Written By: JJ Otto
Edited By: Shania Kuo and Huimin Zhou
Worldbuilding for Diversity
Rich, immersive fictional worlds fascinate us, whether it’s in a video game, TTRPG, book series, movie, or countless other media. Who hasn’t fantasized about learning spells at Hogwarts, or choosing a partner pokémon on your tenth birthday, or fighting in Katniss’ revolution? Beyond the simple escape from our tragically mundane reality that these worlds offer, the mystery, the strangeness, the unknown draws us in. The unending joy of discovery keeps us coming back for more, and eager to create our own worlds.
This process, often called “worldbuilding”, is the combination of storytelling, the world design itself, and how all these different facets fit together in a believable way. It allows you to design a world from the ground up, everything from the ecology and environment, to the intricate social structures of its population, to the epic tales and heroes it hosts. With such grand scale and the almost infinite number of questions to consider, it’s no wonder that complex worlds like Tolkien’s took a lifetime to build. But, since we (hopefully) don’t have decades in between D&D sessions or video game installments, we need to break down the worldbuilding process into more manageable chunks.
In this series, we will unpack some worldbuilding “chunks” with the goal of creating an exciting, diverse world while also feeding a player’s immersion - or, “enchantment”, as Tolkien would put it. We want every player to feel welcome and seen in the fantastical worlds we create, and when you control the worldbuilding, you control the keystone. If you have a diverse, accessible base, then the stories you create will also have those traits, and you won’t need to retrofit your world later on.
So, how do we help our fledgling world be diverse? This article will focus on a large-scale worldbuilding chunk: world population. Our working definition of “diversity” will center on individual character attributes: Is an array of races, genders, abilities, and backgrounds present? Is it inclusive, or will certain people feel like outsiders?
Your World's Population Sets It Up For Success!
It can be tempting to lay out the populace in simple terms, but spending extra time ensuring a diverse world population sets the rest of the world up for success. Many other aspects of worldbuilding rely on the makeup of its inhabitants, from the technological history and health of the ecosystem, to the stories you write that center on the relationships they have with one another. So, not only will population diversity help your world be more inclusive, it makes future worldbuilding much easier.
Begin With An Existing World As A Template!
When designing our own fictional worlds, we drift toward aspects that are featured in our personal fantasies and favorite media. You may be fascinated by Tolkien’s Dwarves, or Dragon Age Elves, or Skyrim’s Blackreach, and I’m not saying that’s a problem - worldbuilding in other media can be very inspirational, and can give us incredible ideas and new problems to consider. It’s fun to stand on the shoulders of giants and shake things up: The journey to Mordor - but with cars! Epic dragon fights - but with rap battles! Rescuing Zelda - but every level is an underwater level! Tweaking even a minor component of an existing world can create an entirely new (and often hysterical) experience.
That said, some worlds we might want to use as a starting point are not very diverse to begin with, which can limit the variety of characters we adapt for our own worlds. Sure, we can switch out people in an existing world for a more representative group, but eventually you run into a “ship of Theseus” problem - if it has so many parts replaced, is it even the same world anymore? The more you change and replace in Skyrim, the less “Skyrim-y” it becomes, and at that point you might want to start fresh with a blank slate instead. That way, you aren’t worldbuilding within the Skyrim confines at all.
If you’re ready to jump into fantasy worldbuilding at a large scale, you might struggle with how to create a physically diverse world when a lot of media is quick to divide people by their racial attributes. First of all, you’re creating a fantasy world, so you have no limits on what develops in your world! If that’s not enough though, in my experience, the easiest solution is to create a timeline that explains the mixed distribution of diverse people throughout the world. Without utilizing world history, you might think it’s harder to justify why an array of skin colors evolved in the same place - some worldbuilders will bend over backwards rationalizing how the climate and sun(s) allow for the variety when they could simply have a historical reason, not an ecological one.
For example, perhaps a millennium ago the gods reshaped the world, and they temporarily kept all life in Elysium until construction was complete. The gods then returned life to the world, but with little regard for whether it was the same spot someone was picked up from. To a god, one place in the mortal world is the same as any other. As years passed, distinct cultures evolved once again, but members of each culture can have any racial features.
A secular example would be a world where all children must be sent to the Capital for education and evaluation of their skillset. Once assigned to their best-fit job they are sent to a place in the world where their skills are needed, regardless of their physical appearance. Taking this approach, diversity weaves itself into the world’s history and naturally becomes a critical part of its worldbuilding.
If you’re new to worldbuilding and want to start on a smaller scale than an entire planet’s history, I recommend focusing your creative energy on a single city. Not just any city, though - a sure-fire place to start when designing a diverse world is creating a central port city, like a New York City, Los Angeles, or Hong Kong analogue.
Concentrate on establishing a massive, geographically central port city where anyone from anywhere can be anything, and everyone from everywhere trades or passes through at some point. Characters of any race, class, gender, ability, etc can easily be found on its streets, each person unique but amicably sharing the space with others that are very different. Because of the unending stream of people, new ideas, cultures, and practices are constantly being introduced, transformed, and adopted by the city’s populace. This gives you a naturally diverse mini-world that can either be a microcosm for the world at large, or an anomaly - all worldbuilding that you can decide later.
Your diverse port city analogue can do more for your players than let them see themselves in the world and feel welcome at your table (though these are the most important accomplishments). With such a rich mosaic of open-minded people constantly in contact with one another, differing practices and attitudes are likely to meld rather than remain culturally isolated. This invites players to create a “hybrid” background - far more flavorful than a generic one from a handbook.
Perhaps in your world Dragonborn are usually nomadic traders who worship a god of travel, but a player makes a Dragonborn PC raised in this port city by a surprisingly nurturing band of mercenaries. The PC might become a competent warrior but a pitiful negotiator, and call to the mercenaries’ god of victory in battle while also honoring their cultural god of travel. Not only does the player now have an interesting PC, but they have expanded your world to include a group of mercenaries with a soft spot for orphans. Perhaps you’ll decide to give the group an official office in the city, or memorialize their good deeds on a plaque in the town square. Giving players the freedom to customize their backstory and fit it into your world’s canon helps it truly come alive. Whenever you can, encourage players to build the world with you - the more hands that touch it, the more diverse it will naturally become, and the more “lived-in” it will feel.
Designing your world’s population is one of the most important worldbuilding decisions you can make. Not only does it affect the physical world and the stories that take place within, but it’s a key place to establish diversity as the world’s base. By tweaking an existing world or building your own from scratch with this foundation, you send a message that no matter what physical attributes your players and their characters have, they will feel like they have a natural place in the world and won’t feel like outsiders from the beginning.
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