When we’re looking at a bottom up style of world building, we start with something simple, it might be as small as the stereotypical tavern where the adventurers gather to start their narrative journey. It might be as specific and detailed as a single room, perhaps the brig on a ship. It might be a sprawling dock. This starting point really depends on the number of characters you need to accommodate.
Clans of Elgardt, the Boffer LARP that has just begun in Sydney, began its narrative journey with all the characters at a single stronghold, then quickly expanded it to three distinct locations and the wilderness in which they were situated. Gradually, I’m expecting more locations to be detailed and explored as the story progresses (but since they seem to have started with top-down worldbuilding, I’ll leave that example there).
Bottom-up world design starts with the elements that will directly interface with the characters now. If something is just going to be backstory, relating to an NPC that might have been mentioned in a historical document somewhere, than it doesn’t really need to be detailed. If it becomes important later, you can add more information as it becomes more relevant.
For the moment, the world design for the pirate/steampunk game will focus on a single town. That single town will need meeting places for the various factions (in this case the cultures of the town and maybe some locations for races). That’s already a minimum of seven locations (and possibly up to 14), so we’ll paint them in broad brushstrokes to get the generalities in place, then add a few details for story hooks, and maybe let the players fill in some details during the course of the story.
The locations I’m thinking about at this stage are:
[Cultural home base locations]
The Castle/Keep – Home base for the Colonial/Imperial Forces (also some privateers, settlers and church). An imposing structure of stone, hung with drab banners of the Imperium. Built only a few generations ago, but already it looks as though centuries have weathered it.
The Docks – Home base for the Privateers (also some pirates, settlers and colonials). Always bustling and noisy. The docks smell of salty air, punctuated by aromatic spices, or noxious fumes, depending on where you go.
The Markets – Home base for the Settlers (also some privateers, pirates and natives). Bright and cheerful through all hours of the day and often late into the night, some say the markets are the heart of the town. If you know where to look, you can find almost anything here.
The Cathedral – Home base for the Church (also some settlers and colonials). Designed of glass, steel and the most delicate spires of ancient stone, the cathedral was built to capture light and reflect the glory of the heavens. It is accompanied by a monastery which is the starting point for many pilgrimages.
The Borderslums – Home base for the Pirates (also some natives and cult). In the shadow of the great city walls, and half hidden by barren cliffs, torchlight always keeps the streets of the borderslums in a haze of smoke and twilight.
The Village – Home base for the Natives (also some pirates, church and cult). Just inside the edge of the forest on the outskirts of town is a cluster of shops and homes where the island’s natives trade with the more recent arrivals.
The Temple – Home base for the Cult (also some natives and pirates). In an ancient system of caves beneath the city, stands a shrine to an unknown entity. Few know the location of the pits that to the underground labyrinth, fewer still known how to navigate their way to the shadowed shrine.
A few evocative lines, and the location starts to come to life.
Then we can look at a few other locations that facilitate certain elements of play that we’d like to see in our game.
The Arena – (Colonials, Pirates, Settlers) Officially, the colonial forces don’t like the arena; unofficially, many of its members indulge in gambling on the bare-knuckle and gladiatorial fights held every night. Here they also conduct dealings with less savoury types away from the prying eyes of their superiors.
The Withered Hag – (Settlers, Privateers, Pirates) This favourite watering hole is said to mark the boundary between the Docks and the Borderslums. There is a noticeboard here that is covered with papers declaring jobs and bounties for any who might be brave enough (or stupid enough) to claim them.
The Sentrypost – [Colonials, Settlers, Natives] One of the main thoroughfares from the inner city to the outside world, this is a gateway flanked by a pair of watchtowers manned at all hours of the day and night. At dawn the main gateway is opened, at dusk it is closed; during the night hours only those with special papers signed by the governor are permitted to pass.
[Ten locations in town is plenty to start with]
The implications inherent in the locations start to shed light on other aspects of the town. We know that there must be a reasonable p opulation, because slums only start to develop once a settlement reaches a certain size. Let’s say there’s 50,000 people (this is subject to change as we work out more information about the area). We know there are walls, cliffs, a forest, and obviously water bordering the city.
We’ll need information about the other parts of the core island, since that’s where the majority of the story’s action will be taking place. But for the moment, a few sentences about the other main towns should suffice. We really don’t want to be adding more detail to those areas than we currently have for the focal township. That’s probably the key, keep it simple and don’t go into work if you don’t need to.
Town 1 – This southern town is said to be home to more privateers and pirates than the main city. The colonial forces paid to keep the town in check are decadent and corrupt, and many claim that they earn more income from bribes than from their official salaries. Trade between this town and the main city is frequent, with foodstuffs and alcohol often heading one way, and black market items heading the other. Population 25,000.
Town 2 – At the far western end of the island is one of the largest populations of natives known. Church missionaries often head here to convert the heathens to the true faith, but more often than not they leave quickly, or are never heard from again. Settlers who grow tired of the colonial laws and church commandments have started making their way to this town, hoping to start a new life in an idyllic paradise. Population 15,000.
Here’s the original map I drew up for the setting, it should be pretty easy to determine which town is which. It also starts to give some context for the scale of this map.
I probably should have started naming things first, but that’s where we’ll head next.