#WBW – Basic World Building Infrastructure Part 1: Trains, Planes and Automobiles

Hello world building buddies!

Welcome back to another installment of world building Wednesday!

This fortnight, I want to talk to you about something which can often get overlooked in the creation process. But it’s an area which I think is worth investigating because it can often provide a unique way to add flavour and realism to your settings!

Of course, I’m talking about infrastructure.

When we’re talking about infrastructure, we’re really talking about the nuts and bolts of a world or a city. Its transport, its sanitation, its utility management. Not exactly the most glamorous of topics in the real world, let alone a fictional one.

The thing is, infrastructure is important. Like every other part of your setting, it helps paint the picture of your world that the reader, or player, relates to. But even if you never even mention the basics of infrastructure in your story, understanding how it works helps you write better. So it bears at least a little consideration.

So, what sort of questions you should ask yourself when you’re designing an infrastructure for your world?

  • Food – How do people eat? What do they eat? How do they transport and store food?
  • Sanitation – How is waste handled and disposed of? Not just the contents of chamber pots or sanitary airlocks, food and animal waste, waste from production… how are these handled? Where do they go? What’s done with them?
  • Water – Where does it come from? How is it transported? (This is especially important if your setting is a Sci-Fi one, out on a space station orbiting a distant planetary colony where water itself would be a valuable resource!)
  • Textiles – Who makes clothes and bedding? What are they made of? How is it manufactured?

These are just a few examples, and as you can see the topic of infrastructure is massive. Far too big to cover in one post.

but I thought we could start with one of the areas that is probably likely to crop up pretty early in the creative process. Transport. And visit some cool examples from fiction and tabletop to help inspire us in our own endeavors!

So, let’s talk about transport!

If you tuned into the one shot campaigns I ran on Tinker Tabletop before the holidays, you might have heard me mention a little bit about infrastructure in the world of Merth. Specifically, the transport.

Because I wanted Merth to be somewhere that was easy for my players to get around, and because it’s a high-magic setting, I created a portal system. This was hardly an original or unique idea on my part, and it’s a pretty common way for game masters and campaign designers to get around the problem of travel in a tabletop game.

But a portal system for transport has also been used to great effect in narrative fiction – Phillip Pullman and Neil Gaiman both used travel by portals to great effect in their own works. Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy has character’s use the ‘subtle knife’ to carve themselves doorways for travel, and in Neverwhere, magical doors exist all throughout London’s Tube system allowing the characters to move between a surreal underworld and the reality of the protagonists daily life.

In Film and TV we see portal systems for travel used constantly in the Sci-Fi genre, with shows like Star Trek and Stargate making use of them to travel to distant worlds. Even He-Man and the Masters of the Universe made use of a magic portal!

Stargate’s Einstein–Rosen bridge portal device

On the flip side, stories like The Lord of the Ring’s Trilogy and A Song of Ice and Fire hinge a lot of their plot on the grueling and time-consuming business of traveling from one part of the world to another, using the lack of convenient and centralized transport as another source of conflict for characters.

In the narrative of Dr. Who, the TARDIS doesn’t only fill the role of transporting the Doctor through time and space, it’s a sentient item that communicates with him, acts as a foil for certain plot points, and brings as much to the stories as the Doctor himself.

If you’re a fan of Supernatural, or Back to the Future, you can see how real world automobiles are used to great effect to help drive a narrative (sometimes very literally!)

Star Trek, Star Wars designed beautiful, detailed methods of space transport, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t recognize the U.S.S. Enterprise, or Tie Fighters!

Firefly’s ship, Serentiy or the Rocinante in The Expanse are both fantastic examples of how a transport ship can be more than just a way to get around. Due to the nature of these shows, set in a far flung future in outerspace, the ships don’t merely serve as a mode of transport, they become a real home for characters.

Both of these shows, set in space, use the ship to help develop the relationships of crew members into a family unit. In both series, the designs of the ships are compact and confined, forcing more encounters between crew members and giving more opportunities to create deeper relationships.

The Rocinante from The Expanse – based on the books by James S. A. Corey


My last examples comes from one of my favourite 3.5 campaign settings, Eberron. The setting used transport and magic to beautiful effect, not only to differentiate it from other fantasy tabletop settings available at the time, but as a plot hook for GM’s to use to build narrative’s for their campaign. By combining modern ideas like trains and planes, with the high-magic fantasy feel of the lightning rail and airships, the creators of Eberron brought something fresh and unique to their setting.

The lightning rail is basically like steam power meets Shinkansen, the high speed train connects the entire of Eberron’s world of Khorvaine, an international transport system, the function of which is highly dependent on one of the settings ruling Noble families. Providing plenty of opportunities for GM’s to bring in exciting hooks from political intrigue to a good old wild west train jacking!

Eberron Lightning Rail
Eberron Campaign Setting © Hasbro/WotC 2005

The flavour of your world should always impact your infrastructure, and transport is no exception to any of the other areas. Does it make sense for travel to be easy in your world? Is it controlled by a central authority? Asking yourself these questions will help you design something that fits.

That’s it for this time folks!

Next fortnight we’re going to get away from the ‘boring’ stuff for a little while, and I’ll be joined by the lovely Rachael and some special guests for a juicy podcast about the ways we can incorporate conflict in our world building!

Until then, Happy World Building!