World Building Techniques


Homebrew and House Rules


If you're anything like me, you have a lot of ideas in your head that cover a lot of aspects of a world but you have a hard time codify them.

I'd like to discuss world building from a meta stand-point. The technique of world building itself.

Now, I've tried both top down and bottom up methods. I've tried outside in and inside out, but I find I almost need some sort of hybrid of both.

Do you have any good tricks to world building?


I stare at my screen and get distracted with stupid internet videos or... well, these messageboards. Then, when game time comes, I wing it.

Yea, I wish I was more organized (and had better world-building skills).

The Exchange

1. DM ONLY WORLD MAP

(a) Go into some draw program you are very familiar with and draw the twenty triangles of a D20 laid out flat like you were cutting out an over-sized paper D20.
(b) Roll up a random world map by compiling a list of Dominant Geographical Types - Water, Mountains, Desert, Forest/Jungle, Plains, swamp...and roll on that list for each of the triangles - the ones that come up as land likely have large amounts of land - like part of a continent - Join up adjacent facets as super-continents and draw what looks to be the map of your world - and colour it in with a bit of appropriate effort.

Huzzah! World Map.

Then you can go off and decide where on that map you would like to do a local campaign where the PCs will duke it out with Goblins and Gods. It doesn't matter that the PCs (Though it might inspire the players if they can see the world they are playing in) don't know what it looks like - You have it so you know the big picture.

Go do it right now. And post it on your BLOG. I want links in this thread to your Campaign World that you just made.


The World Builder's Guidebook from 2nd edition was really helpful for me. It has descriptions of the top down and bottom up methods and tables for randomly determining what's in what region. It also came with a pad of graph paper that contains many types of projections for drawing world, regional, & local maps. Mostly I use it now for the random race tables.

There are sites designed to help authors write books that sometimes contain useful information or ideas. I don't have a example that works right now though, sorry.

Scarab Sages

1 person marked this as a favorite.

After going through the process myself, I've found certain things that work for me and certain things that don't. That is to say, to start with, you should decide which techniques appeal to you the most after looking into it. Some people will say that bottom-up is the only way to go, others say that top-down works best overall, but I used a pretty decent mix of both and filled in the blanks from there.

The first step I suggest you take is to find a blank notebook, blog, Obsidian Portal account, or something similar to organize your work. It will be radically convenient later on when you need to start connecting little things together (X nation was founded when Y nation ended and Z race migrated there, etc.). Cross-referencing your notes becomes important after a while, and the more organized you start, the better off you'll be in the long run. This was something I learned the hard way, after years of having ideas and not recording them and then forgetting them or worse, improving them and forgetting the changes later on. Even after I started writing things down, I've had to re-organize a couple of times due to laziness on my part. Not a fun thing to do with a 50-page word document, heh.

You'll need a map eventually, so why not make it the first thing you do? You don't even need a world map unless you're going extremely top-down, a single continent or even a single region will do. Even most officially published campaign worlds focus on a single continent or part of one, and it seems to work well enough for them.

As for making the map itself, there is a lot of trial and error involved. Some fundamental research on real-world geography will go a long way towards helping you. As quirthanon said, the World Builder's Guidebook is very useful in this regard. I referenced that book countless times in my own work. Finding a copy (digital or otherwise) is highly recommended.

Form an idea of the types of terrain you want to feature, from forests, to plains, deserts to swamps and so on, and figure out how these types of terrain interact with one another. Research will be your friend here and really throughout the entire process, so familiarize yourself with ways of finding information as well.

The medium(s) you use to create the map will depend heavily on how much time and effort you want to spend on it. Map creating software exists but can be pricey and often requires huge investment of time to learn the program and use it, but the trade-off is they produce maps of decent to fantastic visual quality. Using an image editing program such as MS paint or Photoshop has many of the same pros and cons. Old-fashioned pen-and-paper drawing is cheap, easy and can be fun, but unless you have some artistic ability may not live up to your ideals. Again, this step majorly involves trying different things and finding which you feel comfortable with. There really is no wrong way to go about drawing the map as long as you (and eventually your players!) are satisfied with the end result. Personally, I use the old 2nd ed. AD&D Core Rules Program which has a built-in mapping program for overland, city and dungeon maps, and has a very simple "point and click" interface. It also includes a very early version of the Campaign Cartographer software, but unlike the other program, has a steep learning curve.

