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The term worldbuilding gets thrown around frequently by tabletop roleplayers. It is what we call the process of constructing a fantasy realm or even an entire fictional universe. There are maps and ecologies and complex histories involved, with all sorts of curious little details sprinkled in. While we presumably create these worlds to provide a grand stage for an ongoing campaign, the act of worldbuilding is often an end unto itself. It’s a creative outlet, even if it never gets used in a game, and one that’s a whole lot of fun.

When you’ve got time for that, great; there is no wrong way to engage in that sort of worldbuilding. One of the fundamental challenges gamemasters face, though, is preparation time. There’s never enough of it. One of the risks of traditional worldbuilding is the tendency to gather more information than you need. You want to be sure you know absolutely everything about your setting, no matter how trivial, just in case it comes up. You don’t want to have to stop in the middle of the action to look something up. It’s normal to want all of the pieces to fit together so your official canon has no continuity holes.

The other option is to wing it. Start playing and make it all up as you go. If you’re well-versed in a particular genre or know an established setting like the back of your hand, you can make this method work. You can craft something from whole cloth as your world unfolds. Not everyone is skilled at that sort of improvisation, though. It’s stressful and doesn’t always lead to a good experience for anyone.

Top-Down Worldbuilding

There are two common approaches to traditional worldbuilding. The first is top-down or outside-in design. You start big, often with a map, and make generalizations about geography, climate, major cities, politics, ecology, and other broad topics. From there, the creator can scale down incrementally, filling in increasingly more focused and specific details. No specific use is in mind as you create; a purpose can be found later, possibly in backgrounds or adventure hooks.

The strength of the top-down design is that you, as the creator, can see the big picture. You know how and why everything fits together because you began with a larger whole and then zoomed in. One of the drawbacks is that it’s tempting to connect things too well. Any inconsistencies are left there intentionally and might feel forced. Those flaws, plot holes, and contradictions are needed because they create conflict. As we’ll see, this creates drama, gives characters purpose and depth, and drives adventures. There may be a lot of potential in the world for many campaigns and a myriad of types of stories to tell, but it will take tremendous amounts of work to mine them out of all the details required to define the top-down world.

Bottom-Up Worldbuilding

In bottom-up or inside-out design, you start small and work your way up to the weightier elements. The characters may begin in a tavern, and that’s all they know of the world. They may agree to guard a caravan traveling to a distant city, at which point the creator will need to fill in the details of the new location and everything leading up to it. Every element appears on a need-to-use basis, and they, in turn, suggest other things, and the setting grows organically from there.

The strength of a bottom-up approach comes from the inconsistencies that inevitably creep into the material. Reconciling contradictory details that you thought up on the fly makes good adventure fodder. The downside is that it requires improvisational skills. You either make things up as you go along, or you’re stopping and starting to do sporadic bits of research. It’s sort of like building an airplane while you’re flying it. This approach can be as laborious as crafting an obsessively detailed top-down design.

Practical Worldbuilding

This book isn’t about worldbuilding for its own sake. You’re not going to learn how to create a massive, detailed encyclopedia for a fully-formed cosmos, although you absolutely can use it for such an undertaking. I’m not going to show you how to write the ultimate travel guide for an imaginary place. It’s not a book full of checklists and random tables. Focus your efforts on assembling the key, critical elements needed to run compelling and richly-textured adventures. It can lean more toward top-down or bottom-up design, but what matters most is your intention. Know the problem that you’re solving before you begin.

Practical worldbuilding means doing things on purpose. It means that every element of your setting is there for a reason. You made a conscious decision to include some things and leave out others because they somehow contribute to the characters, the adventure, and the overall campaign. You only have to do as much work as is necessary to accomplish that.

This book includes:

  • Premise: This section covers the challenges presented by the world. Determine the villains and supporting characters. Set goals for the player characters and establish the primary obstacles that will need to be faced.
  • Genre: A look at common genres in tabletop roleplaying, what makes them what they are, and how to leverage the essential elements in your worldbuilding.
  • Context: Establishing the place and time of your setting. Create the atmosphere and sensations players will associate with the world. This section covers real and fictional settings using history as a basis.
  • Theme: Establish what the adventures and the campaign will be about on a thematic level. This section covers common themes along with the use of symbolism and motif.
  • Stakes: Determining the internal and external rewards for achieving the setting’s goals and establishing the potential complications of failure.
  • Locations: Defining the purpose of specific spaces within the setting. A look at what constitutes locations for conflict, sanctuary, and color.
  • Environment: The section covers the types of terrain in the world, as well as weather, climate, and seasons. Animals, plants, and population centers feature here.
  • People: A look at notable individuals, influential cultures, and organizations that will appear in the campaign. Create the elements of communities and civilizations.
  • Technology: Various forms of technology you need to establish in the setting are covered. These include communications, currency, energy sources, fashion, foods, sanitation, transportation, and weapons.
  • Events: Create impact things that happen in the world. This section covers recurring events like celebrations and seasonal activities, upcoming events, and unexpected events like accidents, natural disasters, illnesses, and war.
  • Vocabulary: This section covers how language use can reinforce the tone of the setting. It includes adjectives and adverbs, genre terms, historical language, slang and colloquialism, and the use of names.
  • Characters and Worlds: Using character elements to inform worldbuilding is covered in this section. Topics include character backgrounds, abilities, and personal goals.
  • Adventures and Worlds: This section features the connection between the story and the setting. Explore ways that the two support the overall roleplaying experience.
  • Systems and Worlds: This section looks at how rules can shape and limit worldbuilding efforts. How mechanics can support other setting elements and creative ideas is discussed.

Building Worlds is part of a line of system-neutral creative aids for all tabletop roleplayers. Use these bestselling books with any rules, genre, or setting. Adapt and apply them to any game. Each volume focuses on one element, like character development, worldbuilding, or adventure design.

Lightspress Media is a tabletop roleplaying company with a lo-fi approach. Utility of content takes precedence over ostentatious production value. Graphic elements should enhance the message of the text, not act as page filler and eye candy. Physical books need to be compact, portable, and sturdy. This minimalist aesthetic results in powerful toolkits that are both useful and affordable. After all, tabletop roleplaying isn’t the book. It’s the creativity and collaboration that takes place around the tabletop. Our mission is to give you as much as you need, then get out of your way.