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  1. #1

    Tutorial [Award Winner] Tips for Worldbuilding

    Hi all. I don't know how other people feel about this, but I think people might find it useful to have tutorials not just about map-making, but also about how to build their worlds. I haven't found anything else like this on the forums, so thought I'd start this thread. I'll try to post stuff about how history works, and how cities grow (urban history is my forte), but please feel free to ask questions or make your own contributions.

    I hope this is not the wrong forum for this type of thread. If it is, could someone please move it to where it belongs.

  2. #2

    Default So you want to build an empire, do you?

    Here's my first post (and it's a long one):

    So, you want to build an empire, do you?

    Most empires in history began in self-defence. Say you’re the king of a tribe, the Cartographii, and you are worried your big strong neighbour, the Artistae, are going to attack you. Well, the smart thing to do is attack them first.

    Congratulations, sire, you won.

    Now you rule a larger territory, and so you can start to grow. More land means more food; more food means more kiddies; more kiddies means more warriors; more warriors means your new neighbours, the Writerians, are starting to get nervous. You know what to do: attack!
    Right, well, now you rule over three tribal territories. So, more land means more food; more food means…you know the rest. So it goes on, until your empire is large enough that its nearest neighbours are no longer a challenge for it.

    Of course, a lot of empires die in infancy: you might lose the battle with the Artistae; you might win that battle, but lose to the Writerians; you might win both of those, but lose to whoever comes next. Other factors come into play, and these can be much more varied – better weapons, more organised troops, smarter strategies, sheer dumb luck.

    As a general rule, though, empires start off as aggressive nations. The Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Romans, the Aztecs are perhaps the best example of this. Even empires we think are ‘good’ because they are ‘civilised’ follow this pattern – Alexander the Great shot first and asked questions later; the Islamic caliphate began by defending the faith from angry neighbours at M’dina; the growth of the British Empire was largely accidental.

    The British are interesting, actually. Suppose you’re one of the decision-makers in Whitehall. Your army has been attacked in a province of India (lets say, Punjab) by an Indian king (who is doing exactly what all leaders should, attack the enemy before they attack you). You beat the Punjabi army, but you don’t want them to do this again, do you? With a sigh, you realise you only have one sure option – occupy their capital, set up a new administration, make an agreement with the local elites, establish a garrison.

    Now, it doesn’t always happen exactly like this. The Phoenicians built their empire through new settlements; rather than conquering the native people, they’d put a small tradepost on the coast, and they could then trade with the locals, without the expense of trying to conquer them. If they felt their land was threatened, however, then they are left with only one choice.

    Let’s go back to the beginning. Why would one tribe want to attack another in the first place? Can’t they all just live in peace? I have a little theory about this, one which, as far as I know isn’t backed up by any historical literature, but is what I observed from reading history books.

    There are two reasons one tribe will attack another: self-defence, population pressure. Note, this is all probably simplifying these processes enormously, but go with it, it does make sense.

    Self-defence: as discussed above, you want to protect your tribe so you attack first. In this instance, your goal is to eliminate the threat from an enemy, and so you need to destroy the enemy. This can be done through killing them (Mongolian solution), enslaving them (Spartan solution), or sacrificing them on a bloody altar (Aztec solution).

    Population growth: when your own tribe is starting to burst at the seams, there isn’t quite enough for the young fellas to do, there’s starting to be discontent because the economy is slowing down (a modern concept, but still applies to early times), you want to resolve the problem. Attack a neighbour. Depending on how it is conducted – i.e. as a raid or as an invasion – it will give either booty or land. If you raid the enemy, you get their stuff, but they remain in place and so you go back the next year (Vikings). If you invade, you want their land, which you can then give to your young fellas, they can farm it, and you have enough food and work for your population (I don’t know for sure, but I think this is what happened in China). In this case, you are trying to take the enemy’s land, rather than take out the enemy. You dont want to enslave them, because that’s just another burden. Instead, you push them off their land, and keep it for yourself. They then go harassing someone else as they try to find some land of their own.

    One last thing. Empires acquire momentum. When you get to that point where you look around and see the charred remnants of your enemy’s flags, all have fallen before you, you have no more enemies on your frontiers, then you need to decide what to do next. You can’t just say, well, enough’s enough, too many people have died, let’s call it quits; I’m happy with my territory, anyway. No, your troops won’t let you. Conquest makes them rich. It adds land to the empire, which you can then use to reward your allies and veterans, and besides, now you want specific things – I really want those shiny ore mines that you have, friend, give them to me now. Those spices look good, care to let me have some? Hence, the empire rolls on. Historically, every empire has continued to grow until it either meets a stronger opponent than it (Persians v Alexander; Aztecs v Spanish; arguably Napoleon v. Russians/British/Prussians etc) or it overreaches itself, and collapses under the strain (Romans, Ottomans, Islamic caliphates, Mongols). Every new province needs to be secured with troops, administrators, etc. And they all need to be paid.

    So, when building your empire, remember, no-one sets out trying to build an empire. You get one by accident, and then you don’t know what to do with it. For a while, empire-owning is profitable, but eventually, if you let it grow too big, it just becomes expensive to run.

