WAIT! STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING!
Before you start building your new world, there’s some stuff we URGENTLY need to chat about. No, I don’t mean laws of magic, or even how many tentacles Cthulu has (though I’ve always wondered…).
So, before you click that lovely, pink “Create New World” button, it’s time to go meta. If you’ve been wondering how to start worldbuilding, in this blog post and video, we’re going to talk about six questions you can answer to help make your worldbuilding process easier and smoother. They’re going to help you with writer’s block, too, and when you’re feeling unmotivated to continue.
Already have a world in progress? These six questions will help you streamline your worldbuilding process, keep you moving forward, and stop you getting bogged down in the details. Because no one wants WORLDBUILDERS DISEASE!
For those who prefer videos, here’s my very own facewords on the subject. If you prefer to read, then check out the script beneath the video.
Worldbuilding Tips for Starting your New World
Greetings and Salutations, I’m Janet from World Anvil and today we are talking about what you need to decide when you’re starting a new worldbuilding project.
We’re going to go through some questions you can ask yourself to help streamline the worldbuilding process, help you figure out what to work on next, and prevent the dreaded WORLDBUILDER’S DISEASE.
So, if you’re new to worldbuilding, or if you’ve thought about building a new world setting, then this video is for you. It’s time to light up the forge!
Let’s jump straight in with the first question – the age-old: “What’s my motivation”?
Question: 1. What’s your worldbuilding motivation?
The first thing to pin down is WHY you’re creating this world and WHAT you want to get out of it.
There are loads of great reasons to start a new world – maybe you’ve started writing a new novel, perhaps you’re building a new RPG campaign or maybe you just like worldbuilding because it’s damn fun. For some of you, this is going to be easy, and for others this’ll be more elusive. Here’s a list of reasons why people start new worldbuilding projects, but it’s not exhaustive. Grab a piece of paper or open your new World Anvil world and write this down in the vignette.
- Worldbuilding for a novel
- Worldbuilding for serial writing
- Worldbuilding to explore a new genre
- Worldbuilding for exploring a fanfic universe
- Worldbuilding for a group’s RPG game
- Worldbuilding for a written RPG campaign
- Worldbuilding for a philosophical experiment
- Worldbuilding for WORLDEMBER
- Worldbuilding for a collaborative activity
- Worldbuilding for a new computer game
- Worldbuilding for a board game
- Worldbuilding for a satisfying conclusion to Firefly
- Worldbuilding for learning a historical model
- Worldbuilding for learning a political model
- Worldbuilding for learning a new culture
- Worldbuilding for a play
- Worldbuilding for a LARP group
- Worldbuilding for historical reenactment
- Worldbuilding for a class project
- Worldbuilding for a live interactive theatre piece
- Worldbuilding for a West Marches Campaign
- Worldbuilding for filling in the lore behind my maps
- Worldbuilding for filling in the lore behind my art
- Worldbuilding for writing the sequel to a completed work
- Worldbuilding to support my manga or graphic novel
- Worldbuilding for a TV series
- Worldbuilding for a movie script
So now we’ve figured out why you’re starting your new worldbuilding project, let’s address WHAT you hope to get out of it. Again, for some of you this will be easy, and for others it’ll be harder, so here’s a list of motivations from our own World Anvil community. Maybe a few of them pop out at you? If so, make a note of them. Unsurprisingly, there’s some overlap between why people worldbuild and what they want from it, and some things are more tangible than others. Try and write down at least one, and keep that information safe in your world vignette.
- Mental health
- Creative outlet
- Community spirit and camaraderie
- An intellectual challenge
- Feelings of accomplishment
- Philosophical exploration
- Cultural exploration
- Scientific exploration
- Geographical exploration
- Historical exploration
- A sense of achievement
- Personal Improvement at the craft
How to use worldbuilding motivations
So, now you’ve figured out your motivations, you can use them to guide you whenever you have a question about your worldbuilding. For example:
Should I choose X or Y?
Well, which serves your motivations better? Which will make a better story, or please your players more? Which one gives you more joy?
What do I need to build next?
Again, what serves your motivation? Where are your players going next? Or what part of history are you eager to research, so you can work it into your game?
How much detail should I build in?
How much do you need to satisfy your motivation? For example, a side character you meet once in your novel doesn’t need as much detail as a POV character for your book bible. And you can always build more later.
