LESSON Jorick's Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide - Part 1


Magnificent Bastard
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Fantasy is my #1; I will give almost anything a chance if it has strong fantasy elements. Post apocalyptic, superhero, alternate history, science fantasy, some supernatural, romance, and a few fandoms (especially Game of Thrones) are also likely to catch my eye.
Part 1 - Categorizing Your World
Part 2 - Creation and Fundamental Forces
Part 3 - Mapping and Populating Your World
Part 4 - Crafting Cultures

Introduction to the Guide

Yeah, yeah, I know, hold the obvious complaints for a moment. I know that there are already a bunch of fantasy focused things, and I know there are already guides that aim to give the full spiel of building a world from start to finish (like Minibit's World Building from Square One guide). Bear with me here. I've looked through all those guides and have found them lacking in various aspects. This isn't to say that they're bad, and in fact many of them are fantastic and I intend to include links to them as supplements to my own thoughts on world building because multiple perspectives are good. What I mean is that they're too simplified for my tastes, missing parts I consider important, or explain things in ways I don't agree with. Also, I'm sticking mainly to fantasy examples and specifics because that's the main genre I read, write, and roleplay in, so it would be kind of annoying to try to do otherwise. Deal with it.

In short, this guide is a full explanation of my method of world building. My method of choice is a top down progression, working from the general down to the specifics, because I find that that better lends itself to internal consistency than bottom up world building, and I'm all about internal consistency. If you're not familiar with the phrase, it means that all of the pieces fit smoothly together and nothing clashes; a fantasy world with the classic races and basic magic and medieval technology levels is very consistent because everything makes sense being thrown together in the same pot, whereas a world with a mix and match of classic races plus modern supernatural races plus video game races and a really convoluted magic system that takes hours to explain and a grab bag of medieval and magitech and steampunk technology tends to clash a lot and feel very erratic. This is by no means a sure thing, but the top down method has worked well for me in the past to keep things coherent, so that's what I roll with. However, you can easily swap parts around as you see fit if that's now how you like to work, because my word is by no means law. You can also easily adapt this method to other genres, since the underlying concepts are intended to be sound whether you're fiddling with elves or aliens or whatever.

Aside from that, I'd like to note that I can be extremely verbose, so strap in for a long ride. Also, I welcome criticism and commentary with open arms, so feel free to post things in this thread as you desire. Now, without further ado, on to the guide.

Part 1 - Categorizing Your World

Before you get down to the specifics of the world you're creating, you've got to have a broader concept to work with and within. These kinds of categories are what are used to describe works of fiction in general without anything to do with plot or characters, the stuff you'd use to describe the world in a single sentence. It's very likely that you already have some specific ideas you want to use in your world, and that's actually more of a help than a hindrance, but regardless this is the place to start in the top down method of world building. You need some boundaries that set the outer limits of what is allowed in your world, otherwise you'd be starting out with literally infinite possibilities and that's just awful. Freedom of choice is one thing, overabundance is another. This first part is where you draw the borders that will be the foundation of your world's consistency; any ideas that come up later that violate these borders will require you to change the ideas or redraw those borders, else you'll end up with an inconsistent mess.

Part 1A - General Concept and Goals

This is the natural first step to any world building process. First you need some kind of broad idea of what you want your world to be like. What will the main genre be? Fantasy is a probable answer here if you're using this guide, but hey, whatever works. Do you want it to be set in the past, modern, future of the real world, or in some analog of one of those time periods in a unique world, or in some totally alien world where those time categories are meaningless? Are you going to have magic, and if so how prevalent do you want it to be? Are there going to be sentient creatures other than humans? These sorts of questions can be answered with simple single word answers for now, or you might already have fairly deep ideas for them. Either way is fine. For now these are just the broad strokes to get you started, the basics you need to be able to start building a world in the first place.

Second, though not of lesser importance, you need to have some goal for this world in mind. Is it for a roleplay? If so, one on one, small group, or large group? Is it going to be something that encourages exploration, or is it going to be set in a relatively small area with no broad exploration needed? Do you want it to be a game that'll last years or something light and fun for a few months? If not for a forum roleplay, is it for a chat roleplay? Is it for a tabletop game? Is it for a novel? A series of novels? A short story? Is it for a movie or TV show idea you have? Do you want it to be capable of working in multiple or all of the above categories? The reason this is important is because different goals will shape the project's scope. A world built just for a single short story is not going to need anywhere near the level of detail and fleshing out that a world built for a huge series of novels will need. A world meant for a casual one on one roleplay won't need the same work as a world meant for a huge group roleplay with an epic, episodic scope. Generally speaking, the larger the goal the more work you're going to want to put into the world to make sure it's ready to go without pulling new information out of your ass later on. Setting out to write the next Shannara or Wheel of Time with a world you slapped together in ten minutes is probably going to get really awkward really quick.

