OngoingWorlds blog

News & articles about play-by-post games, for roleplayers & writers


Way With Worlds: Finding Inspiration

This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David

A busy space city

We’ve all had those moments where we’re just not inspired to build our world – or in writing in general. Other times we’re inspired but it’s actually not coming together, which is somehow worse. I imagine many a writer feels they exist inside a permanent form of writer’s block from which they escape only momentarily until their lack of creative forces drag them back to their prison.

With “World Blockage” it’s exceptionally daunting because worldbuilding is a complex process. A single idea or clever exercise may not spawn new continents or languages. An hour of effort may yield little results because the parts just won’t come together. It’s just as maddening as writer’s block, and you need something to jumpstart it.

You need inspiration – inspiration to build worlds.

Worldbuilding inspiration actually has two components that, if all goes well, you can find at the same time in the sources below:

  1. It stimulates your imagination about your world.
  2. It does so in a way that inspires the complex structures of a setting to come forth in your mind.

Or in short, good worldbuilding inspiration makes you imagine and build at the same time. We all know that a great idea can go nowhere, or the urge to just make something can have nothing to work with.

Over the years – decades – really – I’ve seen many sources of inspiration that can help world builders. Here are ones I’ve found have stood the test of time.

(And those who remember the original column may realize may of my past suggestions have changed. I’ve tried to make this one less time-bound)


Documentaries are the Holy Grails of world-building inspiration, and they’re everywhere. Bargain DVDs in stories, streaming online, uploaded to websites, available cheaply or as part of collector’s sets, extras on DVDs.

Think of all of the documentaries you can find: weapons and the military, strange events, food, and just about anything else. If you want a documentary on the value of honey, famous roads, or obscure artists, it’s probably out there and available to you. This means you can find something that will dump a great deal of information on you, and in that you can find inspiration.

Of course it’s possible you don’t know what you want. Go surfing documentaries on the internet, grab some cheap ons in stores, borrow ones, or see what’s on television. Watch whatever gets your attention to see if it gets you inspired.

Documentaries are helpful in both the inspiration they provide but also as good ones present “the big picture” of how things happen or why they work. They can be lessons in coherence and concepts as well as just plain giving you ideas. You may even find yourself aware of entire chunks of history or science you can use in your world.

In fact, random documentary watching can surprise you as you get inspired unexpectedly – or store ideas that suddenly pop up in your head weeks or months later.

Best of all, as you watch these? You’re learning. Beyond getting creative, you’re getting in form.

As a note I’m also fond of documentaries as you can pretty much play them in the background/headset/bathtub, what have you. It lets you lightly surf inspiration.

Nonfiction Books

Just as there’s a wealth of documentaries, there’s a wealth of books on any subject you could want. Be it the history of food or strange currencies, someone’s probably written a book on it (and if it’s really obscure, would probably appreciate the sale). It’s not hard to dig up something, something probably quite good, that will inspire you on specific subjects.

I’d also note that self-publishing and small press publishing can also provide interesting personal and historical books, so don’t just look at big names and big sellers. THere’s more intimate, more radical, more personal, and less watered down-books out there to make you think. Don’t ignore them.


Books or video or audio, travelogues are fantastic inspiration for worldbuilders. I think Rick Steves’ was one of my inspirations in writing as he brought cities alive in his shows.

Travelogues, in their many forms, are good inspiration because they’re about someone’s personal contact with part of the world. It’s not just cold facts or timelines or even just historical facts – they’re about someone’s encounter with things from a personal point of view. The water is cold to someone, the prices are high to someone, the scenery is beautiful to someone.

Travelogues are exceptionally inspiring for bringing a personal touch to your world and worldbuilding. They may also be good for understanding how characters can be lenses, viewpoints, on the world as I mentioned earlier.

Used And Discounted Merchandise

A used bookstore, the discount rack, pre-used videos, all of these are great sources of inspiration. Just walk into a used bookstore or browse the marked-down merchandise at a video/electronics store and you can see wonder you never knew you wanted (and are surprised people parted with).

So you can buy a book on a subject you’d never thought of, or grab a video you never knew existed. You can find old merchandise long discontinued or books that were printed in great quantities, but as they didn’t sell, you never heard of them. There’s inspiration a plenty to be had – especially in the cases of the above-mentioned documentaries, travelogues, and books.

You don’t even have to buy something. Just seeing all the different books, the videos, everything out there, these half-random collections, can inspire you.


Used book stores and discount racks are rarely that cultivated, whereas Libraries offer some order, quality control, and a quiet environment. And things are free.

A good library – especially a big university library – is a ell-organized and peaceful source of inspiration. You’ve got orderly racks of books, plenty of magazines, and if it’s big enough, enough to get inspired just walking around. Plus, as noted, free.

Big libraries and academic libraries may even have obscure and rare books you can get access to. Theres a possibility of all sorts of inspiration there – I had fun finding some pretty crazy stuff back at my alma mater.

A spaceship

Internet Surfing

You’ve probably used it today. Yes, I’m sure you’ve surfed when bored, but have you used the net to improve your writing and get inspired?

Go and start surfing:

  • Do searches on cultural issues you want to study.
  • Bookmark pages with cultural, historical, religious, technical, etc. references you can use to get references.
  • Surf randomly around really unusual websites and just see what comes to mind.
  • You have the world at your fingertips, get random.

The internet can give you all sorts of randomness, resources – and of course documentaries, documentation, and travelogues like the above. There’s even tools for inspiration (allow me to humbly plug Seventh Sanctum).

Speeches And Events

If you’re in any kind of large city you can find speeches and presentations on all sorts of subjects at museums, colleges, and more. If you want to learn about something or just maybe are curious, you can find it. You may even find it online.

Much like good books and documentaries, attending these is great for inspiration. Sure the person next to you wants to hear about old cars while you want to get ideas for a steampunk 50′s universe, but it’s all good.

Some presentations and events let you meet the presenter and ask questions. THat’s always a bonus to flesh out your worldbuilding ideas.

Alway attend with a notebook and write down ideas as they come to you.

In Closing

Inspiration is everywhere for your worldbuilding, just go and find it. Were surrounded by sources of inspiration. We just have to use them.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers and community at, publishes books on career and culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at

All artwork by Jacob Charles Dietz