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A World-Building Primer


Dialectical Hermeticist
Welcome once more, friends and neighbours, to a tutorial with The Meanest Senpai.

Today, I’m going to talk to you about world-building in the context of roleplaying. This won’t be the most comprehensive guide, as usual, and will hopefully serve as a gateway to your own learning. I’m going to present it as if you were writing an in-depth setting for multiple roleplays.

If you’d like me to talk about world-building in a more literary context, tell me so and convince me it’s worth the time.

Why World-Build?

There are two reasons to world-build - context, and fun. Yes, this is something that can just be fun but at the same time, it’s likely to add a lot to your RP. When it comes to contextualizing your plots and characters, solid world-building really helps; it can inspire your players with character ideas, NPCs, and maybe even make them want to use it to tell their own stories in another time. A well developed world gives context and weigh to words and actions.

For example, if I’m not clear on the power dynamics of your world, and a character runs straight up a vertical wall to backflip off and blow up a helicopter with their magic sword - is that normal?

Should my character be impressed, or shocked, or terrified? Is this just a Tuesday in a crazy-powerful anime world or are we looking at an Earth-like world where everything, in that moment, is changed for the characters witnessing it?

It also means when a player asks you a question that isn’t answered, the answer is clearer to you. If your setting is just ‘futuristic’ and a player asks about nanomachines, do you have an answer for them? On the other hand, if you’ve got a well-developed near-future cyberpunk world, and the player asks, you might reply “nanomachines are in their early developmental stages, but they’re a valuable field of research and Hades Inc. is making great strides so far.”

See what we get out of that?

  1. Nanomachines are not common technology available easily to players.
  2. Hades Inc. is a powerful corp who may be worth working for or stealing from.
  3. When you introduce a nanomachine-empowered miniboss later on, the characters might surmise she's from Hades Inc.’s experimental warfare division.

Goddamn - foreshadowing, world-building, player and plot management all in one answer.

That’s another nice thing about serious world-building - when you stop and think carefully about the ramifications of your world’s various conceits, you can come up with new and interesting ideas you hadn’t previously considered.

Finally, once you’ve built a sufficiently detailed world, you can use it over several RPs. As an example, I can probably run RPs set in Imeria for the rest of my life.

  • A Note On Quantity

    Players are notoriously hard to get to read anything. While the notes for your world-building maybe should sprawl to a few thousand words, trim it back to what players need to know and their characters are likely to know. You can keep the rest for when they ask questions, and mostly for your own use. You can also encourage players to extrapolate from what you’ve provided them and build on it.

Where to Start?

I’m going to list and explain a number of steps, here. You are free to skip steps as you like. I’ll operate on the assumption you’re building a world from scratch, but I’ll also talk about augmenting the real world at some point.

Step 1: Conceit

This part will likely be almost unconscious. This is where you decide on your themes and genre, and the ‘gimmick’ of your setting; the thing that makes it stand out or facilitates the story or experience you want to create.

This part is, honestly, a bit nebulous, but consider things like the time period you want, the themes and aesthetics you plan to use, the rough plot of your RP. The shorter and more focused the plot of your RP, the less world-building you need to do.

Step 2: Truth & Myth

This part is tricky and of dubious importance. It’s very much under the bonnet, as it were. This is where you decide the factual creation of your world, or close enough to it. Or you decide it doesn’t really matter.

This is where you decide if there are gods, what they’re like, how they operate. This is where you decide if magic exists and how it functions. This is where you decide exactly how your world was made.

Players never need to know any of this, not to begin with. Once you’ve got your facts, you can distort them - religions, lies, prophecies, old grudges and ancient curses.

You use this to give metaphysical things like magic some internal consistency, where you define the rules your world operates on.

Step 3: Geography

Geography is insanely important. It doesn’t just cover the shape the world, it covers the resources, the weather, communication and evolutionary pressures (if you’re going with a world in which evolution is a thing). Even a relatively Earth-like sci-fi setting will hinge on this - see Elementa Zero in the Mass Effect series.

