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GameMasterY - World Building: Part Three

Updated on December 17, 2013
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My hobby is World Building. Unusual, but rewarding. I wish to give of my learning and experiences.

Step Three: The World

3.3 Shaping a world: Here is where the campaign world begins to take physical shape. Some designers jump right in and start this step by drawing a regional or world map, which is a fine way to start. It really helps give a sense of reality to the world, when one is able to hold a visual representation of it in one's hand. However, to breathe the world to life and give it a living sort of verisimilitude, it needs to resemble in some respects the world one is already familiar with. In order to accomplish this feat, and to best place and shape the features of the lands, bio-spheres, and oceans, it is important to understand the five basic shaping forces that commonly exist in a world.

Fire... | Source

3.3.1 Fire:

Most naturally habitable worlds consist of a molten mantle surrounded by a hardened skin or crust of rock and minerals many miles thick. If left undisturbed during the cooling process, a planetary crust will form a more or less solid mass. However, due to gravitational stresses of nearby astrological bodies, impact(s) of large mass(es), inherent instability in the density of mass inside the mantle, unequal distribution of mass through the crust, or some other large scale event, a planetary crust may instead fragment into crustal plates which float upon the molten matter beneath. Even after the crust forms, various factors such as gravitational influences, rotational and orbital energies, and other factors keep the mantle molten. Types of world-crust: In the former case, there will be vents which form where the crustal matter failed to completely cool, typically over points of natural upwelling where magma is hotter and less dense than the surrounding mantle materials. The latter case will allow magma to squeeze up between the cracks in the crustal plates forming volcanoes in areas of separation. Planetary motion, magma pressure, or imbalanced mass may push or pull the crustal plates apart in certain spots, causing them to collide and form mountains along the opposite edge in some cases, or for one plate to subside under the another plate; the leading edge of the lower plate eventually breaking down and melting, with new rock formed by the cooling magma along its trailing edge. Magma may also melt through weak areas of folds, causing new rock to form. Volcanic rock, once broken down into dust and mixed with dirt and water, is full of many elements and becomes rich and fertile soil. Nature of the mantle: The "fire" in question is more a presence of immense heat and pressure which liquifies what would otherwise be rock and metal. While tests of our own world have yielded results indicating multiple liquified layers of molten materials with differing densities all surrounding a more or less solid metallic core, it may be interesting to postulate variations in the nature of the mantle, and apply the results to a game world. Variations of Sub-surface structures: One of the most common themes in alternate sub-surface structure is a hidden world of vast and unmapped caverns stretching throughout portions of the crust. Some sources take this concept to an extreme, postulating the entire core of the world being made of rock and/or metal, honeycombed with caverns, tubes, and passages. One famous historical literature postulated the world being hollow, with a miniature sun inside providing light and heat to the inhabitants of the inner sphere and gravity radiating from the crust itself, rather than the center of the world. Other possibilities include gigantic inhabited hollow geodes floating inside a molten mantle, a world made entirely of liquid, a purely gaseous world, a world of stabilized energy, or something even more exotic. Solar fire: It is also worth noting that the rotational forces of the materials of the mantle and the core generates the magnetic field which moderates the types and amounts of radiation reaching the planetary surface from the planet's star, which contributes to making a planet habitable. Moons and other astrological considerations: Astrological bodies in close proximity, be it a companion planet, moon, or moons will exert an influence on the tides and flow of the mantle material, and may even contribute to the generation of the magnetic field.

Earth... | Source

3.3.2 Earth:

A planetary crust is formed of the cooled, outermost material of the fiery mantle underneath, and is typically many miles thick. A world with a solid crust will typically have very few, or no extreme geological features due to the lack of the three basic kinds of crustal building a more geologically active world is subject to. Such a solid-crust world will typically only have mountains where vents or cracks allow magma to escape, or if there has been an event sufficient to alter the local crust significantly. On such worlds the primary shaping forces will likely be water or sentience based, consisting of erosion, glaciers, streams, tides, and sentient alterations such as mining and building. Worlds with a more geologically active crust will be subject to the building forces of faulting, folding, and volcanic activity, in addition to those of wind erosion, water erosion, and sentience. Faults: Crustal plate worlds are subject to faulting, folding, and volcanic building as the plates move, slide, buckle, and subduct. A fault occurs when an area of crustal matter is subjected to enormous stress and cracks open, or even breaks a chunk of crustal matter off from the rest. Faults often end up with the edge of one plate sliding under or over the edge of another plate, resulting in massive sheer cliffs above or beneath the surface. Geological features created by faults are typically sheer on the side towards the fault line, sometimes shattered, broken, or even polished smooth due to the grinding action of the moving plates; and more gently inclined on the side facing away from the fault line. Sometimes plates instead become folded near fault lines, depending on what the plate is comprised of.

