Momonga Monday: My Dirty Secret Of Worldbuilding

This week for something different. You already know the main characters of Momonga: Momo, Panda, Fry and Kuton. These characters all have their backstory – they have a personal history, a family, traditions and struggles.

There is one thing they all share: The World.

We need to design this world, because without a setting for events, the story will not make sense. With a world you have cities, villages, people, cultures. With a world you have a backdrop for your storyline. It is a foundation on which you can create characters and plotlines. And sequels, and prequels, and in-betwequels. You get the point.

A good world has a couple of ingredients, each point leading to the next:

  1. Territory and resources
  2. People and cultures
  3. Conflict!

For the story, it is the people and their conflicts we are interested in. Because the conflict is the story.

The Grand Conflict

Conflict can result from cultural differences, power struggles, need for resources, or personal interests. The nations and cultures we describe in our world will each have their own history, interests, and abilities. The events in the story will occur because of conflicts that arise from these ingredients.

In the book “The Next 100 Years“, the author George Friedman looks at nations and their Grand Strategy. The theory of the Grand Strategy is that every nation has specific needs for a sense of security. Strategies are wildly different for each nation, mostly based on the geographic aspects of the nation’s territory. Which nations are next to it? Do they have power? Are you a naval nation or are you landlocked? Do you have the resources necessary for prosperity and security?

The role of grand strategy – higher strategy – is to co-ordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war – the goal defined by fundamental policy.

This is mighty interesting for real-world analysis of geopolitical forecasting – but it is essential for worldbuilding. The different Grand Strategies of each nation serves as the basis for the Grand Conflict in the world.

As an example, in The Lord Of The Rings, there is a conflict between Sauron – who wants to get his ring back and conquer Middle Earth – and the rest of the world, who basically want Sauron to get out of the way and the ring destroyed. All petty squabbles aside, this is the major theme. The story ends when this conflict is resolved.

Mapping It Out

In the real world, the basis for the Grand Strategy – and therefore, the Grand Conflict – is always geography. Water, oil, oceans, impassable mountain ranges, harsh deserts, fertile river banks – our civilizations are formed by these terrain features.

I therefore like to get into geography fairly early in the process, because it is a solid basis for the world design and storyline.

Have a look at these two maps, of The Lord Of The Rings and Game Of Thrones:

games-of-thrones-map
 We see continents, rivers, nations, cities, villages, and the obligatory lava fields, mountain ranges and archipelagos. The world map doesn’t need to cover the entire planet – just enough for the story to unfold.

For Momonga, I wanted to have me a shiny world map myself. Pretty soon I was struck with the hard reality that drawing a good map is very, very hard. Geography is fairly specific, and my first sketches were horrible. I’m not a cartographer and it shows. At this point I basically had two choices:

  1. Go abstract – draw circles and squares and work from there. Much like a mockup, or a wireframe.
  2. Use a generator – let the computer do the work for you.

Abstraction is nice, but also very abstract. Where’s the fun in circles and squares? It is hard to use your imagination staring at a flowchart for a worldmap.

I wanted something to tickle my imagination, and fill in the blanks from there. This is my dirty secret: I used a generator.

The Lazy Way

Ah, the joy of world generators. It’s lazy. It’s cheap. It’s super effective. It’s perfect.

The goal of The Lazy Way is to have a foundation for your map – not to have the final map with all its intricate details and sparks of genius presented to you. It is a rough outline, with a lot of blank spots. It’s up to you to fill in those blanks to make your world unique and alive.

Let’s get down to business: First I had a look at the Civ 5 map editor. It can churn out beautiful maps, like this one:

civ-5-hexes-e1398333753405

You can see all ingredients here: Mountain ranges, cities, rivers – and if you let the AI play around for a bit, you will even get a nations and conflicts for free. I highly recommend it.

But it turns out there is no Civ map editor on the Mac. Bummer. I only have a Mac at home, and I only have time for these creative indulgences during weekends. So I needed to find something else.

Worldcraft

I resorted to a somewhat less traditional world generator:

Minecraft.

Minecraft has an incredibly awesome world generator that creates quite unusual maps. You can walk around in them, which is a nice bonus. To render the map, there are several mods available. They render a png file of your map, ready for you to paint on. Onward, explorer! Find some nice spots!

Here is a snippet of the world that Minecraft generated for me, overlayed with some ideas of my own:

momominecraftworld-e1398267530331

This was by no means complete, but it is a great reference point. Immediately it gave me a whole bunch of ideas for other areas and the storyline. And the level map, even though it’s different, still has some of the elements of the Minecraft map in it. There’s the mountain range of The Sanctuary, there’s an old city in ruins, there’s the Momonga village, and the owl capital in the distance.

In case you missed it, here is the level selection map:

levelmap28_small-1024x341

It looks nothing like the Minecraft map, and that’s perfectly okay. Remember, we needed something to shoot at – not a generated masterpiece, but something to get started.

Closing thoughts

Here are my takeaways from this adventure in world design:

  • Having a world design is a great starting point for your story and dialogue.
  • Using a generator like Civ5 or Minecraft can boost your imagination – it is a great way to jumpstart the world map. Of course you will need to take it from there – it’s your world, your story. It always requires manual labour.
  • You could also use existing real-world maps as a base layout.
  • Don’t follow the starting map to the pixel. You will need a different layout for your world. A mountain where there was a lake, an ocean where there was a desert. Let your imagination run wild.

What do you think of this approach? Is this a good way of building a world layout? Or is it just silly? Let us know in the comments!

Cheers,
Derk

8 Comments
  • Jacob Stokes
    Posted at 19:21h, 11 June Reply

    I really like this approach to world design. Coming up with geography and terrain on your own can be quite a challenge. I would say one big challenge of this is being able to see how to integrate two different terrains without it feeling forced. Using the tools that someone else has already come up with is in a sense helping you to not re-invent the wheel.

    • Derk
      Posted at 09:20h, 12 June Reply

      Yes, the geography part is the hardest – I guess we are simply not wired to create natural maps from the top of our heads.

  • taylor harris
    Posted at 23:36h, 11 June Reply

    this really helped me working on a project and trying to creatively build a world. Thanks

    • Derk
      Posted at 09:21h, 12 June Reply

      Cheers! Glad to hear that Taylor. Good luck with your project. 🙂

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  • Peter Harries
    Posted at 15:28h, 01 July Reply

    Great article, I find creating the world history / culture more tricky again! Maps are difficult but can be a lot of fun! Nice idea about drawing inspiration from world generators 🙂

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