By Adeline K. Piercy
As described in my last post, Dungeons & Dragons was a key tool that I used to build my fantasy world and develop my plot. I volunteered to run a home-brew game for my friends and in exchange got to see them interact with the world I built. I learned a lot from the process and honestly consider Dungeons & Dragons resources to be an essential part of my writing took-kit. From map making sites to YouTube channels to character building sheets, there is so much that writers can use to build out their world and the characters in them.
Now that you have a map made, it’s time to establish what the world on that map looks like from the ground including magic systems, politics, conflict, culture, religion, economy and resources. For a quick overview of the things you may want to consider when building a world, check out this video.
What is Dungeons & Dragons?
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a tabletop role playing game–one person, the Dungeon Master (DM), leads the players through a world of adventure and storytelling. Each player plays a character that has their own background, skills, and capabilities. The world that the players interact with can come from a pre-generated game, written by the professionals who designed the original Dungeons & Dragons universe and associated stories, or it can be a home-brew game like the one I made for my friends.
Soft vs. Hard World-building
Tim Hickson sums up world-building best with his video on Soft vs. Hard world-building. He looks at Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away as an example of soft world-building, where he demonstrates how little Miyazaki tells us and why it is important to the worldbuilding. There is no explanation about why there is a hierarchy between humans and spirits, why Yubaba runs the bath house, why the spirits are the way they are — there is no logic, but rather ideas are liberated so that the audience is focused on the feeling of the story. The gaps that he leaves create an “other worldly experience” that is part of what makes the films so magical for viewers–explaining it all would detract from the wonder of the world and detract from Chihiro’s experience of being lost.
Alternatively, hard world-building prioritizes different things. It explains in detail how things work with history, systems, and justification for everything created. A prime example is The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is easy for writers to feel like they have to include everything in their book and if it builds the atmosphere, tone and mood that you want to create, then go for it.
The purpose of world-building is to “create atmosphere, tone and mood,” and this can be done through either method of world-building.
Cults and Religion
Religion is a great device that can create tension and depth in your worldbuilding. You can check out this video on building religions and cults for Dungeons & Dragons. The creator makes great points about the difference between cults and religion, the difference in how one would worship a goddess of the ocean versus the god of secrets, and more. Does your cult follow an individual, a god or an idea? What is the high level concept that makes the group unique?
Tim Hickson’s video on worldbuilding religions, specifically polytheistic ones, is a great overview of the complications of religion and uses pop culture with Avatar: The Last Airbender and Game of Thrones as references to help explore his points.
Another source is this video which goes further in depth discussing gods and culture, and how religion shapes culture. While the video is a little long, there’s a lot of great information if building a religion is an important part of your world!
Class, Monarchy and Empires
Class systems, monarchies, the establishment of empires that take over all of Europe and then crumble into nothing (ahem, Alex, you failed) are key components to create a rich world for your story. Tim Hickson discusses the topics of monarchy, empires, and class and wealth, all of which are useful when deciding what your world looks like. He uses both fictional and historical examples to discuss the variation and complexities of these systems, including how communication works in an empire and why monarchies are sometimes overthrown.
Magic systems are extremely fun to build and are a key component of fantasy world building. The following videos on magic in writing and world-building by Tim Hickson are not necessarily D&D specific, but they are amazing resources and definitely worth watching.
Writing Elemental Magic Systems: A look at Avatar: The Last Airbender and how elemental magic fits into character groups and serves as a metaphor for character traits. However, beware the pre-established associations: fire is usually connected to temper, water to emotions. It can also explain the world, such as in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the winter shows how the world is oppressed.
Soft Magic Systems: Similar to soft world-building, magic can also be vaguely explained. Magic is worked into a good narrative by focusing on tension, point of view and unpredictability. For example, in Harry Potter, there is a spell for literally anything you can think of, but characters are limited to what they can do–Harry can’t just make up a spell on the go. Because of this, readers know Harry’s limitations while the overall magic system is still soft. Another example is Gandalf in LOTR–we don’t really know the limits of what he can do, but we still know that there are limitations and that what adds tension to the story.
Hard Magic Systems: Similar to hard world-building, hard magic abides by laws and systems where the reader knows the limitations of the system at all times. Hard magic allows the reader to feel like they are part of the story and can predict how magic can be used to solve problems. For example, in Avatar: The Last Airbender, we learn that water bending can be drawn from nature, blood, bodies of water, and the air. Naturally, it made sense that Katara broke free by using water from her sweat.
All of these sources were great inspiration to me as I was building my D&D world, but can very easily be used for fantasy worldbuilding in writing. While this is a very brief overview of all the aspects of a world to consider, it’s a foundation that can hopefully spark some ideas and get the process in motion (and hopefully inspire some laughs with all of the YouTube videos!)