People, Places & Things
Just Add Dice
It Came from the SlushPile
Tips for GMs and Writers
What’s Your Fantasy?
copyright 1999Christine Morgan
Part One -- A World of Opportunities
World design, I have found, is an experience not unlike parenthood. Take a childless couple and turn a toddler loose on them, and at the end of the day you’ll have two grownups huddling in a corner while the kid is swinging from the ceiling fan like Tarzan and covering the cat with peanut butter. But take that same couple and a newborn infant, and everybody adapts gradually, so by the time that child is a toddler ... well, the kid might still be swinging from the ceiling fan, but Mom and Dad are coping more gracefully.
The same effect applies to make-believe worlds. If you try to start off with someone else’s, be it in the form of a gaming worldbook or a shared-universe writing project, you have a big chunk of information coming at you all at once with unstoppable speed and plenty of people who already know the rules waiting in the wings to take advantage of, or merely laugh at, your blunders.
If you botch it, they will know.
Creating your own world lets you escape that, lets you start off with something relatively small and undemanding and expand it slowly. But, as with raising a child, that process takes years and even the most careful of nurturers might someday be looking across the dinner table at a freakishly-dressed stranger.
It’s a daunting prospect. It’s a lot of work.
And it’s one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever have.
My first fantasy world began as a map I drew of a patch in our front yard, where I used to play with my little plastic animals and dinosaurs.
Now, in reality, I was sitting on sun-baked concrete looking at a muddy trench filled with hose water ... but in my mind, it was a river dividing two kingdoms and separated from the secret lost land of the monsters. Imagination made all the difference, as it so often does.
Years later, when I was introduced to gaming, I dug out that old map, spruced it up a little, and it eventually ended up a rather small island in a rather remote corner of a world that provided me with five long-running campaigns and countless shorter adventures. I knew more about that planet’s geography, political situation, and ecosystems than I knew about our own Earth.
How’d it happen?
Like babies, worlds grow. And grow. And eat you out of house and home and run up the phone bills and eventually go to college and take the stereo.
Say that you start off with a town. One simple town. We’ll call it Pleasantville, like in the movie. You, the creator, know everything there is to know about the town. You know all the people, you have detailed maps of the downtown business district, you know everything. It’s all clean and tidy and you’re confident and content.
Sooner or later, though, some smartie-pants is going to come along and ask, “What’s outside Pleasantville?” And whether you’re a GM dealing with a player or a writer dealing with one of your own characters, that question’s got to be answered.
So you start off small, maybe with the next town over. And then the county. The state. The country. Eventually, you’re quite a bit older with binder after binder full of notes about people and places that seem very real to you. You’ve decided things as they came along, layered it like an onion.
But let’s say you don’t have that kind of time. You want to jump in with both feet and start a story or game set on a wider scale than a single town. You won’t be able to start off with the level of detail you had in Pleasantville, so you’ll need to work in wider and vaguer terms.
The Planetary Scale.
If world-building were on a continuum, at one end would be the perfectionist method and the other would be the god complex.
Perfectionists want everything just right and realistic; these are the folks that will study the principles of plate tectonics to make sure they’ve got their subduction zones in the right place to create a volcanic mountain range. For them, I recommend World-Building, by Stephen L. Gillett, edited by Ben Bova. This book is not for the meek; you’ll find easier reads in college science courses!
The god complex folks will stick their terrain features any old place they want, because they want it that way. Here a mountain, there a mountain, everywhere a mountain-mountain. For those folks, I say knock yourself out, but be warned that it’ll drive some other people purely bonkers.
I’ve found that my personal style of design falls a little to the god complex side of the midpoint. That’s hardly surprising, since my writing and gaming styles are also around there. I try to pay attention to things like the rain-shadow effect, for instance, but I don’t lose any sleep over it.
Because the majority of fantasy worlds are going to involve regular-type people (humans, elves, etc.), the setting is liable to be fairly Earth-like -- about the same distance from the sun, have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, fresh water, and so on. Changes in any of those things will have a serious impact on the kind of life thatcould survive there.
