A practical guide to world building.

This video is designed to give you a practical way to engage in the process of world-building.

I will be drawing on [Marie-Laure’s] chapter Ontological Rules, which provides an approach to classifying and differentiating imaginary worlds.

Ryan, Marie-Laure 2018. ‘Ontological Rules’, The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds, (Mark J.P. Wolf ed), Routledge New York.

The term ‘ontology’ means the philosophical study of the nature of being and existence. 

Ryan’s model is designed to help study imaginary worlds, but we will be using it to guide the creation of a unique world of your own. 

You can use this video and this approach in many ways. 

It can be useful for developing highly complex fictional worlds full of history, potential and detail.

This approach can also be useful for creating more simple and accessible worlds.

Not every world you build has to be Westeros, Middle Earth, or Pandora.  

You could be building a world for the backdrop of a mobile game, a children’s television show, or even an advertisement. 

Your world might be quite abstract and so not every element of the following is going to be one hundred perfect useful for you. 

This approach is a [choose-your-own-adventure], and you can make your choices as serious or as silly as you like and repeat the process as often as you like.

The important thing is with each option that we are about to explore that, you write down your choice and add a few details to give a little bit of context and help you build a description for your world later.  

[actual world]

So the first point of reference is what we call the ‘actual or primary world’. 

The following option sets are designed to guide you through the rough assembly of your world while keeping in mind a specific distance from the actual world. 

[Alethic value]

The first set of options determines the Alethic value of your world – which means its modalities of truth. 

Deciding on the alethic value is how you situate your world in terms of possibility and probability. 

Alethic value ( = modalities of truth).

1. True or False ( nonfiction)

2. Possible (realistic fiction, science fiction)

3. Impossible (the fantastic).

Option 1 (Nonfiction) means situating your world in the primary world: the world we know. 

You can set your world in the past or present but not the future, and it must follow the rules and situations that we know to be true.

[Option 2] provides the first step of ontological distance. If you choose this option, there are things in your world that could be true, but scientific advances govern the distance from the primary world. For example, humans might discover faster-than-light travel or create advanced Artificial Intelligence.

Selecting [Option 3] means your world is not constrained by rationality, and it is a place where magic and fantasy mythology can exist and be experienced.

Of course, you can mix 2 and 3 – or choose one and three but make it as close to 1 as possible. 

So you might set your world in the 1820s, but witches and unicorns exist or set your world in 2080, where technomages and cyberdragons exist. 

Alternatively, your world might be a mix of 2 and 3 and look nothing like the primary world.

The next set of options is the [Inventory of Individuals.]

Inventory of Individuals

1. Same

2. Augmented

3. Different

[Option 1] limits the world you are to actual historical individuals – but it is not the work of history. The musical Hamilton is a good example of this. 

[Option 2] introduces fiction into the realistic story world – building on the primary world in some way, but you still rely on the real world as part of the ontological background: Harry Potter, for example, is set in the actual world but is populated with individuals who are also part of another hidden world. 

[Option 3] helps you escape the primary world entirely, and this could be science fiction like Star Wars or fantasy like Lord of the Rings or a fusion of the two like Pokemon; there are some correlations, but they are not ontologically part of the primary world we live in. 

We then move onto the sub-rule of: 

Property of Common Individuals

1. Same (Verified)

2. Possible

3. Different

Here is where you start to populate your world fully.

With [Option 1], you find only historically verified individuals in your world – these people can be famous or not, but they are regarded as part of history.

Selecting [Option 2] means you create a fictionalised biography of individuals found in history but who are not historical figures. 

[Option 3] is total historical fabulation – like the Three Musketeers or Sherlock Holmes – where there is an interaction between fictional and historical characters, locations, settings and events. 

We then have two sets of options for our worlds that can then be used to distinguish their physics and biology.

Kinds of Natural Species

1. Same

2. Augmented.

3. (Different?)

Kinds of Natural (Physical) Laws

1. Same

2. Augmented (or: can be broken by magic)

3. (Different?)

These rules and options help define our worlds further and separate them from realistic story worlds. 

Remember, with option 1; your worlds do not have to be realistic; they can be based on the actual world but designed for children with anthropomorphised animals. Peppa Pig, for example, is very much the primary world populated with human animals. 

Your worlds do not have to be overly detailed, and they can be very simplistic and even quite abstract. 

So you might be quite similar to the primary world, but it is stripped of complexities. 

Alternatively, option 2 introduces the supernatural in a way that interacts with the primary world: where elves and the undead are found alongside humans, horses and snakes. 

Option 3 is bracketed because it is difficult to create purely different species. 

