LESSON Jorick's Fantasy Worldbuilding Guide - Part 3

Discussion in 'BUILDING WORLDS' started by Jorick, Jan 10, 2015.

  1. Part 1 - Categorizing Your World
    Part 2 - Creation and Fundamental Forces
    Part 3 - Mapping and Populating Your World
    Part 4 - Crafting Cultures

    Part 3 - Mapping and Populating Your World

    Alright, if you've gone through the first two parts of this guide then you've got a formless world with rules for physics and magic in place, plus decisions made about things like subgenres, level of realism, and the overall tone of your world. Now is the time to apply those decisions to actual specific physical things in your world. There's no need to a drawn out introduction to this part, so let's get right to it.

    Part 3A - The Map

    First and foremost, you don't actually need to make a literal map if you don't want it. There is no need for a visual aid if you're fine with a fully textual description of your world. Visual maps can certainly be helpful, even very basic ones you never intend to let others see, but they are by no means required. I'm going to be speaking about a things in terms of a visual map though, because that's the more complex and complete way to describe this stuff. Feel free to ignore all that and just use the bits that are relevant to your text description method; I'd suggest only bothering with the first paragraph of the Geography subsection (the rest is all actual map creation info), but the other two subsections have useful information throughout mixed in with literal map creation talk.

    A second thing to note is that I'm actually rather dissatisfied with my own visual map creation attempts in the past, because I'm not at all naturally gifted in the ways of art and I have not put in any real time or effort to get better at it. Mapmaking is probably my weakest point in worldbuilding, so I'm going to lean heavily on the support available in the form of guides and such other people have submitted to the Worldbuilding Guild about how to make good maps. My focus here will be mainly on how previous choices you made in earlier parts of the guide should impact your map creation, because I love consistency and you should too.

    Third and finally (as far as these little notes go), as per other sections of the guide, you can absolutely decide on things in an order other than the one I present. If you want to draw out nation borders first and then decide on biomes second and leave the larger geographical features last, that's your call, go for it if you feel like it.


    The main things that ought to impact the kind of geography you throw into your world are what level of realism you're going for and whether your world was formed by methods scientists could explain or by god(s), because they'll determine a lot about what feels consistent or not in your world geography. The higher the realism level, the closer things should be to Earth geography; you can circumvent this by researching how planets actually form and look at what kind of crazy geography has been found on other planets that exist in our universe, but that's not something I ever do so figuring it out is all on you. Similarly, worlds formed in the way scientists say planets form should also probably stick close to Earth geography; the same caveat about researching real non-Earth planets applies to this as well. On the other hand, low realism worlds and worlds created by god(s) can go totally nuts and get away with it while remaining totally consistent. A perfect example can be found in the world of Discworld: the Discworld is a disc that sits on the back of four elephants that stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space (concepts largely borrowed from Hindu mythology, and perhaps other mythologies as well). Sounds ridiculous, right? It sure is, but the world is blatantly unrealistic with tons of magic going on and it was made by a god sort of being, plus the Discworld series is comedic fantasy so absurd nonsense is totally fine in that genre. So, generally speaking, the lower the realism you're working with, the crazier you can make your world geography without breaking consistency.

    The stuff that goes into geography is pretty simple on the face of things. You've got continents and islands for major land masses. You've got oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers for major bodies of water. If you were to draw out a map placing just those things, you'd already have a workable world map. Add in stuff like mountains and canyons (and lesser rises and trenches in the landscape), then finish up with smaller bodies of water like ponds and streams, and you'd have an even spiffier world map. You may be wondering about things like forests and deserts and why I didn't mention placing them; I leave those for the next little section of map making because of reasons that will be obvious when you get there. Seriously, that's all that you really need for a general world map, and after that you can just mark cities and such and have a finished product. Deciding where all of that physical stuff actually goes and then making a visual representation of it are where I start to suck at maps (because I'm never happy with the results, even when I follow good instructions), so I'll just link to some nice resources instead.

