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Podcast Episode 33 – World Building Strategies

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Oct 202020

Episode 33: World Building Strategies

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses approaches to world building, how to organize final and folders, ideas on partnering with others, and more.

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In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • What a World Building Coalition is and roles to define
  • How to leverage top-down, bottom-up, and random approaches to world building
  • Ideas on getting organized with your files
  • Where to store files for easy retrieval and work at all times

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Episode 33 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-three. Today we’re concluding the podcast with some final tips. This includes approaches to world building, how to organize final and folders, ideas on partnering with others, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 11 from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at

Approaches to World Building

Before we get started, a quick reminder that you can now buy transcripts of every episode of this series from or

This will most likely be the final episode of the series because, as you know if you’ve been following along, each episode is based on a chapter from the books, and this is the final chapter from the third volume. It’s possible that, in time, I might interview some other world builders or find some other topics to talk about, but right now I don’t foresee that, so this could be the final episode. Now, if I change my mind and another one comes up, all you have to do to be notified is to subscribe to this podcast, which we’ll talk about later.

The first thing I want to talk about is how we approach world building. One way is what might be considered the top-down approach. What this means is that you start at the biggest picture and work your way down into increasingly smaller elements. For example, maybe we start at the solar system, then work on the planets, then a continent, down to a sovereign power, a region within that sovereign power, and finally, a settlement.

That, of course, applies to the physical environment, but what about when it comes to life? In that case, we would start with the gods and then start worrying about animals, plants and other species. One reason we would do this is that the bigger picture tends to impact the smaller ones. If you’ve been following this series from the beginning, or especially the episodes from Creating Places, you know that something like the hemisphere that a continent is found in is going to impact the prevailing winds that are hitting that continent, and the mountain ranges. This combination is going to determine where precipitation falls, and that, in turn, is going to determine where forests are, grasslands and deserts. If we don’t consider that big picture first, then we might do something like place a forest somewhere, and then later, we decide to change which hemisphere this continent is in and it no longer makes sense that there would be a forest there. Granted, only a certain number of people may realize this, but that’s not the point. The point is that if we do things from that top picture down, we can do a better job of world building. This will be caused by using the knowledge we have gained from this series or any other resource on world building.

Another good reason to do this top-down approach is that it creates cohesion. If we need to create a handful of sovereign powers on the same continent, they can fit together in a way that makes a little bit more sense when it comes to variety, for example. There are some disadvantages to this approach, and one of them is that the whole project can seem like one giant homework assignment. We’re doing things in a specific order, and we may not have an idea for something. Do we let ourselves continue even though we haven’t made a decision on something like which hemisphere the continent is in? Hopefully, this series has given you plenty of ideas so that it’s easier to avoid getting stuck. Regardless, we could end up with a pretty big to-do list and just get overwhelmed and stopped working on it.

So, there’s an alternative, and that would be the bottom-up approach, which is basically the exact opposite of what I just said. In this case, we might start at a city and then worry about the sovereign power that it’s in later. And after that, where on the continent it is, and so on. The advantage to doing this kind of thing is that if our story is only taking place in one or two cities, we can focus on just creating those locations because those are the ones we’re going to be using. This will save us a lot of time and aggravation, and might also keep up our enthusiasm level. It can also make it easier to focus on our story needs. The bigger picture of something like how the solar system is laid out may have little to do with the story that we’re telling, and therefore it could be harder to make a decision about that. Creating something like that could feel like we’re just untethered and we’re sort of creating in a vacuum with nothing to guide what we decide on.

One of the problems with doing this, at least when it comes to places, is that we may not have worked out all those landscape features and other things that are definitely going to impact this city that we’re creating. We might find ourselves thinking that certain land features are in this or that direction, and incorporate that into our story, only to then work on those features later and realize it doesn’t make sense. However, this series may have given you enough options on this that you can find leeway. And, as I’ve said more than once, there’s often no such thing as getting it right in world building so much as getting it plausible.

The other disadvantage to the bottom-up approach is a lack of scope where we may focus only on what we need and not the bigger picture. However, this is only going to happen if we don’t follow through, but there is a bigger risk that we won’t follow through if we’ve already created what we feel like we really need.

There is a third approach, and that would be the random one where we just do it in whatever order we think of stuff. There’s no plan at all to this. One of the advantages of this is that it can really lead to some quick invention where we aren’t feeling like we have to get things right or that there’s any sort of rule or something that we have to do first before we’re working on the thing that has captured our attention at this particular moment. This is almost like stream of consciousness invention, and it’s a great way to work. The big problem is that we might create some things that don’t really work together, so we have a lack of cohesion.

Fortunately, there is a fourth alternative. That is basically to do all three of these approaches simultaneously. This can get us the best advantages of all of them and mitigate the worst disadvantages of them. In order to do this successfully, there is a way that I would recommend going about it, and that’s what I’m going to tell you now.

One of the tricks is to do at least a framework of the biggest picture. This would be from the top down approach. In other words, we want to decide if this is an Earth-like planet, and that means stuff like it’s rotating in the same direction, so the sun is still coming up and going down on the same sides. And we can make a quick decision about which hemisphere the continent is in. One reason to care about that is, of course, these prevailing winds and the effect on the vegetation. The other reason is that either us or the audience is going to be more comfortable with colder climates being either north or south. We could either give them and us something more comfortable, or challenge us.

By starting with a continent like this, we have an overall sense of where everything lies. Now, if we have a map or not, the next thing we want to start doing is determining where settlements are. Generally, these are going to be where a significant source of freshwater is. A continent-sized level map is too big for us to be indicating anything smaller than a town, so we’re mostly looking at the major population centers. In order to determine where that freshwater is, we’re going to need those mountain ranges and have a sense of where the rainfall is coming from. At this point, we don’t need to be too specific, if we don’t want to be, about exactly what size and shape these mountain ranges or forests are. We just need to know, generally, where they are, and when we draw these rivers and lakes, we are indicating a flow from higher ground to lower ground.

If we really want a city on the coastline and we haven’t drawn a river there, this would give us a place to indicate where that river is coming out because, of course, many deltas have a city right there. The point here is that we can decide where we want a city, and that will sometimes help us decide where the end of the river is. If we already know where the mountain range is, well, then this gives us a kind of starting and stopping point to draw a wavy line from.

Once we’ve done this, we can kind of go to doing this free reign approach where we just create at random. If we have an idea where every sovereign power is, we can do that, but if we only know where one or two of them is, we can just do that and worry about the other territories later. These sovereign powers will certainly have one or more major cities, and now that we’ve got those on our map, if we have one, or at least a sense of where they are, we know the kind of territory that it may need to include.

Sometime during all of this, we’re going to need a bunch of names. One of the things that I will do after putting these names on all those cities and towns is I will create a file that’s basically a spreadsheet, and then it has rows for each city and then columns for things like the population, how old it is, the symbols and colors, and I will fill out that information for many of the major settlements all at the same time so that I can avoid doing something like giving two of them the exact same symbol or color combination.

This is, once again, a kind of top-down approach on creating many of the settlements, but we’re not doing a deep dive into each one of them. We’re just doing a basic look at all of them. As we do this, it gives us a sense of where the oldest settlements are and which ones are the biggest and, therefore, the most important. This way, later, we can do this more random kind of thing where if we want to set a story in one of those cities, then we go ahead and create the file using the template that I gave you, and you can just start filling that out as you need. It might be a long time before you ever fill out other cities. You may never do other cities if you’re never going to use them, but at least you know where they are and how old they are, what symbols and colors they’re using, and, generally, how many people are there. So, the general pattern with this is to create that loose framework and then fill in stuff at random when you need it.

More Resources

If you’re looking for more world building resources, has most of what you need. This includes more podcasts like this one, and free transcripts if you’d prefer to read an episode.

You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

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File Storage

The next thing I want to talk about is how to handle our files. We need somewhere to store our ideas, and the best scenario is one where we have access to those any time we have a device, whether it’s our phone, a tablet, a laptop computer, or even if we’re borrowing someone else’s computer.

There are two kinds of files that we need much more than anything else. The main one is any sort of word processor-like file, and then we may need a spreadsheet program. Only a certain number of us are going to get into doing maps, in which case we need special map-making software. Something like that needs to be installed on our device, and usually they don’t work as well on something like a phone, if they work there at all, or on a tablet. We might need a more powerful computer for them. So, what I’m talking about in this section is not that kind of program so much as the basic one where we need somewhere to write down our ideas.

Back in the day, the only option we had was the local computer hard drive. That was the only thing that was writeable. When I went back and forth from home to work and I wanted to take some files with me, I used to use a writeable CD, and then a DVD, and finally a thumb drive or pen drive. Some of those are still an option today, but one of the problems with those is that we have to take it with us and we could, of course, lose it. I’ve had a couple close calls with that, where one time it fell out of pocket in my car, but I didn’t know that, and I thought it fell out somewhere between my desk at work and my car, and I was kind of in a panic because my life’s work was sitting there on this pen drive. Of course, I had a copy at home, but if someone else found it, they also had a copy at home.

After that, I began encrypting those drives, but that was kind of a pain. Fortunately, I found it and let out a huge sigh of relief. Today, I don’t do any of that because I use Office 365, which I’ll talk a little bit more about later.

One of the problems with a hard drive is that they can fail, so we need another one to back up our content to. We used to have to connect another hard drive to our computer, but today we can have a home network where one is installed there, and we can even have a RAID setup. What that means is that there could be two drives in that backup setup, and when you copy something to one, it automatically gets copied to the other so that if one of the drives crashes, you’ve still got a backup. What this is not going to help with is if your house burns down because that’s going to kill all of your computers, including those backup drives.

So, it could be smart to take a copy, once every month or two, offsite to another location where you know it’s going to be safe, like your parents or someone else — another relative. Another option, and the one that I use, is to have a safety deposit box. This might cost me something like $60 a year, but that is a small price to pay for the peace of mind of knowing that if my house burns down while I am not there, I am not going to lose 30 years of work. This is not only a world building issue, but if you’re an author, it’s about all of your stories. And if you’re a gamer, it could be the same for all of that if you’ve got it digitally stored.

We have another option today, and that is to store our information on a website of one kind or another. They offer the opportunity to access our files from anywhere, and this is a good thing. However, we all know that websites get hacked, so there’s that. However, our local home computer and network can also be hacked. The question is how likely is it that someone’s going to target us? The answer is not likely, unless we’re famous, but it’s possible that we could get caught up in just a general hack. However, they probably weren’t looking for world building stuff. So, even if they find it, they probably are going to look right past that because they’re searching for our credit card information, for example.

But if we are on Google or Office 365, those are pretty big targets and there’s a decent chance that they could get hacked and our information could be taken. There are also smaller sites that are catering to world builders, and it’s much less likely that anyone is going to go after those simply because there aren’t going to be enough people there and there’s probably not nearly enough financial information, which is what hackers usually want, or something personal that they can compromise us with.

Another consideration about websites is the terms of service and whether or not we are the sole owners of anything that we upload to those sites. I think a while back, Facebook caused some controversy by basically saying they can do whatever they want with your information, and they acquired some copyright in it, and then people pushed back on this. It may not have been Facebook, but you get the idea. These sites can do this kind of stuff, and sometimes they insert language into their terms of service, and most of us just click the “OK” button, we don’t bother to read it, and then we’re hoping that somebody, somewhere will notice it if there’s something really offensive in there. Then, of course, we all freak out, we make a big fuss, and then a company like Facebook back walks on that. Creative people often worry, sometimes unnecessarily, about other people stealing their ideas. But if this is something that concerns you, it’s something you need to pay attention to.

