Some years ago I started blogging a series on worldbuilding, but never got to finish it before abandoning the blog due to a lack of traffic. I called the series “Worldbuilding for Fantasy Writers” because at the time the renewed surge of interest in Tabletop Role-playing Games (TTRPG) hadn’t yet transpired, but I always had Dungeon Masters in mind as well. So now I’m reviving and updating that series, with a new title inclusive of TTRPGs (using the more neutral term “Gamemasters” since there are so many other systems to choose from besides Dungeons & Dragons). In between blogging entries from this series, I’ll also be reblogging posts by other bloggers I follow related to worldbuilding, fantasy writing, and tabletop role-playing.
The great thing about writing this series with both novelists and GMs in mind is that there’s so much crossover. Think of all the fantasy novels that have been set in the D&D campaign setting Forgotten Realms, for example, or the comic books and upcoming animated series set in Matthew Mercer‘s world of Exandria. You could conceivably create a world for your fantasy series that will become a beloved TTRPG setting, or conversely you could create a world for your TTRPG campaigns that you or others will eventually bring to life in other media.
This is the unique task of the fantasy fiction writer (as well as the GM, for both are storytellers): the creation of a world that never existed. Even if you are setting your fantasy story in our own world, or some semblance of it, you can still benefit from some knowledge of worldbuilding, since you’ll be faced with the task of weaving fantastical elements into an otherwise real world setting, as in the Potterverse for example, or Charles de Lint’s fictional city of Newford. This is worldbuilding, too. As soon as you introduce whole hidden societies of wizards or fairies into our familiar modern world you have to start thinking about how they got there, how they remained largely unknown to the world throughout its history, what their relationship has been with the greater mundane society surrounding them in all that time, and so on. Not that you need to reveal that to the reader (or players) all at once, but it’s almost imperative that you yourself think about it if you want to create a comprehensible complex fictional world, as this knowledge of how everything in it relates to everything else will inevitably form a kind of backbone of realism for your flights of fancy.
While at first the task of worldbuilding may seem a daunting one, I think that it becomes easier once you realise that it isn’t necessary for you to create it all at once. It starts with a story. And a story starts with a character or characters. So I guess you can say I prefer the “bottom-up” approach to worldbuilding as opposed to the “top-down” approach which involves a lot of work before you can even start the real business of storytelling. In other words, to hi-jack a popular phrase for my own purposes, I dream globally but write locally. You might prefer the opposite approach, but don’t worry, I’ll be covering that starting in the next chapter, which deals with mapping your world.
In the case of my planned fantasy series beginning with the volume I’m currently writing, which I’ve tentatively titled “Elder Rites“, the stories and the characters came first, with initially only a vague idea of the world they lived in. In fact, one character had originally inhabited a completely different world–one that I hadn’t invented myself; namely Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms. So don’t be afraid to just start writing your stories and developing your characters, and before you know it, your worldbuilding will have already begun. Still, it helps to begin with a vague idea of the sort of world you want them to inhabit, so my advice would be to start thinking about that as soon as possible. It’s also a good idea to take notes, especially of place names, significant landmarks, and inhabitants, etc, just to keep it all straight in your head.
Assuming your world is not a completely alien one, which could either be easier or more difficult than one closer to our own, depending on the writer, it helps to also decide fairly early on the type of society, government, scientific knowledge, technological advancement, level of magic or frequency of mythical creatures (if any) prevalent, and so on. Will your civilisation be based on ancient Mesopotamia or Greece? The Aztecs? Medieval Europe? The Wild West? Imperial China? A blend of these?
Later on we’ll get into more detail about the types of societies that have existed (and often co-existed) throughout the ages of humankind, and how the existence of such might shape, and sometimes ultimately transform, your fictional world. But for now you might only have just an idea for a story and some of the characters involved, and that’s fine.
Next: Mapping Your World