Words about worlds

Agile Worldbuilding

by | Feb 22, 2023 | Games, Worldbuilding | 0 comments

We demonstrate several rounds of Agile Worldbuilding in this article, making this a longer article.  Click the links beneath the jigsaw puzzle pieces to jump to the corresponding points in the article.

In our last article, we talked about scaffolding worldbuilding. In deep worldbuilding, it’s easy to get lost in the details. Finding or building a worldbuilding framework can keep you on track and on target, which is time well spent.

One excellent framework is the Agile Worldbuilding framework. The Agile Worldbuilding Methodology was created by Dimitris Havlidis and Janet Forbes, the co-founders of World Anvil. It is the culmination of decades of worldbuilding, storytelling and writing experience. For more information, you will soon be able to go to www.world.com/agile-worldbuilding , which I am assured will have plenty of content shortly. Watch that space!

Agile” in the sense of “a company, business or product that is able to change or be changed rapidly in response to customer needs and market forces” is cited back to 1979 in the OED (also source of this definition). Outside of the specific business world, “in response to customer needs” broadens to “in response to feedback,” usually from the target audience.

Dimitris and Janet’s Agile Worldbuilding cycle looks like this:

Dream/Design → Build/Grow → Play/Test → Learn/Think → Dream/Design…

This upward-gazing photo of the spiral staircase in the Vatican museum emphasizes the dark carving of the staircase against the yellow sides. Light streams through a circular window marked in eight chevrons, forming the perfect focal point.

Photo of Vatican museum spiral staircase courtesy of Colin CC BY-SA 3.0, hosted by Wikimedia Commons

Often these cycles are portrayed as circles. I prefer the image of spirals, which emphasize that all this work is going somewhere.

The Agile Worldbuilding framework combines this cycle of design, feedback, and response with a series of top-down scaffolded questions that help you construct your world. The first set, called the Foundation asks you to consider your motivation for building this world, the themes you want to explore, and the genre and tone of the world. The second set of questions, called The Scene, dives into the world itself: natural laws, geography, living beings, and history. The final set we’ll talk about in this article is the Plot: the overarching, middle-rank, and immediate plans, puzzles, and problems that your PCs will engage.

There’s another important piece to the Agile Worldbuilding puzzle: keep it short. Write 3-5 sentences for each piece you address. If it is important to your PCs, make it one or two paragraphs. Then move on. We try to follow that suggestion. Short segments means less investment of your time and effort, which hopefully means more energy to change in response to feedback.

Because we’re actively building…okay, I’ve lost track, I think it’s six worlds right now between various game and story efforts…we are well equipped to show you several rounds of Agile Worldbuilding. Keep in mind, when Dimitris and Janet use the phrase “world”, they mean “setting”. An Agile worldbuilding exercise can build anything from a flower to a galaxy. I’m going to focus on a specific mid-size setting. Grab a pencil and try writing your own setting as you read this. Yes, right now. Write!

In Agile worldbuilding, the Foundation questions start with motivation. Why are you building this world, what is unique about it, and what is the benefit to you? Next, you consider themes you want to explore, and then consider the meta, the world details that will be influenced by your motivation and theme, such as the style of government, gender relations, and the influence of technology or art on the world.

I began my agile worldbuilding with a question:

Fae turn up in a few settings but they’re often NPCs. What if we gave Players a chance to be the Fae?”

A jigsaw puzzle piece with curved edges. This piece shows a portion of dark water and a bit of snowy ground.


It would take two or three adventures at least to give Players a real chance to play Fae, so I needed a strong storyline. What themes might such a set of stories have?

Yes, I barely touched Motivation and I’m over to Theme.

Fae are depicted in some ballads and stories as powerful, magical, otherworldly, and dangerous, living in a land with its own rules, “And he saw neither Sun nor Moon/but heard the roaring of the sea” (Child Ballad 37, “Thomas Rhymer”). These Fae should be like that.

Themes of agency seem relevant. We’ll make it a changing time, a change so extreme that it challenges even the powerful. The balance between personal ambitions and community needs fits neatly with the theme of agency in a time of change. This is also a good place to explore the difference between “doing the right thing” and “being a nice person.”

When we say “agency in a time of change” we mean, “the power to make a difference as you confront the possible end of your social structure,” a solid, adventure-worthy spot from which to explore that theme.