Fault lines between plates also tend to be one of the major formative factors in the creation of coastlines, and the reason why almost all mountain ranges run parallel to coastal lines. Fault lines are the most common origin of earthquakes, and knowing where they are in a world allows one to understand when and where earthquakes will occur. Underwater fault lines that experience a tremor or slide can also cause a tsunami to form which will affect a large area of land. Folds: Folding occurs when the pressure of two plates upon each other causes one or both plates to buckle, twist, and fold at locations containing softer and less dense materials, creating extensive ridges and chains of mountains and valleys. Magma can leak through the weak points in folds, creating cores and slopes of ultra-dense, hard volcanic rock. Folding results in large chains of hilly or mountains terrain, and are typically not possessed of hard volcanic cores, with occasional exceptions. Volcanoes: Volcanic building occurs where there are cracks, vents, faults, or weaker materials in folded crustal matter, and magma flows upwards. This can form peaks and mountain chains comprised of the layered building up of the detritus of periodic eruptions. In fact, wherever there are mountains, there is automatically volcanic action taking place - though it may only exist deep beneath the surface. As volcanic material cools, yet is still moving, it can create incredible landforms. Domes or blisters in the crust can also form when an upthrust of volcanic material does not penetrate the surface, but instead pushes up the crust surrounding the underground vent. When softer rock and surface material is eroded, the volcanic cores are exposed, which can cause lone mountains of fantastical shapes to be revealed. Where plates are pulling or being pushed apart, usually in the ocean areas of the world, the upwelling magma will form undersea mountains, and eventually islands. Types of mountains: Young mountains, created by faulting, folding, or volcanic building are full of sharp edges, broken rocks, and are taller and more jagged than older ranges, as erosion has not had sufficient time to mark them (much like the Rocky Mountains). Older mountain ranges are lower, more rounded, and have deeply carved sides and feet from years of erosion. They are also much more likely to be covered in forests and other flora (much like the Appalachian Mountains). As mentioned previously, fault type mountains not only usually follow the coastline (or are the cause of the coastline in the first place), the inclined side faces the coast, and the steep side faces inland. Around mountain ranges will be found broken middle and low lying areas of land. Depending on the availability of water, these might be fertile plains, or arid wastes. Plains: Consisting primarily of relatively large, mostly flat areas, they are found where the crust has not been subjected to much stress. The bedrock underneath a plains area is likely to be ancient rock, possibly even the original crust formed when the planet first cooled. Almost all formative activity in these areas are the result of erosion by wind and water. Given enough time, and a strong source of water, even such areas can produce spectacular terrain as water, ice, and wind carve away softer materials. Planetary rings: Thought to be the product of a failed moon formation event or of a subsequent impact event, planetary rings are formed of countless masses of rock and ice. These objects will sometimes fall to the surface, causing planetary impact events, changing the face of the land, and possibly bringing new and rare materials to the surface. Moons and other astrological considerations: Astrological bodies in close proximity, be it a companion planet, moon, moons, or other exotic gravitational phenomena will exert an influence on the stresses present in the planetary crust, and will combine with other shaping forces to mold the planetary surface.

Water... | Source

3.3.3 Water:

Most worlds that are considered naturally habitable exist at a sufficient distance from their primary star to allow for liquid water to form. Liquid water is necessary for the life forms that we are familiar with to exist. The dynamic cycle of water entering the atmosphere, forming snow and rain, traveling across the land in rivers and streams, and returning to the ocean, is believed to be a crucial aspect of the habitability of a planet, and is also a major shaping force. Oceans, Seas, and Tides: Large bodies of water are effectively entire worlds to themselves. They exert pressure upon the crust underneath. They contain freshwater areas, and lakes of brine in the seabed. Volcanic vents swiftly create new rock even as they boil the water surrounding. At the greatest depths, water will even burn like air when exposed to lava due to the great pressure. There are whirlpool storms and jet-stream currents which exchange spent deoxygenated water with newly oxygenated and mineral enriched water via a cycle of hot rising streams and cold sinking waters.