I realize this post is a wall of text but maybe someone can get some use out of it. I can continue on with other aspects of world building if someone would like, otherwise I'll crawl back into my wizard tower and hope someone finds this useful!


Probably the biggest trap I fall into when world building is coming up with relevant plot hooks / conspiracies which don't involve a big, gonna-destroy-the-world type badguy.

For example, one of my worlds had this Rovagug-like monster called the Archfiend imprisoned underneath the world. There were four towers scattered atop the surface, positioned atop powerful leylines, re-routing their energy towards the prison, powering it. So, yea--cataclysmic event occurs and one of the towers is destroyed, allowing the Archfiend a measure of influence on the surface. He begins whispering into the ears of mortals, tempting them with power (enter mustache twirling villains). All they have to do: destroy the remaining towers and free him.

I mean, this sort of game is fine, but not when you begin subconsciously interjecting it into every game world you build!


Map, factions and regions, governments, beliefs and Weltanschauung, relationships of areas to their neighbours, tech as relevant to the players (these people focus on this, they use the weapons...), common monsters of an area, fauna of an area, unusual laws.

As I have been playing a lot of shogun lately, I've found it has helped me consider certain aspects that game world building can gloss over.

I know one world builder GM who focused far too heavily on economics and trade. His world felt a bit dead. As a student of sociology, psych and history I try and make the societies have their flavour and character. I don't want to just copy paste from our world, that is lazy. I try to have a lot of fun and go with the ideas of the players too, that help me build the world as they game in it.

:D
Craft whole new worlds, have fun.


2 people marked this as a favorite.

I have a few quick tricks that I use.

Maps:
I generally like to use real maps of earth locations and just make them campaign worlds. My characters have trekked through Central America and the Phillipines. They never knew it, and they still don't. I just never let them see the world map. They only see the parts I draw for them. I find lack of information can really be as useful as information. If you draw a map with a bunch of blanks, you often get desire to fill it in for completeness, but leaving it blank is just as useful for putting something there when you need it, and not wasting your time on something the players never see. This is something that having real maps helps with sometimes because the map seems filled out, but really there is no reason the fantasy world needs to have things in the same place as the real world. So, the map is really as blank or already filled in as I need it.
Otherwise, I tend to make maps off of major features and fill the rest later. Mostly, I don't build the whole world. I figure the things everyone in the world would recognize... think ancient Mt. Olympus, the Nile, the Pillars of Hercules. After the majors are named, build the things the characters will interact with first, and leave the rest kind of blank.

Descriptions:
Keep these as short and direct as possible. If I say the Theocracy of Gygaxia is an Egyptian culture of jackal people, then I've said all I need to unless the players go there or I'm making them go there. Other details can be added later. Obviously, I like having poorly defined things around to use as design space on the fly. Generally, you really only need the facts you told your players. Write those things down. Oh! Also, again use uncertainty to your advantage. I find often that world makers tend to just give their design facts as facts to the players. This works against you by limiting your options. Everything is perspective, so when the Meritocratic Atlanteans talk of the Gygaxians, it is always derogatory to their superstitious nature, and strange furry heads. The characters will doubt the nature of the information which causes this amazing thing where the players develop their own opinions. I always find it funny how after a campaign or during it you can ask players about some deliberately vague aspects of the world, and they always have different thoughts or opinion. Those ideas are never the same as yours.

Character Centric:
The hardest part of world-building as a GM is that ultimately it isn't just your world. It belongs to the players as well. By letting them lead the game somewhat, you allow the world to come into existence around them. I find this kind of sandbox style gratifying. Mostly, this is because I don't spend time on things people never see, and, secondly, it allows my players to feel they are really a part of the world. When characters go off the beaten path, they know it, and they often enjoy being able to help tell their own story. I really don't know how many thieves' guilds I have had to make because my players wanted to interact with the seedy underbelly of some new town.

Notes:
Take LOTS of notes where you can find them later!!!


That is something I struggle with often.

