How to Build Better Worlds — The power of the past

One of the most interesting things — for me, at least — about running games of DnD and writing fiction stories is the act of worldbuilding. I doubt that I am alone in this interest, either; the subreddit dedicated to worldbuilding has over 540,000 subscribers at the time of writing, with plenty of great resources on making powerful, verisimilitudinous worlds for players and readers to fawn over. 

The problem, however, is that a lot of people struggle making worlds — and many times, they create societies that are fundamentally broken in some way, damaging the potential engagement of those with whom they are trying to connect. While there’s nothing that says your players or readers can’t have a great time living in a world that has some logical inconsistencies (as evidenced by the popularity of the isekai genre of anime), I think that it’s generally preferable to experience a world that is tightly built and consistent. 

I have another confession to make — I love history. I love history enough that I went to school and got two useless degrees studying the damn thing. Like many misguided fantasy buffs, I am fascinated by medieval history, and ended up spending six years studying the Northern Crusades, a series of religiously lensed, armed pilgrimages by Germans, Swedes, and Danes to the area that we would now identify as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. And while this academic experience didn’t exactly help me get a job and serves no practical purpose in my day-to-day life, it played a huge role in helping me improve as a worldbuilder by showing me how to create more realistic, more engaging, and more consistent societies for my stories. 

The Problem with Most Worldbuilding

In general, I think that people get too into the weeds with their worldbuilding. They spend days creating elaborate and unique systems of military ranks, or currency breakdowns, or detailed schematics of the NovaBidets that their space fighters use to clean their nethers after a particularly intense battle in the void. There’s nothing wrong with getting specific, especially if that’s what makes you happy about building your world — but there are some diminishing returns on your work. Here’s what I mean:

#1: Balancing your time

Every minute that you spend digging into the minuta of your setting is one more minute that you could be devoting to your plot, characters, or broad themes — and when it comes to getting your time’s worth, it’s much more important to make sure that your overarching elements are rock-solid, rather than getting bogged down with details that might never come up. Sure, you can work on both the micro- and macro- levels at the same time (especially if you use a method like my Staggered Procrastination), but there’s always the risk of letting the big picture wilt 

#2: No one is going to care.

This might hurt to hear, but it’s true. You can spend 15 hours hashing out the microscopic details of how the divergent evolution of E. coli bacteria modified the feeling of wool-poly blend pants that the police in your setting wear — but what are the chances that anyone is going to give a rat’s ass?

In my case, I find myself getting a little resentful that my players don’t want to know every single detail of every single detail in my world when I get too into the weeds — and in general, resentment is something you want to avoid between yourself and your group or readership. 

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and the bar of what is going “too in-depth” is a bit nebulous. Who knows — I might have been the person criticising J.R.R Tolkien for inventing Sindarin instead of focusing on the plight of Middle Earth. In general, however, most fictionalists and GMs who spend their time world building will not be producing anything as important, well-realized, and engaging as the languages constructed by the world’s most famous fantasy author and philologist. 

So, how can you use history?

There are two main ways that I look back to the past to inform my worldbuilding, which I will explain in greater detail below. Each of these requires you to participate in historical counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are methodological tools used by academics, enthusiasts, and the ignorant alike — it’s basically just a fancy way to ask “what if?

A counterfactual occurs when the historian (or enthusiast, or ignoramus) asks what would have happened if some historical event were to be changed; either through time travel, alternate histories, or the mere power of their hyper-inflated academic ego. Some professional historians sneer at counterfactuals, deeming them unfit for use in the Ivory Tower — others routinely adopt their use to the point that their thesis resembles fanfiction more than historical interpretation — but most fall somewhere between those two extremes. Counterfactuals are a great strategy for historians to create leading questions and strengthen their case, when used correctly. 

But to be honest, fiction authors and game creators face no such restrictions. This means that counterfactuals are even more useful when creating worlds than when exploring the history of our own. Here’s the two main ways you can use them to your advantage:

Use counterfactuals to create a split timeline

You have almost certainly read a story or played a game that used counterfactuals to speculate about an alternate modernity by changing the past. The two most common counterfactuals fall into this category: “What if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War?” and “What if Nazi Germany had won the Second World War?”

This style of worldbuilding, where you ask “what if” questions to change the past — but are otherwise grounded in our world — almost always centers the counterfactual around a war (or several wars). Seems logical enough, right? Conflicts, armed or otherwise, are easily identifiable as watershed turning points in the steady march of human existence; it’s only natural to question what might be different if the outcome were to flip. 

The abundance of these counterfactual stories does nothing to decrease their potential effectiveness. After all, almost all fiction is derived from asking ‘what if’ questions (what if magic were real; what if the Old gods that lay beneath the mantle were beginning to awaken; what if British children were allowed to come out from their tiny cupboard under the stairs; etc.), and I think that most of us would agree that the fiction genre has a few more good years left in it. A clever worldbuilder — one who asks engaging counterfactual questions — can create a unique and interesting alternate history. When I was younger, I read a series called the Leviathan Trilogy, penned by Scott Westerfeld. These three stories invite the reader to image an alternate version of the First World War, where the fighting is more evenly matched between the Entente and Central Powers, and where the geopolitical situation was wrought with tension and machinations intended to break the ongoing military stalemate. 

