Unsatisfied with this world? This book will help you create your own.

In The Kobold’s Guide to Worldbuilding, authors and game designers gather together to show you how realms are wrought from the shimmering nectar of pure imagination.

Creating fantastic worlds to explore is one of the key elements of genre fiction – we all have our favorite places to escape to now and then, whether it’s a world with a wizarding school or one with a galactic federation. When you’re creating a tabletop role-playing game, the world is in many cases the most important element, since the author doesn’t know which characters will be involved and can’t always tie the game to a single linear plot. So if you want to know how to create a world for your characters to run around in, you ask an RPG designer.

That’s exactly what Wolfgang Baur (a renowned RPG designer himself) and editor Janna Silverstein did, assembling an all-star cast of authors and designers to contribute essays on the many facets of creating a world from scratch. Topics range from the more general, abstract choices you’ll make at the outset to very specific details on creating organizations, nations and even pantheons of deities.

While the book is aimed at the RPG crowd, a huge percentage of the material would be just as valuable to an author writing a novel set in an original world. The key difference is that RPG world designers have to be more thorough, while an author need only construct the parts of the world the reader will see, like those false-front buildings on a studio backlot. Some of the essays in this book point out that difference explicitly; some simply assume you’re working on a game world. There’s also a bias toward fantasy here, but most of the ideas presented will work just as well on your alien planet with three suns as on the fabled lost continent of Ahkatoria.

The authors and designers are:

  • Keith Baker
  • Wolfgang Baur
  • David “Zeb” Cook
  • Monte Cook
  • Jeff Grubb
  • Scott Hungerford
  • Chris Pramas
  • Jonathan Roberts
  • Janna Silverstein
  • Michael A. Stackpole
  • Steve Winter

This book’s one weakness is a pronounced lack of contributors who are women. Janna Silverstein’s piece on dealing with licensing and working in a pre-established world offers great advice, but some women’s voices on the creative aspects of world design would have made an already great book even better. Imagine what Margaret Weis or Miranda Horner might have to say?

That said, the included essays cover a lot of ground, and cover it well. Baur, Pramas, and Monte Cook start with the broad view, categorizing different types of fantasy worlds and explaining various approaches to the task of worldbuilding. Then Baur and Baker tackle the subject of history – how much backstory does your world need? Grubb explores the idea that all fantasy worlds are post-apocalyptic, whether there was an actual apocalypse or not.

My personal favorite essay is Roberts’ “Here Be Dragons: On Map Making.” It’s a perfectly practical, step-by-step guide to creating a map of your fictional world. It’s totally accessible even if you have no cartographic skill or fancy graphic design tools, and Roberts’ process doesn’t just create a pretty map, it creates an interesting map with geo-political conflict built in. I think this essay could be adapted into a creative exercise for school children.

A group of essays on creating religions and pantheons present another interesting idea: that the way religion is presented in Dungeons & Dragons and many other fantasy RPGs, as a “menu” of gods to choose from, is nonsensical. Baur, Winter, and David “Zeb” Cook offer options for a monotheistic religion that still leaves room for adventure, and a more “true” pagan pantheon in which religious conflict stems from the same gods wearing different masks for different followers.

There’s quite a bit more here as well, from guilds and secret societies to technology and magic, plus what is probably the final word on the old “firearms in a fantasy world” debate. For anyone who’s ever had the drive to create a fictional place, whether in a game, for your novel, or just to pass a rainy afternoon, The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding will spark some new ideas and help you add the proper doses of verisimilitude and outlandishness.