Overview:

To start sharing your story with players, start with the basics. Here are questions budding game-creators can ask themselves to get started, along with resource lists for further reading.

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Long ago, thanks to worldbuilding, I discovered what it must be like to be a god. I stretched forth my hand and created continents and cultures, animals and cities, and sometimes entire worlds. On a whim, I changed the very shape of the universe itself⁠—altering the laws of physics and the nature of reality itself. If that’s not what a god does, then what is?

BYOG: Bring Your Own God

I did my worldbuilding in the gaming space, but the job description is closer to Genesis 1 than you might think. Maybe that’s why it appealed to me so much, back then—I was a very fervent Christian, and the Genesis myths fascinated me. Just like Yahweh himself in the myth, I’d work for a while to bring my vision to life. Then, I’d declare it fit for use in my game, or else, like him, I’d wipe it all out and start fresh.

Some of my worldbuilding produced sentient planets that did not like interlopers. To plant my humans on these worlds, I called forth science-fiction-style generation ships that had gone astray, similar to the 2018 movie Aniara.

YouTube video
Disturbing and absolutely lyrical: Aniara (2018) trailer

At other times in my worldbuilding, I created careful analogs of long-gone civilizations like Classical Rome. Sometimes, these analogs functioned as alternate-history settings, while at others I added significant changes like gods actually being real.

Worldbuilding is the creation of a game’s setting and places. And it is a much-beloved part of gaming, both online and tabletop. If you want players to enjoy your game, you need a setting that engages them in your story and supports the kind of play you want to foster. Worldbuilding is how you get there. Luckily, it’s loads of fun!

Captain Cassidy’s Gaming Lingo 101

GM: Game Master. Sometimes called Dungeon Master (DM). The person operating the game, making final calls on rule interpretation, and describing the outcomes of dice rolls.

TT, TTRPG: Tabletop roleplaying game. This usually means pens, pencils, paper, dice, actual people sitting fairly close together at a table, and a GM at the head of it with their GM screen.

PC: Player character. A character in the game who is operated by an actual person.

NPC: Non-player character. A character operated by the GM or by game code.

Roleplaying, RP: Sorta like being in a play, players assume the role of their characters. Their reactions in the game should be consistent with the character they’ve created.

Dungeon crawl: Generic dungeons full of treasure, traps, illusions, and monsters, all for PCs to wander around and loot. Often sparse on backstory but long on combat and action. Loads of fun in the right doses. In the early 1980s, TSR put out oodles of “dungeon modules” like Palace of the Silver Princess that worked as dungeon crawls. (Also, don’t miss the Boogie Woogie Mage on page 24 of that module.)

Campaign: The overarching storyline of the game itself. Think of a single game session as one episode of a TV show, while a campaign would a season of that show. The game’s setting would be the show as a whole.

Consider the playstyle you want to foster

Before you even begin worldbuilding, it’s worth considering what kind of play you want to foster in your game. I prefer more cooperative than competitive storytelling, meaning I’d rather help players tell an engrossing story they’ll remember for years rather than do my best to get their PCs killed during endless weekly dungeon crawls. I also like a little magic more than strict realism, and I like stories that include at least a little political intrigue and mystery.

Once you’ve worked those essentials out, you can move on to the setting itself.

If you want piracy on the high seas, you’ll need to create or find a setting that has features like bodies of water, coastal cities and forts, governments that can’t stop pirates (and may not even want to try; consider the privateers of Queen Elizabeth I’s day), and different kinds of ships that can engage in various kinds of water-based combat. You’ll probably want to emphasize combat in all its forms, with comparatively little intense interpersonal roleplaying.

By the same token, if you want a game rich in intrigue and intense political roleplaying, you’ll need courts, courtiers, factions, noble houses or the like, and lots of metaphorical footballs to punt and irons-in-fires that players can juggle. Combat might not be a huge big deal in this kind of game. But your colorful poison charts might be the talk of your town’s gaming circle.

Figuring out your setting’s backstory

Even a super-basic campaign in Medieval Analog-With-Magic World #35085 can feel stale if there’s not some overarching story stringing everything together.

One night in the early 2000s, my gaming group had someone call out that week. Unfortunately, we needed him for the next part of the campaign, so that meant putting things on hold. But the other people in the game wanted to do something. So as many GMs do in this situation, I ran a one-off game.

To build this game, I created a storyline around rescuing a princess from an evil necromancer. The necromancer wanted a war weapon her parents possessed, so he planned to use her to lure their special forces out to use it on him. That all sounds simple, and it kind of was, but I spent hours during my off-time that week designing a setting that made sense. It was a labor of love, and my gamers adored it. We even ended up playing a sequel to that one-off later.

