Topics and Ideas for Fantasy Worldbuilding in Novels and RPG Games (Part 1)

Okay, so you’ve decided you want to build a fantasy world. You’re just not sure where to begin. You know you need to brainstorm a few ideas and topics relevant to the world, but that’s it. As we said in our previous post, when you are worldbuilding, all the topics and ideas involved are usually interrelated. The world is like a spiderweb of factors. So, let’s discuss a few of the basic ideas we listed in the previous post.

RPG Game vs. Novel

You probably made this decision before you even decided to worldbuild, but in case you didn’t, you must choose between worldbuilding for a fantasy RPG game or a fantasy novel. That distinction may seem small, but it has several specific subtle consequences. Writing a fantasy novel is usually more focused in some respects, and yet broader in others. You will ask several similar questions whichever path you follow. The most obvious distinction between the two tasks is that you usually know what you’ll need for the novel. In a game world, you have to prepare for the unexpected actions of the players. As a result, you need a more complete world, if you wish to avoid “winging it.” For now, though, we will leave the discussion of that issue to a future post. Let’s move on to the next worldbuilding topic.


How long is a year? Is time actually even measured in years? Here on Earth, some calendars use segments of time both longer than the year (the Mayan calendar) and shorter than the year (Jewish and Arabic). For example, you could base a calendar on a year consisting of thirteen months that were 28 days long apiece. This would give you a year of 364 days in length. Pretty close to our Earth year which makes timekeeping somewhat comfortable. Or, you could do a year of twelve months each 30 days in length. This gives a year that lasts 360 days. If you add in 5 inter-month holidays you get a 365 day year. Again very comfortable and familiar to our Western Civilization.

–Pen and Paper RPG:

In an RPG, timekeeping is usually done in the background. Characters in the game may travel from city to city, from dungeon to dungeon, or what-have-you. On a macro-temporal scale, this is rarely noted by the actual players. Whether the journey takes five days or fifteen days isn’t too important. What matters is the encounters the characters have along the way. At least, I’ve never been in an RPG campaign where we actually tracked our ages as the time passed. I find that tedious and unnecessary. Instead of the macro-temporal scale, the RPG focuses on the micro-temporal scale. Characters remember the battles or the clever encounters that last only a few minutes of game time but may take as long as an hour or more of real-life time. That’s the reality of the RPG structure.


In the novel, the relationship between macro-time and micro-time is more nuanced. Most often, like the RPG, important encounters don’t occur in macro-time. Rather, macro-time advances setting, plot, tone, or character arc. Micro-time is where the results of such work become manifest. Macro-time develops the potential; micro-time develops the actual. You’ll see subtle changes in the character from scene to scene (micro-time). You’ll feel the tension build in micro-time. Finally, the most dramatic events of the story are usually resolved in micro-time.

Physical World

Unless you are writing a really bizarre story, or creating a really bizarre game, the task of worldbuilding involves physical and geographical considerations. First, is the universe in which this world exists like ours? Are there stars in the sky? Is the world a sphere like Earth? Or is it, as the ancients once thought, flat? Are there even stars in your universe? Or is it completely alien? Those are some of the questions you’ll have to answer.

–Pen and Paper RPG

The importance of the structure of a physical world in the RPG setting is similar to the significance such plays in the novel. In the RPG setting, though, the structure of the world may influence or be influenced by the game mechanics of the system. If it is a flat world, how does gravity operate? What happens when a character falls in a pit? It’s easy to take the commonplace of everyday life for granted. It can be difficult to think beyond such and build a whole world working from different assumptions.


In the novel, the author has somewhat more freedom. In the above case with a pit, the author can come up with an answer that doesn’t influence a system of structured rules. He doesn’t have to worry about things like falling damage—except in terms of language as opposed to numbers. He just has to work the event into the story for that one time. To some extent, he’s got to worry about consistency, but only in a more conceptual sense. He doesn’t have to incorporate numerical information at all. He doesn’t have to pore through a series of rules that may change. He’s in control of everything. Most ideas need only be addressed qualitatively as opposed to quantitatively.

Magic, Science, or Both

Generally speaking, most fantasy endeavors involve magic in some form or other. If it does not, and instead relies exclusively on science, then it probably more properly falls in the genre of sci-fi (science fiction). So, I would assume most fantasy gamers and novelists are more interested in magic. But not always. You might use both in your world.

–Pen and Paper RPG

Using both magic and science will be very challenging whichever task you choose. The difficulty with the RPG is the game mechanics. If you need game mechanics for both science and magic, developing such will be a bear. It can be done, but it won’t be easy. There is always a certain level of assumed science in the background of most fantasy games. A crossbow involves at least a little bit of physics even if it was designed merely by trial and error (or however). You can remove such assumptions, if you wish, but the result will likely be difficult to play in.


Using science and magic in a novel is a little easier than in an RPG setting. This is because you focus on those aspects of each feature that you actually use and ignore the ones you don’t. For example, if you use laser weapons, you need to know a little about the behavior of light and physics. Geology, on the other hand, you may not need at all–unless you choose to incorporate that science as well. Magic, of course, is entirely a product of your imagination.

Okay, we’ll leave it there for now. Next time, we’ll discuss a few more topics.

Published by atoasttodragons

The author, Matthew D. Ryan, lives in northern New York on the shores of Lake Champlain, one of the largest lakes in the continental United States, famous for the Battle of Plattsburgh and the ever-elusive Lake Champlain Monster, a beastie more commonly referred to as Champy. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world. He has earned a black belt in martial arts.

6 thoughts on “Topics and Ideas for Fantasy Worldbuilding in Novels and RPG Games (Part 1)

    1. Oh, yeah. I set up this site to kind of showcase my writing skills. I need to make money some how. My books aren’t doing it … at least not yet. So, I figured I would try writing for other sites. This site serves as a sample.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really hope that things pick up for you. I enjoy your stuff a lot and still hope to see the end of your Drasmyr saga some day!

        If there’s anything I can do on my end to assist, let me know!


      2. Will do. Thanks. I did recently finish Book III (or IV, depending how you look at it). It’s available on Smashwords, but not Amazon. It’s called “The Citadel.” That leaves only one more book in the series for me to write.


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