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A Whole New World: Designing Your Own Setting in Fiction and Games

Updated on November 20, 2014

Some people take to adventurous journeys in order to see the world. While this pursuit is certainly rewarding, gamers and authors explore worlds of their very own creation through the act of world-building. World-building is just what it sounds like: crafting a fictitious setting for a narrative. The actual purpose for the story is up to the author and does impact how to design the overall setting; but whether the setting is to be used in a novel or in a game for players to seek adventure in through their characters, the process of world-building and the end-product remains very much the same. Let us take a tour through a creative process to building your own world; and let us watch the magic work on a whole new world. . .

The Inquisition

This particular process is all about critical thinking; in other words, never being afraid to think deeper about the world and asking questions in order to develop the setting. An ideal with this method is that each question should have at least one answer, but each answer can and should lead to more meaningful questions. Each question helps fill out the details of the world. So the first question that comes to mind during such a creative process: where do I begin?

What is your name?

On a personal level, the first question that comes to mind is what kind of setting do I want? This relatively open-ended question leads itself to a few more questions: has this setting been done before? Nothing says your world has to be 100% original, but there are still numerous concerns springing from this question. If your exact world has been done before, then why not use that setting? If you are set on making your particular world, how do you plan on making it different from other similar settings? When considering your starting point, think about any genres and themes that you envision for your setting. It is one thing to make a world not unlike certain forested moons, it is another to have that same world be not a sci-fi-fantasy and instead opt for a pre-historic struggle for survival against the natural world. At this time, it is not a bad idea to come up with a name for your setting; as you are crafting the identity anyway, it makes things more convenient.

Pictured: Arrakis aka Dune; a desert wasteland.  Yeah, still more valuable than my p.o.s. planet.
Pictured: Arrakis aka Dune; a desert wasteland. Yeah, still more valuable than my p.o.s. planet. | Source

Sample world: MXDK0014α6684i

For my sample world, I want a harsh (or at least unpleasant) mostly desert wasteland reminiscent of the Outback of Australia in the Mad Max film series. However, rather than a near-futuristic post-apocalypse, this setting should be a hard science-fiction (meaning the fiction can hold better against the scrutiny of real-scientific examination) setting with that gritty vibe of battling the elements. I also want the world to feel as if it is a small (read: minuscule) part of a larger universe, so adventure and wonder can go or come from off-world if desired. Since I want this world to be less than a blip, it should not have the proper dignity of other planets and have a cool and historic name but rather a scientific* designation; so, I am going to name this setting: MXDK0014α6684i.

Pictured: the Australian Outback
Pictured: the Australian Outback | Source

*Unfortunately, I do not actually know how to properly designate a given celestial body, even after a cursory examination. So, I am winging it as best as I can.

What is your quest?

Now that you know what your setting should be about in general, you can begin exploring the depth of your world’s identity. Going from themes and genres the next major step is to think about the tone and atmosphere of the setting. The questions that come to mind: should my world be light-hearted and fun? Should it be a gritty and dark world filled with sinister plots? Or will you strive for something goofy and off-the-wall?

Setting Tone

What kind of tone would you like for your setting?

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Journeying back to MXDK0014α6684i, I want there to be room for all sorts of adventures. For me, I don’t want to be this planet’s only inhabitant as it were; I want others to feel comfortable exploring it and having their fun. So I would like to keep the overall tone somewhat neutral. The only throughput I want is that there should be a permeating sense of insignificance and pointlessness. Yes, it is a stronger downer feeling, but others should look at it this way: when you hit rock-bottom (and MXDK0014α6684i should feel if not be rock-bottom) you have only upward to go; maybe laterally, but no worse off than you started. However, despite starting off in the red, I still want the setting to have thrills, excitement and be fun to explore; the experience should be like carving out your fame and fortune through sheer perseverance and determination rather than dumb/blind luck. In the end, everyone who comes out on top will have earned there place as lords of their domain as it were.

What is your favorite color?

