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Worldbuilding - Concept

The base concept of your world will help to inform many of your future decisions, so picking a concept is typically the first thing you do when creating the world. Knowing the game system which you plan to use for your world may help you select a concept, but sometimes it can be fun to build a world with no game system in mind so that your creation isn't limited to the mechanics or themes of any one system.

A concept is made by selecting a Meta-Theme (or combining more than one) and selecting one or more themes. Selecting additional themes can make your setting unique, but it can also make it confusing and difficult to use. There are no right or wrong answers, so do whatever you think will be fun.

Picking a concept is also a great time to name your setting, but if you can't settle on a name this early in the process don't worry about it. Something will hopefully come to you throughout the worldbuilding process.

Meta-Themes

What we will call "Meta-Themes" are the general themes which are used to quickly differentiate different settings. Some of these meta-themes are a common melding of two other Meta-Themes, like Science Fantasy which meshes Science Fiction and Fantasy elements).

Meta-Theme Description Examples
Contemporary The real world, potentially with some extra stuff, but maybe not. Plenty of interesting things are happening in the real world without adding elves or cybernetic enhancement.
  • DC Comics
  • Marvel Comics
Fantasy Fantasy settings often resemble the real world at some point in history (frequently Europe in the middle-ages thanks to Tolkien), but with fantastical magical elements. These elements often follow classic Tolkien-esque themes; elves, dwarves, orcs, great elder evils, and powerful heroes who shape the course of the world with their actions.
  • Dragonlance
  • Eberron
  • Forgotten Realms
  • Grayhawk
  • Middle-Earth
Historical Often set in a real-world location, whether that location be fictional or real. There's no reason you couldn't run a game in a fictional version of Paris during the French Revolution. If it's a good enough setting for Les Miserables, it's good enough for a tabletop game.
  • Les Miserable
  • Shakespeare's Works
Post-Apocalyptic The world has "ended", but is inhabitants cling to life in the charred carcass of their former world. Post-Apocalyptic worlds tend to be bleak, brutal, and full of over-the-top craziness and violence.
  • Fallout
  • Mad Max
Science Fiction Science fiction is frequently placed some time in the future of the real world, whether that be the distant future or the near future after some major technological or scientific achievement has made a definitive change to the way the world works.
  • Halo
  • Star Trek
  • Stars Without Number
Science Fantasy Not to be confused with Science Fiction, Science Fantasy shares elements of Science Fiction, but with a distinctly mystical element which is (for the most part at least) non-technological in nature.
  • Mass Effect
  • Shadowrun
  • Star Wars

Themes

Themes give a more specific impression of the feel of your world. While some themes work almost exclusively under one Meta-Theme, many work under any Meta-Theme, and most themes can be combined with one or two others for a truly unique feel.

