Worldbuilding: Getting Started

Spend some time of r/worldbuiling and you will see that many posts are from new users asking how to start worldbuilding. The short answer to this is simple-however you want! But since it seems to be such a common question I decided that I would outline my worldbuilding process here for anyone who wants to start but isn’t sure how.

1. Pick a Medium

There are a lot of ways to organize your worldbuilding. For most of my projects I like to start with a nice notebook. This comes with a few limitations, it can be hard to keep topics organized and it can be hard to go back and change major details and keep everything looking neat, but if you are as fanatical about writing implements as I am then it’s a fun way to worldbuild and use your favorite pens at the same time.

Other people use OneNote, word documents, personal wikis, or services like WorldAnvil. In the end it doesn’t matter what medium you use as long as it suits your needs or preferences.

2. Have an Idea

A lot of career advice talks about having an “elevator pitch” ready and you should have the same for your setting. If you’re making a world to run a table top campaign then this pitch might come from your players. Maybe your players want to run a wizard mafia, or find an abandoned city in the far north surrounded by frozen tundra. If you’re worldbuilding for fun or for a story you plan to write you might ask yourself what would happen in a world where the industrial revolution happened a few centuries early or Rome never fell. Once you have a theme to explore or a specific scene in mind you’ll find it much easier to make a setting where those themes or scenes are possible.

3. Pick an Era

Deciding on the level of technology found in your setting is important. It establishes the tools available to your characters, the capabilities of governments, and the resources that countries are willing to go to war over. In a world where everything runs on steam coal will be a much more valuable resource than oil, but if you’re writing diesel-punk this dynamic will be reversed.

When I pick a technology level for a setting I tend to think in terms of centuries. This is just to help visualize the kind of technology and tools available in your setting and should not feel like a limitation. In the end this is your world, if you want to introduce a new technology or put a new spin on historical inventions then do it!

4. Magic

Easily accessible magic will drastically change the dynamics of your world, so deciding if magic is common, or if it exists at all, should happen early on. You should also consider outlining the limits of your world’s magic and whether it can be classified as “hard” or “soft” magic.

If you are considering a world in which divine intervention is a regular occurrence, this would be the time to do it.

5. Make a Map

Our culture is shaped by our environment and who we come in contact with, our economies are shaped by the resources available to us, and these along with other considerations shape the conflicts we engage in. Since you are probably not going to start from the creation of your world and move forward, you’re going to need to picture the “current” state of your world and work backwards to decide what geographic features might have contributed to its current predicament. Mountains, rivers, and oceans can form natural barriers and help explain why a certain culture has stayed relatively isolated, the positions of trade routes, harbors, and rivers will decide where your major cities go.

Scale is important to think about here. You might be tempted to create an entire world map on your first go, but you should consider how much of the world you need to show for your story. Mapping an entire world is fun, but you might find yourself biting off more than you can chew. To combat this I now only map out the region that I plan to focus on and wait to flesh out others areas until I need them.

6. Fill in the Rest

This is the part where you let your imagination run wild. Outline character bios, write the histories of obscure locations or the stories of empires. There’s not really any wrong way to do this. It’s your setting, do what you want with it.

Riots & Rebellions

Revolutions can be an essential part of your narrative. Your story could begin with a coup, as happens in Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, or the story could lead into it with factions coming together and tension rising as the plot progresses. The revolution may also be in the distant or recent past, and can be the reason your setting is on the path that it is. Revolutionary rhetoric can shape your the worldview of your characters and their motivations. Fears of another rebellion or factions who feel like the last one didn’t go far enough can be great sources on conflict within a setting.

Breaking Point

One thing that you will have to decide quickly is what circumstances provided that catalyst for your revolt. At what point did things get so bad that the people decided that they had no choice but to rise up? Were there negotiations leading up to the revolt, and did one side not agree to terms or did someone decide that the terms agreed upon were not enough? Finally, was the revolt planned? A well-coordinated coup might be planned over months or years, or fighting might break out almost spontaneously and force both sides to prepare for a conflict they hadn’t yet prepared for.

This breaking point should also tie into the demographics of the rebellion and its scope. Coal miners rioting against decreased wages or worsening conditions will have a very different set of concerns than noble landowners trying to get out of paying the taxes they owe to the king. This sets up different ends goals for the conflict and the scope of change they want to see. The coal miners want a change in working conditions, while the nobles want a change in leadership.