So you can see, choosing your motivations will help you with all aspects of your new worldbuilding project. Whenever you have a question, go back to your motivation and that’ll keep you moving forwards in the right direction, and stop you stagnating or getting distracted. Most importantly, it will help prevent WORLDBUILDER’S DISEASE – the obsessive compulsion to continue building on a huge scale or with vast detail until you burn out. Yup, Tolkein, I’m looking at you. Creating unrealistic expectations in the media for young worldbuilders. Honestly….
Question 2. What’s your worldbuilding genre?
OK, now you figured out why you’re starting a new worldbuilding project, you can start to consider which genre you’d like to build in.
Some of you will have very clear ideas already, so this will be easy. If it’s your first worldbuilding project, I’d advise you to start with a genre that’s familiar – the old “write what you know”. But maybe you’re starting a new worldbuilding project because you want to explore something new, and that’s great too! If your new worldbuilding project is for your RPG group, consider which genres they enjoy. If it’s for your new novel, think about which genre and time period will best serve the story you want to tell: does it require futuristic technology or magic? And if your motivation is to sell your setting, consider the current zeitgeist – what are popular and upcoming trends in your discipline?
You can even experiment with combining traditional genres to create new ones – I, for one, would love to see a steam – cyber – fantasy – space opera – high magic extravaganza. With zombies and ninjas, obviously…
And, while we’re on the subject, not all worlds stick completely to one genre, either. Many larger and more complex worlds have certain aspects of genre blend – for example, the techno-gnomes in World of Warcraft, and the steampunk Dwemer of Skyrim. Or, you know, anything in Ethnis. So another consideration is how faithful you want to be to your genre.
Since we’ve been talking about genres, here’s a quick list to sink your teeth into. Take a look and see if any of them tempt you, and also check out the sub-genre considerations like technology level/time period and magic level.
Make sure you write down your genre somewhere safe – again, I suggest your world anvil world vignette. This is something you’re going to want to go back to again and again. And it’ll help you whenever you get stuck:
- Want a new sidequest? Well, what would be genre appropriate?
- What should the NPC be wearing? The GENRE will be your guide.
- Can’t think of a character backstory? Ask, and the genre will provide.
Question 3. What is the scale of your worldbuilding project?
By now, you’ve decided WHY you’ve started your new worldbuilding project and WHAT genre you’re building in. So this is a great time to decide the scale of your creation. As a general rule, the larger the space you create, the less depth you can build in. So my advice is to start with the smallest area which allows you to achieve your motivations. You can always expand later.
Some examples of scale include:
- Multiverse/ Universe: Dr Who, Dragon Ball Z, Supernatural
- Galaxy: Starwars, Star trek, 40K universe, Stargate
- Solar system: Firefly, the Expanse, The Martian
- Planet: Terra Nova, The Dragon Riders of Pern, Independence Day, Avatar the last air bender
- Super Continent: Game of Thrones Universe, Tamriel
- Continent: Wild West stories, Lord of the Rings, Witcher
- Country/State/Island: The Last Kingdom, Skyrim, Harry Potter
- Region: The Shannara chronicles, Elantris
- City/settlement: Neverwhere, Deep Space Nine, Batman, Smallville, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Riverdale, Stranger things
Large scale Worldbuilding Tricks
There are tricks you can use for large-scale worldbuilding.
For example, Star Trek and Star Wars both take place over a whole galaxy. However, only a few locations are built in much detail, and almost no “alien” planets are well-described. We don’t usually know individual country names, for example. These worlds tend to have one or two spaces built in large detail, with a few lesser-expanded locations: in Star Trek TNG, for example, the main space is the Enterprise, and the lesser locations things like Star Trek Academy and the planet Risa, which merit repeat visits within the plot. In Star Wars, a few planets like Dagobah and Coruscant act as a focus point of the whole galaxy. So if you choose a large scale like this, be very selective with these focus point locations, and make sure the ones you choose describe the variation and richness of your setting the best.
Small scale worldbuilding Tricks
You don’t have to build on a massive scale to tell a great story, or even an epic-feeling one, though. The Expanse is a great example of an epic-feel sci fi which is limited to a solar system, and The War of the Worlds takes place entirely on Earth.
And this is true of the Fantasy genre too. Classic Epic Fantasy novels like the Lord of the Ring often use large, sprawling maps and vast areas over which to tell their stories. On the other hand, both the Shannara Chronicles and Elantris are Epic Fantasy novels, but their scale is limited more or less to a single region. This allows the readers to become much more familiar with the locations in that region, and they’re built in more depth. The writers have kept the epic feeling by using high stakes, rather than a huge area of worldbuilding, there-by giving them less worldbuilding work to do. Cunning, huh?