Sometimes I want to say "Okay, these orcs are like a lot of orcs from other fantasy worlds, but they're a little more organized" or say "Okay, these are snakmen with a feudal Japanese culture" but I always feel that's a cop out.

Like if I were writing this out as a coherent campaign setting I wouldn't want to just shoe-horn real world references in.

I guess for player description it works fine though.

I am one of those people cursed with an insane eye for detail and I turn that eye twice as hard at my own work.


I start off by coming up with the culture of a region and studying its real world equivalent. At some point while doing that, I come up with a naming convention. Then I think of the reason for establishing boarders, political or geological, and then I draw them in on whatever blank map I can find on google or make with Campaign Cartographer. By the time I'm done with the first culture, I generally know what else is out there, provided I can force myself to stick to a single technological level.


Yes flesh, don't borrow from one culture, think of your own and how they could be done and live, and then borrow small parts, like weapon tech, from certain cultures. This prevents the, they are just Mongols/Spanish/Egypt/French problem.


I don't think that is a problem. To change the name but keep the culture lets you dispense with the details of history, draw on common knowledge, and get on with the game.


A couple of relevant links:
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FantasyCounterpartCulture
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/SoYouWantTo/BuildYourOwnFictionalWorl d

My own thoughts: Unique cultures are an excellent way to distinguish your world from all the others. There are already plenty that copy existing cultures and just change the name. So if you want to do world-building on a world-wide scale (as opposed to just making enough space to play the current game), investing a bit more time in the cultures (even just to mix two of them) wouldn't be a waste.

cranewings, not to be rude, but I'm curious: if you just want to get on with the game, why not use a published setting, or just run the games on Earth-with-magic?


Magi, my most commonly run setting is a mashup of Bronze Age cultures, Greek and Persian, early Itali and Germania, Celts and so on, with the real history and names filled off. My steam punk setting is the real 1880s with more wierd technology and magic based on real superstition and groups.

I've used published settings. Dragon Lance because we all read the books. Planesscape because it is great. Generally, I think they are too much work to run- to much to read, plus they usually don't make any sense.


I see both advantages.

One is a lot easier and faster to run. "They're Aztec cat people" is one sentence and you're done.

The other allows a great deal of personal pride if one of your players suddenly exclaims "I want to play one of these guys next character!"

I got that recently when one of my players found my modified Tengu culture to be very interesting.


I like this thread, it is helping me with my world building for my steampunk setting. Just thought I'd throw that out there.


Dotting


1 person marked this as a favorite.

So, I picked up this guide on DM prep, and the author brings up a good point (the book is called Never Unprepared and is from Engine Publishing).

World building is often, largely, a masturbatory practice for DMs. We create deep worlds, deep history, and other stuff that we enjoy writing, but our players largely never see it, or never see the full picture.

For the purpose of a game world, it is often best to "write it down when you need it", as writing it down beforehand makes it a little less able to be modified if need be.

If I create a hundred connections the players have never seen, then during play I get this amazing idea and change something slightly, I have to cascade these changes down 100+ connections.

If I only "write as I need", I can evolve a world that works better for actual play sessions.

It's an interesting concept, one I plan to adopt for a little bit and see how it goes.


Flesh, that is basically how story telling games work. I really don't like games like that. I appreciate the detail because it helps with immersion. I think having a lot behind the screen is an important aspect of the game. Sure, it isn't necessary, but man do I miss it when it is absent.


I still plan to have a lot behind the screen, but I'll have what's necessary.

My players are a Tengu, Elf, and Human right now who are going to hit a goblinoid themed dungeon.

I don't need to churn out the funerary practices of dwarves quite yet, I can probably ignore dwarves completely until I write up a dwarven NPC.

Instead I'll spend my time focusing on Tengus, Elves, Humans and Goblinoids while I write stuff up tomorrow.

In the back of my head, and in my notes, dwarven funerary practices are there, I just don't need to flesh them out yet.


Cool

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8

Different ways I've gone about it, and in different combinations:

Start from a map: Pick up piece of paper and draw. Or generate random terrain with something like the Fractal Terrains program. Or a bit of both.

