World Building from the Well Up.

It is easy for world builders to overestimate how interesting their lists of wars and rulers and the fantastic get a reader to really care about the world they created. Tolkien’s Silmarillion would have been much less captivating without the smaller, more tactile world depicted in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; stories in which the grounded characters of Bilbo, of Frodo and Sam, forced us to care about all that history. The more the reader, or the PC, cares about what is happening now, and why it is happening now, the more they will want a history.

For me, world building that starts at the top, the large institutes, structures, and events, creating cultures wholesale, often feels dead, much like the recitation of dates in a history exam. I favor world-building that emerges organically from the life stories of NPCs like a stew seller at the docks, or the small histories of mundane locations like a the town well; stories in which larger events may be tangentially referenced, but most frequently are not the central subject of relevance, except when it is.Those oblique references, often inserted on a whimsy or temporary crutch, piques curiosity, and then expanded upon with further writing, or left as mysterious hooks to capture the adventurer’s imagination. Building the world from a fish seller’s perspective rather than from a god’s eye view, keeps the narrative grounded in human wants and fallacies, which are humanly interesting.

For example, I recently wrote an NPC background for “The Northern Deeps”, a Viking campaign we are writing at Hex Brawler Games:

Crags Theregson
Stoutsman of the Western Whimsy

Crags owns the oldest brewery in the Northern Reaches. Boasts he could ferment and brew beer from anything worth brewing. Crags is always interested in new herbs, mushrooms, and roots. Not a man prone to chatter, he lets his patrons’ loose tongues do the talking; he just listens. His brews are very good, and unpredictably strong. For patrons that capture his interest, he offers a particular brew fermented from FaeRoot, an ale that loosens tongues and memories with merriment. Over the years, Crags has gathered all sorts of tales, many that should not have been told. Few if any suspect him, and his motivations are unclear, even to himself. Just curious he supposes. He makes no moves, nor takes advantage. But he listens. Crags lost his only child to the sea and is looking to find or produce an apprentice to eventually take over the brewery.

A few such blurbs have organically started to suggest the type of world they live in, local events and character. Leading me to have the great problem of too many ideas..and eventually to the boring task of reigning them all back in to keep the world reasonably consistent. Meanwhile my brain is on fire.

This isn’t to say that having a larger idea set doesn’t play a role. I.e. a flavor of setting in mind, but it’s important to let the organic growth from smaller stories, informing and shaping that larger idea, or even change it altogether. Hence, most of my world-building effort is focused on detailing the ordinary life and struggles of the peoples of his world, of particular experiences that inform their culture than then inform history. 





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