These are some more of those "classic words," and they are usually invoked right after someone has said "but that makes no sense." And, while this is a convenient excuse, the closer we as GMs strive for realism in an internally-consistent logical structure to the settings of our stories, the less we have to hand-wave and the better our players will be able to suspend their disbelief. This is the crux of our role as world-builders.
When most people read "world-builder," they often immediately jump to the idea that they need to break out their home-cartography kits and get to work. But building a world is so much more than drawing maps, because ultimately it is about crafting a place that the players can believe in, a place the players can lose themselves in, a place the players can care about.
Because you don't just practice world-building when you're making up a planet in some far-distant place where people wield swords and magic, and you don't just practice it when you're playing a sci-fi game and landing on a planet. If you're roleplaying a GURPS game taking place in the next city over, and you're in the Real World But For Just A Couple Changes, well, you're world-building, too.
One thing that's important to note is that it's generally easier when you are operating in a completely fantasy world, as opposed to a world which is just a step away from our own reality, because in a fantasy world a slip-up here or there won't necessarily shatter the illusion. In a world that is mostly like our own, though, what may seem like a minor thing can completely shatter the illusion you're trying to create, so research—and plenty of it—is pretty necessary unless you're fairly confident you're operating in an area or situation your players will know little about.
To give an example from a recent television show, Grimm, in the first episode a police officer shoots a fleeing suspect in the back after the suspect has attacked the police officer. In a fantasy world, players might not bat an eye—but in a world pretty much like ours, you might have a player who knows that was a bad shot, and that IA will become involved, and that once word gets out to the family then it'll get out to the media and that police officer probably won't be a police officer for much longer, especially once he and the city and police department are sued. So when that doesn't happen, the underlying rules of the universe are fractured, and believability is lost.
The reason this is so important is because the setting is also about rules and structures (a common theme in what we deal with as GMs). Not rules of what the characters are able to do with their weapons and their skills, but rules of behavior and expectation. If what is expected does not occur, or does not make sense, this is a matter of disconcertion and players may suddenly feel as if the GM is trying to pull a fast one on them.
What we're going to do is touch upon the basics at a very high level, to indicate things you should keep in mind as you craft your setting:
Sociology: Groups of people tend to band together and form tribes or societies, where like-thinking is rewarded and unlike-thinking is ostracized. This got its start in human prehistory, where different tight-knit groups banded together to communalize resources. It continues even today, though: at the large scale, in the form of nations, and in the small-scale in the form of social cliques. Understanding that people interoperate in groups and communities of different scales will help make your setting more realistic, as you will be able to call upon these groups in your design, and in your storytelling. The great thing about starting social groups from scratch is that you can generate their impetus for being however you want: you could have a country of people who, unlike every other country, place their forks to the left of the plate instead of the right.. Yes, it's a silly example, but it the rationale behind the reason makes sense, then anything is possible.
Religion: Religion often plays a major part in the grouping of different people. Doctrinal differences between worshippers of the same god, worshippers of different gods, and non-worshippers do not often comfortably mix, even in the same overall society, and often subdivide themselves into like-minded groups. One thing that is very important, though, and that many writers and world-builders forget, is that if someone worships a god-figure, that worship is true. That is to say, they will generally try to adopt the doctrines of their god-figure and will often attempt to impose that viewpoint on others, be it through apology, evangelism, forceful conversion or conquest. Alternatively, worship of a god-figure can be so commonplace that worship is simply lip service to a majority of the populace. Religion is also one of those really divisive topics that can really consume the themes of your story, so careful consideration should be given to religion as you build your setting. And if you're roleplaying in a modern setting, with real religions involved? Best advice is to avoid it altogether unless everyone in your group is of like mind about religion. Otherwise, you're just asking for bad mojo.
Civics: As societies grow, they need to develop rules in order to preserve order and a standard of behavior—RTR's recent adoption of Standards of Conduct is a prime example! As these rules are developed, a subdivision of the society is granted the authority to enforce the rules. This is the foundation of government, and law enforcement. Any society of any respectable size—which can be as few as a half-dozen people—is going to have some kind of governing structure. This structure can either enforce rules agreed on mutually by the population (something more akin to a democracy or republic), or rules that it has chosen to enforce on the populace (a tyranny or dictatorship). These different kinds of government usually have very different feels to them, with democracies/republics usually being (or attempting to be) more egalitarian, while tyrannies tend to be more fearful of their populace and more willing to surveil and brutalize their citizens.
History: History is definitely one of the most important aspects of world creation, even if you're just taking the real world and turning it on its ear. You have to understand the history of your world and its various people to understand how they came to be the way they are today (at the time of your story) and why they worship the way they do, why they have the government and legal structure they do, etc. Going back to the example of the country above, the left-forkers, let's say the reason theydo it that way is because, early in their history, they were enslaved and their masters hobbled their right hands so they would be less effective in a fight. Now you've got an extra rationale, and a reason for them to be nervous around people who set their tables with forks on the right. And now that whole fork thing seems a lot less silly, and a lot more sad.
In real-world style games, this transforms from "making up a history" to "researching history." As a GM in a real-world game, you wouldn't want to say the American Revolution was fought largely because tea imports were getting too expensive (unless this is actually something different about your version of the real-world); once you, as a GM, say something that's patently false, the players are going to start wondering what else faulty is coming. Perhaps wiser, in that situation, is to keep quiet unless something about the history is directly related to your plot.
Geography: Still important, but it's here at the back because it's not quite as universally important. In a modern-world game, for instance, Google Maps and done. In other games, though, you can use the environment to inform history, group migrations, wars and the like. Of all the tools available, Campaign Cartographer 3 is one of the oldest and one of the consistently best tools for world creation—but it's going to let you make a map, it's not going to tell you what that map is supposed to look like. For that, probably one of the best books for this is A Magical Society: Ecology and Culture, which details various types of terrains, climates, ocean and wind currents, the cultures that tend to spring up around such places—it's an absolutely fantastic book, and well worth the purchase for any budding world-builder.
Is there more to world-building? You bet there is! But this is a good start, and as you find yourself working your way through these, you will find yourself expanding your perceptions of your world, and may discover that it has some surprises in store for you!
Just remember this: your own worldview—how you perceive the people and events around you in the real world—shapes your creation. People will behave as you think people will behave: this is our default assumption. So, if you think people are stupid sheep who follow their leader and don't question things, you will find your NPCs behave this way. If you think people are innately completely self-centered and will try to rob and pillage anyone if they can get away with it, you will find your NPCs behave this way. If you think people are shining beacons of wonderment who all strive to do what is best and good and right. . .you probably won't have a lot of conflict in your world, because your NPCs will behave this way.
Don't let your NPCs behave any of these ways! It's bland and boring when everybody's the same!
Crafting a believable setting means that you have to perceive viewpoints not only similar to your own, but completely dissimilar to your own, without levying judgment. That is, if your goal is to create a believable world with varied cultures, they can't all feel samey. Talking with people in real life you normally would not, visiting other countries, visiting cultural centers—all of these are great ways to get a different perspective on people, and cultures, and all of these are great sources of material for your world-building.
And if, along the way, you discover your own heart and mind opening to other people's ideas, if you find yourself shaking loose the cloak of always being right? Well, that's maybe not such a bad thing.
Next time we'll be looking at the GM as a Mastermind manipulating people, places and events to suit his goals. Does the GM have to be the cleverest clever that ever clevered a clever? Let's find out. Thanks for reading!