Dispossessed nobles gathering armies to contend for their crowns, valiant knights fighting an evil god, monster hunters seeking ever-deadlier prey, steampunk archaeologists seeking the shocking truth of a vanished city, even the rescue of an imprisoned priest that turns into the rescue of that priest’s even-more-imprisoned god: they all have their various requirements in terms of worldbuilding.

The setting you create must support the play you want to foster. If you don’t have a fairly clear idea ahead of time about what that looks like, your worldbuilding may need a lot of fixing and amending later.

Choosing a game engine

Before you get too far into worldbuilding, it’s a good idea to consider what engine you’ll use for your game. Engines are the processes, mechanics, and rules for play.

A video game’s engine could be something like Unreal Engine 5. Or even Twine. Text-based online games, like MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and their many variants, have access to dozens of different customizable game engines. Follow your bliss!

Tabletop games might use the easily-customizable GURPS, the “Generic Universal Roleplaying System.” Or the d20 System. Or even something that favors big dramatic flourishes for Errol Flynn-style heroics, like what 7th Sea used to use before they switched to d20. If the gameworld isn’t heavy on magic and favors smaller-scale conflicts, maybe something like Harnworld’s rules would work better.

Making a homebrew game engine is way harder than just coming up with a setting. Though already-established engines can definitely have their problems, their creators and playtesters have generally worked through the worst of them. Even the most basic engine will save game designers loads of behind-the-scenes work.

Game engines often come with their own setting, and GMs can use them or not as they please. If the setting just doesn’t fit well with the kind of game you want to run, but you like the overall rules and they’ll support the kind of story you want to share with your players, then your worldbuilding can commence from there.

For that one-off game I mentioned above, I decided to use first-edition brown-box D&D as my engine. (When Dungeons & Dragons first came out in 1974, it was published in brown or white boxes.) As you might guess, this first-edition game was exceedingly simplistic. So it seemed perfect for our purpose. It was very different from our usual fare, and my players, who were fairly new to tabletop gaming, wouldn’t need to learn a whole lot to play it.

Worldbuilding from the bottom up: Start with the basics

A setting doesn’t usually just spring forth from a god’s forehead like Athena.

But sometimes it does. In the Elric of Melniboné gameworld, gods and powerful sorcerers have called forth its various countries from the swirling mists of sheer chaos, with the sourcebooks making clear that they might just do it again one day. This backstory tidily explains why the setting feels like such a mangled patchwork.

YouTube video
Looking at Stormbringer, by Runeslinger. A look at the rulebooks and setting.

But more often than not, a gameworld operates like the real one. Its various countries evolved over time. Likewise, its various cultures are the way they are for understandable reasons.

A desert society that operates on the near edge of starvation won’t function much like a society fed by lush farmland, rivers, and hunting grounds. The gods they worship won’t act much alike, either, and their governments will likely look a lot different as well. Resource scarcity impacts so many factors, from lifespan to education opportunities, but especially the likelihood of war and internal conflict.

For that matter, a gameworld featuring magic will look a lot different from one where magic isn’t real at all. Is it even actually magic, or are we talking more about divine intervention? Do the gods of the gameworld really exist? Do they ever intervene in human affairs, and if so, how and under what circumstances? By what mechanism does magic operate, and what are its rules? Or do priests play pretend while sorcerers fake everything, as happens in our own real world?

The answers to these basic questions will vastly impact your setting.

Or pick an established gameworld setting

Of course, the GM can also just pick a gameworld established already in fiction or media. These can be lifted as-is or tweaked as desired. Established Dungeons & Dragons settings have inspired countless homebrew games. So have the Amber series of books by Roger Zelazny. And, for that matter, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (LOTR).

A lot of worldbuilding riffs off of real-world history of some kind. These riffs can be lighthearted, like Og, a prehistoric-human live-action roleplaying game (LARP). Or they can be more obviously based in real history, like 7th Sea, which combines historical riffs with plenty of magical tropes. One of the most promising gameworlds I’ve ever seen in development was a MUD closely based on Ancient Mesopotamia. I’m still sad that it never happened.

However, be careful about using someone else’s intellectual property (IP). If someone else legally owns your setting, they could get very touchy about you using it. In particular, basing your game on anything owned by Disney or the Tolkien Estate could be asking for trouble if it goes beyond your living room and onto the internet. I’ve seen otherwise great online games destroyed by copyright concerns.

Beyond that, the sky really is the limit here. I’ve seen game settings like pet shops, medieval Wales, the Roman Empire, Lovecraftian horror, steampunk, science fiction, outer space, the Fae in modern society, you name it. Whatever you go with, it just needs to allow for the kind of play you want to foster.

