D&D, RPG, Workshops, Writing

Worldbuilding: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

We’ve had a few worldbuilding posts at this point, focused on things like language, culture, and just general tips…this time we’re looking at ways to approach your worldbuilding at the onset, along with some pros and cons to both methods!

Top-Down

Have you ever used Google Earth? Or at least looked at a picture of the earth from outer space? You can see the way the oceans and major landmasses are all laid out in a lovely, swirling blue-green marble…but as you dive in, you start to see more and more detail: mountain ranges, lush forests, rivers winding across the landscape. If you zoom in even further, you’ll eventually see populated areas like cities and towns…then streets and neighborhoods, individual houses and cars, until finally you’re standing on a street, looking at the people passing by. Not only is this an effective way to spend hours of time on the internet (I won’t judge), but it’s a good analogy for this first approach to worldbuilding.

In the Top-Down method, you focus on the macro level. The general feel, shape, and layout of your world. You might start with a map, or the overarching campaign plot, and work your way down from there. The starting point is dependent on the type of story that inspires you. I’ve always been drawn to mythology, so I like to imagine the sorts of creation myths and magic sources that give shape to the world. If you’re more of a history nerd, then you may be more drawn to the historic events that influenced the world as it is today. With this macro-lens, you determine things like the overall feel of the campaign setting, the key players at the kingdom or nation-state level, or the pantheon of gods that inspire the mortals of the realm. From there, you start to work your way down to discover how each of those thematic elements impact the individual lives at the micro level, usually over the course of gameplay.

The Pros: When working this way, you gain a more complete understanding of the bigger picture, of how the world operates. This makes it easier to improvise when players venture into the unknown without contradicting yourself. It also makes it significantly easier to work individual character backstories into the larger setting.

The Cons: Be wary of making the world “too big”, as much of the information you develop may be more for you than the players. It is common, in the top-down method, to develop lore and historic elements that might not make it into the campaign story right away, if at all. Try to give yourself some sort of boundary to help you focus on key themes.

Bottom-Up

If a bottom-up approach is more in your comfort zone, you may start with a specific location or story hook. You have a scene in your mind of where and how the party begins their saga, and you work outward from there. Similar to a video game which reveals more of the scenery only with each progressing step, your world is created as the characters discover it.

With this method, you can focus on the relevant information at the human (or micro) level, crafted from players’ interests and actions. Your history and lore may not be fully fleshed out until the story touches it directly, but you’re creating it in a more collaborative manner since the party has a role in guiding it. There are a great deal of “if this, then that” thought processes with this approach, but it also lends itself to a richer world when it’s created with inputs from the table. Your players will also have a stronger sense of “buy in” when it’s a world they helped create!

The Pros: Just about everything you create should have immediate relevance and application to your players and the story they help create. In some ways, working from the ground up poses an interesting alternative to the Top-Down approach, in that the “answer” is already known. This means you have to work backwards to determine how things came to be the way they are.

The Cons: Improvisation is a bit more complicated when the macro level is not fully determined. You may find yourself in situations where you have to retcon things here and there, to go back and change certain rules or aspects of your world at risk of writing yourself into a corner. Be wary of letting your players’ curiosities guide the story too much, as it can quickly get away from you. Try establishing some “core truths” that should stay constant throughout the campaign…things like magical mechanics or technology level. Specific laws that will provide some structure and help you defend the story against unexpected contradictions.

There is no right or wrong way to begin crafting your world, and most storytellers use a combination of these two methods. When it comes to campaign prep, however, you may find yourself gravitating towards one of these approaches more frequently. When that happens, hopefully these tips and thoughts help you assess your strengths and weaknesses, the way they do for me! I tend to gravitate more naturally towards the bottom-up method, as I get caught up in the character interactions and story events. Once I realized my own process (kind of meta there), I was able to find ways to balance out my approach to writing and campaign prep in such a way that made the game sessions flow much more smoothly!

Which method do you find yourself using more? Have you found good ways to balance your approach? Share your thoughts below!

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