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I've considered making a shared world, a world with a setting that can be used by more than one writer or worldbuilder. I have a basic story planned out, and it has certain requirements of the world's geography, natural and anthropogenic history, layout, climate, and one or two other minor things. All of these elements are necessary for the story to make sense.

At the same time, I think that this world could be used by other authors for other stories, because it has some rather singular elements to it that have interesting features. I'd also like to make it open for use because I won't be able to explore all of it (for some time), and it might be cool for others to do that instead.

So, how do I make a world more sharable, even though I need to set some rather restrictive guidelines for it? Another way of phrasing the question is: How can I make a world more sharable?

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  • $\begingroup$ How much editorial control will you have over any derived stories? $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 1 '15 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Green I'd like to have minimal control, if any. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Sep 1 '15 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ What do you mean by share-able? If it's a well-constructed world, people will want to explore it. Are you afraid they'll mess it up, or be put off by your guidelines? $\endgroup$ – DaaaahWhoosh Sep 1 '15 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @DaaaahWhoosh I want it to be explicitly adaptable to a variety of stories., not just ones similar to mine. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Sep 1 '15 at 14:55
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    $\begingroup$ Is there some quality that makes your world inherently unsharable? Everyone who sees it will interpret it in their own unique way. I would think a world is inherently sharable, since anyone can write a new story in its context. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 1 '15 at 15:02
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If you are creating a world for joint use you should write the meta story first.

This is essentially the history of the world and the characters tend not to be individuals but empires, nations, armies, hordes and deities. There is some room for individuals but only the truly unique make the cut.

If you think of Forgotten Realms you have characters like Elminster and Volo. These are specific characters yes, and yes they have their own stories. That said they are tools to illustrate the world, they are essentially deities.

A setting is interesting when it has depth. You need to create many small, meta level stories to give your world it's ...feel, to give users not only a sandbox but a sociopolitical climate and history in which their stories can take place.

That is the beauty of Forgotten Realms, or even a digital world like Skyrim. You can tell your own story but the world around you has things happening that don't wait on your actions.

So, if you have a specific story to tell, that's great, but if you want a shared world to be used there is a ton of content to create to make it great. (I just rhymed on accident)

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Focus on the Canon

Don't focus on creating the whole world itself, focus on being the first Arbiter of Canon.

The Arbiter's job will be to integrate into the Canon (literally that which is true) the world building background (places, races, people, myths etc) written by other people, to fix the discrepancies (or ask some of the authors to amend them), to check if everything is in place, to fill eventual blanks and dissipate doubts.

You might also find the time to write actual stories yourself, by delegating other contributors to act as arbiters.

Orion's Arm

Check out the Orion's Arm worldbuilding project which I would say is the canonical shared world example.

It works as follows:

  1. There is the 'Canon' which specifies what is taken to be true in the setting. It may include stuff like maps, languages, locations, races etc. The Orion's Arm Canon has been built up over time and has been subject to a number of revisions. One important aspect of the Canon is the timeline.
  2. There is the Encyclopaedia Galactica which accepts user generated content submissions (e.g. for new planets, nations, tech, politics etc) that fit within the Canon. These are reviewed by the community prior to inclusion
  3. There is the Future Voices e-zine which accepts works of fiction and non fiction set in the universe.

I would suggest you follow this principle and define a Canon which meets your criteria to enable your key storyline. Those aspects of the world which most affect your story would be the most detailed, while peripheral areas would be more sketchy and ripe for others to contribute to in the first instance.

Within your Canon timeline, define some pivot points (major battles, birth of key figures etc) from which alternate timelines can be extended, to allow what-ifs to be conducted by others. Clearly identify these and invite ideas for alternative timelines from that point.

The contributions page at the Orion's Arm website has more details.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd like to add a small preface to your great answer, if you don't mind. I.e. something more general that will attract readers before diving into your more specific (and perfectly fit) example. $\endgroup$ – o0'. Sep 1 '15 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ sure, go for it $\endgroup$ – rumguff Sep 1 '15 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ Great, done! Feel free to rollback it if you don't like it, but in that case please let me know ;) $\endgroup$ – o0'. Sep 1 '15 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ Good edit - but I made a slight modification to indicate that in time one would expect a successful shared world to have more than one arbiter of Canon. $\endgroup$ – rumguff Sep 1 '15 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ Other authors have done something similar; Jerry Pournelle with the Warworld series, and farther in the past Medea: Harlan's World set a stage for collective story telling. Other collaborative projects have been done as well. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Sep 2 '15 at 1:37
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If you build it, they will come.

Honestly, I don't think it's that hard to build a world that other people want to explore. All you really have to do is make one you want to explore, then write whatever stories you want to about it. Unless your universe consists of a single mind and only lasts long enough for it to think "Oh, not this again", or some similarly small setting, I don't think you'll ever be able to talk about everything that happens. However, there are a few things that I have noticed really helps things out:

1- Be vague. Like, really vague. If you can condense a two-page story into a one-sentence summary, you've probably given someone enough room to write an entire novel, or more. Just look at the line "You fought in the Clone Wars?" from Star Wars: to my knowledge, it inspired at least two movies, two animated series, at least four video games, and I'm sure countless books. And that's not even counting all the fan theories that must have been flying around before the prequels came out. Many of the fanfiction I write works well here, where there are gaps in the story begging to be filled. This goes hand-in-hand with my second point,

2- Overshare. The Clone Wars had no importance to the plot of that first Star Wars movie; they were over, and because of rule #1 no one knew what effects they'd had on the galaxy. But like I said, it was something to jump off from. This is pretty good advice for any world: don't use everything that you mention. If you use everything up, not only is your world going to appear small and lifeless, but there'll be no room for anything else to happen. This also works with my third point,

