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"Kitchen Sink" Worldbuilding


When I first tried to write fantasy, I did something that I now call Kitchen Sink Worldbuilding. Basically, if I read a story with some magical effect or fantastical element, I felt obliged to somehow fit it in my world. The thing I remember most from this setting was the, ahem, """"magic system.""""

I started out with just wizards. Classic, fireball-throwing wizards who obtained their power through an inborn gift. However, as I "developed" this crude system further, I realized that there were some magical effects that I had precluded my wizards from causing. So, I introduced the idea of sorcerers, who dealt with enchanting magical items and weaving fate and destiny.

But then I realized that I still hadn't covered everything, so I introduced two new classes of magic, and I don't even remember what they were called, but they dealt with magical enhancement of physical strength and illusion.

However, not even that covered everything, so I came up with this idea of this "cosmic power web," (retrospective name) where the four classes I'd come up formed the main nodes, but there also could exist any number of fractally specific powers anywhere in between. Now if I wanted some magical effect, I could just say that someone was randomly born with a rare, oddly specific set of powers from some obscure part of the power web.

Needless to say, the setting was a hot mess of hodgepodge elements hastily duct taped together to resemble a world. I was more concerned with not limiting my options as an author when I actually got around to writing it than telling a good story. I wanted to be able to write anything I wanted with not limitations, which is a fancy way of saying that I wanted an excuse to magically deus ex machina my characters out of whatever corner I wrote them into. Pretty much the only thing I didn't have were the traditional fantasy races, since I thought they were cliche.

Eventually I realized the abomination that I had created, so I scrapped the setting and salvaged what few good tidbits I could find for my next attempt at a story, which I am working on to this day.

I don't know where I got the idea that I needed to have everything. I think I was inspired in part by Harry Potter and, indirectly, by Dungeons and Dragons. Harry Potter felt like a story where anything could happen. Were there dragons? Of course there were dragons! Was there a spell to do X, Y, and Z? Certainly, if the characters put in the effort to learn it. Of course, I didn't realize the care that Rowling had taken to make a setting like that, so when I tried it fell flat on its face. And while I've never played Dungeons and Dragons, I've always been at least vaguely aware of it and how much freedom it allowed its players, so naturally I took what I knew about the game and applied it to my setting.

So, has anyone else done this? Am I the only person who started worldbuilding this way? I've seen some newer writers on here do this as well, but I may also just be projecting onto others a little bit.


Myth Weaver
I have stolen lots of ideas and concepts from published novels. For example, the 'Strand,' the massively elongated ribbon of land that is the primary 'continent' of my secondary world Aquas, is a steal from Kin Stanley Robinson's 'Short Sharp Shock' (albeit greatly twisted around and altered to suit my tales). Likewise, I spent long years puttering around with 'game magic systems,' borrowing elements from them to make something that suited my stories. Ultimately, I (mostly) discarded that approach.


Starting work by identifying all the elements you enjoy in other works and you think could be great to use yourself is certainly a very good start. But it's not worldbuilding. What needs to follow next is to take another look at the huge list and consider which items on it could serve which specific purposes in your work.
I think what really is the essence of a cliche is when an element gets copied from other works, but it doesn't serve either its original purpose or any new purpose. It's just there, because it was cool in other works.
In my own experience, the process of worldbuilding is mostly throwing things out that aren't really needed and serve no real function. Somewhere I once read the quote that perfection is not when there is nothing more that can be added, but when there is nothing more that could be removed. And I think for worldbuilding that is certainly the case.

There are plenty of people who praise various setting for their "achievement" of being huge and containing massive amounts of different things. But I think all the really great settings actually only have a small handful of core ideas that really define its shape and internal logic. Those are the things that good worldbuilding needs to focus on. More monsters, kingdoms, and magic spells don't add any quality by themselves.


