Building a Fantasy World 1.5: Setting Variables


I’ve recently been reading the Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding, a book that isn’t so much a step-by-step guide to building a fantasy world (like this blog series) and instead essays on a variety of topics related to Worldbuilding. While I feel comfortable that my blog doesn’t overlap entirely with the book, I was reminded a huge foundational topic I overlooked. Oops.

So I’m writing this and squishing it in between the first Part I: The Hook and Part II: Conflict.

Table of Contents

This blog is part of a series on Fantasy Worldbuilding. The other parts are listed below

Part 1: The Hook
Part 1.5: Variables
Part 2: Conflict
Part 3: Geography
Part 4: Races
Part 5: Nations
Part 6: Monsters and Dungeons
Part 7: Deities
Part 8: Cities
Part 9: Organizations
Part 10: History
Part 11: Economics
Part 12: Culture
Part 13: Starting Zone
Part 14: Player’s Guide
Part 15: Other Realms
Part 16: Miscellaneous


The continent of Westeros and Faerun are both fantasy settings. As are the Tablelands of Athas and the ringed city of Sigil. All have similarities: people earning a living, falling in love, fighting, dying. And yet, the differences between A Song of Ice and Fire, the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, and Planescape are massive. But none are pure historical dramas; all four settings have magic, magic users, and at least one dragon. What separates them is a matter of degree.

There is not a single factor separating the four example worlds. Fantasy settings have three major variables: power, fantasy, and magic. If the Hook is the foundation the world is built upon, these variables are the framework of the house that establishes its shape and defines its limits. When designing a fantasy setting it helps to know how these three variables influence your world, and the degree of each variable. In short, you need to know how fantastic the world is, how powerful the inhabitants are, and how much magic there is in the world.

Sometimes the Hook of a world will pre-determine one or all of these variables, like Dark Sun. The requirements of the a metal-scarce post apocalyptic D&D world where the familiar becomes unfamiliar place constraints on the world’s variables. Other times they’re largely independent of the Hook. Birthright is defined by kings literally having a Divine Right to Rule, so its variables are unconstrained.

This is part one-and-a-half in a series of fantasy world building.

Magic Versus Mundane

One of the safe baseline assumptions of D&D is that there will be magic. Magic is primarily what separates D&D from being a historical or alternative history role-playing game. However, the amount and commonness of magic does vary. The variables are not absolutes; the choice is not between no magic and magic. There’s is a spectrum, ranging from no magic on one end, all-magic on the other with the majority of worlds falling somewhere in the middle.

The perceptions of the common man are a good determinant of the frequence of magic. If someone were to walk up to the average person and cast a minor spell, how would they react? In our world, it would be impressive. Mind blowing. There would be denials. Most people would dismiss it as a trick as the mere existence of magic defies our world view. Ours is the ultimate low magic world. Even in a world where magic exists, such as the world of Harry Potter, casting a minor spell would astonish and stun the average person as magic is rare and hidden. However, to someone living in Eberron or Ptolus a dash of minor magic is something they might have seen dozens of times. Casting a magic missile would be akin to pulling a coin from behind someone’s ear: not everyone can do it but it’s not that impressive.

Westeros from A Song of Ice and Fire is very low magic: most inhabitants have never seen magic and many doubt its existence. Most D&D settings have much more magic than Westeros, but there is still a range. Depending on the DM, Ravenloft can be comparably low magic, with few spellcasters and each magic item a unique treasure. The heroes of Dragonlance have no shortage of magic, but they’re the exception as the common person doesn’t see much magic beyond cantrips that could just as easily be sleight of hand. Even in the Forgotten Realms, the common person cannot cast spells and might see only a handful of examples of true magic in their lifetimes. On the far end of the spectrum, in Eberron magic is common and everyday. People are used to enchanted brooms that do the cleaning and streetlights of perpetual magical light.

A side element to the commonality of magic is how much of a science magic is. Is magic like a formula where anyone can cast a spell if they say the right thing and move their hands a certain way? Or is it more like an art where precise repetition and mimicry is not enough? Or is it an innate, inborn talent that only certain people have? Or is it some combination of the above?

This is handy to know from a world building perspective. If magic is a skill anyone can learn if they practice hard enough yet magic is rare, then why? Is the skill tightly controlled? Such as being licensed or only taught by masters to apprentices? Conversely, if magic magic is everyday but can only be cast by certain people – such as those with draconic or fey blood – what does that mean? How do so many people have faerie blood? Are dragons super promiscuous?

