LESSON How to Start World-Building

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Undiscombothrottled Shige
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So You Want to World-Build?

Whether it be Westeros or Middle-Earth, the esoteric planets of Hoth, Tatooine or Alderaan (bad example, I know; rest in peace), or the winding passageways, hidden rooms, and tricksy staircases of Hogwarts, stories take place somewhere. That somewhere - the world - helps frame the story, but it also does so much more than that: It gives readers information while also inspiring them to imagine, answering and raising questions in turn. It offers continuity from plot-point to plot-point, allowing the story to grow and immerse its reader. It defines the tone, the spirit, the essence of the story.

But it’s no small ask either, building a mosaic of a world to hook your readers (or fellow roleplayers) in - it requires that you think, and that you ask questions of yourself. As you’ll come to discover, a crux of world-building is asking yourself questions and coming up with acceptable - hopefully compelling - answers. Naturally, this is a lot of work. So, let’s get down to the first step of building your play-pen.

How do we get started with world-building?

1. Genesis (or, the Spark and How a World Begins)

To begin, I’d like to propose that, instead of diving in bottom-up or top-down, that you work off a spark (alternate analogy that’s actually an analogy; you water a seed).

What I mean is: If you’re planning a story, or a roleplay, chances are you already have an idea(s) in mind, no matter how vague. You want to start with that. Perhaps the idea is simply a thing that you want in your story; superheroes, perhaps, or angels and demons, or killer robots. Perhaps a tone you want to capture; dark, grimdark, or full of the wonder of discovery. Maybe you’re one of those functional literarians; you want to make a world in which you can critique the real one and all (or just one of) its issues, political/societal. It can even be simpler than that - maybe you saw a pretty picture, and you want to turn it into a roleplay.

That’s all good - that’s the spark.

The iconic ‘Dune’ began with author (and world-builder extraordinaire) Frank Herbert’s wanting to address Western society’s desire for a messiah. After a few years of research on the topic, he wrote an article about the USDA controlling sand dunes in Oregon, and that’s when it clicked for him. Could there be a more perfect place for a Messiah to rise than in a world of harsh sand dunes and awful, awful desert?

What Frank Herbert did is what aspiring world-builders should aim for - to have an idea, and then to idealize the proper world around it. The first step is to have the spark - the idea. The next is to start making a world that can allow for the idea to exist, and to thrive.

2. Ignition (or, Feeding the Spark)

I’d posit that there are two types of worlds you can create, which I’ll label as the Alternate World and the New World. I suppose there’s a third that you can roleplay in, which is simply ‘our world’ (which, by the way, is vast and interesting and requires a lot of research if you want to know all about it - and is also a wonderful place to have a story in). When you first start building a world, you’ll want to figure out which type you’re going for.

Loosely speaking, the Alternate World is a version of the real world that incorporates your idea(s). The New World is one built entirely from scratch.

Let’s dive into the concepts of the Alternate World and the New World, keeping in mind our initial idea(s), our spark.

The Alternate World
The Alternate World is what you get when you take our real world, and apply a question (‘what if there were superhumans, or what if we fell under such-and-such type of political rule?’) and its ensuing implications. The goal is to take your central idea, mash it into our world, try and figure out how things would tick differently (and what things just wouldn’t work at all), and present it - conditions of a world that allow for our idea to happen.

This, I think, is what I’d always aim for if I’m a newcomer to world-building, or if I’m just trying to lay a groundwork down for a roleplay. Frankly, it’s also the easiest (and arguably the most effective) way to go if your idea is very singular in scope: ‘I want superhumans’ or ‘I want to critique such-and-such political governance and style of rule’.

This is probably best demonstrated with a walkthrough.

Let’s go with the idea ‘What if there were superhumans?’ You start with that one idea, toss it into our world, and you try and answer the sub-questions that come out. To begin with, let’s start with the most general of questions, one I consider essential.

1. “Why/how does this happen?”

Answer: Perhaps they were placed into existence by some sort of deity or God-Machine. Perhaps they spawned from vats, the product of scientists.

Stop there. You might have noticed that both of those answers beget even more questions: ‘Why did this deity/scientist do this?’

This will always happen, and in fact, you should go out of your way to find the questions that spawn out of your answers. The questions above, you’ll note, can also pose more questions of their own. If we want to know why the deity did something, we need to address something crucial: “Who is the deity?” If the scientists did it to create super-soldiers for their country, we also need to know why - “why does the country feel threatened? Is the country at war? With who?”