Start with Religion/Cosmology: Are there gods at all? How many? What is the world's creation myth? How might the world's creation myth affect how magic works or divine magic works or why the world needs adventurers (see below)? Who worships which god? Do all sentients worship the same gods or does each sentient race have its own god/pantheon?

Answer the Question, Why Does this World Need Adventurers? What needs killing and looting? Why? Are there lots of monsters? If there's dungeons to explore, why are there so many ruined dungeons? If there's dragons to fight, what do the dragons want? Is there a "safe zone" and an "adventurer zone" or is it all dangerous? Are the dangers less sword and sorcery and more political, i.e., in your world, is it more likely that your adventures in your world will be about war and political intrigue and spying, or will it be about slaying demons or dragons? Is there a single massive big-bad in the world or several threats?

Answer the Question, Am I going to account for what's in Core or am I going to Deviate?: For example/as a starter, if you just want players to be able to use the core rulebook without alteration, you know you will need to have nations/homes/wandering caravans for humans, elves, dwarves, gnomes, orcs, and halflings. If you're not being innovative (which is okay) about where these creatures come from, then you know you need a magic foresty place for elves and a underground-mountain place for dwarves, and wild wildernesses close to civilization for orcs, etc. etc. If you know you DON'T want your races to be from "typical" locations, then you start designing those alternate origins. And if you know you don't want what's in core, then you start thinking about what you do want to have and go from there.

Think about what low level adventurers would do to gain experience. Think about what high level adventurers would do to add to their fame and glory. Design locations around these ideas.

Ask your friends about what kind of world they'd like to adventure in

Pick your favorite TV show/cartoon/greasy back of a pizza box and design a world inspired by its setting

Answer the Question: Do I want a central location in my world that is the hub of all things awesome, or do I want to spread things out? For example, is the whole world in all its diversity the entirety of the focus of the world, or say, do you want to build the Amazing City At the Center of the World that all roads lead to and then build the rest of the world around that. In fact, hmm.... *starts jotting down ideas...*

Use Random Generators: Seriously, buy the Ultimate Toolbox or go to Seventh Sanctum and click buttons until you find something that inspires you.

Sorry no easy answers but the whole thing of how to build a world is there's no right answer, and even if I found the amazing, fast, foolproof way that worked for me there's no guarantee it would work for you.

But then, that's also why I really really hope someday Paizo puts out "The Ultimate World Builder's Guide" or something.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

I'm creating my world like this: Take 1/2 Eberron and 1/2 Iron Kingdoms pick out what races you don't want and/or add races you do want, then sprinkle with a bit of Conan's myths and cosmology. Bake at 350 degrees for as long as you need. Let it cool for a bit, and then serve it to the players.


Fleshgrinder wrote:

So, I picked up this guide on DM prep, and the author brings up a good point (the book is called Never Unprepared and is from Engine Publishing).

World building is often, largely, a masturbatory practice for DMs. We create deep worlds, deep history, and other stuff that we enjoy writing, but our players largely never see it, or never see the full picture.

For the purpose of a game world, it is often best to "write it down when you need it", as writing it down beforehand makes it a little less able to be modified if need be.

If I create a hundred connections the players have never seen, then during play I get this amazing idea and change something slightly, I have to cascade these changes down 100+ connections.

If I only "write as I need", I can evolve a world that works better for actual play sessions.

It's an interesting concept, one I plan to adopt for a little bit and see how it goes.

Masturbatory... well put. I've seen a young dm jerk a great deal, then pass us all the new material, and rules updates and expect us to care about the economic arrangements of the continents. No joke.

When I make a world, it had better be cool for the players, and there are no sacred cows they cannot effect.


Spyder25 wrote:
I'm creating my world like this: Take 1/2 Eberron and 1/2 Iron Kingdoms pick out what races you don't want and/or add races you do want, then sprinkle with a bit of Conan's myths and cosmology. Bake at 350 degrees for as long as you need. Let it cool for a bit, and then serve it to the players.

Yeah, mix it all up, add what is cool for you and the players will remember. Don't just copy paste, get rid of a lot of crap (I am removing the Tolkien influence with a ladel) and don't try to do it all at once. The great masturbation takes time.

