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World Building

Photo by J.T. Evans — World creation by Mike Braff and Kevin Hearne

While at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference [1] 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 Plates

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.

Natural Features

 There are generally two types of rivers: fast and slow.  
Once you’ve figured out how plates are interacting, the first step is to generally draw the mountains, hills, and volcanic regions created by these interactions. From there you figure out where snow will fall in the higher elevations and where it will flow when the snow melts or rain runs off. This may be stating the obvious here, but it’s an important point: Water flows downhill. Gravity is the cause of this. I’ve heard many people state that rivers flow “toward the equator.” This is statistically true on Earth, but the equator has nothing to do with this. It’s just happenstance. Make sure your rivers flow downward unless you have a solid magical reason for a few of them to do otherwise.

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

 I prefer the maduvu from India in my left hand and a Celtic leaf blade in the other. Strange, eh? 
Not everyone had abundant access to metal ores or mining/refining techniques. Dropping steel blades into the hands of the “savage, leather-wearing elves” will make the players wonder where the elves came up with such fine weaponry. Perhaps there is a good explanation for this that you’ve come up. I certainly hope so. Take a look at the Native Americans. They had adopted bows and arrows with flint arrowheads for their ranged weapons and clubs with stone (or flint) heads for their axes. Very little metal was involved in their garb, armor (if they wore any at all), and weaponry. This was because they held no interest in digging deep into the earth for iron, and had not developed the technology to make use of it.

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. 
Here is where my creative juices really get flowing, and I tend to go way overboard with the creation of gods, goddesses, mythological creatures, folklore, and background stories for my peoples. I have two pieces of advice here.

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?

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "World Building"

#1 Comment By Lugh On May 10, 2017 @ 6:43 am

I’m going to say that this is all very solid advice *IF* your intent is to create a realistic Earth-like world. Some very solid tips on applying actual science in a simple and streamlined way.

But. And here’s a big but.

I think this is a terrible, short-sighted, and bland way to create a campaign world. If you’re going to do this, why not just use one of the literally thousands of Earth-clones that already exist? Google will find you a serviceable map in less than fifteen minutes, with the first five steps above already done. A little more digging will find a few dozen campaign worlds with the details already written out that you can mix and match at will. Because they’re all pretty much the same.

If you want a campaign world that will pop, don’t start with the science, start with the story. Start with a hook that will make your players remember this world. Maybe it consists entirely of islands floating in a cloudspace. Maybe it’s actually a couple dozen planets connected by portals. Maybe it’s based on the pre-Columbian Aztecs (after reading Charles Mann’s incredible 1491, I really want to do this).

Step 2 is figuring out what kind of stories you want to tell. Is there an evil empire that needs rebelling against? Are the characters in a region dominated by war? Or are the factions nominally at peace but engaged in a fierce chess game of diplomacy and intelligence gathering? Do you want to tell big, globe-spanning epics, or small, intimate tales? Pick a theme and a scale. Because if the entire story is taking place within a thirty-mile radius, scientifically accurate weather models are a complete waste of time.

Step 3 is doing some rough cuts of elements you want to play with. Do you want a culture similar to feudal Japan? Do you want different pantheons to be actively vying for market share? Do you want a race of shapeshifters creating paranoia in the courts? At this step, don’t worry at all about how any of these are going to make sense, or interact realistically.

Step 4 is looking at your rules and making sure the options in the book make sense. If you’re playing D&D, make sure your world is going to have room for barbarians, paladins, and druids. Or make sure your players are going to be okay with you forbidding some options. If you’re building out a clone of the Mali Empire, you are going to have a tricky time justifying Shaolin-style monks, and it’s good to know that up front.

If your brain is not exploding with fireworks of ideas at this stage, stop. You’ve screwed up somewhere, and your world is boring you. Start over.

It is only at this point that you want to go back and start tying everything together in a realistic manner. Start with your hook and work outwards. Try thinking through some of the bits that are going to be tricky. If you’re deliberately building a world that operates under very different physical rules (say, on the interior of a globe instead of the exterior), think about how that affects things like water sources and weather. Think about how the people handle their lives; the three major concerns to review are food, travel, and war. If it is an extreme environment, what technologies (keeping in mind that even a fur hat is a technology) and taboos keep the population alive? Different populations will definitely have different levels of resources; are those resources redistributed through conquest, trade, tribute, or something else.