    Malkuthe Highwind made a tutorial on how to create a world map with Photoshop. The end product of following his tutorial will be a map with major land masses and water features, none of the second round of things you may want to add, but it can serve as a fine base for such things. He also helpfully made some graphics for things like trees and mountains in the same coloring and style as his end product map, which you could copy and paste onto your map to mark mountains and forests and whatnot.

    Peregrine posted a video that details a method of creating a realistic map, specifically by way of simulating plate tectonics continental drift. It includes realistic mountain formation as well, so it's pretty neat if you're into having a realistic world.

    Mowkie recently posted a Photoshop tutorial for making maps. The instructions include a lot of helpful information about how things actually work in nature. Following all the steps she explains will take you from the first steps of marking out your continent borders all the way through to stuff I haven't mentioned yet, like adding different biomes and cities and such to make it a totally finished map.

    And then there are the various mapmaking programs, like AutoREALM or Hexographer, and random world generators that exist. There are some of each listed in the maps section of the Off-Site Worldbuilding Tools and Resources thread, which also has some nice general mapmaking guides now that I look at it.

    Okay, so, figure out how the hell you want to do the map thing and get on it, at least through to having major land masses and bodies of water marked out. Once you have that stuff worked out, it's time to consider biomes and weather.

    Biomes and Weather

    I'm gonna go ahead and start this subsection off by saying that Sole's thread about how weather works is far better at explaining this weather stuff than me, so I highly suggest you go read it if you want to be realistic with your weather and biomes. Now, with that out of the way, here's my basic rundown of how it works.

    Just like geography, the biomes and weather your world will have will be heavily influenced by the level of realism you've selected. For high realism worlds this means you'll probably want to decide on an equator and have things be hottest there, growing colder on average the farther away you go, because that's how it works for real planets. Low realism worlds can kind of just do whatever they want with deciding temperatures around their world. If you're making a low realism world you can throw a hot, sandy desert at the north pole of your world, put a tundra region going around the middle of your world, and stick a huge prairie at the south pole of your world, because low realism worlds don't have to acknowledge petty things like planetary rotation and heating. Generally speaking, for all levels of realism you should decide the relative warmth levels in different regions of your map first. After you've done that, pick an area, consider the warmth level and take a look at how much water is nearby and how much rain you think it would get, then declare the region to be a biome that fits for that temperature and water level; rinse and repeat for the whole world. You shouldn't be placing a lush forest in a place with no rivers/lakes and you shouldn't have an arctic type area right in the middle of a hot zone, unless you're prepared to give some reasons (such as magical shenanigans) for why trees can thrive without water and why there's a pocket of ice in the middle of hot deserts and such, because unless your world is using a full on absurd realism level that sort of thing just violates all sense and will look extremely inconsistent if not explained.

    Weather is pretty solidly tied to types of biomes, and you really don't need to think much about it right now since it'll generally only matter based on how it affects the actual story told in your world. Deserts don't see a lot of rain (because that's part of the definition of 'desert'), rain forests should have a lot of it (because that's part of the definition of 'rain forest'), so on and so forth. If you're making a very realistic world, then using information from Sole's guide (linked above) is a great way to make sure the weather patterns around your world actually make sense. If you're making a very unrealistic world, eh, just don't do anything crazy that totally doesn't fit unless you've got an explanation for it. Don't be throwing massive rainstorms and hurricanes at dry areas all the time and call it natural, don't make forests have no rain ever yet somehow remain lush and full of growth without any explanation, so on and so forth. Low realism is one thing, inconsistency (like definition defying wet deserts and arid rain forests) is another.

    Once you decide on your biomes (and weather), you're done with figuring out the terrain of your world in general terms. More specific levels of geography (like marking out mountain passes and such) can be done now if you feel like it, or it can wait until you're deciding exactly how each place is relevant to your plot, or until your players/characters actually visit the area. Whatever works for you. Get those details sorted however you like for now and move on to the next part of the guide.

    Political Map

    This part can absolutely wait until later on, perhaps until after you're done deciding on what peoples and things actually inhabit your world, but it's part of the map so here is where it belongs in the guide. Do it now or come back to it later, whatever you like.

