Between RPG products, novels, comic books, TV and movies, random blogs, and so on, there are already so many amazing worlds out there. Many of these worlds are tried and true and have decades of lore and refinement. But, for as amazing as some of these worlds and tropes may be, they aren’t novel, and they aren’t yours. Those worlds have already been explored and those stories have already been told. There’s nothing wrong with tried and true, with staying within the lines of a setting or a genre, with telling a story that has already more or less been told, but what I love about tabletop is that it allows for something more. With no artistic talent, programming experience, or a crew of performers and a special effects team, you can build a novel world. Your players can experience genuine wonder in the exploration and discovery of things truly never seen before. There is nothing wrong with orcs and elves and dragons, but at some point, they became mundane. You know what an orc is, and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy and nostalgic, and as the worldbuilder I’m just leveraging your knowledge and nostalgia. That’s simple and sensible enough, but where’s the fantasy in that?! If you want to build worlds that make you feel the way you did when you first read Lord of the Rings, let’s try something new! Here are 5 tips to bring fantasy back to the fantasy genre.
1) Understand The Tropes
This first tip isn’t about building a unique world per se, but it’s an important first step. Why do we love orcs and elves and dragons? As I discussed above, part of why we still use these creatures is because they’re known quantities, and they’ve worked in the past. But more than that, they hold some symbolic value. Elves can represent a people in tune with nature, or the end of an old age, or (if you’re going for more of a fey interpretation) whimsy and wonder. You need to understand what the tropes are and why they exist in order to change them.
2) Subvert The Tropes
Now that you’ve thought about what the tropes mean, subvert them! Maybe in your setting, the elves are undergoing a magi-industrial revolution, using new magics to twist the forest into woody machines. Maybe the elves are a new race, and this is a world in which the age of humanity is coming to an end, rather than the reverse. I was a preteen when I first played the video game Warcraft 3, but the idea that the orcs were once a noble, shamanic people prior to the events of the first game blew my mind. By that point, between Warcraft and Lord of the Rings, I thought I already knew what an orc was supposed to be. By subverting my expectations, Warcraft left a lifelong impression on me of what the genre of fantasy can be.
3) One Unique Thing
I’m borrowing this term from the tabletop RPG 13th Age, but I think it can just as easily apply to worldbuilding as to character creation. This is in-line with the above, a single subversion can entirely change the nature or tone of a world. However, other additions or changes can also make a world unique, without totally subverting it. In this world, maybe halflings have elongated faces and big eyes, as if they evolved from a lemur. Maybe that inspires you to place the halflings on an isolated, Madagascar-esque island, rather than The Shire, deep in a Euro-inspired forest. Maybe elves have bluish skin and white hair, making them just a little more alien. Maybe they actually are the descendants of ancient alien refugees, and there are subtle hints throughout the world that their magics are in fact advanced technologies.
4) Borrow Generously
Maybe you don’t just want one change, but a world entirely different from traditional fantasy. It can be daunting to build a whole world, or even to decide where to begin. In such a case, take from what’s already out there! So you have a fantasy setting, but instead of orcs and elves, you have daleks and twi’leks, and instead of paladins and wizards you have jedi and onmyoji. You can change the names, shuffle around details, adapt them to whatever technology level or setting aesthetic, it’s just about giving you a place to start. At this stage it might seem a bit slapdash, like a child smashing their toys together. That can be fun, but let’s take it one step further: how do these disparate elements come together? In the process of answering that question, I think you’ll find that the world starts to build itself. Even though these are known quantities, by arranging them in a unique way, they can become something novel and greater than the sum of their parts.
5) More Is More (But Also Less Is More)
If you’re like me, and the problem is that you have too many ideas, rather than too few, don’t be afraid to go all out! Throw every idea you can possibly think of up on the board and see how it shakes out. The reality is that many of your most unassuming ideas will end up being your best, and many of your personal favorites aren’t going to work the way you expected. Plop it down like a big brick of marble and chip away at it. Share your work on r/worldbuilding or elsewhere on reddit, start a blog, or seek advice in some other way. At the end of the day it’s your world, but consider what other people have to say, and if they tell you something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to chip it off.
So here’s the world I came up with, just in the process of writing this article: A peaceful tropical island, inhabited by a small, lemur-like people known as halflings, is invaded by the powerful, arcane lich army known as the daleks. A few unassuming halflings are rescued by a great onmyoji, a tall woman with light blue skin and white hair, wielding a glowing blue saber of light. She takes the halflings to the continent, where they learn about a war gone awry between an old race known as humans, and the blue-skinned elves who have begun to succeed them. Out of desperation, a sect of humans placed their souls inside arcane boxes, giving up their own humanity to bring human civilization back to its former glory, as they perceive it. Amidst a world in such turmoil, what place is there for the halflings?
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://wallpaperstock.net/best-friends-fantasy-world-wallpapers_w50899.html
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.