Once we know the tone of the setting, along with how that ties back to our underlying themes and how everything fits within the genre(s) of our choice, we should start pondering about the details of the setting in more depth. The reason to go with this top-down approach is so that we can make sure that the setting has more internal consistency; so that everything can come together as a cohesive whole.

What inhabits this world of yours? What animals would roam this setting? What peoples would thrive and come to populate this planet? How are those people like us? How are they different? What are the comings and goings of the life that exists there? The litany of questions can go on and on. The answers can and will come along to help fill-up the setting; and the beauty of it all is that each answer can present more fruitful questions that help bring more answers, which may lead to further questioning and so on. While it may seem like an endless loop, this helps to immerse yourself in this world and breathe life into it. Then it will come alive (just not literally) . . .

Yeah, kinda like this


As part of the harsh feel of the setting, on MXDK0014α6684i I want there to be calamities to occur with some regularity. I envision meteor-strikes, flare up of cosmic radiation (or possible massive solar flares) and even space debris or detritus crashing to the planet in a devastating fashion. Much of the former two can occur naturally without too much explanation as these happen all the time across the universe; it can just happen more commonly here. As for the latter idea (planet-fall storms), that requires a bit more to make happen. It would be highly unlikely for wrecks of spaceships, artificial satellites and other structures to randomly strike this planet more often than not. A more logical answer may lie in the surrounding space. Maybe it is more hazardous to travel through, thus making the probability of an accident more likely to happen. As a result, travel near the planet would be less likely to occur.

To add to the sense that this world is a cosmological dirt stain, the world should not be particularly resource rich. That is not to say that one cannot find valuable resources or minerals here, but never in such a large quantity or in any convenient location. In addition, whatever McGuffin materials this universe uses (remember, I am not the only one having fun here) there should be next to none on MXDK0014α6684i; this would add to the sense of “it’s just not worth going there.”

Now envision it being four feet tall.  Hope your nightmares don't keep you up too late.
Now envision it being four feet tall. Hope your nightmares don't keep you up too late. | Source

So we have a speck among the stars that no one goes to because, why would you? So who does live here? Well, I personally like the idea of an indigenous race of intelligent cockroaches or other similar insect-like species that has survived the countless holocausts and catastrophes of MXDK0014α6684i. They should be larger than Earth bugs and be somewhat personified; so bipedal much of the time, able to communicate with other species, sentient and intelligent, and capable of organization/civilization. They should not be too big however; maybe four feet tall (!). Since I want this to be hard science-fiction, I should do a little research to see how possible this could be. Turns out insects can grow to exceptional size depending on the concentration of oxygen in the environment.. So, in order for this species to have gotten this big, MXDK0014α6684i needs to have a very oxygen-rich atmosphere.

With an oxygen-rich world, this presents a few challenges and questions. Firstly, open flames of virtually any sort would be extremely dangerous. While it would not ignite the entire planet, any fire would quickly get out of control, burning hotter and longer than what we would normally expect. Next is the question as to how there got to be so much oxygen? Earth’s oxygen atmosphere is due to the oxygen cycle; so there must be one similar to that on MXDK0014α6684i. Although I previously stated that I wanted the planet to feel like a wasteland, who says there couldn’t be a massive forest or algae mass that helps support the massive oxygen atmosphere (other than actual science and logic that is)?

What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?

One can see the potential in using this method to world-building. The desired effect is for each idea, no matter how small, to be fertile ground of inquiry; with each question cycling in and out of answers; and with every revolution adding layers of depth to the world. If you draw inspiration from any minor or major aspect throughout the process, then that is productive as well! Remember, with every answer lies more questions awaiting further answers.

What do you mean: an African or European swallow?

Something to bear in mind is that world-building need not be a solo exercise. Please feel free to discuss the idea with friends and other interested individuals. You can bounce ideas off of each other (maybe not literally). They may offer questions you never thought of and come up with concepts you may never have conceived without their assistance.


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    • Kevin Debler profile image

      Kevin Debler 3 years ago from Expansive Highlands of Michigan

      Thanks much!

    • profile image

      L. Simpson 3 years ago

      Once again, great job Kevin. Very well written.