Every game or book setting always starts with a single big idea – that’s your premise. But where do you go from there? A worldbuilding checklist can help you create a basic setting for your homebrew adventures or novel series, so you can start playing (or writing) faster. You can get there in just 10 steps.

At World Anvil, we’ve seen many storytellers get excited about their big idea, open a fresh notebook or document, and start writing all their ideas down. Which is a great starting place! But we’ve also seen countless worldbuilders stall out too soon for two big reasons:

  1. They quickly realize a whole game or book setting, with hundreds or thousands of connected ideas, will quickly outgrow a paper notebook or document.
  2. After spilling all their initial ideas out of their brain… they’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and worst of all… they still don’t have a resource they can actually use!

This guide will help you avoid that.

The Biggest Worldbuilding Problem: Overwhelm

This may sound surprising, but the toughest part of worldbuilding isn’t writing. In our experience, most worldbuilders are natural born storytellers – we love writing! The hard part is staying focused – and deciding what topics to focus on first. When you create a worldbuilding checklist to ensure you cover the most important ground first, you create a basic setting you can start using to run your campaign, or draft your stories. And running that campaign – or writing a few chapters – feeds inspiration back to your worldbuilding.

In software, it’s called an “MVP” – minimum viable product. It’s the smallest thing you can build to see if your big idea works. In worldbuilding, we call that a primer for gamemasters (or a world bible for authors). And while your world setting can be as big and detailed as you like, it can also start to take a recognizable, functional shape much sooner than you think.

You could be ready to start playing a homebrew campaign, or writing a novel, by following this worldbuilding checklist to write as few as ten simple articles (twelve, if you’re feeling ambitious). A page is roughly 250 words, so that’s only 2,500 words! Less than 2 days of a “write a novel in a month” challenge’s average daily word count. And only a week of effort for our annual worldbuilding marathon, WorldEmber. That’s right – you could build a baby world in just a week or two!

In fact, your first 10-12 worldbuilding articles can create a solid foundation for an entire game or story setting. So what are these critical cornerstones?

I’m so glad you asked! We’ll also share a quick description of each (including examples and World Anvil worldbuilding templates and resources).

fantasy worldbuilding checklistA “Quick Start” Worldbuilding Checklist

  1. Introduction
  2. Initial Setting
  3. Ordinary People
  4. The Wider World
  5. Powerful Organizations
  6. The Misty Past
  7. Recent Events
  8. Extraordinary Things
  9. A Terrible Threat
  10. A Remarkable Hero

1. Introduction

Your introduction article should be a single page – or even a paragraph – that describes your setting in the simplest terms possible. Think of it like the back cover of a novel or the trailer to a film. What elevator pitch will hook your audience? Still intimidated? Then just jot down a bullet list of all the cool things you have in mind for your setting.

Take five minutes to do a fast brain dump, and answer the following questions:

  • What is the hook? (What makes your setting idea special?)
  • What do you want to use your setting for? (A homebrew DnD campaign? A novel or series?)
  • What genre(s) you want to include (if you’re doing a mashup, try not to use more than 3)
  • What tone or mood are you going for? (Cozy? Spooky? Grimdark? Whimsical?)

This might be where you describe things like genre, tone and theme. So if you’re creating a morally-gray cyberpunk metropolis, or a whimsical fantasy kingdom, your introduction is a great place to make that clear.

  • Example: The opening credits for Avatar: The Last Airbender
  • Resources: Generic Article template, Worldbuilding Meta

2. Initial Setting

Next up is your initial setting. It’s worth going into a little more detail to describe the city, town or space station where your story begins. For one thing – short stories and one-shots may never leave this area! Remember to describe the general state of the place: bustling, struggling or something in-between.

Think about the locations your characters will be most likely to visit. For a fantasy village, that might be a tavern, blacksmith or chapel. For bigger cities, you might want to describe the different districts, neighborhoods or quarters.

  • Example: The Shire in Lord of the Rings
  • Resource: Settlement template

3. Ordinary People

There are probably people in that initial setting! So let’s meet them. You’re probably going to be chronicling the adventures of one or more remarkable heroes. But first, you might want to describe the common folk of your setting. What are their problems, struggles and attitudes?

Or you might want to reveal some uncommon folk – at least, folks who don’t exist in our world. That might be a sapient species, a unique culture, or a sci-fi occupation or fantasy job that reveals something unusual about your setting.

  • Example: Belters in The Expanse
  • Resource: Species, Ethnicity or Profession templates

4. The Wider World

Part of the hero’s journey is crossing the threshold from their ordinary world. That might mean a portal fantasy journey to a literal magical place, but often, it just means leaving their hometown. In a sci-fi setting, this might be a planetary system or a galaxy.

