The First Step In Creating a Story or Game World
By P. K. Macy
The first thing you need to understand for your world is the extent you plan to use the world. This is the same for building worlds for fantasy role-playing games or writing a story.
For example, if you are telling a story that takes place in Sherwood Forest and nothing in the greater outside world influences the story, you really need nothing greater than the forest. Your story world is the forest. But, if the King’s men ride into the forest from the castle, your world has expanded beyond the forest into the countryside around or near the castle. If the character has fought in great battles across the sea, your world now includes distant lands.
Do you need to have detailed maps, extensive listings of the laws, raw materials, trade, names of all the deities, leaders and shop keepers? No. The world outside your “story” world can live in your head if you don’t expect the story to go beyond the small world within the story. But, if you are writing an epic or planning a campaign for a game, your characters will probably go beyond the forest.
I enjoy world building. Having created several worlds for my gaming groups I have had significant practice. But, in each case, I have started by answering the question of extent. What do I need to create to satisfy the characters’ needs immediately? Will the story start in a city, town, a remote village or hamlet? What will the characters be doing on the first day? What will they need to have available for their actions? A tavern, an inn, a general store? Will they be interacting with village elders, or will there be a militia or a knight and his garrison in the village? Does the story start in the capital city of the region with a standing army and almost every type of shop and service available, from tea rooms and art galleries to schools of magic and mercenary guilds? What “age” will the story take place? Is it placed in a world with nothing more than bronze or stone, or has it developed into an age with an extensive knowledge of metals and magic? If it is in a population area, do they have the proper metal workers to craft the weapons needed or is the village’s only smith capable of nothing more than crafting nails?
Once I understand the immediate need, I expand the view in parts. If the entire story takes place by the docks, I need to know what is in the bordering parts of the town needing docks. Where to the sailors, dock hands, merchants go when they leave the docks? Do they all stay in apartments, shops and inns on Dock Street? My story may never go beyond the docks, but I need to know, at the least, is the surrounding area a large city, town, village or fishing hamlet. If the entire story goes no further than the docks, I may need nothing more than an understanding of town.
The expanded view includes government type, religion, building types and sources of material, food sources, and alcohol sources (your characters may not consume alcohol, but unless forbidden by law, almost every size community has somewhere serving alcohol of some sort.) What is the general population type? This is easy if your story is taking place in a village in a land based on jolly old England in the Medieval Period. The population is human; the food comes from farms and, if on the coast, the sea. The area has a feudal government and the local leader is a noble of some level. The local village shops carry few items; many of the citizens make or barter for clothing and food. The inn includes a tavern and rooms for travelers. If the village is large enough, there will be a smithy; if not, a traveling smith will service the tools. A guild hall for tradesmen will set the prices for manufactured goods and establish members standings. Easy. You know the extended area around the docks and have an idea how it might interact with your story world.
It is a little harder if your world contains multiple races, variations in religion, governments, levels of metallurgy, and magic. Now you need to understand how the different races interact. Do elves in your world hate dwarves? Are there races evil by nature? Can some members of the evil race grow beyond being evil? (R. A. Salvatore’s dark elf Drizzt comes to mind immediately.) Do the followers of Athena attack the followers of Ares on site? Do the deities actively take part in the world? Does the next town over support the Duke or does the religious leader hold the power? Are the poor people of your city still using bronze weapons while the invading orcs armed with steel? Is magic common or is it rare one carrying the source within them?
Considering these things for a world limited to a small village is daunting enough, but what if your story world goes beyond a simple village? Next time let us venture into the World of Eracrosi and examine the initial development of my most recent world.