Constructed world

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A world seen from space

A constructed world or conworld is a fictional world, often created for a novel, video game, or role-playing game, but sometimes for its own sake. A constructed world typically has a number of constructed cultures and constructed languages associated with it. The practice of constructing worlds is also known as world building or conworlding.

Worlds are often developed only to the extent needed to complete a single work or series, but there may be considerable detail in a world designed for its own sake.



There are two generally accepted methods for world-building: top-down and bottom-up.

In the top-down approach, the designer first creates a general overview of the world, determining broad characteristics such as the inhabitants, technology-level, major geographic features, climate, global history, and other details of strategic importance. Once this is complete, the details of the world are developed by gradually focusing on smaller and smaller details, such as continents, civilizations, nations, cities, and towns.

A world constructed using this method is generally well-integrated and the individual components fit together in an appropriate manner. However it can require considerable work before enough detail is completed for the setting is useful at a tactical level, such as for use in creating a story.

The alternative method is the bottom-up approach where the designer begins with a focus on one small part of the world. This location is given considerable detail, adding in important facts about the local geography, culture, social structure, government, politics, commerce, and history. Many of the prominent locals are described, and their interrelationships determined. The surrounding areas are then described in a lower level of detail, with the information growing more general and less detailed with increasing distance from the focus location. Later when the designer needs to use other parts of the world, the descriptions of these other locations are then enhanced.

The benefit of a bottom-up approach is the almost immediate applicability of the setting. The details pertinent to a story or situation are rapidly developed, and the information can be used without waiting for the remainder of the world to be detailed. The draw-back of this approach, however, is the world is designed in an unfocused manner and the setting can develop inconsistencies on a global scale.


An uninhabited world can be useful for certain purposes, but the large majority of constructed worlds are inhabited by one or more intelligent species. The designer usually selects these creatures prior to the start of the world-building process, although less significant species can be merged in at a later stage of the development.

Map construction is usually begun in the early stages of world-building. The maps are used to determine the location of key terrain features, and the significant civilizations, nations and settlements. When a realistic world setting is a design goal, the physical geography of the map is considered when determining weather patterns and the location of weather-dependent features such as deserts, rivers, swamps, and forests. These in turn affect the growth and interaction of the various societies, including the trade routes, locations of important cities, and places of likely conflict.

Some designers use software programs that can create random terrain using fractal algorithms. Sophisticated programs can apply geologic effects such as tectonic plate movement and the erosion due to climate and water flow. The resulting world can be rendered in great detail, providing a degree of realism to the result.

With a map under assembly, the various places are given names appropriate for their native society. Location names are often used to provide atmosphere to the world setting. When the civilization of an area is modeled after a human society, the place names can be chosen to match the style of the language of the model society. In other cases, the place names may be developed using a constructed language (perhaps a minimal one used only for devising names), or the names may be made up from scratch, hopefully with a consistent style that suggests they originated in a single language.

The use of past human civilizations as a model for societies in a constructed world is a commonly-employed method to aid in the construction of constructed world societies. The audience for the constructed world can usually relate more readily to a well-known civilization than to a novel culture. But this approach can become problematic when forming a society of non-human beings. Building a satisfying and self-consistent alien culture is a distinct design challenge.

With the establishment of societies and nations in place, the interaction of these groups becomes an important factor in the history and development of the world. A history is constructed to explain the current circumstances of the various nation-states, including the location of the borders and the various alliances and enmities. Conflicts are typically a key element of a story, and these provide a method for placing notable individuals within the setting.

Settlements are a significant component of most constructed worlds. Typically the description of a settlement includes the location, rulers and political organization, population size and composition, economic situation, military defenses, and whether the settlement forms part of a greater political body, or exists as an independent state. Significantly more detail can be added to this description, and for many purposes a large settlement can even serve as an entire world onto itself, with only marginal attention paid by the developer to the outlying world.

