Worldbuilding Round II: Fight!
Last week, we went through the first part of the cheatsheet and saw the creation of the world in which our civilizations will rise and fall – the lands upon which our stories will unfold. Today we’ll be taking these lands and, step by step, we’ll explore the impact of the rise of intelligence. If you haven’t already, read the first part of this cheatsheet here. Let’s get worldbuilding!
6. Rise of Intelligence
- Why and how did your intelligent species acquire their intelligence?
- Which were the factors that contributed to it?
- How is this affected by the geological history of your world?
Intelligence is an evolutionary trait – arguably, a very rare one in our planet. There are multiple theories about how it came to be. (See, for example, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan, which is a great resource for this.) What most theories agree on is that intelligence is a trait which evolved as a response to a rapidly changing environment. On Earth, the environment became drier and cooler, which led to the forests of Africa becoming grasslands. In tall grasslands the hominids had to adapt, finding ways to protect themselves from the great cats and to find food. Put simply, only the intelligent ones managed to thrive and procreate in this new environment. This also seems to be the period in which protohumans became bipedal, as being able to stand up gives you a better view of both food and threats in tall grassland. This period was followed by two major geological events – the Quaternary glaciation (last ice age) and the explosion of the Toba super volcano – which, many theorise, triggered the great migration of the homo subspecies out of the African continent and into Eurasia. (You can also search for the “Genetic bottleneck theory” in relation to this – really cool stuff!).
NOTE: When we consider intelligence, we have to recognise the two driving factors which most authorities agree upon – cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses) and empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another).
It stands to reason that in your worldbuilding exercise these massive geological changes, or other changes which globally affect living conditions, could trigger one (or more) of the species in your world to develop traits such as intelligence and/or bipedalism as a response. Finding out how this happened can help you create a beautiful narrative for the “creation” of your races (intelligent fauna and flora) and also shape the myths and legends of your prehistory.
- What’s the prehistory (before writing) of your world?
- What was left as a remnant and reminder of the things long gone?
- What would the archaeologists and researchers of your world uncover if they were to start “digging”?
Prehistory is usually defined as the events which occurred before the invention of writing. Of course, this statement assumes that there is a linear and uninterrupted flow of civilisations using writing, thus carrying forward the knowledge and advances of previous civilisations. But, as with many imaginary worlds, we know that all traces of ancient, advanced civilisations might have been lost in time, only for new civilisations to rise hundreds (if not thousands) of years later. Examples of this include Pathfinder’s Azlanti, or the humans in the Planet of the Apes universe. So, let’s redefine prehistory as events which happened in the distant past and are mostly forgotten, or only vaguely understood, by the current inhabitants of your world. It’s this type of unwritten history – epic poems like the Odyssey or the Iliad, carried from one Bard’s mouth to the next – that gives birth to rise of the heroes and legends of bygone eras.
The key here is that these legends are often based on hidden truth, buried beneath a veil of creative rhetoric. It’s these stories, relics and ruins that will give shape to your world’s mythology. They will provoke the dogmas and beliefs of your first religions, and the understanding of creation in your intelligent species.
Prehistory is a great tool that, in the hands of a master worldbuilder, can introduce obfuscation and hint tantalising at truths waiting to be uncovered – the dark secrets that hide beneath the bed of your civilisations.
8. Written History (Events, Nations and Individuals)
- Which are the major events that took place in your world?
- How were the nations of your world formed?
- Who are the unique individuals which, by their own merit, changed the flow of history in your world?
The main identifier of history (as opposed to prehistory) is that history is written down. This has certain advantages – it stands the test of time, and has a much better chance of being accurate and true. Consequently, written history will probably hold a certain sense of gravitas for your inhabitants. On the other hand, history is written through the lens of the Historian (and they always have some kind of agenda), which can lead to exaggeration, misinformation and downright lying. Not everyone in your world will necessarily know about history (depending on the educational level of each civilisation), and accepted versions of history may vary from country to country, but it is a somewhat reliable account of all the major events which took place within written record. If prehistory is what religions and cults found themselves upon, history is the source from which nations will trace their lineage and their rightful place in the world.
When I talk about historical events, people tend to think mainly of wars between nations but, in truth, there are many more types of events. Major conflicts do indeed play a huge role in the history of a world, but they are only the surface of a very, very big iceberg. I will list some of them below, but there are certainly more, and I’ll try to expand upon these in future articles.
- Natural Disasters (Ice Age, Earthquake, Volcanic Eruption, Tsunami, Meteor shower, Flood, Heat wave/Drought, Sinkhole, Great Storm)
Events like these can cause anything from an extinction level event to wars, and may bring an otherwise prosperous civilisation to its knees, leaving its lands ripe for conquest. They can also provide opportunities for new species or peoples to develop, migrate or thrive.