    Hope people find this useful.
    Last edited by TheHoarseWhisperer; 12-08-2012 at 12:22 AM.

  3. #3
    Guild Master Facebook Connected jtougas's Avatar
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    Very informative. Thanks for sharing and have some rep for a great subject.

    *EDIT* apparently I've repped you recently and have to wait to do it again but consider yourself symbolically repped !!
    Last edited by jtougas; 11-09-2012 at 07:18 PM.
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  4. #4
    Guild Apprentice Rodan's Avatar
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    Good post!

    Another reason for attacking another country is to simply justify your armed forces that could have been stood up to protect against another country, but that threat has deminished or been resolved. I guess this could fall under population growth, but I think it fits better under internal politics and averting civil unrest.

    Another issue would be environmental; famine, diease, drought, and earthquakes flooding. These things may cause a peaceful nation to take drastic action to save their way of life. My thoughts generated by your post. Thank you.

  5. #5


    Yeah thanks Rodan. Good points.

    I'd probably say the first of those things is to do with the whole 'momentum of empire building' thing. Once you have an army, you have two choices: leave it doing nothing (in which case it gets either lazy and bad at fighting, or bored and keen to find some violent outlet, possibly involving your royal palace) or send it elsewhere. In other words, once you've got the army, if you don't use it, you lose it (and everything else). That's the Roman story. Just as an aside, when reading about empires in history, you tend to find their growth is always linked with some 'great leader' - it's easy to forget that the soldiers who are doing the fighting are not just parts of a machine, they're real people; they have their own fears, hopes, wants, etc. Often it is that reality, rather than some ruler far away, that effects historical events.

    I'm unsure about the environmental factor though. There doesn't sound like anything wrong with the idea, but I don't know of any empires that have gotten started due to some kind of environmental event. I can think of a few that came to an end - the Minoans, Mayans and Greenland Vikings being prime examples - but none that started. That's actually not entirely true. The Mongols, arguably, started rolling across Asia because their grazing land was shrinking. But it's hard to be sure, since they also had a very aggressive culture, and Ol' Genghis unified the tribes for self-defence reasons, not to gain more land. At least, as far as I know. Also, I can easily imagine that empire's might start in the future because of environmental causes.

    Anyway, food for thought. I thought tomorrow I'd try to write about the origins of cities.

  6. #6

    Default So you want to build a city, do you?

    Okay so, as promised, these are some thoughts about how cities start.

    What gives a city its shape, how does it grow and change, and where should you put it in the first place?

    The first thing you should probably know is, how is the city being founded? Is this the whim of some tyrant, a mad but possibly brilliant ruler who plans to build his own mini-utopia? Is it merely a practical response to a practical problem – a fort for soldiers or a workers camp near some important industry? Is it, perhaps, going to start just because a group of families say “you know what, I reckon we’ll stay here”? Or possibly it was because there was a handy road/bridge/crossroads/ford etc. and it seemed like a good idea at the time? All of these have happened historically, although a fantasy setting might offer new reasons for founding a city.

    Where to put a city can be incredibly complicated or simply simple, depending on how much detail you care to go into. I think I’ll keep it simple: water, food, building materials. Without these, a city cannot exist. Water is obviously the first consideration, but remember, if your settlement is going to become a large city it needs enough water. A meagre little stream won’t satisfy a hundred thousand people, will it? Ideally, therefore, you’ll be looking for a river. Rivers are better than lakes because they not only bring fresh water in, they also take used water out. If you don’t fancy a river settlement you can also look for a spring (particularly handy for hilltop settlements and forts), aquifers or groundwater storage (to be honest, I’m a bit fuzzy on these; I assume they’ll be of most use in deserts, but I’m sure there are other guild members who know more than me about this). If all else fails, you can try to bring water in (i.e. aqueducts or even caravans, but now you’re getting desperate). If imported water is your only option (i.e. there are no rivers, lakes, springs, aquifers) then your city is not going to last long; building aqueducts might be something you do when the water supply gets too dirty, but by then you’ll already have a large city, surely?

    Don’t forget dinner. I’m not going to get all technical about this. Food comes from the ground, from water, or possibly from the wilderness (i.e. hunter-gatherer). A city that depends on animals hunted nearby or gathered plants might be an interesting idea, but how big will it grow, really? Pre-modern fishing can support a small-medium population, but the best option is farming. Obviously, farming needs suitable soil. A rocky island in the middle of nowhere isn’t going to grow very much, is it? Good soil is rich in nutrients, and that usually means it is full of organic (plant or animal) material. Forests are good – all those fallen leaves turning into mulch, what could be better? Volcanoes have also got a reputation for producing extremely fertile ash-based soil. Try googling ‘best places for farming’ and see what you get.

