How to “Build a World”

At WisCon 41 in May, I again ran a session of “Build a World”, the quite fun group-world-building activity. It went pretty well. We ended up with a world where “with great hair comes great power”, powered by some sort of hair singularity at the center of all things. Rather than writing up the world, though, I thought I’d write up how to run one of these sessions.

I give credit for this way of running the game to Ben Rosenbaum, who ran it much this way the first few times I encountered it.

You need an audience, hopefully between about a half-dozen and a couple dozen people, and a moderator. Too few audience members and I think it wouldn’t be as fun; too many, and it gets difficult for folks to have input. One session takes about 1 or 1.5 hours.

You also need some way to write up suggestions and have them be constantly visible to everyone. You could possibly do this with a projector/laptop setup, or an overhead projector, or something of that sort. The best format I’ve found, though, is using giant Post-It easel pad paper (c. 25×30″) and easily visible markers (dark and not running dry). If they’re Post-It-style, then they’ll stick to walls pretty well. As long as you have a nice, big, blank wall space available where the audience can see it, you can stick the sheets up as you get to them, and then leave them up afterward to help everyone immediately see what’s going on and what’s gone before. (This assumes that you have fairly decent handwriting, and that folks in the audience can see easily; if not, you might want to have someone do the writing for you, be in charge of restating what’s gone before as necessary, etc.)

As the moderator, you start by explaining the premise to the audience: We’re going to create a world together. It might end up silly, it might end up serious, it’ll probably be fun regardless.

You can pretty much go into the first topic. I generally recommend calling your first topic “Metaphysics/Themes”, “Atmosphere & Mood”, or something similar; not only does this help you set very high-level aspects of the world, it helps nail down some important questions: Are we going for serious? Silly? Rigorously self-consistent? Realistic? Steampunk? SF? Uplifting?

The way I do it, I put everything that gets suggested (or, well, almost everything — it can be difficult when multiple people talk at once, when one suggestion is only a slight variation on another one, etc.) up as an idea. I try to put things up as affirmative statements or descriptions:

There are talking cats

Afrofuturist eco-utopia

Humor has mass

You get the idea. It’s usually a good idea to include some basic style propositions, even if folks don’t suggest them:

Rigorously self-consistent

Silly is okay



Basically, I aim to fill up a single sheet, then vote. That usually means around 10-20 propositions get listed per sheet. How many of those get accepted is up to the voting.

For voting, I basically have everyone do a “thumbs up” (approve), “thumbs down” (disapprove) or “thumbs sideways” (meh/abstain/I wasn’t paying attention). I use this to get a sense of how the audience feels about a given proposal. Generally, if thumbs up outweighs thumbs down, the proposition passes. And I don’t vote myself, and I try to avoid influencing the vote.

It can be important to nail down issues about consistency right away, because otherwise you will very quickly end up with a world that’s a far-future, ancient Egyptian humorous noir where there are no humans but everything occurs the way it really happened in history, and everything needs to be strictly self-consistent and logical. Honestly, the most fun worlds are the ones where strict self-consistency isn’t a major goal. But if consistency is going to be a major goal, that’s something you want to clarify very quickly after starting. (As before, this part of Build a World makes me wonder if shared narrative control automatically tends toward gonzo settings.)

I put a check-mark by things that pass, and (if necessary) strike through things that don’t pass.

If necessary, I will suggest to everyone that things that got on the list later but which were directly contradicted by things earlier, shouldn’t make it. But if we end up with a world where water is a time machine and fur is also a time machine, and self-consistency isn’t necessary, then that’s not really a contradiction — just another interesting detail to work in.

When we finish with one sheet, I like to refresh everyone’s memory of what we voted on: “Okay, so we have a world where light only travels in curved paths, air is denser than water, there is no metal, and magic was once real but isn’t anymore… Wow, how would you know magic was real, when you can never look directly at something? Interesting…”

Then we move on to the next sheet. Generally, I let the room suggest what the next one should be, depending on what topics they most want to explore next. Some ideas:


If everyone was really taken with the idea that taffeta grants magical abilities, then you might end up with a whole sheet about Fashion or even Taffeta. But make sure there’s room to explore on each sheet. If the group isn’t going to be able to come up with a dozen or so different propositions about that topic, maybe think about folding the topic in with something else. And let the most recent topic suggest the next one — if you were just coming up with a bunch of questions about how the economy functions in a world where the cats are the nobility but are also the main form of currency, then maybe economics should be the next topic.

At some point, someone will say something like, “Well, because the main technology is based on cucumbers and lemon batteries, the sentient lightning storms obviously want to get rid of the batteries, because the batteries are making the storms redundant…”. Once you get to this kind of “well, obviously…” moment, I like to note this to the folks in the room. This, it feels to me, is the point where everyone is invested in the world and is starting to understand it, on its own terms, however silly they may be. It’s always a great moment.

Also worth noting: When discussing religion or similar questions of belief, we’ll usually come up with at least two contradictory ideas:

Wood is the divine element

Wood is a sign of moral depravity

When two such contradictory ideas both get passed, I like to commemorate the moment by saying “Schism!” After all, the hallmark of reality is that it is complex; you know a world is starting to feel fully fleshed out when people have beliefs about the world that are at once logical with their experiences of it and completely contradictory with other people’s ideas.

Many times when I’ve run this, someone in the audience will suggest that next we need to write a story set in this world. I tend to downplay this — the assumption that we have to write a story set in this world or somehow we’ve been ‘wasting’ our time buys into some messed-up assumptions about worldbuilding that I stridently don’t agree with.

The way Build a World tends to go, we finish around a half-dozen sheets in an hour. By the end, we usually end up with a wonderful, silly, fascinating world. Many audience members end up feeling like they’ve taken a visit to a world that is at once utterly bizarre and completely familiar. It can be a lot of fun. If you run it, let me know how it goes!

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