Fantastic Versus Realistic

The overlooked middle-child of world building is the amount of fantastic elements. This is often bundled into magic but there’s enough of a difference to warrant separate discussion. Magic describes how people react to spellcasting, to the amount of magic in their lives and the world. In contrast, the fantastic relates to how realistic the world is, how similar the setting is to our world. A world where every town has a spellcaster and every king has a court wizard might be moderate to high magic, but if there’s little else separating it from medieval history it is less fantastic. A world where there is only a handful of true wizards but flights of dragons battle armies of griffons for control of floating islands would be low magic but very fantastic.

Two good examples are Westeros and Dark Sun. Neither are bristling with magic yet both are particularly fantastic settings that are unlike our world. Westeros has irregular seasons that last for years at a time while Athas is a burnt wasteland of deserts and badlands. The frequency or even absence of magic would not make their world more like ours.

The fantastic can apply to the world itself, its inhabitants, or both. Fantastic settings are where the natural laws of the world are very different from ours. This can be the inexplicable or scientifically implausible (winters that last for years, flying islands, the seas turning to black sludge) or the rational and scientifically known (a tidally locked planet, a world with two suns, an ocean world with limited land). Fantastic inhabitants includes the number and frequency of monsters and magical  beasts, such as gryphons, dragons, and the like. But it would also apply to intelligent creatures with differing abilities, such as a world where everyone is telepathic or has wings.

Again, there is a range of the fantastic. Despite taking place in the empty space beneath the surface of the world, life in Hollow World isn’t that different from life on the surface. It’s fantastic but not dramatically so. In contrast, Sigil is a city inside a ring and has no farmland or extra building materials. It’s possible for someone to live a mostly normal life, but eventually having to import food or being unable to readily travel will have some impact. SpellJammer is the far extreme. Life for the average person may be recognisable on ports, but only just. The setting is so fantastic as to make lifestyles generally unrecognisable and even the most mundane tasks will be impacted by the setting.

Like magic, the level of the fantastic is best evaluated by its effect on the common folk and not the PCs. Heroes tend to be extraordinary and encounter creatures outside of the norm. Even in a low-magic and low-fantastic setting the PCs might still regularly stumble across the wondrous. As heroes, they’re exceptions to the rules. There might only be a dozen monsters in the entire continent, but you can bet the PCs will somehow stumble into each and every one of them. This is somewhat like the Cabot Cove Syndrome from Murder, She Wrote where, because a protagonist live there, a small, sleepy fishing village featured abnormally high murder rates, higher than the national average by an order of magnitude (according to estimates, during the run of the show, the town lost 2% of its population).

High-Power Versus Low-Power

The final variable in the structure of the world is the power level. How potent the monsters are, how powerful the heroes that fight them are, and generally how epic the world is.

This variable affects the common man a little less than the others, as generally they are always out of their depth when facing monsters. The slight difference of having a slim a chance against a beast if they’re lucky or if they should just run and hope they escape before being disintegrated by the beast’s mere presence is lost on the average town guard. A world’s power level determines how far above the common man the player characters are assumed to be. It’s based on the danger of both monsters and the world, the scope of the threats they will face.

In terms of monsters this would be the frequency of magical beasts, especially powerful ones. A world filled with dragons isn’t necessarily a high power campaign if most are barely the side of pony and the largest is a little larger than a clydesdale. Terrain also plays a part. In a world where just venturing outside the walls of a city is dangerous, heroes have to be that much more potent. If half the world is covered in poisonous brambles that can kill with a scratch then only the hardiest souls risk the wilds.

In addition to the amount of danger posed by the world, the number of high-powered NPCs, organizations, and foes also influences the power level in the world. How powerful are the movers and shakers in the world? How powerful do the PCs have to be to influence the world and be considered major players? What level were the great heroes of old, and the current warriors of renown? If all events worth caring about are influenced and orchestrated by rival cabals of century-old wizards then the power level of the world skews high. If the Jaime Lannister and Lancelot are level 6 than the power level is likely lower.

This can best be thought of in game terms. In your world, what is the best starting level? Or, for systems that use point buy, how many starting points are characters given? This can vary based on game system and edition: 4th Edition PCs are a little more potent and heroic than those of most other editions. Likewise, many game systems have fragile characters that never really becomes that much hardier.

Pathfinder has the additional wrinkle of the Mythic ruleset, where characters of any level can become more formidable: in addition to regular levels PCs gain Mythic ranks that increase their power without just increasing the numbers. This makes for a lovely design tool. In some worlds, characters should just be Mythic, the stakes are just that much higher and things are that much more dangerous.

