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Creating a World

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 138
Chapter 6

World Building

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 140
While running games within a published campaign setting or a favorite fictional universe is a lot of fun, many GMs enjoy creating an entire setting from scratch—a world in which every idea, NPC, and location, is an expression of your creativity. It’s a powerful feeling, one that can give you countless hours of enjoyment even outside of the game session.

Yet creating a setting from scratch can also be intimidating. This chapter provides you with tools to help take the guesswork out of world building, breaking down monumental considerations into small, manageable chunks. While this section (and indeed this book) presumes you’re creating a fantasy setting for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, most of this advice can be applied to any game genre or system. Keep in mind that not all of these questions need to be answered ahead of time, and creating as you play allows you to keep things fresh and fun for both you and your players.

Detailing Your World

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 142
Game designers work for months on setting sourcebooks, novelists agonize for years over how their world might work, and screenplay writers have production designers and art directors helping them present a movie’s backdrop to the audience. You, on the other hand, may not have much time to create the world your players will adventure in, and you definitely won’t have a huge production staff to help you.

Luckily, you won’t need it. With just an hour or two of considering the following questions, you should have all the answers you need to kick things off with a bang. What follow are 30 of the most important questions in setting design to help you formulate a quick world-building cheat sheet.


Source GameMastery Guide pg. 146
One of the greatest joys of creating your own campaign setting is the thrill and challenge of crafting an entire world, shaping it out of the primordial clay and setting it spinning in the void. Yet as much fun as this can be, it can also be a complicated and frustrating endeavor if you aren’t already an expert in the things that make our own planet what it is. When you run up against something outside of your knowledge base, it’s often tempting to simply say, “This is a magical world— rivers and mountains and deserts can go wherever they want.”

Tempting—but lazy. Your players deserve better. Take the steps to make your world realistic, and when you do want to break fundamental laws of reality and put a desert in a swamp, make sure you come up with a reason. After all, if you take pains to ensure that the rest of your world is realistic, those magical regions that break the rules will feel all the more fantastic and unique.

If you’re familiar with the real world’s geology, you’ve already got a leg up in designing a realistic world. It’s no fun to spend weeks or months creating the perfect setting map, only to have a geologist or cartographer friend point out something you did wrong. Yet if your game group includes specialists like this, you’re lucky! Don’t be afraid to ask your geology enthusiast friend to help you decide where to put mountain ranges, or to ask your meteorologist pal to help you define your world’s trade winds. At the very least, using your gaming group in this way keeps them from ambushing you with errors later on.

But let’s face it—most GMs don’t have access to these resources. In this case, a little research can go a long way. Read up on geology, meteorology, astronomy, and other earth sciences. Watch documentaries and educational shows on these subjects. Most of all, study maps of the real world, not just game products—as any student of geology can tell you, it’s shocking just how many scientific errors appear in maps from the most beloved fantasy games and novels.

Cultural Considerations

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 148
While such things are undeniably important, creating a world is more than merely drawing realistic geography and political lines and then slapping down analogues of real-world societies. World building is, at its core, about creating cultures and showing how those cultures have shaped the world, from simple farmers laboring for a lordly knight to fantastic sky aeries of winged elves or plane-shifting cities of ethereal horrors. But what is culture? Culture is not merely the social environment of a village or the quaint customs of the locals.

Culture is, in essence, the evolution of thought, and can span regions or even nations. It’s about the way that people have described their history and experiences and their continued growth as a people. It’s about creating a cultural “personality,” a quick sketch for understanding—but keep in mind that not everyone from a culture will have exactly the same personality.

One can approach culture building in multiple ways:
  • By looking at and adapting real-world cultures.
  • By choosing a desired culture as an end point and retroactively deducing the historical factors that led to it.
  • By starting from the emergence of the people, and following their growth logically and persistently along a timeline.
  • By any combination of these approaches.
All of these methods are valid, though each has its pitfalls and its benefits. A creative GM can certainly use real-world cultures as a starting point or base when creating new cultures for the game world; after all, these are proven points of history, and provide easy access points for players. The other options require significantly greater creative involvement. The following tips can help a GM get started.