New Member
One of my favorite story arcs and magic systems was written in the Myth novels by Robert Asprin. There are many dimensions or planets, each one carries different amounts of magic with it, running like streams of magic energy seen in the air and in the ground only by those able to manipulate it. If you are used to living in a dimension that has a lot of them, then you'll have trouble producing magic in a dimension that has very little, or no magical 'streams' in it. However, magical items can be crafted to store spells and magical energy, and even people without an innate ability to sense and manipulate magic can use these objects, often in the form of jewelry, and appear as strong as magicians to those who have no clue about such things. They were a seriously fun read, and the system was explored a little at a time across many books. You don't have to have it all figured out before you write or publish something with your system. Speak to its potential, what it CAN do, don't create a 'complete' magic system listing out all of its limitations as well, only introduce those if it's important to the story, this keeps your options open for what 'could' be.


I don't see such hodgepodgery as a problem at all, either in geopoesy as art or worldbuilding as hobby or as adjunct to writing.

Just look around you! Unless you live in a very remote, very isolated community, chances are good you work with, go to school with, go to church with, interact with a bewildering array of peoples from different cultures, speaking different languages, wearing different clothing, eating different foods, practicing different ethical codes and holding to different moral standards.

On the contrary, I'd say that a fantasy world that lacks hodgepodgery almost certainly isn't kitchen sinky enough! That would mean that in all likelihood, the discoverer or deviser of said world simply has not explored in sufficient detail. But pace auctoribus: just because a fictional world can and ought to be a bit of a hodgepodge, I can certainly see how throwing all of that into a story would create a muddled and incomprehensible narrative!

For the maker, it becomes a matter of where to put things. How to arrange all these elements around the world and among different peoples. For the writer, it becomes a matter of balance. What to showcase and what to leave in the shadows. What is relevant to the needs of a particular story and what is not.


I think most of us have done it before, but yes, eventually we have to recognize that some things either don’t work, are unnecessary or just too much.

In regards of magic, I adopted a sort of “if you imagine it, it will happen.” Train of thought. At least for one of my projects says that magic is a cobbling together of natural energies that exist in nature. Light from the sun, shadows, magma from deep within the planet, water, etc...

A literal example would be ice missiles... water energy frozen to cubes using air, then more air to fling them at high speed at your opponents...

The other possibility is using one aspect of a thing... the heat lava to build a fire, or the density of water to slow an enemy.
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Miles Lacey

I have been creating imaginary countries for a long time and at least one of them was so well done I had Arab investors wanting to invest in it because they thought it was real. I usually get ideas from history books, cartoons, movies (often those from the 1930s and 1940s), old comics and even travel guides for ideas rather than fantasy or similar types of novels. My preference is for stories set in a time period that is post-World War One in terms of technology, society and so forth so that is the world building I stick to.

I love pinching ideas from all over the place, throwing them together and see what comes up. However, whatever I create has to fit in with a few basic premises that I lay down before I embark upon any world building project. In my current WIP these are:

1. The dominant sexual orientation is bisexuality so the institutions, morals and society must be consistent with a bisexual world.
2. The environment in which the story is set in is tropical so the people, food, cultures and so forth must be consistent with those that would exist in such an environment.
3. The technology is that of the 1930s but with some liberties taken so that certain inventions are more commonplace than they were in the real 1930s or vice versa.
4. The society is multi-cultural but some regions would give South Africa's apartheid system a run for its money in terms of nastiness while others are so integrated that you can't walk down a street without meeting friends, colleagues and even family members from a wide diversity of cultures, races etc.
5. The magic system must have both positive and negative aspects to it for those who are gifted with it.

Well... that's my ramblings on the subject anyway.

D. Gray Warrior

My first fantasy world was your standard, generic pseudo-medieval European world, with all of the main races (humans, elves, orcs, dwarves, halfings). I did add stuff I liked from videogames that I played at the time like RuneScape and Fire Emblem. Some of the places in the world were based on locations from RuneScape, and one of the characters was based on my character in the game. There was a wilderness area that served as an afterlife for everyone on the continent.