- Supernatural Events (Magic-related creation or disaster, God-level intervention, Outer-planar intervention, Celestial Event)
- National-level Diplomatic events (War, Peace, Alliances, Pacts, Foreign help, Civil War, Liberation/Independence)
- International Events (Famine, Plague, Migration, Discovery of new land)
- Civilisation events (Invention, Cultural advance, Renaissance, Artistic creation, Political change, Religious event, Economic Boom, Economic Depression)
All these types of events would be recorded in history books, and would shape the understanding of this world in the eyes of its inhabitants.
I chose to address nations separately from the events category above, because of one significant difference. Most of the events above are clear cut – they have a beginning and an end. Nations are the living, breathing super-organisms of your world. They extend through the ages and evolve, or become extinct, with the same drive and ferocity as your species.
The history of nations is one of internal growth and interactions with other similar entities. Nations, tribes, confederations, kingdoms and republics can all be defined as:
a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular land, state or territory.
A formed nation (whether led by one or many individuals) works as a single entity, and transforms the world around it to better fit its needs and beliefs. It is inevitable that, when it meets another nation, the interaction between them will shape each other – and possibly a race for survival will ensue. In this race, nations learn to either coexist, find ingenious ways to defend themselves, or eradicate their neighbours. It’s these interactions that will shape the intricate political web of your world. One very important point to be made here is even if a nation is the sum of its people, at the end of the day these major decisions are taken by a few individuals. These individuals are no more perfect than any other and are bound to their vices and shortcomings, as well as virtues. In this way, the actions of nations often reflect the motivations or needs of the few, rather than of the nation as a whole.
Queens, princes, poets, philosophers, teachers, explorers, scientists, engineers, prophets, arcane masters, demigods, monsters and saints will be born, rise and fall in your world. And although your nations will remain, these unique individuals will carve their names in the annals of history by changing the flow of rivers, will discover new and elaborate ways to bring creation and destruction, or will teach of love or logic. These will, in turn, inspire the young, giving rise to heroes of modern times who will lead the armies of your nations and erect the great wonders of your world – towering structures dominating your cities and lands. These are the people whose great works of art, science, music and writing will inspire and teach millions. People die, but their creations will remain for hundreds, even thousands, of years to come; these beacons will dress your world, make it unique, special and inspiring to the eyes of every reader and explorer.
9. Language and Communication
- What are the language ancestries of your world?
- Where did they originate, and how did they spread and mutate through the ages?
- How does this affect the relationships between your nations?
The written word enables the passing of knowledge and information through great distances and time. Communication within a community of intelligent beings is what gives rise to everything we perceive as civilisation today. Through the ages, language will unite and distinguish groups of people beyond the boundaries of nations. Language can be used to create a map of distribution of population, and track the evolution and mutation of this population – these language trees reveal the truth about the origins and connections between peoples. Even more, there is some significant evidence that the language that you speak affects the way you think – it creates the kaleidoscope through which you look at the world. This common kaleidoscope connects each individual who uses it with intangible threads, even if migration or other events have separated them for centuries.
The most hard core worldbuilding enthusiasts go as far as creating their own languages (yes, Tolkein, you fabulous bastard, we’re looking at you). Although it’s not always necessary, these languages, idioms, accents and regional sayings add an extra layer of verisimilitude, and can be a valuable tool to identify and group people.
10. Culture Groups, Beliefs
- Which traditions connect the people of your world?
- Which religions sway the lives of your population?
- Which are the wonders erected and the wars that scarred your world in the name of faith?
Nations are geopolitical segregations which leave identity marks on an individual. But cultural or religious groups can transcend those boundaries and connect people from all over your world together. Belief systems can spread like wildfire, and they change the way the people view the world on a fundamental level. Throughout our own history, religions have been the driving force behind the greatest accomplishments of humanity, as well as the most horrible massacres. In addition, groups of either cultural or religious types can provide your world with organised, international networks, creating unusual and interesting alliances.
For your worldbuilding exercise, a religion should be founded on some basic beliefs. Based on these beliefs, you can develop religious practices and ceremonies, holy texts, holy sites, mythology, prophets, martyrs, apostles and great cultural and architectural works inspired by the religion. Splinter groups and factions of these religions may also appear. Of course, in a world where the gods are proven to exist and genuinely interact with people on a regular basis, any disciples of particular note may find themselves gaining supernatural abilities or other benefits from their devotion.
11. Political Factions
- Which political factions battle for power within your nations?
- Which organisations go beyond national borders and dictate global policy?
- How are the people of your nations segregated?
In the medieval and early modern times, political power was not as it is today. Policy could be dictated by anyone who had the will, power and influence to enforce it. There were different kinds of influence, held by different, important people – this might be military, religious or financial power. In many cultures, the power is held and distributed amongst those capable of protecting the people around them (for example, non-hereditary knights and nobles). However, as religion delved deeper into the daily lives of people, religious figures – men without a sword, but with the power to instil wonder and fear in others – also claimed a part of the power. During the late middle ages, Guilds, Orders and self-governed bodies such as major cities also changed the local or international political landscape. Historical examples of this are, amongst others, the Knights Templars, the Knights Hospitaller, the Venetian Merchant Guild, The Papacy and, later on, corporations such as the East India Company.