Another issue about websites is that most of them cost money to operate, and so they may be charging us a fee that’s either monthly or yearly. For those of us who are already making money from any products released, this can be something that we can tolerate a little better.


I briefly want to talk about a few specific websites. The first of those is Microsoft Office 365. One factor to consider here is that you can access the online versions of all these programs, like Microsoft Word, or you can do it through the installed program. Well, the installed ones are usually the fully featured ones, and the website version is usually limited. What I have found is that I typically do my work through the installed version because pretty much every computer I use has it installed on there.

Another issue with Office that’s a good thing is that they have mobile apps. In fact, I’m actually looking at the mobile version of this chapter on my phone while I’m dictating into another computer. It is fairly seamless to transfer between each of these so that my updates on one immediately show up on the other.

Something I forgot to mention is that we need to also be worrying about whether the website does backups. A site like Office 365 is almost certainly doing robust backups so that if their servers fail, they’ve got a whole other server that has our information still on it. We might lose a day of our work, but we’re not going to lose five years or, in my case, thirty years of work if I choose to put it all on there — and I don’t. I only put on there the stuff that I am most likely to need on a regular basis and actually change, and I’m only going to want to do that if I’m away from my home. That’s the other consideration. I basically use Office 365 for my mobile files. When I was writing the book that this is from, Cultures and Beyond, that manuscript was in Office 365. The other two first volumes, those were removed because I didn’t need to access them regularly.

When it comes to backups, the great thing about Office 365 is that it automatically syncs files to your home computer, for example, so that you can still do backups the old fashioned way: two hard drives.

Another option that most of us have heard of is Google Docs, and this is one of the few that is free. I don’t believe this allows the same kind of synchronizing automatically, but you can click a folder and download stuff immediately. I used to use Google Docs, but one of the things that I don’t like is that I really do most of my work in Microsoft Word, and I found that the formatting of the fonts in Google Docs did not really line up well, and there was no easy way to convert it. I mean, they say you can download it and choose a format, but it never looked the same as my other stuff. So, I always had to use the format painter to fix all of the text, and this could sometimes be quite tedious.

However, one of the advantages to Google Docs is that it’s really easy to share a file with somebody else. They’re also, presumably, doing significant backups so that we would not lose much if one of their servers failed. They also have a whole bunch of mobile apps that you can work on through your phone or a tablet. However, there is no installed version of their apps, and one of the problems with this is that it’s not going to be nearly as powerful as something like the installed version of Microsoft Word. That said, we probably don’t need most of the features of Word.

In addition to those two sites, there are a number of world building sites that have cropped up in the last few years. I’m not going to list these because they could change at any time, and all you have to do is google “world building sites.” These are going to be websites, so they do offer the ability to log in from anywhere. However, I don’t think any of them have a mobile app. They may also limit your ability to download your files because they’ve got a specific format where everything is being typed into not an open text editor, but a field that has been set aside for you to enter that information. Some of them probably do have editor-like features, but I don’t think they’re going to be as robust as either Google Docs or Microsoft Word and the Office 365 platform.

Some of these sites offer world building advice or prompts to help you get going, but of course, you can get that from anywhere, such as this podcast or the series of books, or podcasts and books from other people. You don’t necessarily need it from a website where you are storing your ideas. That would appear to be one of the main draws of these sites.

Something else we must be concerned about here is how they are doing backups. These sites are being run by individuals, maybe a handful of them. Do we know if they’re storing all the information on a server in their basement or if it’s stored in a professional web service provider? This is something that may be spelled out on their site, and if it’s not, then I would strongly suggest that you ask before putting your material on there. I have heard of a few people saying that there was a server crash, and despite the best efforts by the site owners, they lost everything.

One of the advantages of these sites is that some of them are setup to allow you to connect a lot of your ideas on a webpage so that people can have a kind of interactive experience. But what I would suggest, and if I ever did this, what I would do is I would still work offline away from that site, but then if I wanted to give my readers that experience where they can click on a map and a little window will show up with a bunch of information about a city or a land feature, I would just set that up for each book and use it as something that’s cool for that book or a series. I wouldn’t necessarily store my personal world building files in there.

And I don’t mean to sound negative about these. You should look at them and decide if they work for you because a lot of people do love these sites. Personally, I don’t need them, and that’s partly because I was world building before some of those people were even born. In other words, aside from occasionally switching from my hard drive to Google Docs and then to Microsoft Office 365, I’m basically fine with word processing files, Excel spreadsheets, and then, of course, the occasional map program.

A final word on this is that most of these sites have a cost, although they sometimes have a free plan that can get you started.

World Building University

If you’d like to learn world building skills through instruction, I’ve launched World Building University. There you can find one free course you can take just by signing up, which has no obligation. Other courses are in development and available now. You can preview parts of every course, all of which include video lessons, quizzes, assignments, and sometimes downloadable templates that are even better than those found in the books.

To get your first free course, just go to

Get Organized

Since world building can produce a lot of files, one of the things we need to do is get organized if we are not already. Some of those world building sites will basically take care of some of that organization for us because they’ve got a set way of doing things. One reason to check out those sites is that you might like the way they organize things. But, then again, you may not.

What I’m going to suggest now is a potential folder structure, and this is one that I have used before, and I’ve also changed it many times. I would suggest that you choose something and then live with it for a while, and if you want to change it, you’re going to know why. Something won’t be working about the way you’ve got it set up.

So, you may not like this idea, but what I do is, of course, I have a folder for the name of the world. Within that, I might have another folder for life. Within that, there could be another folder for animals, one for plants, monsters, the supernatural and species. At the same level as that life folder, I might have multiple folders, one for each continent. Then, within each of those, I might have another folder for the maps, another for the settlements, and another one for the sovereign powers.

But let’s talk about another way of doing this. I could have a folder for all of the animals, with each animal being its own file. Or I could put all of the animals into a single file. In that case, I wouldn’t need the folder. I could do the same thing with species, where I have 10 species files inside a folder called species, or I could just get rid of that folder called species and have all of my 10 species inside a single file.

One reason not to put so many species, for example, in a single file is that it can be hard to navigate within that file. However, Microsoft Word has something called the Navigation Pane, and this basically opens up, on the left side, a collapsible and expandable outline of where everything is. Basically, you can jump within your file very easily by clicking on one of the headings that you’ve used. This is a feature that I swear by. If Microsoft ever gets rid of it, I will likely storm their offices and demand that they put it back. What that feature allows me to do is put a lot of information into a single file and keep it easily organized and navigable. This is one reason why I didn’t like Google Docs because that did not exist.

When it comes to files, I’ve already discussed a few like that spreadsheet listing all the cities and giving high level information on them. In a spreadsheet, you can have multiple tabs, so I have one for cities, another one for life forms, like species, another one for animals, another one for plants and another one for, say, the gods. The information that I put into those is the high level stuff so that I can see, at a glance, a bunch of information about all of them at the same time. Otherwise, if I have, let’s say, 10 species, and I have 10 different files, then I have to open up 10 different files to see what’s going on.

But one of the things we need to try to avoid doing is duplication of information. So, let’s say that I’ve put the city colors into my spreadsheet, listing the city colors of every settlement, and then I have a file for that settlement and I’ve listed the city colors there again. There’s a likelihood that, at some point, I might change it, and I forget to change it in both locations. This is one reason not to do that kind of thing. Or we have to make a mental note that one of these is always going to be canon, or the master. That way, if they get out of sync, we know, “Okay. The spreadsheet, in my case, is the master. That’s the one. If there’s a conflict, I know that the most up-to-date and accurate information is the one in that spreadsheet,” and I am very diligent about this.

There’s another problem we can have with world building, and that is that sometimes we are not trying to do world building. We might be trying to work on something else, like a novel, and then we have an idea for the setting. And if we open up a file, like a species file, we might see other stuff in there that also attracts our attention, and the next thing we know, our attention has been taken away from what we were working on and now we have been pulled back into world building. To avoid this problem, I keep a file for each of my settings, and it has the name and it basically says, “Changes to make.” What this allows me to do is collect all of my ideas in that file, and that’s a kind of list of impending changes that I want to make to that setting. But I’m just listing it there temporarily so that I don’t open up my files in that setting and get sucked in.

I also recommend having a single file like that because I do something that you may be doing, as well. Sometimes I email myself an idea. Sometimes I open up a calendar item and I type it into there because I have a kind of daily schedule of stuff I need to do today. For example, today on there is “record a podcast episode.” But, you know, later today, I’ve got other stuff I need to do. I might have just opened that calendar item and jotted my note there, but eventually it needs to move to that file that’s called “changes to make.” I also sometimes jot notes down on the notes application on my smartphone. All of those places I consider to be temporary locations before they get moved to that “changes to make” file, and that’s also a temporary location, but at least it’s one where I’m not going to lose track of that. A note on my phone, or especially an email, is going to slowly get lost in time as I accumulate other emails and notes.

So, I try to be pretty good about taking those notes that I’ve made to myself and I copy them to my “changes to make” file. And eventually, when I make a conscious decision that I’m going to actually return to world building on that setting and I want to look at some of those ideas, I go back there, take one of them, open the appropriate world building file and I start fleshing it out.


So let’s talk about how to subscribe to this podcast. A podcast is a free, downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go. To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.

For iPhone, iPad, and iPod listeners, grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes Store and search for The Art of World Building. This will help you to download the free podcast app, which is produced by Apple, and then subscribe to the show from within that app. Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right onto your device.

For Android listeners, you can download the Stitcher radio app, which is free, and search for The Art of World Building.

This only needs to be done once and at that point, you will never miss an episode.

World Building Coalitions

The last thing I want to talk about is a world building coalition. This is an idea that I brainstormed a few years ago. It’s a way of possibly partnering with other world builders. Consider this a thought exercise, and it may be something where you like the idea, and maybe you don’t, but at least you have some idea of whether this is even feasible for you. Since I haven’t actually done a world building coalition, I would be the first one to admit there are details that you would have to work out with others in your coalition if you decide to go through with this.

A world building coalition, or WBC, is a collection of people who have agreed to build a world together, sharing the labor and the fruits of that labor. Certain high-level ideas would be easier to share, such as the overall world feel, the gods and maybe many of the lifeforms that are on that planet. We may even be able to share sovereign powers, although I do recommend that each person get a sovereign power of their own that they can do whatever they want with, and they are the owner of that, basically. Such a person would be a world building owner, or WBO.

One of the things that would be needed for this to work is what I’m going to call a covenant, or kind of a contract or agreement about what is possible. I’m going to go into some details here, but the basic point is that no one wants to go in assuming that everyone’s going to be fine with everything that’s happening, and that if a dispute comes up, everyone’s going to just figure out how to work it out. An analogy that comes to mind is with rock bands where they don’t have any contract in the beginning, whoever’s writing music is just writing it, and then they become famous, for example. And then some of the writers are getting the money and the people who are not writing are not getting any money, and there starts to be all this tension about who’s making what More than one band has broken up over this, and more than one friendship has broken up over similar disagreements. So that’s something you want to consider and avoid right from the beginning if you can.