At this point, I skipped directly to Play/Test. I went and babbled to my partner about Fae and Unseelie and framing adventures in a way that let ruthless PCs act grandly. And he looked a bit confused and I realized I needed to go back to the drawing board. In about an hour, I had gone from Design/Dream to Build/Grow to Play/Test to Learn/Think and I was back and Dream/Design. There’s Agile worldbuilding in a nutshell: write a bit, phone a friend, listen, consider, make changes, write a bit more.

Five jigsaw pieces form the bottom-left section of a puzzle. Dark water and snowy ground suggest that the puzzle represents a calm winter day by a woodland stream

Theme: Feel

My next round of Dream/Design drew some ideas out of my head and on to the page. When I went back to my partner, I had this:

Fae” are living magic with seasonal affinities. I would like Players who choose to play Fae PCs to get a feeling of the real world with added glittering edges: bright as diamonds, sharp as knives.

To accentuate that feeling, I’m encouraging PCs to belong to an Unseelie Court. For the purpose of these adventures, “Unseelie” are Fae whose Courts rule from the second half of autumn through the first half of spring. Our ideas of Unseelie are colored by the blood of the autumn hunts, the bitter bite of the winter wind, the crunch of iced snow, the smoke of meats, the soft patter of spring rains, the brilliance of the hearth-fire and the gleam of the snowdrop.

My partner loved the idea but some of his comments showed me that he was thinking of Unseelie Fae in very broad terms. I didn’t like that. I wanted to focus clearly on one small group. In just one short conversation, I had collected more feedback, reflected on it, and headed back to Design.

In agile worldbuilding, Foundation starts with motivation, moves to themes, and then steps over to Meta: the structure of the world which you select to serve your themes and complement your motivations. In Meta, you consider government presence, rule of law, social services, resources and wealth distribution, social relations, and military, technological, and cultural influences. I started with government, looped back around in Foundation to address the genre.

The entire bottom section a jigsaw puzzle. You can plainly see the first bend of a dark, shallow stream. On each snowy stream bank, bare twigs of perennial plants stretch free of the snow.


I came back to my partner with:

These Fae are organized into Courts, a form of “rule by few”. In this vision, there are quite a few Courts, each one built around a single Fae or small group of Fae. Their choices of rules to enforce, privileges to grant, etc, create a culture that gives a particular Court its flavor.

That decision allows us to take a single Court to an extreme without suggesting that the behavior of that specific group is in any way inherent to the Fae of any particular type, and of course, plenty of Fae exist outside a Court structure.

The genre is clearly fantastic or supernatural to allow for these otherworldly or supernatural beings. I love the idea of stepping the Fae into the modern day but for now, my cognitive load will be heavy enough without that, so let’s pencil in a ‘high fantasy’ feel for now.

Then my partner started asking more questions about the Unseelie. Does the Court decide disputes? What do they value? How do they work? How badly do they behave toward humans (yes, he asked about degree, not kind, of behaviour).

So, back to Dream/Design I went for another round of building the Meta.

Rule of law: For these adventures, Fae settle disputes in one of three ways: words, wits, and weapons. All three methods are respected.

Wealth distribution: the Fae at the top level of a Court have the most of whatever that Court sees as desirable: magic, gold, apples, lilies, or dust.

Race relations: Fae call all sentient beings who are not Fae “mortals”. Fae are emphatically not immortal but they like to pretend. Fae-mortal relations vary drastically from one individual or group to another. For this Court, let’s say that up to the time the PCs step on stage, the Fae of this Court have respected certain boundaries in dealings with those mortals who demonstrate similar respect. We want to focus on Fae-Fae conflict in this series but Fae-mortal relations will be a recurring theme.

Art influence: Lots, please, thanks. The ability to craft a well-balanced verse or a cutting diatribe has legal force at this Court. Performance arts of all types can literally create matter, etc. Of course, the question arises, how do the people gain the time and energy to devote to all that art? The answer, of course, is magic. Fae use a lot of it.

Cultural flavor: we need a name for this Court. Names have meaning and power. After much off-screen debate and a lot of clicking on the Fantasy Name Generator (https://www.fantasynamegenerators.com/), I chose The Court of the Midnight Thorn. The head of the Court is the Thorn, a Fae who called the entire region into being from the chaos that surrounds the Fae realms. The Thorn promotes the keen, the intelligent, the honorable, the ruthless, and the fierce. A recurring question for me is, what patterns of dark events and bright hopes illuminate the tapestry of Fae lives?

A jigsaw puzzle complete to the middle-right reveals a stand of young trees. Orange sunlight splashes slantingly on the trunks in this early morning scene.


