Write Right: Building A World (Part 1: Broad Strokes)

Hey, so, you guys all remember how I’m, like, totally a novelist and stuff, right?

No? Ah. Okay, then.

Look to the right. See that snazzy picture? Yeah. I wrote that. It’s a book. That got published. It also has a sequel slowly eeking its way towards completion. Also, there’s those weird chapter like thingies I share every Wednesday. There’ll be one tomorrow, actually. You should check it out.

Cause I’m a writer. Who would really like to get paid to do it.

The reason I bring this up is because, every now and then, I remember that, as a writer, I could actually talk about the craft of writing sometimes. Who knows, people might find that interesting, or even more amazing, I could make it sound interesting.

As if…

Thing is, I actually prefer to show over tell, even when it comes to writing. I find that talking about writing usually ends up being kinda dull, as it’s never as interesting as the end result. An actual story people can get engaged with. This often leaves me unsure what I can say about being a writer, however, as harping over how important it is for characters to be well done also becomes boring, and annoying, after about five minutes.

Yes. I know. I can’t help it. It’s a pet peeve.

Recently, though, I had a comment come my way that made me realize there’s other things I can bore everyone with, besides sarcastically inappropriate captions to anime stills. It was a compliment, even, which always leaves me unsure what to say, as I’m not good with compliments.

The comment was nothing amazing, just a compliment on how well built the world of Rise was. Which surprised me a little, as I didn’t consciously consider the possibility anyone would notice that.

First, a reminder, for the new, and people who have forgotten. I actually spent almost twenty years building the world Rise is set in. Even when I wasn’t actively working on anything set in the world, I was often playing with it, exploring aspects of it, and fleshing things out. Mostly for my own amusement, as I never expected Rise to get published.

I enjoy building worlds. It’s almost a hobby for me, both as a writer, and as a Dungeon Master. While the idea of fleshing out an entire world is often seen as overwhelming to many, to me, it’s just a good afternoons fun.

Yes, I’m weird, I know, but thank you for saying it. Hush now.

Christ. He’s really gonna keep talking.

Point being, it hit me, that’s a thing I could do here on this blog, besides talk about anime and Marvel movies. Ya know, cause this whole thing was actually suppose to be a promotional tool for me as a writer, and published author, and like most things put in my hands, took a really odd turn into something else entirely.

Seriously, I planted some Morning Glories once. Got a flower bed full of clover. Still dunno what the hell happened there. Figure it’s best not to ask.

So, everyone have a seat, open your textbooks to page 69, and make sure your #2 pencil is sharp. Over the next few months, we’re gonna build a world.

Now, before we start, there’s two ways to do this, and both of them sound kind of perverted. The first is what is generally called the inside out method, which is where you start with a small area, and flesh out the larger world as you need to for the sake of the story. This method is best when you know just where you are gonna go, what you are gonna do, and what you are gonna need.

The other method is known as the outside in method, and its pretty much the opposite approach. You start with the big stuff, and work your way down to the small stuff. It’s a lot more complicated, but if you don’t know for sure where you are gonna go, and all that other stuff, it’s better to have at least some idea of what’s what, where, and why, so you don’t have to make something up on the fly later.

Granted, I make most everything up on the fly, but I’m a bad example to follow. Don’t be like me, kids. Stay in school. And off drugs. And other stuff. I dunno.

Inspirational, I know.

Now, which one you use depends entirely on what you are doing. As a writer, I find that the inside out method is better, especially if you have some idea of what it is you are going to be doing is involved. Either a solid grasp on your characters, and the overall plot, or at the very least, the scope of the story you want to tell.

As a Dungeon Master, it’s better to go with the outside in method, though, since you have literally no idea where the players are going to go with things. They may make a choice you never anticipated, so it’s a good idea to have at least some grasp of the overall world setting in advance.

The same goes for writing, however, if you only have a tentative idea on the overall plot. A couple of great characters, and some idea of what the story is, usually means you want to have at least some idea of the whole world view, so you you can tweak and adjust along the way, rather than creating a massively broken world setting by accident as you progress.

For the purposes of this, we’re going to use the outside in method, for two reasons. First, it’s not for any kind of story, and serves no great purpose, so may as well just have fun with building it all. Second, I’m a Dungeon Master, and I can’t help myself.

