Collaborative world-building

Summary: After reading a post on Facebook about a shared world, I speculate how such a system could work.


Earlier today I came across a thread in a Facebook group I’m part of. The gist of the post was an offer to share and develop a fantasy world in which to write stories. The benefit to writers is lowering the barrier of entry in terms of effort. World-building is hard, bloody hard and takes a lot of time – time that many writers would prefer to spent writing stories. Readers get to explore what would become a very rich world with stories created by unique writers adding their own flavour.

This concept is hardly new. There’s a well-established tradition among table-top gamers going back to the original Dungeons & Dragons, the Forgotten Realms and the myriad homebrew efforts, some of which having become successful worlds in their own right: namely Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia.

This article is partly my response to this post (typing an essay into a Facebook comment isn’t fun) as well as my musing how such an endeavour could work in a practical sense.

1. Charter

To begin with it would be essential to draw up a charter defining the objectives and rules of such an endeavour. Some things to consider would be:

  1. Define a code of conduct for all participants.
  2. Define how people can join and contribute either world elements or write stories.
  3. Agree upon a licence for world elements, something along the lines of a creative commons license or some other copyleft licence.
  4. Agree that authors retain full copyright of derivatives works (i.e. stories and characters set in the world).
  5. Agree on how authors can reference the works of other authors, where stories overlap in related time and space.

2. World design

To accommodate the styles and preferences of many authors, the world would have to be a very diverse setting, allowing for stories set in different cultures, magical system, religions, times and geographic locations. Nevertheless, some overall design goals should be agreed upon by the group.

Inspiration could be drawn from similarly diverse settings, such as Faerûn of Forgotten Realms fame.

To facilitate this, it would make sense to appoint a core group of world builders (made up of those who particularly enjoy the practice) to undertake the basic architecture of the world and work with authors to flesh out the details.

3. Timeline

The world should have a well-defined timeline, outlining key milestones as the societies undergo social, environmental and technological change. In this way authors could write stories set in the same geography but deal with different events and characters separated in time.

It would also allow for the creation of stories in different subgenres, say for example classic medieval fantasy, and steampunk.

As noted in me musing on the Charter, it would be important for authors to agree upon how works and events set in proceeding times influence stories that are set later in time.

4. Practicalities

As a large collaborative effort created by people living in different parts of the world, such an endeavour would benefit from the creation of a central website running a wiki application (or something nerdy like a distributed system based on GitHub and some kind of markdown-based static generator, like MKDocs)1.

Additionally, people could make use of a service like Slack to stay in contact and discuss various aspects of world-building and story telling in their respective discussion channels. If using Github, this could also be done by raising Issues.

Authors with stories or settings in mind, can be granted a sandpit – a section of the world reserved for their use. They would then be free to fill in the back story, flesh out the world, create their characters and write their stories. Naturally they could invite others to collaborate on developing their part of the world (think of something akin to Github pull request!)

The world’s core group/architect can then feed the fleshed out content (large elements, rather than story specifics) back into the main world’s branch. Also, it would be important to note key events that can impact other stories for those who like writing huge macro set pieces (fall of civilisations and so on).

As the world is filled in, so too increases the potential for overlap. Where this occurs, authors and the core group can work together to ensure continuity and respect is given to individual works of creation.

Naturally a shared world, allows for shared story telling, for authors who would like that particular challenge.

Conclusion

I hastily wrote this post, mostly because I find the idea exciting with lots of creative potential. Writing is a damned lonely business and world build is hard - overcoming both ailments by working with other human beings is cool!

My ideas at this point are very fluid, I’d others to comment and discuss either below or better yet, in the original thread on Facebook.


  1. One reason I like the idea of using Git is it allows for branches and forks, allowing for authors to branch out and create their own derivatives and push back to the Master world.  ↩

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