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GameMasterY-World Building: Part Two

Updated on December 17, 2013
nijineko profile image

My hobby is World Building. Unusual, but rewarding. I wish to give of my learning and experiences.


0.5 Getting Started: When building a world, there are endless details that could be taken into consideration. However, just as RPGs emulate and simplify reality with mechanics and rules that are easy to understand and use, so to does the world building process need to be simplified into something that will be easy to use. Writing reams of notes and ideas is all well and good, but if you can't find anything in the pile afterwards, or if there is so much exhaustive detail that it fails to be enjoyable for the players, then it will not serve you well for a game - though you may want to consider writing and publishing a novel - waste not, want not.

1.3 Preparation: The first step a good world builder should take is the meta-building, or preparation. Make some notes about what kind of a world and setting it will be, what is important to you, what do you wish to present, major thoughts, feelings, and impressions about what you are trying to build. Then arrange for a filing system or organized storage of some kind for your notes, maps, inspiring artwork and music, reference books, and other source materials. While the creative process should not be restrained by preconceptions or limited by rigid and rote methods, the results of your creative efforts should absolutely be organized for ease of use and quick reference. This will not only help you during the world building phase, but also when you actually start using your world in game sessions or in writing!

2.1.1 Method: The focus of world building, is of course, to produce a world. However, like a jewel, a world shines best when it has a setting in which to reside. Thus it also behoves the world creator to consider other aspects of the universe that touch upon their world, and how those aspects will influence and change various portions of the world. Find a method that works for you, or even use different methods at different times during the creative process.

"This is your world." "You are the creator here." You can find freedom on this canvas." "Believe that you can do it, 'cause you can do it."

-- Bob Ross

An Example Overview - World Construction Outline

3.0 Sample world creation process: The following example Steps are only one of many possible ways to build a world. This example will mostly use the Major method, with some accompaniment from the Associative and Minor methods, as described in the World Building Article, Part One.

  • Bonus Point: One reality that few designers take into account is the fact that not all genres are equal, that power levels and balance points within each genre are radically different from each other, and that some genres have inherent weaknesses with regards to other genres. Therefore seeking an "overall game balance" is an incorrect design choice when mixing and matching genres in a single game system. Diluting some genres, and boosting up others to achieve a theoretical overall game balance will actually produce an inferior product that feels forced and non-immersive. The ideal balance is to instead take into account inherent weaknesses and strengths of each genre, and ensure that each genre has unique strengths, and/or can take advantage of weaknesses of other genres. This allows the players to battle it out, provides better immersion, and encourages more cunning and roleplaying in interactions, especially when the strengths and weaknesses are not all combat based.

Step One: Setting

3.1 Game System: The first thing you select is the genre of game that you will be playing. Fantasy, Sci-fi, Post-apocalyptic, Western, Modern, Time travel, Victorian, Steampunk, Superheroic, a mix of two or more, or some other genre entirely... whatever the genre of choice may be, it will often influence, if not outright decide what game system and rule set you will be playing with. Certain games systems better support certain genres, as the expected abilities, power progression, and foci of the characters will largely determine how the game system is designed and balanced. It is the rare game system that successfully undertakes representation of all genres. All of these considerations factor into the choice of genre(s), and subsequently of the game system that will be used.

3.1.1 Alternate and Variant rules: Once the genre(s) and game system have been selected, it is time to review the rule set. All game systems contain errors, or will have rules that do not represent a given concept or action to the satisfaction of the GM. Most game systems will include proposed alternate rules to account for different popular preferences. These alternate rules, combined with GM and group specific house rules will make up the basic rules of how-to-play that everyone needs to know. Having a written document to refer back to (and add later rulings to) will save endless trouble, and increase consistency across the gaming experience. Consistency is one of those things that increases the happiness of the players. When they know the rules, and can count on them, they tend to spend more time rp'ing - or figuring out how to take advantage of them... depending on their bent. When a GM is capricious, the players will eventually resent and distrust the GM, and will tend to take whatever they can get, be much more confrontational, and overall will be less content or happy with the game.