These currents are one of the primary features of oceans and seas, and it is important to know where they are. Currents flowing away from the equator take warm water towards the polar regions, warm the coastlines along which they flow, and put large amounts of moisture into the atmosphere. Currents returning from the polar regions bring cold water, cooling the regions they flow past. Surface currents are influenced both by the atmospheric conditions and the deep currents, but the deep currents are more influenced by the presence or absence of freshwater (from polar ice caps and river outflow) as well as temperature and shockwaves from seabed quakes.

A world that rotates will experience slightly higher tides along coastlines facing the direction of the spin, and slightly lower tides along coastlines facing away from the direction of the spin. Gravitational forces from nearby astrological phenomena also affect tides, covered in more detail below. Lakes: Natural lakes are relatively rare, suitable locations usually being formed instead by crustal and volcanic action or atmospheric and water/glacial erosion. The majority of lakes are freshwater, however saltwater lakes are also possible if an area experiences a sudden deluge from a massive flood or geological upthrust due to crustal or volcanic activity, and there is sufficient freshwater input from rivers, streams or glacial melt to replace water lost to evaporation. Rivers and Streams: Water moves from high points to the lowest points available, forming lakes and ponds where there are depressions in the ground, and rivers and streams if there is egress for the water to flow, finally joining the ocean, entering an underground cavern, or being absorbed into porous ground. Most rivers and streams originate from snowpack in high mountains which partly or completely melt during warm seasons. The rest originate from natural wellsprings in the earth where water is under pressure deep below.

Where the ground is soft, flowing water will start to wind across the landscape as dirt and silt picked up by the water is dropped and builds up against embankments and redirects the flow of water to a new low point. Where the ground is hard, the water will eventually carve a channel deeper and deeper, following whichever direction the softest rock is worn away. Water passing through lime deposits can actually build up rock via a form of naturally deposited cementing action, incorporating and petrifying anything solid that is also in the river, though this is relatively rare. When multiple sources of water join, it can form great rivers which carve wide loops and deep channels into the land, based on the relative hardness thereof.

Rivers carve "V" shaped valleys wherever they go upon the surface, but carve out channels and passages of all kinds underground. Where water sits, or flows very slowly underground, the minerals collected from the surrounding crustal material have a chance to settle and bind with the nearby stone. This can result in unbelievable shapes and colors of rocks and crystals forming through slow build up and accumulation of mineral, in exactly the same way as stalactites and stalagmites do. Snow and Ice: Elevated sections of land, or those near polar regions will collect snow and ice, which melt during times of warmth, forming one of the major sources of many streams and rivers. Snow and ice are also heavy, compacting the land underneath somewhat. When enough accumulates, it will slowly move towards lower elevations in the form of a glacier, grinding flat the land underneath, pushing massive amounts of scree in front, and carving into the softer sides of elevated portions of the land.

Once a glacier melts and retreats, it leaves behind "U" shaped valleys, sheer rock faces scraped smooth, piles of debris, and the occasional lake. Water trapped in pockets and crevices in rocks can freeze, expanding and breaking off chunks of rock large and small. When polar ice and snow caps experience a prolonged period of heating, it can raise ocean levels world-wide, and cause flooding in low lying areas over an extended period of time. The Water Cycle, Erosion, and Effects on landforms: As warm moist air rises from the oceans and seas of the tropical climes, it moves away from the equator, eventually cooling. As it cools, it becomes unable to hold the moisture, which precipitates out as rain or snow. Water will seek the lowest point available in a gravity well. The flowing action of the water will pick up and move dirt and even rock with the power of its flow. These water-born chunks and particles act as a carving knife upon the surrounding land cutting through the landscapes above and beneath. Storms will also fling water, snow, ice, rocks, dirt, and anything else it can pick up or push against the land, and can produce swift changes, especially to soft, light-weight, or fragile materials. The unceasing tides of a world beat upon and eventually break rock down into sand slowly moving and changing coastlines and forming bays and coves. Moons and other astrological considerations: Astrological bodies in close proximity, be it a companion planet, moon, moons, or other exotic gravitational phenomena will exert a significant influence on the tides of a world, especially in cases of more than one source of gravitation. A world where a neighboring gravitational source is in orbital lock with it will have minimal tides, but the oceans will permanently bulge out at both points along the line of intersection of the world and the source. A world where the source is orbiting freely will have two high tides (a lesser on the side facing away from the source, and a greater on the side facing the source) and two low tides, assuming a single source. Multiple local astrological neighbors will cause even greater tides to form as they orbit the world, resulting in occasional massive surge tides and flooding when the sources align.

