Worldbuilding Intensive, Week 1

Defining worldbuilding, categorizing, and committees

Hello everyone! I hope you’re enjoying the meteorological tug-of-war between hot sun and torrential rain.

As many of you know, I’m in the middle of teaching a Worldbuilding Intensive workshop with DMG Toronto, a community organization for marginalized game developers. So far it’s been great! Participants have brought all kinds of worlds to work with throughout the month: we’ve got speculative near-futures, fantasy planets, cyberpunk raccoon cities, and even a summer camp! Each week we do a deep dive into a different aspect of worldbuilding, looking at existing methods, thinking of alternatives, and doing exercises that help us work through our own world ideas. For the next month, starting today, I’ll be posting those exercises here - so if you’re interested in following along, keep your eyes out and keep reading!

But first:

The Garrison and the Gardiner: Playing in Public at the Bentway

This spring, I was commissioned by The Bentway, a public art space in downtown Toronto, to design a game to be played in public. The challenge: the game had to be playable without any materials or equipment, and the rules had to be under 200 words!

The Bentway is mostly located underneath the Gardiner Expressway, an elevated highway that bisects the city from Lake Ontario. It is also located just above the Garrison Creek, a river that was buried in the early 20th century to make room for more housing. The area has become a site of massive condo construction, gentrification and piss-poor urban design. I wanted my game to express my frustration with the way the Gardiner has shaped the cityscape, while also helping players imagine alternatives and make peace with the state of things.

The Garrison and the Gardiner is a two-player roleplaying game in which players hold a conversation as the Gardiner Expressway and the Garrison Creek. The Garrison and Gardiner discuss what has happened to the city, how they feel about it, and what will happen when the Garrison flows here once again.

You can read the full rules and find the play location here.

If you’re in the Toronto area and you check it out, let me know what you think!

Worldbuilding Intensive, Week 1: Organization

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably heard a lot of what I said in this first week. I discussed what we mean by worldbuilding, different forms of work that go into it, and the problem with thinking about worlds as if you’re an omnipotent being lording over them. (If you haven’t already and you’re interested in this, I recommend you check out my Wordplay 2020 talk here, starting at 13:30.)

As worldbuilders, this first week we turned our attention towards methods of organizing information. Worldbuilders are often inclined to organize information in ways that make sense to us: we might make a worldbuilding bible that contains all of the information about our world, for example, and divide it into sections that make sense to us. Or we might make a historical timeline from an objective perspective, writing down all of the major events that shaped our worlds as if we know exactly what happened.

But as I’ve said, by positioning ourselves as omnipotent within our world, we embed biases into our worldbuilding and set ourselves up to make worlds that feel flat. How might we organize our information differently, in a way that reveals something about the world?

This brings us to our first exercise:

Methods of Structuring

Imagine three possible systems for organizing, archiving or recording information that people might use in your world.

For each system, ask the following questions: 

  • Who uses this system?

  • What information is recorded? 

  • What information is left out? Why?

  • Has it always been this way? 

  • How has this system changed? Why? Who changed it? 

This leads directly into our second exercise:

The List

Write a list that categorizes or sorts things in your world in a specific way. This could be a list of historical events, a bestiary, an encyclopedia, an instruction manual, a religious or political document, or something else. The list should include at least ten entries. 

The catch: while writing, imagine that this list was written by someone in your world; the system of categorization it uses should reflect something about your world.

Ask: 

  • Who wrote this and why? 

  • What did they leave out and why? 

  • How did they acquire the resources to write this? 

  • Could anyone have written this, or does the author have exclusive knowledge, power or privilege? 

  • What does the author not know? 

  • Who is the intended audience for this? Who would not like it? 

If you have extra time: create the list in the medium in which it would be produced in your world (eg. as a booklet/zine, a website, an online interface, a series of drawings etc. basically make it look cool). How is this medium different from what this document might look like in our world? Why was it made this way?