The Primitive Society

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 150
All historical cultures—and nearly all fantastical ones— spring from primal forebears. Though creation myths sometimes tell of people springing full-formed from the earth (or the sky, the clouds, the seas, the blood of a god, and so on), culture in general proceeds from a primitive state to a more advanced one. In this case, “advanced” means a fixed agrarian base, a shift away from the hunter-gatherer model, the development of technological innovations, and a step toward an integrated economy, where the method of trade moves beyond simple barter or communal requirements. It’s certainly possible to see an advanced culture devolve into primitivism, though it’s much less common. In these cases the memories of lost glories likely end the primitive era more quickly.

What makes a culture primitive? Is it because the environment in which the people eke out a living is so harsh that they must focus all their energies on survival? Or are the people so isolated, by choice or otherwise, that the exchange of ideas is small, and progress slows to a snail’s pace?

The term “primitive culture” is one determined by outsiders, existing only in contrast to more “advanced” societies, and as such comes laden with the potential for bias and prejudice. It can encompass a huge range of potential behaviors, from cave-dwelling, pre-language savages in familial tribes to peaceful nomads with rich and vibrant oral traditions who have chosen to reject the trappings of the modern world. Remember that simply because the culture is primitive does not mean its people are stupid. They may be cowed initially by displays of might and power, but they have not survived in their land by being oblivious, and many a “civilized” visitor has been taken aback (or apart) by the quick thinking and natural cunning of his supposed inferiors.

Since many primitive cultures are nomadic or migratory, without permanent homes, they tend to be masters of adaptation, a trait that comes in handy if one of these so-called “savages” is thrust into the midst of civilization. Whether this means becoming a fearsome warrior, an incomparable tracker, or a natural magician or shaman—or simply fleeing deeper into the wilderness—is a matter for the GM to decide.

Some examples of “primitive” culture include:
  • The archetypal cave dwellers, possibly just now discovering basic tools.
  • Hunters and gatherers, chasing down game on arid savannahs.
  • Nomadic horsemen of the steppes, the terror of their neighbors.
  • Migratory tribes, living among the trees or great plains of their continent, following the great beasts, and moving with the seasons.
  • Polar nomads, hunting seals, whales, and polar bears.
  • Jungle dwellers defending themselves against constant warfare by rival tribes.
  • Barbarian tribes dwelling in rough huts, slowly becoming a more settled civilization.

The Feudal Society

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 152
As cultures emerge from ignorance into knowledge, as the people band together for mutual protection, certain leaders—whether strong, smart, or charismatic—rise to guide, lead, and protect. In a fantastic feudal society, such protection is paramount. With hordes of orcs nearby or a dragon’s lair within flying distance, those without skill in arms or magic must depend on those who do have it—and those who have it must expend their energy on maintaining their abilities, rather than scratching the earth or chopping wood. Thus, leaders arise.

These leaders gather strength by bringing together other powerful people. Advisors and warriors earn power and prestige, and as the society expands, so too does the land (or the ambition) required to support it. The trusted advisors become vassals, sworn to commit their warriors in defense of the commonweal, and in turn, the leader becomes the liege, who likewise swears a solemn oath to uphold the sanctity of the realm. This structure is feudalism.

The feudal system is thus a pyramid of bodies, controlled by the warrior aristocracy. At the bottom of the pyramid labor the serfs, who compose the vast majority of the feudal population. In the earliest stage of a feudal society, the fruit of their work supports nearly the entirety of the rest of the society; they act as woodsmen, farmers, hunters, trappers, miners, smiths, millers, carpenters, and more. Serfs are the property of the lord who controls the land on which they work, and most of them never see the world 20 miles past their birthplace. They are expected to serve their lord faithfully and without question; his word is their law, and in return, he protects them, administers justice, feeds them in times of famine, and serves as the mouth of the king.