One question, that quickly splits into multiple paths, multiple answers.

So which answer should you pick? A good measure is probably: the one that interests you more, the one that you find more compelling, the one that you want to explore. Also pertinent: one that won’t clash with a previous answer.

Questions call for answers, and answers call for explanations and even more questions - as I said earlier, that’s a crux of world-building. It is, however, important to note: we don’t need to answer all the questions, because we’d run out of time and die. The more questions we answer, the more breadth and depth we give our world, but if we’re just making a reasonable enough play-pen for RP partners, it could be more prudent to answer the most essential questions, winging any that come after.

Without further ado, some very general questions (and example answers, over-simple in nature) that should be addressed as a starting point. Keep in mind that ‘xxx’ can be more than one matter, one concept at a time.

  1. How does xxx happen?
    (Superhumans have come about thanks to the meddling of science.)

  2. Why does xxx happen?
    (Our real world has a lot of conflict/tension. This alternate world introduced superhumans to serve as precautionary super soldiers).

  3. How could xxx go wrong? Does it?
    (Super soldiers retire or run off and - recognizing the possibilities - end up becoming supervillains.)

  4. If it does go wrong, what are the consequences?
    (Supervillains cause terror, chaos, and destruction - but superheroes rise to stop them.)

  5. How does xxx change the way the world looks?
    (You got flying cape-wearing super-dweebs lighting up the sky.)

  6. How does xxx change the way the world works? This question is probably best split up.
    • How does xxx change the world/country’s infrastructure and core systems?
      (Superhumans marginalize non-superhuman law enforcement. The United States, perhaps, is instituting an *ahem* League of Justice that can mobilize and respond to the gold ol’ fashioned 9-1-1 dial.)

    • How does xxx change the world/country’s culture and views?
      (Superheroes - and maybe they have another name like ‘Superdupers’ - are revered, sometimes worshipped, even collected in the form of action figures and comics. Superhumans are at times envied, despised - yet many affluent folk line up to have their future children engineered into supers.)

    • How does xxx change the world/country’s politics?
      (Genetic procedures are eventually outlawed - creating a black market. Perhaps certain politicians run off a platform of envy and bigotry towards the Superdupers.)

*The questions in Point 3 and 4 are fun ones that touch upon issues that lay outside of this guide’s scope (namely, ways of creating plot-conflict in stories).

Putting those answers all together, we’ve come up with a (fairly uninspired, I know - it’s just a start) world of superheroes and supervillains that is both similar and drastically different from our own world, and with quite a hefty bit of potential for conflict and plot-hookery. The questions above should serve as a nice minimum baseline for your Alternate World, but always remember that you can and should go deeper, because what you come up with could surprise you!

  • How does xxx happen? (Superhumans have come about thanks to the meddling of science.)
    • How did they do it? (Genetic engineering and splicing.)
    • But surely it couldn’t have gone that smoothly? Any issues? (A failed batches of human-experiments spliced with animal DNA have lead to a sub-race of feral were-creatures that terrorize Southern U.S.A)
    • A bit of a tangent from point 1, but… Southern U.S.A, you say? Why? (... okay, Shizu, maybe, uh, Florida is the American capital of superhuman creation and genetic engineering?)
    • Normally the thing to do is ask why, but this guide-writer is feeling lazy. (godbless you)
  • Why does xxx happen? (Our real world has a lot of conflict/tension. This alternate world introduced superhumans to serve as precautionary super soldiers).
    • Which nations in our alternate world are in conflict? (Let’s say, Nation 1 and Nation 2).
    • Have both these Nations managed to engineer superhumans? (Yes!)
    • Did they do it in similar fashion? What were the differences? (Nation 1, being technologically and scientifically superior, had a significant lower mortality rate. The vast lives lost in Nation 2’s experimental processes are regarded as a dark tragedy: ‘The Lost Generation’.)
    • Let’s go whole-hog, which Nations have access to superhuman research? ([Insert List Here])
    • How do the nations that don’t have superhuman sciences begin to deal in this new world? (Mostly, they hope and pray to avoid conflict, while doubling research efforts. But maybe, just maybe nefarious governments loan out the services of black-op superhumans, and supervillains serve despot dictators for $$$).