The bad guys of worldbuilding need to make sense

There’s a saying about villains thinking they’re the heroes of their own stories. That’s generally true, and it’s something worldbuilders need to keep in mind.

Remember, always, that no matter what your intentions are with the gameworld, some players will want to play the villains of your setting. Thus, your bad guys need to make sense. If you make puppy-kicking bad guys who are just evil for the sake of being gloriously evil, then you need to understand that you will attract the very worst sort of players to those roles. Such players will recognize these roles as a way to troll and prey upon the people playing your setting’s good guys.

And yes, I’ve seen this exact situation erupt on several different games. It happens way more often in online games, where GMs have way less control over what kind of character applications they get from players. In tabletop settings, a GM can easily decline a character proposal that won’t work at all with the rest of the party or the campaign, or spend time working with a player until their concept fits better.

Recognize, as well, that very few people want to play a game that feels like nothing but thankless work. Nor will many people want to play a game that constantly makes them feel victimized and without recourse to justice or revenge.

How good worldbuilding can turn a bad game around

On one MUD, the setting had originally been so utterly lacking in substance and coherence that the villains were simply presented as human-sacrificing demon-worshipers. No reason. They just were like that. And they fought with the good guys, who were medieval Catholic analogs, just because they hated goodness.

The game was an absolute mess. Dozens of players ran human-sacrificing, demon-worshiping PCs. They were the only long-term players there, too. Anyone else quit in disgust after the villains had worked them over a few times—robbing their houses empty, attacking them in the streets, murdering their household NPCs and decorating streetlamps with their skins, etc.

And then, the game’s lead administrator, Shane, vanished without a trace. His admins had no idea what had happened. They even checked obituaries! Luckily, one of them knew the game server’s passwords, and Shane had paid for hosting for years to come.

Some time after Shane’s disappearance, a friend of mine, Drake, offered to take over as lead admin. With the blessing of the few remaining admins, Drake rewrote the entire backstory for the game. He turned it into an impressively-detailed analog of the High Middle Ages, with noble houses and internal politics and everything. The demon worshipers acquired a serious lot of backstory, as did the conflict between their gods and the setting’s culturally-dominant god.

As a result of Drake’s hard work, the game began drawing a huge number of players who were attracted to roleplaying in that setting. It also drew new admins⁠—like me⁠—who’d steered clear of the game previously. The revamped game even won some awards and accolades for worldbuilding from the gaming community.

The puppy-kickers were not nearly so happy. Sadly, their recalcitrance ultimately caused a lot of problems for the game. In retrospect, Drake really should have created a new game from scratch. Ah well. It was great while it lasted.

When worldbuilding works: coherence, cohesion, and narrative

A game’s setting should provide a suitable backdrop for players and the campaign. Done well, though, a setting can support any number of campaigns. Campaign ideas flow like water from the worldbuilding itself.

Over time, a well-made setting’s cities and notable locales will become as familiar to players as their own hometowns. The flow of power between authority figures in the game makes sense. The conflicts make sense, too, with both sides able to articulate why they’re on that side and how their chosen strategy will solve the problem.

(Even if their strategy won’t solve anything, as we see in dysfunctional groups in real life all the time, each side at least needs Underpants Gnomes reasoning.)

Sometimes, these settings even become the backdrop to years’, even decades’ worth of campaigns. Not long ago, Wired covered a D&D game that has lasted forty years.

YouTube video
From Wired’s channel

Within a decently-made setting, players have the materials they need to progress in the GM’s campaign. They can start as relatively low-powered characters, gaining allies and resources with each session.

At the end of the campaign, as the PCs head off for their big endgame climactic fight, their players trust the GM to help them tell a story that makes sense out of everything that’s gone before.

Where good worldbuilding can take players

Some of the best roleplaying scenes I’ve ever seen came about through good worldbuilding. Sometimes they make me laugh or send chills down my spine, or both:

After the GM set the scene for a modern-day Call of Cthulhu (CoC) game, our characters settled in for a game-in-game session of Shadowrun. Yes, our CoC characters were playing another game. In fact, our CoC characters were based on our real selves. That night, in the real world, it was very stormy, just raining buckets with thunder and lightning aplenty. And in the game, it was also stormy. Just as the GM described the power going out in the game, the power went out in real life. I squeaked!

Our GM nimbly incorporated us all going outside and resetting the breakers with our characters doing the same in their gameworld. That first night was almost a LARP.