Above the serfs are the freemen, who pay rent on land overseen by the local lord. Their service to the lord begins and ends with the moneys due him, but many choose a more active role as free mercenaries, smiths, innkeepers, and more. Because the lord of the land to whom they pay rent has no obligation to them in lean times, freemen must create their own fortunes, save their money, and rely on themselves.

Both freemen and serfs might be called to serve in the levies and militias of their kingdom.

To manage their land, the landowners deputize vassals of their own: lesser judges, sheriffs, guardsmen, and more. These men might be serfs as well, or they might be freemen who have sold their services to the lord, but they wield power in the name of the lord, and their word is law unless someone higher up the social ladder says otherwise.

Above these vassals are the nobility, both greater and lesser. In many feudal societies, the nobility are knights, their status dependent on their skill with the blade or the spell. For the most part, they are also landowners, sworn to their liege lord’s defense and sworn to the defense of the citizens who depend upon them. These knights are warriors or magicians, and in certain cases, the religious hierarchy of the kingdom. Those with castles or keeps have more of a duty to their kingdom than simply waiting at the king’s call. They must also adjudicate matters in their fiefs, raise and support a troop of knights to contribute to their lord’s defense, and keep current with the politics of the court and their neighbors.

Additionally, they must also tax their peasants, maintain the fief’s infrastructure (since technically this land belongs to their liege), and stamp out uprisings, rebellions, and monstrous incursions. They can pass their titles to their children, if their liege allows it; many titles begin as granted titles but later turn into hereditary titles, with the holder being responsible for the fief ’s tithe. At the top of this pyramid sits the all-powerful monarch.

The Rural/Agrarian Society

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 154
In general, civilization hinges on a people’s ability to move beyond the hunter-gatherer model, to settle into a place, learn to understand, and it harness its resources. In most cases, this is the result of a primitive people first domesticating wild animals—either as hunting companions or as food, clothing, or milk sources— and learning to plant crops for survival. Many cultures eventually move on from that base, focusing instead on technological innovation, conquest, or higher magic.

Some, though, choose to live in harmony with the earth, to keep their heads down and their roots deep. These are the agrarian societies, and they can be found almost anywhere civilization spreads its cloak. Without the ability to grow large amounts of food, and without the aid of beasts of burden to speed agriculture and provide a richer, meat-based diet, most advanced societies could not exist: the citizens would be dependent on their own skills to raise food, and they would not have the energy or inclination to pursue other avenues of thought. After the invention of agriculture, however, more people can devote their lives to improving society as a whole: creating pots to store the food, refining processes to cure hides and create clothing, building more durable houses, and creating standardized currency to expedite trade.

In a realistic world, pastoralists might raise cattle, horses, sheep, or goats and farm wheat, lentils, barley, or maize—staples that provide labor, fiber, and food for a large number of people. In a high-fantasy world, they might raise more fantastic creatures, such as griffons, hippogriffs, or dire wolves. In either case, farmers and ranchers typically choose locations near rivers or lakes, which they can use to irrigate fields or water animals. If necessary, they often clear trees and brush from the area to create open fields or pastures.

Some broad agrarian settings include:
  • The fertile farmlands outside a city, whose inhabitants are mocked by the same snobbish city folk who rely on them for survival.
  • Serfs toiling around the keep of a once-proud noble, who offers them protection.
  • Rural farmlands, feeding a distant empire embroiled in an ancient war.
  • A pastoral paradise far from urban society, where the citizens want for nothing.
  • A walled farm town, perched high on a peninsular bluff, defending its goods and lifestyle against pirates and raiders alike.

The Cosmopolitan Society

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 156
While countrysides, farmlands, mountaintops, forests, and tundras all have their place in a well-developed world, the city is where the heart of civilized culture beats. As trade hubs, military fortifications, artistic centers, intellectual havens, and seats of government, cities are repositories of history and cultural knowledge. But what makes a city? How does it form, and how does it attract its people?

