People (maybe even you) are running obstacles very often when it comes to worldbuilding. The internet is full of worldbuilding question lists to help it: factions, people, magic, tech and so on.

There are several different question sheets, for different purposes, and be honest: with different quality. Some of these sheets involve questions even about the favorite color of the clothing of the character's pet, or the exact amount of salt in the celebrational dinner of a city in a country.

On Reddit (/r/worldbuilding), I've noticed that people tend to skip certain questions, either absolutely, or for a small amount of time.

I'd like to avoid it and concentrate only on the matter. Can you provide key questions that usually cannot be skipped?

I think of ones like:

  • character: name, gender, age, race, skin color, hair color, place of born...

  • factions: name, form of government, age, major cultural traits, current wars, wealth, state religion...

  • magic: basic means of usage, limits, time to learn, time to master, what prevents from destroying the world with it...

These are very loose examples, to get the idea.

Also, I know this question is possibly too broad, so I'm asking only about the most fundamental things, that are equally important in a D&D game and in a novel - if there's any such question. If there isn't, then only one purpose is enough.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If the question includes r fantastical creatures you need to tell people what those creatures are like, there is no such thing as a standard dragon. So telling us what your dragons are like in a good idea, especially if you as questions concerning them. Basically the same rule as for your readers: if your world contains something our world does not, you have to get people up to speed on how those things function in a day to day kind of way. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 27 '16 at 5:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I tend to think of science fiction roleplaying games. Traveller, stuff like that. Technology is very important, because it influences what adventures you can have, and which ones can be solved instantly. (Just think of the way mobile phones impacted plots in the real world. People can be reached unless something is broken, so if they can't be reached something is broken.) $\endgroup$ – o.m. Nov 27 '16 at 7:59
  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid that I don't exactly understand what you’re asking. are you asking what sort of questions are most likely to be answered? $\endgroup$ – Mark Gardner Nov 27 '16 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ Move this to Meta? $\endgroup$ – MichaelK Nov 27 '16 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKarnerfors actually, I was wondering, but after seeing what kind of questions others ask there, I thought it rather fits here. $\endgroup$ – Zoltán Schmidt Nov 27 '16 at 15:36

I think that the direct answer to this question varies greatly from story to story. If you're writing a story of medieval political intrigue, the governing styles and religions are utterly indispensable. However, if you're writing a story about two lovers destined to meet, those may be completely unimportant. Instead daily life of the individuals may matter.

One approach I would use to build your own answer to this question is to pick one "hard edged" question to answer and one "soft" question to answer. Your hard question would be the one which creates the sharp defining edges of your story. For the story of political intrigue, the exact governmental structure might be your "hard edged" question. It lets you know what can and cannot be done in your world, providing bounds the reader can rely on.

The "soft" question is the one you pick to define the more broad brush-strokes that paint a picture of your world. These questions rarely lead to concrete use cases. Instead they tend to vaguely shape the path forward. That same story of political intrigue might have its "soft" side formulated around religion. Perhaps the story might be set in a time where the freedom of women is increasing due to a religious pressure.

Having both a soft and a hard question lends dynamic range to the world. You need the soft questions because, frankly, it's insanely time consuming to pin down every aspect of the world with crisp clean edges. You need the hard questions because readers want to see life in your story, and it's hard to see life when everything is muted and soft. Your main character cannot challenge the slow movements of the soft religious overtones, but they may seek to undermine the existing hegemony of a particular royal family.


This answer focuses on fiction. The most critical worldbuilding questions for fiction are threefold.

The broadest questions are about the overall architecture of the world itself. If it's set in a secondary creation type of world as found in most High Fantasy trilogies, this provides a geographical and historical context and what the anthropologists call 'cosmological' factors like the nature of magic, whether the gods are real, and the biology and ecology of dragons. These questions form the shape of its universe.

The most close-up questions are about the characters and the story that affects them. Who are these characters? What is their role in this world? What are their goals? How are their goals in direct conflict with the problems the story will throw at them?

Between the broadest and the most close-up levels is the intermediate set of questions. They are the connective tissue of a story, drawing together the characters and their world as a whole. These questions focus on the coherence of the world and its relationship to the story as its setting.

Is the advertising executive who found himself in Lower Earth really the stepbrother of the newly risen Dark Lord? Why do giant alien cyborg spiders want to capture a thermostellar physicist and steal research into neutrino refraction?

This concentrates on the problems they face and have to deal with in resolving their story. They show how the characters can and must handle their problems. What are their limitations. What complications must inevitably arise in the course of the story. The answers to these questions shape the storyline.

In the narrowest sense, in fiction the world exists to drive the story, to give substance the reality of its characters, the events they encounter, and give a sense there is more to this place where the story happens than a few scenery flats. That there can be a world beyond the confines of a story, with its own sense of reality, where more can happen, and that effort and imagination has been expended to give its own distinct poetry.


When world building I find the most valuable questions to all be about the forces driving everything that happens.

What is the economy of your civilizations? What do your people eat? How do they get energy, tools, clothing, housing, and transportation? Where does their waste go? Worlds feel really contrived and false when a city has no way to feed itself or when a village exists in some dramatic location for no practical reason.

If there are rulers, what governs the flow of power in your world? How does one become and stay a ruler? What prevents someone else from usurping the ruler?

If you are inventing a species of animal, what does it eat? How does it reproduce? Bad world building results in predators who roar while hunting and who outnumber their prey.


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.