Sometimes it’s enough to put some magic rock in the ground and proceed from there.

Geography will define things like the nature of your races - they’ll be suited to their environment, generally, whether created or evolved. It’ll define where cities are built and what they are built from. It’ll shape economy, warfare, and religion.

My favourite example here is ancient Egypt. The Nile is hugely influential; it shaped not just the daily and yearly cycles of society, but left an indelible impression on religion and philosophy. Recall that the region was once known as Kemet; the black land, because of the Nile’s nourishing silt, the black soil that filled the flood plains.

Step 4: History

How do we get from myth to the current time of your roleplay? History provides content, it lends meaning to current events. What nations have warred? What beliefs have gained or lost favour? What heroes rose and fell? Have two versions of history - what really happened, and what everyone thinks happened.

History is written by the winners, and written with an agenda. Different cultures will have different accounts of wars and agreements, different ideas of the world’s creation and its end. You can add insane depth to your setting with just a few generations of history, a few major events.

Step 5: Culture

Culture is a combination of religion, economics, politics, history, nationality, art, and - if your setting is fantasy - magic. It’s an incredibly complex topic, and you can be forgiven for making mistakes here, or going easy on yourself. Seriously.

Culture isn’t always logical - the underlying elements might be, but some things make no sense even though they receive strict adherence or cause great offense. Think of the middle-finger gesture, or flipping the bird as the vernacular might have it; completely arbitrary, it might originate with Aristophanes telling Socrates where he could stick his questions.

Culture assigns significance to things, like gold or the sky. It often defines itself in opposition to ancestral enemies or neighbours. It assigns gender roles and defines caste systems.

This is all hard work to write, although it can grow organically from the preceding steps. It’s very research intensive, but the easy method is to look at real-world cultures which share beliefs with your fictional culture, and/or originated in a similar environment. But make sure you do your research - and don’t take a culture from Africa and transplant it wholesale into pseudo-Europe.

Step 6: Interesting Times

Alright, we’re at the present day, the time in which your roleplay takes place.

Now what? Well, what’s your plot? Who is planning to assassinate the Calipha? Are the Vandals and the Ostrogoths preparing for war over a botched wedding three generations ago? Does Hyperion, Inc. want to steal Jormungandr Corporaton’s latest biotech patent? Have Gaia’s Children launched a terror campaign on Elysium?

What kind of conflicts arise from the peoples and histories you’ve built?

And how does the truth interact with the internal fictions of the setting?

What if the prophecy is a lie? What if the prophecy is not to save the world, but end it? What if that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange eons even death may die?

Step 7: Apocalypse

One of the most fun things about building a world is watching it grow, or be broken, or end.

Your players can uncover the truths you’ve seeded throughout - how does a Cleric of Varaya deal with the discovery her god wiped the people of Hyal Valley from the face of the world? How will a staunch ally of the Android Liberation Front react to learning about the Phobian Massacre of AE223?

What about the recent invention of steam power? What does that mean for the elves of Callindra?

The last dragon has been slain - now what?

There’s also deviations from the rules you’ve built - magic cannot raise the dead, so how is that wizard raising the dead? That makes for an interesting plot, right?

Thank you for reading. I hope this was helpful, and if you have questions or complaints, say the word.

Appendix: Elves, Dwarves, and Monocultures

What is human culture?

No, come on, humans are a race. What’s our culture?

Yes, of course that’s a stupid question. We have cultural divisions within nations, within communities - so why would other sentients be any different? If your non-humans have a monoculture, that can be a significant element of your setting. Look how alien the Elves, are - they have one culture spread across the world; how do they maintain it? Are they psychic, a hivemind, do they have some powerful magic? All questions players or player characters may ask.

While I'd encourage you to avoid classic fantasy races in favour of doing something more original, compelling, or interesting with them - if only for honing your skills - if you feel your story wouldn't work without them, use them.

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