By starting with the story and working back to the science, you are guaranteed to end up with a world that is actually exciting, at least for you as the GM. And excitement is a much more important quality to ensure than verisimilitude.

#2 Comment By Solomon Foster On May 10, 2017 @ 8:43 am

Scrolled down to the comments to say something like this, but you said five times better than I would have. Well done!

Also, I cannot remember the last time I had enough time to dedicate to gaming to worry about creating the geology / biology of a game world, nor the last time I ran a game that was limited to one single world which wasn’t some version of our Earth.

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On May 12, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

” If you’re going to do this, why not just use one of the literally thousands of Earth-clones that already exist?”

Because by building a plausible world from the get-go one can envisage the place and what sort of things happen in it *before* one does all the stuff you cite to it, and world-building a non-earth-clone is a fun exercise.

It also means one is on firmer ground when, having published one’s setting and had it become a run-away best seller, one can start writing the all-important tie-in fiction without the tedious need to compile a bible of all the stuff that “just happens” to keep it all straight.

There’s more than one way to enjoy the RPG hobby. You may not care that all those awesome moons would end up crashing into each other unless placed carefully, but some people do.

I kinda like worlds that make sense as in: are deterministic from a natural laws viewpoint. I see nothing wrong with screwing with that after the fact by magic, but I like to think that the GM would have a very clear idea of what the consequences will be if the said magic is “disjointed” and the laws of physics rule once more.

And if one is playing or planning something like a Traveller setting, world building is not only important, it is central. SF RPGers include people who know how the universe works. See this made manifest in the excellent Darths and Droids screencap comic during the first few installments, and periodically thereafter, and what happens when the GM starts winging it in front of a couple of rather overly-focused engineers (Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan).

Plus, you know, science. It is interesting how the universe works. Playing with the building blocks (and personal computers make this ridiculously easy) is a learning experience all on its own. I still get the occasional epiphany when thinking about stuff I did in Physics class at high school that were opaque to me around the time Armstrong was stepping onto the Moon’s surface. One trip to Florida gelled the difference between radiant, convective and conducted heat when I returned to my car that was not parked under the shade any more.


Snide Science Snark: If more people did this sort of stuff for fun I wouldn’t have to listen to people at Steampunk meets trying to tell me Carnot made it all possible.

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 16, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

I completely agree with your assessment that story should come first. We have plenty of articles here on Gnome Stew about that, so I wanted to shift the focus (for a brief moment) to the mechanics of the world and how to build one that reflects the reality of the planet we live on. I wasn’t trying to take away from storytelling at all. To be honest, I’ve been thrown out of stories (in fiction and in role playing) by worlds that didn’t quite add up. In a way, creating a realistic (or as close as we can get in our storytelling) world helps the players immerse themselves more deeply by eliminating those speedbumps that can throw peoples’ focus or thoughts off track.

As far as the “why not just use one of the literally thousands of Earth-clones that already exist?” question goes…. I have yet to meet a GM that doesn’t dream of building their own Faerun or Krynn or Ravenloft or Middle Earth or….. the list goes on. I decided to drop an article that will help those aspiring world builders get things a little closer to being “right” (or whatever measurement of “right” you want to use).

#5 Comment By Blackjack On May 10, 2017 @ 9:34 am

A very wide-ranging article on technical world building from the bottom up. I’m going to pick just one piece of it to respond to: Language. In short, yes! Use language to describe, differentiate, and divide your various civilizations. A few thoughts:

— Societies that developed independently will have distinct languages.

— Societies that developed from each other or from a common ancestor will have related, but not exactly the same, languages.

— Language indicates power. The language of a society that is a military power, or a trade power, will be spoken as a common second language in other societies. It may even be the official first language, if there’s colonization, occupation, etc. Which of these languages a person speaks indicates how they fit in.

— Having differences in language from place to place enhances the feeling to the players of “This is unfamiliar territory” versus “This is the same thing, just somewhere else.”

