In Western Religious Tradition, Fiat Lux or “Let there be Light” are the first words spoken by the Creator, in the first moment of genesis of the whole world. Of course, following Fiat Lux, there were a lot of steps to making the world and the rest of the universe which come after that, but the process had to start someplace, and that someplace happened to be Light.
In a similar fashion, gamers who are looking to create their own campaign worlds must also have a starting point for their own world’s genesis, even if it is only a fictitious one. Building a campaign world takes a bit of planning, and if experience has taught me anything about planning, it really helps planning if you have a checklist handy.
In World Building I: When Genres Collide, I addressed the issue of deciding what genres or combination of genres that one could use in a world setting, which would in turn decide the flavoring of the campaigns and adventures set in that world for years to come. In this installment, I want to at making a checklist of creation things one would need to invent in order to give my world setting its feeling, that sensation of being a real place – or at least real enough to give players a place to go questing and adventuring with their characters!
A Cosmic “To-Do” List
The big question hanging over every world-building project is: “Where do I begin?” It is important to consider what various aspects that we, as creators of fictitious fantasy worlds, have to do in order to get it ready for bands of heroes to go roving about on adventures, questing, killing things, and collecting fabulous treasures.
So having decided on a set of genres I want in my world setting, I decided to sit down and start writing a “to-do” list of elements I need to create in order to bring my world to life. And I must admit, it did not take long for the whole world-building project to feel like quite a daunting undertaking:
- Cosmology: The nature and origin of the campaign world – what were the forces that created it – and what sort of universe it exist in.
- Geophysics & Geography: What sorts of tectonic forces exist in the campaign world; what sort of rocks and minerals exist there; the shape of landmasses and oceans; the layout of mountains, rivers, lakes, swamps, and all other types of terrain across the continents.
- Biology & Evolution: The nature of the plant and animal life in the campaign world; the types of monsters roam the world; what is the nature of the intelligent races on the world; and where did it all come from.
- Ancient History: a chronicle of the events surrounding the intelligent races on the planet; what was their story, what wars did they fight, what did they discover; and what was the series of events in the past that made the campaign world the way it is now.
- Modern History & Politics: a list of the nations and lands and the races which inhabit them; how do they govern themselves; what are the alliances and conflicts that exist between countries and nations; who is at war and why; what secrets, forces, or illuminatis operate behind the scenes and influence the campaign world politics.
- Sociology & Economy: how do races and peoples in various countries live; what are their laws and social trends; how do they speak, dress, act, eat, drink, party, etc.; what is their currency; what do they buy and sell; what is their industry and art.
- Technology & Science: what is the level of the various sciences of the nations of the campaign world; what scientific laws exist in the campaign world and how do they differ from the real world; how advanced is each nation’s technology and how do the differences (if any) affect politics, sociology, and economics.
- Religion & Meta-physics: what are the major religions in the campaign world and who are the gods; what amount of magic exists and how does it work; what other planes of reality exist in parallel with the campaign world and who inhabits them; how does religion and magic effect the peoples of the world, their politics, societies, technologies, and economics.
Now, admittedly, this is a huge list of factors to consider for any campaign world, and a game master could spend years trying to write everything down about all of these various dynamics of the setting. But since actually playing in a campaign world is a lot more fun than spending years writing about one to completion, it seemed only logical to try and prioritize the “Creator’s Checklist”. The whole campaign world does not need to be completed down to every detail before the player-characters can begin enjoying it – but you also want it to be complete enough that your heroes won’t be poking around in too many areas that are still “under construction” either!
Let There Be… Priorities!
By my way of thinking, the latter part of the list is far more important than worrying about the top of the list. Now I do not claim to be a world-building expert, but it seems that creating the world in a current and “modern” version – with its nations and politics, its peoples and societies, its technology, religion, and use of magic – is the fastest way to get a campaign setting up and running. Sure, it’s all fine to ponder how the world spun out of its cosmos, and which ancient tribe took over this parcel of land from some other ancient tribe, all of which happened tens of thousands of years before the characters were ever born. But consider that a lot of that information can be “back-filled” in later, and really in a much easier fashion, once you let the contemporary world take shape.
Even the geography of the world is not necessarily as important as who the races and peoples are that live there. Deciding which race lives near which other race, as well as the nature of their societies, helps to begin to create the geography of the campaign world without ever having to touch a piece of mapping software (or put pen to paper, if you prefer to draw your world by hand).
So, for instance, I might decide that there are a race of elves in my world that are at war with their neighbors, who are a race of humans. Now, for sake of simplicity, my elves are pretty standard D&D style pointy-eared forest folk, while the neighboring race of humans bears many similarities to the ancient Egyptians. And right there, just by creating a couple races, I then have also created a chunk of geography for my campaign world without really trying hard at all!
With a little extrapolation, I might decide my humans would probably live in an arid land, with their cities built along a fertile coast or river, while their angry elven neighbors most likely live in a jungle or forest land. Taking things a step further, perhaps the elves are at war because the humans steal their resource like food, lumber, and water – but of course, the humans feel they have a right to do so for the continuation of their own civilization!
And if you start to factor in the four or five genres that you have chosen for the campaign world, then the respective societies and the current events can become even more interesting and exciting. Consider how things might work out if you had chosen genres like “swords & sorcery”, “outré horror”, “medieval fantasy”, and “dinosaurs”. Adding in those genres, perhaps now you decide that the humans are ruled by a terrible priesthood, who have allied themselves with evil elder gods from beyond the stars in the past. The humans lands are afflicted by their trafficking with ancient evil, and life there is dying and drying up – cursed by the self-same horrors which give the human rulers their powers!
But the elves have a secret weapon to defend themselves against these human cultists – Dinosaurs! Here we have the elves, which have befriended and tamed packs of intelligent velociraptors as cavalry – and woe to any humans who dare to cross the desert to steal resources from the elven lands!
So my world-building process is starting by creating the modern “landscape” of nations and peoples in the campaign world, and adding in the flavoring of my chosen genres to the various factors like politics, societies, religion, and magic that make up each country. Certainly, there will have to be a little editing here and there as I put the various elements of the nations and peoples all together on a campaign map, but it does not take long before you can almost begin to see in how the world map is likely to take shape.
And once enough of the campaign setting has been completed, it won’t take long before my world will begin to hear the pitter-patter of little adventurer’s feet.
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!