5 Tips Series Archives - The Art of World Building
Jul 082020
5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #3): Armed Forces

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is armed forces. You can read more in Chapter 3, “Creating Armed Forces,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “What Government Type Do They Work For?”

Virtually all armed forces groups work for a government, so determine this before doing anything. A democracy and a dictatorship will have different armies, for example. How? The latter will be extremely rigid, far more so than the other, including potentially no personal life at all. The military isn’t known for great freedom even in a democracy, but imagine how much worse it is in a totalitarian government.

Tip #2: “Create Symbols and Colors”

In the real world, we immediately recognize the symbols of the military and make judgments about anything emblazoned with them, from personnel uniforms to buildings and ships. Not creating these is unrealistic, while creating them takes only a minute.

Tip #3: “Decide How People Join”

Knowing what it takes to become a member helps us decide on skills or how elite a group is. This also creates a reputation for members. Are there prerequisites, like the ability to ride a horse or fly a ship? Are certain races forbidden/prized? What physical traits does one need? Can one acquire missing ones like improving strength? What sorts of tests must be passed and how many chances does one get? This adds pressure and pride/humiliation for those trying to join.

Tip #4: “Understand and Use Existing Ranks”

Know what a lieutenant, major, and colonel is in the army and their respective navy or air force counterparts, then use the same ranks and job functions, even if you change the titles for your world, which isn’t recommended. Only those in the military usually know these things and aren’t bored with them. Confusion (or exposition) is the only result of being clever here.

Tip #5: “What’s Their Reputation?”

We all think certain things of each military group in our sovereign power, and so do our characters of theirs, so decide what the group is known for. Are they respected? Feared? Do you pick a fight with one or avoid that? Are you impressed or scornful? This matters even when our characters are not from such a group, because they’ll often have to deal with those who are.

Summary of Chapter 3—Creating Armed Forces

Military groups like the army, navy, air/space force, and knights are a staple of both fantasy and SF. We can leverage existing ideas or craft our own. Doing so means deciding how someone joins and leaves a military group, including requirements, tests, and training. Some species and races might be forbidden or assigned special roles, and throughout history, famous members can inspire pride or loathing we can use. When devising military units and ranks, it helps to understand Earth analogues, so some basics are included in this chapter. The world view, uses, locations, place in society, and symbols are all important elements of memorable armed forces and this chapters covers them all.

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5 Tips – Organizations

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Jun 132020

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

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

Tip #1: “What Do They Want?”

Every group wants something, so decide whether they want to control an object, possess land, hold power, uphold philosophical ideas, or something else. Not knowing what they want and why makes for an unconvincing group. We also don’t understand what will drive them, upset them, or make them go too far when thwarted. A goal is everything.

Tip #2: “Decide Who Their Friends and Enemies Are”

It’s too simplistic to decide that an organization operates without allies and enemies. Whether individuals, species, kingdoms, or other groups, those connections decide who they are. We sometimes must create those other groups first, but circle back and finish this connection. It will pay off.

Tip #3: “Create a Power Structure”

Does power rest with a committee or a single strong man? Is that strength physical or supernatural? Knowing who’s really in power and why helps us create tension within the group. Otherwise, they seem to just get along with each other too well. Tension is a story’s lifeblood, so don’t overlook threats to those in power and how it can taken away, and by who.

Tip #4: “How Do People Join or Leave?”

Can people leave this group or are they murdered for trying? What do they lose if leaving? How do they join? What must they do to be accepted or remain? This can add tension for members, who may be tempted away by other characters in our story.

Tip #5: “Create a History”

An organization has people with a shared viewpoint, so what events caused them to band together? What ideas drive people to them? This can be the rise or fall of an idea or government that they miss or want to oppose. Leverage other historical events already in the setting, by creating a group (or two) who dislikes what’s happened.

Summary of Chapter 2—Creating Organizations

Organizations for good or evil are a staple of both fantasy and SF. This chapter discusses both group types and their world views, plus common traits like goals, enemies, friends, and their source of (and quest for) power. How members join and leave such groups is an important element, as some organizations might prevent or inhibit departure. Prerequisites can also bind a member to the group. The history and actions of a group are an important part of its reputation.

