The display panel erupts to life, illuminating the pitch black room with a dazzling array of holographic images moving about. You concentrate on one, a sphere representing a world that you have looked for in hundreds of galactic charts for decades. All of the information gathering, the countless hours asking questions of so many, tracking each one down, not to mention the exceedingly difficult task of acquiring the databook that almost cost you your life. You hope it all was worth it as you send the coordinates up to your ship and order it to begin calculations for hyper space. Clicking the display panel off, you flick it in the air and catch it on its descent with controlled anxiety and excitement. Gerosh IV, here you come.
Sometimes having too much material for a GM is too overwhelming and becomes a major issue in campaigns or adventures. When we are limited to something more confined, such as simply a tavern or minor outpost, although we could design those areas basically anything our imagination will convey, we still have a sort of tunnel vision at times as we perceive just a narrow subject such as a single building or small dungeon. We most likely won’t worry about the effects of a bog or how a blizzard would render a party vulnerable if we were working on a small dungeon under a castle.
But consider the possibilities of how much data can be conceived when you create a world! It could have literally anything imaginable within its realm. Anything! A portion of your planet could be a void-like space that has small spheroids large enough for colonies to thrive upon and rely on air ships to travel. The entire planet could be pure lava with hovering rock formations that are bridged by, shoot, elephants that are gripping the tail of the elephant in front. Granted, you could say the same thing with something relatively small such as a single city building if you go to the extremes of the imagination in design. However, it is the amount of information to create that can be overwhelming.
Take a science fiction rpg for example, such as Traveller. Now it goes beyond just building your world. It becomes the monumental task of creating….a solar system? A galaxy? You’d have to take into consideration the demographics of the inhabitants, flora and fauna, weather patterns, geographical features and layout, economics, politics, social formations, festivals, religion, and its history. Some of those listed may not be relevant enough to include in your campaign, but even one of those can be a daunting task.
I’ve talked to so many GMs who will mention how each time they set out to tackle world building for their campaign, they work effortlessly coming up with specifics such as names of NPCs, city structure, buildings for an important town, and surrounding monsters typical for the areas. But soon the foreboding of repetition begins to sink in as they slowly realize the amount of work they poured into pales in comparison to the amount of work left. What started out as a weekend project has now proven to be a yearlong endeavor filled with drudgery and lackluster enthusiasm. So, what?, GMs should just forego all world building efforts and wing the entire ordeal? I’d enjoy seeing you try and not exhaust your resources at some point.
There are essentially two methods of world building, beginning on a macro level or micro level. Different strokes for different folks in this case. You will find your comfort zone taking everything in as a whole to begin with (establishing cosmic entities and ending with small settlements), or beginning with a single planet (perhaps a galactic central capital) and working outward.
For beginners, I would highly recommend taking the macro to micro approach. Otherwise you won’t get very far with so much area to cover. I would first settle on just a minor solar system, perhaps of 6 planets total. Approach it from barely a macro level by creating the names of each of the planets and a brief description of the type of planet such as terra-like, gaseous, greenhouse, molten, or frozen. Next, think about the most appealing type of world and the possibilities within. That should be your last planet you develop because it will be the easiest. Your enthusiasm on filling in the details is strong enough that it will carry you through the end. Instead, pick a planet that you aren’t too wild about but know it will make for a good adventure or two. Perhaps all of your ideas are the greatest thing ever and you are beginning to feel that sense of overwhelming odds trying to come up with enough material to fill a solar system. One suggestion is to either buy a single Composition notebook and put the planet’s name on the front, or open a Word document saved as just the planet’s name. Nothing else really will go in here other than relationships with other planets that might involve things like trade. Otherwise, stick with just that planet. Ignore the others and treat the planet as a campaign that is still in its infancy years of intergalactic space travel. Even if your planet you are working on is extremely advanced and uses teleportation to other planets now, concentrate just on the planet’s life for now and leave that to the end. You can use that area as your transition to the next planet.