Also, it’s my blog, and I do what I want.

Here’s a picture of Saitama. For no damn reason.

Right away, let’s start with getting some idea of what the overall concept of the world is going to be. As a fantasy writer, I’m gonna do a fantasy world, complete with large numbers of sentient races, magic, and all that fun, zany stuff. Still, that’s kind of generic, so let’s refine the idea somewhat, by throwing in a few tweaks to give the world a unique flavor.

Because, really, when you get down to it, that’s what a world setting is all about. Flavor. You want a world to feel like a place that exists, but you don’t want it to be too generic, or the whole thing just feels flat. It’s important for the setting to be somewhat a character in its own right, so visitors to it, be they readers, or players, feel like its the kind of place they’d want to visit.

So, for this, we’re gonna say that the world has a long history of magic, and other fantasy world cliches, but has progressed technologically, to the point of being right at the brink, or just past, of an industrial revolution. This changes the nature of the world from one of being generic, to now being one that has a lot of potential for being a unique setting.

How does magic fit into a world of mass production? What effect does it have on industry, and what sort of products are produced? How has this affected the political landscape, and what effect does it have on the act of war?

See how making that one tiny change, opens up a whole slew of questions? Just by taking the typical fantasy world out of the stereotypical medieval setting, you completely alter what is possible, and set your audience up with a dizzying array of changes to a genre they feel themselves to be familiar with.

You could also say that it is a typical fantasy world that has experienced an alien invasion, or has been taken over by a race of vampire like entities, or really, anything you can imagine. The point of making the slight tweak to the generic setting is to create possibilities, and then to explore those possibilities as you delve into the world, and see how the change you made effects things all the way down the line.

Thinking hurts! Bad Cain!

The biggest reason for doing this as a writer, obviously, is to know how the world has affected the mentality, attitude, ideology, and outlook of your character. These things are important, after all, as a character does not exist in a vacuum. Their environment is going to have an effect on them, so knowing what the state of the world is does matter before you write your first word.

Unless you’re some kind of a rebellious idiot who just makes all this shit up as they go, not that I’m pointing fingers at myself, or anything by reminding everyone that Bill & Kris, Petalwynd, and Warsong are all totally made up on the spot, and the world setting itself is something that just I literally bullshit my way through, but I’m a professional, so shut up already.

Ignore that. I may have issues with taking my own advice.

For now, let’s stick with the initial concept, a generic fantasy world experiencing an industrial revolution. This gives us a good jumping off point to start exploring, and will inform all the decisions that need to be made going forward. Which there will be a whole lot of.

Hey, nobody said playing God was gonna be easy.

Well, okay, this guy did, but he’s a douche.

With this in mind, the first thing we want to establish is how the overall world is going to be different. Because magic still exists, we need to decide what part it plays in the setting, and how it is part of the rise of technological development. This is going to be the cornerstone of the world setting, but for now, we can just make some choices that we’ll elaborate on later as we begin filling in the specifics.

For starters, let’s decide what magic is. There’s plenty of options to chose from, after all. In the world of Rise, magic is a byproduct of what is called mystic energy, the fundamental building blocks of all reality. You could also choose to have it be an alien form of energy that flows into the world from an unknown source, or even the product of intense learning, that allows a mage to alter reality at their whim. This is just scratching the surface really, as there’s all kinds of ways magic could be said to exist.

For the sake of this, though, let’s go with magic being a quantifiable form of energy, and give it a name. Any name will do, really. It could be called simply arcane energy. Or you could give it a cool name, like Shok. Which I like. So we’ll call it that, and say that it emanates form the very fabric of reality. It is given off by all things, from the very earth, to plants, and the oceans, and just kind of fills the world.

This is actually a bit of a cheat, because it bypasses any need to explain what it actually is. By giving it this sort of quick description, you aren’t really explaining it, but you are giving it a place within the world, as well as a sort of origin point. You don’t have to ever bother explaining what it is any further, only that exists, and mages have learned how to harness it in order to utilize magic.

This will have to be further refined later on, of course, but for now, we’ve established two very important things. The first is that the source of magic in the world is a renewable resource, which will tie back into the industrial revolution concept, and the other is that it gives magic a set and specific place within the world setting. A role to play, you might say.

