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World Building for RPGs



Many of us are fond of creating new settings and worlds, both for use in role-playing campaigns, but also as a hobby unto itself. 

In 2012 I wrote a short chapter about this in “The Little Book on Role-Playing” (in Norwegian). This is an expanded follow-up, that can be read independently of the first article. 

At the end of the article, you will find a list of exercises to get you started. Thanks to Ara Kooser for valuable input.

Some of my main points from the first article:

Procedurally bound meticulous,  «top-down» methods are difficult for me when I reach some element that doesn’t turn me on. Say «wind patterns», «laws» or something. It gets hard to push through, and I’ve often laid my worlds aside.

Figure out what the world is for. Role-playing games? A novel? Various uses could demand different approaches to world building.

Leave aside apocryphal, obscure details that will never see play (or the reader will never meet). Stick to the juicy stuff, at least for now.

Illustration: Karenswhimsy.com

Illustration: Karenswhimsy.com

For an RPG, focus on setting elements the characters will actually interact with and, preferably, are able to affect/change.

Collaboration is good. Listen to your players, they’ll give you cool, free ideas and pointers to what they’re interested in. Maybe even involve them directly in the world building process, if they’re so inclined.

This article presumes you’re building a role-playing setting, and most of the examples are from fantasy worlds. But I believe many of the ideas could work for other types of settings as well.

VISION

I think it can be smart to start with some kind of common vision or mood you wish to convey. It can be from a genre, like “action archeologists explore jungle-ruins in South America with lots of wild monsters and Nazis”, some scene types you wish to make room for: “a lot of climbing over roofs and burglary in tall towers”. “Meeting demonic, tentacled creatures from the other side of the stars”. “Corrupt court intrigues”.

The vision can also tell us something about what kinds of characters we’ll see: «nobles with a focus on feudal loyalty and ancestral bonds» or «rough barbarians trying to survive in the wilderness, as civilization draws near». With the vision at the back of your mind I think you can get a lot of free ideas when you’re establishing other parts of the setting.

The other elements aren’t organized in a prioritized order. Start with what seems most inspiring right now, leave the rest for later.

COLLABORATING

Maybe you’d like to meet up, and spend an afternoon/evening developing the basic concepts. Maybe you’d like to write a few e-mails to and from. Some like using a Wiki, others find it to be a bit of a hassle.

Who’s in, who has the final word?
It could be a good idea to choose a «main editor» who has the last say on what goes in the final setting manuscript (or wiki, scroll or whatever format you choose). Maybe it’s sufficient if a couple of you work out the main concepts of the world, and then others can add later on (through character backgrounds, by being given special responsibilities for certain areas, or by taking turns being the game master).

When we recently established a fantasy setting on Mars for a D&D5 campaign, we mainly used e-mail correspondence. The players wrote down their thoughts and ideas for characters and concepts surrounding these: the people they belonged to, and the areas they were from. We met two “problems” which both found a solution. One thing is that I wrote far more than the others. But my character was the only one from Earth, so that whole domain was sort of left to me. A more tricky problem was when two of the other players created character concepts that were “mutually exclusive”; one player thought their people’s biology and gender worked in a different way than the other player envisioned. I think it was solved simply because one of these players couldn’t join the campaign after all. But those are the kinds of challenges you can face when attempting collaborative fiction.

For some ideas to how you can structure a collaborative process/conversation, I suggest you have a look at the «phrases» in the game Archipelago III for inspiration on how this can be handled.

GUIDELINES

My friend Magnus and I sit down and create a campaign concept together , I don’t think we’d really need many «formal rules». We could base ourselves on normal, everyday conversation. We’ve known each other, played role-playing games and designed things together for 16 years. We have similar tastes in fiction. It would probably have worked just fine.

The more voices who are to be heard in a collaborative process, and the more people who don’t know each other in advance, the more need there can be for some “social contracts”. 

When my friend Maja held her «World Building Workshop» at HolmCon one year, she started by having us make a list over concepts we didn’t want to have in the setting. I think we took turns around the table, where everyone could veto one concept. E.g.: no zombies, no steampunk, no dick jokes, etc. At first I was a bit skeptical; this was almost the opposite of a brainstorm, I thought. But I also saw how it contributed to us finding out where we wanted to go by clearly defining where we didn’t want to go. 

Taking turns around the table is also a good way of making sure everybody gets to contribute, or you could limit how many e-mails with new setting information Ole Peder gets to write every day, etc. 

Brainstorm is defined by a “say yes”-attitude. No ideas are too stupid. We throw out everything we can think of, build on other’s ideas and then later on have a process of trimming away what doesn’t fit in, or concepts we don’t believe in. In this trimming-down process, it’s important not to be “married” to your ideas.

Could this work as a map? Illustration: Catherine Mommsen Scott/Flickr.com/Creative Commons

Could this work as a map? Illustration: Catherine Mommsen Scott/Flickr.com/Creative Commons

MAPS AND GEOGRAPHY

Maps can be a nice visual focus. It’s sufficient with a rough sketch at first. If one of you enjoys drawing, she can make a more refined version later. Use simple symbols, so that everyone can help draw. Leave some white spaces on the map, to be filled out when the need arises later.

If it’s a fantasy setting: some mountains here, a coast line there, some islands, woods… If the setting is a starship travelling between galaxies: some kind of simplified plan of the ship. City environment: main streets, harbor area, important nodal points, define the largest boroughs, etc. 

As you draw the various symbols and topographical elements on the map, tell the others a bit about your suggestions. They can then follow up with their own input.

Rolemaster had something called «Campaign Law» which actually has a quite inspiring «quasi scientific» guide to building cosmology, geography (and societies, later on). It can be found over here.

CHARACTERS

Some of the character concepts can be established while building the setting. What kind of stories are you making? How do the characters belong in these? Are they nobles or wandering adventurers? Where are they from originally? What’s that place like? How has it influenced them?

In addition to characters, it can be nice to imagine some secondary characters (NPCs), both well off, powerful and good/bad/ugly: the king of the River City, the import baroness of the Hill Country, the wizard in his tower. But also consider those one rarely thinks about, but who might have an exciting destiny: the inn keeper who runs the northernmost tavern in the world, and gives the characters a hideout from ghosts, the mother of one of the characters who has been driven away from her village, the street urchin who can control fire.
Characters and NPCs can be tied to each other in relationship maps, where you draw some arrows connecting them with words like “rivals”, “lovers”, “best friends”, etc.

WHY ARE YOU MAKING THIS?

As I wrote initially: What’s the purpose of the setting? Is it for a role-playing campaign? How long will it be? Can the world grow as you explore it, or do you want lots of details before you begin play? Is it sufficient if the main concepts are firmly established, or do you want to know every detail about major cities, important leaders, culture, history and religion? It’s a different job to create a world for a series of novels than for a role-playing campaign (at least I tend to think so). In the campaign it can actually be a bonus with “blank areas on the map”, even for the game master. It gives you more freedom to improvise, the engine of role-playing.

It might be a different job to type up a short, focused campaign than one that will support scores of sessions. Make sure you save some of the enthusiasm for play proper! You’ll learn a lot about the setting by playing in it. Make things short and focused. Write it down, but keep descriptions brief. Keywords or a few sentences may be enough. It can be hard to get everyone involved in updating a Wiki or writing recaps after game nights. Not to mention the fact that not everyone bothers to read all that material. But it’s an important task, to let (especially the game master) keep track of the world as it grows and branches in your collective imagination.

SOME TYPICAL ELEMENTS

Some starting points when discussing the setting. Establish some of these, but you’re welcome to keep it brief and sketchy. Skip to the next topic when you feel you have some fun ideas established. It’s enough to say “monotheistic religion dominates society”. The details about the church, its rituals and hierarchy can come in play later on or next time you meet. Establish a few main points of interest first, the large, heavy elements that butt against each other and create interesting tension.

Maybe you're build a retrofuturistic setting?  Illustration: Louis Glanzman. Creative Commons.

Maybe you’re build a retrofuturistic setting? Illustration: Louis Glanzman. Creative Commons.

Establishing these elements can also be made into a game within the game, if you’re so inclined. See, for instance, how it’s done in “Microscope”, where you explore and build a setting through playing out short scenes from its history. Or “Shock”, where you define social issues the science-fiction world is about before you engage it through play.

CONFLICTS

It can be good to establish some large, overarching conflicts in the setting. Which groups are pitted against each other? Is there a battle over certain resources? Do you have some kind of «Evil Overlord»? Or several? Here you can both consider real history, social anthropology etc, or think in «purely dramatic terms». Maybe there’s a particular kind of social rules that are the source of eternal tension in society? The elves have to sacrifice a hundred human souls every year to appease their gods = conflict between the elves and humankind. Those who are not baptized become evil undead upon death = great pressure to be baptized. The church may have huge territories, but few weapons. The nobles may have weapons, but their lands are of less value because of war, drought, heritage systems splitting them up = conflict. Conflict is usually considered the classic recipe for drama. Not necessarily the only one or the most interesting, but at least one it’s good to be aware of. One group wants one thing, one or more others want something else, and there’s conflict.

«Shepherd Boy». Kilde: Watts, Arthur: “A Painter’s Anthology” (1924). Public domain.

«Shepherd Boy». Kilde: Watts, Arthur: “A Painter’s Anthology” (1924). Public domain.

HISTORY

I’m not a great believer in tens of pages with timelines, but it can be good to sketch out some important events in the world’s history. Large wars, plagues, discoveries, technological advances, migration, etc. I’d suggest you make a sketch of the earliest history, going into more detail as you approach the date when the game will begin.

MAGIC AND RELGION

It can be good to picture which gods and supernatural forces people believe in, and what kind of magic exists (if you want to have magic in the setting). There are many rich traditions in our own world you can be inspired by. Maybe you’d like something reminiscent of a Greek (or Norse) pantheon where the gods are archetypes reflecting aspects of the human mind or nature itself. Maybe you want a monotheistic religion, or maybe there’s some kind of mystic order dominating society, with a clergy who want to achieve illumination, unity with the Godhead or something similar. Maybe magicians are shamans, going on “spirit travels”, eating “magic mushrooms” and contacting the elemental forces of nature. Maybe you have traditional fantasy wizards reading up on the dark arts in tall towers (I’m sure you and your creative players will be able to do something interesting even with that old trope). Are there monks, nuns and monasteries? What kind of rules apply there? What is the religious tolerance in society like? Are heretics burnt on the fires of the Inquisition, or are you free to believe whatever you want?

POLITICS

It can be good to define the most important geographical areas and write a bit about how society works there. Are they large empires, tiny city states or a mix? Are they feudal societies, oligarchies, or organized in other ways? Do you have contested border areas where war still reigns? What is life like for the peasants and commoners of those areas? Fantasy societies often feel a bit like the Medieval Ages in Europe, with farmers, nobles and clergy, and feudal structures where the nobles swear loyalty upwards in a «power pyramid”, with the King/Queen/Empress on top. Some of the tension in these societies is based on the power struggles between the various orders, but also internally in the nobility, and between the nobility and the king. Maybe you’d like to be inspired by other historical societies, or try to construct something of your own.

GROUPS

We’ve already touched on nations, religious organizations, social orders and others. There are probably other important groups in the societies you create. Maybe guilds are important, a kind of proto unions for various kinds of workers and craftsmen. Maybe there are criminal organizations. Are «adventurers» organized in any way? Rebel groups, heretic sects, non-human intelligent creatures.

THE SUPERNATURAL

Building on what you’ve established about magic and religion, you can consider if there are any fairy tale creatures, demons and other supernatural beings in the world. Maybe you’d like to use elements from games already published (the D&D Monstrous Manual comes to mind). Maybe you’ll base yourself in the folkloric traditions of a specific country in our own world, mythology or other historical sources. Or try to create monsters from the ground up. If any of these creatures are intelligent; how are they organized? Do they live in societies? Are they part of human society, living in cities, or are they living in deep forests and dark valleys, hidden to the eyes of man?

WORLD BUILDER EXERCISES

Some creative tasks to jog your group’s imagination. Can be solved individually or as a team effort. I’d advise against trying to solve all the tasks. Pick 1-3 you like. 

You can also make up more exercises yourselves.

* Draw a creature or person from your world.

* Who is an outsider in your setting? Why? What does it mean to be an outsider? 300 word limit. 
* Describe a sacred site or object. Use as many characters as you want, but do not explain anything about the setting cosmology in your description.

* Write down three words in one of the languages of your setting.

* Write down five keywords about the mood you wish to convey.

* Use at most 1000 characters on a mood text about the setting.

* In five sentences, describe how religion works in people’s daily life.

* Write down a brief timeline.

* Decide which element in the setting you are least happy with. Delete it from your script.

* Think of three movies/books/comics that would work as inspiration for your setting.

* Find a photo or illustration with Google Image Search/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons that matches your setting.

*Invite some friends. Tell them about your setting. Take their tips, write them down.

* What is the worst profanity uttered in your setting? Why is this so bad to say?

* Do the gods exist?

* Which event on your timeline would you most have wanted to witness?

* Which event on your timeline would you avoid being present for at all cost?

* Create a character for any role-playing game that would fit with your setting.

* Which person would you most like to be in your setting?

* Choose an area on your map. Write five sentences about this area.

* Describe the three most powerful people in your world.

* Describe three of the least powerful people in your world.

* Describe a war in no more than 1000 characters. Who fought whom? Where did the major battles take place? Who won and why? What consequences has the war had? What was the war fought over?

* What is the oldest civilization in your setting? Does it still exist?

* What remains are there after this civilization? If it’s still alive, how has it changed over the centuries?

* Create a Spotify playlist for your setting.

* Describe the three largest groups of people, briefly.

* Pick one of the three. Describe their culture, briefly.

* Write down as many keywords (not complete sentences) about the setting as you can.

* Choose an area/people/city in your world. Write down a list of keywords and loose associations about it.

* Write down three sketches for cool/interesting scenes that could happen in your setting.

Earrings found in 1915 by Gyeongju. The diametre of the circle in the middle is 3,5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Korea/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

Earrings found in 1915 by Gyeongju. The diametre of the circle in the middle is 3,5 cm. Photo: National Museum of Korea/Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons.

* Write down three sketches for supporting characters.

* Write down three sketches for campaign concepts.

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