On a planetwide level, here are some things you’ll want to consider:
1. Sun. One? More? What type? How far out is the planet? How long’s the orbit? How old is the sun? A young sun won’t have been around long enough for civilizations to evolve, but if your sentients were created there or placed there, it’s another matter.
2. Axial tilt. This is what determines how distinct the seasons are going to be, what the climate will be like, what sort of agriculture might be possible.
3. Other celestial bodies. Moons affect the tides, cause eclipses, help regulate calendars, are frequently linked with mythology, etc.
4. Water. Does your world have oceans? Saltwater or fresh? Icecaps? How much of the surface is covered in water?
5. Geology. What are the most common elements? How rare are the rare ones? If gold or gems are frequently found, that’s going to affect their value.
6. Size of the planet. Not only will this have a lot to do with gravity, it’ll also be of vital importance when the time comes to make your map.
Making the Map.
The easiest way to do this is just grab a big sheet of graph paper and start doodling in coastlines. Decide whether you want a few big continents, a swarm of itsy islands, puzzle pieces that would have once fit together like our own globe, whatever you want.
The lay of the land is going to help you decide where your kingdoms are. Mountain ranges and bodies of water make the best borders; most fantasy worlds aren’t going to have straight lines like you’ll see on a map of the U.S. (look at a map of Europe and you won’t see a straight edge anywhere).
One thing about rivers -- this was a regular blunder of mine in my younger days, so I always think of it now -- they’ve got to make some sort of sense. Rivers don’t cross each other; they flow into each other. They tend to start in high ground and make their way toward the sea. They do not start at the sea and flow inland.
Once you’ve got the physical features of the map laid out, it’s time to start thinking about sentient races. People name places, and they usually have reasons for choosing the names they do.
The world itself will probably just be called “the world” or “the earth;” in a fantasy setting, it just makes sense. Similarly, each group of people would have a name for themselves or their homeland that meant, in their language, something similar to “Us Guys Over Here.”
The dominant culture is going to be the one to assign names to places they discover, even if there are people already living there.
Place names will usually be descriptive of the surroundings or a notable feature, chosen for a person or in honor of another place, recall an event, or sometimes just be a nickname that sticks so long it becomes the actual place name.
The map should include political boundaries, major cities (most of these will be on a coastline or a river or both for purposes of irrigation and transportation), and such things as deserts, canyons, forests, etc.
Now the real work begins. You have a world full of places, and need people to live in them. Here are some more things you’ll want to consider:
1. Technology. The default fantasy setting is cleaned-up medieval, but different lands and/or races could harbor more advanced knowledge than their neighbors. This also brings up the debate of whether technology and magic can co-exist, but we’ll look at that in a later installment. The level of technology will tell you what kind of weapons and defenses you’re dealing with, what methods of transportation, communication, medicine, and just about everything.
2. Population and Economy. These puppies go more hand-in-hand than I ever wanted to think. For instance, it takes yea many peasants working yea acres of cropland to support a single knight, the king commands X-number of knights ... we’re looking at a lot of peasants here. A town has to be a certain size before it can support any ‘specialists’ like craftsmen.
3. Government. With so much space to play with, you can have an assortment if you’d like. A monarchy over here, a theocracy of fanatics on that island yonder, here a culture ruled by a more tribal system. This is especially effective when you’ve also got many different races sharing the same world. The style of government will have an influence on social classes and law enforcement.
4. Trade and commerce. Most of those whole lotta peasants we mentioned above might rely on barter rather than coin. Money might be almost unknown, it might be precious metals valued by weight, it might be coins minted by the local government, it might be something else altogether.
A daunting prospect. A lot of work.
But worth it. Even if it never comes up, I’ve found that I feel much more confident just knowing that I know.
And it gives me something to build from. Each time that I begin a new game, I set it someplace else. This forces me to pay attention, to develop a part of the world that might have been previously only sketched out.
Next month, we’ll be narrowing our focus dramatically, to look not at a whole world but at a single person or small group. Having a world is great, but its real purpose is to provide a background for the main characters.
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