WB101 Part 2: Spiral Notebooks and You

Category: World Building 101
Created on Thursday, 03 September 2009 Written by Steve

Whenever I start working on a new project, be it a redesign of the Hex web page or a new game book, I start with a spiral notebook. When the big box stores have their back to school sales every year, I buy a big stack of them for 17 cents or so each. While a lot of people may prefer computers for this sort of thing, I prefer the spiral notebook because it’s easy to use and extremely portable. I keep one in my car at all times, plus one in my gaming bag and one beside the bed (for those ideas that hit me as I’m drifting off to sleep).

I could probably use a laptop for this kind of thing, but laptops are heavier than a notebook and require booting up. I can jot down ideas in a notebook while sitting at a traffic light. This immediacy means that fewer ideas evaporate before they get recorded. Also, when you realize that something just isn’t working, it’s very satisfying to rip out the page, wad it up, and hurl it across the room. The noise and physicality just aren’t there when you delete a file. Besides, I don’t have a laptop.

Since I’ve spent two paragraphs describing how spiral notebooks are the best thing since horse-head bookends, you’re probably wondering what the hell I do with them. It’s pretty simple: I just write down ideas, starting with all the stuff that stuck together to send me down the path of world design in the first place. For a few weeks, I just go about my business, taking notes as ideas hit, transferring the stuff from “traveling” notebooks in the car and such to the main project notebook whenever appropriate. After a while I end up with several pages of random, stream of consciousness notes that might or might not be comprehensible, even to me. Here’s a sample of some notes from my initial brainstorming:

  • Zombie Disease
  • Decadent Empire
  • Quest Magic
  • Pictish Vikings
  • Caste-based Religion
  • Duels/Champions
  • “Barge City”
  • Pirates!

Hopefully, these random thoughts will begin to clump together in meaningful ways. When this starts to happen, it’s time to take the next step: a second spiral notebook! I read through my initial notes and start a page for each major group of ideas. I then transfer the appropriate notes to these pages, crossing them out in the original. When this is done, I’ve probably got a few leftover ideas. These go to a fresh page of the original notebook (since the original pages are all ugly from crossing out and scribbling). This may sound like a lot of writing, but it has its advantages. Copying notes by hand requires more attention to detail than just doing a cut and paste, so you’re more aware of the ideas you’re working with. Also, sometimes the physical act of writing a word can inspire ideas—you recognize a linguistic root that you’d missed before or remember some story or movie, and new ideas start flowing.

At the end of this process, I’ve got two notebooks for the project—a brainstorming notebook full of random ideas and an organizational notebook with ideas grouped together. As more ideas strike, I add them to the appropriate book—if it fits with an existing idea group, it goes to the organizational notebook. Otherwise, it goes to the brainstorming notebook.  Here’s a sample page from the organizational notebook. The footnotes aren’t in the actual notebook. I just added them in to clarify what the hell I’m thinking.

The Empire

  • Decadent
  • Aztec style cities (no walls, roach motel)*
  • Imperial Navy (elite marine-type force who act as guards/MPs)
  • Hanging prison cages at crossroads (see Willow**)
  • God King?
  • Lions, Elephants, and other exotic war animals
  • Religion restricted by social class/caste
  • Slave Soldiers (Mamluks?***)
  • Voodoo style religion among slaves
  • Large ongoing project (great wall, temple, tomb, etc.)
  • Geisha/**** style group (influential in politics)
  • Lots of political/court intrigue
  • Elaborate Tombs
  • Cavalry very important (Elite cavalry group)
  • Byzantine Poetry
  • Nomads as 2nd class citizens
  • Random Names: The Red City, The Devil’s Road, Mordecai the Foul
As you can see, these notes are very vague, but they give me a general feel for the culture of the as-yet-unnamed empire. For this particular project, all the ideas in my organizational notebook are based around specific cultures in the game world, but I could easily have organized them into groups for other game world elements (magic, technology, monsters, etc). At this point, I’ve got five general culture groups with varying degrees of details. Next month, we’ll start to figure out some basics about the world they inhabit.

*Basically, I read somewhere that the Aztec cities were set up so that attacking armies would get broken up and confused, which defenders would take advantage of—kind of a Tucker’s Kobold effect. Thus the “roach motel” analogy.

**The movie, not Alyson Hannigan—I already stare at her enough.

***I think this is the word for the real-world ones, but it might be thinking of Al-Qadim, which may or may not use the actual real-world term. Assuming I’m remembering the word correctly, it should Google better than “slave soldier” if I need to do some reading. 

****Originally a word that may or may not be a geisha-style group from a science fiction show. I left it out here to avoid being called a fuckwit.




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WB101 Part 2: Spiral Notebooks and You.
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