Hey all, Dani here.
Welcome back to another wonderful Sunday, which means that it is time for another Weekend Writer post. Yesterday was a busy date day for Damian and I, and we had a really nice time, so today we decided to have a lazy shut-in day…basically we’re just going to lounge around on the couch, watch TV, read books, and play video games. All about relaxing and spending time together, since we don’t see much of each other during the week thanks to our opposing work schedules.
This month’s book is a bit different than some of my previous ones. It was released by the wonderful Kobold Press, which specializes in books and products for role-playing games. Now I know that might seem a bit off topic for these posts on writing, but when I was delving deep into the realm of writing fantasy, I quickly realized that there weren’t many helpful books on Worldbuilding. It’s like fantasy guides want to gloss over this aspect of creating a setting for an epic fantasy adventure. So…if you know any fantasy worldbuilding books, let me know. I’d definitely be interested in checking them out. Thankfully many of the advice I’ve found amongst Kobold Press’s many releases are just as valid for RPGs as they are for fantasy fiction.
Oh, and check out my Twitter (@DanielleThamasa) for a poll to decide what my March Weekend Writer book will be.
It would be really cool for all of us who want to write creatively (whether that is poetry, stories, novellas, novels, screenplays, RPGs, video games, whatever) to be able to help uplift and inspire each other, and keep ourselves motivated to strive for our dreams, so I decided to start this blog series here. This series will be a lot of me working through books on writing and creativity, maybe doing and sharing some writing exercises, and possibly doing some writing based discussion posts. It’s going to be an adventure for sure, and I hope it helps you as much as it is helping me.
Publisher: Kobold Press
Publication Date: December 23, 2012
ISBN: 1936781115 (ISBN13: 9781936781119)
The Essential Elements for Building a World
Roleplaying games and fantasy fiction are filled with rich and fascinating worlds: the Forgotten Realms, Glorantha, Narnia, R’lyeh, Middle-Earth, Barsoom, and so many more. It took startling leaps of imagination as well as careful thought and planning to create places like these: places that readers and players want to come back to again and again.
Now, eleven of adventure gaming’s top designers come together to share their insights into building worlds that gamers will never forget. Learn the secrets of designing a pantheon, creating a setting that provokes conflict, determining which historical details are necessary, and so much more.
Take that creative leap, and create dazzling worlds of your own!
Essays by Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Monte Cook, Jeff Grubb, Scott Hungerford, David “Zeb” Cook, Chris Pramas, Jonathan Roberts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steve Winter, with an introduction by Ken Scholes.
If I’m being honest I have found extremely helpful advice in each of the essays in this book, which is why I have since purchased every Kobold Guide they’ve released (Game Design, Game Mastering, Combat, Magic, and Plots and Campaigns). Those ones are all ones I still need to read, but I’ve been through this Worldbuilding book twice now, and I can see me picking it up and referencing bits and pieces again in the future.
I think if you want to maybe get into RPG writing, or if you want to write a fantasy or science-fiction story/poem/novella/novel then this book is a great reference tool to have in your toolbox (or weapon in your writing arsenal, depending on which metaphor you prefer).
Okay, anyway, let’s jump into the next six essays from this book.
“Here Be Dragons: On Mapmaking” by Jonathan Roberts
When I really started researching and working on learning more about the worldbuilding process, mapmaking was definitely something I wanted to know more about. Actually, if I finish my current writing project and then jump back into my epic science fantasy series, then I’ll try and do some weekend writer posts about that process, including my adventures in learning how to design and draw my own maps. Seriously, it took quite a bit of research and work, but I’m pretty happy with it, especially since I am not exactly an artist–in that way, anyway. I am pretty bad at drawing.
So why do you need a map for your RPGs/novels? Well it helps the players/readers to suspend their disbelief and helps them immerse themselves in the world more fully. This doesn’t mean that you need to have the whole world flushed out, but even having a basic map that has the countries/continents/major cities or landmarks on it can be really helpful, and then you can flesh out areas as the characters head in that direction.
This essay then proceeds to help you with building the map based on the world you’re creating. It starts very simply, with the nations, and some basic questions to understand their geography. I definitely recommend at the very least looking for this essay online somewhere, but really, I’m once again just going to say to pick up this book, whether in digital or physical form.
This essay on mapmaking starts off with you just putting the countries names into circles where you roughly want them to be on a map and then putting symbols between them to mark how the countries are connected or separated, like a mountain range or a waterway. As the steps progress through this essay you start making more detailed versions of the maps, until you end up basically with a map that is like ones we see in the front of books sometimes.
So you start with those basic countries in those circles, then start over with a blank sheet and add in your mountain ranges, and your rivers, and then think about your climate, so deserts and forests and the like. Then you add the cities and roads in.
After you’ve followed all of the steps in this essay, you’ll have a functioning map of your world, which is pretty cool.
“How to Design a City State, Tribe, or Nation” by Wolfgang Baur
This essay by Wolfgang Baur goes in a bit more specific than the general worldbuilding and mapmaking of this book so far. In fact this one focuses on the foundations of society, which can be a tribe, can be a city-state, can be a nation, an empire, etc.