The magic system was ripped from Fire Emblem, as it was only used in combat. Also, one of the characters in the party of adventurers was based on one of the characters in the game as well, and even looked like him and had the same name. The game also has a hierarchy of metals: iron is the weakest, steel is better, and silver is the strongest. The silver never made sense to me, so I used a similar hierarchy, but with bronze, iron, and steel, in that order. Despite being Medieval, weapons and armor made from bronze or iron were still fairly common, even in countries that had steel.

I also had classes in my world for no apparent reason, likely due to influences from Fire Emblem and Dungeons & Dragons.

While most of the countries were pseudo-European, I had some countries based on the Middle East, Africa, Feudal Japan, etc.

The religion was pretty simple. The pantheon consisted of solely three gods. One was the generic good god concerned with justice, there was a god of war and a goddess that was pretty much of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Oh, and they always wore golden, glittering clothes.

The main character had a holy sword that more or less had a mind of its own (it would do the fighting for him if he held it in his hands and simply believed that it would act on its own.) It was made of bronze, despite the technology level of the world being Medieval, thus steel weapons and armor being widespread.

There were a couple of cliches I avoided like the plague, though. The first one was that I did not want the main villain to be a dark lord or a sorcerer since I thought those were way too common as the main antagonists, so the bad guy in the series was a demigod who ruled over the afterlife realm and planned to conquer the rest of the continent. I don't recall his name, it was probably something like Hades or Omega or something. The protagonist's holy sword was the only thing that could permanently defeat him.

Another cliche I had an aversion to, were monarchies, since it seemed that every fantasy world had kings and queens, or at least the main country where the protagonists hail from. In my world, monarchies were the exception rather than the rule. Most countries were republics, democracies, theocracies or tribal confederations. The protagonist's country was ruled by an emperor and was, for all intents and purposes, really an absolute monarchy, but I kept denying it, thinking "it's not a monarchy because I said it isn't." It had all the trappings of one, but it avoided using terminology like "royal," "king", etc.

I even had some magitech in there, as part of the plot for the second book, where the mage version of a mad scientist creates magic powered robots and unleashes them upon unsuspecting countries, leading to a war that decimates the magitech robots and sorta justifying the Medieval Stasis since people would remember what happened the last time they went and tampered with magic and technology.


toujours gai, archie
I think I may have started in a similar fashion, Vaporo. At least, when I started on Altearth in a serious way, all sorts of magic were possible because I didn't work out any rules at all. In theory, in the back of my mind, I had it that every sort of supernatural event, every flavor of magic attested to in the Middle Ages could be real in Altearth. That also gave me freedom not to think much about it beyond the needs of an immediate story, so in that respect you and I began differently. I wanted to avoid a magic system for as long as I could.

You abandoned your project, looted it for what was useful, and have moved on. So I'm curious: do you feel that the initial project was time wasted? Well spent? Unavoidable learning process? Besides the looted bits, do you think the whole experience has helped you be a better writer?
I suspect many magic systems start this way. The world I write in started in response to LoTR and D&D, so it began in my head with tame LoTR magic before exploding into great gonzos of flashing fire and lights! Woohoo! Then I passed from my teenage years, heh heh. I now have a complex system that the characters and readers don’t really understand. And one of the funnest realizations in the creation of the system was that the stock, super simple “translate” spell simply could not work in my world. If you come across a scroll written in a dead language, you’re screwed, unless you can do one of two things: Travel through time to find a native speaker (Good luck!) or summon the spirit of a native speaker (Good luck!) This leads to libraries full of ancient books that may or not ever get translated, which in turn leads to great fun. Of course, people might figure them out with enough clues eventually, but... you never know.

It’s been as much fun exploring what the system doesn’t allow more so than all the crazy things it does allow.