3- Leave loose ends. Do you know how aggravating it was when Halo canon stated that SPARTAN-IIs only wore powered armor the last year of the war? And how equally aggravating that the author who introduced the SPARTAN-IIIs also killed all of them off? Both of these facts were stretched to their breaking points in other stories, because everybody wanted to use the cool stuff. Thus, you should avoid wherever possible the bookends of time on your most interesting elements. If there is a cool war, either don't describe how it started/ended, or give it a good century or two in between so people can write stories about its battles. If there is a great weapon/machine, make sure your heroes don't have the only one (or if they do, make sure there are equally cool knockoffs available). Many stories deal with the beginning or end of something, but you should avoid whenever possible doing both.

4- Now, this one is more of a personal belief, and that is don't worry about it. The last thing you want to do is compromise the heart and soul of your work of art by trying to give other people a way to tack onto it. Stories should feel to their creator as if they already exist (see Leaf by Niggle); if you're not exploring this world as much as your readers, and are simply cobbling it together as a means to an end, it's going to show, and it's not going to be good. If you create a great story in a world that you love for itself, rather than for its capabilities, then other people are probably going to love it too. After that, if there are more stories to tell, they should come naturally.

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Do the parts other people don't.

If you've read a lot, you'll notice that there are certain things that often get missed out:

  • religion
  • global politics (single countries are often worked out, but global interactions are often missed)
  • ancient history (again, recent gets done; way back often doesn't - but ancient stuff influences the present, so do it)

You should make sure these bits get done; that adds attraction to your worlds because people can write like they always have without those bits, in the knowledge that they're still in there.

Do broad scope, not specifics.

This has been covered in other answers. Your "characters" are entities not individuals - and big entities at that. Design governments and their attitudes, but don't design the people in them; design countries, define borders, but don't design how they're guarded or the migration rate.

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The future of your world is dictated by its past so by designing the world's past, you can set it up to a specific set of plausible futures. If the design of the world is so restrictive that it can only have one possible future then not very many people are going to use it. But, it sounds like your world is broad enough to provide many niches of storytelling for other authors to fill in.

As long as there are plenty of niches to fill in the world, there shouldn't be any problems with making it more share-able.

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Make it shareable by posting the underlying ideas and stories, basically make your world open-source. There is a strong culture of this kind of sharing in the Open Source Movement. Programmers write code then share it under a particular license. Which license they choose determines how others may use their code and obligations placed on those users if they make modifications.

Sharing the ideas, maps, and narrative of a world is easy. Just post a zip file somewhere containing all your notes. If you decide to use the open source model for sharing your world, then you get to choose a license (of which there are many). Here's a couple options for licenses:

GPL-2 - The Genergal Public License requires anyone who uses the code/world to contribute changes in the code/world back to the community. There is no such thing as a private world under the GPL. This requirement fosters considerable collaboration on a project. (The Linux kernel is under GPL-2 as are many other projects.) The GPL also requires that any derived works also be licensed under the GPL.

MIT License - Unlike the GPL, the MIT license clearly indicates that a user can do whatever they want with the world/code. They can sell it, make changes to it, basically whatever they want without regards to the authors intent or will.

Creative Commons - The GPL and MIT licenses are specific to source code while the Creative Commons can be applied to a much broader range of creative works. Withing CC, there are six different licenses that can be chosen with this helpful picker. Which license you choose will determine how the community around your world will operate. While you may not need to explicitly state a license, the basic idea of stating how you intend the world to be used still applies.

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  • $\begingroup$ I had planned on doing this, but my question isn't so much about the process of sharing as it is about creating the world. $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Sep 1 '15 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ Oh :) That's a different answer then. $\endgroup$ – Green Sep 1 '15 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ Creative Commons licenses may be more appropriate for works of literature and art. The GPL and MIT Licenses were designed for software code related content so may or many not be as applicable. The CC ones do not limit the originator to using just that license so you could for instance use a "non-commercial" CC license but include a note that you would be willing to freely license any derivative works (stories, maps, etc.) that you feel fit with the cannon. $\endgroup$ – TafT Sep 1 '15 at 16:31
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Ensure that the restrictions are part of the attraction of the shared world, in other words that they are (or are bound up with) its USP.

So for example if you consider the world of The Matrix, and take away the restriction that humans are held captive by machines and therefore really can't win even when they think they escape, then you've taken away any point of using the setting of The Matrix. So the world is shareable by those with an interest in sharing it, because the restrictions are inherent to the setting. Anyone who would want to break the restriction, by writing a story in which the humans win once and for all, is rather missing the point since their story represents the permanent destruction of the whole setting.

As you've realised, you can't/shouldn't create a shared world and then say "actually, this kingdom within the world is off-limits because I have plans for it, and I don't want you messing up my stuff". If you do that, then other people's work in the world becomes fan-fic because it's secondary to your needs. Which is not to say there's necessarily anything wrong with other people writing non-canonical work in your world, it's just not the same thing as a shared world.

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One thing I have found crucial with such shared content is to have degrees of flexibility. Clearly you need a core that is well understood and doesn't change often, and flexible layers for others to work. However, what we often forget is the grey area of "almost canon" products that shape the way other people write their works, but are not "blessed."

This process ensures that everything can flex, so we don't get any crumple-zone style car crashes when people disagree. It gives everyone time not only to look at the details being brought into canon, but to actually play with them for a bit before hand, to see how it works.

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