Now when you are working on a single planet with the fact you have dozens after it, accept the fact that these worlds are not going to be completely fleshed out like your D&D fantasy campaign setting. Unless you work fast or spend eons working on it, chances are there is going to be some information you have to leave out in order to have time to fill in the rest. Consider the 5 areas only at first:
Flora & Fauna (macro level)
Civilization structures (countries, kingdoms, etc.)
Political structures (monarchy, democracy, etc.)
Population (categorized broadly as sparse, ideal, crowded, overcrowded)
Don’t go crazy on details yet. Just brush your planet out in general outline format. List the various races found on your planet, give some general idea if there are typical animal groups on the planet or if there are any missing (no water so no fish, for example). If there are multiple politics within the world, list them, but don’t worry about assigning them yet. Finally, give a moment to consider if your planet’s population is either barely filled or overcrowded or in between. At this point, put the pencil down or push the keyboard away, and close the book/document. It doesn’t seem like you did much, but the planet is essentially set up. You have already described it earlier what type of planet it is, and no you have the basic concept of that planet. Leave it broad and vague so it hopefully sparks some imagination and creative ideas when you return to it. Get the rest of the planets established this way, ending with that one you were craziest about.
Again, with its own book or document, approach the planet one adventure at a time instead of a global entity. Don’t bother creating the huge, complex city on the other side of the planet if you are going to run the session in the frozen mountains 2000 miles away. Write a one-shot adventure for your planet. It’s a more comforting feeling because you are eating the elephant one bite at a time. You know how to make a one-shot. Do your typical methods by establishing whatever you feel is necessary as you work on it. Set aside an area in your book for planetary information on a global scale. When you write something in your one-shot that reflects a macro viewpoint on the planet or large scale, make note of it in the planet information such as the planet experiences earthquakes frequently that causes enough reverberation that their technology is powered by the vibrations. Use a highlighter and cross over individuals who are famous or noteworthy. Start a list in that book of those people, giving a 1-sentence description of the person and the page number they are either first mentioned or first described.
Once you have your one-shot adventure wrapped up, go to the next planet. It is important not to saturate your planet too quickly with information to avoid fatigue or boredom. Keep going from planet to planet, even in a particular order, as you cycle through and develop one-shots. You will find that the information you come up with for your one-shots will greatly reflect and affect your world-wide system.
On your journey through world building your first solar system, begin making a point to either have a recording app on your phone or bring a traditional pocket notepad and pen for notes because you are going to have them all the time. If you are finding yourself struggling to come up with information on your planet, try searching online for novels or short stories that use the specific planet you are wanting to develop such as a greenhouse planet. It may seem obvious, but watching science fiction movies, especially the cheesy ones, will spark your imagination and rekindle your passion.
Keep everything organized. You will need to be OCD in this area simply because the amount of information you are going to eventually collect is staggering. Overestimate. Stick tabs on your notebooks, make bookmarks in your documents, or go full regalia and purchase database world building systems like RealmWorks or something more traditional like OneNote.
Also, take an hour one evening surfing Google Images with sci-fi pics, and save as many as you can that look appealing and interesting into a folder. Again, try separating them in a logical method such as planet type, biped or animal, artificial or biological, etc. This will be your library of inspiration when you need it. Imbed the images into your documents if you’re working digitally.
Lastly, I would highly recommend getting involved with online discussion boards involving world building. It is a true hobby for many people, and they have volumes of ideas that go beyond a few pages of a blog from weather patterns to effects of geographical phenomena to alternative politics. They can also be your inspirational mentor when you need to rediscover your drive you had at the beginning. Know that this project is not something you should expect to be done in a weekend or a month. Understand it is a hobby like playing golf, cycling, video games, or photography and that it’s always available and not needing to be done right this instant. This is a journey that you are supposed to enjoy. Otherwise the concept would not have sparked you brightly enough to pick up the pen and jot down the notion of creating a world or a galaxy.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.