In this guide we will be discussing how to use Wolf’s 3 factors of invention, completeness and consistency, and apply them to your worldbuilding!
Through our extensive research and work on loremaster.io, we have also worked with academic sources. We have learned a lot that apply to the development of LoreMaster.io. Much of this knowledge can also be applied to worldbuilding in general. Therefore, a lot of it will be shared with you guys! The first write-up of this kind is based on “Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation” by Mark J. P. Wolf. This is generally regarded as one of the foremost academic sources when it comes to worldbuilding. It is targeted towards worlds created for books or film, but many elements can be applied to worldbuilding for TTRPG’s as well.
The things we will be addressing in this write-up are Wolf’s factors of invention, completeness and consistency. Now, the content of these factors are perhaps fairly easy to guess, but of course, there’s more to it.
Wolf describes created worlds as secondary worlds, the primary world of course, being our own. These 3 factors of invention, completeness and consistency are naturally intertwined. As you develop each factor, the others can become harder to keep track of. A more complete world can be harder to keep consistent, but also requires more invention, as more of the world is revealed. The more invention a world contains, the harder it can be to keep everything consistent as well, as new factors are revealed that alter things compared to the primary world. Therefore, consistency can also limit what kind of invention is possible. So in conclusion, all 3 factors must be considered as the world grows and develops.
Wolf defines invention as follows:
“the degree to which default assumptions based on the Primary World have been changed, regarding such things as geography, history, language, physics, biology, zoology, culture, custom, and so on.”
The changes to these things compared to our primary world is what denotes a world as a secondary world. Since most secondary worlds are to an extent based on our primary world, there are 4 degrees of changes that can be implemented. The first, the nominal degree, is simply renaming things from the primary world. This is rarely seen in worldbuilding, most likely due to it simply not being interesting to have the exact same world, but simply renamed. In fact, I genuinely can’t think of a single example of a secondary world using this degree of invention.
Next, the cultural degree, is more commonly seen. It takes the primary world, but changes things such as objects, artifacts, technologies, customs, institutions, ideas and so on. While this degree can be used for TTRPG worldbuilding, especially for game systems based in the modern world, this would mostly be applied for books and film. An example is George Orwell’s famous novel “1984”. This story takes place in the primary world, but many things have been altered.
The third degree is the natural degree, which is probably what is most commonly seen in homebrew worlds for TTRPG’s. This degree includes a completely new creation of landmasses, creatures, plantlife, etc. It may also contain inventions on a larger scale, such as new planets or universes. However, a common factor of TTRPG’s, magic and multiverses, aren’t covered until the fourth degree.
This degree is the ontological degree. This is the most complete change from the primary world. It can include a complete alteration of the laws of physics, such a world that solely operates in 2 dimensions. However, it can also cover slightly lesser changes, such as the inclusion of magic, or in sci-fi worlds, faster-than-light travel, time travel or multiple dimensions.
However, it’s important to also retain a degree of relatability in your world, else people will lose interest. It’s simply a human response. That’s why most secondary worlds, no matter the medium, contain primarily humanoid figures (or anthromorphosized animals), with generally human-like emotional responses and logic. Small diversions can of course be made, for example the Vulcans in Star Trek, who lack much emotional response, but it’s still close enough to humans to allow this slight suspension of disbelief.
While not particularly relevant in fantasy TTRPG’s such as Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder, in TTRPG’s set in modern times it’s also relevant to consider, what does your audience (your players) know about the setting? For American players, introducing a fictional American state might not work well, as it requires too much suspension of disbelief, but a fictional African country might work (for example, Wakanda from Marvel Comics). On the other hand, if you’re based in Scandinavia, a fictional American state might not cause any issues, since your players might not know all 50 states anyways. No matter where you’re based however, creating a fictional town or small county (so a smaller scale than a state) would probably work, since no-one can feasibly remember or know every single town or county in the country.
Imaginary worlds are almost inevitably incomplete. In fact, some theorists believe that it is actually impossible to create a 100% complete secondary world, and it is in one of the things that define it as a secondary world. However, despite true completeness being essentially impossible, it’s still important to consider facts such as this. In general, the more seemingly unnecessary details present, the more complete a world will seem. Now of course, that doesn’t mean you need to describe the composition of dust, or how paint dries. But it does mean, that to begin with, characters must have some source of food, clothing, and shelter to survive, and come from some kind of culture.
On a larger scale, communities will likely need some form of governance, an economy, food production, a shared form of communication, defense against outsiders, and other such things. Some things may be central to the narrative you weave for your players, while others may only be in evident in background details, with just enough hints provided for the players to answer basic questions concerning a character’s subsistence and livelihood.
An example used in the book we describe here is the desert settlements of Tatooine in George Lucas’ “Star Wars”. A thought I’ve certainly had, and I’m sure many other had, is how on earth people survive in the harsh desert environment? Well, if we look a little deeper into the information actually provided to us throughout the movies, we know that they likely extract moisture from the atmosphere, as also evidenced by the presence of clouds. But is there enough water to sustain larger cities such as Mos Eisley or Mos Espa? And where does food come from? We see plant-based food multiple times throughout the movies, but no agriculture. So where does this food grow?
This isn’t really addressed in the movies, but diving into the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which is technically now non-canon, but let’s ignore that), we do get some explanations. For example, some plant life is grown in the damp sewer systems of the larger settlements, and it’s described how some of the limited plantlife shown in the desert is in fact edible. Some fans also theorise how Tatooine could have an economy driven by export of minerals or similar, thus providing an economy to import food from other planets or star systems. However, the point being, all this is poorly expressed in the movies, and you have to dig deeper into Star Wars lore to find this out, and since the expanded universe has since been de-canonisized… Star Wars is actually an example of poor completeness.
A good example on the other hand, is J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Initially started as a fantasy world (the novels were secondary), Middle-Earth has a rich history, and throughout the core works of The Silmarrillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, along with other official works, Middle-Earth is a very complete world.
Consistency is the degree to which world details are plausible, feasible and without contradiction. Now, the definition in the book focuses very heavily on consistency across volumes of books and films, and between scenes in movies, which of course does not apply much to a homebrew world in a TTRPG. In fact, the elements of consistency that would usually apply to such a world, are probably more suitable to fit under completeness. However, there are certain things that can be gathered from this description of consistency.
One of the examples in the book is how Gollum and Bilbo (and Frodo) are able to communicate, despite being from different tribes of Hobbit, which canonically have been established to be separated for near-enough 1500 years. One would surely think they’d have developed differently with regards to language? This is one element of Middle-Earth that perhaps is less consistent, but highlights an element to remember, especially if you, like Tolkien, create a long and detailed history for your world. You don’t have to remember 27 different languages per se, just make sure that there is a believable reason as to why everyone understands eachother.
As said, a lot of these pointers are targeted towards more classical media, such as books, film or even video game worlds. However, certain elements can certainly be applied to secondary worlds of our own creation, such as homebrew TTRPG worlds. I’ll leave you with a short list of bullet points, things to consider when worldbuilding, to keep in mind.
- How much is your world inspired by the real world? Or perhaps more inspired by existing fantasy worlds?
- How does any given town get food? Perhaps an opportunity for an easy plot hook here?
- In loose terms, how is the settlements economy? Agriculture, fishing, trade or something else?
- How are interspecies/racial relations, and what are the explanations for that? Can they communicate, and why?
- Do you have a detailed history, or is it more loose?
I hope at least one person reading this will get a slightly better understanding of how factors to consider when building a world!