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5 Tips – Cultures

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May 142020

5 World Building Tips (Vol 3, #1): Cultures

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is cultures. You can read more in Chapter 1, “Creating Cultures,” from Cultures and Beyond, (The Art of World Building, #3).

Tip #1: “Culture Clash is Useful”

Invent culture to cause conflict. Any time we need characters to have bad feelings towards each other, a culture clash is an easy way to create this. For traveling characters, it’s a virtual given. People are sensitive and judgmental. We don’t need people to have screwed up in a serious way, just offend someone in a trivial one.

Tip #2: “Understand Cultural Origins”

Values, beliefs, and morals are the origins of culture. These are ideas. And they manifest as rituals, habits, customs, art, music, and the use of language. We should therefore create those values, beliefs, and morals and then figure out how they manifest (that’s culture!).

Tip #3: “Consider the Government”

A sovereign power’s government greatly impacts culture from the “top down.” Consider how much freedom and control people have. Less means less variation at regional, settlement, and social group levels of culture. More freedom means more variation.

Tip #4: “Know What’s Valued”

While morals and values are slightly different, they can both be used to invent culture. A more high-minded society will value different traits (like dignity, equality, politeness, and tolerance) than a barbaric one, which might value self-reliance, courage, respect, and integrity.

Tip #5: “Determine Cultural Scope”

Are we creating culture throughout a kingdom, region, or social group? Culture trickles down, so what’s valued in the U.S. might be less valued on the East Coast, and more valued in New York City, especially in the punk rock scene. Determine what level we’re inventing culture for because it’s not uniform across all these levels.

Summary of Chapter 1—Creating Cultures

This chapter discusses the differences between a culture and a custom, and that morals, values, and beliefs underlie cultural aspects. A cultural vision should be based on these and inform all decisions subsequently made. World builders can determine the scope of an invented culture, as some are regional, or throughout a sovereign power. Cultural depictions have visible, audible, and performance aspects that can be defined. These include body issues such as body language, hair styles, gestures, clothing, and more. Greetings and farewells should be defined because characters will use them. Similarly, swear words, slang, expressions, and colloquialisms can be created to characterize interactions. The daily life of a culture is depicted in dining, bathing, sleeping, employment, and transportation rituals and behaviors, while pastimes, holidays and more create a respite. Even architecture can be influenced by culture.

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185 Tips Book

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Dec 242019

185 Tips Cover

Subscribers to the newsletter receive world building tips in their inbox (along with downloadable templates), but now you can have them all in one place in a new, short book, 185 Tips on World Building. This has all tips from all three volumes, including those not yet sent to subscribers.

The eBook is on pre-order at Amazon and will be released Jan 14, 2020. It makes a great gift for anyone thinking of diving in.

5 Tips – Government Types

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Jun 052018

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #13): Government Types

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is sovereign powers. You can read more in Chapter 5, “Creating Sovereign Powers”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Authoritative States”

Whether an autocracy, totalitarian, dictatorship, or authoritarian government, authoritative states are not the most pleasant ones to live in unless you’re the ones in power. With severe restrictions on freedoms, our hero can find himself/herself under duress to accomplish what they desire. They make great places for your hero to destroy or at least kill the leader of. The differences are discussed in Creating Places and help make our sovereign powers stand out from each other.

Tip #2: “Democracies”

A democracy allows people to participate in government by having influence over what policies are made into laws. This means far more freedom for the population and our heroes, who might originate from such a place and be philosophically opposed to more oppressive regimes. Wanting to free someone they love or respect from such a place is the sort of thing that makes them heroic.

Tip #3: “Federations”

Whether an empire, federation, confederation, or unitary state, federations have states that have some sovereignty over their own affairs while still following the laws of the federation. Some are members voluntarily while others are not, and some can leave when they want but others cannot. Their point of origin is also different.

Tip #4: “Monarchies”

Kingdoms are common in fantasy but less so in science fiction, but either way, they’re not all the same. The two main types are absolute vs. constitutional. The former has a ruler who has no limits on his power, a scenario ripe for abuse, especially with the “divine right of kings” being employed. A constitutional monarchy gives more power to the people via parliament and results in a ruler with often severe restrictions on their powers.