At still other times, good worldbuilding can lead to a quiet, intimate, heartbreaking little scene with a scout discovering a torched home and sifting through it (with an invisible admin’s help) for survivors or, barring that, for important effects he can bring to their surviving family.

Good worldbuilding can also inspire fanfiction and art of all kinds. It can even encourage players to take up hobbies based on what they’ve experienced in the game. (That’s why it seems like every single series ever publishes cookbooks.) Many players have told me that they got into baking, cooking, sewing, and various other crafts and hobbies because of code I’ve written for various MUDs’ crafting systems. Every time, it makes me so happy to hear it.

In essence, good worldbuilding becomes the backdrop to beautifully told and shared stories.

YouTube video
From the official Dungeons & Dragons channel

Worldbuilding is about making and sharing stories

To a large extent, storytelling defines humans as unique among all the animals of the world. All through our history, we have created and shared stories with each other.

Until recently, though, a sharp divide existed between storytellers and story-receivers. It was a veil that separated the ones who created and told a story from the audience receiving it.

With the creation of roleplaying games, that divide was torn in half.

Now, thanks to roleplaying games, the storyteller can work with the audience, who can, in turn, shape the story as it’s told. Some game engines take that cooperative aspect way further than others. And some allow for way more player-driven input than others that use dice to determine almost everything that happens in the game (which some gamers jokingly call “roll-playing games.”) However, most games range between those two extremes.

Since roleplaying games came into being (mostly in the 1960s), there’s never been more variety or choice in the engines available to a GM. All that’s needed is the backdrop, and that’s where worldbuilding comes into play.

Tell your stories. Share amazing experiences with other people.

Bring your imaginary world to life.

Resource list: Cities, countries, civilizations

Tons of books and resources specific to worldbuilding can be easily found online. If you want to use those, they may save you a lot of time. If you want to dive deeper, then I recommend learning how real-world societies evolve and how their surrounding countryside shapes them. The more you learn about how societies evolved in reality, the better you’ll do at creating believable settings for players. These books may help you there:

  • Cities in Evolution, by Patrick Geddes (1949). Public-domain book describing how cities and citizens form and take shape.
  • The City in History, by Lewis Mumford (1968). Absolute classic in the field.
  • The Great Cities in History, by John Julius Norwich (editor) (2016). Must-have. Going all the way back to Uruk, it describes how city-states evolved and what impact their territories had on their formation. Also goes into detail about the different classes of citizens in various cities.
  • Ancient Civilizations, by Chris Scarre (2021). Very comprehensive, covers theories of how early civilizations developed alongside particular land features.

As you design your towns, be aware of potential trading routes their people might use, where they get food from and how and what it is, how poor people survive and what they think of rich people (and vice versa), how your world’s wealthy and powerful classes separate themselves from the poor and powerless around them, what kind of crime the setting will see and how authorities deal with it, what its underworld looks like, and what kind of social friction might exist.

Beyond these basics, books concerning real-world analogs to your setting will be very helpful. If you want to run an Elizabethan mystery game, pick up good nonfiction histories of the era. If you think it’d be fun to run a game for Watership Down-style bunnies, then learn what you can about how rabbit warrens function.

Resource list: Religions, magic systems, gods, and more

As I mentioned above, you’ll want to figure out early on if gods and magic exist in your game, and how the people in your setting interact with either.

Games can be low magic, meaning there isn’t much magic, it’s hard to get good at using it, and it costs a lot to use at all. Or they can be high magic, meaning just about everybody uses magic to some extent, magical stuff is everywhere, and some people can practice to get extraordinarily good at it. Or, for that matter, the world can be no magic.

The same goes for gods. A game might not have gods at all. Or it might have divinities everywhere who are constantly meddling.

To give you some ideas of the possibilities, these books may help:

  • The Emergence and Evolution of Religion, by Jonathan H. Turner, et al (2017). Very neatly laid out, and should give worldbuilders a lot of questions to ask and answer as they develop religious systems in their gameworlds.
  • The Emergence of Religion in Human Evolution, by Margaret Boone Rappaport and Christopher J. Corbally (2019). A sophisticated look at the factors that go into the development of religious thought.
  • A History of Magic, Witchcraft and the Occult, by DK (2020). Covers all kinds of magic systems and the thought processes behind them. Bear in mind that this book covers Earth-style magic and occultism, which is to say it’s about imaginary stuff. However, it can get budding worldbuilders thinking about how magic might work in their own settings.

Whatever you do, work out the rules for how magic and gods operate. Figure out the mechanics that make it run. And then, don’t break those rules without a good explanation. (For all of the flaws in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, I still like his “deeper magic” rulebreaking.)

Avatar photo

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...