World Building/Creating a Home Brew World
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a fictional universe. The process usually involves the creation of maps, listing the back-story of the world and the people of the world, and designing points of interest. The imaginary world need not be an entire planet. It might only be a single city or dungeon, or it might encompass several planes of existence, or anything in between.
Creating your own world offers the unique opportunity to run games in a setting built entirely to your specifications, ensuring that you are fond of every aspect of the in-game world. Further, by having a setting that you enjoy, you may find writing and running your adventures and campaigns is much easier and more rewarding than it might otherwise be.
Creating your own setting can be exciting and fun and is one of the crowning achievements of becoming a great GM. The process can be long and arduous and at times difficult, but also very fun and worth the effort in the end. This guide will help prepare you for the challenges ahead by offering suggestions found to be useful by many veteran GMs on MW. Keep in mind, there is no exact one single way to do things when world building. This is your project and you are free to do it however you like. If you find one step to be particularly arduous or annoying, move on to something else you like better, knowing you can always come back.
- Crawl, Walk, Run
If you have never played in a PbP RPG as a player, or GM'd a game with an existing setting, consider doing these things before trying to develop your own world. The experience you gain will be priceless. Attempting to do this without said experience will vastly increase your workload.
- Utilize (Free) Technology
Use a computer and appropriate software for everything when building your world. Software choice is key, and you have lots of options available to you that are free. Things jotted down on paper are less easily changed and, unlike a digital document, not searchable. Besides, if you're using a PbP format, paper is a wasted step.
- Be Up-to-Date
Make sure you are using up to date versions and the best software available to you. This will vary dramatically from person to person and job to job, but when in doubt, ask Google (or other preferred search engine).
- Digital Resources for GMs
Before you even begin, be sure to review every resource available HERE.
Keep all of your information clearly labeled and organized. Again, technology makes things much more efficient, and using digital files is generally more organized than pen and paper.
- Save Often
Say "I will save my content often" three times out loud to help yourself remember to do so. If you have access to autosaving technology, utilize it.
- An ounce of planning is worth a pound of cure
Plan ahead at every stage. Nothing is more embarrassing as a GM than to be caught by your players unprepared and unable to respond. Granted, no one can be entirely prepared for every situation, but by having a large amount of preparation done in advance, usually you'll have enough to go on so that you can reasonably improv whatever the challenge is and then write in what you need later. Also, as the GM it is explicitly your responsibility to be prepared, so lets embrace that notion.
What does your world require? Do you have ideas for certain things? How big does your world need to be? Put these ideas in your notes as you are inspired to add new content. Don't bother trying to fully develop your ideas yet as they will be affected by their surroundings. For now, just jot down the things you already know you want. Remember, an ounce of planning is worth a pound of cure.
The Big Topics
Some things to think about early on are:
- Technology Level(s)
- Aliens/Other Planets/Other Planes of existence
- Time Travelers
- The Origin of the Universe/Tale of Creation
- What Happens When You Die?
- What is the Meaning of Life
- Themes you want to portray
Have some potential answers to these things, or at least ideas about them and it will very much help direct the flow of your writing process. Simply ruling against a topic's inclusion is also a valid response.
It's also good to be aware of various sliding scale tropes when considering the tone of your game. Certain starters include:
- Idealism VS Cynicism
- Realistic VS Fantastic
- Silliness VS Seriousness
- Fourth Wall Hardness
- Gender Inequality
- Social Satisfaction
Draw a Map
Though it is not mandatory to draw a map, nor to draw one at this stage, it is highly recomended to at least have a scratched out map sketch once you have completed your brainstorming. You may go through several edits before you have a nice draft, this is normal.
- Specifically, plan bigger than you think you need.
- Make sure you have prepared sufficient wiggle room.
- Consider the longevity of the campaign: a world, a continent, a city, a cave, several terrestrial planes?
It's better to err on the side of "too much" than "not enough". Make sure you have three times as much mapped as you intend to use. We do this because the PCs may decide to take unexpected turns and journeys we did not foresee when planning the game initially. If the players ever get to the edge of the planned world, you probably did something wrong as a GM.
Where to begin?
Start with land masses and major geographic features.
