Volume 2 Archives - Page 2 of 15 - The Art of World Building

Drawing Maps Primer

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Drawing Maps Primer
Nov 182019

Whether we’re an artist or not, creating maps has advantages. They help us visualize a location and think about what lies where. This can be anything from land features on continent or region maps, to buildings and public areas in settlement maps, cells and escape routes in dungeon maps, stations or ships (whether those vessels are wooden or space-faring), and even planets, moons, asteroids and suns on star maps. Seeing empty spaces to fill on our map can inspire invention that leads to more creativity, realism, and realization about what’s feasible or even likely, given our design. Impossible scenarios can be avoided. A map also helps us remember what we visualized, should we be absent from our story world for an extended time.

Some of us are good enough artists to include our map in published works, but even if we can’t draw, there are programs that can greatly assist us. They don’t require drawing skill; rather, the ability to place preexisting objects, like a city or mountain icon, is all that’s needed. Then we just repeat this as often as needed or desired until we’re done. And maps can be created piecemeal. Even if we don’t use such a program, we might want to hire someone to depict a location for us, and even squiggles on a page are helpful in telling an artist what to create.

Interesting Places Starting Point

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Interesting Places Starting Point
Nov 042019

Places of interest can crop up anywhere we need them to be. They can be created long after we’re already using our world or right from the first story. But if we have wars or battles in mind, we can start with these as sources of phenomena. Any fight involving titanic forces, like great magical or technological power, can be the instigator. Decide where you’d like this place to be, such as in a remote location or a central one that impacts life all around it, probably via avoidance; the latter will be a major factor in stories taking place near the location—remote locations give us leeway to invent places of lesser impact. If we have a goal in mind, such as wanting a point of origin for a monster, inventing the creature first can give us ideas on where and what caused it. If we’ve already invented several places, we can invent a different type of place, in a different location.

Creating Shipwrecks

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Creating Shipwrecks
Oct 282019

This section talks about how to make interesting shipwrecks that are worth creating and mentioning to the audience.

Creating Ruins

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Creating Ruins
Oct 212019

Abandoned places are ripe for death by misadventure. Monsters, treasure, and items can all lure people to investigate and figure out what’s there or what went wrong. To that end, dropping clues is vital to intriguing an audience. Some of these places will be legendary while others are previously unknown. Both have their merits.

These can range from simple caves or tunnels, like a monster lair or dwarven home, to entire cities or even planets; if we want to be extreme, we can include solar systems or entire galaxies. The scale of abandonment suggests the scale of calamity that caused that abandonment, so choose accordingly. Danger is often assumed to lurk in such places, whether that danger is the new inhabitant, nature having taken over, or the remnants of the reason abandonment took place. Valuables are often assumed to have been left behind, attracting thieves and opportunists who might interfere with a band of characters going there.

Ruins are fun for audiences to watch people discover and explore. We can create mystery about what’s happening there now and what led to its demise. Clues and rumors should evoke curiosity and maybe feelings of dread, foreboding, wonder, and excitement. The more suggestive these are, the better, but it pays to have a reveal that goes beyond audience expectations regarding how cool the truth is, surpassing it. The trick to this is being coy about the truth, and inventing plausible variants on that truth, each one compelling but not as cool as the actuality.

But not everywhere needs a wonderful story. Disease, drought, climate change, natural disasters, and destruction in war are simple explanations that are the most likely culprits. Some places vanish for commercial reasons, such as over-exploitation of the resource (as in mining) or because a better commercial location usurped it, leaving a ghost town, which may have some residents after all.

Bear in mind how overgrown the location is. A rainforest or swamp quickly consumes a place so that it’s nearly impossible to find and less likely to be known; roads to it will disappear, too. More exposed locations will endure wind erosion and may become buried by sediment. An underground place won’t suffer much erosion but will instead lose structural cohesion from earthquakes, the toll of which we can tailor to our intended desire. Similarly, a mountain settlement might suffer rock falls. Sometimes people wonder why more dust doesn’t accumulate in abandoned places, but dust is partly particles from people, so no people means no more dust accumulation or the tracking in of other contaminants.

