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Weekend Writer: The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding – Part Three

Hey all, Dani here.

I have felt so tired all weekend, probably because I just haven’t slept well. So I’ve been pretty much operating off of regular indulgences of coffee to keep me going because it has also been a busy weekend. Is it sad that I’m already looking forward to next weekend because it is supposed to be a lazy and relaxing one? I just hope that I sleep better tonight.

Anyway, as this post goes live I’ll be in the middle of another session of D&D. Every other Sunday it’s a game that I’m running as the Dungeon Master. We’re playing the “Out of the Abyss” campaign for anyone familiar with 5th edition, and we’re in the few months of time on the surface after escaping the Underdark; we all decided to do a few homebrew adventures instead of doing a time skip, so my party is on a quest for a holy relic that may help to slow down the devastating curse that is draining and killing one of the character’s mother. It’s been pretty fun to write up the travel and various encounters to help them along the way, and I’m hoping it ends up being a fulfilling journey for all of them, though I don’t know if it will end well or not. That all depends on their choices and such. After all, this is collaborative storytelling.

Okay, enough chatter. Let’s get started with today’s Weekend Writer post.

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.

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.

Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding

Book Details

Format: paperback

Pages: 124

Publisher: Kobold Press

Publication Date: December 23, 2012

ISBN: 1936781115 (ISBN13: 9781936781119)

Summary

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.

My Thoughts

We’ve made it to the final post of this worldbuilding book. Wow. Okay, I don’t really want to waste much time with this intro section, but I will say that this final grouping of essays includes one that has possibly been the most helpful for me overall, so let’s go ahead and jump into the essays.

Designing a Pantheon by Wolfgang Baur

First up is a deeper delve into the religious aspect of worldbuilding, with master of RPG design Wolfgang Baur. Probably my favorite part of this entire essay is how it pretty much derides the standard RPG for basically forcing the characters into the mentality of monotheistic pantheism, which is that there is an entire pantheon of various deities and the characters know that many deities exist, but they choose only one to follow and all the others are lesser.

The whole point of a pantheon and a pantheistic world is a believer in this sort of a system can believe in many gods, and often they do. It would be like worshipping and offering prayers to a god of storms to bring the rains for the fields and then praising a goddess of harvest so that the crops produce well. These people would offer prayers to a deity of life and healing if someone around them was ill, or pray to a love goddess when dealing with matters of the heart.

Obviously this pantheistic worldview is harder mechanics-wise to do in an RPG, but since my focus is on fantasy writing, my challenge becomes building a pantheon that both works together and has their differences, and to allow all of my characters to believe in the way that suits their personal beliefs as well as whatever cultural beliefs are significant for their region. Some cultures may be monotheistic and claim that all others are false gods. Some cultures might approve the worship of a few deities they claim to be acceptable and outlaw the others, though they probably know that some will worship in secret. Perhaps some cultures in the world fully accept that you can worship a few or all of the gods in the pantheon.

I love how rich a world can become when you add in elements like faith for the people. In fact, when I play D&D, I am 95% of the time playing a cleric, so religion is something I like to actively include in my role-playing. And in the geeky romance novel I’m writing, the main female character is also someone who routinely plays the cleric, so this is an element I hope to do well in both my fantasy and contemporary romance writing.

It’s a Mystery! Designing Mystery Cults by David “Zeb” Cook

Hey, if we’re going to talk about religion, then I suppose we should also talk about cults. This essay specifically delves into the mystery aspect of mystery cults, wherein it isn’t necessarily secret that there are people secretly practicing a religion, but that the rituals and practices of the religion/cult are kept secret.

So for game design, if you have a mystery cult that the party will encounter, it is important to figure out the hows and whys and whens for cult practices. Who–or what–do they worship? What is the goal of this group and their practices? What steps are there to joining the cult? And what secrets are there that only the members know?

The simplest goal is the search for power. They could also be seeking knowledge. Do they wish to destroy the world or save it? The most common reason for a cult is to offer a deity praise and fealty in exchange for divine favor in this world or the next.

How to Design a Guild, College, or Secret Society by Wolfgang Baur

Much like the previous essay, this one helps you create groups within society. It delves into the key elements of creating such groups. These elements start with determining shared goals and also inclusions and exclusions for membership. Then there are so many factors to think about when it comes to initiation and acceptance. Are there trials of the mind or trials of combat? Do prospective members have to earn their way in with tests of knowledge? Does membership come from significant generosity or donation? Is there a magical rite or ritual or challenge to ensure allegiance? Must a sacrifice be made to join? Is there the need for a divinity trial or test? Do candidates for membership have to convince senior members to approve their petition to join?