Tip #5: “Oligarchies and More”

An oligarchy is any form of government where power is controlled by a small group of people. This could be those in the military, those with magic power, the wealthy, merchants, or other groups we invent. Some of these variations have names like theocracy, aristocracy, or military junta, and each may have stark differences that lets us create more variation on our world.

Summary of Chapter 5—Creating a Sovereign Power

Kingdoms, empires, dictatorships and more are types of sovereign powers that world builders can create. Before we do, a high-level understanding of the differences between them is crucial. Many variations to government types exist, which gives us freedom to tweak details for our needs, but we should know the rules before we break them. The role of sovereignty, including how it is gained and lost, is examined in this chapter along with the “divine right of kings.” We also look at the head of state and head of government roles, the differences between them, and the conflicts that can arise. The nature of each branch of government is examined along with parliamentary systems. Democracies, federations, theocracies, monarchies, autocracies and more are examined for their key differences.

Inventing a sovereign power should include friends and enemies who shape policy, lifestyle, and culture. The form of government has significant impact on inhabitants and results from world view. History affects this as well, and while creating a history is optional, it enriches the dynamics of relationships and can create heroes, villains, and attitudes in the population. We should consider which species are present and in how great a percentage, and what languages are spoken or forbidden. Our power’s location and climate will impact lifestyles and vegetation, which also influences what natural resources it has or lacks, and what the power does as a result. These can all lead to tensions both with other powers or the residents. Symbols, colors, flags, and slogans will be a source of pride and even fear for both foreigners and the population.

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5 More Tips – Land Features

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May 222018

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #13): 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 Your Forest Types”

Why have every forest be a generic one when we can distinguish between forests, savannahs, woodlands, and jungles? Each gives a different impression and causes variation in animals and creatures present, plus travel conditions.

Tip #2: “Know Where Grasslands Are”

They tend to be located farther from a mountain range that is causing a rain shadow. It’s reasonable to have a forest on one side of it and a desert on the other.

Tip #3: “Don’t Forget Wetlands!”

Mires, bogs, swamps, and marshes are similar to us if we haven’t done our research, but Creating Places gives you enough detail to tell and show your audience the difference. They can form boundaries that average people don’t want to enter, or places from which strange creatures emerge. They also let us create a more varied landscape.

Tip #4: “Deserts Tend to be Rocky”

We think of huge sand dunes with deserts, but the majority are covered in hard, packed Earth, almost like pavement. This is hard on the feet (or hooves) but offers a very different experience than sand as far as trudging along is concerned. Understand where this happens to utilize it effectively.

Tip #5: “Decide on the Cultivation Level”

Some worlds have been terraformed while others are wild, untamed expanses. Decide how much your species have cultivated the world. This can include burning down forests, dumping toxic wastes, turning deserts into cities, and much more.

Summary of Chapter 4—Creating Land Features

Figure 25 Savannah

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 More Tips – Creating Planets

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May 082018

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #12): Planets

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

Tip #1: “Understand the Ocean’s Impact”

Ocean currents move in certain patterns that mean one side of a continent has warmer water than the other. This is usually the same across a world. Why does it matter? It affects what sea life might be there and what the climate is like. We don’t need to leverage this, but the knowledge helps makes one location on our world feel different from another, rather than all getting no comment on the climate or its impact on vegetation, livestock, and culture.

Tip #2: “Use Prevailing Winds to Shape the Land”

If your planet spins, it has prevailing winds, which are either east or west. Which direction depends on which was the planet rotates, but it also depends on how far from the equator we’re talking. It changes direction depending on latitude and it’s important to know where this happens on your continent because it affects vegetation.

Tip #3: “Understand Rain Shadows”

If there’s a north-to-south mountain range, moisture-carrying, prevailing winds must go over them. This causes the rain to fall on one side of those mountains, but then there’s no water left for the other side. The result? A desert.

Tip #4: “Know Your Desert Types”

Hot deserts have clear, sunny skies (hence the heat) but get cold at night due to those same skies. Cold deserts are also hot during the day but brutally cold, far below freezing, in winter. Mild deserts are, well, milder than both. Each is found in certain climates or locations (inland, coastal, or at high elevations). Knowing which is found where is more accurate but also lets us create differences instead of every place being the same.