As a rule, cities form around water sources, whether that’s a single oasis or a lake, river, or sea that provides the additional boon of fisheries and convenient transportation of people and goods. Once water is accounted for, cities frequently form near tracts of fertile land or rich veins of ore—or junctions of the roads along which such things are transported. They may form at key strategic locations, like mountain passes that control movement between fertile valleys (thus allowing easy taxation), or just before a difficult stretch of a major thoroughfare, giving weary travelers a place to rest (or give up their burdens and put down roots, enlarging the city). Whatever the reason, a city grows and thrives by becoming a hub, attracting trade, visitors, and new residents. As it grows, it changes, and residents can often see the shape of the old city underneath the gleaming streets, with the old buildings coexisting with or being slowly supplanted by the new. A city’s architecture is typically reflective of the people who created it, and immigrants frequently bring the aesthetics (and cultural practices) of their homelands, making a city’s buildings and structure a physical record of its history.

Other Societies

Source GameMastery Guide pg. 158
The cultures presented in the preceding sections are broad categories, and certainly not the only ones available to a fantasy world. Others have flowered from similar beginnings and taken dramatically different paths. The societies listed below are merely a few other possibilities; taken with the advice from previous chapters, these sketches can be used by world builders to begin creating cultures from whole cloth. Whether your new society is inspired by real-world civilizations or completely alien, consider the following questions about it:
  • How do adventurers rise from this society, and what are they like?
  • What is the most common attitude toward adventurers within this society?
  • What attitudes do these cultures have toward outsiders?
  • Are there customs that outsiders might easily break? These might range from simple etiquette to required ritual cleansings. If so, what is the usual reprimand for breaking them?
  • How does the society communicate? How do members pass along their knowledge?
  • Where does the culture fit on the chaotic/lawful spectrum—that is, from anarchist to authoritarian?
  • What do members of this society trade, and on what do they subsist?
  • How are the rulers determined, and on what basis do they pass on their authority?
  • Bureaucracy: Emerging from a feudal or authoritarian society, bureaucracy generally requires both literacy and a codified set of laws. The culture can be ancient or advanced, but it must be large enough or complex enough that the rulers of the country have elevated those who understand and interpret its laws to a greater position of responsibility. When applied judiciously, bureaucracy is a rational and controlled way to compartmentalize and reign over a sprawling empire. When taken too far, one discovers why it is the preferred government of Hell. It grinds both slowly and exceedingly fine.

    The head of state in a bureaucracy might be a king, a councilman, a priest, or a mere figurehead, but beyond the leader, the power of the nation lies with the bureaucrats, who interpret the laws and apportion resources across the land. More than simple government functionaries, they are the hands that steer the ship of state. They control the regulations, the ministries, and the fates of the citizens under their purview. Nobility may exist, but its power largely lies in influence over the ministers who oversee the bureaucracy. Those nobles who fall out of favor may find their land assigned to others, their taxes raised, their titles mysteriously downgraded, and more. And woe to the commoner who angers a bureaucrat, for a small amount of power sometimes does strange and wicked things to a bureaucrat’s thinking.

    Try combining bureaucratic governance with another societal trope for strange results. A pastoral bureaucracy, for instance, might see farmers told what to grow, whose fields are to lie fallow and when, and which farmers are expected to fight in the militias. Bureaucratic feudalism might result in something that resembles medieval China.

    Caste System: This is similar to the feudal system. The most famous real-world example is that of historical India, in which society became stratified into broad classes: Brahmins, the teachers and priests; the Kshatriyas, warriors and kings; the Vaishyas, traders and farmers; and the Sudras, craftsmen and servants. Beneath these lay the Dalits, or untouchables, who performed menial and “impure” jobs, such as waste collection, street sweeping, or butchery.

    Each caste carries its own duties and responsibilities to itself and to other castes. Members cannot marry outside their caste, nor can they easily change the caste into which they are born, but they are equal within their caste, advancing in their professions by merit and ability. The castes work interdependently with each other, and without one, the others fail. The system of obligation and counter-obligation keeps the society functioning, and few who receive its benef its rail against it—but others often see it as a means to subjugate others without hope of change. The whole culture may resonate with this tension.

