Book Review, Books!, Inspiration, Signal Boost, Weekend Writer, Writing

Weekend Writer: The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding – Part One

Hey all, Dani here.

Welcome back to another wonderful Sunday, which means that it is time for another Weekend Writer post. I’m really enjoying writing these, even if the pressure to make them good and a worthwhile experience for us all makes me a bit stressed and anxious. Honestly it’s completely worth it. I think anything that a person puts a lot of work and effort into is something that probably makes them a bit anxious and nervous and stressed.

But this month’s book is a bit different than some of my previous ones. It was released by the wonderful Kobold Press, which specializes in books and products for role-playing games. Now I know that might seem a bit off topic for these posts on writing, but when I was delving deep into the realm of writing fantasy, I quickly realized that there weren’t many helpful books on Worldbuilding. It’s like fantasy guides want to gloss over this aspect of creating a setting for an epic fantasy adventure. So…if you know any fantasy worldbuilding books, let me know. I’d definitely be interested in checking them out. Thankfully many of the advice I’ve found amongst Kobold Press’s many releases are just as valid for RPGs as they are for fantasy fiction.

It would be really cool for all of us who want to write creatively (whether that is poetry, stories, novellas, novels, screenplays, RPGs, video games, whatever) to be able to help uplift and inspire each other, and keep ourselves motivated to strive for our dreams, so I decided to start this blog series here. This series will be a lot of me working through books on writing and creativity, maybe doing and sharing some writing exercises, and possibly doing some writing based discussion posts. It’s going to be an adventure for sure, and I hope it helps you as much as it is helping me.

Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding

Book Details

Format: paperback

Pages: 124

Publisher: Kobold Press

Publication Date: December 23, 2012

ISBN: 1936781115 (ISBN13: 9781936781119)


The Essential Elements for Building a World
Roleplaying games and fantasy fiction are filled with rich and fascinating worlds: the Forgotten Realms, Glorantha, Narnia, R’lyeh, Middle-Earth, Barsoom, and so many more. It took startling leaps of imagination as well as careful thought and planning to create places like these: places that readers and players want to come back to again and again.
Now, eleven of adventure gaming’s top designers come together to share their insights into building worlds that gamers will never forget. Learn the secrets of designing a pantheon, creating a setting that provokes conflict, determining which historical details are necessary, and so much more.
Take that creative leap, and create dazzling worlds of your own!

Essays by Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Monte Cook, Jeff Grubb, Scott Hungerford, David “Zeb” Cook, Chris Pramas, Jonathan Roberts, Michael A. Stackpole, Steve Winter, with an introduction by Ken Scholes.

My Thoughts

All right, so this book contains an Introduction and then 18 essays, so I’m going to cover 6 essays with each post, so I don’t feel like I’m rushed when it comes to discussing the topic matter. I can absolutely say that I have implemented several of the tips and tricks found within this book into my own writing, and I think it actually has helped me be better about creating more believable worlds.

“What is Setting Design?” by Wolfgang Baur

Baur begins this essay by talking about a D&D paid design he did for a friend for $2 when he was 12 years old, which I think is a cute anecdote to jump into the whole process and shows that you don’t have to be an adult or well-versed and experienced in a realm or lore or anything else to make a capable setting. All you need is locations, characters, and conflict…well, on the basic end of the spectrum anyway. Honestly sometimes it feels like this is how I handle designing settings. It is a bare-bones skeleton of setting and description that is given the breath of life by those who inhabit it.

Now that he’s more experienced in it all, Baur admits that to create a background or setting (he says for gaming, but it works just as well with fiction writing) you must provide a rich but not unlimited amount of options for the players/GM (or characters for fiction). A successful design also establishes conflict and motivation for both the heroes and the villains.

He then goes on to break it all down, starting with “Background and Dynamite.” Baur doesn’t even like the term worldbuilding, as it implies an encyclopedia approach where you must know everything, which is not good because then you are also providing all sorts of useless information along with the random golden nuggets of information. This makes sense, though I know plenty of us readers actually enjoy all sorts of random and useless knowledge sometimes too. It’s occasionally a useful way to distract the reader from the other more important information, thereby leading to some sort of false lead. It can be fun, so long as it’s not overdone. For gaming anyway, Baur suggests leaving some things undefined so the game master can adapt the setting as needed for their story. I’d say for fiction writing that would be like leaving some things open for fan fiction interpretation.

Next he discusses “Conflict and Instigation.” Good instigation is sources of human conflict, things like love, war, betrayal, oppression, religion, lust for power, and a whole lot more. Basically, you want to build a tinderbox and then let the characters strike the match.

After that he moves into talking about setting history, and for gaming not all of the characters are going to care about the epic deeds of 10,000 years before when giants and dragons had an epic conflict that led to the destruction of other societies. So, knowing the history is helpful to the game master or author, but not necessarily be helpful for the players or the reader. Occasional lore drops that are relevant to the story can be useful, but again, balance it with action and conflict and other things. You’ll need to know more details about current or more recent events than ancient ones.

He pretty much ends his essay talking about how worldbuilding is separate from game mechanics, which isn’t all that relevant for this post, but if you create a dynamic world then it doesn’t matter how how many times the rules setting changes.

“Different Kinds of Worldbuilding” by Monte Cook

This particular essay talks about how worldbuilding is actually different depending on whether you are coming at it as a novelist or as a game designer. For novelists worldbuilding is creating a backdrop. While there is detail and the world seems to be a living and breathing entity, it is still just a backdrop, just enough for the readers to understand the story.

