To quote the Dungeon Master’s guide from the fifth edition of Dungeons and Dragons, “A world is more than just a backdrop for adventures. Like Middle Earth, Westeros, and countless other fantasy worlds out there, it’s a place to which you can escape and witness fantastic stories unfold. A well designed and well-run world seems to flow around the adventurers, so that they feel part of something, rather than apart from it.”
“A well designed and well-run world seems to flow around the adventurers, so that they feel part of something”
Worldbuilding is the process by which somebody creates a fictional setting or imaginary world – like the worlds mentioned above. The lasting appeal of those worlds is that even with their variety of fantastical elements (dragons, zombies, etc.) they feel grounded and approachable. The characters in the stories – like the players in your games – feel like they are moving through a world that is rich and has a variety of choices that have consequences on the greater world as a whole.
However, building a world that is grounded and approachable can be a daunting task – creating the geography, cultures, religions, technologies, governments, cosmology, and more can be overwhelming for folks just getting started. While we hope to make it easier with the resources here, crafting the context to make believable stories and memorable adventures that give the character’s decisions impact can be accomplished by building the world around them. Getting started building a believable world that stories can be woven through begins with understanding what type of world you plan on building.
Types of Worlds
The assumptions that you make when creating your world depend on the type of world you want to create. According to a video by WorldAnvil, there are three primary categories that your world can fall into – imaginary, alternate (or speculative), and real-world.
A dragon flies down from Mount Blargnok near the Plains of Poopendorf or a mad wizard weaves magic to teleport his tower miles away – these events may be commonplace in an Imaginary or Second world. Generally, this is the type of world that comes to mind when people talk about worldbuilding, Imaginary (or Second) worlds are settings and realities that are created from scratch, constructed completely by the worldbuilder. Here, the creator is responsible for setting up everything from a pantheon of deities and the geography to the races and cultures that dot the landscape.
The prototypical example of this type of world that is consistently used as the prime example is that of Middle Earth, from JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy – featuring mythical races (of the elves, orcs and dwarves), entire fabricated languages (Elvish), magic and a variety of monsters and fantastic beasts. Other examples include Tamriel from the Elder Scrolls Series, Azeroth from the Warcraft Series and the Forgotten Realms from Dungeons and Dragons. Not to be railroaded into only fantasy settings, other popular imaginary world examples are the galaxies of Star Wars and the Cyberpunk cities of ShadowRun.
Alternate Earth Settings:
Alternate Earth or Speculative worldbuilding focuses on the creation of a setting that is like Earth… but different. It follows the typical laws of nature that we are all familiar with (having existed within them) but set up around various “what if” scenarios, hence the name speculative.
An example of one type of speculative world is the “Alternate History” world – such as the setting of “The Man in the High Castle” – an alternate history world where the Axis Powers won World War Two. Dystopian and far future settings like Mad Max and Star Trek show potential futures for our world are another type of alternate earth worlds. Finally, the Urban fantasy settings of Vampire: the Masquerade provide a gothic and horror-themed world where werewolves and undead lurk in the shadows provide another type of speculative world.
Why would you need to “build” a real-world setting and world – as your players and readers will already understand the real world (they live in it). However, when a creator is imagining a “real-world” setting with fictional characters and locations – that is still a type of worldbuilding.
For instance, the fictional town of Riverdale (of Archie Comics fame) is set in a supposed “real” town without the fantastical elements of imaginary or alternate worlds. Another example from the gaming sphere is in L.A. Noire, cruising down the California streets in 1947 – pursuing fictional characters and crimes. Yet another example is the White House of the West Wing or the House of Cards television shows, featuring fictional characters with fictional backstories in real world settings.
…although you could make the case that due to the fact that the U.S. government is relatively functional in those examples may lead them into the realm of alternate or speculative worlds.
Where do we go from here?
To conclude, It should be noted that when this blog refers to a “world” it doesn’t just mean the literal definition of a planet. A world can include multiple planets (such as the worlds of Star Wars), dimensions (like the Marvel Universe) or perhaps just a single city (like Liberty City from Grand Theft Auto 3). So when we say “worldbuilding” it refers to the construction of a fictional setting, and when we say “world” it refers to all the elements of that fictional setting. I don’t want to get too far into the semantics of it, this just seems like the common language associated with what we are discussing – so don’t be so literal would be my advice for you.
That being said, understanding the type of world you want to build is only the start of the worldbuilding journey. Now begins the task of starting to craft your world out of the raw elements that make up the setting of the adventure, game or story. Beginning your journey into your fictional world is a daunting task and it seems like there is an impossible amount to catalog and define but as Lao Tzu wrote a long time ago, The Journey of a Thousand Miles begins with a single step.
Featured photo by sergio souza on Unsplash
Dungeon Master’s Guide 5th Edition. Wizards of the Coast, 2014.
What is Worldbuilding – WorldAnvil
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Kobold Press, 2012