Keep your concept and goals in mind as you go through the rest of this part and later parts of the guide. It's simplest to make these your set in stone borders for what is allowed in everything that follows, because then you have a simple consistency test: "does <idea> actually make sense with <concept> and <goals>?" If the answer is no, cut or change the idea; if yes, cool, it's allowed to stay. For example, does an assault rifle that shoots rounds of pure magic fit into a medieval style fantasy world with tons of magic? Nope, it needs to be cut or changed, perhaps into a repeating crossbow that fires magic bolts to fit in the world. Does a sprawling jungle filled with deadly magical creatures fit into a casual one on one futuristic sci-fi roleplay that focuses on political intrigue and romance and is set entirely in a single small city on an ice planet? Not really, although you can use it as a place to mention for some reason or another, but it's probably best to save heavy details on the idea for another world or a different plot in the same universe.

You can always come back and tweak stuff at this level later on down the road, but that can make things a little awkward if you aren't careful. Deciding to swap from a no magic futuristic fantasy to high magic historical fantasy is going to make all those slick future outfits and high tech guns feel a little bit out of place. Any time you make a change to higher level things you ought to run down the line and review everything else you've done to make sure it still makes sense, or to revise it if it doesn't. That can be a lot of annoying work, which is why I say it's best to set your concept and goals in stone. Whatever floats your boat though, just be careful of maintaining internal consistency whenever you make a change or else your world is going to get really wonky.

Part 1B - Subgenres and High/Low Fantasy

So, you've got your goals picked out and you've got your general concept down, including a main genre. A main genre isn't enough though, since those are still pretty damned broad. There are a bunch of different fantasy subgenres (the high/low fantasy split, heroic fantasy, dark fantasy, medieval fantasy, fairy tales, and supernatural fantasy to name a few) and tons of other genre labels you can attach to fantasy as a secondary genre as well (romance, action, historical, etc.). Same sort of thing goes for other genres if you're not making a fantasy world. Choosing designations from the plethora of sub-categories is a great step to take to start clarifying your world, and they act as even smaller boundaries to keep your consistency in check.

I'm not going to go through and explain all the subgenres of fantasy, because that would be a lot of extra work when I could instead link to somewhere that already has this information available. I'm instead going to go into high fantasy versus low fantasy, because it's the largest schism between types of fantasy so it can have a heavy impact on what kind of subgenres you should even be considering. Or you can pick a subgenre that fits with your concept and goals and then just decide where it falls on the high/low spectrum. Whatever works for you. This is a guide, not a set of laws.

There are two common sets of definitions for high/low fantasy that see roughly equal use, each of them being more or less sets of opposites, but this duality of definition can make actually categorizing a work of fantasy with the terms a bit tricky. First, there's the pair of definitions based on the original use of "high fantasy." In this set of meanings, high fantasy is fantasy set in a world other than the one we know that operates on its own rules in which the fantastical is normal (like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia), whereas low fantasy is set in the real world or a realistic world in which the fantastical seems to break the laws of reality (The Green Mile by Stephen King and The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks are both good examples of magic happening in the "real" world). The second common definition is that high fantasy is epic in terms of plot and/or characters and/or themes, generally meaning high level of fantastical shenanigans happening (like The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time); low fantasy by this definition is a bit more mundane in terms of plot, characters, and themes, sort of a catch all category for fantasy things that aren't all about grand heroes saving the world in epic battles of good versus evil (such the Redwall series and The First Law trilogy).

As an example of what I mean by how these two sets of definitions make it a bit tricky to use them, and a bonus on how it can be hard to place things even in one set of definitions, consider Harry Potter. On the one hand, it's set in the real world so it could be called low fantasy by the first definition. On the other hand, almost all of it takes place in non-real fantastical settings so it could be called high fantasy by the first definition. On the other other hand, it largely focuses on Harry's day to day personal struggles with relationships and such rather than on the fight against Voldemort and the other baddies, so it's pretty suitable for the second low fantasy definition. On the other other other hand, it has the huge confrontation between good and evil between the prophesied hero and the great evil that is in truth a battle over the fate of the world so it's a nice pick for the second high fantasy definition. Similar shenanigans can be pulled with other works of fantasy that aren't very clearly in one camp or the other.