This element of the worldbuilding checklist allows you to start sketching in the bigger picture. For a really epic adventure, you need a bigger canvas than even a big city.  Start sketching out a rough map of that bigger canvas – in fact, you might want to create an actual interactive map!

For extra credit, you could create a second country – the sworn enemy of your characters’ homeland. Now you’re starting to sow seeds for DRAMA!

  • Example: Westeros / The Seven Kingdoms in Game of Thrones
  • Resource: Country template, Maps

5. Powerful Organizations

Now that you have the lay of the land, let’s see who’s in charge. Powerful organizations can be a rich source of conflict. They can suggest who is really in power, and whether the setting is hopeful, dark, or somewhere in-between.

If you haven’t created a rival country, you could create a powerful organization working against the official government – either righteous rebels or a sinister secret society! Like the country you created in step 4, you might create two rival organizations for extra credit.

  • Example: The Talamasca in Interview with a Vampire
  • Resource: Organization template

Have you created your free World Anvil account yet? Take advantage of our powerful worldbuilding platform!

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6. The Misty Past

You may not need this article at first – but it may be the first thing you came up with. Some event in the long-forgotten past has lain dormant for centuries or millennia, creating a slowly ticking clock that can blow up in your characters faces!

While an event or item from antiquity may not be a major factor early on, the earlier you start dropping references and foreshadowing it, the more satisfying and epic it will be when it moves to the foreground. But even before that, these legends add a sense of history and depth to your setting, and create the feeling of a lived-in world.

  • Example: Reapers in Mass Effect
  • Resource: Myth/Legend template

7. Recent Events

At this point, the status quo of your setting is taking shape – it’s time to shake that up! In a tabletop campaign, this is your story hook. In a novel or story, it’s an inciting incident. It’s what follows “and then…”

For example, “Smallville was a quiet farming community in Kansas, AND THEN a ship carrying an alien baby crash-landed in the Kent’s cornfield.” It could be the escalation of conflict in a border town that was previously peaceful. It might be the second-hand effects of a villain’s mysterious machinations. But whatever it is, your world will be forever changed as the fuse this event ignites reaches its explosive outcome.

  • Example: Invention of synthetic blood in True Blood
  • Resource: Plot template, Timelines/Events

8. Extraordinary Things

What moves your story? What is everyone chasing? Maybe it’s a warp drive, or the stuff dreams are made of. Maybe it’s the answer to life, the universe and everything. In this step, we’re adding a dash of the extraordinary to your worldbuilding checklist! This might be a natural law that makes magic function, or a substance that makes FTL travel possible. Or it might be the MacGuffin of Doom!

Whatever IT is, this is where you start balancing mechanics of your setting, adding limitations to things like your magic system or advanced technology so they can’t solve every problem. It also tells you something about the tone and theme of your setting.

Who has access to the extraordinary? Are you starting to see how every decision adds more layers and richness? How they all connect? That’s the power of good worldbuilding!

  • Examples: Dilithium Crystals in Star Trek, Spice in Dune
  • Resources: Item, Material, Document or Natural Law templates

9. A Terrible Threat

Now it’s time to face – the looming threat of destruction! Earlier in this worldbuilding checklist, you started sowing the seeds of conflict at a wider scale. Enemy nations, squabbling factions, ominous prophecies from the dim past, and troubling news on the horizon.

Now it’s time to focus, drill down and make your conflict personal, direct, specific and URGENT. A Very Bad Thing is happening SOON. It’s time for your characters to take action… which brings us to…

  • Example: The Death Star in Star Wars
  • Resources: Character, Conflict or Technology templates

10. Remarkable Heroes

Finally, we’re ready to introduce a hero! For an author, this is your protagonist. As a gamemaster, it will be your players – but that doesn’t mean you can skip this part! As GM, you fill the role of guide to the world, through an NPC. That might mean a wise mentor – the hero of another era – or a sidekick or other ally, who is the ‘hero’ in their version of the story.

Either way, these characters tell people much about your setting. They can show the values of their world, by how well they do or don’t fit in, and how they’re treated by the world around them.

  • Example: Aragorn and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings
  • Resources: Character template

You finished the basic Worldbuilding Checklist… Now what?

You could finish the 10-12 articles on this worldbuilding checklist in about a week, tackling one or two articles a day. Then you would have enough of the basics covered to start using the world as a setting. In fact, you might come up with more amazing ideas for your world through the process of playing a few sessions or writing a few chapters.

We’ve covered this at a high level, but don’t worry. There’s more to come on these essential building blocks soon! But first, we’ll need to address the number one thing that derails a worldbuilding project – and more importantly, how to avoid it. More on this soon!

In the meantime, if you haven’t already created your free World Anvil account – what are you waiting for? You can register as a Gamemaster, Author, or Artist and start building your amazing setting today.