Air... | Source

3.3.4 Air:

Habitable planets contain only a small percentage of oxygen, trace elements of other gases, the majority of air being formed of a neutral gas of some sort, in the case of the Earth this neutral gas is nitrogen. Air mixture and balance is maintained by the presence of large bodies of water, movement of water across the land, the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation, and large amounts of flora on the planetary surface and in said bodies of water. Origin of Wind: Wind is generated by the rotation and orbital position of a planet and the temperature differences that result from exposure to sources of heating and cooling effects. Hot moist air from the equator rises, allowing cooler air from the middle latitudes to flow down underneath, with clouds forming at the interface. Air of moderate temperature around the middle latitudes will be pushed up by cold air from the arctic and antarctic regions.

These temperature differentials form approximately six cylindrical bands of air exchange cycles which wrap around the girth of a planet the size of the Earth (three to the north of the equator, and three to the south). The axial tilt unevenly warms and cools these bands causing them to flux and wander (ie: the summer and winter months), creating complex weather patterns, and occasional reversals of the normal pattern in certain areas (ie: monsoon and other seasonal winds). Air will absorb moisture from the environment - warmer, active air absorbing more; cooler, denser air absorbing less - and the moisture will condense out of the air as it rises and cools (forming clouds) and eventually precipitate as the moisture saturates and area and becomes too dense to be supported in the air. This process is a critical component of the water cycle. Cold air is dense and therefore high pressure, while hot air is less dense and is at low pressure. Storm: The movements of air fronts with different temperatures, different pressures, and differing amounts of moisture frequently forms clouds, high winds, storms with or without electrical discharges, flooding, tornadoes, and even hurricanes. Storms over large bodies of water generally gain more strength than land bound counterparts as they incorporate the temperature differentials and large water source into the body of the storm. These storms can be very destructive and contribute greatly to erosion, thus reshaping the softer portions of the land. Wind storms have been known to perform feats thought impossible: lifting and throwing large and heavy objects, picking up large and heavy objects and setting them down gently, driving weak and flimsy objects into or through objects of much greater density or hardness, even rending stone and destroying metal through sheer force, vibration, or speed. Lightning and other electro-plasma effects: Though it is associated with air, due to the prominence of lightning during electrical storms, most lightning actually originates from the earth. When there is a sufficient imbalance in the electrical potential of the atmosphere, typically due to a storm or other atmospheric condition, great discharges of electricity will arc between land and sky, righting the imbalance. Ball lightning and St. Elmo's fire are formed in a different fashion and do not produce effects strong enough or frequent enough to shape or reshape a planetary surface. Vacuum: Technically the absence of almost all particles, it is normally associated with the absence of breathable air. Vacuum or void is the medium in which a planet resides. While it is not empty, there can be large regions where molecules are sparse and rare. It is theorized that there exists an energy in great regions of vacuum which produces an anti-gravitational force, with the resulting effect of pushing and clumping matter together - something that may have contributed to and perhaps even made possible the formation of planets, stars, and galaxies. Sudden exposure to a region of vacuum, natural or artificially created, can result in drastic alterations to the shape, size, and cohesion of matter. Moons and other astrological considerations: Astrological bodies in close proximity, be it a companion planet, moon, moons, or other exotic gravitational phenomena will exert a minor influence on the atmosphere of a world, except in cases of a proximal source of gravitation. A sister planet for example, might come close enough to share atmosphere, or even exchange water at certain points in the orbital pattern.