Check wikipedia for a comprehensive list of geographic features, but don't forget to drop some unique things in, such as a flying city or ocean of blood, or whatever else you may fancy for your world. Use your imagination. If you're having trouble making your map, head over to cartographersguild.com. The site has 100's of map making tutorials, sample maps, and you can even hire a pro map maker if you want.
Two tutorials from that site stand out as very useful for the beginning mapmaker. Even though they're focused on fantasy mapping, the techniques can apply to any genre:
Once you've added in land masses and geographic features, place things on the map where they make sense. Haunted mines don't belong in swamps, population centers need access to resources, and rivers flow from mountains to oceans. Include not only locations of civilization centers and adventuring locales, but also points of interest and historical significance.
Unless you plan to show the full map to your players, make them a separate copy. On this map, put everything they should know about, and leave off anything they shouldn't.
- Split up your map into regional zones.
- Write at least three sentences about each zone and jot down notes of ideas (i.e. this region has a dark portal like in warcraft 2) worry about putting polish your ideas later.
- Plan zones based upon party strength. You'll want a starter zone, middle zones, and power zones. The starter zone is where you plan to start low powered PCs, middle zones are for them to gradually increase in power, and power zones are for the end of their career, when they have plenty of tricks up their sleeves and can handle the tough stuff.
- By the time you're done with this stage, you should have clear objectives for each region of your map.
Content Creation is both the fun and hard part of world building. You will spend most of your time in this phase to prepare your world to be game ready.
Top Down Method
The top down method, as the name suggests, involves starting from the top and working your way down to smaller elements. When drawing your map, this allows you to have the room to develop the big things first (oceans, continents, mountain chains) and then work towards smaller things (cities, forests, points of interest/significance).
Advantages to the top down method:
- This method is self organizing: you will put things where they go, in folders you've already built.
- Everything has a logical placement within the world: You can plan where to put the big things and ask why they go the places they do as you place them, rather than trying to squish stuff together, scrapping it and redrafting everything with a better plan.
- Encourages you as GM to think big and avoid later continuity issues from forgetting large things: It's easier to add small changes later than big ones. An NPC later added might go unnoticed, if a kingdom pops up out of the blue, people are going to wonder why they never heard of it before, why there wasn't any previous trade with that country, why they just never had an effect on the world previous to their new arrival.
- This method gives you plenty of detail and firmly presents the tone of your world. If you forget to make certain pieces of the backdrop, your world will not be as understandable to your gamers.
- This method allows you to spend less time during game play focusing on developing your world, and more time on your players and the plot, making for a far more immersive world than it might otherwise be.
Pick one zone to start with for your campaign. Populate in descending order from large to small. For example: A kingdom, a city, a hamlet, a goblin cave, a specific NPC, etc. If you find you have an idea for an NPC or smaller item than the group you are currently working with, jot it down for now but start with the big things and work towards the small. This method will help answer the bigger questions first, and as you work towards making your NPCs, you can define their role within the world.
History the Top Down Way
- Do not start with history. Do this last.
- Create a world you like. Creating a world you like is primary, and if you like the world you built, the history will write itself by asking the Five Magic Questions (see below). If instead you write the history first, you may end up logically somewhere that you didn't want to be with your setting.
- The Big Topics. Revisit your notes from your planning stage. Remember those big topics we talked about? Start developing them more now. Just like everything else, work from the top down. When organizing your sections, consider organizing them by "Ages" such as "The Bronze Age" or "The Dragon Age". Make sure each age has something significant to talk about, otherwise it's not really an age.
- Start Vague. Once you rough out how the the place came to be, add in lots of vague sections early on and get more specific as time passes and things like writing are invented. Just writing your history also will give you plenty of ideas and fuel to go back and repeat previous steps and revisit other areas in development at various levels. Leaving wide open chunks in the history of your world early on also gives you lots of freedom to add in some long forgotten ancient mysteries as your campaign progresses.
- Consider creating two time lines: one for GM use with and one for player use. The first should have everything, as it actually happened. The second should have common knowledge, which may or may not be completely accurate, and may or may not have detail.
Bottom Up Method
The bottom-up method takes the details of your plot and from there, extrapolates the entire world. Instead of worrying about having the entire picture, you worry about what you really need to get a game going.
