Updated: Jul 7, 2022
You brew a pot of tea, chase the cat off your desk, and settle down to write. And you’re immediately overcome with writer’s block.
Quality world building – whether for your homebrew tabletop RPG or your novel – can be both one of the most fulfilling parts of storytelling, and one of the most overwhelming. Here are the four strategies that helped me write the Adventurer’s Agency over the last year and a half.
Check out Adventurer's Agency on Kickstarter on May 31st
It Starts with a Feeling
Imagine a quiet frontier farming village. Sheepherders raise their flocks and till the land. Their faces are creased from the sun and their fingernails are black with the rich soil they farm. Travelers and merchants are a rare sight this far into the country. The farmers, after the day’s work is finished, stop by the tavern for a frothy pint and some laughs by the hearth. However, the forest beyond the pasture is never far from their minds. Deep shadows, dark secrets and at night, strange sounds. No one who ventures into it returns to town.
What feelings did the village conjure? Calm? Comfort? Pride for the farmers? Did the forest make you feel unease or fear or maybe curious? It may have made you feel something different or nothing at all. You want to identify a feeling or a set of feelings. That is the feeling you will be basing your world on.
Having this emotional touchstone will give you the opportunity to stamp a unique feeling on the setting within the adventure and help both you and your players get into your characters’ shoes a little easier. Do your characters live in fear under the oppressive tyranny of a powerful lord who terrorizes them? Do they live happily in a quiet farming village, halcyon and serene, where the only conflicts are minor problems arising from day-to-day life?
When creating the Adventurer’s Agency, I wanted to create a fantastical version of ancient Rome: grand, cosmopolitan, the beating heart of an empire. When I imagine it, I feel a sense of awe, curiosity, potential. In this way, the megacity of Blumont was born.
Once you have this emotional touchstone, build on it, whatever it is. Having multiple feelings attached to different parts of the world you are creating will make it larger and complex. Working from a single emotion is like an instrument that can play just one note. Going back to the farmers, what would the village be without the forest and vice versa?
Follow that Emotion
Think about our village. Where is the emotional energy? Perhaps with the leader, the tavern keeper, or one of the farmers. We mentioned that no one who goes into the forest returns. Who vanished? Do they have loved ones still in the village?
Keep asking questions about the characters and the setting and coming up with answers. Let’s say a farmer’s son went into the forest on a dare and he never came back. What has the boy’s family done since then? Did they go after him? Bring the matter to the town’s leader? Maybe they tried to form a search party, but no one would go. And where is the boy now? Was he kidnapped by bandits, captured by a hungry troll, or is he simply lost and still wandering through the woods?
The deeper you drill into the individual characters, their backgrounds, their motivations, and how they got to where they are, the more the world constructs naturally around the feeling(s) with which you started. This portion of the world building takes time, but it will pay off in dividends later.
It's important to have a range of emotional notes through your setting to provide both balance and contrast. In the Lord of the Rings, the despair and terror of Mordor is nothing without Frodo and Sam’s hope of returning to their beloved Shire.
How is Your World Unique?
The universe of Star Wars has the Force, a force of nature which exemplifies the struggle between good and evil in the galaxy. George R. R. Martin killed off the lawful good hero character before the end of the first book and left us to figure out who to root for. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time heavily incorporates themes from eastern religion and philosophy.
Identify a feature that sets your world apart from other fictional settings. It can be as specific as a new force of nature or as broad as an overall philosophical theme, but it should emphasize and support the impact of your initial emotional vision.
For the Adventurer’s Agency, I chose a middle ground between focused and broad, incorporating Ley lines and the Passage Stone network. I built these devices into the lore of the world rather than them being a focus of the story. They facilitate the type of story I want to tell, and my hope is they help to show the feeling of awe that I want to convey.
Follow the Ripples
Think of your unique thing as being like a pebble that you toss into water. It doesn’t just land in the water and sink to the bottom, the pebble causes rings of ripples that spread across the entire pond. Imagine that in our forest, there in a dimensional rift that formed at the base of an ancient tree. This rift connects your world to another world of pure evil. It corrupts the forest, the creatures either fleeing or driven mad by its influence. Birds fly around the forest rather than over it. The trees weep black sap and the air in the forest is humid and stinks of rotting flesh. And in the midst of the horror, the boy’s small tracks lead toward the rift.
This exercise is like the second bullet point, diving down a rabbit hole and seeing where it goes. For example, in the show Stranger Things, the existence of an alternative reality called the Upside Down has led to monsters from the Upside Down attacking the protagonists, children disappearing into it, a secret government agency attempting to study and control it, and children whose powerful psychic abilities are only possible because of their connection to the Upside Down. Farther in and farther down.
In the Adventurer’s Agency, Passage Stones aren’t just the reason for the Pratean Empire's success, but the reason the empire exists at all. Ley Lines don’t just affect the Empire, they affect the entire world, impacting the effects of spellcasting, influencing the environment, and even changing the abilities and appearance of the world’s inhabitants.
Use the feeling that prompted your world as your compass. Go back to it if you find that you’re lost or that you’ve written yourself into a corner. Let it guide the things you add to your world. Think about what makes your world special and imagine the ripples changing the surface of your world. And keep exploring your world deeper by finding the things that show the emotion and following the ripples.
- Alex Pirrotta