At last WisCon, there were several great panels about worldbuilding. One, in particular, brought up the concept of using different standard blocks, like “elves who are immortal and hate dwarves”, “the monotheistic religion is on a crusade to destroy the other monotheistic religion”, or “space travel is through jump gates”. There are a lot of setting elements that we all recognize pretty quickly; they’re the elements where you can say “You know Babylon 5? Jump gates are like that” or “they’re pretty much the standard Tolkien elves” or “it’s kinda like medieval Christianity”.
Someone on the panel, I’m not sure who, termed this “Ikea worldbuilding”. I really like that turn of phrase. Like shopping at Ikea, there are a bunch of pretty standard furnishings that are available to everyone. Like Ikea furniture, it’s so common that you’re likely to see it in many different settings. “Oh, yeah, I recognize those elves, they’re the same ones as in the Forgotten Realms”, you might say.
And like Ikea furniture, this kind of worldbuilding can have a bad reputation. If your entire world is assembled out of Ikea world-blocks, more snobbish worldbuilders might look at it and say “Wow, how unoriginal”. And indeed, some of it will be unoriginal — but originality is not the be-all, end-all of worldbuilding.
In fact, like Ikea furniture, an important part of worldbuilding is allowing your audience (who, in an RPG, are most often your players) to come to grips with the setting quickly. If it takes active pondering before they can operate your fancy new chair, it’s arguable that the chair is a failure from a design standpoint. If everything is beautifully designed, totally original and yet thoroughly impossible to come to grips with, it’s not very useful as a world for gaming in. (Though it’s fine to appreciate it as a world in itself.)
A lot of people look down on Ikea furniture, but it’s successful for a reason. It’s cheap, it’s easy to assemble and it’s (mostly) achieved popularity because it works. It’s quickly understood and it’s pretty likely to work with the other elements you already have. When you’re building a world for RPGs, those are all useful elements to have. You don’t always have time to come up with completely new architectural styles, for example; it can be a lot easier to say “See these Moroccan houses? They look like that”. Ikea worldbuilding has its drawbacks, but it has some real advantages, too.