Building a World

in Tutorials

By: Lunarea

The world in which your game takes place is very important. It is a frame for your plot, characters and visuals. It can provide you with a wealth of details you can use in NPC conversations. And, more importantly, it makes your game feel more “real”.

This information isn't very useful. The player can tell it's cold from all the snow on the ground.

This information isn’t very useful. The player can tell it’s cold from all the snow on the ground.

Now this is more interesting information! This NPC is not happy with the new King, and he's not afraid to say it. This gives us insight into politics, society and history.

Now this is more interesting information! This NPC is not happy with the new King, and he’s not afraid to say it. This gives us insight into politics, society and history.

But how do you tackle planning out an ENTIRE world? There’s history, geography, politics, sociology, economy and more to worry about. Do you start at the beginning with how the world was created? How much information should you include and how do you incorporate it into the game?

Planning an entire world in one sitting is a daunting task. There are far too many details to cover, and it becomes counter-productive to develop everything at once. Instead, use a building block approach..

Start with what you know – in this case, your basic story/plot:

BuildWorld3Using the example plot, I can come up with the following questions:

  • Who were the ancient gods and why were they imprisoned?
  • How and why did the 3 ruined kingdoms fall?
  • Who are the leaders of the 4 thriving kingdoms, and why do they have the crystals? Why would they give the crystals away?
  • Who wrote the prophecy and how did they come about that knowledge?
  • Who crafted the magical artifacts and who used them to imprison the ancient gods?

The answers to these few questions become the building blocks of the game’s world development. I can choose to leave them: The kings and queens have the crystals because they’re too powerful together. They give them away to the hero because he convinced them of his trustworthiness through completing quests.

Or I can build up on them: the ancient gods were terrible beings that used humans as playthings. They were imprisoned because humans grew to be intelligent and brave. The current religious system puts faith into the Great Consciousness – the place where all ideas and feelings of humanity are born from.

Once you’ve started jotting down the concepts and bits of information, it’s time to organize them.

First thing you might notice is that a lot of your information will fit more than one category. For example, that ancient gods were cruel rulers who oppressed humanity is the kind of information that fits religion, history and politics. Good information tends to flow well together and overlap in many areas.

How do you keep track of it all? One thing that might really help is to create a mind map. There are several free online tools available, but you can also use a notebook or a whiteboard. I, personally, put information on cue cards and tape them to a big poster sheet (or the wall, for the more elaborate worlds). As the world starts to come together, I can move the cards around or replace information that doesn’t fit anymore.

The last step is to figure out ways to implement this information in your game. A lot of the details are useful for enhancing NPC dialogue, or simply including in books on shelves the player can interact with. But you can also take it a step further and incorporate it into visual elements (architecture of buildings, paintings/statues, etc) or gameplay elements (history quiz puzzle, hints for a maze puzzle hero travels through).

Do you use any tools and techniques to keep your world building organized? Tell us in comments!

7 comments… add one

  • Ross August 28, 2013, 1:30 pm

    An interesting piece. For me, I already have a world in mind. It’s like I can see it. I flesh out those ideas as I go along.

    I can see this method of ‘sitting down to design your world’ potentially coming out a little forced. Creativity can’t be forced, and you’ll probably just end up with something that lacks imagination.

    • Lunarea August 28, 2013, 5:49 pm

      While the approach of making things up as you go along works for some people, it’s not something you really want to do with large and elaborate worlds. It’s too easy to make a mistake and contradict yourself. So, planning things out a little first is something you should get into a habit of doing. Besides keeping the story straight, planning also allows you to better use literary devices such as foreshadowing.

      I really don’t believe that creativity is fickle and only happens sometimes when you’re feeling inspired. A good way to get out of the creative rut would be to practice general writing. I strongly suggest using literary prompts (http://writingprompts.tumblr.com/), for example, or playing games, reading books, etc. Do things that inspire you to make a game, and then make use of that inspiration boost.

      If a story and a world inspire you enough, sitting down to plan a game about it is not a chore, nor does it feel forced in any way. Instead, the problem is usually that you find it too hard to stop writing about it. :D

      • Da' Vane August 29, 2013, 4:11 am

        If your world is large and elaborate, then you should start recording everything in a story bible. That way, you can refer to it when answering future questions to help prevent contradiction.

        Although it is suggested that you don’t need a Story Bible on games designed by one person, they do help with continuity and consistency, and can be used to provide inspiration for future games in the same world.

        You require an even mix of creativity and planning for a decent game, let alone a decent franchise. Anybody who has come from a tabletop roleplaying design background can appreciate this – as many of the best ideas for setting elements can come during tabletop play and collaboration with others, that no amount of planning can really match.

  • Ron August 28, 2013, 5:28 pm

    me too, creativity can’t be forced
    that’s when we become righteous maker ;)

  • Kate August 28, 2013, 6:00 pm

    I tend for a sort of middle-ground approach: I plan the basic arc of my game, get a few things jotted down, and then make up more details as I go. Sometimes, inspiration hits at odd moments, so I’m prone to have folded post-its in my pocket with notes.

  • Ethan August 28, 2013, 7:17 pm

    I found a piece of software some time ago, called Articy:Draft. It’s a nice piece of software that allows you to build things like mind maps, along with dialogue, and more.

    It also can serve as a database for all of your resources, letting you assign chunks of data to individual actors, items, places, etc. These chunks can then be expanded to include such information as name, class, race, guild memberships, or friends/enemies.

    The price is a bit steep (starting at $99.99 on Steam) but if making games is something that you plan on taking a lot of time on, it’s certainly worth the investment.

  • Da' Vane August 29, 2013, 2:36 am

    I once edited and contributed to an entire series for Games Masters of tabletop roleplaying games, which included extensive ideas for world building. You can check it out at http://www.campaignmastery.com/blog/series/gm-toolbox/

    The main point of the series is to always create things that you can use to expand the game and the storyline. You don’t neccessarily have to provide answers to every question, but many such answers can lead to additional details that can inspire entirely new adventures and games. This is the easiest way to develop a lovable world, and often forms the basis for a profitable franchise.

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