Let’s talk about a few potential roles. The most important of those is the world master. This is the person who has the overriding authority for that planet, or a group of them in something like a solar system if that’s the scope of what you’re doing. Maybe this person has tie-breaking authority, and they would have the responsibility of moderating disputes, laying out some rules and just general administration of everything in the world building coalition. In most cases, this would probably be the person who created the WBC in the first place. This person would probably need a backup person in case they are indisposed temporarily.

Another important role would be the continent master or CM. Imagine that your WBC has seven continents, each with a CM. This allows each person to have some ownership of something, and they are the final authority on that particular continent. So, if you’ve got a continent and I’ve got an idea for it, I can run it past you. And if it’s agreed upon, then it becomes accepted and any of us could use it, but if I’m suggesting a change to that continent and you don’t like it, you get to overrule me.

One of the things that we’re alluding to here is that anyone can use things in a kind of read manner versus a write manner. What I mean is that if you’ve created something, I can go ahead and use that. But I can’t make changes to yours, or at least I can’t do it without your permission. Maybe there is a 2,000-year history on your continent and you have decided to let me have the years 500-1,000. During that period, I can make various changes to kingdoms, making them rise and fall, as long as I don’t change the future that you have set up. There are various ways that this kind of thing could be done. You could have seven people in your group, and each one of them has a period of 1,000 years where they can do whatever they want. They are the owner of that timeline.

One of the things we’re getting to here is that the WBC must decide what items will be shared and what will belong to each world building owner. Anything that’s shared must be voted upon by the entire coalition, or however you decide to set this up. If it’s maybe just the majority rules and the change goes into effect, or does it have to be unanimous? We could also have other roles besides the continent master, such as a sovereign power master or even just a settlement master. Each of these roles is the final authority, and it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world building coalition wants to do with one of those territories. Whether it’s a city or a sovereign power, they cannot overrule the master of that.

Something else that should probably be considered and spelled out in a covenant is the life cycle. World building can go on forever, and some of the people involved in that coalition may come and go. So, what happens when this happens? For example, if I leave your coalition, do I lose my rights immediately or do I never lose them? Can I transfer my stake to another world building owner? What happens if I get suspended, such as I need to go away for a long period of time? I won’t be around to cast my vote for any WBC business. What happens if I abandon my stake in the WBC? I just simply stop responding and no one knows how to get ahold of me. What happens to my properties? Is there a period of time where I lose my status as a world building owner of something? And, of course, sometimes people might get terminated. They might actually get kicked out of the coalition. What happens in this case? Does that person still own their property? Can they still use it, but they can no longer make changes?

In order to run a world building coalition, you would presumably need an ability to track the information that everyone is doing, and even stuff like the meeting minutes for any business that you’re conducting. Some of those websites that I was just talking about could be ideal for this. Now, I don’t know if a world building coalition would work. I’d certainly be curious to see what happens. If you ever form one and you’re running into problems and you want to talk to me about it, I would love to hear what happens and how you guys are resolving things and whether things are working out or not.


if you’re enjoying the podcast, please rate and review the show at Reviews really are critical to encouraging more people to listen to a show haven’t heard of before, and it can also help the show rank better, allowing more people to discover it. Again, that URL is


Well, we’ve come to the end of The Art of World Building Podcast. I hope that you’ve learned a lot from this and benefited from it. And if you have, feel free to drop me a line and tell me what you loved, tell me what you didn’t love. Feel free to tell other people what you loved and not tell them what you didn’t love. And, you know, if you want to leave a review, again, that would certainly help me. Part of me is excited to be finishing this because it is time consuming, even though I love doing it, but I have many other things that I want to do, such as going back to writing more of my own books that are not about world building.

On the other hand, this is a sad occasion because it is the end. So, we’re going to end with a different song of mine. This one is called “Tears” from the Serenade of Strings album. I’m going to end with two phrases that I thought of somewhere in all of this, and have been repeating. One of them is: “Build better, faster.” And, of course, the most important thing is remember this: “world building is fun.”

Goodbye, for now, and thanks for listening. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, signing off.

5 Tips for Creating Plants & Animals

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Oct 192020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 1, #6): Plants and Animals

This is the sixth in a series of world building articles! Today’s theme is plants and animals. This will get you started, but you can read more about this in Chapter 6, “Creating Plants and Animals,” from Creating Life, (The Art of World Building, #1).

Tip #1: “Decide Whether to Invent Plants or Animals”

Learn the benefit of creating either and how to speed up the process using analogues or the templates below. In SF, we really need to invent them if characters are on other worlds where they will be different. Fantasy can get away with mostly Earth-like life with some additions if we have ideas. Creating Life can help you think of some.

Tip #2: “How Will You and Characters Use It?”

There’s no reason to invent something if we don’t have a plan for it. Both plants and animals are good for products to make life better. Create a list of these uses, such as decoration, food, medicine, entertainment, guards, pets, transportation, pets, and domestication. This will create goals for you to achieve with invention.

Tip #3: “Research Earth Analogues”

Creating plants and animals from scratch isn’t easy, so learn to model them on analogues from Earth. Researching even known ones can turn up surprising facts we didn’t know. These can be used as inspiration while freeing us to tweak details to our liking. That way, we don’t have to “get it right” because we’re the authority, not the truth.

Tip #4: “Understand Classifications”

Animals are classified as amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles, while plants are classified as seedless, seeding, and flowering. Understanding the differences can help us be specific and invent details that make our new life forms worth the time to invent. Creating Life includes extensive research that world builders need to know about this.

Tip #5: “Know Your Limits”

It’s usually best to invent only a few plants and animals for a setting simply because we won’t have much occasion to mention them. This is true of even worlds we’ll use for decades in a long, cherished career. In such cases, new life can often be invented on the fly, so this is an area of world building that is ripe for doing piecemeal rather than all at once.

Summary of Chapter 6—Creating Plants and Animals

#authors can learn how create #plants and #animals in #fantasy and #scifi when #worldbuilding. These 5 tips are extracted from CREATING LIFE (THE ART OF WORLD BUILDING, 1). Read more at

In fantasy, creating plants and animals is optional due to expectations that the world is very Earth-like, but in SF that takes place away from Earth, audiences are more likely to expect new ones. It takes less time to create these than other life in this book, but we’ll want to consider our time investment, how often our setting will be used, whether our creations impact our work and the impression it creates, and whether the desire to do something unique and new is worthwhile for both us and our audience.

Plants and animals are classified into categories, such as cycads, conifers, and flowering plants, and amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles. The lifecycle of the former and the behavior of the latter help distinguish them and can be used to propel or inhibit stories involving them. While we may have purposes for them as an author, our world’s inhabitants have them, too, such as decoration and medicinal uses for plants, and domestication, sports, guards, pets and transportation for animals. Both can be used for food and materials to enrich life and our world.

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Volume 6 Released

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Oct 142020

For those of you listening to The Art of World Building Podcast, the final book of transcripts is now available in all formats: audio book, eBook, paperback, and hardback. Thank you for listening. It has been a great journey that is now, most likely, complete!


Patreon Reward – Tips Video on Water Travel

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Oct 132020

The early access reward is available for patrons. It’s the 5 Tips video for Water Travel.

Get quick tips on how to replace #ship #cannons with other weapons, why people aren’t sick of existing ship types you can use, all about rates, and where you can get more details about traveling by water. These #worldbuilding tips will help your #fantasy or #scifi setting.

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5 Tips – Creating Land Features

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Oct 122020

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #3): Land Features

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is land features. You can read more in Chapter 4, “Creating Land Features,” from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Know Where Volcanic Mountains Aren’t”

When an oceanic and a continental tectonic plate meet, the former descends under the latter and causes volcanoes, but when two continental plates meet, they fold on top of each other, creating the highest mountains on Earth. They also aren’t volcanic. Your interior mountains will be the tallest.

Tip #2: “Olympus Mons on Mars is Huge…And Boring”

With Mount Everest being 29,035 feet, Olympus Monson Mars might sound far more impressive at 69,459, but it’s not. It’s so wide, the size of France, that you wouldn’t even realize you’re standing on one. It won’t cut a majestic figure against the sky. Bigger isn’t always better.

Tip #3: “A Volcano Can Be Anywhere”

Due to random faults that appear in tectonic plate, we get put a volcano anywhere we want.

Tip #4: “Mountains ‘Humanize’ Dragons”

Dragons often appear to be invincible, but if we want to be more realistic, make it harder for them to fly at high altitudes. This happens with real Earth birds, who struggle to get over very tall mountains. Making your dragons struggle, too, gives them a vulnerability and makes them seem more plausible.

Tip #5: “Decide How Old a River Is”

Younger rivers tend toward being fast, rapid, and somewhat straight. By contrast, ancient rivers are slow, wide, and meander in a zig-zig pattern. Using these wisely lets us avoid all rivers being shown as the same.

Summary of Chapter 4—Creating Land Features

A continent will have mountains, volcanoes, lakes, rivers, forests, woodlands, savannahs, jungles, prairies, wetlands, and deserts, but world builders should understand each to place them in believable locations. While some aspects are obvious, minor details can change our decisions and augment our resulting stories. Why say characters have entered a run-of-the-mill forest when we can say it’s a savannah instead, describing how it looks and what life is like for inhabitants and those traversing it? This chapter aids world builders in making a more varied landscape—one that is accurately depicted.

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5 Tips – Magic Systems

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Oct 072020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #6): Magic Systems

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is magic systems. You can read more in Chapter 6, “Creating Magic Systems,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Are Unpredictable Results Possible?”

In some worlds, like Harry Potter, spells that aren’t cast correctly still “go off” but with unexpected results. Is this possible in your setting? Or does the spell fail? The latter seems more believable; the ability to so easily screw it up makes magic so absurdly dangerous that it’s likely forbidden pretty much everywhere.

Tip #2: “Decide if Spells Are Needed”

Do people need to recite memorized lines, make gestures, or use physical materials to do magic? Or can they do it by force of will, like a god? In theory, spells are to achieve a specific result within a range of possible results, meaning limits are built in. The caster’s skill and strength determine where in the possible range their spell falls. But if willing things to happen, there may be fewer limits and more inherent danger. What makes sense for the story?

Tip #3: “Have a Good Name”

While we can just call it “magic” and keep it simple, this doesn’t work when there’s more than one type in the setting. Invent cool names for each to increase audience attraction. We can also call the practitioners a related name instead of the generic “wizard,” for example. This distinguishes our setting, too.

Tip #4: “Sanderson’s Laws Are Not Laws”

Author Brandon Sanderson proposed three “laws” of magic systems that are not laws but guidelines that should not make us feel restricted, but they’re worth noting. They amount to making the reader understand the magic before using it to solve problems, creating limitations on magic, and expanding what you have before adding new ideas. Sound advice!

Tip #5: “Decide What Training is Needed”

What can magic users do without training? Anything at all? Do they need formal training to become powerful, skilled, or even be allowed to perform magic? Refusal to accept training is an easy way to make someone an outlaw. Decide what sort of training is available and from who (person, group, guild, university, sovereign power). Defining this allows us to create distinctions between wizards who received training from one or another.

Summary of Chapter 6—Creating a System of Magic

Magic systems can be simple or complex, but they should always be consistent. This chapter discusses the methods and principles of good systems and how to create them. This includes the importance of naming them, deciding if spells are needed and what those are for, whether spells can go wrong and how, and different types of magic we might want to include in our settings. We’ll also look at how much training someone might need, what forms that training takes, and learn how to decide what’s right for our setting. And no discussion of magic is complete without a look at how to invent spells.