Advantages and Disadvantages
The bottom up method generally works well if:
- You have a general outline you want the plot to follow. This method allows you to tailor the world so that the PCs and their story are really the most important thing in the universe, saving you the trouble of working it into some other setting.
- Your entire campaign, is set in only one or two cities or regions. If the players will only see one small portion of the world, then your efforts should be focused on that area.
- You are intimidated by the prospect of creating an entire world, several realistic cultures, and an entire cosmology. Bottom-up lets you start small.
- You are pressed for time. It's quicker to get a game rolling with this method than some others, because it allows you to start with the details you'll immediately need and to ignore ones the players are unlikely to see.
- You want to give yourself the freedom to change large aspects of the world later. As long as your changes are still consistent with what you've already shown the players, they'll be none the wiser.
However, it may not be the best choice if:
- You don't have a specific plot in mind. If you want to create a plot around your setting, then you should use the top down method described elsewhere in this article.
- You are running a sandbox game. You'll have very little plot to build from, and players will have a lot of room to surprise you, which may leave you scrambling to come up with details on the fly.
- You plan on running multiple campaigns in the setting. You can always flesh things out if you go along, but one of the main advantages of bottom-up is that it allows you to save time by ignoring the details you won't need for a game. Other campaigns are likely to need those details, however, so It may be more efficient to create the entire world at once.
- You're more comfortable with having a lot of details set in stone. Maybe you'd rather focus on things like encounter design or helping new players with the mechanics.
- Your gut instinct tells you that something else will work better for you. Everyone's creative process is different, and you're more likely to put your best efforts into something that goes along with your instincts rather than a process that works against them. Just be aware of the pitfalls of whatever method you choose. In reality, most World Builders drift between methods at least a little bit and that it perfectly natural.
First, you need a starting point. For many people, this will be the place the campaign starts in and the scenario that gets the adventure rolling. However, sometimes it makes more sense to begin elsewhere. If the characters are beginning in a small town but almost immediately moving to the big city where most of the action takes place, you may want to start off with that city. If the campaign is about a quest for a mysterious temple, it may make more sense to begin with the location of the temple and the temple's place in history.
Flesh out that starting point. You'll probably want a map of the place, although whether you want to begin with it for inspiration or wait until you have most of the details decided on is up to you. You'll need to know its political structure (Is it run by a mayor? A king? A high priest?) and probably flesh out a few influential NPCs. Since PCs, no matter the system or genre, have a tendency to do things of questionable legality, you'll need to have some idea of the legal code and how it's enforced. You'll also want a general idea of the location's culture and way of life. How are people expected to treat each other? How do they make a living? If the location's history is important to the plot, you'll want to keep that in mind as you determine the answers to the previous questions.
Tie all of this in with the plot you had in mind. If you get carried away creating things without a thought toward what you're going to use them for, you might end up with a wonderfully-detailed locale that doesn't really make sense for the story you want to tell. A good question to ask yourself is, “What kind of place would this plot have to happen in?” That question should always be at the forefront of your mind. Of course, if in building you come up with intrigues that complement your plot rather than overshadow it, so much the better.
Another good practice is to take lots and lots of notes. In order for the world to make sense, everything you build has to be consistent with what you built before. If you have everything you've made recorded in an orderly manner, consistency shouldn't be an issue.
Once you've gotten your starting point, it's time to expand out from there. What kind of national political structure would a location with your starting point's leadership exist under? What kind of climate and geography would lead to your starting point's citizens living and working the way they do? How are your starting point's problems related to ones in the world at large? How did world history shape you staring location, and vice-versa? Is your starting point more or less technologically advanced than the surrounding lands, and why? Again, it's all just a variation of “What would allow this to happen?”
Keep expanding outward, always remaining consistent with what you had previously. Make sure everything your PCs need to know about your world at character creation is covered. You don't necessarily need to fill out the details of distant lands the players are unlikely to ever see, but you should hammer out places they have a chance of visiting in the near future, so you'll be prepared. If you want to have PCs from all over the world (or continent, or galaxy) then be sure to give them a basic idea of all the regions (or nations, or planets), although for faraway lands irrelevant to the plot, it's okay — perhaps even best — to leave a lot of the details up to the players.