Last but not least, we shouldn’t forget that until the revolutionary era (and, in some parts of the world, even later) people were born and died within clearly defined social classes and sub-classes. Examples of this social stratification are the Ancien Regime in France (the oldest Feudal system in Europe) and the Castes system found in India and Japan. Social mobility might have existed but only within a single social stratum. As nations advanced, these lines began to blur and we see phenomena like the purchase of noble titles for benefits such as taxation exemptions and social status. Of course, world building is about finding creative and imaginative ways to take what you know and create something new, so in your kingdoms these can vary wildly.
12. Scientific and Technological advances
- Which were the pressures that made that civilization delve into this science?
- How would the environment or the geological formation of your world affect its technological advances?
- How are the scientific advances of civilizations affected by the others around them?
When people talk about a fantasy setting or genre, most of the time there is also a comparison to a particular period of our world history. Medieval fantasy, Modern Occult, Far Future Sci-Fi and so forth are all popular starting points for a worldbuilding concept. This comparison helps establish a cliché, but it can also be very harmful to the uniqueness of your world. Science and technological advances happened to our world at specific times throughout history due to necessity, deep study, or luck. In your world, different technologies might be triggered due to environmental, cultural or other reasons. This is where themes like steampunk came from. Having said that, even in the so-called medieval fantasy settings we see writers introducing technologies that span from late classical to the Renaissance and early Modern eras (e.g. gunpowder, galleons etc).
When building technology-trees for your civilisation, always keep in mind their history. Wars or disasters are always drivers of innovation and scientific funding. Culture, and the way that people perceive knowledge, will also affect the speed and time of dispersal of these new advances.
The fact that a kingdom discovered oil lamps, or how to build well-designed roads, doesn’t mean that every little village will be lit at night or that there are Roman-style highways across all the land. Dispersal takes times.
Flow of knowledge and ideas is another very important, and quite often conveniently disregarded, topic. A good example of worldbuilding gone wild, with regard to technology and flow of knowledge, is Golarion (Pathfinder RPG). Just to be clear, I love Pathfinder, but the fact that it seems like the whole world is built of kingdoms segregated by invisible technology barriers is bizarre. It makes me feel like I’m playing World of Warcraft – I just pass to another area, and suddenly there’s a different environment, and the people and technology are completely different. This is artificial, and it jarrs because knowledge flows; trade, opportunism and migrations are pushing it ever onwards. There are always things that nations will try to keep as secret as a seven-seals sealed book (e.g. silkworms) but, like noble court fashion, soon enough the fact that your neighbour knows how to build castles will catch up with your engineers, or you will simply hire (or “import/abduct”) one from the other side of the fence. Also, interestingly enough, military conflicts advance the copying of technology. (I am already writing an article about creating dispersion maps and I’ll be linking it here once done [subscribe to our newsletter to get notified].
13. Current State of the world
- Which are the current borders of your nations?
- What is the current political status between its entities?
- Are there any important current affairs or circulating conspiracy theories?
- How is the weather?
Last but not least, a world is considered complete when its current state is defined. It’s quite common for beginners in worldbuilding to begin here, or never progress beyond it. Many writers do argue that the current state of affairs is all that is necessary in worldbuilding, and that the rest can be just notes made here and there. In some ways, they may have a point, and it does depend on what you want your world to be. Worldbuilding is fundamentally about a passion to bring a world to life, not just for writing a story, but in order to create a framework upon which our stories, or the adventures of others, can flourish and grow.
In campaign setting books like the Forgotten Realms (Dungeons and Dragons) and the Inner Sea (Pathfinder), a very clear pattern can be observed of how a world is described. Although the nations, guilds, factions etc. of the world are very well written, what is mostly forgotten is how they interact with each other. Relationships are not just about wars or grudges, and exploring deeper into them can provide you with a great wealth of inspiration. Current affairs add an interesting layer that can become a great hook for any written story, role playing game adventure, or simply background colour for either. Finally, the current meteorological climate of the world and the localised weather can be a very enticing chance to add some flavour. Droughts, floods, glaciations, volcanic eruptions etc. are features that, as we discussed, will drive your world forward into the future!
Make sure you are having fun!
It seems obvious, but we tend to forget it from time to time. Try to have fun, and don’t get stressed out! Worldbuilding is an amazing away to learn a bit of history and geography, discover new ways to do stuff, and to boost your imagination. Talk to people who love worldbuilding as well, bounce ideas off them and get yourself inspired. You can join the /r/worldbuilding reddit and the /r/worldbuilding Discord, or the Cartographers Guild; all three are amazing communities of awesome people who love worldbuilding, and pursue it with a passion.
Do you have any other books to suggest? Let us know!
A special thank you to everyone at the /r/worldbuilding reddit and Discord channel for all their support, and great banter. Also thanks to my beloved wife, Janet, for editing my articles into something readable by sane humans. I couldn’t have done it without you guys.