By digging slightly deeper into only two questions, I’ve managed to conjure up a variety of crucial world elements and plothooks! Notably, we’ve also gone substantially darker in tone.
The New World
And then there’s times when you just want to start a world from scratch - entirely new, not just an alternate version of our world, rooted in the fantastical. Like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the various Dungeons and Dragons settings (the Forgotten Realms, Eberron). This is typically a more involving way to go, as you don’t have the luxury getting to use the real world as a base (although, often you’ll find yourself drawing parallels). While starting from scratch seems intimidating, it’s doable, and with the same tenets we’ve spoken of previously.

The planet Arrakis started as Peter Herbert’s “perfect birthplace for a Messiah”, while Tolkien’s Middle-Earth came about when he had first developed his iconic fictional language and expanded.

That spark, that idea that you had to begin with, it becomes the starting point.

Let’s once again approach the idea of ‘the world having superhumans’. Here it’s not so much a ‘what if’ question you apply to a version of the real world, it’s a starting block that you work with. Perhaps the dominant race of people have superpowers, or perhaps it’s an oppressed minority race, which begs the question of how exactly superhumans are being oppressed and-.

Yes, again, questions, the crux of world-building.

Except, without the real world to use as a base, you need to ask some bigger, harder questions. Simply to help get you on your way, here are what I’d consider to be the two largest questions. As before, we’ll try and provide sample answers to help build our theoretical superhuman world.

1. How does the world work?

In this context, I’m not referring to politics, or economics, or the laws of man. I’m simply referring to ‘what’s the natural order’? The laws of nature? The laws of physics? This is also where one would try and establish the laws of magic, if the world is magical in nature (magic and magical systems in fiction, unfortunately, is something that requires its own guide).

The ideas of deities and creator gods also come into play here - the question of ‘how did the world come into being?’

Also remember that so many of Earth’s characteristics - day and night cycles, seasons, land-to-sea (or some other creepy liquid) ratio - for example, are unique to Earth. Many imaginary worlds, particularly in the fantasy genre, choose to use Earth-like characteristics, but deviating could create some very interesting imagery.

[Sample: While special laws of nature and physics could be neat, using Earth-like laws could make it all the more apparent that superhumans are, in fact, ‘super’ to our readers. Let’s stick with that!

We’ll also skip magic and creator gods for now - although perhaps in another story we could have our superhumans molded and placed into the world as ‘Chosen Ones’ imbued with magic. If we wanted our story to be more sci-fi, perhaps we could go with more sciency non-Earth traits, but let’s say we’ll tend towards more fantasy here, and go Earth-like!]

2. Who inhabits our world?

What’s alive here?

This includes the flora and the fauna - imaginary worlds often come with their imaginary ecosystems and vivid bestiaries.

At the base level, most crucial are the sentient species that our characters, our plot-drivers belong to. Pick some races, think of the role you want them to fulfill in the story, and by extension the world - later, you’ll have to flesh out their appearances, the regions they’re found in, their differences from region to region, dress, customs, their history.

[Sample: So, leaving flora and fauna for a later date, let’s work from what I already have as my spark - the superhumans. We could have a world full of them and go for some huge scale fantasy superhuman wars, but let’s go another route: superhumans as an oppressed minority race.

Naturally, we also need an oppressing race(s) - someone to serve as foil. Some shadowy-wraith figures, perhaps, or a society of stoic, impassive overseers. Whichever you choose, you've established two core races.]

Now, those are two very, very general questions - and as I stated in the Alternate World section - questions beget answers that beget more questions. Making a new, wholly imaginary world is a tough thing, and there’ll be a lot of questions you have to answer - but I hope that this is a start!

Conclusion (or, a Handy Dandy Primer for Starting to World-Build)
  1. Focus on your ‘spark’.
  2. Decide if it’ll work best in an ‘Alternate World’, or a ‘New World’. Alternate Worlds allow you to use the real world as the core basis, but hone in on the implications of one or several new ideas. New Worlds allow you start from scratch - with all the potential for exploration - and ball-aches - that creation entails.
  3. Ask questions of yourself regarding this world. (The most general and entry-level of which are listed above.)
  4. Ask more questions, dig deeper.
  5. Constantly grow!
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Thank you for this guide! It’s helped me out tremendously, as I was able to think back on it- specifically the general idea of asking questions- and ask different base questions to help me build a New World. I like to draw parallels because it gives me an “idea” (for example) of how big different continents and/or countries might be and help me relate to the world (and make more sense of it) a little better. :)