— Having differences in language emphasizes skills in your game mechanics the players might otherwise consider unimportant. Did one PC spend the points to speak this language fluently? S/He is now the group’s spokesperson. Do some PCs speak it but haltingly? They’ll be identified as outsiders and treated as such. Perhaps they’ll look to skills like Bluff, Courtly Graces, or Disguise to pass.

#6 Comment By Roxysteve On May 12, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

It’s a small amusement for me that many GMs put language in the way of the players when they want to make communicating with other humans harder (otherwise why do it?) but their goblins all speak “goblin”, orcs all speak “orc” and … well so on and so forth.

The logical consequence of Taking Things Too Far is played out in one excellent scene in the film “Game of the Year”, which I recommend to everyone out there who hasn’t seen it yet.

#7 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 16, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

I also find it amusing that in some worlds there are wide variants of “human,” but only one “orc” or “goblin” tongue. I guess it’s a matter of finding where to focus your efforts for creating an immersive game world.

#8 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 16, 2017 @ 5:21 pm

Thanks for the comment! I agree that languages can (and should, where appropriate) play a large role in the experience of traveling across large swaths of land and encountering other people. If I were more of a linguist, I’d consider dropping an article on how to handle diverse languages (and dialects) in the game. Alas, that is outside my scope of experience, and I don’t think I could do the subject justice.

#9 Comment By bilwar On May 10, 2017 @ 8:30 pm

Nice article, I have a large world with Feudal Japanese like cultures, Native Americans, “Classic” Medieval Europeans as well as a different take on Caste system in India and other cultures.

I would certainly appreciate a bibliography of books on world making, as it would give me more ideas on how to, eventually, get my world finished, to me, anyways, my players may think it is already finished

#10 Comment By Roxysteve On May 12, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

[2] is halfway decent and specifically aimed at the less mathematically inclined.

#11 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 16, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

Thanks for the link, Roxysteve. That cover looks VERY familiar to me. I suspect it’s already on my shelves. I’ll check when I get home tonight. If it’s not there, Amazon will probably be getting a few of my dollars in the near future.

#12 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 16, 2017 @ 5:24 pm


I’ll be happy to compile a bibliography of what I have. I just spotted your comment with the request, and I’m pretty much booked up between now and Sunday morning. I just dropped a block of time into my calendar on Sunday morning to reply to this article with a list of books. Look for it sometime on Sunday (probably early afternoon).

Thanks for the interest.

#13 Comment By J.T. Evans On May 22, 2017 @ 10:21 pm

Here’s the overdue list of books that I reference to refresh my mind on how to build a fantasy world before I jump into the process of doing so:

Any of the Volo’s Guides are great as examples on how to really dive into the details. These details should grow organically out of your play sessions, not be generated beforehand. Yeah, some “seed details” will be needed, but not the in-depth write ups like what you’ll find in the Volo’s Guides. (These books are 2nd Edition AD&D Forgotten Realms books.)

The Kobolod Guide to Worldbuilding — Kobol Press. Great essays and insights into what should be considered.

The Forgotten Realms Atlas — This was published early in the 2nd Edition AD&D era. I’ll concede that not all of Faerun is accurate to what I described in my methods above, but it’s still a great world with exceptional maps to peruse and get ideas from.

With the advent of Google Earth and other online atlases, purchasing a physical atlas isn’t really needed anymore. A quick jaunt into your local library will turn up resources beyond your wildest dreams. I’m not going to list out my specific atlases here. There’s nothing special about them, and they’re all out of print. If you can, find an atlas that focuses on natural terrains with /some/ overlay of the human-created lines and boundaries. Don’t always look at these resources with north oriented to the top (like a map normally is). Twist it around. Spin it. See what ideas you get from a 90-degree turn. Change things up a bit and see what it spurs in your imagination.

For drilling down into building cities, I also use:
Cityscape — Wizards of the Coast — 4th Edition D&D
City Works (Legends & Lairs Series) — Fantasy Flight Games — Appears to be in the D&D 3.0/3.5 era.
RuneQuest Cities — Avalon Hill — Published in 1986 — Good luck finding this gem.

A good book for building a mostly logical castle/stronghold/keep along a border or trade route or customs area is:
Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook — Wizards of the Coast — 3.0/3.5 D&D era

Some of these are recent. Most are out of print. A good search on Noble Knight or Amazon or half.com should turn up most of these.

I hope this helps!