Ryan argues this is because we tend to relate emotionally to the species we know and perceive the species that we are unfamiliar with as threatening and dangerous.

In [Avatar the Last Airbende]r, we see mashups of species like the Turtle Duck, Deerdog and the Spider Wasp exist alongside the Salmon, the Bear and the Boar.

In the procedurally generated worlds of No Man’s Sky, we see strange melanges of creatures that have real-world correlates but often appear completely alien and new.

[Ryan] suggests that many imaginary species present supernatural abilities, which means that natural laws can be broken. 

So if your world contains unicorns that fly without wings, you are augmenting or breaking the natural laws of the primary world through magic or some specific science.

Completely different natural laws are difficult to make work but not impossible.

 For example, many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories postulate realities outside our own, where the natural laws are different and, if perceived, would drive us mad. 

The movie Annihilation starring Natalie Portman, is a good example of what might happen if our world were breached by a phenomenon from a universe where the natural laws are different and what might happen to humans in such an encounter. 

[Technology.]

1. Same

2. More Advanced.

3 Absent.

This set of Technology options helps distinguish between realism, science fiction and fantasy and aids in creating interesting combinations. 

For example, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is a world that contains dragons and other fantasy races, but Magic is not extremely common to humans. 

[Magic] is also connected to specific ring-making and weather control technologies.

[Star Wars] has a mix of advanced science and supernatural powers that are explained in scientific ways. 

Some storyworlds might have technology advanced by science-fictional rules like time travel or spiritual power, like the Dark Tower series by Stephen King or even Ghostbusters. 

Going from the specific to the universal, the next step is to decide on your cosmology:

Cosmology

1. One world.

2. A universe of celestial objects (planets, stars)

3. Parallel universes.

[Option 1] is a realistic approach with the events confined to one world – although it may not be our primary world. 

[Option 2] is a distinctive part of science fiction and some fantasy texts – where each celestial object is different forms of space travel like hyper-speed or wormholes permit travel between them.

[Option 3] is what we see in the Marvel and DC comic book universe, with multiple parallel realities. 

It is important to note that fantasy and magically augmented science fiction or technologically augmented fantasy can also feature these three options outside our own cosmological organisation. 

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, for example, is a flat planet that sits on the back of four celestial elephants that rest on the back of a space turtle named the Great Artuin.

In the tabletop miniatures game Warhammer Age of Sigmar – there are eight realms:

These are not planets but flat planes of existence: 

Another important ontological dimension is time:

Time

1. Historical

2. Future

3. Mythical/Timeless.

[Option 1] is recognisable and refers to a realistic timeline.

[Option 2] is a distinctive feature of Science Fiction, but there is no reason it could not be magical – the cyberpunk roleplaying game Shadowrun is set in a future in which magic returns to the world, and you can have Orc Cyborgs, Magical Hackers, and elven Street Samurai.

[Option 3] is characteristic of medieval fantasy and fairy tales – and often the most useful temporal setting for supernatural and fantastic elements, but remember, the rules of generic conventions are most interesting when they are altered and reinvented.

Once you have your temporal settings, you can move into the specific geography of your story world setting:

Space/Geography

1. Same.

2. Augmented

3. Different. 

[Option 1] locates your setting as an actual real-world or primary world location. Given your other options, the details may change – for example, you might be set in real-world India, but people travel by Zeppelin. 

[Option 2] expands on the real world in different ways – Harry Potter reveals secrets in the actual geography and hidden spaces of the primary world, Lord of the Rings is said to occur in a mythical past of the real world. 

A truly different space in [option 3]. geography like Edwin A. Abbots Flatland occurs in 2-dimensions, and the Aliens of Xixin Chu’s Three-Body Problem, live under the effects of a solar system with three suns.

Ryan’s model provides a final set of rules that helps to position your story word with regards to different logical laws. 

Logic.

1. Respected

2. Occasionally Violated

3. Systematically Violated

This set of rules can be usefully thought of as the degree of contradiction in your story world. 

Does your world make sense? Is it logical? Does it bend the rules of logic sometimes? Or is your world entirely incomprehensible compared to the primary world? Ryan gives the example of Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky. 

‘ Twas brillig and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. Lewis Carroll 1916.

These ontological rules are merely a starting set of criteria to help define and distinguish your game worlds, and you can start to refine and reiterate them based on further ideas and feedback, building in detail and distinctions as you go. 

Don’t hesitate to experiment and push the terms and boundaries and combination and mashup and remix the primary world to help you create an interesting and unique setting to situate your game experience or use them to help simplify your world and reduce its complexity in order to better to communicate your game experience for your players.

Thanks for playing, and remember: create more worlds!

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