    There are two main components to the political map: political borders and specific location markers (which includes cities and towns and forts and ruins and so on). There are two ways to place them: random or reasoned. Generally speaking, the random method will be okay for very low realism worlds but not for high realism worlds, but the reasoned method can work for any level of realism. Reasonable political borders and city placement are one of those things that people take for granted in fiction, so it won't ever seem out of place.

    Random placement is super easy. Go to your map and get a pencil or select the digital equivalent if you're making it on a computer. Pick a starting point on a large landmass and draw some kind of enclosed shape; this is a nation. Pick a point on this first nation's border, draw a line from it that ends in either at a body of water or at another point on the first nation's border. Continue doing this until all the land is parceled out into however many pieces you feel like making and name each of them if you feel like it. Then, to place location markers, just go randomly make dots around the land and then decide what each of them is a mark for, with actual names for them if you want them. Tah-dah, political map complete.

    Doing it in a reasoned fashion is a little trickier, but still not hard. For border placement in wide open areas of land without any mountains or major bodies of water you can pretty much just do the same as the random method to cut it into pieces. However, mountain ranges and major bodies of water tend to be used as border markers when available (go take a look at the political borders of South America for a lot of examples of borders marked by mountains and rivers). The reason for this is that without modern machines (or travel magic, because fantasy) to make travel easy, maintaining control over such separated areas which might require extra days or weeks to get to (due to needing to travel to a suitable river crossing, or through/around annoying mountains) is a large pain in the ass even in nice weather, and it might be totally impractical or impossible to try to travel there through poor weather conditions. If you can't actually control an area or easily get soldiers there to protect it, then it's not really worth claiming as part of your territory. It can certainly be done, especially if the nation's leadership is willing to place a permanent military presence on the other side of the natural barrier, but it'll remain a high risk area for rebellion or attacks from other nations. This isn't a hard and fast rule that you must follow, it's just something to keep in mind when you're making your political borders. Another thing to keep in mind is that each nation will require natural resources enough that they can support settlements of people, so making an entire country out of barren wasteland is probably not going to work out.

    There are similar considerations to make when placing specific locations in a reasoned manner. Cities require high levels of resources like fresh water and food to survive. They also tend to only grow from towns in places that have very abundant natural resources (both food/water and useful/luxury things) and/or are placed on major trade routes, and usually it'll be both of these at once; cities can grow somewhere not already on trade routes and end up being a profitable enough destination to create or alter trade routes to include them, but this doesn't change their natural resource or accessibility requirements. This means that cities should probably not be placed in the middle of barren wastelands that don't have any trade value due to poor location or the lack of resources like precious metals, because why the hell would anyone bother paying the huge sums of money it would require to bring in the food and water needed to support a large population in the middle of an inhospitable place just for the sake of having it there? Smaller settlements like towns and villages can get by without the trade routes for the most part, but they still need fresh water and arable land or fishing waters to exist. Luckily the water needs for a relatively small population can be covered with things like having many small streams available or wells dug, so you can sort of place them anywhere that would support food production/gathering.

    The only real exceptions to these basic needs requirements that I can think of are locations where some natural resource is present (like gold) that makes it worthwhile to live there and exploit that resource for profit to make up for the place being not very friendly to live in and locations of such strategic military value that the benefit of having a fort of some kind there outweighs the annoyance of having to supply it. These exception places are pretty rare to grow into real towns or cities, because of the aforementioned fact of them being a sucky place to live. Basically, what you need to remember is that people settling down to build houses tend to pick convenient places, not out of the way pain in the ass places unless they have a damn good reason for it. If you're going for a realistic and reasonable placement of settlements on the political map, make sure to keep this stuff in mind and not place settlements in places that would never realistically support their population. You can fudge this some with magical explanations for how settlements are supplied with their basic needs, but even then you have to consider that people tend to go for the easiest route available when all other factors are equal, so there ought to be a good reason for having a city in the middle of a huge stretch of inhospitable land even if it's supplied through magic.

    Minibit's guide on mapmaking covers a lot of this same stuff but goes into further details on the specifics, plus it puts a lot more emphasis on the importance of trade than I did, so it's definitely worth checking out.

    Once you get done with your borders and placing your cities (and whatever other location markers you feel like having right now), or if you're skipping the political mapping for now, it's time to decide what kind of sapient beings will inhabit these nations and cities and towns.