So why did I bother giving the whole explanation of high and low fantasy only to show how apparently useless they are? Good question, me. The answer is that while they're sort of useless as categorizing tools for outsiders, they're actually pretty awesome for someone creating a world. They get muddled by readers and critics because they've got all sorts of experiences and connotations and biases that will make them view things differently from one another, and that's just unavoidable. For you, the creator of worlds, they're yet another set of boundary markers for your world consistency (are you seeing a pattern yet?). Deciding on high or low fantasy cuts out more of those hordes of possibilities and takes you one step closer to the specifics. If you want to go low fantasy you should probably discard notions of evil overlords that are basically the personification of evil itself, and if you go high fantasy then maybe you shouldn't add in a grizzled mercenary who's all about using his knives (because fireballs and lightning bolts flying all over the battlefield make traditional melee fighters kind of useless). Obviously you don't need to stick to the extremes of any of the definitions, because it's more like a two axis sliding scale than a set of on/off switches, but pinpointing where exactly you want your world to fall on those scales can help a lot to clarify ideas and figure out what works in your world and what doesn't.

Part 1C - Type of Fantasy World

This one is pretty simple, and by now most people will probably be able to easily select which type of world fits their ideas best. As with previous parts, this is all about narrowing your focus and continuing to mark the outer boundaries of your world. There are three (four if you count straight up real world settings, but those don't really need an explanation) different flavors of fantasy worlds, and they can each exist as either high or low fantasy.

First there's the type of world that is completely separate from the real world. Either the real world does not exist at all in this fantasy world you're creating, or it's so very far removed that it may as well not exist. For example, A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones for you TV-only people) is set in a fantasy world where the real world doesn't exist. Star Wars is set in a universe where the real world may as well not exist because it's a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, so it also counts for this section despite claiming to exist in the real universe.

Next there are the portal worlds. These are fantasy worlds that are separate from the real or primary world, but linked to them in some way and accessed through some kind of portal. The Chronicles of Narnia is a classic example of this, wherein the fantastical land of Narnia is accessed most famously through a wardrobe portal. Alice in Wonderland is another famous example, wherein Wonderland is accessed through a rabbit hole.

Finally there's the world-within-a-world type. These ones are worlds where there is a fantastical world that exists in the real world but is hidden from normal view or awareness in some way. Sometimes the magical places can only be accessed from certain places or by certain entities, and sometimes it's just a matter of people being too dense or too far in denial about the supernatural to recognize the magic that's all around them. These worlds are usually kind of hard to nail down in terms of high or low fantasy because they're set in the real world but also have clear fantasy stuff going on. Some examples of this include Harry Potter as a special access type world-within-a-world (which I already ran through the high/low fantasy wringer) and The Dresden Files as a world-within-a-world that has no barrier to access and the magical world goes unnoticed through sheer human stubbornness and denial (which could be low fantasy because it's set in the real world and is limited to the scope of a single character, or high fantasy because it's got tons of magic and fantastical creatures around all the time and some of the conflicts actually come down to saving the whole world despite the apparently small scope).

You don't have to pick just one type, by the way. For instance, portal worlds and world-within-a-world can exist in tandem. You could have a secret community of vampires and werewolves and other supernatural entities that live alongside humanity without getting noticed and also portals into the faerie realm or spirit world or whatever. You can also have portal worlds within unique worlds, and you can have a world-within-a-world in your unique world. It's entirely possible to have all three exist in one world. For example, you could make a medieval fantasy world with the Tolkien fantasy races in which magic does not seem to exist on the surface, add in portals to other unique worlds with their own stuff going on, plus in the primary world have a world-within-a-world of those who know magic exists and make use of it.

Odds are pretty good that you had no trouble picking which of these categories your world fits into. Often I've found that making this distinction is actually one of the first things that comes up in my brainstorming about a new world. If that's not the case for you, hey, congrats, you're the kind of person I had in mind when I wrote this section to cover all the bases, so make your choice now with the comforting knowledge that you're not ignorantly assuming that all fantasy worlds are unique entities separate from reality. Anyway, on to the next bit.

Part 1D - Realism

This is another rather simple part, though it's an important one. Essentially, you need to decide how close to reality you want your world to be. Will death be permanent and final, or can it be overcome with extreme effort, or is it a trivial obstacle? Is magic totally fake, or is it something that operates on coherent rules, or is it deus ex machina incarnate? Will the physical limitations of an individual be just like real life, or will everyone be in peak human condition with no work, or will everyone stand a chance in an arm wrestling match with Superman? These are the kinds of questions that can help you decide if you want a very realistic world or if you want to go off the fantasy deep end and tell reality to shove it.

