The most famous worldbuilders in literature were all fantasy writers. In TV and film, the two most significant exceptions to this rule, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, created Star Trek, and Star Wars, respectively. And for the sake of this conversation, I’m going to split along those lines.
The difference between Star Trek and Star Wars happens to perfectly illustrate my primary mental block about worldbuilding of any sort, but especially modern worldbuilding. Star Trek is how my mind typically works: You take the world as we know it, introduce some changes, and roll out from there. In the case of Star Trek, this roll-out was huge, introducing countless alien races and new planets. But the human role made sense, as it was based on an assumption that society continued from history as we know it into the future.
Star Wars takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Humans presumably started their existence on a planet, be it Coruscant, Corellia, I don’t know…but the dynamics of how the universe evolved to its current state are somewhat more truncated than those in Star Trek, even with 10,000 years of history in the expanded Star Wars universe. It comes down to a large number of assumptions made about elements of human nature that wouldn’t change in a markedly different universe. Admittedly, the end effect works out well. But when you put things into a completely new context, some of the discrepancies can be jarring. XKCD lampooned this quite pointedly recently, regarding the name of the Millennium Falcon.
In case you haven’t guessed already, all of my worldbuilding projects to date have started with Earth, and gone from there. As much as I’m writing for games from a fairly escapist perspective, if I was to write a whole-cloth new universe, I’d want to do a lot of history-writing and expounding on just how humans would actually turn out, with the result being quite different from our world, possibly. If you think only about writing alternate history, you can make thousands of utterly different Earths…and that’s even leaving most of the real world intact.
So what I can do well now is Earth-based worldbuilding. What I have difficulty with is whole-cloth worldbuilding. As a result, in the future you will see more posts about both…as I expound on one, and frustrate myself trying to learn through the other. There are distinct strengths to both. My cyberpunk settings have benefited greatly from Google Maps in some cases, as finding real world maps is a lot easier than trying to write your own. Also, I’ve been drawn into the appeal of the alternate history gambit more than once…some changes are so dramatic, you really can make a whole setting from a what-if question (I have written about that before).
On the other hand, there are benefits to the whole cloth approach. For one, I love drawing maps, and I’m sure any GM, especially one who plays or has played D&D, will agree with me. I mean, half the fun of the dungeon crawl is writing the thing with the crazy maps and placing all the monsters. I similarly love playing around with a software package like Fractal Terrains and seeing what comes out…and after studying a bit of geopolitics, this is even more interesting, because so many non-physical world features (borders, cities, particular warzones) are based on geography.
In the end, I couldn’t possibly say one method is better than the other. Easier isn’t even fair, because anyone can put in more or less effort depending on what they want out the other end. What I’d like to do for my next world is something whole-cloth, especially as it’ll be more challenging for me. I already have an idea, and through the wonderful plot device of slower-than-light space travel and cryogenic freezing, I can have my cake and eat it too with regards to writing a totally new world, but still saying the humans come from Earth. Later, I’ll go into more detail as I build this world from the top down.