    When it comes to farming, also give some thought to what kind of farming. Are you farming crops or keeping livestock? Crops generally produce more food, but are actually a lot harder to keep going. You have to wait a full year for your next harvest, you need to keep the yield protected and stored (which may mean keeping it dry, keeping rats/birds out etc.), and you need to irrigate. Animals, on the other hand, are ready to go. Chickens give you food most days of the week. Think about how many people you can feed with a single cow, or sheep for that matter. And then there are the additional benefits – wool, leather, bones for toolmaking etc. You don’t need to bring water to your animals, because you can bring them to the water, and if you have to move (eg to start a new town) you can take them along. The downsides are that they take a long time to mature, and (unless you live somewhere cold) you can’t store the meat for long. In ancient times, the Germanic tribes depended on livestock much more than crops. What does this have to do with cities? It’s about how much land you have and how it is used, and how many people you can support. You might find large farms outside the city walls, or most people keeping a few chickens or a pig in their backyard (which means they need to HAVE a backyard).

    So, that’s food.

    I won’t worry about building materials; it’s pretty self-explanatory really. Just give some thought as to where they get their building materials (incl. for different social classes), how available those materials will be in any location, and how suitable each type is (eg stone doesn’t burn but is heavy and will get very cold; bricks require an industry to produce them and money to buy them; wood is convenient and warm but can also be dangerous).

    Lastly, it’s obviously important to think about why people live where they live. If they are worried about being attacked, they’ll choose somewhere high or easily protected; if they feel safe they will probably live somewhere they can make a living, either through farming, manufacturing, services (eg pilgrims) or trade.

    So, if you want to build a city – and you want it to be historically realistic – here’s a checklist of things to know: where do they get their water/food/building materials? Who is founding the settlement? Why has a particular site been chosen? You need ALL of these things, not just some of them.

    I think that’s enough for today. To be honest I was hoping for a better response, and so I won’t add any more of these essay-like posts unless people sincerely want more. Also I’ve definitely forgotten to include many important points. So please, provide your ideas, questions, comments, critiques, and happy worldbuilding.

    PS: I should include a warning. Be aware, when starting down the road of uber-realistic world-building that it can be a trap. You spend so long trying to make things ‘right’ that you don’t get round to anything else. I’ve grown heartily sick of trying to make every detail of my worlds make sense, and now deliberately just go with what feels right. Some people are happy to take this path, and good luck to them. But don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
    Last edited by TheHoarseWhisperer; 12-08-2012 at 12:25 AM.

  7. #7
    Guild Member Adversary's Avatar
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    I love this thread! But I just wanted to add another consideration for city placement, transportation.

    I am currently living in Columbus Georgia. The only reason this city exists is because it is placed as far up the Chattahoochee river as a boat can travel. It is on a fall line so rapids and waterfalls blocked river traffic going north. If you (or your goods) are heading south this is the first place you can enter the river and travel all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

    Green Bay, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois are also placed well for trade and transportation. They were originally trading centers between Native Americans and the French.

    A village in the desert, built on an oasis may survive. But if that oasis is on a trade route, you can build a city.

    A great example of the importance of trade routes on city placement involves an ancient race of Native Americans who built Cahokia. It was a major city that may have had trade routes as far north as Alaska and well south into South America. At the time Cahokia was at its peak (1100CE) population of over 40,000 people and covered over 5 square miles. Much of the city was surrounded by a wooden palisade. Except for it's mounds, the city disappeared perhaps because of disease or over farming. The location of the city was the key for its success (It lasts from ~600-1400CE). It was centrally located on the Mississippi river where the Missouri and Illinois rivers meet. It was such a good location that a new city grew almost on top of the old. Northern Saint Louis, Missouri sits on the same location. The remaining mounds on the Illinois side of the river have a great view of the St Louis Arch.

    Again, I love this thread and can't wait to see more ideas.
    Last edited by Adversary; 10-11-2014 at 07:24 PM.

  8. #8
    Software Dev/Rep Guild Sponsor waldronate's Avatar
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    Don't worry too much about the apparent lack of response. This thread has had almost 300 views in just a couple of weeks, which isn't bad at all, especially for a non-art thread. I find the discussion interesting, but I'm not prone to much in the way of responses.

    I'm looking forward to a discussion of how population densities arise on terrains, especially with regards to central place theory, and then how that might play into city and nation development.

  9. #9
    Community Leader Guild Sponsor Korash's Avatar
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    I for one DO appreciate the work and effort that is going into these posts, but like waldronate I have little to add. I find this kind of stuff interesting from a knowledge point of view, but the "uber-realistic world-building" thing is one of those things that I do not excel at. By any stretch of the imagination, and I just go with the flow. Make no mistake, I most likely will refer back to these types of threads from time to time, but not necessarily for my world building, but when my own curiosity asks a question.

    Please do not abandon these efforts. Lessons in real world knowledge are too valuable to be forgotten in a place where fantasy runs here
    Art Critic = Someone with the Eye of an Artist, Words of a Bard, and the Talent of a Rock.

    Please take my critiques as someone who Wishes he had the Talent

  10. #10
    Guild Expert jbgibson's Avatar
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    Ditto: excellent material, well presented. I have little in the way of objections or additions, hence no input. Thank you!

    The last bit about over- engineering one's world -- right! Plausible and done beats exact and stalled. And close-enough and fun beats dead-on that turns into a chore!

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