I thought I'd share here a short list of four maxims that I use for good fantasy world building to flesh it out in a believable way that makes a setting come to life as a distinct world.
1. Internal Consistency, not Realism, is the benchmark of a believable fantasy world.
You don't need to make your world realistic to make it believable. What is key is that the elements in your world are internally consistent. Whenever you add an element to your campaign, be at a race, city, country or person, always ask yourself the following questions:
Where did it come from?
How does it affect the elements around it?
How do the elements around it affect it?
Also take time once in a while to consider how the various layers of your world interacts. If ogres are accepted members of society, this is probably gonna affect fields of hard labour and what makes a better cityguard than a band of ogres? In my world for example, there are no half-elves or half-orcs. This affects how closely elves and humans interact and segregates them more as races.
You don't neccesarily need to write these things down, but you need to have an idea of this as you go along. In fact, as you add more and more elements to your world, it becomes a very helpful tool for you as it becomes much easier to place new elements in your world in suitable places where you know it makes sense for them to be there.
The real world is obviously a great source of inspiration for this as it is a model example of a world that is internally consistent, but you need to consider how things such as gods, magic etc. affect natural and sociological laws. In fact, in a world that really is created by gods, it might even make sense to disregard natural sciences as valid. A quick real world example are the fundamentalist Christian sections of American society that have a hard time coming to terms with theories like evolution. Why? Because it doesn't mesh with how God is said to have created the world.
2. Focus on what can be known.
Unless you are in it for timewasting, don't bother wasting time on details no one is ever going to know about. It doesn't matter where your main continent lies in relation to the southpole unless global exploration features in your world (only world I have ever seen such a detail relevant for is Mystara).
Contrary to how it might initially appear, this isn't an encouragement to be light in detail. But make sure that you focus your level of detail on aspects of the world that players (or readers, if you write stories set in the world) come into contact with. If you combine this with paying attention to internal consistency and find ways of illuminating of these details connect with other elements in your world this helps players connect with your world and makes it come alive, as they interact with living systems instead of random elements.
Focusing on what can be known is focusing on demonstrating your world to your players, so as to not merely be a geographical and cultural backdrop for adventure, but a setting that permeates their actions and lives at every step in a meaningul and coherent way. This doesn't require the level of detail of Tolkien's Middle Earth. In fact, one easy trick to use is:
3. As made above, so seen below.
This is really just an extention of the two maxims above, but one worth mentioning on its own. When you devote time to thinking about the more general elements of your world, cosmology, how magic works, how nature works etc., don't just take time to conceive how this connects with the world on a lesser scale, but make sure to create elements that actively demonstrate these things.
If magic works because of the power of words, make this an integral part of the culture. Nicknames are common because one's true name is not lightly revealed and knowledge literally becomes power.
If the weather and terrain is governed by spirits (or are spirits), how does this affect settlement and agriculture? Perhaps an empire has grown rich because it subdued its spirits to make the land bountiful. Maybe dwarves communicate with the mountains to provide them riches through secret runes and rituals known only to them.
This makes it easy to create unique elements that permeate every facet of your world and distinguish it from other worlds in the experience of your players.
4. Be willing to disregard consistency in favour of a good idea.
This might seem like an odd maxim, but the fact is that it is often far easier to throw a good idea into your world and then adjust its internal consistency to make it work than it is to come up with a good idea that will fit into the consistency you've conceived of your world so far. This is something to pay attention to mostly in the preliminary proccess of creation. Once you open the world up to others, this obviously only works with elements known only to you.
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Four very strong points that are useful in world building. Worth repeating many times.
Add to the 1A or 101 course work.
What Moon said!
But like Mourngrymns recent treatise on High Level Campaigning, this entry will mostly be read by veteran world-builders, not aspiring ones, which is a shame.
My recent treatise eh? It wasn't that long was it?
I want to use this to make my own new worlds.
Great. Short and sweet with plenty of info to give any creator an extra kick!
'...create elements that actively demonstrate these things.' That line stood out the most to me and is very true, and often neglected.
A little polish and more examples would make this an easy 5 for me.
See, now the rest of you know how easy it is to do an article. Now go out and post one.
The problem is, only a few people will actually read them and comment on them which is a shame and hence nearly not worth it. Look at al lthe articles we have placed up since v2.0, comment/ read ratio vs a normal submisison of another kind if not even.
This is a really good and to the point way of looking at a difficult concept that a lot of GM's go through. As Muro said, this would best help the new GM's.
Wow, those are really good maxims!
I would add a fifth one which I've heard somewhere: For every setting element you create, also create some secret element behind it or related to it. This gives the PCs something to constantly discover or investigate. Some of the secrets might be earth-shattering ("the gods are really just powerful mortals?") but many will be minor ("ah, so the mayor has been in league with the bandits all along..."). Don't overdo it: if you can't think of a good secret, don't jam a lame one in there just to meet the quota; the point of this guideline is to create a setting with a lot of subtlety and mystery, not turn the campaign into an ongoing Scooby Doo episode. (As a point of procedure, I think it's easier to write down this secret knowledge in a separate place, so that you can show your "setting guide" to interested players without having them learn all the secrets.)
(BTW, I got here through Johnn Four's Role-Playing Tips Weekly, so hopefully some noob GMs did get exposure to these helpful maxims.)
That would be Ray Winninger's Second Law of Dungeoncraft. His first law is 'never create more than you have to', which is basically maxim number two, here.
A good one I have somehow overlooked. Nice job B9anders and thank you 77IM for bumping this, as well as visiting Strolens!
This article has been featured on Roleplayingtips.com, Issue 441. Congratulations to the author!
Very neat. Nice to get some recognition. :)
Very nicely written...
I'm in the process of cobbling together a world now. This article has given me some guide to bring it all together.
I am a novice GM (or rather, I consider myself novice, since my game has undergone two edition changes since I last GM'd, and even then I used a published world), and I think this article will help me greatly. I have read the other worldbuilding artlicles here (and elsewhere), and there almost too much advice to remember. These four maxims are much easier to keep in mind, and seem to be distillations of many other pieces of advice.
I will definitely save this in order to help me with what I plan to submit.
Saved and bookmarked, and I want to mention that I am a novice DM, so this will indeed come in handy.
Also, internal consistency is a major pet peeve of mine, so its gratifying to see someone else start off by stressing its importance.