The durability of buildings is greatly impacted by their material. In less advanced settings, the roof is often the first part of a structure to disintegrate, allowing more rain and animals inside and speeding interior erosion. Stone structures could last centuries despite deterioration, but remember that locals might steal these materials for their own uses. With the advanced technology in SF, a location could last far longer, unaffected by erosion except for becoming overgrown and buried. Then again, maybe automated machines are keeping it pristine long after life has departed.

Magical or technological items are among the best ones left behind, whether by accident or on purpose. They are begging to be found by heroes, villains, or some random fool. Depending on the item, this could empower someone who shouldn’t have such power, raising them to king or overlord among their kind, such as goblins. Think of a weapon, armor, information found in books or scrolls, or a space ship or other tech, depending on your story. The object found might also be cursed. It doesn’t have to be the item responsible for the ruin existing. We might want to create a group of people who see it as their job to find, neutralize, and store these items to prevent such events.

Creating Strange Phenomena

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Creating Strange Phenomena
Oct 142019

Strange phenomena are staples of fantasy and SF, especially when the latter involves explorations of the cosmos. Space offers nebulas, radiation, and alien planet environments. We can invent all manner of experiences that have no real explanation or at best, pseudoscience to impart believability or specific effects on characters and their environment, such as an interstellar ship. Space phenomena have a great advantage in that their location is flexible; we can place them wherever we feel like it and invent them on the fly.

By contrast, singularities on a planet or other body (moon, asteroid, etc.) are typically associated with a given location. They often benefit from at least speculation as to their causes. Technological or magical disasters, resulting from experiments or battle, offer easy rationalizations and even suggest world figures or famous items that might’ve been involved. Monsters or creatures can be a result, too. Does this phenomenon influence only things that come in contact with it or can it affect nearby objects? Maybe it can compel people to approach.

We can also create seemingly unrelated phenomena in different locations but which bear some similarities, but later associate them with each other. We might also have phenomena that begat other phenomena, with no one knowing this until characters stumble upon the truth. This sort of layering adds depth while fascinating audiences as oddities they’ve experienced before are revealed to have new significance.

There might be places where magic or technology doesn’t work, is unpredictable, or is supercharged. Animals could go wild, which is a cliché, or become docile if we want a new impact. There can be locations allowing extraordinary travel, whether actual doorways, random spots, or the former built on the latter. These gateways can lead to other physical locations, supernatural ones, or an alternate reality or timeline. These methods may be predictable, controllable, or neither. Can only certain people or devices activate them? Or we can have a portal open constantly because no one knows how to close it. Beings could be summoned through them.

On Earth, we have places where strange behavior is believed to occur, like the Bermuda Triangle or crop circles. Then there’s Area 51, a rumored place for storing unusual items. The origins of places like Stonehenge or Easter Island have been debated, but we can invent similar locations and attribute fantastic reasons for their existence.

Creating Extraordinary Places

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Creating Extraordinary Places
Oct 062019
Underwater Settlements

While extraordinary to us, an underwater settlement might be commonplace on your world, if a water dwelling species exists to construct them. Are there dry areas or air pockets allowing land species to reside there safely? Or be imprisoned because there’s no way to reach the surface? Perhaps magic or technological portals allow people to enter or leave such a city. Think about what sort of industry and skills a water dwelling species might acquire if they not only have water-filled areas but dry ones, assuming they can move on land. Might they craft a large enough space to practice with weapons they’d need skills for on land?

Floating Settlements

We’ve seen cities in Star Wars, and rock formations in Avatar (italics), both suspended in the air. We can use magic, technology, or unexplained physics to do the same. Aside from this floating aspect, these settlements otherwise differ little from more ordinary communities. However, we should think about what opportunities are afforded. A flying species might be prone to inventing such places or find them very attractive. There might be few predators except the flying kind, making life safe. While no city walls will exist, what kind of aerial fortifications might be needed? Trade might be quite difficult without ships, large flying animals, or other means to transport resources. It may also be at extraordinary risk of crashing to the ground, which seems an obvious sabotage focus for enemies. How does this place protect itself from hurricanes, tornados, or strong storms? The obvious answer is that it’s only built somewhere that doesn’t experience these.

