we’ve got a starting point. I want to build a world that fits into the Pathfinder (and DnD) setting, build around the themes of logical and realistic progression, scarcity of resources, difficulty of climate and terrain, and diversity of biology and outlook.

Now I just need a name…

In my next post, I’ll get down to brass tacks about the physical details of the world. We’ll explore how it looks, what the terrain is like, and how it all got that way. Thanks for reading!