World-Building - Iterative Development

One of the first questions asked at world-building panels is "how to get started?". Starting is scary when trying to build a world intended to be used for decades as opposed to a (relatively) smaller world for only a short story or two.

During the panels this weekend that question came up a number of times and I had a chance to work out my thoughts.

One of the first things I notice is that many people create their worlds in the same manner they are taught in school. You have history, geology, physical sciences (e.g, magic for fantasy), and religion in neat little categories. You do one at a time, focusing on the topic to create something that is cool before moving to the next.

This works. However, I also feel that it create a disjointed components to the world. Let's use one of my favorite example: vampires. Now, I don't like vampires but they have a relatively rich genre and a fair amount of shared history so they work.

Authors have spent years working on the biology of vampires from how they are turned, to how they gain their powers, to even how they seduce people. We have loving details of the fangs and the blood and the scary eyes. There are lots of different variants, but it is a rich and detailed body of genre to work with.

Now, let's talk about religion. According to Wikipedia, there are about 4200 religions in the world. It is safe to say, we have reams and reams of knowledge detailing those. In world-building, religions seem to be one of the lesser topics in that many authors don't go into details into how they are formed, the social and political aspects of them and the like. However, in contemporary settings (urban fiction) we can safely say there are thousands of religions on the plate.

In fiction, very few worlds deal with the aspects of religion with vampires. We don't have a lot of games talking about atheist vampires, Jewish vampires, or even one of the less populated religions. Actually, I'd remember reading about a Baptist vampire written down. There are a few Wiccans over the years.

The gist is that isolation of topics. Vampires, when written in a silo, have a large amount of genre fiction. Religion also has a large amount. The two rarely interact except at a glossed level.

That is one danger of developing topics in isolation. There are other examples:

  • What are the evidence laws for dealing with mind reading? I loved that Empowered has at least a reference to Mindfuck's ability to read minds being incorrect in the Baron Womb case. When I was working for a former polygraph company, the same thing came up: polygraphs weren't reliable evidence.
  • In worlds with magical or scientific cloning, the laws of inheritance and marriage don't seem to always mesh together. Usually this in the plot, but looking at our own world, laws usually start to start getting into place relatively quickly.
  • Why don't dungeons have bathrooms? This is my favorite, but there are entire aspects of biology that don't show in fiction. Related to that: why haven't a ten thousand year-old culture not invented a way of dealing with shit.

Now, no one can know everything. It is impossible to cram the full scale human invention and observations into a single person, however those silos can be “blurred” a little by working in smaller pieces and letting them interact with each other. Do religions for a day, then history, then military, then language, biology, and then back to religion. The little iterations let you tie things together in a more cohesive manner.

Let's use a simple example from my world. When I was working on the world's mission statement (why have mages not taken over the world), I had to figure out things like the distance of the feedback. The mages of the world knew about it for centuries, which meant it had to be baked into the culture, language, and religions.

That meant, there had to be laws about feedback. So jumping from magic to legal, I started to develop the concept of Felony Feedback and how the legal system would handle that. How would the laws reflect that?

“Welcome back to the city, runners of Shimusògo. Have all of you been to our city before?”


“Then I will just remind you of the more serious rules.” The armored warrior's face didn't crack from its seriousness. “No magic of your clan is allowed within these walls. Reasons are unimportant, and your purpose is irrelevant. If you use magic, we will respond harshly and violently. Start a fight and we will simply kill every single one of you.”

Sand and Ash 8

Well, if you couldn't bring contrary resonance into a city, how would commerce work (legal to financial)? Well, that lead me into the idea of specialists that spent days/months/years adjusting the resonance of items to be in line with a specific city or location.

Then I was back to the magical system as I tried to figure out how to make magic safe. That was fun working out the ideas of shielding. Of course, that brought me also back to the legal system and they would handle this new “safer” approach, to mention how society would handle the new concept:

Viola smiled. “You hate those things.”

“I hate that everyone seems to think wrapping a rune in a ton of metal is going to prevent feedback. We have felony feedback laws for a reason.”

An itch crawled down Viola's left arm. She scratched but it burrowed deeper into her bones. With a squirm, she twisted her hand a little to ease the discomfort.

Prospects of Love Among Mages 3

This is simplified from the actual process, but the main gist is not sticking with one silo such as “magic” but moving from topic to topic. This means I have notes on how religion developed around the concept of magic, the entire idea of the Tarsan Family Town, and even why couples are engaged for a year and a day to let the resonance even out before the wedding.

Obviously, that means documenting everything is difficult but… that's a different topic.