  • While protesting increased bread prices, someone throws a rock at the troops called in to keep the crowds under control. The troops respond by attempting to disperse the crowds and several people die. The rioters now shift their focus to occupying neighborhoods and government buildings.
  • After losing yet another election, the leader of the opposition realizes that the ruling party never meant for fair elections in the first place.
  • Not wanting to risk their lives in what they see as another pointless attack, soldiers at the front stage a mutiny. The war-effort is now at risk of failing if the government cannot reach an agreement with the mutineers.
  • In order to pay his debts, the local lord raised the tithes owed to him by his estate’s serfs. Life is already hard on these serfs and they know that this increase will leave them close to starvation.
  • Wanting expanded civil rights and a constitution to limit the powers of the king, the people go out to the streets to protest, effectively shutting down the capital and trapping the king in his palace.

Leadership

Leadership of an uprising is important because it determines the public face of the movement and its objectives. Establishing clear lines of communication and being able to efficiently utilize resources in the face of what is likely a much better equipped adversary will have a huge role to play in a rebellion’s success or failure. A charismatic leader can attract more recruits and convince potential allies to take the movement seriously.

Forming coalitions that result in multiple leaders may give the rebellion the strength it needs to be successful, but several factions united only in their desire to see the old king overthrown will likely cause problems down the line if the leadership is divided between moderate and radical ideologies.

  • After deciding that the kingdom needs a new ruler, the rebellious nobles gather to elect one of their own to lead. They pick one who had blood ties to the throne, giving their movement some appearance of legitimacy.
  • Hearing of riots in the capital, the leader of opposition returns from their years of exile to lead the revolution. They find that new rivals for control of the movement have risen to prominence in their absence.
  • Realizing that they lack the resources to win the war on their own, the leaders of the opposition make an alliance with a group of disgruntled army officers who bring their troops and expertise to the side of the rebels.
  • The rioters succeeded in overwhelming the local garrisons and now have control over the city but lack a clear path forward. Several prominent citizens step forward with competing visions for the revolution.
  • Deciding that victory now is more important than ideals, the leaders of the rebellion invite a foreign ruler to join the conflict. Some in the movement worry that this new player is not as sympathetic to their cause as they claim to be.

Response

Once the rebellion begins, the existing government will have to decide on its response. For a monarch there are essentially four basic actions they can take; concede, abdicate, suppress, or do nothing and hope it goes away. There are pros and cons to each of these responses and what action the monarch takes will depend on how secure they feel in their position.

  • Unsure of the army’s loyalty, the king’s advisers convince him to abdicate in favor of a relative who they believe will be able to rule more effectively.
  • After several weeks of protest, the king relents and agrees to grant the people a constitution and a representative legislature.
  • Realizing that the rioting is confined only to the capital, the king calls in the army to put down the uprising. After several days of fighting in the streets the city is left in ruins and rebels are either captured or scattered.
  • Not wanting to shed his own people’s blood, but also not willing to give up his authority, the king gives contradictory orders to his troops and his stance on the matter seems to change from one day to the next. This allows the protesters time to coordinator their efforts and strengthen their position.
  • Unable to rally a force large enough to put down the rebellion, the king looks for foreign allies willing to lend their armies to the defense of the regime.

Aftermath

So the war has been won, or the riots put down, or a constitution granted…what next? If the rebels win they’ll have to form a new government and prove its legitimacy, if the king granted a constitution they will have to grow accustomed to the new limits on their authority. Have the results of the uprising led to a bright future for the country, or set it up for another crisis in a few years?

  • Although they have been granted a constitution and a legislative body, reformers soon realize that the assembly has been designed to serve in an advisory role and its actual powers have been limited. Discontent begins to build again.
  • After brutally suppressing the rebellion the government cracks down on the underground newspapers and secret meetings that led to the revolts in the first place.
  • After several weeks of fighting the leaders of the peasant rebellion have all been killed or captured. For the rest its a return to life as normal, although the lord now realizes the danger to himself that comes with raising taxes and lowers them to their pre-revolt levels.
  • With the help of several nobles the rebellion was won, now the elites who assisted in this victory expect to receive their rewards. As titles and lands are handed out to them, the people begin to wonder what exactly they had been fighting for.
  • The opposition party has overthrown the king and seized power. They come into government expecting to make broad reforms but soon realize that the country is deeply in debt to foreign creditors. Lacking confidence in the new government’s ability make payments, these creditors attempt to collect what they are owed before the new regime goes bankrupt.
  • Fearing a disruption to the established balance of power, neighboring nations move to contain the rebellion, putting forth a distant cousin of the deposed king as the new heir. Worn out from the fighting, the revolutionaries are now forced to prepare for a new conflict.
  • Now that the war is over the provisional government must decide when to hold elections. Some within the council want to hold elections immediately before their rivals have a chance to gather support. Opposition to this results in a deadlock, and some begin to lose faith in the new government.