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Patreon Reward – Ep. 21

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Oct 072020

The latest reward for the Knight Tier of subscribers on Patreon is now live: PDF download of “The Art of World Building Podcast Transcript – Ep. 21”

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Podcast Episode 32 – Other Systems

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Oct 062020

Episode 32: Learn How to Other Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create other systems. This includes legal, health, IT, education, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • How to invent education systems and whether public or private ones are available
  • Why health systems should include mental health and what that might look like in a fantasy setting
  • How to create laws
  • The different kinds of legal systems
  • Different ideas on trial by ordeal and combat
  • How to craft easy-to-remember monetary systems and things we don’t need to worry about
  • What a unit of value vs. unit of weight is
  • Why information systems still apply to a fantasy setting

Thanks so much for listening this week. Want to subscribe to The Art of World Building Podcast? Have some feedback you’d like to share? A review would be greatly appreciated!

Episode 32 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-two. Today’s topic is about how to create other systems. This includes legal, health, IT, education, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 10 of Cultures and Beyond, volume 3 in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at

Education Systems

A quick reminder, as we get started, that you can now buy transcripts of these episodes from or

The first kind of system we’re going to talk about is one for education. If we are storytellers, just about every character we ever invent is going to go through an education system. Some of them won’t, but, of course, many of the other characters will, and this will put that character at a disadvantage. So, it is still relevant. The only time it won’t be is if every character has the exact same education. Otherwise, our interactions, and certainly our opportunities, like jobs, are going to be impacted by this. And if we’re trying to do a character backstory, this is something we really need to know about them.

Systems are typically public, and that means that the government is paying for them. There is private education, but that is not typically a system. Each of those schools is a sort of one-off. That said, a private school may still need to pass some sort of government regulation. It’s sort of part of the system and not part of the system at the same time. It’s definitely not part of the public system, which has expectations.

One point here is that since the government is responsible for public education, if the government is inadequate, there may not be one. So, for example, a tribe of nomadic horsemen doesn’t really have a system in that sense. They will still have education, but it’s probably going to be passed down in a less formal setting.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to break down education into basic and special. By basic education, I mean a lot of those things that most of us take for granted, like reading, writing and basic arithmetic. By contrast, something like getting a college degree in music, like I have, would be special education. Sometimes we may learn the basics of something like music when we are in, say, grade school or even through high school, but we don’t really do a deep dive until we decide to become a specialist and major in that in college.

So, basic education means having a basic familiarity with most things that are relevant in a society. If we have a space-faring civilization, then everyone is going to have some familiarity with things like warp drives. They’re not going to draw a total blank and have no idea what you are talking about because the school system would’ve given them this basic education in that. Someone who goes on to be an engineer who can work on or build warp engines is someone who has special education in it.

In a less developed world, whether it’s fantasy or science fiction, we may have a setting where the children are expected to work because it’s too hard to get the basics of life. Therefore, they don’t have the time and the luxury to go off to something like public school. Today, we have things like child labor laws, but in the past that didn’t exist, partly because children often were required to work. This is something that’s going to come up in fantasy where children may have to do an apprenticeship with either their parents, to take over the family business, or someone else within the same settlement.

The same can exist in science fiction, depending on the technological level and what’s currently going on. For example, the age during which spaceships were routinely being built might have recently passed, and we are now in a kind of dystopian period where things are not so great and the public system of education has fallen into disrepair. However, in this kind of scenario, a lot of knowledge is going to be shared by the public in general. Even though, maybe today, children are not necessarily receiving the same sort of formal schooling, there’s still a general knowledge of something like warp drive. We don’t need to invent an entire curriculum for what people learn. We can just decide on the basic level of education for most people in our setting. Unless we need a character to have a specific kind of ignorance compared to everyone else, this is usually fine.

From the book, I have a couple examples I’m going to read off to you of what we might want to write in our world building files for both science fiction and fantasy. In science fiction, we might write something like, “At age six, students are legally required to enroll at a public Kierdon school, named for the famous scientist, Kier, which they attend until age sixteen. After this, each student must enroll in a technical school for two years, learning space sciences. Advanced education beyond this is available in three-year stints, each resulting in a degree.” Part of what this gets us is the age at which people start and finish, and the kinds of things that they may be studying if it’s not obvious.

For fantasy, we might write, “At age six, students may enroll in a private Kierdon school, named for the God of Knowledge, Kier, if their parents can spare their work hours and afford the modest price. Students may work at the school in lieu of paying in gold. Enrollment is not required. School ends at age twelve, though students can leave at any time. Advanced schooling beyond this is only for nobility, or those considered unique or special, and who must pay with years of service, not less than ten, in their profession after graduation. Refusal will result in lifelong servitude.”

These examples give us a rough idea of the kind of thing we want to write in our files to indicate the basic education level. When it comes to special education, this is probably more likely in a setting where basic education advances at least through a good portion of the teenage years. The reason is that what we consider, today, to be advanced education usually requires a certain amount of that basic education. We probably find it easier to believe someone has a college degree in a science fiction setting than in a fantasy setting, or the equivalent amount of knowledge.

In a setting where school ends early, like that fantasy example where I had it ending around age twelve, if someone does get advanced education, it might not be in something like a public or even a private university, but more from something like an apprenticeship. So, we might have a wizard, for example, who is a sorcerer’s apprentice. When it comes to being an apprentice, this isn’t necessarily reserved just for advanced learning. This might be the only form of education that is available to people. This is not really part of a system unless something like a wizard’s guild is overseeing the sort of training the individual wizards prepare for people.

However, we could still consider that private or public, depending on whether the local government is funding the guild or assisting with these apprenticeships. Naturally, when taxpayer dollars are being expended that way, then something like a city council has some ability to meddle in how the apprenticeship is done. So, decide if this is a complication that you might benefit from with your story. We can imagine an apprenticeship where the wizard giving it chaffs at these restrictions and maybe they stop doing it through the affiliation with the government or with a guild, and they go off and do it on their own, somewhere out in the wilderness where they are supposedly not under anyone’s authority anymore. The government may disagree about that, but it sets up a nice conflict for us.

Wizards aren’t the only people who can have an apprenticeship. Obviously, we have more mundane ones, such as something like blacksmithing — no offense to blacksmiths. Then, of course, in science fiction, any number of technologies could be taught by individuals if there is no public, or an inadequate, education system.

We may need to decide on some rules for this, but this is, once again, only going to apply if that apprenticeship is being overseen by a governing body. One rule that we may want to come up with is what age an apprenticeship can begin at, and when is it expected to end? We should also decide if the apprentice needs to live with the master. That is one of several basic concerns we need to think about with all types of education systems, whether it’s public private, basic, specialized or an apprenticeship. We’ve all heard of the boarding school where students live at the school. This can either be during the day or it can be overnight. It can be something like the weekdays, or it can be all year round.

Another issue is whether students are required to go to school. In the United States, it is the responsibility of the parents to ensure that a child of eligible age is enrolled and attends. It’s actually illegal if they don’t, and it is the parents, not the child, that can get into trouble because children are believed to not be as responsible, but we could change that in our setting and have the children be the ones who get into trouble. This might happen if our culture values responsibility and wants to teach that at an early age.

Always remember to consider the culture and the value system. At first glance, that idea that the child would get in trouble seems a little bit odd to us, but if we think of it from the standpoint of what I just said, that they want to teach responsibility, then it becomes understandable. Have a rational for these types of changes makes it something that the audience can accept. Otherwise, something may come across as unfair when the culture doesn’t mean it to be so.

Another issue we should decide is if there are facilities that are part of the school or do students need to go off campus to get them? So, an example of that would be something like a library, a laboratory or even a gym. This may not seem important, but imagine a scenario where there’s no on-campus library, and at a certain time of the day, the students tend to leave campus en masse and descend on the local library. Then we have our main characters who are trying to get into that library to get something, and they find it really crowded. This is a really subtle way of indicating what’s going on. Maybe a character knows that they need to get to the library quick, before 12 o’clock rolls around, because that’s when all the local college students overrun the place. It’s a trivial detail that adds depth.

And, of course, another subject we should discuss is whether segregation exists, or even discrimination, which can be by gender, race, species, ethnicity, social class, bloodline and anything else we can think of, really. Some people may be denied education altogether, whereas some have to go off and get it in private or through an apprenticeship. This may have a consequence to how well-educated they are, which in turn is going to impact their relationships and their opportunities.

More Resources

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You can also find more information on all three volumes of The Art of World Building series, which is available in eBook, print, and audiobook formats. Much of the content of those books is available on the website for free.

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Health Systems

The next system we’re going to talk about is a health system. This can be broken down into mental health and medical health, which we will talk about first. On Earth, life expectancy before the 1900s was seldom above 30 years old. But there is an idea that if someone made it to the age of 20, they could reasonably expect to live another 30 or 40 years. The reason for this was that childhood was the prominent time when people died. The obvious reason for this is that children are more susceptible to sickness. The high percentage of children dying young is what brought the overall life expectancy that low.

Sometimes the percentage of people reaching age 20 could be as low as 60%. That means that for every 100 people that exist under the age of 20, there are only 60 people above the age of 20. One thing this certainly suggests is that few of our characters are going to have living grandparents, and many of them may not have one or either parent still alive.

In a fantasy setting especially, the magical healing or laying-on of hands typically means that a god’s power has been channeled through somebody’s body, which is being used as a vessel to heal the wounded. We can still do this in science fiction, but typically, what we’re going to see is medicine that is far in advance of what we have today on Earth. But something we should avoid with either of these is making it too easy for someone to be completely healed with no real consequence to the person or the technology that did the healing. The reason for this is that if people can be healed that easily, then there’s really nothing for us to worry about as an audience member when they get hurt.

This is one reason why I, personally, don’t get all that caught up in any sort of superhero movie where the characters, who are all superheroes, are beating the stuffing out of each other because none of them ever seem to get hurt. Or, if they do, it’s for a few minutes. For me, these scenes lack any drama at all.

Something we should consider is that until relatively recently in human history here on Earth, the existence of germs was poorly understood or not known at all. Therefore, we’re going to have more issues with people getting sick in a setting that doesn’t understand this kind of thing. The result is going to be poor hygiene and things like not washing their hands after you’re going to the bathroom, or before eating. There is a reason that there used to be a lot of plagues, and that today there are not nearly as many of those.

As it turns out, while I’m doing this episode, the Coronavirus from China is running rampant. So, these things do, sometimes, still happen. Something we should consider adding to our setting is one or more plagues that have happened in the last 100 or 200 years because it most likely has happened if the medicine is worse than it is here in the early 1900s and beyond. It’s believable that multiple characters would have an ancestor who died from one.

This sort of thing is also true in science fiction when characters are planet hopping because the germs from one planet are non-existent on the other, generally, unless they’ve already been introduced. This is one reason why we see characters wearing space suits, and it’s not just because they’re trying to find out if the atmosphere is breathable. This idea of a pathogen making everyone sick is a bit of a cliche, but it’s also so believable that it would almost not make sense to never feature this.