Another cliche I had an aversion to, were monarchies, since it seemed that every fantasy world had kings and queens, or at least the main country where the protagonists hail from. In my world, monarchies were the exception rather than the rule. Most countries were republics, democracies, theocracies or tribal confederations. The protagonist's country was ruled by an emperor and was, for all intents and purposes, really an absolute monarchy, but I kept denying it, thinking "it's not a monarchy because I said it isn't." It had all the trappings of one, but it avoided using terminology like "royal," "king", etc.

That sounds so much like something I would do. I'd often think of something, be it an action a character takes or a world element, then later realize that something else would make far more sense. However, instead of changing it, I'd apply all kinds of narrative gymnastics so that I could keep it the way it was. (Oh, why did MC spend ten minutes charging his instant death spell to kill that mook over there when a summon lightning spell would have worked just as well. Uhhhhhhh... beeeecause this particular mook has anti-lightning shielding! Why does he have anti-lightning shielding? Uhhhhhhh...)

You abandoned your project, looted it for what was useful, and have moved on. So I'm curious: do you feel that the initial project was time wasted? Well spent? Unavoidable learning process? Besides the looted bits, do you think the whole experience has helped you be a better writer?

Do I think that the initial project time was wasted? Yes, sort of. Do I think that it was unavoidable? Also yes.

My philosophy is that every project, writing or otherwise, starts in an ideal "good" state. Therefore, I try to imagine what a "good" final result would look like, and then try to make that vision become reality. Any time that the project turns out less than good, it's a corruption of the project, a failure to make that "good" version real.

So, when a project fails to bear fruit, it's the ultimate corruption. The one thing I set out to do, write a story, was not achieved. Learning and gaining experience are just a consolation prize. The good version was possible. It existed somewhere, but I had so thoroughly corrupted the project that there was no point in continuing.

In this case, the critical failure occurred at the very conception of the project. I had no goal other than "write a fantasy story," so my vision of what a "good" version should look like was flawed. It was doomed from the start, I just didn't know it yet.

The most discouraging thing that I've ever heard as a writer is that after 150,000 words, I should take everything I've written and throw it out. After I heard that, all I could do was ask myself what the point of putting forth any effort was if it was just going to be thrown out? I wanted to write a good story, but the abstract concept of "experience" isn't progress towards that goal. It wasn't until I decided to ignored that advice that I could start writing again.

That's why I've always disliked school. As a kid, school always felt so empty to me. I was good at it, but I never really liked it and couldn't quite figure out why until I got my first job. Suddenly, the work I was doing had purpose. That purpose may have often been tiny, menial, and tedious, but it was still purpose. Suddenly, my work was meant something, even if that something was small.

The work done in school is pointless, only done for the sake of doing it. I understand that it's necessary, but I still wish that the greatest thing the first eighteen years of my life represented was something a bit more tangible than progress towards a degree.

If I could go back and give myself different advice, it would probably be that, no matter what, I should just try to write a good story. Even if I hate it in five years, I should still write it so that someday I can go back to edit it and make it better. Writing is an iterative process. Even if most of it turns out bad at first, something will turn out good. Something will be worth saving and improving on. And that's exactly what happened. The decision to scrap this story and start a new project wasn't made in a day. Really, it was a gradual process where my vision for what I wanted out of my writing became clearer and clearer until I basically writing an entirely different story. The decision to scrap most of my previous work and merge it into the new project was long coming.

But, that's life. Not everything works out. Nobody's perfect, and no project will ever be truly reach that ideal state. Nothing that can be done about it. Just do what you can to make this project good, then take what you learn and try to improve on it. Maybe someday I'll even go back and try to make something out of this steaming pile I've left behind. That good version still exists somewhere. It's just a matter of figuring out where and how.
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I suspect many magic systems start this way.
Not just magic systems, other pieces of worldbuilding probably do. My first world had all the races (except orcs, but it did have the totally-not-orc bugbears) and all the government types. The "kitchen sink language" is also considered a common rookie mistake in conlanging, where you try to put every feature you learn about into a language, though I avoided that one in favour of falling into the other common rookie mistake, the cipher for an existing language.