This is the first article in a limited series that we’re gonna call “The Elements of Worldbuilding,” and it’s going to go through a variety of concepts (building blocks) that game masters, writers, and developers can use to craft their worlds. This should come with the understanding that between these initial articles it is not a total and comprehensive list – as listing every concept that makes up a world would be near impossible – but the goal is to provide inspiration and a jumping-off point for the worldbuilder’s out there. (Hell, we might even do a follow-up article or two if there are some other areas readers would like to explore with us.)
This first article will delve into the physical elements of the world – with a focus particularly on: the cosmos, geography, and biology of the world.
What exists in the spaces beyond your world’s mortal realm – and what energies and avatars exist that shape the natural elements of your world? The cosmos of your world refers to the starry heavens above, the multitude of different dimensions and the deities that use their powers alter the course of mortal events.
Planets & Space
Now, many worldbuilders may think to skip the galactic element of their world, I mean it’s not like they’re making a star-faring society of space elves. But remember our tides are dictated by the moon and eras of our civilization have navigated by the stars alone. While the objects that hang in the firmament may not be locations that can be visited by the players or reader they still can provide opportunities to help ground or add additional flavor to your world.
For example, a culture could put great significance on the children born under a comet, believing them to be children of great import and prophecy – or maybe when a certain planet is in retrograde (probably Mercury) everything is wack and magic has a tendency to misfire.
Planes of Existence
They have always been a part of mythology, from Orpheus descending into the Underworld to the Vikings rising to Valhalla in death. The planes are a series of locations (or dimensions) that exist outside of our reality but are usually anchored to the reality of the characters or players. In Dungeons and Dragons, this “real” world is known as the Prime Material Plane or in the Marvel Comics Universe, this role is fulfilled by Earth-616.
Outward from that prime dimension are the other planes – sticking with the dungeons and dragons universe – the material plane is surrounded by the “inner planes” housing the four main elements that make up the material plane (fire, water, earth & air) and further still removed are the realms of ideals (like the realms of law vs. chaos, good vs. evil, or nature vs. technology). These outer planes also house most of the deities that are worshipped by mortals on the material plane.
While mapping every detail of these other planes of existence may be unnecessary, knowing how they interact with the daily lives of the characters or players might be. Some good initial questions to ask regarding the planes might be: How do mortals travel to other planes? Is there space between the planes? What is it? What kind of cosmic forces or Gods live in these planes?
Cosmic Forces (& Gods)
In most fantasy or science fiction settings, the cosmic forces that drive the world’s machinations behind the scenes are usually personified by deities (or Gods) – however, these forces could just be (as they are in reality). Some examples of these forces could be entropy, time, chaos, or order. They are generally represented in Dungeons and Dragons as portfolios or domains that are presided over by deities.
In our world, these cosmic forces have been explained through a variety of religions – which is probably why in fantasy or sci-fi settings these forces have been personified as Gods and characterized through worship. For example, the ancient Greeks personified the forces of the sea as Posiedon – and it was he who controlled the tides and oversaw aquatic beings – but if Posiedon was not worshipped those forces would still exist (perhaps looked over by another deity).
The lands and sea that make up your world – along with the biomes that make up the environments – are crucial to developing an approachable world. However it’s important to understand the fundamentals of how continents form and how the science of physical geography works – how climates and weather patterns alter the landscape or how a river can erode a canyon given enough time. Understanding how natural forces shape the land realistically helps your players and readers feel more at home in your fictional world.
Rivers, Lakes, and Seas
Water has an enormous physical impact on the world around it. Given enough time a river will carve a canyon from a plateau or will create caverns out of limestone. The sudden lack of water can be environmentally shifting as well, for example, a sea drying up will leave a salt flat or desert that stretches for miles. Not only directly shaping the landscape, but secondarily most plants need some form of water to grow successfully.
Water is crucial for supporting life (as we know it) and the placement of water across your world will inevitably create the areas where civilizations and settlements will spring up as well. These waterways create methods of trade and transport – in addition to providing water for use throughout the home and for the irrigation of crops. In addition to the necessities, rivers can also provide borders to kingdoms – demarcating the limits of a lord’s power.
Water also provides a haven for wildlife – like an oasis in a desert – bringing creatures from miles around for a drink (or a meal), or a safe spawning ground where creatures swim for miles to breed – like the Atlantic salmon spawning in North America. Finally, Inland seas can have entire ecosystems uniquely adapted to survive in that specific location – opening the door to all variety of interesting critters to create for your world.
The mountain ranges that divide the landscape and the geology of the minerals included therein make up what we’re calling the topography of your world. Outside of the rivers, lakes and seas – the topography of your world will greatly impact how life is dispersed.