At some point the designer must determine a place for the world in the wider context of the system in which it is located. If a realistic world-setting is intended, the designer can choose to develop detailed astronomical parameters for the orbit of the world, and to define the physical characteristics of the other bodies in the system. This will establish chronological parameters, including the length of the day and the durations of the seasons. This can lead to cultural aspects of time-keeping, including names for sub-divisions of the calendar and important anniversaries.

Many of the above considerations also apply when creating a fictional country within our own world, as Austin Tappan Wright did in his novel Islandia.

Map making

Almost all constructed worlds will include one or more maps intended to portray the geography and political boundaries of the setting, as well as the key features and settlements. Most such maps will be drawn in a style suitable to their genre, with fantasy maps being highly stylized while science fiction maps will often strive for realism. If the world setting is Earth-like, a realistic map will often take into account the effects of terrain on climate, as well as the results of erosion and tectonic mountain-building.

Here are some common rules used in the building of fictional maps:

  • Mountain ranges are formed where tectonic plate movement causes subduction, or where plates collide. These tend to be long structures with occasional valleys and passes. Older mountain ranges will be lower, rounder, and more eroded. Solitary mountains are more likely to be volcanic in origin.
  • Rivers always descend downhill, and join with other bodies of water or eventually evaporate. They flow precipitously in mountainous areas, sometimes forming canyons and waterfalls, but tend to meander and build river valleys in lowlands. Rivers often join up, but almost never split, at least until very close to their mouths. The region around a river is usually rich in life.
  • Swamps form where the ground is level and there is a large influx of water, such as at a river delta, that drains off slowly.
  • A forest will typically form in locations with higher levels of rainfall. Where the prevailing winds cross a mountainous rise, the forest will appear on the windward side where moisture tends to be deposited. The far side will be dryer, and may become desertified.
  • Deserts form in locations where the climate conditions limit precipitation. They can occur inland where they are sheltered behind a mountain range, or in regions that receive little humidity due to the prevailing wind conditions. Deserts can occur at any latitude, including the arctic conditions found in a tundra.
  • Human settlements will normally form in locations where there is a suitable economic need for a population center. This could be a port along a river or coast for trading; a location that is favorable for farming or resource gathering; or a commerce center along a land trade route. Less frequently settlements may form for particular cultural reasons, such as the proximity of a religious site.

Early maps will often be sketched out by hand in a simple fashion, drawing in the oceans, mountains, and forests, and adding in the cities, national borders, and other features of interest. When greater detail is needed, more detailed maps are then created for specific locations. If professional results are needed, the maps can then be created by an artist. There are also special software packages available that allow the creation of good quality maps.

Specific constructed worlds

Professional constructed worlds

Some examples of constructed worlds in professionally published works are Middle-earth and Ethshar. J.R.R. Tolkien began with creating languages, then developed peoples (the various races of Elves) to speak them, and much later wrote novels set there. Other examples of worlds developed for novels include the pseudo-Earth Hyborian Age from the Conan series; Arrakis from the Dune series; Darkover, and the broken world of the Wheel of Time series.

Lawrence Watt-Evans says that he created Ethshar for use in role-playing games before he started writing novels based in it. Steven Brust used Dragaera for role-playing games before he wrote novels set there. M. A. R. Barker originally designed Tekumel well before the advent of role-playing games, but Tekumel was and is used for this purpose by many gamers including Barker himself. Barker has also written novels based in Tekumel. There are many more commercial campaign settings that have been developed specifically for role-playing games:

  • Harn, a highly detailed, very internally consistent world with a medieval feel
  • the Forgotten Realms, originally a homebrew campaign world by Ed Greenwood
  • Blue Planet, a water world campaign setting for the eponymous science fiction RPG, with a great amount of ecological detail

An example of a fictional world which inner workings are currently under construction in the public domain is Globus Cassus.

Amateur constructed worlds

Some constructed worlds are built as a hobby, such as the following examples:

  • Agyris (
  • Almea (
  • Andal (
  • The Caligoi (
  • Celandra (
  • The Ferochromon (
  • Onwe (ONW) (
  • Ytherra (
  • CC2 Worlds (

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