    Part 3B - The People

    The types of people (for the purpose of this guide I'll use the word to refer to all sapient species, commonly called 'races' in fantasy, not just humans) that inhabit your world are honestly not super important or a huge factor of high/low fantasy or level of realism. I've seen a lot of people make a big deal about so-and-so fantasy world having tons of crazy races to choose from as if that makes it better than worlds with more limited selections, but I consider that view to be silly. In the end, the only things that make a huge race selection matter are aesthetics and any mechanical differences (differing levels of physical strength or aptitudes for technology or magic, for instance) that the creator chooses to put in, and those mechanical differences are easily replicated in an all human world by way of nations or factions anyway. All the supposedly huge cultural differences can also be similarly replicated (super nature conscious human group = elves, mining-centric master metalworker human settlement = dwarves, human tribal warrior society with shamanistic leadership = orcs, etc.) You can make use of all the traditional fantasy themes and tropes that are generally tied to fantasy races by making divisions within purely human societies along those same lines, and you can have crazy unrealistic high fantasy with just humans and it doesn't detract from anything, so don't feel obligated to add in non-human races if you don't feel like having them.

    That said, if you do want to have differing types of people to pick from, you've got a pretty free hand to do so. You can make new races up, or you can twist existing races in knots of make them different (such as cannibal warrior elves, or merchant dwarves who make up the upper class in your world and almost never do hard labor), whatever you want to do. Fictional races are one of the areas where players/readers seem to be fully willing to accept new ideas thrown in at the creator's discretion; for contrast, a lot of people will get annoyed at a world creator trying to make their world super duper unique by making up tons of plants and animals instead of using real ones (I don't get why, but it's a common thing I've noticed). If you wanted to make a sapient species that has a set of spider legs and a torso that has a bunch of tentacles like an octopus and throw a bird head on top and call it a Birtoper, well, you're making a strong argument for why trying to genetically combine different species is an awful idea, but you can totally do it in your fantasy world if you want to. The thing to keep in mind when creating races is that they should remain within the bounds of your realism choice. The Birtoper does not belong in high realism worlds, but it could totally skitter around freaking people out in a low realism world because screw it, maybe they were created by a magical mishap, or maybe a creator god had a twisted mind, whatever. Oh, and for roleplays in specific, if you want to allow players to pick or create any race they want then you're probably going to want to go for low realism to allow people to get as crazy as they want with it, otherwise you're probably going to end up with a really awkwardly inconsistent cast of player characters that don't really fit in your world.

    When choosing sapient species to put in your world, be they commonly known ones or your own creations, you should lay down some basics of their physiology to explain what makes them different from each other. This will give you a good baseline for determining what kind of culture they'll develop (physically weak races probably won't develop war cultures, big brawny stupid races probably won't develop merchant cultures) and what kind of benefits or disadvantages they'll have when trying to do certain things. For each race you choose to use (including humans) you should answer some questions about them (unless your different races are just there for aesthetics and will have no meaningful differences otherwise) so you can have those answers at hand for later use and so you can make sure you're not adding a bunch of pointlessly redundant races. Here are the basic questions I like to use:

    What is the average height and body type of this race?
    What physical features do they have that make an individual of this race easy to pick out in a mixed race crowd?
    What physical features to they have that vary greatly between individuals to make it easy to pick an individual out of a single race crowd?
    What are the basic survival needs of this race?
    What is the average intellect level of this race? This one is usually best answered by ranking the races relative to one another.
    How does this race reproduce and how quickly/frequently do they do so?
    What, if any, are this race's combat advantages and disadvantages on a biological level, and does it take anything special to kill them?
    Are there any particular skills that this race is on average considered the best in the world at doing?
    Are there any particular skills that this race is on average considered the world in the world at doing or are completely incapable of doing?

    Feel free to add or omit things from that list of questions to fit your needs, of course. These answers should be used to make sure these races remain consistent throughout the world creation process. For instance, if part of the Birtoper's basic survival needs is that they cannot survive freezing temperatures, then they should probably be placed in hot areas; if you decide that Birtopers are totally incapable of understanding metalworking, then you should make sure you never show one working in a forge. If you're making a world for a roleplay, these answers make a great foundation for explaining what each race is like in a paragraph or two.