On an even smaller scale, the action of Neverwhere – an urban fantasy novel – takes place in and beneath London. Readers become intimately familiar with different areas, and the city is explored in depth. It’s highly effective storytelling. Similarly, much of the action on Deep Space Nine takes place on the space station itself, a kind of floating settlement. The depth of worldbuilding, the alien inhabitants and the various technological challenges introduce more than enough conflict and drama.
That said, choosing a scale doesn’t mean you ignore the outside world. Rather, it limits the initial worldbuilding push you have to do. If you know that your main characters are dealing with a master plot that takes place in America, you don’t have to build up Kazakhstan quite yet. It can exist as a detail in the background. You can still make allusions to the rest of the world, even have characters who come from places outside your main scale. But if no main characters or player characters travel there, don’t worry about building it. Those details can be flavour and nothing more.
So small scale doesn’t mean boring, it just means more tightly focussed worldbuilding. Scale may shift between installments of your project – for example, between novels or RPG campaigns set in the same world setting – and this is normal. But start with the smallest scale you can, and you can always build more later!
But hang on, because there’s another aspect that can colour your story even more. It’s time to open the Pandora’s box of GrimDark…
Question 4. What is the Mood of your worldbuilding project:
We’ve already detailed our motivations, chosen our genre and restricted our scale to something manageable. Now it’s time to get into mood – what do you want your world to feel like. If you don’t know what I mean by this, consider the difference between, for example, Star Trek and Battlestar Gallactica. Or in fantasy terms, the difference between Game of Thrones and The Princess Bride. The difference is the mood of the world, whether it feels desperate, dark and gritty, or bright and filled with wonder – or anything in between
The accepted terminology for this is a little bit unofficial, and draws on the words Grim-Dark and Noble-Bright coined by the 40k universe.
Grim to Noble
Essentially, the Grim to Noble scale (which could be made more granular with Grimest, Grim, Bleak, Neutral and Noble) describes how much agency a single character has to make the world a better place, turn the tide of evil or similar. In a bright world, a main character’s sacrifice yields permanent benefit, whereas in a dark world it may prove ultimately fruitless, or only a ephemeral success. So, for example, in Shannara chronicles, a personal sacrifice saves the world. In Game of Thrones, it’s forgotten in a moment.
Dark to Bright
The Dark to Bright scale (which could perhaps include Darkest, Dark, Grey, Neutral, Bright) describes the overall feeling of a world – how good of a place to live is it? A Bright world might be a true Utopia, a home of the gods or a fairy-type realm. A Dark world is a crappy place to live, where life is cheap and short, and anyone in the story might die. An example of a dark world is Dark Souls where you’re NOT paranoid because everything IS out to get you. And example of a Bright world is Pratchett’s Discworld or the world of the Princess Bride – even though bad things happen, the world is generally portrayed as a fair and just place full of wonder.
In Scifi and fantasy, for example,:
- Star trek and the Princess Bride would be Noble Bright (clean, lovely Utopia with noble characters of agency) – Discovery excluded, of course
- Star Wars or the Shannara Chronicles could be Noble Grey (characters full of long-lasting agency in a fairly crappy world)
- Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones would be Grim Grey – the world is a pretty crappy place, and individual character’s sacrifices make little difference to the overall crappiness of the world
This is actually much more complicated to explain that it is to understand. And once you’ve picked yourself a Mood for your world, you have a clear understanding of the things you’re going to create. Need to create a city? In a Grim Dark universe it might be polluted, segregated or currently in famine. A Noble Bright universe will have a crime-free utopia of science and learning, where money has been made irrelevant.
Apply as need to all aspects of worldbuilding, and don’t forget – exceptions and contrast make the rule. They’ll highlight your mood even further.
Question 5. What is your World’s Theme?
So now we come to the question – what is your theme? Themes are a great way to focus your story telling, so don’t just relegate them to first grade literature class. Some of the best GMs and writers use themes to focus their worldbuilding and storytelling, and provide a more impactful experience.
For example, Guy Sclanders, in his book The Complete Guide to Epic Campaign Design recommends working your chosen theme into everything from location design and Master Plot arcs, to designing NPCs. Weaving this repeatedly into the worldbuilding and inner-narrative of your world will create a rich thematic undercurrent to the stories you want to tell.