This is one reason why the medicine is often shown to be so powerful that it can quickly eradicate this sort of thing. Authors do this because, otherwise, every single story would turn into a biological nightmare story. Rather than gloss over this kind of thing, we probably want to quickly show it or even, in something like a book where the number of days being passed is irrelevant because we can simply state it in a single sentence, we can decide that someone has been quarantined for something like a week, two weeks, and they’ve been inoculated against these things so that they can be there without getting themselves sick, and any pathogens they are carrying won’t get the locals sick. However, especially in that latter case of them not bringing something, and everyone on the planet being safe from it, that’s a pretty big stretch of the imagination, but it’s a caveat that we may have to do. We call it artistic license. Just be aware that it’s not believable, but people will accept it.

Many of us have heard of bloodletting, which has an interesting history behind it. Ancient physicians believed that the body had four humors, as they called them, and that an excess or deficiency in any of these, or a poor combination of them, resulted in an illness. The four humors were blood, bile, phlegm, and black bile, which is believed to be clotted blood because that appears black.

Sometimes people were made to consume a food or a drink to correct an imbalance in these humors, and bloodletting is another example of this because, in this case, too much blood, therefore you let some of the blood out. This practice was surprisingly widespread and lasted for about 2,000 years. These physicians were wrong, of course. These practices didn’t actually help anybody unless it was coincidentally, such as having high blood pressure, and reducing the amount of blood in the body temporarily fixing this. The practices could often be quite harmful. But what if we had a species where their body actually is like this, whether it’s those four humors or something else, and these practices work? That would be an interesting thing to do.

We’ve all heard of a quack, which is someone who uses questionable claims and practices to try to help people, or at least claim that they’re going to do so. They often sold something like a balm or an oil that had materials that were considered to be unique inside them. If we have a setting with unique plants and animals, then it’s easier for us to come up with something like the infamous snake oil salesman kind of idea.

Some of these substances were harmful, and some of them could be addictive. That could have been, also, on purpose. If you’re trying to con people, it seems like a good idea to make them addicted to whatever it is that you’re selling. Some of these people were not nefarious. They honestly believed that what they were doing would help, and they genuinely wanted to help people.

Regardless of our decision, in a society where ignorance is more widespread because of our educational system, then these quacks are also going to be more widespread. In science fiction, where we are more likely to have planet-hopping characters, we’re more likely to run into these exotic materials that may have a reputation, even if it’s false, for some sort of miraculous cure.

Mental Health

Let’s talk about mental health. On Earth, the field of psychology is a relatively young one. Long ago, people could be confined, possibly for the rest of their life, for having something that, today, we would consider to be a minor problem that could be treated with behavior therapy or possibly medication. It was even possible to declare someone mentally incompetent, or something to that effect, if they were disagreeable.

One of the abuses heaped upon women is that a husband could have her declared insane and get her committed. That’s obviously a little bit extreme, but we have these options in our world. As far as the confinement goes, most of us are probably thinking of something like a prison or a mental hospital, but these mental hospitals may not have existed. So, an option that we’re left with is someone in the community being willing to essentially imprison these people in something like their basement and take care of them. The quality of care is, of course, going to be questionable — or it could be. It really depends on who is doing this. If this person has no ethics and they’re getting some sort of payment from the town for doing this, then, of course, that money might just be going into their own pocket instead of helping these patients live a decent life. But if it’s someone who is religious, they might actually, genuinely care about these people and want to help them.

Consider where the people who are considered mentally unwell are kept if they cannot be treated in the society due to not having enough advances in mental healthcare. There is likely a well-known location, such as a building in just about every town where the crazy people are kept. In a more advanced society, it’s more likely that they will have medication and other things to help people, just as we do today, and that only a small number of people will end up being confined. But they still will be, so there’s going to be one of these places in a city. Maybe more than one.

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Legal Systems

Legal systems are one of the more important systems we need to invent. This is true even if it’s as simple as an eye for an eye because if one person kills another in revenge like that, maybe everyone else just lets it go. And if they don’t, then maybe something like a blood feud will start. In other words, we still need to know what the consequences of such an action are.

As it turns out, there are several types of legal systems. One of them is known as civil law. This means that a legislator creates and modifies an authoritative source that formalizes laws, and that source is either a constitution, which is at the sovereign power or federal level, or a statute, which is at a lower level, like the states in the United States.

The constitutional laws tend to be kind of broad, and they end up being interpreted at the lower or statutory level, like in the states. This is one reason why we may see different laws in different states because there are different interpretations. An example in the U.S. right now is that marijuana is illegal at the federal level, but it is legal in some of the states. If we want to do something like this in our fictional world, we just need to know that there’s something like a sovereign power, and then self-governing bodies, like the U.S. states or provinces, within that body. This is one way a character can get themselves into trouble when they’re traveling because they have moved between different jurisdictions with different laws.

Civil law is one of the most common types of law systems, and common law, as it turns out, is the other big one. It’s called common law because it was common in England among the king’s courts. Along with civil law, common law is the other most common on Earth. And, in fact, it’s about one-third of the Earth. This one is interesting because the primary feature is that a judge will look to any sort of past case that is like the one that has come before him, and if this past case is similar enough to the current one, he must abide by the reasoning that went into that previous case when ruling on the current case. This means that precedents are considered the law. If the case is unique, he will be the first one to rule on this subject, and his decision will go on to be the precedent that other judges must consider.

In other words, these judges are actually making the laws if there isn’t one for them to already follow. This is very different from civil law where a judge would have no authority to do anything if no law has been broken. But a judge in a common law system can essentially decide that there is a law that has been broken. This is true even if one doesn’t really exist. Another name for this is judge-made law or judicial law.

The other type of legal system is religious law. This is one where the Bible, for example, would be considered the legal text. The author of such a document is considered to be a god. However, sometimes a prophet, like Moses, wrote down those laws, like the famous Ten Commandments, and these are considered Mosaic Law, meaning they are named after the prophet.

Creating Laws

One of the things we all want to do is figure out how to create laws. I’m going to break this down into what might be considered moral laws and then incident laws. A moral law would be one that something like religion can influence. And that means where the values, morals and beliefs are promoted through restrictions on what is considered permissible behavior. An example would be laws about abortion or whether capital punishment is allowed. Morality is one of the things that causes the law to be one way or the other.

In Chapter 1 of Cultures and Beyond, the chapter on creating culture, we looked at the idea of cultural idea and vision. We should consider this when we are trying to invent a new law that has a moral nature. This is one way to use work we’ve already done. In the book, I have a bunch of examples — and I’m going to read a few of them — of what could be considered moral laws. This means that either a value, a belief, or a moral idea has led to the existence of this law.

For example, maybe black magic is forbidden, and the reason would be that it’s a morality question where you have to deal with unholy forces. A law could be goblins are not allowed near a treasury, and this would be based on the belief that they are thieves. Another law could be that fire wizards must assist with extinguishing public fires. This would be based on a value that they should help society.

Another type of law is what I think of as incident laws. This means something has happened and now there’s a law to inhibit that happening again. That’s pretty self-explanatory, so let’s look at some examples. Let’s say black magic is forbidden, and the reason would be that this leads to unsavory beings being in town, and the resulting problems they bring. You’ll notice this was also what I called a moral law. So, we could have both moral laws and incident laws where the two of them are essentially merged. So, we’ve got one law that satisfies both of these desires.

Another example of that would be the one about goblins not being allowed near the treasury. This could be again because they robbed several treasuries in neighboring kingdoms. So, there’s your incident, one that could have led to the belief I stated earlier that they are thieves. Another law could be that children may not perform magic because they’re too undisciplined and they’ve caused problems before.

The great thing about inventing incident laws is that they give us a little bit of history in small bits, and we can make these up as we go along, or just whenever we have an idea. It doesn’t take very long.


Let’s talk about trials. This is where we get into the fun stuff. As we all know, the point of a trial is to find out if someone is guilty or innocent. Today, we have a kind of boring version where people just listen to evidence. And that’s all well and good, but in the past, on Earth, we had some interesting ideas going on.

One of those was trial by combat. Typically, this was two people fighting, but sometimes it could actually be a group of people fighting. Generally, it was the accuser and the accused fighting each other because witnesses or anything else could not be found that would exonerate the accused. These were typically a fight to the death, and if they accused won, they were considered innocent, and that was the end of that. That might seem odd, but the trial by combat was an offshoot of a trial by ordeal. We’ll get into some details in a moment here, but in a trial by ordeal, if you’ve survived something, the idea was that God has spared you because you were innocent.

So the same idea applied to trial by combat. If you lived, you were innocent. This assumes that the god was paying attention. For that reason, trials by ordeal, and sometimes the combat version, were often held on religious sites. Some people were able to bypass this by either choosing a champion to fight for them or just going for the regular old boring trial of today. This could happen if they were too young or too old, or if there was some way in which the fight would be unfair because of something like a physical handicap.

When it comes to trial by ordeal, there were multiple versions of this. One version of trial by fire was to walk several paces while holding a hot iron bar. That wasn’t really the test. That happened three days later when the bandages were removed. If your skin was showing no signs of healing, you were guilty. If it was starting to heal, you were considered innocent.

A variation on this was to have a boiling pot of water, and you have to retrieve something like a stone from the bottom. The depth of the water depended on the seriousness of the crime. You could do something similar with something like magic fire in another setting. We could also do it with radiation.

Ordeal by water was another variation where someone would be bound, hand in foot, and then tossed into the water. The guilty floated and the innocent sank. With an ordeal by water, the hands and feet were bound and the person was tossed into the water. The guilty would float and the innocent would sink. Now, if that sounds like a death sentence either way, the reality is there would be a rope around the person so that the innocent could be brought back to the surface. These are all ideas we can leverage, and in the book I also go into punishments and how we can invent new ones, or leverage ones that previously existed here on Earth.


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Monetary Systems

A monetary system is one of the other areas where we should figure out what people are using for money. There’s a concept we should be aware of, and that is the difference between a unit of weight and a unit of value. Paper money has no actual value except for the denomination that is printed on its surface, and that spells out the value. This is a unit of value. On the other hand, the amount of gold or the weight of it determines its value, so that is known as a unit of weight. So, each time I say unit of weight, think of something like gold, and each time I say unit of value, think of something like the dollar bills in your wallet.

For units of value, it’s important to understand that a government is backing this. That dollar bill in your wallet is only worth one dollar because the government is supporting this. So, if that government collapses, that becomes worthless. If we have a setting where there’s a lot of volatility with governments coming and going, units of value may not exist because no one trusts them to last very long. Instead, they might be using units of weight.

The value of a unit of weight, like gold, is based on the rarity in the setting. That typically lasts across sovereign powers, for example, because the amount of gold on Earth, for example, is essentially the same. Granted, people are still digging it up from time to time, but basically there’s only so much of it. Even if more of it is found and that affects the price of gold, it does so almost uniformly across different sovereign powers. There’s more to it than that, but this is the simple way of looking at it.

In fantasy settings, it does seem less likely that units of value, like paper money, are going to be common. One reason is also that they may have not come up with a way to mass produce something like paper money. Something to bear in mind, especially with planet-hopping characters in science fiction, is that the value of an ore, like gold, is based on its rarity, as I just said. And if new plants are being discovered and new deposits of something like gold are being found, this is going to have an impact on the value of gold back home.

