World-Building In Five Steps

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0934

RPT GM LadySeshiiria asks a big world-building question. Good timing, LadySeshiiria, because I’ve just started planning out my realm called Duskfall for season three of Hobos of the Apocalypse.

So I can hopefully help today with a high-level overview of my world-building recipe.

Here is LadySeshiiria’s question:


What is a good way to organize massive world building?

I am getting frustrated with my writing lately and have a hard time focusing on any one thing. It has become incredibly hard to back-trace my notes and such. I keep things foldered on my pc and in my binder so far.

Let me start with my recipe, which lets me organize my thinking and creativity. Organizing my brain first helps me organize my tools and work later.

My World-Building Recipe

Each step below involves a lot of work.

I’ll be using my Top ? Down ? Up method so I can do world dev during games as much as between them. I want to playtest ideas and use gameplay for ideas to speed world dev up and make my realm as interesting as possible.

Here’s my designer’s journey map for building Duskfall:

  1. What is the Game?
  2. What is the Environment?
  3. Who are Its Peoples?
  4. What’s the Rules Story?
  5. What is the Campaign?

What is the Game?

Most world-building methods start with physics, maps, or checklists of topics.

However, I believe the world is a key game piece that should deeply affect gameplay.

If you can swap one world for another and gameplay doesn’t change much, why bother? If you only need to change the names of the gods and types of coins, why bother putting in the time?

In board games, the board itself drastically affects the experience. This is what the Book of Lenses taught me: focus on the amazing and unique experience you want to create with your friends.

We want more than the Scooby Doo Monopoly versus Spongebob Squarepants Monopoly experience.

We want Catan versus Jenga versus Gloomhaven.

I want gameplay in Duskfall to be different from adventures set in the Forgotten Realms, Newhon, or the Hyborian Age.

So LadySeshiiria, give thought to how your world’s gameplay experience could be marvellous and wondrous and unique.

What is the Environment?

Only after we are done creating a Gameplay Vision do we start on the typical world elements.

I’ll do a future Musing with a checklist for building environments.

But in summary, this is how forces of physics, geology, chemistry, and magic collide to make your continents, climate, flora, fauna, and other factors what they are.

Who are Its Peoples?

We ultimately build setting to serve as our storytelling Platform.

And even in rugged wilderness and extreme location campaigns we still find NPCs.

The empires, kingdoms, cultures, factions, and villains we build for roleplay and plot points.

Biology, socioeconomics, and history are building blocks you use to create the diverse social world.

For example, humanity’s entire worldview is drastically affected by the fact we don’t have wings. We see, think, and do based on our physiology — down to the cellular level.

And your races, cultures, and monsters will see, think, and do based on their physiology, which is in turn heavily affected by the environment, which in turn is formed by your creative gameplay vision for the realm.

What’s the Rules Story?

Your game system should flavour gameplay.

It’s like physiology for characters.

The rules and your GMing style affect what players and characters see, think, and do.

The rules shape your adventures, and thus shape how your world will change.

The kind of game system effects I want to muse on involve things like playable races, class features, spells, equipment, and and magic items.

What’s available to players at campaign start?

What becomes rewards and awesome things to discover?

For example, certain prestige classes might only be unlockable if players garner a good enough reputation with certain cultures. And some spells out of the handbook can only be acquired through adventure.

At a deeper level, we want to ask what gameplay mechanics, if any, we need to bring our vision to the game table.

For example, new mechanics in Eberron and Dark Sun help make those worlds special and distinct.

What is the Campaign?

How can the world support the kind of stories we want to play out over the long-term?

This comes full circle back to our gameplay vision.

You might be looking to run a gritty sword & sorcery campaign like The Demonplague. And now armed with details on the lands, peoples, and game rules, you can start building such adventures and take full advantage of the deep Platform you’ve built.

Campaign planning affects world-building and vice vera. So it’s iterative.

Gameplay Evolves Your World

The designer’s journey does not end with campaign planning.

It never ends, really.

As you play, you build your world. Even just adding an NPC means you’ve created a new detail for it.

So our world-building is continuous.

Further though, I like to regard it as both playtesting and evolution.

Players want to have an impact on the world. A static world grinds you down. But a dynamic world that reflects and reacts to player choices becomes alive, amazing, and almost like an NPC.

And through gameplay we see how our vision meets our design, mechanics, adventures, players, and characters. It’s a complex system. But one worth figuring out.

So those are those high-level world-building steps I’d follow.

Focus on the minimum you need to get your campaign rolling. Consider your build a playtest and

change anything that’s not working.

Use gameplay to make up things missing from your world. Flesh those details out later.

And begin with a strong and creative idea for what’s going to make your world a different and special gameplay experience. This guides all choices downstream.

I did not get to your details organization question, LadySeshiiria. I believe a combination of Campaign Logger and your long-form writing app of choice is perfect.

But I need to give more thought about how I’d exactly go about organizing my world ideas and details. So I can’t answer that question today, unfortunately. But I hope my five step recipe helps a little.