Tip #5: “Use Analogues for Climate”

It can be easier to base a whole continent’s climates based on a familiar country. If you know the climate in Europe, assume your continent is there and is surrounded by similar other continents. The shapes you draw on a map can be different, but this is a quick way to get it “right” without the research!

Summary of Chapter 2—Creating a Planet

This chapter focuses on creating an Earth-like planet. World builders should understand the role of the moon and its effects on tides, seasons, and more if we intend to have a moon different from our own or multiple moons. Mention of other planets, constellations, and comets can make our world seem like it’s not an island. The equator, climate zones, prevailing winds, and rain shadows all affect how much precipitation falls in an area, which in turn affects all life there, including vegetation or the lack thereof. Understanding these basics will help us create believable landscapes.

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5 Tips – Drawing Maps

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Apr 242018

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #11): Drawing Maps

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is drawing maps. You can read more in Bonus Chapter 12, “Drawing a Map”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “You Don’t Need Drawing Skill”

With modern map making programs like Campaign Cartographer, you don’t need drawing skills to create maps. I can’t draw to save my life and have made maps I publish with my works, including Creating Places. You just place pre-existing icons for trees, mountains, and settlements and can rearrange them. It takes some imagination but quickly becomes fun to do.

Tip #2: “Maps Help Us Invent Conflict”

As we draw land features and seas, we can imagine conflicts between kingdoms about who has access to something and who doesn’t, then what they have to do to form agreements – or go to war with each other over it. Even if we don’t want to write about such things, the sovereign powers from where our characters originate are engaged in these conflicts and hatreds or friendships and our characters will have attitudes based on this. It’s worth doing!

Tip #3: “Use Earth Analogues”

If you have no idea what to draw, just steal somewhere on Earth and purposely do a poor job of drawing the country outline. You can include all the same land features and no one will recognize what it’s based on. You could draw the US with a different shape and then cut it in half, too, or add a sea in middle. A major change like that makes it less recognizable.

Tip #4: “Be Smart About Regional Maps”

Even if you only want to draw a map of a region, not the whole continent, think about the continent anyway. Things like mountain ranges, prevailing winds, and rain shadows will still affect your region. You can just make a note to yourself that the wind is from “that way” and there’s a mountain range “over there,” too. So don’t draw them but still think about them.

Tip #5: “No One Expects a Settlement Map”

It can be fun to use City Designer (from ProFantasy) to create city maps, but no one’s expecting one in your books. Only do this if you feel the need to lay out a place, which can be only filled in with the most important buildings you desire. It’s also more worthwhile if the layout is very specific and hard to describe succinctly to an audience, in which case they’ll appreciate a map.

Summary of Bonus Chapter 12—Drawing Maps
Village Map

Village Map

While drawing maps is optional in world building, they can help us visualize where everything’s taking place, and if done well, can even be included in published works. Drawing skill isn’t really needed, as modern map making programs allow us to place pre-existing shapes onto a map and move them around. Continent maps help us decide on the location and quality of land features like mountains, forests, and deserts so that we create a realistic ecosystem. The location of settlements, rivers, and bodies of water will also impact the stories and lives of characters we create. We can also draw settlement, dungeon, and ship maps to solidify our decisions and find new inspiration in our layouts.


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5 Tips – Places of Interest

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Apr 102018

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #10): Places of Interest

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is places of interest. You can read more in Chapter 11, “Creating Places of Interest”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “What Lives in the Catacombs?”

If we create catacombs, decide if monsters, animals, or other creatures live there. Do the species know of those inhabitants or the passages? Do they use them, too? What gets hidden here? Try to be creative about your use of these and make it important to your story because just about everything has already been done. We just need a believable reason for their existence, abandonment, and current usage.

Tip #2: “Use Step Wells”

Google “step wells in India” and you’ll see some interesting images we can leverage if we have water dwelling species. These could connect to underground rivers and allow for interesting escapes or arrivals. Are they guarded? Are some of these made by that species or by others hoping to reach them?