On Earth, we have Venice, which is built largely on stilts, but the impression is still of floating on water. This does not require magic or advanced technology, but we can invent a place that genuinely floats on the sea. A water dwelling species might find this accommodating and even be the ones to invent it. The setting can be a place where land and water species can interact more easily. This must occur where significant waves are rare if not unheard of, so look for a lagoon or otherwise protected inlet in waterways like bays or sounds. If there are large sea monsters that could easily wreck the place, then it won’t exist, but if there’s a new sea monster never considered before, we can have fun destroying the settlement in a story.

Other Unusual Homes

A species might build homes inside hills like the Hobbits of The Lord of the Rings. Elaborate mountain homes are a staple of fantasy dwarves. A flying species could build small homes inside enormous trees, but with no way to reach the ground so that predators, including other species, can’t access them.

Creating Ordinary Places

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Creating Ordinary Places
Sep 302019

Noteworthy locations provide our characters somewhere to stumble upon, avoid, or seek out on missions. They can cause interesting items or life forms to exist, possess, or flee from. World builders can place these in almost random locations, reducing the burden of logic needed to explain origins. Some phenomena simply exist where they do or are the result of natural geological forces (such as volcanoes or meteor strikes), while events such as explosions, battles, or experiments gone awry can cause others. Used in small doses, they can add complexity, interest, and variety to a setting.

Not every location needs to be spectacular to be of interest. Anything unusual can do and should not be overlooked.

Catacombs and Hidden Passages

Catacombs, bomb shelters, sewer lines, tunnels, and subway lines, especially beneath a settlement, can provide somewhere to hide people, creatures, or possessions, and be used for stealthy maneuvering. We can decide they are known to all or a select few who are using them for nefarious purposes. Even if known, the extent of them seldom is; much of the fun lies in the mystery. When inventing these, decide why they exist. They might have been designed for covert work, such as in military locations. Royalty could have decided they wanted ways to move about without being noticed (or for their spies). Excessive heat in tropical locations might have led to these cooler places to dwell at times, or store things like wine or munitions. Perhaps there are secret training facilities.

In a world with dwarves, perhaps they just enjoy such locations as a reminder of home and have tunneled deep, with or without permissions. They might no longer live here, leaving abandoned tunnels that are partly in use by those with both good and bad intentions. Sometimes these locations aren’t known because a civilization or population from a thousand years ago might have left it. The current settlement could even have been built atop such a place with no one realizing it.

Step Wells

For most of us, a water well might not sound interesting, but if you Google “step wells in India,” the pictures will change your mind. These are elaborate pits in the ground with flights of stairs leading down to the water. The steps appear akin to an amphitheater, being wide and often on all four sides in a square or rectangular shape. Platforms can exist in these, and with some imagination, we might decorate them with carvings and statues. Some structures have cave-like openings into a cliff face and buildings that are carved from within. If we have a species which dwells in fresh water, they may swim up underground rivers to emerge from these wells.

Step Well


Monuments can be buildings, monoliths, or statues. Some could be more spectacular than others and qualify as famous locations. This can be due to size, complexity, or the individual or occasion being memorialized. Having world figures helps us decide on the latter. We should also determine the condition such monuments are in. Those in abandoned places might be in disrepair or have been vandalized, even destroyed utterly, whether this is known or discovered by characters in a story. Visiting such a place to acquire power or an item can therefore throw characters off their intended quest. Monuments located amid existing civilization might also be prone to thievery attempts and desecration.

On Earth, we have Egypt’s great pyramids, the Great Wall of China, or Stonehenge. The ancient world included the Seven Wonders, which included a temple, two statues, the pyramids, a mausoleum, gardens, and a lighthouse. These seven were chosen because there were, at the time, seven bodies in the heavens: the sun, moon, and five discovered planets. An invented world might benefit from a similar explanation if monuments are being counted. The lists can be longer, and different lists have existed over time. The original seven don’t sound impressive until one considers the unusual size, adornment, or subject (often a god) of most. Many of these wonders were destroyed by earthquakes or floods.