Like germs, this is another aspect of planet-hopping stories that people sometimes overlook because every story would turn into being an economic thing just as much as a germ thing when new planets are being discovered. But the reality is that new planets are going to change the economy of other planets. The easy way to solve that is to not have the planet be discovered during the timeframe of your story, but sometime recently, like 10 or 20 years ago, and this impact has already been felt, at least initially.

Another issue here is that it’s not just gold that’s going to be found in different quantities here, but all sorts of other things. That can quickly get complicated and overtake our story. We have several options we want to keep in mind when it comes to currency. The oldest form of this is basically trading one thing for another, such as me giving you my apple and you giving me your banana. But maybe I need to give you three of mine for one of yours. How do we determine this? The short answer is supply and demand. Since we’re talking about a fictional world that we made up, we can simply make up what the supply and demand is, and no one can argue with us. In other words, we can make this simpler than it seems. I have a couple examples of scenarios in the book, but I’m going to skip over that for now.

Another option is using metal coins. A long time ago, this was a unit of weight, but in more recent times it became a unit of value. So, something like a nickel doesn’t have that much actual value aside from what is actually printed on it. We can do either of these in our setting. One problem with coins is that they’re kind of heavy if you need to carry around something like 2,000 of them. This is why we need some sort of trading system within the coins. For example, let’s say that I decide that one iron piece is ten cents. Ten iron pieces would be one copper. Ten coppers would be one silver. Ten silvers would be one gold. Ten gold would be one platinum. This way, if someone needs to carry around the equivalent of 2,000 dollars, they’re not carrying around a bunch of iron pieces. They’ve only got two platinum pieces.

Generally, for something like this, we just want to keep it as simple as possible for the audience because we don’t really want to be explaining this, and they’re going to get caught up in our story and not remember it.

Another option is the gemstone. These may not be a unit of weight because the weight, by itself, doesn’t necessarily tell us how valuable that gemstone is. Most gem deposits here on Earth produce very low quality stones. High quality stones not only start off that way, but they can actually achieve more quality, or less quality, depending on how well that stone is carved. But when it comes to using gemstones as currency, we probably want to go with these low quality stones that can be turned into pieces that have a value stamped upon them. This might make a lot of sense for an underground species like dwarves because they are presumably running across these gems and metal all the time. Once again, we might want to come up with a trading system, such as one amber piece equaling ten cents, ten amber pieces equals one jade, ten jade is one topaz, ten topaz is one amethyst, and ten amethyst is one opal.

That example is using poor quality stones, but what if we wanted to use higher quality ones? We could do something like one pearl is ten cents, ten pearls is one emerald, ten emerald is one sapphire, ten sapphire is one ruby, and ten rubies is one diamond. Of course, you are free to make up your own hierarchy of this.

Another option we’re all familiar with is paper money. One problem with paper money is that it is easily destroyed by water, fire, and even being torn, but it is easier to carry around large sums than coins. Bills are typically for larger numbers, such as dollars, whereas the coins are for smaller amounts, like cents. However, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this.

Another option is that of credit, which we have here today. This is arguably more likely in a science fiction setting. Just like with a unit of value, the source of the credit is going to be some sort of government-backed agency that we feel confident is going to honor the amount of credit we have.

Two subjects about monetary systems that I’m not going to cover today are how to do currency conversion and the relative value of currency. What I do want to talk about is something that most of us are concerned with, and that is how to determine the value of anything in a fictional world. This includes how much people are paid for jobs that either don’t exist here or haven’t in a long time. The simple trick for this is to use the values of the country where you live, and then make some alterations.

For example, if I go into a restaurant and I buy prepared food, I know how much various things are going to cost where I live. I’m going to make some numbers up here, but let’s say that fast food is under $10, a cheap, sit-down dinner is under $20, a nicer outing will set me back about $30 for just me, and something above $50 would be expensive. That will be something like a rare occasion, like New Year’s Eve, and that’s partly due to demand on such an important day.

So, let’s say that I have a fantasy setting instead. Obviously, I’m not going to use the word “dollars” and “cents” there because those don’t exist. So, let’s just go with a generic term, coin, and that is my one dollar. A turkey leg or a steak-on-a-stick might be the equivalent of fast food and only cost me about five coin. A sit-down meal at a tavern is going to run me something like 20 coin. And if I sit down at a nicer restaurant, that might be 30 coin. And if I’m doing that on a major holiday, maybe I’m spending 50 coin. I don’t have to determine the values here because I’ve basically borrowed stuff from Earth. If we want to change the numbers more, I can just multiply everything by three or add a zero to the end or subtract something. We can do the same thing with products, services and wages.

If there is something that is not here on Earth anymore, we can substitute something that is here. For example, if I don’t know how much a two-handed a sword might cost, well, think about what that is. It’s a pretty big specialty weapon. So, maybe we want to research big speciality guns that are still being used here on Earth and compare them to find a price. We just need to be plausible, not be right because it’s a fictional world and we’re the ones who are deciding what the economics are. There are so many factors that are involved in this, and if you think about it, even around the holidays, there are major sales. So, what might seem really expensive at another time of the year is suddenly an incredible deal at that time. Prices and values change all the time, and no one can tell us that we’re wrong.

To determine how much someone will earn in any profession, we have to think about what that labor’s value brings. Local conditions will impact this. Maybe I can earn a meal by chopping wood for two hours in one place, but it will take me four hours to do the same in another. The reason for this difference would be that the labor has different value in different places. If there’s no one to chop wood in one place, I might get away with less labor because what I’m doing is more valuable. If everybody can do it and my services aren’t really needed, then I’m going to have to work longer. I might even be turned down.

In both fantasy and science fiction, there are things like supernatural phenomenon, or radiation and other stuff that’s unique to these settings, therefore these might provide interesting jobs that people can be paid for. What if there’s a wizard who needs help preparing potions, or needs somebody to drink one of them to see what happens, to see if they got it right? I would imagine that due to the danger, this could make you a lot of money, and it could also end up with you dead.

There could certainly be technological experiments that are going on that have the same issues. For all of these, we just need to consider how rare or common the job is, and how many people are willing or able to perform that job, and then think about what’s going on in our setting at the time and how much they may be able to get away with. The rarer the duty, the more likely they will earn. It’s that simple.


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Information Systems

The last system we want to talk about is information systems. In sci-fi, we can leverage any real-world technology such as radios, telephones, postal systems and, of course, the internet. We can also invent new systems. But I think the challenge here is that it’s going to be hard to come up with a result that is different from what we have today. What do we have? Well, nearly instant transfer of voice, video and data across vast distances. So, the end result is one of the things that we’re really focused on, but we can do something with the technology that delivers these results.

In another episode, we talked about creating items, and in this case, we really just want to think about the interface that we use. So for example with the internet, we’re going to need a computer that’s going to either have something like a mouse or the ability to do a touchpad, and we need some sort of connection. It also either needs a keyboard or some sort of voice control. So, we might want to do something similar, but replace all of these components with something else. The end result is the same because we have an almost ideal kind of scenario going on today, but the technology at least looks different when it comes to the actual pieces.

In fantasy, it may not seem like we have information systems, but we actually do. What I mean is that news has to travel somehow. One way it used to be done was that an important notice might be placed on the door of an important building, like the church or a town hall. That required everyone to be able to read it, so it’s possible that someone could be stationed there to read it off to anyone who was staring at it and trying to figure out what it says.

Then there’s the town crier who is someone that goes around announcing the news. This could either be done just generally when something important is happening, or at specific times of the day, and possibly at specific locations like the town’s water supply. Then there are the messengers who often travel on foot or horse. We might have rules in our setting about how these guys are supposed to be treated, and this could vary from sovereign power to sovereign power, and city to city. This is something that we want to work out.

We also have something like the ravens from Game of Thrones, or the carrier pigeons from Earth. We may also have winged humanoids who work in this capacity and which offer certain advantages over birds. Then we have magic devices that do the equivalent of our internet today. The crystal ball would be the obvious example from cliche. So even though it’s a fantasy setting, we should give some thought to how information spreads.


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Podcast Episode 31.2 – Magic Systems

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Sep 222020

Episode 31.2: Learn How to Create Magic Systems

Listen as host Randy Ellefson discusses how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more.

Listen, Subscribe, and Review this episode of The Art of World Building Podcast on iTunes, Podbean, Stitcher, or Google Play Music!

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
  • Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems
  • Ellefson’s Seven Laws of Magic Systems
  • Some magic types we can leverage
  • Why we need to know how common magic is
  • Principles of good magic systems
  • How and why we create limits to make more believable systems
  • How to invent spells

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Episode 31.2 Transcript

Hello and welcome to The Art of World Building Podcast, episode number thirty-one, part two. Today’s topic concludes our discussion about how to create magic systems. This includes a brief look at types of magic, the principles, creating limits, how to invent spells, and more. This material and more is discussed in chapter 6. This material and more is discussed in a chapter from Cultures and Beyond, volume three in The Art of World Building book series.

Do you want practical advice on how to build better worlds faster and have more fun doing it? The Art of World Building book series, website, blog, and podcast will make your worlds beat the competition. This is your host, Randy Ellefson, and I have 30 years of world building advice, tips, and tricks to share. Follow along now at

How Common is the Magic Type?

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The first subject we’re going to look at is types of magic. Once we decide there are different types of magic, we can start defining each of them and separating them from each other that way. For all of them, we should consider how many people can perform each type. Generally, the more rare something is, the more valuable and feared it is. It may not make sense if everyone can do magic, but everyone fears it. But we probably could find a rational for that. Then there’s the question of how easy is it to find someone who can do something if we need that, such as a necromancer. If we only have one of them every thousand miles, that’s quite a bit different than if there’s one on every street corner.

There are a number of reasons why a particular type of magic might be rare. The more dangerous it is, the less likely people will want to do it, even if it’s relatively easy to do. The magic could also be feared. This might be because it has a consequence. What if every spell makes you a month older? Or maybe you have to deal with demons. The practitioners of this could be feared, and one side effect of that is that friends and family could also shun you if you take this on. So, do you care about that or not? Do you want to take up this practice and lose all of your friends and family?

Another issue is that training might be rare or it might not even exist. Or it might be really expensive or just something that’s really hard to do. All of these would inhibit becoming better at this. Another reason for a magic type to be rare is if it requires materials to perform spells, maybe those materials are really hard to come by, or even expensive. This is the kind of scenario where you may have the talent for it, and maybe it’s even easy to do, but you simply can’t cast anything.

Another reason for rarity is that spell books could be rare or they could be poorly done. Not all spells are created equal. Some of them may just be bad spells that are inherently dangerous. Spells had to be invented by someone, in theory, so we could have different people who’ve invented a fireball spell, and some of them are safe to cast and others are not. Maybe you know that the spell you have is the bad one, but maybe you only find out the hard way. Not surprisingly, if there are people who are good at inventing these spells, their spell books are going to be more valuable.

An obvious reason for a rarity is that the talent is simply rare.

There may also be no money in it. What if you practice something where no one wants to hire you? This is not to say that all wizards require a job because, as we all know from adventuring games, you can go out and make your fortune by picking up treasure somewhere. So, there’s that, but that may not be an option for you. What if you’re not the adventuring type and you don’t want to do that or live that kind of life? So, if you’re good at something like witchcraft, but no one needs you to do it and you’re not going to go out adventuring, then it’s not going to bring in any money. So, are you really going to devote a lot of time to this?