One of the best simple explanations I've found of this spectrum of realism versus fantasy is the TVTropes article on it. It sets out five points on the spectrum: Mundane, Unrealistic, Unusual, Fantastic, and Surreal. Mundane is just real life, everything is explained by science and nothing that cannot occur in reality happens in this world, so you probably won't use this level of realism in a fantasy world; pick a modern drama of any kind that's lacking in supernatural elements and it probably takes place in this kind of world. Unrealistic is still pretty close to reality, but things can get kind of over the top (unrealistic depictions of strength or recovery from wounds, for instance) and some minor supernatural things can occur but are usually left mysterious and vague; an example of this kind of world is a historical medieval fantasy world with no magic and no fantasy races or creatures, but focusing on knights who are generally badasses who fight off bandits and rescue princesses all the time. Unusual is where things start getting crazy, where the rules of reality still generally apply but there are strong enough fantastical elements to make it clear that reality is not in total control, though not prevalent enough to make reality take a back seat; low fantasy often fits here, as do worlds where there are only a very limited amount of unreal things happening, so things like The Hunger Games (fairly realistic except for the very futuristic technology) and the show Pushing Daisies (everything is realistic except the main character's ability to bring things back from the dead) fit here. Fantastic is where the rules of reality are of little to no importance and things like magic and fantastical creatures are the major powers at work instead, though there's still strong internal consistency to keep things together; this is where the vast majority of fantasy fits in, everything from The Lord of the Rings to the majority of fairy tales and comic books. Surreal is set here as the opposite of realistic, and as such it means that the laws of reality have no power and there's no need for internal consistency or explanations of anything like rules of the world; Alice in Wonderland fits in this category because of all the nonsensical things that happen, as do things like Adventure Time that ignore reality and its rules entirely.

It's worth noting here that a world's level of realism is often used as an indicator of whether it's high or low fantasy. These two things have a generally inverse correlation: high realism usually means low fantasy, and low realism usually means high fantasy. This is not always a perfect tool, because worlds like A Song of Ice and Fire exist: it's set in a unique world and has things like dragons and zombies and some real magic that would seem to indicate high fantasy, but almost everything operates on logical rules that fit in perfectly with reality so it could also be called low fantasy as well. As with the high/low fantasy split, deciding on the level of realism you want to use is another way of making the consistency borders of your world smaller, thus tightening your focus. You don't need to use the designations of the spectrum I outlined above, and you don't need to pick a specific point on the realism spectrum right now, but having at least a general idea of where your world fits in is going to be important. Deciding whether or not Murdergore the Blacksoul, a corrupted paladin who wears a suit of enchanted dragonbone armor and a cape made of the scalps of slain saints and angels, wields a greatsword that can effortlessly cleave through mountains and is permanently stained red by the blood of the fallen, and possesses arcane powers of destruction potent enough to rend the world in twain is actually consistent with your world has a lot to do with what level of realism you're going for.

Part 1E - Tone and Morality

Tone and morality (by which I mean overall world morality, which is sort of an overall morality that encompasses what kind of moralities the characters in it are allowed to have while maintaining consistency) are almost inextricably bound to one another, thus the pairing that might seem odd on the face of things. To use common terms to explain what I mean by tone, a wholly light tone is all about being hopeful and optimistic and a wholly dark tone is all about being cynical and pessimistic. Tone and morality have a decent, almost direct, correlation on a scale of light to dark, where a light and happy tone will almost always have a basic black and white morality or the highly optimistic white and grey morality and a very dark and cynical tone will almost always have shades of grey morality or what is sometimes called black and grey morality. Harry Potter is overall rather light in tone: the good guys always win and the powers of love and friendship are strong enough to outright defeat evil. A Song of Ice and Fire is rather dark in overall tone: rather than heroes and villains the world is more made up of victims and villains, backstabbing and treachery are commonplace, and trusting in the powers of love and friendship will probably just get you killed. Then you've got mixes like Discworld, where the events that unfold tend toward the optimistic side where everything is fine in the end and none of the good guys die, but most of the characters are extreme cynics who think the world is shit and the people in it are greedy, selfish bastards. It's another spectrum, just like realism, rather than a binary choice.

