April 15, 2024

Asking The Right Questions (Worldbuilding By Bibliomancy)

This is an intuitive method of building a setting based off asking questions and interpolating answers with the help of literature. First, something I suspect many of us suffer from - the need to be utterly unique. I often find myself being overly precious in the planning phase when making a setting, be it a smaller dungeon or a wider world. I fear that if I were to carry out the thoughts that come to my head on first instinct they would be trite garbage not worth the labor of execution.

When I sit here and type it out, it all becomes quite silly. Ideas are cheap, especially if you have nothing to show for it because you spent all your time mulling over new, better ideas. But as children of a culture that puts so much weight on the value of ideas the fear still persists and can be paralyzing. As a person building a world, this paralysis becomes worse when you can visualize what may be the starts of a good idea but cannot justify it in a way that has a level of verisimilitude or connection to other things within the world. There is no greater disappointment than coming up with something you think would be iconic, having no clue how to slot it into the setting, and then casting it aside. There's the initial rush and passion of an idea, but then the logistics anxiety sets in on if it will work or be worth it.

Often I've combated this feeling by worldbuilding with friends with systems like The Quiet Year and Microscope. The collaboration between multiple minds can really affirm that an idea stands on solid ground, and the prompting of one person may take the world in a direction that reinvigorates your interest in the world and makes you feel that everybody at the table is a genius. Of course, this comes with three primary disadvantages:

  • You need friends. I am lucky enough to have them, but all of us are students with very little time to spend.
  • These systems have rules that every player must understand. You can only really depend on yourself to arrive knowing the rules and what you want to get out of this experience.
  • It is often done in one session. It is quite hard to pick up where you left off in a worldbuilding game. When I worldbuild it tends to come in inspired sprints, it's not like I can call up my friends to play Microscope at 1 AM. The ability to worldbuild with prompting while on a bus or in insomnia-riddled fits is incredibly valuable but hard to achieve.

The question remains, how do we handle this irrational but still very influential feeling of idea paralysis?

Art by Alariko
Despite being too busy to worldbuild with friends, I've been suffering from this feeling less and less. A month ago I got my issue of KNOCK #4 (check it out, I'm in it) and read a post by Jens Turesson at The Acorn Afloat that changed the way I approach building settings almost entirely. It's an older post, but I did the digging for you and you can find it here. I will sum it up in a simple and generalized manner:

  1. Start with what elements you want in the setting. Jens does this in the form of a map, but you can describe it as well. Statues of a strange God looming over the horizon, a glowing lake, spider-dogs, etc. Go crazy, go wild.
    Visual thinkers will shine here. For those who are less attuned to visualizing, come up with a main element (a lake, for instance) and then place something that doesn't belong within that element (it's glowing, it's made of blood, there's a cabin in the middle of it, etc.)
  2. Pick an element of the world and ask yourself, "Why is X there?/Why is X this way?"
  3. Take a book and flip to a random page, read the first sentence that catches your eye.
  4. Use the sentence as a prompt for an answer.
  5. Repeat until satisfied.

This method is brilliant for multiple reasons. Mostly, you can focus far more easily on establishing iconic encounters and elements without having to immediately worry about how these fit into the world. Also, through asking enough why's you can easily establish more ideas that aren't necessarily thematically related to the idea that made you start this method of worldbuilding in the first place but are still related diegetically.

Art by Alariko
This being said, rules as written the method can produce underwhelming results sometimes because you are trapped into asking "why". Sometimes "why" is not the question. The full potential of an idea can more easily be tapped by knowing the right questions to ask. So, I have changed the process with some notes that have worked in my time using this:

  1. Start with what elements you want in the setting.
    Be sure to arrange elements with contrast in mind to give yourself enough questions to ask about these elements (i.e. "Why is this lake made of blood" is a far more easy question to answer (and therefore has less potential as an idea) if the lake is located in Hell or wherever else you may reasonably find a lake of blood)
  2. Pick an element and ask yourself one of the following:
    • Why, if you're looking for a reason or motive behind why an element is there or the way it is.
    • How, if you're looking for the logistics behind an element or what means it may have.
    • Who, if you're looking to add an NPC related to the element.
    • What, if you're looking to add another element related to this current element.
    • When, if you're looking to mention the past or a prophesied future, and add that time as a new element (this question is not often used)
    • Where, if a part of the element is present somewhere other than here, and add that place as a new element (also rarely used)
  3. Take a book and flip to a random page, read the first sentence that catches your eye.
  4. Use the sentence as a prompt for the answer. One to two sentences is often a good length. Do not be afraid of reaching or using an answer that you feel is unrelated to the prompt. This is not a standard to hold your world to, simply a method to help you build a world in an intuitive way.
  5. Note down any new elements established through this line of questioning. These will come in handy to remind you of where you left off and further possible elements to develop.
  6. Repeat on new elements or this element until satisfied. I find that three questions asked about one element is often enough to define it pretty well before moving onto an element related to it - but play to your taste.

