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How to make a fantasy world believable and relatable? World building is such a huge topic that we won’t be able to cover it in any kind of detail in one post alone, so it will become a fixture in our blog updates.

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Up to this point, most of our blog posts have covered sources of influence and inspiration and some general game mechanics. What we have not covered at all so far, is the world of Realms Beyond. That’s where I come in…

Some of you may know me as “Dragon” in our forums and I am the Creative Director of Realms Beyond, which means, I am overseeing the creation of the content that you will eventually play in the game.

I do have a background in game design and I’ve worked on numerous roleplaying games before, in a variety of capacities, and when I joined the Ceres Team some time ago, the first order of business was the general world design.

While we're using assets and code from the never-released Chaos Chronicles project, we decided early on to create the actual content for Realms Beyond from scratch. But where do you start designing an open world roleplaying game?

Dungeons & Dragons Player Handbooks

Aside from re-familiarizing myself with the D&D rules of version 3.5 and looking through all the already-created assets and materials, I had a completely clean slate. Our project director had only one guideline for me: create a believable world, rich in detail, that appeals to fans of classic fantasy games and literature.

For a game designer and writer, that is a lot of leeway—much more than you will usually find. So I sat down and brainstormed a number of ideas. While being an open world, the game would ultimately have to have some kind of main storyline, regardless of the player’s participation in it. Some overarching events have to happen in the world to keep the whole thing moving. With that in mind, I fleshed out a first basic storyline.

Pondering the world

This may sound pretty straight-forward, but in reality, it means that I took a ton of notes, wrote a lot of text and revised it again and again to accommodate new ideas and changes. Just when I thought I had it all fitting together nicely, another idea popped into my head, making me rethink my premise, my second act or my solution. It happened a number of times, which is normal for the way I work, until I got to the point where I felt I had exhausted my “What if?” pool.

With plot points, locations, characters and events listed in bullet points, I then went to work to flesh it out in writing and I created a document that was a couple of thousand words long, essentially running through the plot, explaining what happens in chronological order and filling in the necessary background to follow and understand the developments, all the way to the end.

This narrative is not as clean as you might expect because after virtually every other paragraph I had to intersperse Editor’s Notes to explain what was going on, why things happened, why characters behaved a certain way, why a turn of events was relevant, and so on. But in the end, it painted the picture of a story that unfolds in the world we are trying to build. Events of such proportions that they affect everyone in the world, including the player.

We bounced the plot outline around a few times to iron out some wrinkles and to add in some additional comments and ideas that surfaced while we were discussing the narrative. A few weeks later, we had an outline that we both liked and felt comfortable enough with to use it as the basic premise for Realms Beyond. It became our Foundation.

And then it was time to actually design the world…

World building is such a huge topic that I won’t be able to cover it in any kind of detail in one post alone, so it will become a fixture in our blog updates, as I will cover some of the countless aspects that go into this subject. Hopefully, you’ll find it enjoyable, to see how a world is conceived and what the glue is that will hold it all together.

Even though I have been working on a great many roleplaying games, most of those games either relied on an existing, typically licensed, universe, or the scope of the game was such that actual world building was not required. Therefore, large-scale world building has never been anything I really had to do before. That’s what made it enticing. That’s what made it intimidating. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it is that you can only truly learn anything by doing and that you can learn anything if you take it one step at a time.

The first thing that was necessary to begin any kind of world design was to determine what kind of game we wanted to make. What kind of feel did we want? It’s the difference between, say, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Dragon Age,” just to give you two very different flairs of fantasy.

It also required us to answer the question of what kind of cultures we wanted in the game. Once again, it’s the difference between “The Lord of the Rings” and, say, “Wizardry: Crusaders of the Dark Savant.”

What kind of geography did we want in the game? A general nordic feel like “Skyrim,” for example, or something more traditional like, you guessed it, “The Lord of the Rings?”

After some discussion, we had settled on a few parameters that would serve me as a guideline to create the game world. Some of our decisions were actually dictated by the art assets we had already in place, so we knew that for the most part, we wanted a traditional fantasy world with a pseudo-medieval setting that is not too exotic or radical—meaning no fancy machines or the like.

The entire team and I shared one core belief, that in order to make a fantasy world believable, it helps to make it relatable. To make it relatable, use something familiar. Ergo, we decided to loosely base the cultures in our game world on actual historic cultures. Naturally, making a fantasy game means we treat the term “loosely” really loosely and won’t let ourselves get bogged down by actual history.

Realms Beyond Map

In the end, we decided on a series of cultures, like a Nordic people, one that builds upon Central Europe, another one reminiscent of the Mediterranean, and then Elven people and dwarves, of course. But we also included cultures like the Maya and ancient Mesopotamia to our list. Not a bad start, especially because all of this can be expanded as the world grows. These generalized peoples also allow me to add granularity as I need it. Not all Central European cultures are the same either, after all. There are the French, the Germans, the British, the Irish… you get the idea.

As I mentioned before, it is important to us to make a game that is relatable, something that has a certain amount of familiarity without feeling like we’re trying to simulate medieval world history, for example. With these cultures in place, it is possible for me to begin adding colorful facets and nuances to them, which means… notes, notes, notes!

For years I’ve kept a general Writer’s Journal. It is a notebook in which I jot down everything that comes to my mind. Ideas, names, events, thoughts, anything really, that could be useful at some point.

Scrivener Screenshot

Why would I do this? Because creativity is a fickle mistress. Inspiration typically strikes when you least expect it and good ideas are just as quickly forgotten. I hate it when I forget ideas and can only remember that it was something really, really cool! The Writer’s Journal prevents that and for Realms Beyond, I started a separate Writer’s Journal, specifically for things relating to the game. In it, I record the same things mentioned earlier, but I also collect quest ideas, ideas for cool monsters and other things that are relating to the game.

In case you are wondering, no, I do not collect these things in a physical book. I am using a software package called Scrivener which has been my best friend as a writer for many years. It is a writing software that is perfectly tailored to my writing and research needs because it allows me to organize things in ways that suit me best. I can throw in media files like images or soundbites, I can write, create folders and tree structures to organize notes, I can create a cork wall and pin note cards to it… it is truly the most perfect tool imaginable for the task.

Well, that just about wraps it up for today. Join me again next time when I’ll tell you more about the process of putting together a brand new world.

Original Blog Post

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