The reason morality is linked so closely to tone is largely a matter of consistency (yep, I'm still harping on it, get used to it). It could be rather inconsistent to have a happy, fun, optimistic world that contains a conflicted anti-hero who ultimately wants to do good and make the world a better place but finds it necessary to commit horrible deeds like murder in order to achieve his goals. Placing that character into a world full of people who think that everything will turn out right in the end if they just believe in it and that all people are inherently good and only total monsters can be evil would be quite jarring, like a splash of red on a black and white photograph. His actions and internal conflict are a conundrum that the people of the world in general wouldn't be able to cope with or understand, thus his existence is inconsistent. However, throwing good ole Murdergore the Blacksoul into this goody-two-shoes world would actually be fine because he is basically evil incarnate, so he'd work out as the ultimate evil that the good guys have to work against and then of course defeat in the end. This is the reason why classic Disney villains tend to be absolute monsters instead of conflicted characters with sympathetic motivations. Black and white morality is what works in optimistic worlds because morality in shades of grey requires cynicism. On the flip side, throwing a super happy optimist who loves and trusts everyone into a world where bad things happen to good people and the good guys don't usually win is going to be extremely strange for similar reasons, unless you're clearly doing it for the sake of humor. Oh, and just for the sake of completeness, you can absolutely pick a middling point for tone and morality; this is usually a hallmark of realistic worlds, since the real world is pretty grey in tone and morality when viewed overall, but it can definitely be used for low realism high fantasy worlds too. You can get away with having both optimists and cynics of all sorts in a world that takes the middle route, so if you want to have both anti-heroes and traditional heroes and villains then this is probably what you want to go for.

See, the major thing here is that the world ought to shape the people and things that live in it, so consistency requires that they actually make sense to exist in that world. If the people are generally good and the good guys always come out on top, then it's strange for someone to be dark and cynical; if people are generally bastards and there's no real way to tell good guys from bad guys, then it's strange for someone to be all cheery and optimistic about things. There can be exceptions to this rule, of course, but unless you're toying with complex themes or going for parody or something then you're probably not going to want any exceptions. If you want to have gruff anti-hero types and deal with moral conundrums, you probably shouldn't try to make a light toned black and white morality world for them; if you want to have an epic battle between good and evil, you probably shouldn't try to make a dark toned black and grey morality world for it. Use your goal, general concepts, level of realism, and other bits from above to decide what you want your world tone to be, then stick to it as you move forward.

Part 1F - Bringing it All Together

By now you ought to have a solid outline for the kind of world you're going to build. You could list out terms for your world chosen from the above and use them to find other works of fiction that are similar to what you're making; for instance, if you're making a novel series that's medieval high fantasy (meaning magic and magical creatures in a world totally separate from the real one), realism set to typical high fantasy levels where fantasy > reality, and dark tone and morality, then poking around with those terms could show you that A Song of Ice and Fire is something like that that already exists. The major consistency borders have been marked out, you know where your world falls on various spectra, so now you're just about ready to get into the juicy details.

Everything so far has been like deciding on what image you want to use to make a puzzle out of. It's all conceptual stuff so far, nothing really tangible (though maybe you've had some solid ideas from the start or have come up with some during this first part of the process, which is totally fine), which is why this is one point where I like to stop and think about it. I gather up everything I've come up with so far, write it down or list it out in some way, and make sure it really fits with what I want. I double check everything with my concept and goals to make sure I didn't go off the rails somewhere, I make sure my chosen subgenres are a good fit for the kind of tone and level of realism I'm striving for, so on and so forth. The reason for this is that this overall picture is very much key to everything that comes later, so making sure I'm happy with it before moving on saves a lot of potential stress later on. I highly recommend you do the same with your own world creation before moving on.

So, to continue the metaphor from above, you've got the image you want to use to make your hypothetical puzzle. The next steps for hypothetical puzzle making would be to get the physical material you want to use and putting the picture on it, then cutting out the individual pieces. It's not a perfect metaphor for world building, but it'll suffice. Instead of picking out a material and putting the image on it, we're going to conjure it out of thin air by deciding how exactly the world was made and how the natural and supernatural laws (of the science kind, not the political kind) of the place actually work; this will be Part 2 of the guide. Instead of cutting it into pieces, we're going to be forming those pieces from decisions on everything from which races and creatures are present to what the culture is like, all while paying homage to the altar of consistency to make sure the pieces actually fit together in the end; this will be Part 3 and onward of the guide.

However, those further parts of the guide will be forthcoming at a later date. This will likely end up being the longest of them all, since it covers so many different important things, but hey, you never know. I warned you of my verbosity in the introduction. If you've got any questions or comments about this part, or any future ones, feel free to post in the thread about it.


2/16/2015 Edit: I recently found out that someone plagiarized this guide on another forum. For the sake of confirmation for that other forum's moderators that this is in fact my work, here's the reference code they asked me to edit into this post. Reference: SB-CK-001

If you want to post this guide elsewhere, feel free to do so as long as you give credit where it's due by linking back to this thread. You know, the basic etiquette of not plagiarizing stuff. It's real simple.
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