Have you ever built a world? I would be willing to wager you have visited a few. Perhaps you have hopped in the cockpit of your trusty X-Wing to battle the Galactic Empire. Or maybe you have slipped into Elf-forged mythril chain mail as you thwarted the orcs of Mordor. Who knows, maybe you prefer squeezing into some spandex and facing down the Kree. But have you ever built a world?
If so, do you use a kit? Tabletop games come with kits aplenty for aspiring game masters. Every Dungeon Master’s Guide I can recall using from First Edition onward has provided reliable tools and tips on how to organize a campaign from soup to nuts. Moreover, choosing a game system in the first place is players’ sub rosa selection of a kit. You are given conflict resolution mechanics (usually based on a random number generator, often dice), conflict generation (monsters, antagonistic organizations, hostile environments, etc.), and perhaps most importantly a setting, or if not exactly a setting, at least the scaffolding of a setting. Dungeons and Dragons is a high fantasy setting; Warhammer 40,000 is a grim, dark science fiction setting; Vampire: The Masquerade has something to do with intrigue in the Russian royal court, I think.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing in a kit world. To the contrary, many of these settings are downright venerable, some with decades of development between dozens if not hundreds of enthusiastic authors contributing to the rich lore of well-established franchises. If what you want out of your gaming experience is to plop your keister down a few times a month and tell a tale of adventure with your buddies, then pre-fab settings are almost certainly what you want.
However, there are a select few of you out there for whom established worlds are insufficient. You long to put pen to paper, drafting magnificent maps, scripting elaborate histories, detailing ancient wars, uncovering the habits and traditions of the inhabitants of your realms, and injecting life into the flights of your fancy.
I am one of you. We are kin, you and I. As a teenager, I would spend more time sketching castle designs than crawling through the Tomb of Horrors. I would draw up tangled dungeons, pepper bespoke overworld maps with cities, and flesh it all out with stories about how this or that courageous adventurer scratched out the foundations of a mighty kingdom that would last a thousand years. And though my age and experience have tempered my zeal for staying up until the wee hours, applying just that one little extra flourish to the Battle of Baeraen-Wray during the Fourth War of Ascension, my love for lore has not been extinguished.
So join me, won’t you? If you are so inclined, let’s explore some principles for world generation using insights from economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. In the coming series of posts, I will cover how to create an internally consistent, robust, convincing fictional setting that is flexible enough to permit your players the liberty to explore and alter to their heart’s content.
I urge you to leave questions and suggestions in the comment section below. Consider this series more of a conversation than a lecture. If there is a topic you’d like discussed in greater detail, or if you think there is a literature I have overlooked, please mention it, and I will do my best to address your concerns.