Power—of many kinds—is one of the most critical driving dynamic forces within a world setting. And worldbuilding power dynamics can help us create more authentic and interesting world settings for our novels and RPG campaigns, as well as fuelling world drama and current affairs.

What is Power in Worldbuilding?

In the real world, cultures and nations have many sources of power: strategic positioning, allies and diplomatic relations, a strong military or mercantile network, and technological and scientific advancements. There is also power that comes through religion, philosophy, and even culture. For example, the power of Hollywood’s reach is one of the reasons English persists as the lingua franca in our world.

And of course, resources! Some of these (diamonds, metal ores, spices) give financial or industrial power, and some—like oil, natural gas, sunshine, and wind—give literal power in the form of electricity or fuel.

When worldbuilding fantasy or scifi, there are other kinds of powers to consider, too. Magic, futuristic technology, or the ability to bend or break the natural laws of the universe have a huge impact on our stories. You can probably think of a dozen more (if so, throw them in the comments!).

As well as organizations, let’s consider individuals for a moment. People (or characters, who are, after all, imaginary people) can be powerful for similar reasons; they may be strong, charismatic, cunning, stealthy, magical, intelligent, or bear a hundred other advantages that give them agency in the world. And their talents may add to the power of organizations they believe in or belong to—be it country, religion, cult, guild, or tribe. There’s a reason they call it “Human Resources”, after all!

Why is Power important in Worldbuilding?

So why is power so important for creating dynamic world settings? It’s because power gives Agency.

You’re probably familiar with the term “character agency”, the ability a character has to affect the world around them. Well, organizations have Agency too.

And really, this is why Power—its sources and structures—is such a vital topic for worldbuilding. Agency is the power that organizations have to exert change in the world. The kind of change they exert depends on two main things—what kind of power they have, and what they need. And for that, we must talk about weaknesses.

Weaknesses & Motivations lead to Needs

On the other side of the spectrum from power, comes weakness. And that’s certainly an interesting thing to consider, for both individuals and organizations. Whether it’s a lack of food, space, respect, allies, workforce, technological development, or something else, no organization has everything. And if they lack important things, particularly things that threaten their well-being or prosperity as an organization, then this weakness becomes a Need. Motivations also lead to Needs.

Needs lead to Actions

Remember how power gives people and organizations Agency? Well, the likelihood is, they’re going to exert that agency in order to solve a Need. And the way they exert their agency depends on the kind of power they have. Here’s an example:

Let’s say a country needs more food for its growing population. We know they have a large population (by the way, also a source of power!) so if the world is relatively unexplored, as fantasy worlds often are, they might go create new farms on the frontier. If they have a larger military than their neighbors, they might go to war for nearby occupied territory, exploiting their weakness. If they have advanced biological research, perhaps they’ll develop more productive strains of grain. Strong engineering, and maybe they’ll raise arable islands off their shoreline. They might try more than one of these solutions in combination.

What we’re seeing here is a fundamental truth of worlds, both imagined and real:

Agency + Need = Action 

And this is incredibly important because…

Actions change the world

All of these options change the world in some way—whether with new settlements, advancements in bio-technology, a war, or a literal change in the map. And that makes your world feel dynamic, connected, and interesting. It also impacts all the nations around the example organization—how will they respond to this change in the world? To the example nation’s growing power? This is where the connectivity comes in—action-provoked reactions.

And of course, what new Needs does this decision create? If you’re going to war, you suddenly need more weapons technology. Those new farms in the wilderness need protecting. And for new tech, it’s only a matter of time before the spies come sneaking around, trying to take it for a rival nation.

So that’s an example of one way to use the Power/Agency and Need to create a cycle of actions. I’ve used nations as an example here, but you could use any organization—from a religion to a cult, to a guild, to a crime family. The dynamic of Agency driven to Action by Need is the critical force that will keep your world moving forward, on the micro and the macro level.

Building a world setting that feels authentic and interesting requires credible variances and interesting dynamics. The strength of one nation should not be the same as the strength of another, just as its weaknesses and needs should (in general) not be the same. And characters in our world should bear different strengths and weaknesses too.

How not to get overwhelmed by worldbuilding power dynamics:

Once you start considering all the possible needs between the organizations or even the characters at play, you may start to get overwhelmed. Considering all those strengths and weaknesses and motivations and needs in all areas of worldbuilding—politics, religion, civil opinion, trade… it’s a lot! To slim down the scope, go back to your meta and review the foundational focus points you’ve selected. That will help you narrow down which areas to flesh out your power bases, needs, motivations, and actions. If your focus is on technology in your world, focus on research, competition, espionage, and resources related to technology.

Whether speaking of nations or individuals, the potential they have to affect the world, whether they use that potential and how, and the motivations behind the changes they wish to make… this is what sets our worlds in motion. It’s what creates, on a high level, world drama, and on the level of a story or an RPG campaign, leads to conflict, to inciting incidents, to the engines that drive our stories forwards.

Next steps:

So if you haven’t already, have a think about who holds which kind of power in your world setting. Consider the strengths of the major players—whether that’s individuals or organizations — and what might drive them to wield this power. And consider their weaknesses and needs too; and perhaps most importantly, how those around them might seek to take advantage of those weaknesses. I promise you, you won’t just end up with a more dynamic and interesting World setting; you’ll be inundated with ideas for stories drawn directly from the fabric of your worldbuilding, which will further enrich your world setting too.