While most cemeteries won’t be of much interest, other burial sites may be. One possibility is a system of catacombs, where skulls and bones have been stacked. Mausoleums can be enormous, uniquely decorated, or house famous people; these may contain items, such as treasure, which others plunder. These would require guards of ordinary or extraordinary kind, such as ferocious animals/monsters, or humanoids with demonic, technological, or magical powers. Graveyards could also have unique layouts where different classes of people are interred separately. Rituals might also be done at regular intervals. A day of the dead festival might exist, the macabre scene fitting for a story. Lone grave sites in the wilderness might also achieve significance for location or features.

Where to Start with History

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on Where to Start with History
Sep 262019

History can be created at random, though at times we’ll want to create multiple events regarding a given subject at once. Entries needn’t be related, making this ideal for piecemeal invention. For any subject, such as a sovereign power or group, we can either start inventing the past in our history file or do it in the file for that power or group. The biggest items should go on the world history with minimal redundancy across files. The event categories above should provide ideas on what might need to be created before a history, but we want to work on history after inventing the thing for which we’re creating that past. Otherwise, follow your heart and feel free to let creativity run free.

More History Categories

 Book Blog, Volume 2  Comments Off on More History Categories
Sep 232019

A world without war isn’t realistic. We can invent these while conjuring a world history or while working in a given sovereign power’s file. Doing this requires some idea of the governments existing in those powers and their locations; otherwise it’s hard to know why the war is being fought, not to mention where, or what impact it has on the powers or anyone else caught in the conflict. It helps to understand technological or supernatural level of the combatants.

Is there a goal we hope this war will achieve? Perhaps we want simmering resentments between characters of today. Maybe we want a disaster to result as the logical conclusion of animosities we’ve set in motion. Is a resource under contention? Is that place a danger that one power wants to secure but which another wants to utilize?

Remember that former enemies can become allies later, sometimes through government upheaval, defeat, or just the passing of time. We’ve seen this on Earth, where in as little as a few generations, animosities have given way to mutual aid and reconciliation. Don’t be afraid to decide two friendly nations today weren’t enemies as little as decades ago. The speed of change may depend on technology and information; worlds with less, as in fantasy, might harbor animosity for far longer.

“Ethnic cleansing”, one group trying to eradicate another, has caused some of the worst wars; this sort of animosity won’t quickly disappear. A power might try to unite ethnic groups that have become split across nations. For example, Russia recently invaded Ukraine with one justification being that the Ukraine has regions with mostly ethnic Russians, who want to be part of Russia. There were also natural resources at stake.

Pride is yet another reason for war, as a new dictator must make a show of power. Or the dictator feels pride in their nation and heritage and feel they and their people have been oppressed or wrongly scaled back in a previous war. Starting a new war to right wrongs from a previous war is a classic. Leaders may have a grand vision of superiority or desire a fate different from, and better than, their current reality, for themselves or their kingdom, and the stress of this simmers for many years before leading to open war.

Taking back territory, resources, or something else believed to rightly belong to a kingdom is another reason for war. Sometimes these are perpetual disputes—until an empire absorbs both opponents.

Groups Forming

We might want to indicate when a special military group was formed. Use this for famous knight orders or naval/space forces, even dragon riders, spectral groups, elite guards, horsemen, archers, or whichever groups you’ve created. If there’s a wizard or warrior order, like monks of a certain region, note their formation date, or when a powerful leader rose, influenced, disappeared, or fell. Did this group or someone from it accomplish something? Is there a force for good or evil, like the Justice League from comics? Cultures and Beyond (The Art of World Building, #3) goes into more details about groups we can create.

Artifacts Discovered/Invented

Creating magic items is one of the fun things about writing fantasy. For SF, legendary devices or ships are equally fun, particularly when they disappear, creating mystery, intrigue, and excitement when they show up in a story. These can fall under the protection of a sovereign power or individual and be contested. They can be feared or admired. They can come with a prophecy about the sort of person who might wield them one day, causing dreams and struggles. Each time you create an important item, add its invention date to the history, though lesser objects don’t need an origin date.

Missions Undertaken

Missions to explore, rescue, kill or kidnap someone/something, or investigate strange phenomena can be listed in our history. Be sure to indicate the outcome, whether this is known to the characters or not. This history is for your files, so it’s okay to drop the truth in here and only reveal that to an audience in a story. Those who undertook a mission might be famous, giving us world figures. They might have also triggered an event, such as a war or new phenomenon, or discovered a new item or material.