Some examples of common themes include:
- “Overcoming the Odds”
- “Good overcoming Evil”
- “Coming of Age”
- “The Circle of Life”
- “True Love conquers all”
For example, a let’s create a quick settlement for each of these themes:
Overcoming the Odds: a settlement in a flood plain erected on stilts
Good overcoming Evil – a settlement in a demon ridden land with high walls and magical wards
Coming of Age – a settlement with a dark history, which has repeatedly had cycles of renewal – e.g. the ending of slavery, the instigation of free speech, etc
The circle of life: e.g. a settlement with a large graveyard which has been turned into a beautiful walking park for families and their children
True Love conquers all – an alternate-world city named Juleo – formed when Romeo and Juliet forced the Montagues and Capulets to work together to create a Renaissance Utopia
If you’re going for a darker world, your theme might be something like:
- “Lawful Good is Lawful Stupid”
- “The Corruption of Power”
- “The strong do what they can and the weak do what they must”
- “Love makes you vulnerable”
- “Everything has a price”
- “All flesh is grass”
How to use your themes
Once you’ve chosen your theme, creating your world actually becomes much easier. Whenever you’re stuck with building something, just go back to your theme.
You can start, even before you do much building, to consider which recurring imagery, music, or storytelling motifs you might use to reinforce it.s
For example, a theme “all flesh is grass” might have repeated motifs of dead leaves underfoot, large cemeteries and dead butterflies on the windowsill. You could play requiem music at various points, or have an undertaker as an NPC. Compare that to the everliving protagonists of a Vampire game, for example, and you have a fascinating juxtaposition of a dying world surrounding these eternal protagonists.
For Overcoming the odds, for example, a War Lord with a congenital defect would be a good NPC, even if he’s an enemy of the main characters. You could a self-taught robotics expert from a farming community, or bright flowers growing between the paving slabs of a city. These little details will add flavour and texture to your world and, even though your readers or players won’t realise that you’re repeating this imagery, they will get a sense of the theme from your overall world creation.
Question 6. Where is the Conflict in your worldbuilding project?
So finally, you’ve decided all that other stuff, and it’s time to start considering the sources of drama and conflict in your world. However lovely it would be to live in a perfect world, it doesn’t create a very interesting story. Choosing some larger-scale conflict will make your world feel dynamic and real even before you’ve created very much of it – after all, conflict sets people in motion, and causes problems for characters to solve.
But of course, we’ve done all that work answering those questions, so we can use that to figure out our conflicts.
Question 1: Motivations
Start with your motivations. If your motivation for creating the world was to make a cool RPG setting, think about what kind of games your players like. If they’re into political intrigue, then introduce political problems into your world. If they want a campaign of exploration, create an “unexplored” area of your world for them to play in, and maybe a resource shortage to nudge them on their way.
Question 2: Genre
Look to your genre, too, to decide conflict. Some threats are genre-specific – for example, a magical plague won’t infect a hard science fiction world, just as a fantasy world is usually safe from a nano-virus. You can play with the tropes and expectations of your genre, too.
Question 3: Scale
Scale is another important one. If your scale is set to a single country, your conflict probably won’t be a world war. It could, though, be a plague of zombies, a famine, or a people’s rebellion.
Question 4: Mood
Your chosen mood will also affect the conflicts. The grimmest world will be full of corruption, both politically and in terms of the environment – think pollution, chaos and/or dark magics. There will be economic problems, possibly famine and disease, and perhaps vast social inequality. A bright world, on the other hand, is more likely to have external sources of conflict – a dragon, an alien invasion or demons. The world itself is peaceful and a nice place to live, but that peace is being threatened by a creature that doesn’t belong there.
Question 5: Theme
You can also consider the theme you’ve put in place. If the theme is overcoming the odds, you could introduce a high child mortality rate – making literally everyone who survives a fight against the odds. A Theme of “The Corruption of Power” might involve exorbitant taxes from the local Lord and a thriving Thief King hidden beneath the streets who demands protection money.
Go back to your previous answers, and you’ll quickly find inspiration for your sources of conflict.
So you can see by considering these six questions – motivation, genre, scale, mood, theme and conflict points – before you start your new worldbuilding project, you can easily get the ball rolling. You can also use this information to create elements on the fly which fit into your new worldbuilding project, and will make your world feel like a coherent and authentic place. And they’ll be there to help you when you get stuck, or feel Worldbuilder’s Disease is creeping up on you.
Have you been answering these questions for years when you start new worldbuilding projects, or are these ideas new to you? Let me know in the comments below! And if you want more worldbuilding chat then head to our Discord server.
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Now grab your hammer, AND GO WORLDBUILD!