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

I wanted to post this quite some time ago, but life intervened. New job. That sort of thing. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

We were discussing the topics and ideas that are most often incorporated in the fantasy worldbuilding of novels and pen and paper RPG games. As noted in the prior post, many of the ideas are shared, but many also differ in subtle, nuanced ways.

So, let’s discuss three more critical ideas for fantasy worldbuilding.

Fantasy Worldbuilding and Races

The first thing to realize regarding race in fantasy is that it is a different concept than the one used in the modern world. You most try to “suspend” or “suppress” your modern notions of race, racism, and such when dealing with a fantasy world.

In a fantasy world, race is often closer in meaning to the term “species” we use in real life. There is a much larger difference between orcs and elves than you would find between Caucasians and Asians here on Earth. There is also a rich history of alignment differences based on race in a fantasy world that has no realistic counterpart here on Earth.

For example, orcs are usually regarded as an “evil” race in fantasy. Elves are usually “good.” Obviously, you can reverse that if you want to be creative or mix things up a bit in other ways, but categorizing Asians as “evil” and Caucasians as “good” or vice versa is hopelessly naive.

Anyway, I just want to say that it is probably silly to accuse J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth of being racist because the norm for his totally imaginary race of orcs is savagery and cruelty. And his elves are elegant and noble. However, his Haradrim might be a different story.

Pen and Paper RPG

So, what are the Pen and Paper RPG differences? I think the most notable one is the alignment issue we touched on in the preceding paragraph. Having entire races of “evil” creatures is almost a necessity in an RPG, at least in the ones I’ve played. Indeed, almost every session involves someone saying, “Let’s go kill something and take it’s stuff.”

Obviously, that is morally questionable at best, unless you can reasonably categorize the thing killed as “evil.”

No, we are not trying to discuss and ruminate upon complex political or social issues when gaming. There may be some influence, but really, I think even more than in a novel, the point of a pen and paper RPG fantasy game is pure escapism. Why ruin that by dwelling on serious cultural and political issues?


On the other hand, novels of all kinds have been used to make complex social and political points for serious discussion. The aforementioned J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” is often used as a metaphor for the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

As a result of this, the expectations for a novel are different. Indeed, novels that don’t try to make “deep” points are usually dismissed for that very reason. Similarly, the control the novelist has over the development of the story in a novel allows him/her to make metaphors and analogies with deeper meanings in a manner that is not available to a gamemaster.

Okay, that was less about race and more about political commentary in the two fantasy worldbuilding genres than I intended. Oh, well.

Fantasy Worldbuilding and Cultures

Cultures are an integral part of any world. They can be tied to a particular race, but usually, it’s more than that. Specific cultures usually revolve around specific geographic locations and even historical contexts as well as race.

The worldbuilder must set up customs, traditions, legends, and a myriad other aspects of every culture he/she designs.

Pen and Paper RPG

Cultures in Pen and Paper RPG’s are usually not as “deep” as they are in novels. That’s because, at least in my experience, the players usually only scratch the surface of a particular culture in a RPG. They might, perhaps, slide through more cultures over a certain period of time, but I think the nature of gaming is such, that there just isn’t a need for serious depth.

The gamemaster will likely have a few paragraphs outlining a culture with a few unique traditions and institutions, but when it comes down to it, RPG’s usually involve, as noted previously, a lot of “let’s kill it, and take its stuff.”


I would say a fantasy novel is a far more likely genre to develop a culture “deeply”, if that makes sense. A particular culture might dominate several chapters, or even an entire book or books. As a result, the fantasy novelist must really stretch the creative muscles in such situations. The more he/she develops the culture in question, the richer and more rewarding the reader’s experience will be.

Indeed, if well done, the reader may remember the culture described in a book years after having read said book. That is an achievement for an author: to get that kind of mindshare in another person’s brain. It is remarkable.

Fantasy Worldbuilding and Religions

The last aspect of fantasy worldbuilding we will discuss today is religion. Religions are important if for no other reason than that they are nearly ubiquitous. Religions influence both cultures and characters. They are an aspect of an individual that is responsible for the core elements of their personality and belief structure.

A dominant religion makes its influence felt throughout an entire culture. What would ancient Rome be, if Christianity had never held sway over it? History, I think, would be a much different tale.

Pen and Paper RPG’s

The first thing I think of on the topic of religion in pen and paper fantasy RPG’s is the priest or cleric class that many a player might play. They usually provide a source of healing for a party of characters. But they shouldn’t be regarded as strictly healing bots. No, their influence can be much richer.

The development of such, though, like any other character type, is dependent upon both the gamemaster and the player that plays that character. The gamemaster provides the skeleton of the priest’s personality. The player provides the flesh and skin.

Like any other character type, a well-played priest can have a powerful impact on an RPG game and make the gaming sessions that much more fun. Indeed, the influence of the player as opposed to the worldbuilding gamemaster is quite pronounced here. However, the player uses what the gamemaster has developed for race and culture as well as religion.


The difference for incorporating religion in novels is that the entirety of the development of a religion, even more so than race or culture, rests on the worldbuilder’s shoulders. The novelist does everything. There is no player to take over and flesh out diaphanous details.

This makes the task of developing a religion in a novel that much more difficult. As in the RPG, the impact of a religion can be felt in a culture or a character or even a nation. Empires have gone to war over religion. It is a powerful tool for a storyteller.


All right, we touched on three more worldbuilding topics in this post. Hopefully, the next post won’t be so long in coming. But until next time … ta ta!

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.

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