3.1.2 Homebrew: Some GMs will radically alter a game, or create one entirely on their own. This is generally referred to as "homebrew". Most people are not designers, nor have talent at designing in the first place. This will lead to an extremely broad range of possible experiences in gameplay, most of which will not be ideal. However, trial and error is how people learn, and the best ideas in RPGs have all come from "homebrew". D&D, one of the largest and most well known RPGs in the world, started as two different group's homebrew modifications to another game system (Chainmail), and grew from there.

One last reminder: documentation! Get it all down in writing, so that there are no surprises, and that it is easy to track what is changed or what needs to be added. The resulting documentation will become your custom version of the game, and may someday become it's own setting or even a whole new game system.

In summary, Step One needs to cover meta-game information:

  • Genre(s).
  • Game system(s) of choice, ie: the default rule set.
  • List of variant, alternate, and homebrew rules that change the default rule set.
  • Any other unique elements that will be present which vary from the default genre(s), setting(s), or rules.

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The cosmology of a culture is the setting in which the people of that culture place the jewel that is the world in which they reside.
The cosmology of a culture is the setting in which the people of that culture place the jewel that is the world in which they reside. | Source

Step Two: Cosmology

3.2 Cosmology and Meta-structure: The second step to focus on is the backdrop of the campaign world: the cosmology. Here will be determined the meta-physical nature and major occupants of the game world and the universe it resides in.

3.2.1 Physical Structure: A universe is a broad canvas, and most game worlds do not exist in a vacuum. Multiple planes of existence, alternate and pocket dimensions, alternate time lines, astrological neighbors such as moons, planets, and stars; these things give additional depth, exotic locales with wildly differing physics and environments to visit and explore and provide variety, as well as construct a background setting against which the game world may shine brightly. Mapping: Most maps of a universe take the form of a flowchart, displaying high level conceptual representations of connections, overlaps, and relationships between the various structural aspects of the universe, with no attempt to display size, scale, or nature of the locations. Others resemble an actual map showing the relative locations and connections between each area of the universe, as well as some visual representation of the nature of the location, but are not to scale. Having a big-picture map to refer back to can be of great use for later steps in the world building process. It will also be of great use during game play or when considering publication of the material.

3.2.2 Powers That Be: This concept includes individuals and civilizations that hold extreme power over the universe and its contents, up to and including any Greater Power or Powers that will exist in the game. It is important to describe who they are, what kind of being or beings they are, what kind of personality they have, where they reside, if and how they interact with the universe, each other, and the rest of the campaign world, what kinds of hierarchies do they have with relation to each other, their friends, families, servants, and followers, if any.

3.2.3 History of Creation: Knowing how the game world was actually created, made, or formed actually makes it easier to make creation myths that various religions and cultures espouse later on in the process. Most myths, legends, and fables have origin seeds in true events and happenings, after all.

3.2.4 Primal Concepts: The origin of the soul, existence before and after Life or Death, the fate of the soul, the true nature of Good and Evil, the possible existence of Universal Moral and Ethical Laws; these are among the great mysteries of our universe. However, they need not be mysterious and unknown questions in a created world. Answering these questions enables a much more realistic and consistent feel to a game world, even if the exact details are not known to PCs and NPCs in the world. Clear definitions prevent conflict and confusion: Defining what is considered good and what is considered evil can prevent a lot of arguments during a game, as people will seemingly always differ on the details. Having a document that everyone read ahead of time clearly stating what are good or evil acts in the context of the game universe, prevents a lot of contention and argument in advance. It also lets the characters know what kinds of expected constraints upon their choices exist, based on what kinds of characters they intend to play, and what the GM allows.

It also lets the GM know in advance what sorts of actions any Powers That Be will take in a given situation, and what sorts of truths and lies they will tell in order to convince anyone that they happen to interact with.

