Welcome to Inkbunny...
Allowed ratings
To view member-only content, create an account. ( Hide )

My Thoughts on World Building: Terrain and Physics

Its been a few months since the last time I did my last ramble-fest "My Thoughts on _______" journals so it's time for a new one. I've been meaning to get into the vast topic of world building for a while and get some of my thoughts on it out of my head but real life stuff has gotten in the way of it for a while. I choose to start of the World Building series with Terrain and Physics since so much depend on them. Yes, they may be the most boring but with so much dependent upon them I figure that would be the best place to start.

Previous "My Thoughts on ________" journals

My Thoughts on Characters [1]

My Thoughts on Heroes and Villains [2]

If you're reading this, you probably have some characters, maybe a few, maybe a giant gaggle of them. You might already have a world imagined that they live in or maybe you're wanting to do that but haven't quite started. The first thing that think of first when imagining a world is both terrain and physics. With me, both me and my friend "Professor Awesome" collaborate with our main world building project and we each work differently and have different things that we tend to focus on. I tend to focus on what is seen on the surface, the clock face if you will, and Professor Awesome goes into the inner workings of things, the hidden gears of the clock. We both go into different levels of detail with our specialties and some things I'll mention to think about with world building you may or may not really want to get too deep into. For example, you imagine up a new tree species unique to your world but you really don't want to go through the effort and put it under an imaginative scanning electron microscope and figure out EXACTLY how the tree works down to the atomic level. Do what feels best for you and remember to have at least some fun. World building doesn't have to give you headaches but it will if you let it.

Now characters can always use a world to live in, even if they are just characters whose designs you like to draw. In first creating the world, there are two main ways to "generate" their world. These are stated with the idea that one will probably have some story attached to their characters.

1) Create the world around the characters as they explore.
This is one of the easiest ways to world build but it does have its share of potential problems. You make the world as your characters explore it much like how the game Minecraft creates its own virtual world. For example, in my comic Demordicai Diamonds, I don't really need to know for sure what is past the town of Bromic Port. I don't need to design what is beyond the town until a character the camera is following decides to venture out. I only need to sculpt the terrain as the main characters explore (though personally I do have most of the basic terrain already pre-planned).

Light and easily manageable world-building work load.
You only create what you need.

Lack of planning can cause holes to pop up in plot and other sense-making things
You might get bored if your characters stick around in the same area for a while
Options for story and events and unique areas may seem limited.

2) Create the WHOLE world first
This is probably the hardest one to do but by no means impossible. With this method, you create the whole world and only drop your characters into it when it is finished. Think of it like zoning out a whole city in Sim City while the game is paused and turning it on when you are finished or building an amusement park the best you can with your starting money in Roller Coaster Tycoon before opening the park for the first time.

You have a whole world to work with if you finish.
Plenty of room for unique places whether characters will ever visit or know of them.

Lots of work is required before the world is "active".
Much of the world may not be used depending on the characters' stories.

There is a third way that I believe most people, myself included, end up using and that is a blend of both of the main ways. For me, I spend more time going into more miniscule details with the world around the characters than the world beyond where the characters are or have previously been. I still do lots of planning with the world outside of the characters since they may go to those places eventually or things from outside may come to affect the small slice of the world around the characters.

So, depending on how intensive you want to start of world building, you can create large amounts of terrain or small amounts of terrain at first. No matter what you decide to do, characters still need terrain of some sort.

At this point, you may have an idea of whether you want to world build immediately around your characters or world build without regard for the characters locations. This is where both terrain and physics first intersect, you got to decide now just what kind of world do you want to build. Do your characters belong in a world similar to real life Earth, maybe something a little different like a post-apocalyptic Earth. You can go farther from the norm and perhaps create a completely different planet with a very different terrain, say a desert planet like Arrakis for example (kudos to you if you know what world that is from). But who says you need a planet? You can always do something different like something more akin to a flat plane or come up with some more wild and crazy. You could create a spirit world or a dream world where much more is possible than on old-fashioned planet Earth. The possibilities are endless but it's up to you to figure out what fits best for your existing characters OR for your soon-to-be existing characters. It will be important to make sure your characters can "live" within their world well enough later on. You wouldn't have a fish character who lives in water and needs it to breath living in a waterless desert world (unless certain accommodations are made). I'll get into that in a later My Thoughts journal.