Shadow Lodge

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Companion, Lost Omens, Rulebook Subscriber
Illusees wrote:

After going through the process myself, I've found certain things that work for me and certain things that don't. That is to say, to start with, you should decide which techniques appeal to you the most after looking into it. Some people will say that bottom-up is the only way to go, others say that top-down works best overall, but I used a pretty decent mix of both and filled in the blanks from there.

The first step I suggest you take is to find a blank notebook, blog, Obsidian Portal account, or something similar to organize your work. It will be radically convenient later on when you need to start connecting little things together (X nation was founded when Y nation ended and Z race migrated there, etc.). Cross-referencing your notes becomes important after a while, and the more organized you start, the better off you'll be in the long run. This was something I learned the hard way, after years of having ideas and not recording them and then forgetting them or worse, improving them and forgetting the changes later on. Even after I started writing things down, I've had to re-organize a couple of times due to laziness on my part. Not a fun thing to do with a 50-page word document, heh.

You'll need a map eventually, so why not make it the first thing you do? You don't even need a world map unless you're going extremely top-down, a single continent or even a single region will do. Even most officially published campaign worlds focus on a single continent or part of one, and it seems to work well enough for them.

As for making the map itself, there is a lot of trial and error involved. Some fundamental research on real-world geography will go a long way towards helping you. As quirthanon said, the World Builder's Guidebook is very useful in this regard. I referenced that book countless times in my own work. Finding a copy (digital or otherwise) is highly recommended.

Form an idea of the types of terrain you want to feature, from forests, to plains, deserts to swamps and so on, and figure out how these...

This especially the part about mapping. For me I've found that you want to keep your work tight and start out just focused on what your wanting to do right now and fiddle with right now so build the town/towns and outlying area that your players will be in and around for the 1st couple of games and figure out the interesting things you want to show case there. From there for me it usually becomes a brainstorming daisy chain where one cool idea begets a question which begets another fun idea. One of the best ways I've found to keep your ball rolling is just look at one of your ideas and ask the 6 questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how) and see where that leads you. Other thing I like to do is try to do is ask myself if my players will ask questions about something in the game world and try to make sure I have an answer for it in game that isn't just "that's the way it is".

Another important one I've found is getting the players involved in world building either before games when you're working on your world yourself or during with some good old rp as it lets them become attached and involved with your world. Finally don't try to do too much all at once or over analyze everything as it tends to lead to paralysis.


Do not start too large. It will be too blurry and like an unpopulated server at the local level (what the pcs will actually encounter). So I have seen.


I design everything from the level of an average person living in the world, not some all-seeing entity:

I do not map. Even if there are maps in the game I do not draw them because maps are simply an abstract compared to what the characters will be seeing in front of them.

I do not fully flesh out cultures and/or history. Even people who live in a culture/history often aren't fully aware of every facet.

I do not write down population numbers or percentages. Who cares what the numbers are compared to who will be in front of you?

I do not write out complex economic stuff.

Etc.

If a player wants any of that stuff fleshed-out they are welcome to make it up themselves and run it past me. (Except maps. I hate maps.)

Having said what I don't do, what do I do?

I write what I find interesting. If I didn't I wouldn't be able to have any enthusiasm and wouldn't be able to convey any to the players.


3.5 Loyalist wrote:

Masturbatory... well put. I've seen a young dm jerk a great deal, then pass us all the new material, and rules updates and expect us to care about the economic arrangements of the continents. No joke.

When I make a world, it had better be cool for the players, and there are no sacred cows they cannot effect.

It's an issue I struggle with. I am a DM and a writer. I've been trying to combine my DMing with creating a world for writting novels in, and I think this has unfairly put my players into the zone where they're never quite able to do anything very noticable, else it would knock over my carefully constructed house.

Hence I think I will have "Author Cron" and "DM Cron" be similar but different settings, one better for writing, one better for playing.

*Cron is the name of the main planet in my setting.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

They don't have to be different settings. You could put them in different times. Write the stories in the past (from the players perspective). It'd add a lot to the game setting's back story.

Dark Archive

If you're interested in getting worlds with things you wouldn't come up with on your own, there are some minigames you could play.