Looking at your foundations of society can help you formulate the politics, the religions, the language, skill sets of individuals, necessary trade partners, traditions, magic system, and more. If you don’t expand upon the lore of your fictional societies then the world won’t feel like a living breathing set-up. Having this foundation also helps to give background to the characters.
After this the essay breaks down specifically how you can design a tribe, how you can design a city-state, and how you can design a nation. Then you can add in the magic, mysticism, and wonder into the world, because societies often have superstitions and fears and folklore.
Finally the essay ends with a sidebar that briefly talks about the design of empires, which is a bit different than your basic nation or city-state.
“They Do What, Now? On Creating Societies and Cultures” by Michael A Stackpole
The next essay in this book goes even deeper into the creation of societies and cultures, which again help to make a world that is more than just surface-level bare-bones in design.
Michael Stackpole suggests starting on how society is formed based on the physical form first. This includes sexual dimorphism/trimorphism, so male/female/non-binary and the differences in society based on which physical form is more dominant or powerful and such.
It’s also important to pay attention to the details, even things such as how many digits a body has, like if a creature has three fingers and a thumb would they use base 10 for counting or something else? Would they use a phrase like “nine times out of ten”? Not likely because they would probably say “seven times out of eight.” These little details can really help to expand the world.
Of course, one of the fun elements of creating societies and cultures is to play the What If game. Depending on the scenario given in the what if statement, so many options can be delved into.
“How to Make a High-Magic World” by Keith Baker
There are so many different variations of fantasy, and this essay by Keith Baker focuses on a world filled with high-magic. So, first off, what is high-magic? Generally it means a world where powerful magic is an important part of society. It isn’t a world where wizards are hermits.
One of the first questions to ask yourself is what is the nature of magic. It could be a science, it could be a mystery, or it could be a gift of the gods. Depending on the different countries and societies in the world, it could end up being a mix of all of these.
You also need to consider how magic affects everyday life. This means looking at aspects such as transportation, medicine, and even warfare. Asking questions about these elements and more.
Then, after figuring out more about magic in the world, you can figure out what role your protagonist fills in that world. Obviously in a high-magic world with sorcerers everywhere, it might not seem as cool to also be a sorcerer, and most people want their protagonist to stand out in some way. Yes, this could mean having a non-magic-using protagonist, but you could also have them approach magic in a different way.
Just consider your options.
“Worlds and Technology” by Wolfgang Baur
Hey, look, another Wolfgang Baur essay; I told you he had a bunch in this book, and looking at the different subject matter, it’s easy to see why he is such a big name in the realm of RPG design.
In the creation of worlds we’ve discussed mapmaking and magic, and now it’s time to turn a focus to technology. It is so easy to think of the word technology in terms of modern tech, but it really can be any point along the technological timeline, from carts and horses to cars and guns and even up to computers and spaceships. These are all options when creating a fictional world. This essay breaks down options a little bit more.
One of the primary technologies to think about is transport and communications. Some of this depends on the magic of the world as well, because magical transport and communication can be a thing, and you can also combine magic and technology.
Another important technological aspect to consider is that of knowledge, more specifically when it comes to literacy and printing. Are books hand-copied or has the printing press been established? Does everyone know how to read or just those of means?
The technology of warfare is the next element to think about. Do they use staffs, swords and daggers, bows and arrows, trebuchets, tanks, cannons, guns, laser blasters…?
How is the technology of life, food, and medicine?
Also, if you are leaning more in the direction of science fiction, many of them include some substance or element that is rare and powerful, something considered unobtainable by most, hence the generic term of unobtanium. It’s important to think about how this rare and powerful substance will change the power dynamic of the story.
“Why No Monotheism?” by Steve Winter
Fantasy settings very very rarely contain monotheism, whether that is because the author/game designer/game master likes describing a pantheon of gods or for some other reason, it’s just a commonly accepted aspect. Which is funny if you consider that most fantasy settings are based on Roman and medieval European cultures, many of which are monotheistic.
Obviously religion and theology can be difficult to talk about, so Steve Winter begins by defining a few terms, such as monotheism and polytheism. He even discusses two different forms of polytheism.
After that he shifts into his reasons why he believes monotheism doesn’t happen in fantasy RPGs. Again, this is something I think translates just fine over to fantasy novels as well. It boils down to a feeling of being before history, of being more interested in the mythology over the religion, of characters being “unique” by following different deities, of characters just having options, a feeling of escaping from reality, and of social pressure.
Of course, at the end of the essay Steve Winter does give some advice for designing around monotheism, so it is all helpful advice.
Part One / Part Three
Links to Other Weekend Writer Posts
Introduction — Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer — Embrace Your Weird by Felicia Day — The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell — No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty — The War of Art by Steven Pressfield — On Being Stuck by Laraine Harris — The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding edited by Janna Silverstein —
Where to Get a Copy
If you found this writing advice helpful, you can pick up your own copy of this book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, directly from Kobold Press, or your local independent bookstore through IndieBound.
You can also check with your local library.