    Decadent: Societies rise, and societies fall. Lesser societies simply fade away and vanish under the relentless tread of history or conquering armies. Greater societies, though, are more likely to slip, notch by notch, into the darkness. Is this effect due to the corrupting influence of money? The over-extension of the military into ill-advised ventures? The widening gap between the upper and lower social classes, or perhaps the exaggerated effects of various fads, drugs, or religions? Whatever the cause, the once-great society loses its power and watches its territories fall away. Its enemies seize their chances and strip away outlying lands. Strong provinces declare independence. Former allies take the opportunity to snatch weaker provinces or rich trade routes.

    In the cities and towns, malaise sets in. The citizens oscillate from one extreme to another, seeking ways to restore their power and former glory. They may divide into factions, seeking to gather as much power as possible for themselves so that they can enjoy the fruits of empire before they die, or to help shape what they see as the possible rebirth of their land. Either way, the ruling class and the classes beneath are fractured, suspicious, and frequently ready for violence. Though the infrastructure that holds the empire together still exists, it falls into greater disrepair, and the poor become more feral even as the wealthy become more indolent. The decadent culture, once reliant on law, is spiraling into chaos and anarchy—a fertile ground for adventurers.

    Magocracy: Similar to an aristocracy, a magocracy is a society in which wizards, sorcerers, and other magically imbued beings control the government. Those who have magic at their fingertips are at an immediate advantage in this country, though they may have to prove themselves against others, depending on the local codes. Those who do not have magic tend to be the underclass, serving the whims of their masters. These cultures often orient themselves more toward research into powerful and esoteric magics than day-to-day politics, and thus they may slide more quickly into decadence. The leaders may enact brilliant policies and create a utopia for all, or the elite may dabble constantly in the lives of their citizens, experimenting and choosing wildly disparate means to test their theories. Some of these societies will be blasted wastelands; some will be paradises. The trade from these countries is likely rich in magic and power, but their trading partners may be concerned about fraud and justice. These lands tend to be open to adventurers, just as the rulers tend to be open to new experiments and new ideas, but there are always exceptions, and some will have their borders sealed by magical energies. Adventurers from a magocracy might below-magic outcasts who have fled to find themselves a greater place in history, wizardly apprentices or journeymen who travel as ambassadors and spies, or scholars in search of undiscovered knowledge.

    Matriarchy: A matriarchy is a system in which women rule and men may be subjugated to a greater or lesser extent. The populace could be warlike, as with the Amazon civilization, in which women used men as slaves and fathers but not as husbands, and could not be mothers until they had killed a man in battle. Alternatively, the society could be gentle and nurturing, with women permitting men to help with defense, but otherwise dominating the political scene, industry, and the arts through a combination of communal rule, and utilitarian care for the good of all. Consider the society’s origins—is the matriarchy a violent, revolutionary response to a history of male oppression, or a natural evolution over the course of generations, about which no one now thinks twice?

    When creating a matriarchy, the world builder should address the roles of both women and men in the society, and whether the rulers welcome men as visitors and nearequals or enslave them on sight.

    Monstrous: Many monstrous societies are low on the technological spectrum, living in caves and subsisting primarily as raiders, rather than as creators or farmers, but some of them make the leap to more advanced civilizations, usually far from human lands. Sometimes these societies are splintered from the rest of their kindred and have been exiled from the lands they once thought to rule. They may prey upon more civilized societies, raiding for slaves to work their crude farms and to replace those who fall, or they may wish only to live and let live, pursuing the advancement of their species in peace but unafraid to defend their realms with fang and claw. Both because of their natures and due to the persecution they often find at the hands of “normal” races, monstrous cultures often take a dim view of outsiders. They may tolerate visitors but rarely welcome them.

    Theocracy: In a world where the gods not only exist but manifest their existence through direct action, their spokespeople will naturally assume a greater degree of control in some societies. Some folk are more deeply religious than others, and in these societies, priests can easily take control of the levers of government, existing not just alongside but in place of the temporal authorities. They dictate the laws based on their holy teachings and expect the populace to fall in line. The priests of chaotic gods rarely take control of governments like this; they believe in individuality, not the rule of law.