Dawn of WorldsWorks well for designing continents, races, and history. I would run dawn of worlds a few different times to generate a planet; likely once per continent.

Designate one player for making antagonists and conflict. It helps.

I made a minigame to define a pantheon of gods, which I have somewhere. It yields comprehensive pantheons, but the game was rather slow, and time consuming, and it was more thorough than I found I needed. I would advise a different method of creating your pantheons.

Alternately,

I remember a /tg/ minigame where you go around and the players name one fact about a setting, and each thing that follows cannot contradict it. It yields interesting, but weird campaign settings.

The first time we played it, the world was a pocket dimension, there were no other planes, the world looped back in on itself in all directions (including up and down), and the sun was a big ball of fire that rose and fell from the ocean. All life was on landmasses that floated atop the ocean like icebergs. The bottoms of the icebergs had caverns filled with ocean life. When you died, you spent a time on a battlefield as an undead soldier before being reincarnated (spending longer there and being sent on more dangerous missions if you were a bad person), with many of your previous memories upon being reincarnated, and a few ways for souls to die permanently. Liches were dead mages who used teleportation magic to GTFO while they were still dead (as the afterlife was a place you could simply sail to, likewise with all the realms of the gods being places you could go on a ship. When you slept, you were astrally projected to the land of your god. Everything that happens in a dream is something you are actually doing on another continent while you sleep.

It yields unusual but very interesting settings. I forget the name, but the rules are simple and freely available online.


Darkholme wrote:

If you're interested in getting worlds with things you wouldn't come up with on your own, there are some minigames you could play.

Dawn of WorldsWorks well for designing continents, races, and history. I would run dawn of worlds a few different times to generate a planet; likely once per continent.

Designate one player for making antagonists and conflict. It helps.

I second Dawn of Worlds, but You probably won't need a designated antagonist. A typical group of gamers will engage in confict and one-upsmanship to stir the pot.

What I recommend is setting bounds for flavor and tech level of the world before hand.

Dark Archive

Brambleman wrote:
Darkholme wrote:

If you're interested in getting worlds with things you wouldn't come up with on your own, there are some minigames you could play.

Dawn of WorldsWorks well for designing continents, races, and history. I would run dawn of worlds a few different times to generate a planet; likely once per continent.

Designate one player for making antagonists and conflict. It helps.

I second Dawn of Worlds, but You probably won't need a designated antagonist. A typical group of gamers will engage in confict and one-upsmanship to stir the pot.

What I recommend is setting bounds for flavor and tech level of the world before hand.

Ah. When we tried it the players kept making peace treaties and trading with eachother, until we introduced the antagonist player (who generally sits the first phase out and banks points until phase 2 when there are a couple races poking around).


Darkholme wrote:


Ah. When we tried it the players kept making peace treaties and trading with eachother, until we introduced the antagonist player (who generally sits the first phase out and banks points until phase 2 when there are a couple races poking around).

Funny, but it does bring to mind the observation. Dawn of Worlds, and any world in general, needs conflict to be interesting. I guess I didn't encounter the same problem as I was the instigator of Chaos during my group's game.


Brambleman wrote:
Darkholme wrote:


Ah. When we tried it the players kept making peace treaties and trading with eachother, until we introduced the antagonist player (who generally sits the first phase out and banks points until phase 2 when there are a couple races poking around).
Funny, but it does bring to mind the observation. Dawn of Worlds, and any world in general, needs conflict to be interesting. I guess I didn't encounter the same problem as I was the instigator of Chaos during my group's game.

Dawn of Worlds is one of my favorite methods of world-building. Last time we played it, one of the players killed off half of a race of mine. I turned them into wraith-like beings who haunted the mountain caverns and who mingled with the survivors.

It was awesome. We also made "god PCs" and built from their perspective. It's free, fun, and a flexible way to build a setting.


Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber

If using RW maps, reorienting the maps and switching scales can throw players off. I used the Philippines, reversed north to south and converted feet to yards for years.

Community / Forums / Pathfinder / Pathfinder First Edition / Homebrew and House Rules / World Building Techniques All Messageboards

Want to post a reply? Sign in.
Recent threads in Homebrew and House Rules