At this point, I had some momentum, which I used it to dive into the next section of Agile Worldbuilding: Drama. The Drama questions ask you to define the major current affairs and major threats and the everyday struggles faced by the people of your world.

The current major affairs in our world start with an unacknowledged tension. Something is changing. No one is being specific. Everyone in the Court of the Midnight Thorn is moving cautiously, looking for openings, preparing for trouble. The Thorn is becoming more ruthless; some would say, desperate. Opportunity dances flickeringly in Desperation’s shadow.

At least one other Court should pose a major threat. This gives the PCs another major power to invoke/befriend/betray as they strive to further their personal goals.

The everyday struggles faced by the PCs will be theirs to determine. Every PC will be asked to choose an ambitious personal goal. The path to that goal will influence the everyday struggles faced by that PC.

At this point, you guessed it, I went back to my partner. Okay, he asked, but what does the Fae land really look like? I’ve always wondered.

Fair point, and whether he knew it or not, the direct lead-in to the next Agile Worldbuilding section: the Scene. So, without much adjustment this time, I was able to go back to Dream/Design to consider the ‘natural laws’, geography, living beings, and history of the setting, I kept it short, with one to two paragraphs per piece, and came back with:

The Fae lands are shifting, tricky, and malleable. It is a land of magic, ruled by the uncertain laws of magic. Time and space run strangely. The land itself responds to desire. With slight effort, Fae make flowers bloom or pull daggers from the air. With exceptional effort, Fae create entire landscapes, summoning land and water from nothingness.

The Glade of the Midnight Thorn is a place of roses in winter. It is always cool and crisp in the Glade. It is a place of jewel-toned colors, fall-bright leaves, and textured shadows. Light comes, night comes. Sometimes Sun and Moon appear. If you can find the place on the hottest summer day—and it is hard to find on those days—you would find a frosty rime in the shadowed places, even on that day.

The Glade itself is the a central area that serves as the public gathering-place of the Court. Clear water splashes in a silver-basined fountain in the fall and late spring. In mid-winter, water bubbles beneath the ice and drops in a gentle shower from clear icicles. On nights of celebration or ceremony, a torch of burning ice illuminates the gatherings.

Fae of all kinds live in the lands. Animals and plants abound, some familiar to humans, some older and more intelligent than others. A few humans live in or pass through the Fae lands but it happens rarely.

For the PCs at the beginning of the first adventure, the history that is most important is the creation of the Glade itself. The Thorn is said to have created the space from the chaos that swirls at the edge of the Fae realms. Certainly, the land responds best to the Thorn.

The portals mark places where dramatic, world-changing events happened. A portal may look like a tree, or a standing stone, or an aimless bridge set in the middle of the wood. Terrible or glorious events that involved both the Fae realm and another plane will invoke a portal. Once a portal is created, it can be used at certain times and ways to travel between those realms.

A winter woodland jigsaw, complete except for the upper-right corner. A sunlight-splashed trunk attracts the eye to the left-center of the image. White snow piled in the middle of the dark stream accents the positions of a fallen tree and two rocks--and incidentally emphasizes the shallow depth of the stream. Glimpses of blue sky appear between the trees.


We are clearly heading toward plot. Plot in Agile Worldbuilding is broken up into layers from the top-down.

The Eternal Play: huge, eon-spanning storylines

Long games: stories that span decades,

Big stories: lasting years, to

Small fry: a single adventure

The Eternal Play in this case are tales of kelpie and nixie, Sidhe and sprite, of the terrible loss of magic from the loss of a robin’s feather and the brilliant gain from a single snowflake. The long games are the games of the Fae on the PC scale: the Thorn, the Morning Poppy, the sly dryad of the sixth apple on the seventh hillside in the domain of the Duke of the Voiceless Bees, the nixie of a long-abandoned water mill. Every Fae has a tale and an ambition. The big story will be the tale of the loss of the Grove—or the story of its saving. This is the core of these three adventures. How it ends is entirely in the PCs deliberate control. The PCs will open with the “small fry” story that we’re calling “Seoithín seo”, after a favorite Irish lullaby.

Now it was time to get potential Players’ hands on this world, hear what they have to say, and respond, which I did over a Discord chat later that week.

In the completed jigsaw puzzle, a central streak of blue sky stretches nearly down to meet the second bend in the dark stream as it flows gently between the silent, snowy banks.

And that’s the key with Agile Worldbuilding: build just enough to give your audience something to comment on. Review the comments, learn what they thought, think about the responses, and then, start dreaming and designing all over again. You are always working on every level, leading to a world that is both content-rich and immediately accessible.



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *