While at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference  a few weekends ago, I took a half-day class on world building. The class was taught by Del Rey editor Mike Braff and fantasy novelist Kevin Hearne. I’ve taught my own world building classes in the past, but I wanted to see their take on things to see what nuggets of gold I could mine from their experiences. The class was highly interactive and resulted in as much of a “complete” world as a group could build in three hours. Here are the highlights of what was taught for you game masters out there who are considering building your own world for your campaign settings.
Tectonic plate theory can get very involved, so I’m only going to cover the basics here to give you an idea of how things work. There’s no need for PhD-level knowledge to make do with creating your own world. Tectonic plates are thick layers of a world’s crust that float around and press against (or retreat away from) each other. This causes all sorts of fun and games with the terrain.
There are two basic types of plates: Oceanic and Continental. As the names imply, oceanic plates are those that are thinner and are covered in oceans and large seas. The land masses that jut up from the water generally sit on continental plates, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Take a look at the multitude of volcanic islands sticking up around the Pacific Rim on Earth. These plates can press against each other or retreat away from one another.
When two plates strike (think in geological time frame here), mountains, volcanoes, hills, and other rising land features are created. Earthquakes can be very common in these areas. The more pressure two plates apply to one another, the more extreme these features will be. If two plates move away from one another, they don’t expose the magma trapped beneath. More crust will rise up to “fill the gap,” but the result will be very deep waters rich in life, which will impact the way civilization interacts with those areas.
There are generally two types of rivers: fast and slow. Take a look at North America for a moment. There are two major mountain ranges (and several smaller ones). The taller mountains of the Rockies produce fast-flowing rivers because of the acceleration of the water down the sides of the mountains. In the eastern side of North America, there are the Appalachian Mountains. They are older, shorter, and less extreme. This produces slower moving rivers. Keep in mind that these are generalities. There can be slow rivers off of the Rockies, depending on the specific local terrain. There are also some faster-flowing rivers in the east, but that also depends on the local terrain.
Large mountain ranges also drastically affect the weather. The areas in North America between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Rockies contain very dry, desert-like terrain. This is because storms are stopped by the Sierra Nevada mountains and most of their energy and rain is dropped along the mountains. By the time the storms regain their power, they’re at the Rockies where the same thing happens. This drastically affects the weather patterns in North America.
Where there is water, there is abundant plant life. Think about the weather patterns of your world when placing forests, swamps, marshland, jungles and other natural resources. The more water there is (either from rainfall or rivers), the thicker the vegetation will be. This is largely the difference between a jungle growing in a location versus a forest appearing there. Always determine your plant life situation in an area before moving on to what animals may live or thrive there. Even though you’re not recreating Earth, it’s a wise choice to model your terrain and plants off of what can be found on our planet. Again, if you have a high tech or magical cause for a shift from the “normal” way of doing things, that’s great. Those things make for very interesting stories.
Once you know the climate, water, and plants of an area, you can determine what kind of animals, critters, monsters, and other beasts live in the area. More confined spaces, like thick forests and jungles, tend to create smaller, more agile creatures. Wide open plains are typically dominated by giant beasts and herd animals. The harsh climate of deserts creates large varieties of insects, birds, and snakes who have adapted to live off of as little water as possible.
At this point, I tend to limit my thinking to non-human (or human-like) creatures. I try to consider only “natural animals” during this phase. We’ll drop humans and other civilized peoples into the realms in the upcoming sections.
Again, if you are creating mythical, magical, or high-tech creatures to populate your world, try to think about how the ecology and food chain will be affected by the introduction of these creatures. For example, dropping owlbears into a forested area might cause them to compete for the same food as the natural bears. Would this cause the bears to die out and not exist in the area because of the competition? Perhaps they’d live together in a pseudo-harmony? Probably not. That’s up for you to decide.
Now we get to the “interesting” part: humans and other “civilized” creatures and where they settle. Rivers, sheltered harbors, and areas with abundant natural resources are the key target areas for the larger cities and centers of culture. Don’t forget about roaming nomads (think about the Mongols, Native North Americans, and other societies) in the open plains or even in the desert areas. What resources are available to the peoples inhabiting the areas? Wood, ores, water, plants, animals (large and small), herbs, spices, toxins, and many other things will shape how a society establishes itself and evolves over time.
Society and Culture
When building a fantasy world, many people lock into the stereotypical western European feudal system with castles, lords, kings, serfs, knights and so on. This is deeply rooted in the hobby of role playing games, so I can understand the reflex to go with what is comfortable. However, the armchair historian in me must urge you to think outside those bounds. Yes, the European feudal model was a vast influence on the rest of the world, but there are so many other options.
India’s caste system can be explored and expanded upon to generate a wonderful set of role playing experiences. Native American traditions and the way they interacted with the world around them can likewise push players and GMs into chances to tell fantastic stories. The honor systems of the Far East led to many intriguing stories within history, and can do the same at your gaming table.
Even a mashup of all of the above (and more) can help you create a vibrant, detailed, and wonderfully interactive world.
Within the confines of a typical fantasy (and many sci-fi) RPG system, there is a “common” language, or a lingua franca that everyone knows with many different sub-languages, national tongues, and racial speech. This rubs many anthropologists, historians, and linguists to a fit of frenzy. However, since you’re presumably creating a world for gaming and having a common tongue makes the game run more smoothly, this can be hand-waved. I personally find the use of national/regional languages fun to incorporate into the game. We all expect the human adventurers to be unable to speak to the goblins (unless someone was smart enough to take the language as a skill), but twisting things around to make communication difficult between different groups of humans can lead to some interesting moments within the game.
While on the topic of languages, proper names are derived from the natural speech of the people. Having a flowing, lilting, almost sing-song language like what is spoken in Earth’s Far East is great, but if you drop a character named “John” or “George” in the midst of that language, it doesn’t quite fit. Come up with concepts on what you want the language to sound like and then pick names and titles based on how the language sounds.
The clothing a people wears is largely determined by the resources and terrain around them. Folks living in forests will mainly wear greens and browns to blend in, and those will largely be made from plant matter or the sewn hides of small animals. Out in the plains, the thicker leather from the larger beasts will be used. In a hot jungle area, there may be very little clothing worn at all. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people living in the northern tundra will dress in many layers to stave off the cold. Again, putting conscious thought into where the inhabitants will get their raw materials will lead you down the right path for what they’ll wear.
Weapons and Armor
As someone who loves medieval weaponry and has studied the craft of making it and putting it to use, I want to quickly point out that not all swords are the same. It goes far beyond “short sword” and “long sword” as a differentiation. Damascus steel is held in high regard for its durability and quality, but this is a European view. I’d gladly take a folded, steel blade from Japan over the finest Europe has to offer. Both are great weapons, but their balance and use are very different. Also look at the Germanic Zweihänder, which takes a very large man to properly wield. I’ve tried using one, and it’s just not for me. I prefer the maduvu from India in my left hand and a Celtic leaf blade in the other. Strange, eh?
An area’s foliage is also going to determine ranged weapon uses. Slings are great weapons, but not highly useful in dense vegetation. Also, the more open the terrain, the stronger the bows will be. Mongolian bows weren’t quite as tall as English longbows, which stood about six feet tall when strung. However, the average English longbow had an effective range of about 250 yards, and the Mongol bows outdistanced that impressive feat by an additional 100 yards. This was largely due to the construction techniques, which was determined, yet again, by the natural resources available.
What do your people eat in the different regions? Until large scale trade and the proper preservation of food comes on the scene, they’re going to eat what lives in the areas where they settle. Coastal and river people will largely subsist on fish and seafood. Nomadic people will have to survive on preserved meats from the large beasts of the plains and whatever plants or grains they can quickly harvest and cook while on the move. Folks living in forested areas will live largely off of the animals of the forest and the abundance of plant life in the area.
Economy, Trade, and Warfare
Most cultures can be self-sufficient, but as they expand their domain, they’re going to bump up against other folks’ domains. This can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings (see language above), which can lead to warfare. Perhaps one group is naturally aggressive and thinks everything they can see is theirs. If like-minded (and able to communicate) people get together, they can both enrich their own domains by opening up trade and economy. The most basic of this is barter where chickens are traded for pigs are traded for spices and so on.
Of course, hauling live animals across great distances and keeping them alive and healthy is problematic. This is why barter is largely a local economy, but magic or science can overcome this limitation. Where barter is not possible, money (or other portable valuables) come into play. Of course, how one nation values the gold and gemstones of their neighbors can largely sway a trade negotiation. Sometimes this comes out fairly, but many times it does not. Just look at the “purchase” of Manhattan Island from the Lenape people by Peter Minuit.
Keep the mythos relevant to the people and their surroundings. Many religions or folklore stories were created to explain the unexplainable. These stories also gave succor, strength, and comfort when times got hard. Figure out what a culture needs to explain or find their hardships and center the stories around those items.
Keep the mythos relevant to the stories you want to tell around the table with your group. If the epic tale of Goulginshan the Great takes you three weeks to write because it’s a “cool story,” but that story never impacts the lives of the PCs, then it was probably three weeks that could have been spent in a more productive manner. When coming up with these tales I try to keep the salient points in mind, but not the whole story. This allows me to say something along the lines of, “The shaman relates a tale to you regarding the treachery of the Great Owlbear that led to the loss of the Golden Acorn, and crops have failed in this area ever since.” Boom. Instant adventure hook and a cool, evocative summary. If you have more than this written about the Great Owlbear, that’s fine, but don’t go overboard.
Honestly, there are more aspects to world building than what I can cover in an article, even one as lengthy as this one. I hope this article helped point you in the right direction in a few areas. There are plenty of books on world building on the open market. Many are focused toward novelists, while others cover the craft from the aspect of role playing games. If there is interest in a bibliography of books I’m aware of on this topic, I’ll drop them in the comments. Just put in your own comment on the article asking for the list, and I’ll compile something and post it.
Now that we’ve gone through this, what is your favorite part of world building?