3.3.5 Life:

The last of the five shaping forces of a planetary surface, flora and fauna break down, transmute, transform, alter, and shape the surface of a planet in countless fashions in and in many surprising and unexpected ways. Flora: Plants spread roots in fertile soil, break down rock, drift in vast seas and oceans, collect upon sustainable locations on the ocean floor, spread in subterranean climes, float upon the winds, and proliferate in countless locations and environments. Plants can help protect soil against erosion, and will also redirect or absorb sources of water. Plants provide a major source of food and building materials for all manner of creatures. Plants can survive massive disasters, and can grow to immense size. The remains of plants enrich the soil where they fall. It is theorized that some plants even develop forms of sentience. Mapping eco-systems: Certain kinds of plants are only found in certain climates and regions, while others will spread into multiple climes and areas. Some plants are relatively mobile, have a seed spreading mechanism that is far ranging, or take advantage of local environmental advantages, while others hitch rides on more mobile fauna. Mapping out the regions of eco-systems, with general descriptions of the various flora found therein, enables rich descriptions, assists the development of a resource map, and will be of great use when developing civilizations in Step Four, as plant-based resources are one of the major draws to civilization. Fauna: Wherever there are plants, there animals will likely be found. Animals make homes in plants and in the crust of the surface. Some use tools to accomplish various tasks. The homes and holes of animals allows light, air, and water access to areas of the ground that it otherwise might not reach. The remains of animals provide critical nutritive elements for the soil necessary for the continued health and growth of plants. Mapping regions of habitation: Like plants, animals also have preferred regions of habitation. Some are isolated due to geological processes, stranded on islands, or have very particular environmental requirements. Others are mobile, following the winds, currents, or sources of food through many climates and regions, spreading across vast portions of the world. Mapping which kinds of animals are found where is an important part of the background picture, giving additional detail and differences between varying areas in the world. Animals are also another major source of resources for civilizations, potentially providing labor, food, companionship, possibly even shelter. Sentience: Creatures possessed of intelligence, regardless of the kind of life form, posses the innate qualities necessary to not only contemplate large scale deliberate alterations to a planetary surface, but to plan and build the tools, ways, and means necessary to accomplish it. The acts of sentient creatures could live in harmony with the world, cultivate plants and animals, garden and farm, explore and discover, dig great mines, build vast structures, develop altered kinds of life, lay waste to vast tracks of land, shatter a planet, tap into a star, mine a solar system for raw materials, and spread across galaxies. The ruins, remains, and leftovers of previous acts of sentience remain a persistent and reoccurring theme in many worlds.

3.3.6 The Sixth Shaping Force: Though not mentioned in the list of the five shaping forces, there is a sixth force which may exist in a created world - that of Imagination. In a created world, there could exist one (or more) other forces beyond the listed five which could either exert an influence upon the first five shaping forces, or could be a fully realized shaping force in its own right.

In a world much closer to a star, radiation may play a large shaping role upon the forming and continued shaping of a world. In another world, magic may be real, and could provide tools for the shaping of a world. Magic could even be an intelligent, sentient awareness with goals and agendas of its own, consciously shaping the world to some unguessable end. A companion universe in close proximity overlapping the temporal-spatial region in which a world lies may influence the how the laws of the first universe operate, yeilding new and radical forms of shaping influences.

3.3.7 Summary: Step Three needs to cover meta-setting information of the world:

  • Nature and composition of the world: what kind of world it is, what is the predominate composition, how it was formed, what unique effects are derived from said nature and composition.
  • Mapping the land: the shape of the land determines which areas are fertile or waste, arid or humid, where travel is easy and difficult, where access to water can be found, and influences weather.
  • Mapping the water: water is necessary for life and for civilization, is a major component in the weather cycle, provides easy routes of travel, contains many resources to draw from, and changes the shape of the lands over time.
  • Creating a world map: graphical representations of the land and water forms, notations on resource locations, value, and quantity, locations of unique, seasonal, or other periodic phenomena, weather patterns, underground locations of significance, symbols or other representation of land and water kinds and types, elevations and distances, artifacts of the formative and/or erosion process, fault lines, crustal plate locations, and other geographical information is critical in bringing a world to life.
  • Special locations: locations with special significance should also be marked on the map. These might include portals to other worlds or dimensions, sites of power, ancient ruins, current centers of civilization, locations of especial beauty or impact, unique land formations, or areas with unique and special environments.
  • Astrological phenomena of import: local astrological neighbors with direct, and significant indirect, impact upon the world; such as a moon or moons, planetary rings, companion planets, multiple stars, nearby worm holes, and any other exotica of significance.
  • The sixth force: Imagination knows few limits, and other forces could be postulated or created specifically as shaping forces which have and will continue to impact a created world. Conclusion: Step Three forms the physical structure of the world, the meta-setting information needed to provide rich backdrops, realistic detail, and lays out resources - one of the primary influences on civilization. The next article, Step Four - Civilization, will populate the world with races, cultures, and history!

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