Now that we know what magic is, let’s decide how it affects things on a large scale. Because we’ve established the source of magic, shok, as a resource, it would follow that at some point, people started figuring out how to utilize it in order to reshape the world around them into a more comfortable place.

Here’s an idea. Based on the idea of shok being an emanating energy, let’s say that there are forms of a quartz like crystal capable of absorbing shok, and holding it. The mining of such crystals can be what first really kicked off a major shift in the world towards a more industrial mentality, as even though shok emanates from everything, until the discovery of these crystals, magic remained the purview of mages alone.

Like the mafia, but with mages.


Now, magic has become more abundant, and has affected how people live their lives in a lot of ways. However, by putting the crystals into play, we also alter things away from potentially going down the utopian route. Amassing crystals, which would be the source of power for the technological, has become what drives nations. This leaves room for strife in the world, which is a necessary part of any adventure, or story.

We could also say that the crystals ability to absorb shok is limited. They can only hold so much, and need time, maybe even years, to adsorb more and become fully recharged. While shok is a renewable resource, having these crystals constantly drained, and set to refill, limits the amount of shok that mages have to draw on from the atmosphere, forcing them to change how they operate, perhaps even having to augment their spell casting ability by way of mechanical means. It also creates a sense of uncertainty, as people begin asking just how infinite the supply of shok actually will end up being.

Oh, hey, look at that. We’ve set up possible story threads, just by discussing how magic works in this world. Neat, huh?

Now, as for how it works with the technology, it’s obviously a power source. Rather than wind, or dams, the shok crystals are harnessed to provide electricity, so we’re going to have power lines, and poles, as well as not having to rely on candles and torchlight. The characters we end up following will have access to things like flashlights, which radically alters any fantasy world in major ways.

Just ask any group of D&D players what their party would give for a damn flashlight.

Man, a strong gust of wind would suck right now.

We can also surmise that the world doesn’t use other fossil fuels, like coal, or oil. So while we can have trains, and even very early forms of automobiles, they are going to be powered by shok crystals, and work somewhat differently. Just how isn’t all that important, as none of us really want to get to deep into the various mechanics and engineering of complex machinery just now. Maybe later, we’ll make a few points about oil still having a use, but it not being mass gathered, but you see how this can still turn into a sticky situation if we dive to deep, too early. We’re just painting broad strokes right now, after all.

Okay, so, shok, the crystals, mining, all driving technological advancement, but limiting the supply of magic energy available, creating a plethora of opportunities for story telling. That’s some decent stuff.

We’re not quite done with the large scale work, though. There’s a few other things we want to address. Again, just in broad terms. Specifics come later, after you have a firm handle on the major elements. So, the next thing to think about would be the various races, and how they interact.

It’d be a stretch to say everyone lives happily together. There are probably places in the world that are multi-racial, and even multicultural, but at this point, I doubt social thought has progressed as fast as technological thought has. So, odds are, we could say that most nations are divided by race. Humans, Elves, and Dwarves have established large cultural centers, and built countries that reflect their cultural values, more or less.

Other races, like Halflings, and Gnomes, probably don’t have their own country, exactly, but rather have adapted to become part of other cultures, or live on the fringes of those societies, basically run over by the larger races. For now, let’s say that in most parts of the world, they live on the fringes, and are somewhat disenfranchised. We can get more into that later, but there’s fodder there for good storytelling, so I’m content to let that be the status quo for now.

Typical human-centric bullshit, man!

There are other races, as well, such as the Tieflings and Dragonborn of Fifth Edition D&D. Since I’m building this out like a campaign setting, let’s go ahead and say that those guys are around, as well, and over time, have developed their own cultural attitudes, and nations, as well. Just to spice things up.

Half Elves, and Half Orcs, yeah, those guys have it even harder than the Halflings and Gnomes. They are social pariahs in most places, and have to work twice as hard, for half as much. While this might seem cruel, the harsh reality is, in any world, there’s always somebody who ends up on the outside, or being treated as lesser for the most superficial of reasons. It also gives the world flaws, and room to explore those flaws in thoughtful ways.

What about the rest, though? You know. Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, and those monstrous humanoid races that populate every fantasy setting as the bad guys? How’d they fair in all this? Good question, imaginary student person!

