How to Begin?
Below is a list of categories of world elements (and examples) to get you thinking. Pick whichever one inspires you the most, and branch out from there. Don't try to build your world all at once. Start with the element that you have developed strongest in your mind, and use that to inspire everything else.
Broad Gimmick: Many world have one overlying gimmick that defines them. All other factors stem from this point. These elements tend to be incredibly broad and vague, but they color every aspect of the world.
- Magic is very prevalent in this world - it seems that virtually everyone is able to cast some spell.
- The entire world is nothing but one immense jungle.
- Ghosts abound, and spirits never leave unless forcibly driven out.
Factions/Major Races: Factions, nations, cultures, and races will likely play a major role in your campaign. Because this element is so important, it can be useful to pick it first, then make the world suit its needs.
- A nation of Elves has come to subjugate all other nations, slowly turning the other races of the world into slaves.
- The world is primarily human, and seven major european-esque nations hold an unease truce.
- The Orcs, sick of ceaseless prejudice, have banded together with a nation of Ogres in a big, strong, dumb alliance.
Conflict: War is hell, but if can also make for excellent material. In this world, a single conflict is so important that it defines all other factors. Conflict is often intrinsically linked with Factions.
- A small uprising has grown into a full rebellion.
- Two mighty nations are in an all-out slugfest, at great cost to their citizens and the very earth around them.
- A single monster or powerful wizard wages his own personal war against the entire planet.
Geography: I love maps, and often start world creation with one. Take this map of Svalbard for example, a random island north of Russia and ask yourself "If this were a continent, what would it be like?"
- Originally uninhabited, the North East island now acts as a refuge for those fleeing the growing theocracy.
- The Central, square island is home to unimaginably rich gold mines, and is the object much aggressive attention.
- Immense peaks and cliffs make the center of the main island virtually impassable, forcing travelers to make a long trek around the parameter.
World Event: Often there is one immense event immediately prior to the campaign start which defines the world. It likely changes all other elements, and will serve as the focal point of the campaign.
- A new, vengeful god has risen, and has smote his wrath upon the greatest cities, reducing them to ruin.
- The dead are coming back to life, zombie style!
- A comet has, or is about the strike the earth. Can no one stop it?
Campaign: Perhaps you already have a broad campaign in mind. There is nothing wrong with building the world around a campaign. In fact, it's often the only way that a campaign can be run, if you are working at the epic level.
- Our heroes are out for revenge against an mad tyrant.
- Our heroes are marooned on an unknown island.
- Our heroes are fleeing for their lives from an angry god.
Once you have an initial element, start asking yourself a few questions. Given the paramaters you have set, exactly how would things go down? Here are a list of questions to consider. They may seem broad at first, but remember to answer them according to the World Element you have set.
- Who would thrive? Who would starve?
- How would societies function differently?
- What resources would be valued? What resources would be unusually common?
- Are people content with how the world is structured? Would people try to tame the wilds?
- What would cities look like? How would people live?
- What major factions would emerge? Who would band together?
- What major conflicts would emerge?
- How would the geography best suit this element? Would the geography be changed by this element?
- What major event caused this element? What major events would be caused by this element?
- How has history led to this point? What is the likely trajectory of events, if our heroes do not interfere?