World Building Resources: What They Are and Which Ones You Need

Stanford Torus Interior by NASA/Donald Davis

You have an idea for a story or a game, and you want to build a universe for it to live in. Or maybe you have the foundations of a universe, and you’re wondering how to flesh it out, if your idea’s worth pursuing, or how to distinguish your work from the world building giants’. Luckily, and dauntingly, there are thousands upon thousands of articles, books, communities, apps, and directories of yet more resources to guide you through the process of creating worlds to ground and inspire your designs.

Sorting through hundreds of web pages with repetitive or contradictory information can be overwhelming and unproductive. And it’s especially overwhelming sorting through hundreds of web pages before making any headway toward your original goal: building a world that works. I spent several years sifting through world building resources before getting my bearings. Here’s what I found.

Types of Resources

Before we ask the question “What resources should we use to guide our world building?” we need to answer another question: “What does it mean to guide world building?” As it turns out, there are, roughly, three broad categories of tools to aid in world building, and they each offer a different form of guidance. Knowing what each is useful for is vital to effective and efficient world building. The types are:

Let’s tackle each type in turn.

Toolboxes

Plant Hardiness Zone Map by United States Department of Agriculture

Most people’s perception of the world building process is colored heavily by the legacy of one individual — J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien was a highly skilled linguist who was also intimately familiar with European mythology and history. So he used this knowledge. He built the world of Middle-earth up from the languages and stories of its inhabitants and designed the rest of the world on that foundation.

The problem is, that way of world building — starting with one meticulously researched and thoroughly rendered aspect of a world — isn’t for most people an accessible or efficient way to create a universe ready for narratives and other designs to inhabit. Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, Margaret Atwood, and Lucasfilm LLC have all, to one degree or another, taken shortcuts, sketching in broad strokes many aspects of their worlds, and devoting their energy to the parts most relevant to the stories they were telling.

Toolboxes are the most common type of resource for world building, and yet they’re the least explicitly relevant to the end of creating worlds. Toolboxes are calculators for determining orbital mechanics, guides for creating fictional religions, and software for fantasy map making — sets of highly specific tools and bottled research that allow you to add sparks of realism to equally specific parts of your world.

Here are some excellent and representative examples of toolboxes:

The usefulness of toolboxes depends entirely on the goal of your world building. Climate zones, economics, and technology are, by default, irrelevant to storytelling and, until made explicitly otherwise, real-world designs. The mischaracterization of world building as self-indulgent and pointless is spurred on by the plethora of specialized toolboxes and the communities that sustain them and focuses only on that narrow form of world building that exists first for itself and the joy of its creation and does not intend relevance.

However, for world building that serves a novel, game, or targeted thought experiment, toolboxes can also be instrumental. They are research. Once you have a central plan for your world and a core set of ideas to explore, what context do you need to render those ideas? Where should you add realism or specificity? What outside knowledge might heighten the effect of a mini-series about cultural conflicts in the Andes? How about a similar story set in space? What questions are relevant? Which are time sinks?

The best toolboxes are not only toolboxes. That is, they don’t simply provide detailed answers to questions; they also guide you toward asking the right questions. This brings us to the second type of world building resource: processes.

Processes

Architectural Drawing from the Engetrim Archive by Archief van Engetrim

Each great world builder has developed a process for creating worlds. Some decide to systematize and share that process. Usually this comes in the form of strategies, exercises, ways of thinking, or, popularly, world building checklists.

Checklists provide a structure to the world building process through a series of questions. Can you complete this survey? How complete are these aspects of your world? When well done, they can be either effective roadmaps to follow or evaluations of the thoroughness of your work. These two functions make checklists valuable throughout the beginning and middle stages of building a world. However, when done poorly or used religiously, they encourage shifting your focus to elements less relevant to your world or the purpose it serves.

Two of the most widely used and highest-quality world building checklists are:

Other processes lay out systems for world building in a series of steps.

Finally, there are more abstract processes that focus primarily on providing new frameworks for viewing worlds, structuring them, and envisioning new ones. A good example is

As a “bonus” process, I am obliged to mention WorldLab, my own system for collaborative world builing. It adapts the design thinking process to world building, as I overviewed here, to a system that draws on elements of Microscope, One Stop’s Worldbuilding Surveys, Stant Litore’s process, and other systems. Where World Anvil and Notebook.ai (see below) intuitively structure what exists within worlds, WorldLab productively structures the process of creating new things to exist within worlds.

Sometimes, though, processes alone are difficult to follow or overly rigid. That’s where platforms come in.

Platforms

Platforms are environments and software designed for world building. They entail a process, perhaps like those presented in the previous section, which the tools, materials, or interface of the platform bring life to. Platforms structure information about the world and make it easier to create new information.

As an aside, tabletop role-playing games are, in a sense, platforms for world building as much as systems for storytelling and games of chance. A set of rules provides a structure to create characters and follow those characters’ actions. Those characters act and react. This necessitates and creates an environment, a world, that characters affect.

The best world building platforms make world building more efficient, effective, and fun by offering systems and tools while staying out of the way of world builders’ creativity and productive workflows.

Here are some:

The Fourth Category

This is where I admit that we were all of us deceived. For there was another category of resource made, a fourth category that is not specific to world building but that binds together all three others: content. Toolboxes are designed to help you create specific content of a higher quality. Processes are designed to help you determine the content your world needs. Platforms are designed to structure content and make new content easier to create. But in all cases, the content itself must come from you, the world builder.

So how do you get new content?

Old book bindings at the Merton College Library by Tom Murphy VII

The answer may seem obvious, but it’s equally difficult to internalize: be curious. The content you have access to imagining is gotten in the same way as any sort of content is: through experiencing, observing, and reading. The best world builders, like the best writers and the best thinkers, actively and voraciously consume their own world, reflect on it, and shamelessly repurpose it. For Tolkien it was, especially, philology and linguistics; for Martin, history and politics; to both Tolkien and Martin and to Le Guin, Asimov, Atwood, Austen, Melville, Faulkner, Hurston, Orwell, Marquez — all the rest — we can add writing and language of every kind. Books, speeches, and conversations are the foundational world building resource. The greater the variety of material you’re exposed to, the more imaginative you can be, and the thousands of world-building-specific resources living online are useful only when accompanied by ideas. So world builders are curious, and they read.

There we have the four types of world building resources: toolboxes, processes, platforms, and content. To cap things off, here are some directories of many more resources than could be included in one brief article:

Happy world building! May your worlds inspire ours.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sam Hollon

World builder. Design thinker. Student. Writes on creativity, culture, and tabletop game design.