Let’s say that as the various races began establishing cultural centers, and expanding into nations, those races were pushed back, and eventually, for the most part, subdued and moved to nice reservations where they can watch some shred of their former cultural identity slowly fade into nostalgia. This isn’t true for all of them everywhere, but in general, let’s decide now that this is the state of things.

This accomplishes two things. First, it changes how they may act within the world, from just being savage bad monster people, to giving their anger and attitudes towards the other races some context, which adds depth to the world setting. Second, it knocks a bit of the golden glow of the typically “goodly” attitude that humans, Elves, and Dwarves are treated with in most fantasy. It adds a layer of complexity, and suddenly washes the whole world in less certain morality.

This all stuff writers thrive on, by the way, so it’s not just me being a dick. Writers, in general, are terrible people, who see the world in awful ways.

Madoka 1
Basically, we’re all this bastard.

This brings us to the last of the broad strokes we need to paint. How divinity works. In any fantasy setting, there is almost always a pantheon of Gods, clerics, and the like. It’s a staple of the genre, so we do need to address that.

Rather than just having a single pantheon of Gods that everyone accepts, however, let’s change things up by having each culture have their own view on divinity. Humans have their gods, Dwarves their gods, Elves theirs, and so on. Maybe some places have established monotheism, creating severe ideological rifts with their neighboring nations. Perhaps there is a place in the world that has completely abandoned worship of gods in favor of advancing science, technology, and engineering. Then, of course, there’s the subdued humanoid races, who have their own religious views, which have been badly co-opted, and perhaps even stolen, by the more advanced races.

So much you can do there, it’s crazy.

This will serve to differentiate each cultural, as well as divide the races more as we delve deeper. Some places within human lands may hold one deity as more important than another place does, creating different social norms. I’m sure you get the picture on how this is going to radically affect things down the line, and it may even seem like taking on way too much, but as we get further into it, you’ll start seeing how easy it actually is to establish things, without ever having to get too crazy in detail, and still have it all feel fleshed out.

The big affect this has at this point, however, is that we have to establish a difference between what is usually seen as arcane magic, and what we have now introduced as divine magic. These are two really different things, so with what we’ve already established, we now have to draw a line.

No Capes
Uh… yeah… that line.

Arcane magic, or shok, is not the same as divine magic. Divine magic is granted to divine spellcasters by gods, so while most mages are suffering under the lesser amount of shok in the air, divine casters are chugging right along, completely unaffected. Clerics will not have to turn to mechanical augmentation of their spell casting. In order to offset this, though, let’s say that the massive changes brought about by the boom in technological advancement has caused a downturn in faithful adherence, so clerics are a rarity in the world. Not many people still possess the faith necessary to become such a powerful servant of a divine entity.

Druids, on the other hand, are really hating life. Typically, Druids draw their magic from the natural world around them. With shok mining stripping into the earth, much of their magical ability is fading, and it is becoming harder for them to cast spells at all. Even the very tradition is becoming less accepted, and like clerics, Druids are a fading remnant of a bygone era, like the samurai were towards the end of feudal Japan.

That’s actually a great comparison, in a lot of ways. Druids are an often unwelcome remnant of a dying era, and you could even establish that in some parts of the world, they are unwelcome, or even outlawed. This allows them to keep their rebel loner attitude, and kind of turns them into eco warriors in the face of expanding industry.

Hey, this is getting fun. We’ve got a lot of plates spinning now. Plenty of room to take the world in a lot of interesting directions, while still having some set rules that will let us flesh it out in a sensible, cohesive way.

Yes, I made pretty much all of this up as I wrote this. Like I said, I’m a professional.

So, that’s how you set up some broad strokes to a world. We’ve only scratched the surface, of course, but we’ve ended up with something rather interesting, that has a lot of potential. Next month, we’ll start filling in some of this with detail, but for now, we’ve got enough to start.

Which brings me to my last bit. What do you think we should name this world? Think about it, throw out some suggestions, if you like, and when we come back to this, we’ll start exploring things a bit more fully.

Till then, have fun playing with this in your own head.

Or keep wondering what the fuck just happened.

3 thoughts on “Write Right: Building A World (Part 1: Broad Strokes)

  1. World Building is one of those traps I tend to fall into when thinking about writing. I start getting really into thinking about the world and before I know it I’m out of time and haven’t written anything on the story, but I do have a very intensely detailed setting should I ever get time to write a story there.


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