Very few game systems cover in any detail these important facts, usually claiming that such details are best left to the GM. However, most GMs do not deal with it, nor prepare for it until it actually comes up. It is in fact better to detail these exact subjects, offering guidance on possible methods of detailing and presenting these subject matters. It would be wise to include a few alternate ways and means for those who may not feel comfortable with a suggested default.

3.2.5 Primal Energies: Primal Energies such as Fire, Cold, Light, Darkness, Positive, Negative, and Magic; the cosmology determines if they exists or not, in what forms, and how they can be accessed and used. How do these energies relate to things in the world? How are they tapped into, and for what price, at what risk?

3.2.6 Primal Elements: Cosmology also determines the nature of any Primal Elements such as Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Ice, Wood, Metal, and Void. In some games, Primal Energies and Elements are more or less the same thing. Are there vast dimensions or planes where a given energy or element is the dominant environment? Are these locations simply other nearby planets or true alternate planes or dimensions? Unique elements: Another important aspect to consider about primal elements is the possible presence in the world of any unique elements that have special properties, such as an element that is naturally anti-gravitational, materials that may be super light, hard, dense, invisible, or flexible; elements that radiate or tap into energies such as 'magic', elements that function as 'anti-magic', elements that have a particular resonance, alignment, or association; or any other unusual characteristic that is appropriate or interesting for the campaign setting.

3.2.7 Religions: Religions all consist of three main goals, explaining the world(s), both seen and unseen... explaining the origin, purpose, and eventual fate of a race, group of people, and/or individual... and promulgating the propaganda and beliefs of a Power, Powers, a person, or persons. Using the other information created in Step Two enables a GM to craft religions unique to each culture, group, race, and kind (covered in Step Four). This information allows for the creation of one true religion with many other false ones, for a scattering of religions, all of which have portions and aspects of the truth, or even a world where the truth is lost, hidden, or completely unknown and nobody has it right - which idea might make for a great conspiracy theme for a campaign world.

Maps make a world feel real.
Maps make a world feel real. | Source

3.2.8 Summary: Step Two needs to cover meta-campaign information:

  • Physical Structure of the Universe: what there is, such as planes, dimensions, alternate timelines, planets, moons, stars; and how it is all connected. In a fantasy game, this might be a map of the various planes and dimensions associated with the game world, but in a sci-fi game, a star map.
  • Mapping the Structure: this map should be on a planetary scale at the minimum. It is designed to show the relationship between the game world and the rest of the large scale locations and objects in the universe.
  • Powers That Be: who, what, where, when, why, and how they exist and do whatever it is they do. May include information on hierarchies, domains, capabilities, allies, enemies, influences, and preferences.
  • History: the actual story of creation, actual histories of the universe, spats between Powers That Be, and other things that happened long ago.
  • Primal Concepts: origin of souls, pre-mortal existence, afterlife, nature of Good and Evil, Universal Moral and Ethical Laws, basically anything that is going on behind the scenes of the campaign world irrespective of what mortals (PCs or NPCs) may think or believe.
  • Primal Energies and Elements: often the same thing, any energies (such as magic) and elements (such as minerals with special qualities that don't exist in real life) that exist in the game world, and how that existence will affect and change things.
  • Religions: be it the made up stuff, or the real stuff, most people consider their brand very important! A key element of a game world which provides verisimilitude.

3.2.9 Conclusion: The cosmology and setting go a long way to creating the overall tone and feeling of a world. It is an important area that is all too often neglected, or given only a short amount of thought and work. Documentation: An important reminder: documentation is key to tracking all of these details, and organization is key to finding any given piece of information later when you need it! Consider making a Table of Contents or Index which details where each item or general topic is to be found in the storage or organization location. Any maps that are created might be better off hung up on your wall. A nicely framed map of your universe and/or world serves not only as a source of continuing inspiration to the creator, but also as an excellent conversation starter for guests and visitors.

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