Last Updated: June 20, 2021
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.
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).
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
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.
|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.||
|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.||
|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||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
|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.||
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
- No Magic: Magic and supernatural abilities don’t exist. This is the horrible reality in which we live.
- Low Magic: Magic is rare. Most people will go their whole lives without encountering it, and many people may believe magic does not exist. Magic might be outlawed, publicly shunned, or it might just be extremely difficult. Star Wars could be considered a “low magic” setting because force users tend to be rare and exceptionally powerful, and at some points in history (like the original trilogy) some people thought jedi were a myth.
- Moderate Magic: Magic isn’t available to everyone, but it’s common enough that everyone knows about it, and some people have even gotten to see it first hand. Middle Earth is a moderate magic setting: Wizards exists, and people know about them. Powerful mortals can bind magic into objects or use existing magic items. People know about Sauron and the wizards, but many people may never have seen actually magic.
- High Magic: Magic is very common. Perhaps everyone won’t be able to use magic, but magic is a normal part of life to which people have become accustomed. Most DnD settings are High Magic, especially the published ones.
- Dominant Magic: Magic is everywhere, and life is greatly defined by magic. Reliance on mundane means might be rare or even frowned upon, and people may be so dependent on magic that they could scarcely function without it. Harry Potter is an excellent example of Dominant Magic: while non-magical “muggles” exist, the important parts of the setting are defined by wizards and witches who use magic for everything from washing dishes to erecting buildings.
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.
- Stone Age: Humans walked the earth alongside Neanderthals. Stone tools were the order of the day, and cave paintings were the height of communication. Humans lived in largely nomadic tribes.
- Copper and Bronze Ages: Permanent settlements, agriculture, and animal domestication. Basic smelting begins with Copper and Bronze. These metals are soft, so don’t hold an edge, so weapons tend to be fairly terrible. Stone tools are still commonly used because they’re easier to make than metal ones.
- Iron Age: Iron smelting technology emerges, and iron tools quickly replace copper tools. Iron is stronger and considerably more common.
- Ancient: A huge leap in technology took place in the “ancient” period. Written language, astronomy, and many machines and inventions which remain in use today. This is the age of Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
- Medieval: Typical of fantasy settings, especially in games like DnD, Medieval technology is great for violence. Steel crossbows, plate armor, and trebuchets are all invented in this era. Primitive black-power weapons emerge in china and make their way to Europe, making way for early cannons.
- Renaissance: Perhaps best known for the invention of the printing press and for geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance was a major cultural and technological leap for Europe. Crossbows become more prevalent, and black-powder weapons continues to improve.
- Age of Exploration: Improvements in seafairing technology allow Europe to explore, map, and colonize the world.
- Industrial Revolution: The start of the modern era, the Industrial revolution changes the way things are built. Where anything interesting was once built by skilled hands, often one at a time, now most things were produced en masse in factories powered by water wheels. Coal gradually becomes a fuel source, and phases out water power. Steam engines emerge, and steampunk enthusiasts everywhere cheer collectively.
- The Second Industrial Revolution: Early forms of contemporary technology emerge. Steamboats, trains, light bulbs, and telegraphs are all invented. The patent for the fax machine is filed (I’m not kidding). Interchangeable parts revolutionize manufacturing of things like muskets, and ironclad ships emerge near the end of the American Civil War.
- The “War” Era: I’m collectively bundling World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War into one vague era. While historians will crucify me, this era shares a common theme of “we need to build something to kill that guy better than what he’s building to kill us”. This period included the mass production of automobiles, telephones, rockets, powered flight, and all manner of consumer products (though certainly not in that order). I can’t possibly condense how much happened in this period into one paragraph, but as an example: At the beginning of World War I, Germany was hauling artillery weapons with horses. At the end of this period we has nuclear weapons, radar, modern fighter jets, and early forms of the internet. Like I said: a lot happened.
- Information Age: The internet makes its way into people’s homes. Computerized technology changes the course of humanity. Early cellular phones emerge.
- Digital Age: The gradually shrinking size of transistors allows for technology to be dramatically miniaturized. The internet is now a prevalent part of most people’s daily lives. Portable computing becomes affordable, and smart phones emerge
- The Future: It’s impossible to predict what technology will emerge within the next year, so predicting what may emerge in the next hundred years is a fool’s errand. If you want to set your setting in the future, you can make technology whatever you want and no on can say you’re wrong.
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.