NOTE: Have been blogging lately on my iPad so please excuse any typos or autocorrect issues (I can't scroll down to edit).
World building has been on my mind since we started work on Sortorius (for which Bill and I are designing a complete setting). It is an aspect of gaming I really enjoy, sitting down in a quiet place and plodding out the details of a fictional setting. But it presents a number of challenges, the first being: where do I begin?
Before I answer my own question, a bit of personal background is in order. In college I was a history major and one of my favorite subjects was historiography. Historiography is essentially the study of the history of history and its various schools of thought (that is what it means to historians anyways). There are all kinds of fancy names historians employ to describe the different approaches they use in their craft, but two stand out as particularly appropriate for game design. The first is associated with annales historian Fernand Braudel, who viewed history through something called The Longue Duree. This basically means looking at long term structures like geography when analyzing the past. It also means you take the long view of history. Braudel's history of the Mediterranean begins with the geologic history of the region and slowly advances to about the time of the Romans (If I remember correctly). He places great emphasis on how geography shapes culture. This is the first approach. Just to be clear there is much more to Braudel and the annales than that, but for our purposes, this is the part to focus on.
The second approach is sometimes called micro history, and is associated with Italian historians like Carlos Ginzburg. Micro historians examine a very small and focused area of history in great detail. For example a micro historian may write a history of a small French hamlet and the people who lived there in 1790. Or he may write about the heresy trial of an Italian miller during the inquisition. This is an approach to history many GMs can appreciate because it is so local. When combined with The Longue Duree, it yields a good deal of clarity.
In my opinion it is usually better to start, just initially, with The Longue Duree or big picture of your setting's history. I will abuse the term slightly and use it to mean any of the big picture parts of the setting. Not just geography, cosmology, races and monsters but also countries, political structures, etc. Basically in this step you are planting the seeds of your long term structures as well as charting the developments of those structures over time. However, you will want to dip into the local level and take a micro historical approach to keep things in order and to illuminate your own sense of the setting from time to time (more on this in part two).
First start with your cosmology. In a fantasy setting everything begins with your assumptions about the gods and the supernatural. So you will want to establish that before you go anywhere else.
Next draw a map of the entire world you plan to use. It may be useful to just focus on a single continent for now. Put in the major geographic features, then look at those features and ponder where your races fit in. Don't write anything else on the page, just think. Now print five (or more copies of your map). You are about to chart the Longue Duree of your setting.
It is now time to decide how the races came into existence and where they begin on your map. I usually like to think of my races as tribes created by the gods and start them out in general locations. Mark down where the elves, where the humans, where the dwarves, halflings and orcs live. Let that page be your first several thousand years.
Map two will be the next stage in your history. Perhaps you decide the elves migrate to the coast, driving the dwarves north into human lands, or far up into the mountains. Maybe the elves settle here and master agriculture, building your first cities and political structures. Draw in the cities, some arrows to indicate the movement of the races, and then think how things might play out on the remainder of the map.
With Map three you further develop the ideas you've worked out so far. Also keep the unsettled people in mind. Traditionally settled people's have been subject to attacks by pastoral nomadic peoples, so if have humans living in those mountains near the elves, they may be a source of conflict and bloodshed. The time frame for the maps is up to you, but this one probably follows closer on the heels of the previous one, say five hundred years or so. You decide that the elven cities clustered on the eastern coast unified, while the others remained largely fragmented. This unified culture you call the Calecians. They set up colonies in area occupied by other elven cultures but also in regions dominated by tribal halflings and humans (who probably have started their own rudimentary settlements at this stage). This is an important development as it means a lot of the cultures in your setting might share characteristics inherited from these early elven colonies.
The idea is you keep building you world in stages like this. Eventually empires and kingdoms will appear on your pages. All the while you will want to think of important structures that can't be charted on the map. For instance wizard orders and religions. How to create religion for a gaming world is an essay unto itself, so for now I will just say focus on where it started and where it spread (does it overlap several cultures and political boundaries?).
Start a small setting bible. This will keep you from being inconsistent. Write this alongside or maps as they develop. Include a timeline (very important to nail down key dates) and rough history to explain what is on the map. The bible should also include all or major power structures, races, gods, political powers, etc.
At this stage, when you are approaching the actual period your setting will be set in, you are ready to examine the local level in depth (though it should always be in the back of your mind). The local level is important because it is the point where the individual intersects with the broader strokes of the setting. This is where most gaming occurs. By thinking about small pockets you make the larger elements that much stronger. It is great to have a broad concept of a large elven empire, but it is also very important to think about how it operates at the local level. And that will be the subject of the next world building essay.