Tip #3: “Create Phenomenon Sites”

Places where an accident happened are good for magical, supernatural or technological sites of importance, especially dangerous ones. Just imagine what could go wrong and choose a location and result. These can be good for creating monsters, too, if there’s radiation or something similar still going on there. We don’t even need good explanations, making this fun to do.

Tip #4: “What’s Under Water?”

A settlement under the waves offers chances to be innovative. A water-dwelling species makes this more attractive. Shipwrecks of wooden kinds (or fallen spacecraft) can also harbor treasure or items that need to be recovered, and which can fall into the wrong hands. They could spawn monsters, too.

Tip #5: “The Ordinary Can be Famous, Too”

Sites of wars, religious incidents, and prophets or martyrs making themselves famous can also acquire significance. Use these places inside settlements or nearby because these can be less dramatic, with no radiation or other residue left over. Not everywhere has to be amazing.

Summary of Chapter 11—Creating Places of Interest

Even seemingly ordinary locations can acquire significance due to scale, features, or people associated with them. These include monuments, graves, catacombs and hidden passages, and unusual buildings, whether built in stone, flying in the air, or floating on water like Venice.  Ruins offer places for treasure to be found or horrors unleashed, including magical or technological items. Event sites and shipwrecks also give inhabitants places to reference, seek, or avoid, and can be where items of our invention originated.

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5 Tips – Time and History

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Mar 272018

5 World Building Tips (Vol 2, #9): Creating Time and History

Here are today’s world building tips! The theme is time and history. You can read more in Chapter 10, “Creating Time and History”, from Creating Places, (The Art of World Building, #2).

Tip #1: “Create a Universal Calendar”

Each kingdom may have its own calendar, which is fine, but how do we know that year 41 AE in Kingdom X is also year 4560 BI in Kingdom Y? A universal calendar. Create one for your own records even if you never share it with the audience.

Tip #2: “What Does Your Universal Calendar Start With?”

If the world acknowledges that universal calendar, you’ll need an event recognized everywhere. On Earth, we use the birth of Christ. Do you have a religion, technological (or alien arrival), or supernatural event of such magnitude? If you do, it’s probably part of your story world’s consciousness. Invent something you like because you’ll end up using it.

Tip #3: “Be Smart About Names”

Don’t call a month something like “Snowtime.” It is winter in half the world, but it’ll be summer in the other half and this won’t make sense. And places near the equator aren’t getting snow. Ever.

Tip #4: “Be Careful Altering Timeframes”

We can change the number of minutes in an hour, or hours in a day, but this is unwise because it messes with the audience’s sense of passing time too much. But changing the numbers of days in a week, weeks in a month, or months has less impact, particularly if we’re only off by one. Don’t be too extreme unless you really need that for your story. People will forget about your different time frame, or you’ll have to remind them all the time. Neither is good.

Tip #5: “Create Past Events”

There are many events we can put in the past to give spice to the present. Tech events like the first time something happened are easy for SF, like ship launches, weapons usage, or drive experiments or failures. Disasters are good, too, even in fantasy worlds, where spells must go wrong sooner or later, sometimes on a huge scale.  The gods might do something everyone remembers, too. On the more mundane level are the rise and fall of sovereign powers, wars, groups forming, missions being undertaken, and artifacts being discovered, invented, destroyed, or seemingly lost, the more legendary the better. We can even end up with story ideas from these.

Summary of Chapter 10—Creating Time and History

History can enrich a world and provide us with cultural clashes, famous items, and world figures to which our stories and characters can refer or cite as inspiration. To save time, we can create a master history file with short entries that are invented in a few minutes and which do not need long explanations. Some could be turned into stand-alone stories if we stumble upon a great idea. Historic entries can be created at any time and can include events involving the gods, technology, supernatural, wars, the rise and fall of sovereign powers, artifacts, and famous missions by groups or individuals.

We also need a universal way to measure time because each sovereign power might have its own calendar, making the correlation of events across kingdoms harder. The merits of keeping timeframes similar to Earth’s are discussed; this includes the reasons why minutes and hours benefit from little alteration, while the number of days, weeks, and months can experience greater variation without disrupting the audience’s sense of time.

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