How does the group fit into the society of your world? Some groups like colleges or crafting guilds are probably openly known about and accepted, whereas a thieves’ guild might be a little more of a secret or hushed rumor spoken of in hidden corners.

Many groups have some sort of status or command within your world, so think about what sort of power they wield, and also what sort of competitions or rivalries they may have with other similar organizations.

Also consider what sort of method is used to identify a member of the organization. It could be an amulet or pin, it could be a piece of clothing or a specific design element on the clothes, or it could even be through the use of coded phrases dropped in casual conversation. Some of these signs could be obvious while others will require a bit of digging or persuading.

I honestly love having these little tips and tricks for adding even more life and depth to these fictional worlds. It’s pretty great.

How to Write a World Bible by Scott Hungerford

Okay, here we are, finally at the essay that maybe has been the most influential on my writing and creating process. This is definitely something I now utilize in my fantasy realms, but could probably also work even if you are set in space or even in our modern everyday world.

A good world bible will be a living document, prone to growth and development as more of the world is explored and delved into, and as more and more questions are asked. It is hinted at in this essay that a 3-ring binder makes an excellent world bible, though this sort of set-up can also be done digitally, so do whatever is most useful for you.

For the purposes of this essay, Scott Hungerford breaks down the world bible into three sections: World, Cast, and Appendices. He also states that it’s about putting down the right facts and details, and not every detail that could possibly be thought of. When it comes to RPGs, you want to give enough detail for the world to feel real, but also leave enough vagueness for the game master to adapt the information as necessary.

The first section is the world, and this part will include details about the races and cultures of the world, as well as the magic and technology, and the currency and economy. If it helps to have individual pages for different continents, different countries, different cities, etc, then this is where you do that. For the world bible I made for one of my series, this section also includes a history of the world section so I can keep my timeline straight, and has a section for the religions of the world.

The second section is the cast, and this will vary a bit between RPGs and novels. For RPGs you want to include important NPCs such as dignitaries, heads of state, and masterminds, but also an abundance of common run of the mill bartenders, bad guys, and shopkeeps and the like. You never know who the characters will want to talk to. With novels you’ll want to at least keep basic details about the various characters within the story, and you’ll probably want more in-depth dives into your primary, secondary, and possibly even tertiary characters (depending on how complex your story is, obviously).  You’ll also want information about the antagonists and villains, as well as important denizens of the animal kingdom.

The third section is the appendices. Appendix A is suggested to be timelines and histories, but I personally moved that into the first section for my novel series, so you can see how these tips can be altered for each respective creator. Start off with the big events and then as the story deems necessary you can add and develop smaller events. Appendix B is focused on cartography, so this is where your maps will be stored. Again referring to my own world bible, I have a world map and then separate maps focused on each country within the world. If I feel the need for a city/town map, then I can add them in later as needed. Finally Appendix C is a glossary, so this is where you should list the main people, places, creatures, events, spells, etc in your world. This is also a handy place for a pronunciation guide if you need one.

Seriously, I love my world bible, and it really does make it easier to look details up when I’m in the middle of writing.

Playing In Someone Else’s Backyard by Janna Silverstein

Okay, so this essay is more focused towards RPGs because it deals with running a game or campaign in an already established and licensed world, like Faerun in Dungeons & Dragons or Golarion in Pathfinder. For fantasy writing I’d say this is more focused towards fan-fiction writers (or if you’re lucky enough to be hired to write media tie-in novels for a TV show or movie), so it’s still a pretty handy essay.

Mostly this essay focuses on the licensor/licensee/property definitions, and then about how to approach working alongside an established design studio, as well as playing by the rules of the world you are writing in while also tailoring it around your rules as well.

The Limits of Design: Kitchen Sink Design by Wolfgang Baur

Again, this final essay is a bit more focused on game design form of worldbuilding, wherein the game designer tries to throw in a bit of everything to try and please every type of player and game master, as well as talking about the pros and cons of such design attempts. So helpful for someone who wants to write a fantasy game, but perhaps not the best way to close out a post about story/novel writing.

Part One / Part Two

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Finally, I didn’t get any votes on my Twitter poll, so I’ll just ask here and you can vote in the comments. Which of these books should I delve into in the month of March for Weekend Writer?

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 AmazonBarnes & Noble, Book Depository, directly from Kobold Press, or your local independent bookstore through IndieBound.

You can also check with your local library.

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