Then there are some reasons why a magic type could be commonplace. For the most part, these are reasons that are the opposite of the ones we just talked about. For example, if it’s very safe, then more people will be willing to do this. If it’s very accepted, that’s another reason people will do it. By contrast, your family and your friends may not shun you. Maybe they’re even proud of the fact that you do this. Maybe there’s even the equivalent of a bumper sticker that says, “My kid made the honor roll at this particular wizardry school.”

If practicing this kind of magic gets you esteemed, that’s a pretty good draw because most people want to be admired for what they do, whether they admit to that or not. So, this can be a reason why there are a lot of wizards of that particular type. If training is available, easy and inexpensive, these can all make it easier for more people to do this. If any physical materials or spell books are easy to come by, that makes it easier for more people to do this as well. Then, of course, there’s the obvious reason that a lot of people have the talent for this.

Now, with all of these reasons, whether it’s a rare or common type of magic, something can outweigh another factor. For example, maybe everyone’s got the talent, but because the materials are rare, very few people actually become this type of wizard. Try to split these up. Come up with some pros for each type and some cons for it.

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Magic Types

Let’s get into our types of magic. The first one is white and black magic. Magic can be considered beneficial or harmful to others and the environment, and these are called white and black magic, respectively. We can also think of them as good and evil, and they may have a source that is also good or evil, such as a god. If that’s the case, then the attributes of the god are probably going to influence who becomes a wizard. Naturally, if the god requires something like a human sacrifice, they’re probably not a good god. That can attract people who have certainly personality traits and willingness to undertake certain kinds of actions when they’re performing magic. Similarly, the magic that’s available to such a person might be very much restricted based on who is the provider.

One thing about black magic is that it’s considered bad because people use it for selfish reasons as opposed to using it for reasons that help other people. Not surprisingly, practitioners of black magic are often feared and shunned. One issue with both of them is that practitioners of one can be confused with practitioners of the other. Misunderstanding is a great way to add tension to our stories, and we should also consider the option of grey magic — something that falls in between these two.

Alchemy is one of the more interesting variants on wizardry. This is the practice of turning one item into another, but it’s a little bit more than that in its historical context. The changing of one item into another is thought to be an analogy for personal transformation into a better and purer state. This is what alchemists on Earth were after when they wanted to change something. They thought that changing a specific material that’s physical from one to another would cause a corresponding change within a person. For example, if I turn a piece of lead into gold, then maybe I have made your spirit more noble and high-minded. So, this wasn’t simply about switching objects into something else and, for example, just making gold so that you can get rich. We can certainly use it that way if we want, but a great thing about alchemy is that this is an analogy for personal transformation, and we can use that as a metaphor in our stories.

When it comes to witchcraft, most of us know what is meant by this, but it actually is hard to define. It can be considered bad in the sense of using the supernatural to harm people, or beneficial using it for divination, for example. A long time ago, pagans were often assumed to be witches, and this has led to some associations with witchcraft. What I mean is that we sometimes think that witches are nude or partially nude, barefoot, maybe they’re wearing loose or flowing clothing, and they’re doing some sort of chanting or singing and dancing in the woods to conjure spirits. This might be at night or during specific moon phases.

All of that comes from paganism, but it’s become associated with witchcraft. Much of that was done to celebrate natural elements. That would include base needs like sex. As a result, along with fear, this led to the assumption of things like having sex with the devil or similar figures to gain supernatural powers. We don’t need any of that to be true, and we can actually do that kind of association with other types of witchcraft if we want. There is one distinction for witchcraft, and that is the use of archaic runes and symbols that are inscribed on a target, such as a person, a building, or an item that will be the focus of the spell. It’s almost as if witchcraft cannot target somebody without that. We can either use that idea, ignore it, or even apply it to another type of magic.

Now, since witches are typically dealing with spirits of some kind, we should probably define the afterlife and any other planes of existence that we might want them to be utilizing. That might also be true of necromancy. This is communication with the dead, of course, and that may mean bringing the dead to this world, or going there, or just doing the equivalent of a phone call. It kind of makes you wonder if they have FaceTime or Skype.

Since most people fear death and the afterlife, or anything like that, that’s one reason why necromancy is often assumed to be evil, and its practitioners up to no good, even if that is not the case. So, we don’t have to do that in our setting. One reason we need to work out the afterlife is that this will help us determine how these necromancers go about contacting someone, and even whether any gods allow that, or what sort of rules they place on it.

I go into more detail in the book, but I’m going to move on to Shamanism now. We can almost say that this is broader than necromancy because that’s only about contacting the dead. Shamanism is about contacting any beings that are believed to be in another plane of existence, which could include the afterlife. Shamans often use medication, trance, or even drugs to achieve an altered state. They may also do this equivalent of a phone call or bringing beings to them. One village or culture may have multiple shamans that have different specialities. One way to decide on that is if there’s a practice that’s physically demanding, that might be something a younger shaman does. This is one reason we’d want to work out how everyone’s going about their business.

One interesting aspect of Shamanism is that someone is expected to become so sick that they risk dying before returning to life in order for them to become a shaman. After all, if they can’t make the journey back to better health, then how are they going to guide anyone else in the process of doing so themselves? Naturally, this might result in some of them dying, and it could also result in someone having a demon or a physical scar. By demon, I don’t mean literally, but maybe their mind was affected by what they went through.

Let’s talk psionics. This is a group of different abilities that we’ve all heard the names of. What they all have in common is the ability to communicate or perceive beyond the five physical senses. These are usually depicted as being natural abilities, but there’s no reason we can’t have them be acquired. One of these is clairvoyance, which is the ability to see events or people beyond the range of normal sight. That can actually be broken down even further into precognition, which is the future, retrocognition, which is the past, and then remote viewing, which is the present. It can also imply clairaudience, which is hearing, but these can be mutually exclusive, such as someone who can see or someone who can hear, but someone who can’t do both.

Then there’s empathy, which is the ability to read or sense another person’s emotion, and that might even be the ability to influence their emotions. Such people are called an empath. Then there’s mind control, which is not only the ability to read someone else’s mind, but it could be removing thoughts or memories, suppressing them, or replacing them altogether. Psychometry is the talent for gaining foresight by touching objects. Sometimes these people wear gloves so that they are not constantly picking up information that they are not interested in. That would happen every time they touch something. Telekinesis is the ability to move objects with the mind, and telepathy is the ability to read thoughts or communicate directly with another person using only your mind.

The last type we’ll talk about is elemental magic. By elements, I mean the four physical elements of fire, earth, water, and air, but sometimes people include spirit in that, as well. We can also invent other elements that exist in our setting. However, most likely, they would really fall into one of those other categories. One thing we can do with this is have a practitioner be only capable of doing one of these elements, and it’s very rare for someone to be able to do all of them, and those people are, of course, more powerful. But we don’t have to divide it that way. We could have everyone capable of all of them if they have the talent, but maybe there’s low and high magic here. Low magic would be relatively simple spells, whereas high magic would be the really powerful ones.

One thing we should decide is whether someone needs that element in order to perform magic, or if they can basically conjure that element. The only element that is really restricted here that way would be fire because, unless fire is naturally occurring, or someone is carrying around a torch or something, they’re not going to have a source of fire when they need one. But earth, air, and water are plentiful, even if it’s sometimes not apparent. For example, you could be in a desert and think there’s no water, but there still is some in the atmosphere, and there may be some underground.

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Principles of Magic Systems

Let’s talk the principles of good magic systems. This is a really important section of this, and the book. We should consider these principles before and during the creation of a magic system. You may have heard of Brandon Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems, so I briefly want to cover this. His first law is that an author’s ability to solve conflicts with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands that magic. So, try not to give a character an ability unless we’ve already shown that they possess it. We should also determine how problems can be solved without magic. If we don’t do these things, then the magic can just make things seem too convenient.

His second law is that limitations are greater than powers, and what he means is that what characters can’t do forces them to stretch and make our story go in different directions. His third law is to expand what you already have before you add something new. One reason for this is that we might start adding things that can conflict with things we’ve already done. Naturally, we want to avoid this.

Something else that Sanderson proposed is the idea of soft versus hard magic. Magic that is not rigidly defined is considered soft magic. One reason we would want to do this is that it can preserve the sense of wonder in their books, according to Sanderson. By contrast, hard magic has very explicitly stated rules. The good part of doing this is that it provides structure and understanding of what can be done and what can’t be done. Therefore, we’re not surprised by the actions of characters. We know and understand that they are operating within a limit that has already been explained to us.

Now, Sanderson’s use of the word “law” led me to an interesting thought exercise that I thought added a lot of clarity to how to create a magic system. I’m going to read the definition of “law” from the 3rd New International Dictionary from Merriam-Webster.

“Law is a binding custom or practice of a community, a rule or mode of conduct or action that is prescribed or formally recognized as binding by a supreme controlling authority, or is made obligatory by a sanction. This edict or decree or ordinance is made, recognized and enforced by the controlling authority.” Laws tend to be authoritative, definitive, to the point, and the arguably avoid explanation to minimize the public arguing about them when accused of breaking one.

By calling his principles of magic systems “laws,” Sanderson has invoked a comparison to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in science fiction. He may not have done that on purpose, but that was the first thing that I thought of when I heard of Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic Systems. But let’s take a look at this and compare them. Asimov’s Laws were invented for a specific story, or set of stories, and societies within those stories, meaning they are actual laws there. By contrast, Sanderson has proposed three laws for building magic systems, but no world builder has to follow another person’s ideas on how they go about building anything. Even Sanderson does not mean to imply that you need to follow these laws. In fact, he admits that even he breaks his own laws.

His laws don’t apply to any society, and they also don’t apply to any world builders. He can’t enforce them. However, we can choose to enforce laws on ourselves, whether those are his, some ideas that I’m going to give you in a minute, or some ideas of your own. One thing about his laws are that they are not declarative, and each of them leaves a lot of room for interpretation. In fact, he actually has an article explaining each one of them. By contrast, most laws are relatively simple and can be stated in a single sentence. Many laws are, of course, more complicated than that, but basically it’s simple because they want to be able to put this on a sign and not have you stand there reading whole paragraph after paragraph of explanation. There might actually be that much explanation if you were to look into the law book, but generally there’s a simple version of this that the public has been made aware of. Something like, “Don’t litter.” That only has two words, the way I just said it, so it’s kind of hard to confuse what that means.

Let’s compare Sanderson’s laws to some other types of laws and you’ll see where I’m going with this. His three laws, briefly stated, would be: an author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic, limitations are greater than powers, and expand what you already have before you add something new.

Let’s compare that to some local laws that might exist in something like a city. For example, magic shall not be performed on the holy day. Magic shall not be used to inflict physical harm or death on a living person, except in defense of one’s own life or that of another. Each of these is short and to the point. They’re also enforceable due to the authority.

Those are what you might call local laws, but what about laws of magic? This would mean what is possible and what isn’t due to the equivalent of physics for magic or something like nature’s laws. Rather than people enforcing these laws, it is nature or the gods. These laws of magic would be discovered and defined by the species and races through experience and observation of what usually works and what doesn’t. Here are some example laws of magic: magic cannot be performed by virgins. Black magic and white magic cannot be performed by the same wizard. And magic can only performed by spells or by items imbued with spells.

Then there are what might be called world building laws. These are the kind that we should follow when creating a magic system, and this is the kind of thing that Sanderson intended.

