Worldbuilding: Starting Broad or Narrow?
Start with the gods, magic, or a vast Empire? Or with a small town, a tavern, or a single NPC? Either will work when starting to build your new world.
Let’s be honest, while most of us love established settings like Golarian, the Forgotten Realms, and Planet Earth, most of us also spend a lot of time creating our own worlds in our head. But to many the idea of “world building” is complicated, scary, and even confusing. Where do I start? How much do I plan out? Can I make up details as I go?
To help you start on your process, we’ll outline two basic approaches. I like to call them the “Inductive” (bottom up) and “Deductive” (top down) approach, but really it just depends if you want to start broad and work towards the narrow , or vice versa.
The Inductive/Bottom Up
This is probably the most popular, and in my opinion easiest, method of world building. The “Inductive” method works from starting narrow and inferring broader principles from specific instances. But that’s jargon, so what does it actually mean?
You start with a town, tavern, or even character–something which the protagonists (PCs) will interact with immediately. They don’t necessarily need to know more about the kingdom, world, or pantheon other than a few details, and they only need to interact with a few detailed characters (NPCs) which don’t even have to be that detailed. From there, you only introduce details as needed:
“What god does the tavern owner worship?”
“Might he dislike me because I’m Tabaxi?”
“Are the guards of this town known to be elite or ragtag?”
These are things the characters don’t need to know unless they need to know. As such, you don’t need to worry about them either. This method is best for people who can’t keep a lot of details in their head for preparation, or for those who prefer to engage in collaborative or “on the fly” world building. If you’re randomly starting a new campaign and don’t have a pre-created but want a new setting, this is probably what you’ll do.
The Deductive/Top Down
This is my preferred method for world building, though my guess is it’s actually less popular. When you world build “Deductively” you start with broad principles (a pantheon, the politics of a kingdom, or the role of magic) and from there discover how they would affect a specific town, set of characters, or situation.
This often manifests in a series of causation questions:
What does my pantheon look like? Are the gods active or distant? How would this shape the day to day lives of its citizens? What problems could this sort of pantheon cause?
What is the political philosophy of this Kingdom, region, or Empire? What kind of feelings and attitudes does that breed in its people? What problems, both large scale and immediate, could this present to players and protagonists?
Is magic common and well known, or esoteric and nearly dead? How are the magic users treated in your party? What problems arise from the absence or abundance of magic?
These are the three lines of questioning I always start off with when building a world, and I’ve found that it leads to greater complexity, continuity, and richness, but is also much more difficult as you have to hold all the details in tandem. It is also less open to spontaneous or collaborative world building from your players.
Both of these methods have their merits and their liabilities–neither is objectively better– and everyone uses elements of both of these methods, though usually prefers one over the other. I tend to like the deductive method, because it gets “all the big stuff” out of the way. I don’t have to come up with a pantheon on the fly, and I know that I’ve probably worked out all the details I can think of once I bring my players into the world. This takes an incredible amount of preparation, however–a liberty not all DMs and world builders have. This method requires note taking of some kind during the preparation stage.
There are times when I spontaneously start a new campaign with friends or a group of new players. While I could always through them into an established world, I often like to create something new just for them. At these times, I necessarily fall back on Inductive world building. I don’t have time to establish great magical systems, pantheons, and political philosophies. I often don’t even have time to establish a Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). So what do we do? We start in a tavern. We engage in collaborative world building. We make it up as we go. While taking little to no preparation time, this method requires not taking all throughout the campaign so as to avoid continuity errors.
Which method to you prefer? What have you found that works for you, or doesn’t work, when you world build? What other questions do you have about world building?