Westerfeld didn’t just raise the counterfactual question of “what if the Great War wasn’t focused on trenches in France” — instead, he pondered the historical effects of a world where Germany and her allies piloted dieselpunk mech walkers and Great Britain’s finest rode around the world in enormous, skybound, bioengineered whales. In case you’re wondering, the series is absolutely rad

This is one of the most effective and engaging ways to use counterfactuals when creating an alternate history: ask a unique “what if” question, then let your imagination take you through the possible effects that that change might have on the history. For example:

  • What if the United States had continued to use firebombing tactics at the end of the Second World War, rather than turning to atomic power? Would that affect the post-bellum and Cold War periods? Would Japan have experienced the same cultural and economic exportation explosion during the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s? 
  • What if Jesus of Nazareth had been executed in Gaulish Europe, rather than in the world’s largest empire? Would Christianity have expanded so rapidly and thoroughly? Would Northern Europe have become a seat of Catholic (or otherwise Christian) authority 800 years before the coronation of Charlemagne?
  • What if the 9/11 attacks had targeted Los Angeles, rather than New York City? Would we have seen the same rampant concerns about Islamophobia along the West Coast? Would the film industry have moved to Iowa to escape the potential dangers of coastal America? Would Dodgers fans have become even more obnoxious than New York baseball fans are right now?

These are, of course, just examples that I pulled from the top of my head — your own counterfactual alternate history will come from asking questions about the history that interests you. The trick is to ask questions about specifics, then let those details inform the progression of your history.

But alternate histories are not the only use for counterfactuals when worldbuilding. You can also use them to great effect when creating entirely fictitious settings. 

Creating fiction using counterfactuals

Have you ever heard of a man named MrBTongue? This is relevant, I promise.

As you might guess from the capitalization, spacing, and general silliness of that name, MrBTongue is an online username, used by a media critic on YouTube. He hasn’t posted all that many videos (just 35, by my count) and only one of his uploads has garnered more than 500,000 views. This is, in my professional opinion, a crime against existence — because MrBTongue is an absolute master of explaining the complex appeal of fiction (and specific works of fiction) in a very approachable and clear manner. 

In his most viewed video, a 40 minute exposé on the controversy surrounding the ending of Mass Effect 3, MrBTongue addresses an important aspect of the power of fiction — specifically science fiction:

The pertinent bit starts at 4:08 — but honestly, the entire video is completely worth your time.

He says that science fiction is often used as an effective extension of Socratic exercises. Because sci-fi is necessarily speculative, you ask some internal questions about the setting, then use that as a channel to explore human nature or development. Suppose, for instance, that humans expand out into the Solar System, creating settlements on Mars and in the asteroid belt. How might our future look hundreds of years from now, and what can that tell us about ourselves as humans? With just that question, you’ve laid the groundwork on which you can build an excellent sci-fi world like the one that James S. A. Corey explores in The Expanse

You can use historical counterfactuals to do something very similar with other fictional worlds. This is different from creating an alternate history — I ask counterfactual questions about a historical figure, group, or society, then transplant them into my fictional world to be a cornerstone of the development. This keeps me from getting too into the weeds with my worldbuilding, while still allowing my imagination to flow freely and guide me to new conclusions. 

I’ll give you an example of how it works: I need to create a warrior society for a campaign that I’m running or a fantasy story that I’m writing — because of course I need a group of bellicose brutes for a world, right?  Well, when I think of historical warriors, the first thing that pops into my head is Genghis Khan and his vast seas of horsemen. Genghis’ troops were so effective on the great steppes of Eurasia due to their mastery of mounted combat, engendered by the necessities of their nomadic society.

So what if Genghis Khan had been born in the Andes mountains, rather than the flat plains of Eurasia? Let’s assume he retains his military and political acumen, as well as the prodigious appetite for creating children — how would this change the society (and legacy) he creates? Perhaps, rather than developing the world’s finest cavalry, the mountainous terrain would lead to an army of elite shock infantry to defend their valuable ore deposits and other natural resources. Physical isolation and societal elitism might lead to a culture which slowly turns inward, shunning outsider nations who want to attain their resources or land. 

And just like that, we have created a verisimilitudinous, engaging version of a fantasy trope which is otherwise subject to cliche — just by asking a counterfactual about where Genghis Khan was born. 

This worldbuilding strategy isn’t just effective…it’s fun, too! 

Try it for yourself — ask yourself how things might be different around the Gulf of Mexico if Napoleon Boneparte had decided to move the seat of his power to the Louisiana Territory rather than remaining in continental Europe; then, ask yourself whether you could build that fictionalized society into your world!

If you decide to try building better worlds by using history and counterfactuals, drop a comment on my blog and let me know how it went for you — because collaboration is equally important when creating an engaging world!

Header image created by Arek Socha (qimono)

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