No matter what style of world you decide to make, there needs to be something to fill the void around the characters and there must be a way it "works". For the world me and Professor Awesome have been creating for Demordicai Diamonds for the past four or so (I worked on the story long before ever starting the comic) years, we decided to go with a world similar in many respects to our own planet Earth. There is dirt, rocks, lots of water and oceans, pretty much everything you could expect out of an Earth-type planet. There are stars beyond the planet and maybe even a moon or two. For physics, there is a roughly standard gravity so characters and terrain don't go floating away into the abyss of space, there are four seasons of Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter but they may affect certain areas of the world differently. There is a water cycle much like Earth's and there is weather from rain, snow, wind, and other occurrences. Sometimes it is hot outside and sometimes it is cold depending on the season and weather. All that may sound pretty boring but it is something we take for granted in our real life existence. Imagine your life if you Earth had no winter and snow and ice never naturally formed or if metals like iron didn't exist. Things would be a lot different for us and history would have been radically different. That is why these things are important and what I feel are a good base to start off with.

You don't have to go too far deep into the physics of the world if you don't want to. You don't need to know the exact weather patterns of the whole world, how the jet stream works (if there is one), but then again maybe you would like to. Perhaps you might feel certain events that affect your characters' lives might require a little more careful planning as to how it really happened. The same can apply with how your world will work. You don't have to have weather but perhaps you want to delve a little deeper and explain why your world doesn't have weather. Maybe even because some characters in the world might have decided to study it like we as real life people have.

But here is the thing. Say you are planning on making a comic or writing your story. You don't need to and probably shouldn't explain every SINGLE THING in great detail in the spotlight of the story. Reading through pages of explanation when I want to read a story can get quickly boring but sometimes it is more relevant if it is a character learning something and not a non-existent narrator lecturing. Keep in mind, just because you don't need to explain it upfront in a story doesn't mean it shouldn't work smoothly behind the scenes. For example, you don't need or really care about seeing all the gears on a clock but you do care about the end result and that is the time shown on the clockface. Without those gears working smoothly and correctly hidden behind the clockface, the clock won't tell accurate time.

So say in your world you want to have floating islands (something me and Professor Awesome have disused quite a bit). You put them into your story but then maybe someone, maybe yourself or even a character, asks why that chunk of rock floats in the sky while another chunk of rock does not even should it be thrown upwards. How do you answer that? This is where the physics of your world come in. Something is obviously different. The three big questions that come up are "What?", "How?", and "Why?". Continuing with the floating island example, me and Professor Awesome discussed those very things. For the "What?" part, one idea we had was that an island that floated above the land had a high concentration of a unique ore. For the "How?" part, Professor Awesome got to work to figure that out as this starts to get into the nitty-gritty details. A theory for "How?" that he came up with was that the ore had special wind/air elemental aligned properties that when active, most likely caused by exposure to one of various special "energy"-related phenomena, behaved like a magnet but instead of repelling against charges it repelled against certain gravitational-type forces to an extent causing it to float to a degree based on the amount of ore and how much "energy" it is charged with. I normally don't go into that level of detail but it can be very important that it works and works well or otherwise you can wind up with situations that might not make sense (it-works-here-but-not-there-and-it-doesn't-make-sense situations). Now going deeper into the floating island example comes the answer to the "Why?" question. This question can be a bit tricky and it may be different to answer depending on the subject. So far we have an idea on what makes a floating island different and how that difference makes it do what it does. For this, "Why?" may apply to why are there floating islands in the first place which leads into another "How?", more specifically in how the floating island geologically formed and why there isn't pure special-floaty-ore floating all over the place and why is it instead surrounded by rocks and dirt and other junk and may even have its own ecosystem. To be honest, neither one of us has a good answer for the first "Why?" at the moment but you can probably see how one "Why?" can spiral into smaller and smaller and smaller questions infinitely. Depending on how you want to world build and how powerful of a microscope you want to examine your world with, you may want to go further into detail or just leave it alone and let your characters have fun with the new floating islands in there world.