And, some design notes: 

  • Avoid asking Do/Does/Are/Is questions. These can often be answered with a simple yes or no. They are still important to define, but a coin is the correct tool for that, not a book. Yes is typically the correct answer.
  • Books don't need to be the only media used in this exercise. Song lyrics work as well as long as your taste isn't limited to ambience. For books, I recommend poetry, but I've had a friend who got good use out of a coding textbook as well - so anything will do. If you do use a book, the best ones for this are those not heavy in short bursts of dialogue.
  • Limiting yourself to one book or similar songs can help in getting a more consistent tone of answers if that is what you seek. 
  • This method can also be tried on defining NPCs! This does not need to just be reserved for spaces and settings. Ask questions on why they wear certain clothes or how they got their weird gear.
  • This does not completely replace the usefulness of a friend's help. I frequently vent ideas to Archon of Archon's Court, who aside from being an excellent writer is lovely for listening to my ramblings. This is a good method for still maintaining the surprise of your world to your friends, but I think any GM would go insane if they couldn't talk about what they were working on to somebody.
Art by Alariko

And finally, an example with a few more notes: 


  • Why did someone build this cabin here?
    • "Like winged stars the fire-flies flash and glance, / Pale in the open moonshine, but each one..." - Letter to Maria Gisborne, Percy Bysshe Shelley
      • This cabin was built to harvest firefly-liquor, also known as Sunshine. The low trees and fertile insect-breeding grounds make this a good place to collect the mass amount of fireflies needed for this.
  • What caused the cabin's destruction?
    • "Close by the waterfall, the column slants, / And feels its ceaseless breeze. But what is this?" - The Picture, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
      • A water elemental ruined the shack.
        Hm, a fine start. Perhaps it's a liquor elemental! Yeah, that's fun, it's a liquor elemental. Never be afraid to reach if another answer that comes from this questioning seems more fun or thematically appropriate!
        A barrel of firefly-liquor became an elemental and trashed the place, causing its previous inhabitants to flee.
  • Who lived here before the cabin's destruction?
    • "Titan! to whose immortal eyes / The sufferings of mortality," - Prometheus, Lord Byron
      • A 12 foot tall immortal man, with the red puffy face of an alcoholic - locals report his name was Noryb.
        If you're out of ideas for NPC names, use the author's one scrambled or backwards!
  • Where does the dried river start?
    • "Can Ariel ever find his own. / From Prospero's enchanted cell, [...]" - With a Guitar, to Jane, Percy Bysshe Shelley
      • An abandoned prison.
        Another fine start, but with the prompt "enchanted" and the information we have, we can easily attach this to more context. You may start to see how the order in which you ask certain questions can play out in forming a location!
         An abandoned prison for immortals, meant to keep them from committing crimes out of disdain for mortal men.
  • How did Noryb the Immortal defend himself from the nearby prison?
    • "But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet / Wherewith the seasonable month endows." - Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats
      • The shadows within the cabin's confines are magical. If you slip into one, you turn invisible - which allowed Noryb to hide from prison patrols and scare off intruders.
        I could have easily said that Noryb is able to turn invisible in shadows, but tying this effect to the location instead of just one NPC makes it more interesting and allows you to use it as a springboard for more questions.
  • When did the cabin become abandoned?
    • "Ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Tossing their heads in sprightly dance." - I wandered Lonely as a Cloud, William Wordsworth
      • During the Ousting Of The Immortals, when peasants from hamlets all round came to burn anybody accused of Immortal Practices.
        Giving anything a proper name is an easy way to establish it as a new element you can explore later!

Look at that - just by asking a few questions we have got a place with a fun background and connection to the world around it while still having more elements to prod at if we so desire! I could easily see this all as a hexcrawl or something similar. Let's list those elements established in this line of questioning so we may prod at them later if we ever want to pick this back up:

  • The Dried River
  • Firefly-liquor (Known as Sunshine)
  • The Sunshine Elemental
  • Noryb the Immortal
  • Abandoned Immortal Prison
  • Magical Shadows
  • Ousting Of The Immortals
  • Nearby Hamlets
  • Immortal Practices

For the sake of example I relied pretty heavily on using every different type of question and using the books quite often. Typically I'd do around 3 questions before feeling satisfied instead of 6, and use duplicate questions if need be (I really wanted to ask Why did the elemental destroy the cabin but I restrained myself). I'm also completely fine with leaving some questions unanswered - not everything needs to be detailed out.

But remember that your instincts are not as bad as you think they are. If you are confident you know the answer to a question, you don't need a book to tell you otherwise. The goal of this procedure is to reinvigorate your surprise and wonder in creating a setting. To get you more excited and confident in your own ideas because now they are shared between you and an author of the past. To encourage some healthy spontaneity and make you take guided steps toward making the damn thing!


  1. I really like your improvements to my (rather silly) idea, very cool!

    I tried a bigger experiment with this method some year ago, trying to flesh out a bigger adventure using only Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol". If you don't mind reading a lot of nonsense and unfocused thoughts, you can follow the complete process under this label on the blog: https://acornafloat.blogspot.com/search/label/burrow%20of%20the%20ratman

    (And now I have a new blog to follow!)

    1. Your (rather silly) idea has brought me a serious amount of joy and worldbuilding progress and I can't thank you enough for that. I'm happy that you have more examples of the process, it's a delight to see these things come to fruition.

  2. I like this idea a lot, and I offer a possible alternative. I always have the radio on for some background noise when I'm working on RPG stuff. Instead of a random passage from a book, try the immediate next one or two lyrics you hear to answer some of those 5 W's questions. One caveat -- if you listen to a lot of Swedish death metal, all your content is going to end up really dark and bloody. Mix it up a little. :)


Asking The Right Questions (Worldbuilding By Bibliomancy)

This is an intuitive method of building a setting based off asking questions and interpolating answers with the help of literature. First, s...