    Once you have your initial choices for people picked out (as usual, you can always change it later), you can basically be done with Part 3 of the guide if you don't feel like making solid choices on the following portions for now. A lot of people like to decide what monsters exist on the fly as they want to introduce threats to the players/characters, and plenty of people just don't ever bother getting specific about the plants and animals in their world, and both of those choices are perfectly acceptable. However, I like to make at least some general decisions about each of those things at this point in world creation, so on we go.

    Part 3C - The Monsters

    First off, some of you may be wondering what exactly I mean by 'monsters.' There are a variety of definitions, from "any kind of dangerous fictitious creature" to "things that frighten and harm people" to "evil creatures." I like to think of them as being a step between normal animals and sapient races; if they're on the bestial side then they'll be a much bigger threat than normal animals, and if they're actually sapient creatures then they'll be solitary or universally hostile or have some other reason for not forming real societies with their own species or being able to peacefully join settlements of the sapient species. My own definition of a monster is that they're creatures that do not live in civilization and are significantly more dangerous to people than a normal animal, usually posing a significant threat to even moderate sized groups of people. They needn't be naturally aggressive toward people, they don't have to be evil, they don't have to be at all supernatural or magical in nature; they just have to be super dangerous and scary for people if a fight does happen. Oftentimes they'll end up being malevolent and supernatural/magical and that's what makes them terrifying to go up against, but it's not a requirement. By my definition, gryphons would count as monsters even if they're not hostile to people when found in the wild and have been domesticated to be used for transportation, because if people do pick a fight with one then it's going to be unpleasant for them. You can have your own idea of what constitutes a monster, and it's totally fine if it differs from mine, just make sure you have some kind of idea in mind of what a monster is to you before you move on.

    The first big question to ask yourself here is this: do monsters exist in your world? If you chose to make a high realism world, then the answer is usually going to be no, because monsters aren't things in the real world. You can have some kinds of monsters in high realism worlds, especially if they have magic that can be used to explain their existence in an otherwise rational world, but it'll be a precarious balance to keep your monsters realistic and fitting with the rest of your world. For middle and low realism worlds you can go either way with it with no problems. If your answer is no, congrats, you're done with Part 3C of the guide. If your answer is yes, time for specifics.

    The next thing I like to decide is what categories of monsters actually exist. Some such categories include normal animals blown up to monstrous sizes (like giant spiders), hybrid creatures (like manticores, which have a lion body, scorpion tail, a human head with three rows of sharp teeth, and sometimes bat wings), fictional but highly dangerous creatures (like a dragon), demons, magical constructs (like golems or elemental creatures), and corrupted humans (vampires, zombies, etc). My usual standard here is that any category of monster that exists in my world will have multiple types in existence, so if I go with the corrupted humans category I probably won't have just vampires or just werewolves or so on. It just seems rather odd and inconsistent to me if you have, for example, dragons but no other fictional dangerous creatures in your world. Whatever reason dragons have for existing ought to make it so other fictional creatures exist, in my opinion. There's nothing wrong with just having one sub-type of a category of monsters in your world, it's just something I don't happen to care for.

    After that it's a matter of deciding exactly which monsters exist in each category. As with fantasy races, it seems that people are generally willing to accept all sorts of wild originality in monsters, so there's no need to stick to just whatever monsters already exist in fiction. I start this process off by making a simple list of what specific kinds of creatures exist in each of the categories I chose to use. Then I determine a source for each individual kind of creature (unless I decide the whole category has the same origin explanation), such as if it has just always existed along with other life on the planet or if it was made by a sapient species using magic at some point, though this may never be relevant to your purposes and can be skipped without issue. For each creature I then go through and decide on things like appearance, size, natural habitat, survival needs, how and how fast do they reproduce, what dangerous stuff it has or can do (claws, high strength, can use magic, etc), how smart it is, what its strong points are, what its vulnerabilities are, how to kill it, and how many average peasant types of each race it would take to kill one (because I like using peasant power as my baseline).