Now if you do have floating islands in a world, regardless of how much into detail you go into as to how they float and all that, it is a very important and unique geological terrain element that can vastly affect how you make the characters that populate your world, how they live, and how the world changes because of those characters. For example, if there was floating islands in the world portrayed in Demordicai Diamonds, they would be most likely be inhabited by a majority of flying creatures (this is going into a what I have planned for the next one of these My Thoughts journals). As for sentient species, ones that can fly would be the most likely candidates to make their homes on them. That would be a good location to find either winged drakune civilization or maybe something else. One thing me and Professor Awesome talked about a little last month was designing an avian-style species that would almost make their homes exclusively on floating islands (drakunes prefer mountains if at all possible)  and have a very isolationist mentality with their nation islands having contact with the world below regulated almost however they would wish. A regular land-based army would have a ridiculously tough time attacking a floating nation and such a nation could easily evolve completely isolated though certain resource issues could arise (like the need for fresh water for example) that may punctuate the need for trade. Of course with a flying species, there comes the questions as for how can they fly in relation to their weight, especially in the case of a drakune.

But as you can see above, something as simple as a new terrain element and the physics that apply to it can have massive effects on further world building as I did above. That is why terrain and physics can be very, very important for how your world building changes and evolves. Terrain and physics go hand-in-hand and serve as the very base for everything to be built upon and like an earthquake, if you change the base then a lot of change will be bound to happen on top.

We as living people in the real world make use of the terrain around us every day. Everything we do can be traced back to it. The first tools made by man thousands and thousands of years ago were made from rocks that were part of the terrain. The wood we use even today comes from trees that make use of the terrain and the physics of how our world works to grow. Even over-looked forces like gravity and magnetism have big effects on our life whether we realize it or not. And just like with us, the terrain and physics of the world you give their characters will have a massive effect on every aspect about them.

Now there is another topic that fits in with this topic of terrain and physics that I feel I should at least touch up upon in this journal and is a personal favorite of Professor Awesome: Magic Systems. How magic works is essentially a physics-type question that is obviously very important to any world that does have magic. Just like gravity has a certain way it works, both me and Professor Awesome (especially him) believe that there should be a certain way it works. This doesn't mean that the characters have to know it exactly or it be explained for any reader up front but it should still work a certain way. This can be the most difficult and brain-busting physics you may ever work on with world building. This is really Professor Awesome's territory and not mine and the complexity of this subject is why I generally let him handle all the gears inside the clock of magic systems. Once again, you can delve into the details this as deep or as shallow as you like but going into great detail for the sake of your world can really help your characters and the story they make. If you have ever read a <u>bad</u> Tolkien-style fantasy book and came to a part where suddenly a magical deus ex machina saves the day and you're left sponging up the blood coming from your eyes as if you had just been hit with a curse of the fire penguin wondering maybe something along the lines of  "That didn't make any sense?", "How did that happen?", "Why didn't the character just use that spell earlier?" or something like. All too often, I see material, and it isn't always Tolkien-style fantasy, with magic in it where the magic is used as a convenient get-out-off-jail-free card/plot device and doesn't have to make any sense even in-world as long as it gets the writer out of a corner ( to me it's like going out of the frying pan and into the fire). Magic seems to be used for fancy and cool effects like baysplosions but rarely do I find that there is any backbone to how it works. Some worlds can be a lot more allowing of this, like a dream world for example, where the laws of physics that are inherently lax and permit all sorts of crazy things in the essence a strange type of controlled chaos. Maybe it's me, more so Professor Awesome, being nit picky but it seems like most folks who world build don't do any thing with how magic works but just give it to characters who spam it simply in an attempt to make them "cool" without even having a decent explanation even behind the magic or even abilities. This almost always leads to story conflicts, plot holes, and just sense-making conflict galore. Don't believe me? Look up a history of how characters such as Super Man or X-men's Cyclops and how their abilities were attempted to be explained and then retconed (retroactive changes in continuity) that seriously messed up the story if you try to put it together. If the term "Punches from the Punch Dimension" means anything to you, you probably already know what I'm talking about or are scathing your head either in confusion or complete bewilderment because you just learned something you probably didn't know.

So by having things like terrain and physics made to work like a well oil-ed machine, you can also prevent major problems in story and sense-making, especially with special stuff like magic or unique abilities. I'll probably go deeper into magic systems in a later journal just due to how complex it can be since at it's highest difficulty you are essentially adding new world systems that may have absolutely no precedent in real-world physics but that's getting into super nitty-gritty details that's definitely more Professor Awesome's specialty and not mine.