On the other hand, designing a world for a game means having a huge world with a lot going on. Different players or campaign ideas will have different goals and motives, so game designers have to plan for a lot of different possibilities.

So while a novel might mention a ruined city in the middle of a desert, but the game setting will need maps and encounters and enough detail for the characters to recognize it as a fleshed out setting.

The rest of the essay really focuses on the game side of things, where it talks about the game master working with the players to flesh out the setting more, but I think that even a novelist can get some tips of information for that. Allow the characters in the novel to talk about places or people or events to help flesh the world out even more. I think this is especially true if the story comes from a limited character perspective instead of an omniscient third person narrator.

“Worldbuilding Inside Out and Outside In” by Chris Pramas

This essay by Chris Pramas details a different approach to the idea of worldbuilding. You can either do this by going inside out or outside in, which I realize doesn’t explain much, but we’ll delve deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of both so they’ll be explained a lot better.

Inside Out is the more practical option because you build what you need as you go, and this works for games as well as for books. You start with the village or town or city where we encounter the character or characters, and then as conflict arises or a quest begins, we can expand to other cities or other countries or other continents as needed. And as you get to each locale you can figure out what sort of leader/ruler is there, what sort of religions, what races, what schools, what shops, and all of these things that flesh out the world.

Outside In design lets you think big from the beginning. You start with the cosmos and the world at large, formulating a whole planet or continent or country, and then start working your way in, focusing mostly on the large overarching details. But by being so broad on the details, you miss out on the small things that might be more relevant to the heroes-to-be.

Of course you can also mix and match these two options as necessary, which I feel is pretty much how I handle the idea of worldbuilding. I’ve made broad worlds with the generalizations of the continents and countries, of the religions and politics, but then as I discover where my main characters are starting or traveling, then I flesh out those areas with enough detail to make them informative and realistic.

“How Real is Your World? On History and Setting” by Wolfgang Baur

Wolfgang Baur is one of the big writers and editors in the role playing game world. He has seven essays in this Worldbuilding book alone, so I definitely pay attention to what he writes, as it is clear that he has been doing this for a while and therefore has a lot of great insight.

Anyway, in this essay he details the joy of escaping reality for fantasy, but also needing that fantasy to feel real. We need to see archetypes of characters that are grounded in the myths and legends of our real-world past, and we need to see characters and heroes and villains we can relate to because they are a reflection of reality.

Obviously fantasy regularly utilizes magic, but the magic also has to have some semblance of logic to it or it just feels unrealistic.

Basically, as writers or game designers, we have to consider our own choices as they line up with the audience we are delivering the story to.

This is actually a pretty long essay and I actually definitely recommend it, so I’m not going to do a lot of delving into it, but it covers fantasy based on Europe, Asia, real-world, modern, pure fantasy such as anchored fantasy or wild-eyed wahoo fantasy, and even low-fantasy options. So I think this is a worthwhile read no matter which version of fantasy you want to build for your own adventures.

“Bringing History to Life” by Keith Baker

In this essay, we learn about developing extensive histories but also how that relates to the players or characters. Not every element of your world’s history will impact the characters, but those are there to help the world feel real.

As you develop your setting, think of why the people/countries/nations of the world are fighting? Are they trying to conquer, to achieve freedom, to take down a dark lord…what are the reasons for the conflict? These reasons can be simple or immensely complex; that is up to both you and the characters. Actually for some characters the reason could be simple, while others find it to be a convoluted mess of a situation.

Another important historical detail to think of with your setting is the existence of lost civilizations. Artifacts exist. Ancient cultures might still have relics or ruins around. As technology and civilization evolve, remnants of the old will still exist, even as they are replaced by the new cultures.

Also, consider the legends and stories of your world. What tales do the bards sing of in the taverns or at festivals? These legends and tales can expand on the cultures of the world, but also consider the impact that the characters have on legends-in-progress, and how history affects not just us but also our creations. This essay doesn’t suggest to directly transplant real historical events into your fantasy realm, but you can use those situations to inspire fictional ones in your own world.

“Apocalypso: Gaming After the Fall” by Jeff Grubb

While talking about fantasy, I guess apocalyptic fiction is also relevant. Not all fantasies take place in some seemingly idyllic land. Some of these fantasy fictions take place after some sort of fall, where war or pollution or some magical chaos have left the world devastated.

This actually does reflect back to the previous essay, where history helps to shape and inform the current story. Obviously for the ruins to exist for the heroes to explore, some civilization or society had to be ended. Did that happen because of some sort of apocalyptic event?

Also, you can approach history in different ways. The characters could honor the knowledge of the past, they can avoid it, and they can even ignore it entirely, which would make it so future generations have no idea about events of the past.

These are all aspects of worldbuilding to consider, and I find these essays to be fascinating. Come back next week where I talk about the next six essays, which talk about map-making, creating societies, developing religions, and more.

All right, that is all from me for today, but I’ll be back soon with more geeky goodness, including book and writing chats.

Part Two / Part Three

Links to Other Weekend Writer Posts

Introduction — Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer — Embrace Your Weird by Felicia Day — The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell — No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty — The War of Art by Steven Pressfield — On Being Stuck by Laraine Harris — The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding edited by Janna Silverstein —

Where to Get a Copy

If you found this writing advice helpful, you can pick up your own copy of this book from AmazonBarnes & Noble, Book Depository, directly from Kobold Press, or your local independent bookstore through IndieBound.

You can also check with your local library.

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