Ellefson’s 7 Laws of Magic Systems

I decided to invent my own laws for building magic systems, and this is one of the results of this thought exercise about what is meant by the use of the word “laws.” So, here are my seven laws of magic systems.

My first law is that world builders shall decide what the laws of magic are. In other words, the universe, or another authority like gods, has determined what works and what doesn’t. Some examples would be:

  • Elves cannot perform elemental magic.
  • Naturally occurring places exist where magic doesn’t work.
  • There is a finite amount of magic energy, and once it is consumed it is gone.

My second law is that world builders shall define what makes someone capable of performing each magic type, and how common its practitioners are. For example:

  • The gods decide who can do magic and can change their mind, granting or revoking the ability.
  • Anyone who consumes a specific item at a specific frequency can acquire the ability as long as that item continues to be consumed.

My third law: If multiple types of magic exist, world builders shall define what is possible in each, the differences between them, and whether practitioners can perform more than one type, and under what circumstances. For example, we could say:

  • There are several types of magic.
    • Alchemists can only work with materials to affect personal change.
    • High wizardry, these people can draw on magic energy in the environment.
    • And for witchcraft, they must work with spirits or demons for power.

Now, yours would need a lot more depth than that.

My fourth law: world builders shall determine what happens when an attempt to use magic fails. We talked about that in the previous episode, but here are some examples of this law:

  • A spell either works within its parameters or fails, and there are no accidental results. Or
  • A failed spell produces an unexpected result of a different nature, but not extremely so.

My fifth law is that world builders shall decide what local laws exist in each location where a story takes place. For example:

  • Use of a magic item within the city limits is solely for those with a valid permit.
  • Wizards are killed on sight.
  • Wizards are not allowed on the city council.
  • Alchemists must register with the local guild.

My sixth law is that world builders shall follow the rules they set forth. Both fantasy and science fiction audiences tend to notice our mistakes. We need to not only decide on our rules, but abide by them. It’s a good idea to use a narrative trick for some flexibility. For example, if I narrate that most wizards cannot do something, well, that word “most” has allowed me the flexibility if I decide to change my mind later and have one or two characters do something. I have a couple other tricks like that stated in the book.

My seventh law is that world builders shall decide if magical training is available, what form it takes, what is involved, limitations imposed before graduation, testing criteria and what restrictions exist, if any, on those who graduate. I consider this one to be a little bit more of a suggestion.

With all of these principles, I believe that you can come up with better magic systems that are well-defined, and I have more examples than what I just said in the book for each of these laws that I invented. This is what I follow when I am inventing a magic system, the same way that Brandon Sanderson follows his three laws when he is doing so. You’re free to follow or ignore either mine, his or anyone else’s, but you should decide on some principles that you are going to follow. I’m calling my principles laws because Brandon did and I want mine to sound as cool as his, so that’s what I’m going with.


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Create Limits

Creating a good magic system is all about limits. There are arguably two sources of those limits: the universe or the gods, and those imposed by mortals. Part of what I mean is that it might be that a person has devised the magic system, not the gods. Let’s say we have a wizard named Kier and he has discovered and developed a series of spells that are now known as Kierzardry instead of wizardry. Maybe there’s another wizard, a woman named Taria, and she has invented Tariandry. Obviously, both of them are a little bit egotistical to name their wizardry after themselves.

Now, both of them had talent, knowledge, inventiveness, some research ability, and access to materials that they used to experiment. They also both ran into some problems creating their spells, and some of these they solved, others they didn’t, and they may have reached the conclusion that they had found a limit, even though that may not have been true.

This could result in two very different kinds of wizardry, and we should use their environment to help determine this. For example, if spell components are needed and Kier lived in somewhere that was the equivalent of the Amazon where there are tons of plants, he might have heavily used all of these in his spellcraft. But maybe Taria lived in a desert, and for her there wasn’t that much to choose from, so hers doesn’t rely on that. Maybe hers uses things like runes, gestures or words much more. This is one way to go about thinking of limits that exist in system.

Every system needs its pros and cons, and we talked a little bit earlier about some of these. One of the things that we really want to focus on are the benefits of doing this kind of magic because that’s what’s going to draw someone to it. But they may not have a choice, if they are only born with one type of talent, and talent cannot be acquired somehow, then that’s the only one they’ve got available, and either they choose to develop it or not. Some benefits of becoming a wizard, of course, would be the obvious ones like power, prestige, wealth, personal safety and maybe even gaining advantage over other people.

But there’s another reason. What if they can cause things to happen by accident, and they want to prevent that? They’re going to want training. For our story, we should think about the problems our characters can face and why and how this type of magic would be able to benefit them. We should also think about things that could go wrong. Any magic type that allows us to interact with something like the dead or beings from another plane of existence is inherently more dangerous.

Decide what can go wrong when someone loses control of those they’ve contacted. Those who are doing something like clairvoyance may hear information and get it wrong, or maybe nobody wants them around because it is believed that they’re in their head all the time. There may even just be misunderstandings as a basic problem with this type of wizardry. Someone might practice good witchcraft and be assumed to be doing black witchcraft.

The thing about these problems is that these are limits because anyone who devised a magic system may have imposed limits to avoid these problems from happening. So, spells might take into account this side effect and not allow that to happen. This is one of the things that we are after by defining these problems. It’s just like when you’re trying to decide how to invent a law. The reason a law exists is that something happened and now this law is designed to prevent that from happening by telling people they’re going to be punished if they do it.

Part of what we’re after with all of this is that we want to be organized about our magic systems. We just need to define things, and we don’t even need to explain them to the audience if we don’t really want to, such as in a soft magic system. But we should still have some understanding of what everyone can do and why.


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How to Invent Spells

Let’s talk about how to invent spells. As we all know, a spell is a combination of words, gestures and ingredients. One thing we can do here is define the role that each of these is playing in spells. For gestures, they could technically mean anything, but maybe we want to decide that they assist with determining the width of a spell, or even the distance from the caster. A more subtle gesture might be a smaller effect, and a more aggressive gesture might be a much bigger effect. We could also decide that this determines the power level of the spell. This can even help us figure out which gesture someone is making. A missile spell that’s targeting individuals might allow me to point at them, but one that’s supposed to affect a wide area, maybe I’m gesturing outward with my arm. What I mean is sweeping from left to right, for example.

When it comes to ingredients, we should look at these kind of like a recipe. This is a helpful way of deciding what is going into the spell. With any recipe, each item is there for some reason. For example, warm water and flour creates dough. Dough is typically a container of some kind for the rest of what we are putting in there. So, we would want to substitute some sort of liquid on our world and some sort of ground up plant. That’s where flour comes from. When baking, yeast makes the dough rise. We might want to do something similar with yeast. For a yeast substitute, we would do something like a ground plant that will alter or accentuate the ingredients. Water is often used to cook items, and it can be used to sanitize or breakdown or congeal the ingredient. Therefore, we might want to substitute some sort of liquid that is also doing boiling or purifying or, again, breaking down and causing the ingredients to bind together.

As we all know, spices are added to taste, so we could do small variations in the amount of power based on the amount of materials that are being added. Someone could be using any plant that has been ground up. Many recipes have some sort of meat, fruit or vegetable, and those are in there for nutrition or taste. Well, maybe any sort of meat in our spell is for strength, and the plants or other elements can be used for shaping the results. Naturally, we often use pots, pans and other containers of glass or metal, so we can do the same, sometimes with unique materials, as part of our spell-casting. This is obviously more true for something like potions or even creating a magic item.

Then, of course, there are certain tools that might be needed, such as tongs or spatulas, to handle hot items. Again, that’s going to imply more to potions and magic items. The point here is that all of these things have a purpose, and they are a tool to achieve what we are trying to achieve. So, when inventing a spell, we can look at it the same way.

When it comes to words, there’s a certain mystery to magic because we don’t understand what the wizard is doing, and this includes when they are speaking in a magic language that, of course, we do not understand. We can think of words as being the thing that brings everything together. Without the words, we just have some gestures and some ingredients. The words could be what activate magic. This could be how we start the process of summoning magic power, molding the items to do what we want, and then expelling that power out towards the effect that we want. It seems that much of the major control in a spell would be the words, and things like gestures might be a kind of fine tuning of the results. We don’t have to look at it that way, but I feel like breaking it down helps us envision good magic, and even the resulting magic systems.

Getting Started

So, where does all of this lead us? There are ways to invent magic systems, and what I would do first is figure out what types of magic we want to include in the setting, and then how prevalent each of them is. We also need to know the source and whether mortals need spells to do it or not. These choices will guide everything else. We should also decide what sort of cost there is to doing magic. We need limits on each type of magic, and of course the pros and cons of why someone would want to do this or avoid it. Then we can decide on the training.

Finally, we should start crafting some specific spells, although we can start with this. And just like with many things, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. These are all different things that we need to keep in mind when inventing a magic system. The last thing that we might want to focus on is inventing laws that exist in local places, and then any crimes and punishments. Hopefully, all of this information has helped you figure out how you can go about building a magic system.


All of this show’s music is actually courtesy of yours truly, as I’m also a musician. The theme song is the title track from my Some Things are Better Left Unsaid album, but now we’re closing out today’s show with a song from Serenade of Strings called “The Joys of Spring.” You can hear more at Check out for free templates to help with your world building. And please rate and review the show in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

5 Tips – Creating Continents

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Sep 152020

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #2): Continents

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is continents. You can read more in Chapter 3, “Creating a Continent”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Decide How Many Continents to Create”

Even if our story only takes places on one land mass, we should at least roughly create other continents and give them names. Knowing their direction from our main one and how hard they are to reach tells us and readers how likely visitors from far off lands are. Each continent might be known for a few things, however fairly, such as slavery, rare gems or other items, strange lands, or interesting creatures. Some of these things might find their way to our main continent, which is why we ought to have some idea on this. It makes our continent seem less like an island.

Tip #2: “Decide on the Hemisphere”

If we’ve lived our life in one hemisphere, we might need to remind ourselves that the season are reversed in the other one. The visible constellations are, too, and the moon appears upside down. Most importantly, an expression like “going south for the winter” makes no sense in the southern hemisphere.

Tip #3: “Understand Plate Tectonics and Mountain Ranges”

We don’t need to be experts in plate tectonics. Just know that explosive, volcanic mountain ranges along coastlines are common due to two plates converging there. If this happens at sea, we can a chain of islands. But when it happens between two continental plates, we get the tallest mountains, none volcanic. But technically a volcano can happen anywhere if there’s a flaw in the plate below.

Tip #4: “Waterways”

Did you know a sea and ocean are the same thing? Sea is just used to denote a smaller area of an ocean. Bays, gulfs, coves, and fjord are all bays but of different sizes and configurations. They can be connected by a strait, channels, pass, or passage, which are also all the same thing!

Tip #5: “What’s an Island?”

Some islands are so big that we might be tempted to call them a continent (Australia, anyone?). The distinction is largely one of size. Use your judgement. However, actual islands are either oceanic or continental. The former are far out to see and volcanic.

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating a Continent

Which hemisphere our continent lies in affects the seasons and might impact where we place constellations. Understanding plate tectonics can help us build believable mountain ranges and place volcanoes where they might occur. This can also determine where deep areas of the sea are, giving our sea monsters somewhere to call home. We have some liberty to name bodies of water what we want, but this chapter includes details on when to use which name, including seas, bays, inlets, and more.


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