Theme Description Examples
Campy A "campy" setting is self-parodying. Themes are emphasized to a ridiculous degree, and situations which might be very serious are made less so by their sheer absurdity. Campy settings often have very little long-term change in plot, so you might face the same villain repeatedly for long periods of time before anything significant changes.
  • Batman (Adam West)
Middle-Ages European The staple DnD-style games, Europe during the middles ages has been a popular theme in fictional settings for a hugely long time thanks to Tolkien's lasting popularity. Longswords and plate armor feature heavily in most settings. Toward the end of the middle ages black powder weapons made their way to Europe from China, and the inclusion of such weaponry is a divisive topic among Middle-Age European Fantasy enthusiasts.
  • King Arthur
  • Many DnD Settings
Greek Greek mythology has had a long-standing effect on the modern world. We still use the names of Greek deities for the planets of our solar system, and works like the Odyssey are still considered triumphs of literature millennia after the deaths of their creator. Greek myths are great examples of "Epic Fantasy", and in many ways created the genre. Many classic mythological beasts which appear in various fantasy games were singular monsters which made brief appearances in Greek myths, but still capture the minds of people to this day. The Greek gods are also a fantastic an rich pantheon
  • 300
  • Homer's Aeneid
  • Homer's Odyssey
  • Order of the Stick (East pantheon)
Grim-Dark Grim-Dark settings are almost needlessly brutal. Violence is an everyday norm, life has essentially no value, and hope is such a foreign concept that in some settings it's considered heresy. Grim-dark settings are horrible places to live, but wonderful places to tell stories.
  • Batman (Dark Knight)
  • Bloodborne
  • Dark Souls
  • Dungeon World
  • Ravenloft
  • Warhammer (Fantasy and 40k)
Nomadic The key theme of a nomadic setting is a lack of permanence. There are few permanent locations, if any exist at all. A nomadic science fiction setting might feature humans who have left earth to wander the stars, while a nomadic fantasy setting might feature tribes of wandering humanoid tribes in a pre-agricultural society.
  • Dark Sun
  • Into The Stars
Opera "Opera" informs the stores told in a setting more than the look and feel of the setting. Opera stories tend to be simplistic, but are very melodramatic and told with a lot of flair, making them emotionally engaging and fun to tell without the need for difficult plot complexities.
  • Star Wars (Space Opera)
Oriental Not necessarily associated with any one eastern them, "Oriental" settings tend to form an amalgamation of far-east themes from China, Japan, and other Asian nations. Japanese themes tend to be more common in these sorts of settings because Ninjas and Samurai are always fun, but other Asian nations like Mongolia and China are rich with source material which I have yet to see utilized.
  • Afro Samurai
  • Order of the Stick (Southern pantheon)
Pulp Pulp fiction refers to fictional novels initially published during the great depression on cheap paper which often had tattered edges. While many of these stories are horribly formulaic and derivative, there are a lot of iconic gems like Batman with lasting popularity. Pulp characters tend to be gritty anti-heroes with a lot of problems. Pulp should not be confused with Grim-Dark. Where a grim-dark setting is a horrific place to live but might feature relatively well-adjusted people trying to survive, a Pulp setting is often a relatively normal place to live, but the main characters tend to be rough around the edges.
  • Batman (he originally used a gun)
  • Eberron
  • The Shadow (comic)
X-punk Cyberpunk and Steampunk make up the lion's share of the X-punk settings, but other variations like Dieselpunk also exist. "Punk" settings are typically identified by behavior, fashion, and general activities which are often antithetical to real-world behavior. Mohawks, goggles, over-engineering, and outrageous hats seem to be abundant in punk settings.
  • Deus Ex (Cyberpunk)
  • Mad Max (Dieselpunk)
  • Shadowrun (Cyberpunk)
  • WARMACHINE (Steampunk, calm down)
Roman In its day Rome was the greatest empire in the history of the world. Rome made huge technological advances which, once lost, took centuries to recreate. Rome represents an empire either growing, at its stable peak, rapidly declining, or in the wreckage of the collapsed empire. Roman gods strongly resemble Greek gods (because much of Roman culture was copy+pasted from the Greeks). Roman-themed settings often feature great works of architecture and technology which, while mundane by today's standards, would be viewed as world-shaking by inhabitants of the setting. Imagine taking a person whose best means for moving water was a bucket, and show them an aqueduct. Roman-themed settings which are approaching collapse might see these works falling into disrepair, and post-collapse settings might see people struggling to survive among the ruins of once-great works.
  • Rome: Total War
Untamed An untamed setting is one which is still largely unexplored. Huge portions of the setting are unknown, and brave souls venture into the unknown expanses in hopes of glory, wealth, and success. You might meet fantastic alien races, you might explore a continent once occupied by a long-dead empire, or you might settle the frontier of a growing nation.
  • Eberron (Xendrick)
  • Firefly
  • No Man's Sky
  • Red Dead
  • Warhammer 40k (Rogue Trader)
Victorian Defined the culture and aesthetics of Victorian England, victorian settings feature a clear societal class structure, stuffy manners, and weird fashions like powered wigs and hoop skirts. Victorian Steam-Punk settings are common for reasons I haven't deciphered.
  • Dishonored
Viking / Norse Long-boats, beards, and occasionally a helmet with historically-inaccurate horns. Vikings were great real-world adventurers. They sailed, they explored, they traded, they fought, and they settled lands all over Europe and North America. Norse mythology is also a rich source of inspiration for Fantasy settings.
  • How to Train Your Dragon
  • Order of the Stick (North pantheon)
  • Skyrim
  • Viking: Battle for Asgard

Magic

Magic or other supernatural abilities like Biotics in Mass Effect or The Force in Star Wars have a profound impact on their setting. When building a setting, consider if you want supernatural abilities to exist. How common are they? What can they do? Who can use them, and how?

Levels of Magic

Technology

Much like magic, technology does a lot to inform your setting. Unlike magic, you generally can't elect to have no technology. If creatures in your setting wear skins of dead prey or use sticks to forage for bugs, they have technology.

Levels of Technology

The following technology levels are loosely based on real-world technological epochs, and are by no means a definitive list. The information presented below is summarized from the wikipedia page on The History of Technology. I apologize that my focus is definitely Euro-centric, but I don't believe that it makes these examples any less useful.

Examples

Example 1 - Shadow of Olympus

For our first example, we will choose the Fantasy meta-theme. Fantasy settings are popular and very flexible. I really like Greek mythology and the Greek pantheon, so let's pick the Greek theme. A Greek Fantasy setting is solid, though fairly generic, so adding another theme will help make the setting unique. I'm really tempted to go for Campy, but a Campy greek setting would basically devolve into "Oops! Zeus got something pregnant again. Time to go kill his horrible offspring." So let's swing the other way and go for Pulp. A Pulp Greek Fantasy setting would feature rough heroes, horrible monsters, and a lot of adventuring where the heroes are being toyed with by various deities. Imagine Odysseus with a drinking problem. I'm probably going to step on the toes of some God of War fans, but I've honestly never played any of the games.

Example 2 - Space Grease

We have a fantasy setting, so let's build a futuristic setting Science Fiction setting as a juxtaposition. Grim-Dark Sci-Fi is done to death, so instead let's go for something crazy. How about Diselpunk? Imagine a world of mohawked, tattooed space-teens cruising the milky way in inexplicably diesel-powered space muscle cars. 50's-era diners in space take the place of bars, and conflicts are relatively small in scale despite the enormity of the galaxy at large.

Example 3 - Heroes of Tonnesvale

We've done a fantasy setting and a sci-fi setting, so let's explore a small-scale Contemporary setting. A Campy theme would be great for a light-hearted supers game, or possibly a comedic cops-and-robbers game, so let's go with both of those themes, and set our setting in a fictional mega city where a league of masked heroes faces off with the forces of generic evil. Super-friends has been around for a long time in its various forms because the formula works, and it's a great concept for a tabletop supers game.