Once again, Dark Sun is a good example. In 2nd Edition, Dark Sun characters started at level 3. Folk in Athas were just tougher than people in other worlds. It’s a high-powered world. Over in Ravenloft, the setting tends to work best at low levels when characters would be fragile and have reasons to be afraid of what lurks in the dark. PCs in Dragonlance used to be forcibly retired around level 15. In contrast, in the Forgotten Realms it often seems like you need to have a level in the teens to do anything noteworthy.

Recent worlds have tended to push away from the epic. Eberron has very few NPCs above level 10, so players have more chances to shine. Paizo’s Golarion tends to assume anyone above level 12 is a power player in the world. This is not universal: Kobold Press’ Midgard is decidedly epic (or Mythic given the system) with such places as a desert where Great Old Ones wander,

Setting Your Variables

Deciding on the variables of a world are largely a matter of taste and desired tone tempered by the amount of time willing to devote to customizing or hacking the rules.

Certain types of campaign and store lend themselves to different worlds. So the first step is deciding what story or stories you want to tell with the world. The plight of the common man tends to gets lost in sweeping epics, so if you want to have small personal tales keep things less powerful. If you want things to seem familiar and relatable, rein in the fantastic. If you’re going for a big budget summer blockbuster feel, going low fantastic and/or low power does a disservice to the story. For those wanting to leave reality farther behind, more fantastic and magical worlds also lend themselves to escapist stories.

Also consider how you want the PCs to be perceived. High powered and high fantastic campaigns can diminish heroes and make the PCs seem less special, while adventurers stand out more in less fantastic and grittier worlds. It’s also easier for PC magic users to stand out in low magic worlds where just being able to wield magic is extraordinary.

Not every game system is going to easily translate into a particular range of variables. D&D can be tricky to finesse into low magic given three-quarters of the classes eventually gain some manner of magic. It is even harder in 3e and 4e where magic items are assumed for a character’s power level. Likewise, as the majority of opponents are unnatural it can be hard to make the game less fantastic. If running a game using Cortex by MWP or Legend of the 5 Rings system by Alderac Entertainment, it’s harder to make the world more fantastic (given the lesser bestiaries) or for characters to become more powerful (give the fragility of characters in those systems’). These issues are not insurmountable, but making new rules and hacking a system takes time & energy (and skill & experience) so often it is easier to work with the strengths of a game system.

The Variables of War World

The Hook of my example setting is largely independent of the variables. I have the freedom to do whatever I want. Although, the foundational Hook can still inspire and guide my design.

For example, the perpetual warfare does suggests either high powered beings pulling the strings of nations to keep the world fighting or a lack of high powered characters who could put a stop to the warfare. However, the horrors of war and its effects on the populace are more easily emphasised in a lower powered world, where the heroes are not so far above the common man.  A low powered world would also mean the PCs have a greater chance of influencing the world and generating a ceasefire.

I want the wars in War World to be the responsibility of people. They’re not being tricked or manipulated, magic is not involved. At some point every nation was given the choice to fight or stop fighting and they chose the path of violence. I’d also like the option of focusing on the impact perpetual war has on people. As such, this pushes me to a lower powered world.

I also want the focus on the world to be on its Hook. Floating earth moats, armies of dragonriders, and other fantastic elements distract from the perpetual war; the differences between War World and our world stand out more if the main difference is the warfare and not some other fantastical x-factor. But I want some fantastic elements so I’ll go closer to the middle, the assumed baseline of the game. There are monsters and dangers but they’re not omnipresent.

Magic is tricky. While a high level wizard could obliterate an army, because the world is low-powered this is not an issue, so magic could be common. Unlike Eberron which has had enough periods of peace for the magical  tech to spread, War World might view magic as a weapon and less offensive uses of magic are uncommon. For this world, I’d like magic to be mysterious yet a skill anyone can learn. I’ll equate it with dance or other arts: anyone can learn to dance if they practice long enough, but some people just have natural talent. But how common it is – how many people know magic well enough to teach – is the big question.

A sneaky secret is that I don’t have to pick one option at the exclusion of others. With multiple nations and regions in the game, there can be some places with more common magic than the baseline. Some nations might be more magically focused while others might view it as the weapon of the enemy or too dangerous in the hands of civilians and restrict its use.

As a baseline I’ll have magic be rarer but not unknown or uncommon. There is magic and many people have some talent but there are few masters to unlock their potential.

And those are the variables of War World, reflecting my personal biases and leaning to the stories I want to tell. A low-powered world with a less fantastic setting but some fantastic creatures and moderate magic ranging from rarer to uncommon depending on the nation.


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