While in the actual sense, topography refers to all natural elements across the world, here we will be using topography to refer to the mountain ranges and elevation changes throughout your world (like a topographic map). Mountain ranges form natural barriers – useful when constructing kingdoms. And sometimes there are worlds that exist beneath the character’s feet – like the cavernous Underdark of the Forgotten Realms from Dungeons and Dragons.
Unique Natural Locations
Location is kind of a broad sub-category and could refer to a ton of different things in regards to your world. For the sake of this article we are referring to naturally formed locations (as settlements, towns and buildings will be covered in later “Elements” articles). Odd rock formations, waterfalls, canyons and bluffs are all examples of the type of locations we are referring to when talking about the physical world.
Other examples of natural locations could be a system of caverns or a large reef that has claimed countless vessels. These locations can be useful for creating culturally significant areas when developing the sentient races in your world – mountain ranges can serve as borders to kingdoms or a fey-wild adjacent grotto could have religious significance. Some real-world analogs for what we deem locations could be The Grand Canyon, the Arches in Moab and the Cliffs of Dover are all examples of naturally occurring locations.
Climate & Biomes
Water is not the only force shaping the landscape and the life living on it – the energy coming from the sun (or suns) creates a variety of different biomes and climates. The differing amounts of radiant energy can determine if the land beneath your character’s feet is a desert or swamp. The temperature of a region is largely determined by the amount of sunlight or solar energy it gets and in most cases this is what determines the weather of that region.
The climate and weather of a region largely determines many of the features that will appear there. For example, a cold and frozen region will house a variety of icy chasms and could be prone to sudden avalanches while a humid and rainy region could hold massive trees, quicksand and raging rivers.
The biomes of the world greatly impact the type of life that thrives in any given area – which is probably why Dungeons and Dragons has always provided random monster tables by biome. Speaking of life and the living creatures that dot the landscape – let’s move into our next topic for this article, the biology of your world.
The animals and plants that make up your world provide the drama that will unfold throughout your story, game or session. Without life, a world is just a floating rock in the cosmos – void of tales worth telling. Our three key elements when it comes to the biology of your world are: the sentient races, the flora and fauna.
The kingdoms of elves, dwarves, and man that make up the primary races of Middle Earth of Tolkien’s Lore are widely considered the “baseline” of fantasy races and while they all existed in one form or another in various mythologies – the creation of Middle Earth as a fantasy setting spiraled out into the vast array of fantasy work we see today. The fantasy races from Middle Earth have proliferated across a great deal of fantasy literature – including one of the main sources of inspiration for this website, Dungeons and Dragons.
So, will your world use the Tolkien races from Middle Earth, or will you forge your own path – crafting the history, cultures and civilizations that rule over your world? When creating new races it’s important to understand how cultures form, when and why settlements form, and how civilizations grow. It’s not like there was some cosmic belch and everyone just popped into place doing what they do (unless that’s what you’re going for). These sentient races will be a focus on the other articles in this Elements of Worldbuilding series – so we won’t go into too much depth here.
For clarification’s sake, I know there is some feedback making the rounds online regarding the nomenclature around “races” in D&D as it has a relatively negative connotation around the world. When we say “Sentient Races” we are more referring to “Sentient Species,” as they are completely different species with a different evolutionary history. Races is just the standard nomenclature for this – as of right now – so that’s what we’re sticking with.
Flora & Fauna
While not needing to define the entire food chain or every single creature & plant that exists across your world – life can highlight the alien or unique aspects of the world. This is because animals and plants generally adapt to the environments they live in and by incorporating exaggerated features that came about due to an adaptation from the environment.
Additionally, animals can shape how civilizations function and provide insight into their culture. The religious significance of cows in India or the importance of bison in ancient Native American cultures are just a few real-world examples of how animals can impact a culture in a variety of ways.
Plants shape civilizations similarly as animals – perhaps even more so. Agriculture tends to be the foundation of any civilization as it grows, providing the means to feed a growing merchant or specialist class. Plants can also have religious significance (see psychedelic properties) – making them revered or vilified by cultures – an example from the real world of this correlation between the spirit world and plants are the ayahuasca shamans of the Peruvian Amazon. In fact, the academic study of ethnobotany explores the connections between culture and its relationship to plants.
Dang, that was a bit of a brain-dump. Following up on the physical geography of the world comes the creation of the people and civilizations that populate it. The next Elements of Worldbuilding article will focus on the sentient beings that exist across the world and the elements that make up their cultures.
Worldbuilding – Wikipedia
The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Kobold Press, 2012
Worldbuilding Questions – Science Fiction Writers of America
Hero Photo BG by Qingbao Meng on Unsplash
Waterfall Photo by Blake Richard Verdoorn on Unsplash
Mountain Photo by Guillaume Briard on Unsplash
Lake Photo by Braxton Stuntz on Unsplash
Doggo + Lake Photo by Jf Brou on Unsplash
Plant Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash