The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

3 New Theories of World Creation

People were creating game worlds long before any theory described how it’s done. Whether the existence of theories has altered how people actually go about creating worlds is debatable, however what is clear is that existing models do not describe a reasonable way to go about creating a world.

The starting point or the ending point?

Bottom Up and Top Down

There are two basic models for how game world should be built. The first is the classic bottom up (or inside out) model. In this version the world builder starts by detailing a small area, usually a single town or country, then gradually adds more and more areas around this. The second is the top down (or outside in) model. When building a world this way the builder starts by creating an outline of the entire world, then gradually adds more and more levels of detail to it. The fact of the matter is that both of these models are fundamentally flawed.

Bottom Up Leads To Incongruencies

When building bottom up a creator has no knowledge of the big picture, his efforts are hampered and lessened by his inability to understand how the small things he is creating effect the big things he hasn’t thought of yet. At best a creator will find himself with a world not quite as good as he was capable of – a quilt that might have been a tapestry; at worst a creator will be left with a world that is a mish mash of incongruent ideas.

The local tavern is about as bottom as you can get.

Top Down Takes Focus Away From The Game

When building top down a creator isn’t thinking of the world in the way it will actually be played. When gamers interact with worlds it is always on a small scale; characters walk down streets, buy things from merchants and talk to NPCs. When the way the characters interact with a world is added in as a finishing touch, or worse yet an afterthought, the builder has ignored the basic reason for building a world – to game in it.

The Old Models Don’t Work

Luckily most DMs do not follow the two classic models, and as a result many quality game worlds have been made. What I am going to propose now are three new models for world building; models I feel more closely represent the way that world building is actually done. These three models are of my own creation, if they are similar to any proposed by someone else that similarity is coincidental.

1. Convergent World Building

Convergent World Building is taking the two classic models and combining them. In this model a builder simultaneously works on the very big and the very small. In time his work on the small expands in the same way bottom up building expands, and his work on the large becomes more detailed as in top down; eventually the two facets of his work meet at a middle point. This model combines the advantages of both top down and bottom up creation, while eliminating the disadvantages of each – the creator can easily see both the big picture and small scale. If there is any weakness in this model it is in that the builder must work on two different projects at the same time, and furthermore he must reconcile these projects.

2. Divergent World Building

Divergent World Building is the exact opposite of Convergent World Building. In this model a builder starts by creating medium size things then spreads out in both directions; from the middle he works both up and down simultaneously. This model does not have the disadvantage of Convergent World Building because the builder starts with a single project, and even though it is expanding in two directions it always remains a single project. However, the builder does suffer the disadvantages of both top-down and bottom-up world building though he does not suffer either as badly as would if he were following those models.

3. Object Oriented World Building

The previous four models all assume a very organized way of completing the massive project that is world creation, however, creative thinking is often very disorganised. Object Oriented World Building has no relation to the large and small scale created for the classic models. Object Oriented World Building is the act of creating a world around concepts and ideas that pervade many if not all levels of world. The builder starts with one or more concepts and adds everything he can to the world with regards to those concepts. Then he adds another concept, to the world and fleshes it out. The builder continues to add more and more layers until he feels his world is complete. The main advantage to this model is that it allows a builder to see an idea for his world added quickly while it is still fresh on his mind. The main disadvantage is that the lack of structure to the building process may cause some details to be overlooked and forgotten.

Theories Can Be a Good Example

The theory behind world creation may or may not have a great deal to do with the practice, however, a good theory does give potential world builders an example to keep in mind while they practice their art. Whether it be a classical model or one of the three I have proposed, a model can be a great guide to builders, even if the model is over simplified. My point is that many people are full of ideas that would make a good world but lack the knowledge of how to put them together. For some of these people a good model can get them started or keep them going – my hope is that these three models will help a few people the classic models did not.

Good fortune to everyone who is at any stage of world creation.


October 31, 2010 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , ,


  1. As usual, very interesting post. I’m currently in the starting stages of this process. I usually do a top down approach. Anyway, can you give an example of starting in the middle? I’m not sure about this.

    Comment by dylan | October 31, 2010 | Reply

  2. Since you are used to the top down approach, I’ll use it as a point of comparison. Take whatever would usually be something you would not do until several steps down the line, and use it as a starting point.

    For example, if you would normally start your geography by drawing contients, instead start by laying out countries, and just let the contintal shape flow from that. Or if you normally start by laying out countries, try by starting at the provincial level.

    There is no hard and fast rule because everyone (and every world) is building to a different end. Where you start from in the middle will affect what your focus is, and in turn how your whole world comes about, so perhaps the best thing to think of is what will be most important to your game.

    Comment by The Red DM | October 31, 2010 | Reply

  3. I’m not sure I exactly get the object orientated world building, rather I’m not sure how it would practically work. By a “concept” do you mean – for example – the politics of the world, or the religions, and so a world builder would flesh out the politics of his world as much as possible before moving on to another unrelated area of world building?

    If so I think I use a mix between The Convergent World Building and the object orientated. Generally new things get built as an idea pop’s into my head and then things get tied in from there – while all the time being aware of the larger and smaller consequences.

    but I like the idea’s you present in this post, think I’ll take a gander around at the rest of the site 🙂


    Comment by Nathan A Smith | October 31, 2010 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s