    By the way, it's really easy to change things here later without consistency issues, because until players/readers actually encounter the monster or get information about them from someone who has encountered them then nothing truly needs to be set in stone. Your monster roster can be constantly evolving as you run your roleplay or write your story if you so choose, because bringing in new threats is a great way to liven things up, so there's no need to have a finalized and exhaustive list of monsters in your world at this point or at any point. Once you've got however much information on each kind of monster you want to have for the moment, then the monster portion is done.

    Part 3D - The Fauna

    Okay, so, you've decided on the races and monsters that inhabit your world. The next logical step is deciding what normal animals exist there. This part can be super simple if you decide to just use real world animals and not bother with anything else. Plenty of fantasy of all genres and realism levels and such use this simple answer instead of getting fancy with it. If you choose to do so, just make sure that whenever you mention animals being somewhere that it makes sense for them to actually live in that kind of biome. You never really need to do anything special to make people aware that you're using real fauna either, just mention one or two normal animals early on and people will get it and roll with it.

    If you choose to make up your own animals, then you've got a choice to make. Are you going to have these animals exist alongside real world fauna, or are you going to totally do away with real animals and use purely fictional ones? If the former, then that's no big deal, easy to slip new stuff in amongst the established order without it feeling inconsistent. If the latter, good luck to you and have fun researching how the real world ecological system works with food chains and such if you want it to be at all realistic. Either way, for fictional fauna you'll probably want to decide similar things as with each type of monster from the above section: appearance, size, natural habitat, survival needs, reproduction method and speed, what does it eat, what other animals eat it, and can it be eaten or domesticated by the sapient species.

    Make your choice, get a list and some answers going for any fictional animals you want to use (with the same caveat as monsters: until players/readers learn about it, you can always change or remove it), and onward to the oh-so-interesting decisions to be made about plants.

    Part 3E - The Flora

    Deciding on the plants in your world is rather similar to deciding on the animals. Lots of world creators just use real world plants, and that's perfectly acceptable. If you want to use non-real plants, you can intermix them with real plants or use solely fictional plant life in your world, and as with animals have fun trying to make it realistic at all if you go for full fiction in your plants. For fictional plants you should decide on things like appearance, size, natural habitat, survival needs, reproduction method and speed, which animals eat it, if people can eat it, and if people have found any non-food use for it (booze creation or medicinal properties, for example).

    Choose what you're going to do with plants, decide the particulars of any fiction ones (again, easy to edit without trouble before players/readers encounter them), and you're done with plants and Part 3 of the guide.

    Part 3 Afterword

    Holy crap those last few sections felt repetitious. I apologize to readers and to my fingers for having to put up with that nonsense.

    Anyway, if you're going along with the guide as a whole, things are starting to come together to look like a developed world. Part 1 left you with a bunch of categorizing choices, Part 2 left you with a formless planet with fundamental forces of the world worked out to some level, and now after Part 3 you've got a world with actual stuff on it. The remaining one or two parts (the number is dependent on length and organization things) of the guide will deal with fleshing out the sapient races of your world with things like history, culture, and technology. After that stuff is dealt with you'll have a fully realized world that's ready for use as a roleplay or story setting.

    Thanks for reading, and hopefully this stuff has actually been helpful for people struggling to build worlds. As with the other two parts, feel free to post any questions or comments you have in the thread.
    #1 Jorick, Jan 10, 2015
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2015
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  2. If here is one thing i really don't like about yourguide (and this is a common mistake mind you).

    / pet peeve mode: on

    Sentient does not mean what you think it means, it simply means that a given creature is capable of reacting to what their senses tell them and feel.

    Sapient creatures are ones capable of high reasoning, humans being the obvious example.



    /Pet peeve mode: off

    Otherwise I think it is pretty good!
    • Thank Thank x 2
  3. Y'know, I've always made that mistake about sentient vs sapient, because of common usage being silly. Common usage of the word sentient acts as if they're synonymous, but you are indeed correct that they're different thing. I'm going to edit it to fix that, because now that you've pointed it out I feel dumb. :lol:

    Thanks for that though, I appreciate the correction.