In order to build a world I like to start at its very beginning: creation. And for most fantasy settings, that means its gods, or the more primal forces that birthed the gods, anyway. Once I have the deities established, I can worry about demi-gods, heroes, clans/tribes, kingdoms, and networks, depending on whether I want a golden-, silver-, bronze-, or silicon-age of mythology feel.
I grew up a huge fan of world mythology and religions, so cosmologies and pantheons seem like the natural starting point for me, and there are countless cultures to draw from depending on the feel I want to imbue to my setting.
To begin with, I’ll explore the nature of deity as it pertains to the magic and the features of the world. A monotheistic world looks different from a dualistic one, which is again different from a polytheistic world or even a world where the gods have died. The types of deities reflect the metaphysics of what is possible in that world, which informs the varieties of magic available. I typically don’t differentiate between arcane and divine power sources in my universes, and if I do, it’d be more a matter of conviction–do you believe your magic will work because you have confidence in yourself or faith in a higher power?
So I begin to sketch out the head figures in a pantheon. To illustrate the process, I’ve chosen to create a polytheistic world where the sun, moon, and stars are revered as separate and powerful entities that watch over mankind, with a fourth power–darkness, or earth–that must be appeased or combated. I can choose to consider or ignore the usual associations human cultures have placed on these celestial bodies, i.e. sun as masculine and order, female as moon or stars and chaos. I’ve been reading a lot about shamanism and totems lately, so I decide to turn them into animals as opposed to anthropomorphizing them (theropomorphize, if we use the greek prefix for beast, ther-, but that doesn’t seem to be a common word). After drawing heavily from Celtic pagan mythos and associations, I end up settling on these Gods for a Highlander.
In this world now I have a very druidic-feeling magic system that keys into the different D&D 4e power sources (admission: they were originally made for a 4e game). Now I can begin to ask more questions, like whether there are different tribes that venerate one over the others, or strata within a single society that each correlate with one of the deities, like you see in the Proto Indo European religious system. Do these deities walk the world, and what happens to the mortals they interact with? Do they ever fight, and what happens when they do?
From these, I can begin to get a sense of the history of the world and the social makeup of the people within it, and also to brainstorm potential plot ideas on a macro level (because I do so love epic stories). Perhaps in one campaign, Nathair is plotting the overthrow of her siblings and has given some of her power to those in the world to blot out the sun, sky, and stars for good and wrap the world in eternal night. In another, the priest class of Sailetheach have seen dire potents in the stars, and champions of each of the gods need to unite in order to stave off some imbalance that threatens the world.
Another example of worldbuilding that is considerably more futuristic and sci-fi again goes back to the world’s cosmological truths, but asks the question, what if Yggdrasil is the codename for a mystical and mythical network that spans dimensions? What if humans can log in to this mainframe via hyper-advanced technology called a Bifrost? And what if the gods could manifest in Midgard through machines? Who knows about these intrusions on both sides, and who seeks to control them? What would witchcraft look like in this world and how could a malicious virus named Fenrir begin to corrupt reality?
I’d love to run a Scion game that takes the Ragnarok premise and turns it into a cyberpunk metaphysical phantasia complete with mecha and Matrix-like virtual realities. Like Numenera, it uses the “science as magic” paradigm with a hefty dose of mythology for good measure. I could possibly pull it off using Shadowrun as well, depending on what slant I wanted to give it. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it riffs off of the ideas from the Ah! My Goddess! movie, but goes beyond the romantic comedy that Koosuke Fujishima’s series is primarily.
Worldbuilding for me is really the first step in building a campaign, which I will cover in tomorrow’s post. As you can see, these are really just stage-setting questions and don’t consider how the PCs, NPCs, and Factions key into these premises.
How do you approach worldbuilding and what’s your process? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on starting campaigns.
The featured image art is of N. K. Jemisin’s Three by Neondragonart.