Top-Down Worldbuilding, Part the First: The Concept
Ladies and gentlemen, orks and elves, halflings and...whatever that thing in the corner is...I'm Afniel, this is Chaotic Awesome!, and I am going to kick this blargh off with a bang. A big bang. Let's talk about making worlds.
While creating the setting is hands-down my favorite part of being a GM, it's a daunting task. In this series of articles I'm going to explain how I tend to approach it, from the beginning concept of what the world is like all the way through to the finer details of resources, power centers, and various cultures -- and most importantly of all, what these things mean for your game.
The first thing that you will need to decide is simple: What kind of game do you want to play? I say play, not run, for the simple reason that (in my humble experience) you will find it much easier to be enthusiastic about building up what is to you the 'perfect' game, and players can sense that kind of enthusiasm. It's contagious.
There are two ways of looking at this. You may have a genre in mind: high fantasy, spaghetti western, space opera, gothic horror...the list goes on. But you know what you like. Run with it. At this point in development, it doesn't matter how unlikely it sounds (though you may want to take into consideration what system you're going to be using to experience it). Nobody is reading through your notes. If they are, punch them! That's just rude.
For these articles I'm going to be using as an example a setting that I and my players created and subsequently have spent over a hundred sessions exploring, using D&D's 3.5 edition rules. As a result of a strange mental trainwreck between a ridiculous song somebody had sent me and the rather obscure, huge-tree-centric NES game Faxanadu being played dangerously nearby at the same time, I decided that I wanted my setting to be mid-high-ish fantasy, its most prominent feature being an enormous Yggdrasil-like world tree. Your setting could be, quite literally, anything. A destroyed Earth, its survivors clinging to its debris in little colonies? Awesome. A sprawling, primeval forest, whose pools and fog hide fey passages to twilight realms? I'd play it. An underwater setting populated by merfolk, oppressed by two-legged 'monsters' from the shore? Go nuts.*
While you are going nuts, however, there is another consideration to keep in the back of your mind. How much are your players willing to go out of their way to learn in order to feel connected to the setting? Sure, you can make a completely alien game, in which insectile characters fly biological ship-animals through the non-Euclidean spaces between universes, but you're likely to have at least one player in your group look at it sideways and find it a bit too out there. There should, ideally, be at least some element of the familiar in your overall design. The odds are just a little slim that your players would have the time, energy, or interest to read your dissertation on the complicated social structures and pheromone-based negotiation rituals of your fictional race.
On the flip side of that same coin, you could make a world of meadows, fields, and forests, with castles that overlook small kingdoms, in which dragons kidnap princesses and princes kiss fair maidens to break curses placed upon them by bad witches. Sure, everyone knows the status quo here. It's so well-known a trope that one barely even has to bother describing the scenery. And yet, the familiarity in this example is stifling. There are no surprises to be had whatsoever.
The thing I have found in trying to keep this balance is that there are two ways about this. You can create the familiar with a twist. Sure, it's a Standard Fairytale Kingdom on the surface, but the fair and just king himself is a dragon in disguise, the princess went with the evil wizard willingly, and the heroes just keep happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. (It doesn't have to be comedic, of course, but this technique makes for excellent satire and comedy games.)
Alternately, you can create a twist with a hint of the familiar. Those outer realm-traversing insects could be very human in personality and have set out on the classic Hero's Journey, overcoming great odds to reach self-understanding and defeat a great evil. Countless of our classic speculative fiction works -- Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, American Gods, among others -- and even ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh all tell this single, essentially human story. The skin of the world you create may be bizarre, but its bones are prehistoric.
Our example, the Tree of the World, is fairly easy to grasp, if a little grander in scale than we usually see. To scale it back down a bit and really focus the action on this Tree, capital T, I decided that it would be ringed as far as the eye can see by the Desert, capital D, which nobody could enter due to its life-draining quality. In that same vein I obscured the top of it with the Storm, capital S. (Feel free to be a little more creative than all that.) Why did the Desert do that? Where did a constant Storm come from? Meh! Those are questions for another day. The in-world reasoning can always follow the logistics later -- and indeed, both of these things ended up being key plot points to be discovered by the players.
That's it for now. Tune in next time and we'll go over the first broad details of your world, and how to decide what they are.
* Upon re-reading this list, I realize that I made each of these settings pretty adversarial. Conflict can of course come from anywhere, not necessarily the setting, but games can thrive on the tension of trying to survive in dangerous surroundings with equally-dangerous opponents breathing down your neck. If you and your group want to play Baby's First Kingdom, however, by all means don't let me talk you out of it.