I'm tired of typing and I got other stuff to do so I'm going to end my thoughts on terrain and physics there for now. If there is anything more specific into it that you'd like me to go into more with this one or if you have any suggestions for other world building topics you'd like me to incoherently ramble on about, please let me know. Congratulations if you read through all of this, more so if any of this made any sense considering how much I probably rambled on and forgot other stuff I was going to say. I'm thinking the next topic I'll go into with world building is creating sentient species to make characters out of and to populate your world. That should be a fun one to go into but it is very dependent on what I covered (or what I think I covered) here.  
Viewed: 7 times
Added: 7 years ago
7 years ago
Terrain *matters* to me, yeah. I've been thinking a lot about how to procedurally generate land and water tables and rivers and cities and interconnecting roads and rails and cliffs and beaches and canals and power/gas/communication lines in a way that is both informed by, and recursively informs, the terrain. It's a hard problem :)

Far too many virtual worlds lack geology.

Seems to me that if you have floating islands that float because they contain masses of ore, in a magical world, then there are really only a few ways they can have formed.

First way is the boring way: Magic. Goddidit. Wave your hands, maybe make some history like "Loki thought it would be funny...". Job done.

Second is accretion due to magical charge. Ore particles become charged in the atmosphere by being blown over the land. Unlike with electricity and magnetism, like charges attract, unlike charger repel. So the particles attract each other, and repel the land. They accrete, and stick together along with all kinds of muck from desert sirocco-style winds, bird crap, blown leaves, and so forth. Perhaps they are nothing more than floating lumps of mud, or perhaps their insides are heated by the high magical charge density, fusing the floating land into clay.

That's kind of a nice idea: it would give you quite delightful wind-carved islands, with threads running along gracefully curving magical flux lines. They would become havens for magical beasts, drawn there. Underneath them there would be thaumaturgical discharges, lightning and stranger things, as they arced against the planet surface as the winds pushed them across it. If they arced enough, they would lose all their charge, and crash to the ground, but that would be rare: they would generally only arc away enough enough charge to drop slightly, and then no longer have the charge to arc, until the winds had blown them through the planet's magical flux lines enough to charge up again.

I kinda like that.

Third possibility is that the charged ore accumulates in the ground, from magichemical reactions. This time round, the charge acts just like static charge: like charges repel. And the earth is very highly charged, since it has a lot of this ore in it.

Once a chunk of the earth's surface has accumulated enough, it is naturally repelled by the earth, and will tear itself away, ripping itself out of the ground. Most of the time, the chunk will just explode right then and there - this stuff would be unstable, and all want to get away from itself, like magnetic monopoles. But sometimes, there'd be enough of it, held together tightly enough by the surrounding rock, that the rocks would be supported by their embedded nuggets of ore, and would float, following the whims of weather and the magical flux lines of the planet.

This would mean that there would be places where the earth had ripped itself up and out. These wouldn't always just be craters in the ground, though often they would be, especially after an explosive event. But often, they'd be dangling strips, like cracked linoleum peeling up around the part that had managed to pull itself completely away. These areas would likely be prized and hunted-for by humans, for they could be made *into* islands, by chopping away at the lower part. And everyone who's anyone would want their own floating island, despite the potential for explosive deconstruction in the next rainstorm.

But before the ripping-away, there'd be a stage (lasting seconds, or millennia, depending on the size of the formation) where the ground bulged up, as a domed hill. Underneath these would be a massive domed cave, larger than any freestanding stone dome on Earth, since floating rock needs no support. The domes could be stable for centuries, protect and house cities... but eventually, *boom*.

Either way, there would be floating ships, forts, even cities, navigated along the magical flux lines by skilled mages.
7 years ago
Oh yeah, terrain is always a much harder problem to deal with once you start diving into the details beyond the "dirt goes here" part. Not a lot of people usually delve too far into it, I guess maybe it's just rather boring to some folks.

I see too many people use the first way you described for just about EVERYTHING. The "because it's magical" explanation just doesn't hold any water yet so many people like to use it as a quick way of getting out of doing even a slight degree of cause-and-effect thinking for their world.  

I like both of your ideas, they both have unique attributes to them for the creation of floating islands and each create islands with different compositions born in different ways. I'm half-tempted to try to come up with a supplemental theory myself and attempt to work both of them together somehow. Under this, some islands are more useful for habitation than others. It's certainly a fun idea to tinker around with and more so once story gets involved.
New Comment:
Move reply box to top
Log in or create an account to comment.