The Five Magic Questions
If you run out of ideas and have too much space to be comfortable with when developing something, ask the following FIVE MAGIC QUESTIONS:
Who? What? Where? When? and Why? (and sometimes How?).
Answering those questions will allow you to ask them more and continue the trend of developing and fleshing out your world. Why are those two kingdoms fighting? Who are the kings? When and Why did the feud begin? Where is the lost Sword of the Avatar? Etc.
There are actually a lot more than FIVE MAGIC QUESTIONS. Find a comprehensive list HERE to help get you started. An entire website devoted to various world building tactics and techniques can be found HERE.
- Finding Inspiration/Tropes
If you ask the questions but can't think of a good answer, you may be running low on writing inspiration. Try going to TVtropes.org and hit the random button, or browse them. Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. Surfing through TV Tropes will likely end up with lots of hours gone missing if you are new to the site, but it's is filled lots of great writing ideas that are easily cataloged and generally presented in a fun fashion. As a writers tool for PbP this one of the best around. It will allow you to be knowledgeable of many writing techniques and storytelling types as well as familiarize you with cliches.
Note: Cliches are not a bad thing necessarily, but using them as a blunt tool in your writing powered by ignorance of their proper use usually is.
Land mass based factions (Countries, Kingdoms, etc) aren't the only way to organize people. Factions range from being as large as interstellar federations to being as small as a handful of underground cultists. Factions are great for creating various political tensions within your campaign. When creating factions consider asking the five magic questions to answer the following:
- Motive: What is the goal of the faction?
- Organization: How is the faction run? Is it a cartel, a coalition, an institution, a religion, a political party, something else? Where does the funding come from?
- Size: Who and how many people are involved?
- Location: Not all factions are kingdoms that are based on borders of land masses. Some things like religions and trade cartels cross political borders. Discuss the main hub of the faction as well as it's influence abroad.
- History: Why was the faction created and what facilitated its creation? How long has it been around? What relevant things have been done in its name?
It is not enough to merely have a physical description and list of statistics and equipment for an NPC. This tells us nothing of who they are and how they behave. Breathe life into your NPCs by giving them specific quirks, motivations, advantages and disadvantages. Use this list for some starting ideas for quirks. If you're playing D&D, try using the MW NPC Generator.
Generators can be found online for just about anything, from simple names to fully statted out creatures.
Content creation can often be facilitated by having pictures. Google can be used for a handy image search to help give you some inspiration. Need an evil castle? Type it in, see what comes up, pick something you think works. The picture will often tell a lot of the story to you and your players. Using pictures can also help define culture. Dark, gritty cathedrals say something very different than a bright, anime style town.
For this example, we'll focus on working up a mage. The decision is made to search for a 'blood mage'. In this case, Google was the image search engine of choice, and one particular image seemed right.
Since the image selected actually has two people in it, the story needs two people in it. Twins would be interesting. Our mage has now become twin elven blood mages who use swords. From here, work out the rest of their details: names, motivations, dastardly plans, history, and so on.
By working from the image, instead of the other way around, you save time trying to find a picture that fits what's in your head, and can get ideas about the character you may not have considered before.
Organize your world into...the Myth Wiki! Learn how to format your writing for the wiki here. Although you can add things to your world indefinitely and infinitely, remember that someone else reading all of it will have to start at the beginning and work their way through it. Start your World Wiki with an overview of important information, presented as concisely as possible.
From there, use subpages to organize information into related subgroups. If you have a lot about a particular city, put it on a separate page. If a particular organization has a detailed write-up, put that on a separate subpage. Use subheadings so readers can find exactly what they're looking for. Tag your pages for easier searching.
Information to consider putting into your wiki, beyond the obvious:
- Alphabetical list of major NPCs
- Alphabetical or regionally organized listing of major cities and towns
- Listing of locations of special interest, such as magic item sellers, black market vendors, frequent quest givers, and special geographical features (like a healing fountain, etc.).
After a lot of work, you finally have a homebrew game world. The next step is to work on the basic outline of the your campaign and populate it with adventures.