    If a priesthood assumes power by entering an existing power structure, its members may simply place themselves at the top and control the ministries or courts of the nobles by edict and fiat. If they instead choose to replace the previous power structure, they might establish a government as a mirror (or branch) of church hierarchy. Priests assume the power of bureaucrats, scribes, courtiers, and judges, interpreting the words of their deities as law. Until their god-given powers disappear, it likely seems reasonable to both them and their constituents to assume that their actions have the blessing of their god—a divine mandate in the most literal sense.

    By their nature, priests in a fantasy world must be faithful to reap the benefits of the power of prayer. Those who rise to power within the church hierarchy are therefore the most faithful of the faithful—their detractors might even call them extremists and zealots. Moderates might exist peacefully within a theocratic government, but they also might be hounded out and driven away from the ship of state. Outsiders may be welcome, or they may be required to convert or tithe to the church while within the borders. Priests from these lands might be more devout, seeing their rule as a privilege, or they might be sycophantic politicians cloaking themselves in the barest shreds of faith. Adventuring priests from such lands might act as missionaries and envoys, and how expansionist the government is likely depends on the teachings and interpretations of their holy texts. Such a society may choose to remain within its borders and attract followers by virtue of its shining goodness, or it might choose to launch crusades to bring nonbelievers to the truth.


    Source GameMastery Guide pg. 160
    One of the most important factors in building a world is its level of technological advancement. Technology affects every aspect of the game, from what gear PCs carry to what kinds of adventures a GM can run. Though many fantasy games presume a level of technology based on medieval Europe, this is far from the only option—even leaving aside those subgenres that might qualify as science fiction, fantasy can still run the gamut from steampunk and magic-infused technocracy to the hardscrabble world of primitive barbarian tribes. So how do you decide what’s right for your world? CONTENTIOUS TECHNOLOGY


    Source GameMastery Guide pg. 162
    Even the most superficial treatment of a campaign setting needs to deal with history and the passage of time. Every ancient ruin, powerful artifact, and court intrigue is rooted in the past, and history brings context to adventures. Your decisions on such things as the age of the world, the nature of the calendar, and even the length of the seasons have significant impacts on the stories that unfold.

    The Cosmos

    Source GameMastery Guide pg. 164
    Space. In many fantasy games, it’s not even the final frontier, but rather completely beyond the bounds of the campaign setting. Yet mankind has always looked to the sky for escape and adventure, and why should your PCs be any different? By answering a few questions regarding the nature of your world’s cosmos, you can expand your setting and greatly increase its verisimilitude.

    The Planes

    Source GameMastery Guide pg. 166
    Perhaps the most prominent question in any society is that of what happens to us when we die. In a roleplaying game featuring larger-than-life heroes, this is a practical as well as philosophical consideration, for many spells are capable of returning the dead to life, and more than one group of daring PCs has followed the path of Orpheus and ventured into the underworld to reclaim a fallen comrade. Fantasy RPGs have long been attached to the idea of the multiverse, the concept that the world in which the players reside is merely one (and often the most mundane) of a number of different planes of existence. Many real-world religions follow the same principle to a lesser extent, often viewing death as the natural transition from one plane to the next. When designing your world, it’s important to give thought to the worlds that lie beyond, and how souls and the various cycles of existence play into them.

    Parallel Words

    Source GameMastery Guide pg. 168
    In physics, a theory called the “many-worlds interpretation” asserts that for any given choice or event, a separate reality is created for each possible outcome. Under this model, history is not a straight line but rather an endlessly branching tree, in which the viewer is only conscious of the limb he’s standing on (though alternate versions of him exist on other branches).

    Alternate realities give GMs an unlimited sandbox in which to create new adventures for their players. Bored with your current setting, or its natural laws? Throw your party into a new dimension, one so strange that it’s an adventure just surviving, or so similar that the players only slowly come to understand what’s happened. Whether it’s a dream world, an alternate history, a parallel dimension, or some entirely new creation, alternate realities offer possibilities unavailable anywhere else.