Sometimes, it can be helpful to take something assumed and examine it closer, lay it out and look for ways it can be improved. We’re going to do that today by looking at how people instinctively worldbuild and go into a way it can be made better.
Fictional worlds are usually inspired by a specific idea. “A fortress in the sky,” “a world where people can manipulate the classical elements,” etc. The implications of that idea then ripple out into a more complete setting. The fortress in the sky necessitates magical or technical propulsion, which leads into other characteristics. Elemental manipulation influences how science progresses, and may lead to political differences. Almost all worldbuilding is done this way. These two scenarios, inspired by “Castle in the Sky” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” are examples of when this is done well.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always done well. Ripples are either incomplete or not considered at all. Incomplete ripples are more common. If it was an entire city in the sky, with appropriate technology and other elements, but they seem to be self-sufficient, my first question would be, “Where do they get their food?” (A good question to ask in general.) It’s even worse when ideas are plopped into a setting with seemingly no thought into how they would affect the world. To me, the revelation in the first Pirates of the Caribbean that a curse by an Aztec god could create undead felt like that. Shouldn’t that affect something around the world? Religious beliefs, at the very least?
STEEPLE is one way to make sure all possible implications are considered. STEEPLE is an expanded version of PEST, a business analysis tool. It attempts to capture the main aspects of a location. The elements are:
- Society: Culture, demographics, class structure, norms, art, religion, etc. Obviously the most inclusive category.
- Technology: All the technical ways a civilization solves problems, possibly including magic.
- Economics: Resource extraction, processing, and distribution; wealth distribution; trade; occupations; etc.
- Environment: The geography and climate of an area. In fictional settings, unusual locations (underground, underwater, space, etc.) need to be considered.
- Politics: The distribution and characteristics of power and governmental authority.
- Legislation: The most confined category, capturing the law and its creation, enforcement, and judging.
- Ecology: The nature of the area’s flora, fauna, and other life.
From here, the process is simple: take your seed idea and go through STEEPLE, looking for ripples. Then, see if those concepts create ripples of their own. If you’re uncertain about things, try being more specific with your seed idea; specificity is almost always a good thing.
Let’s look at an example.
STEEPLE in action
To test this, let’s go with a very broad seed: “undead exist.” That’s a bit too vague, so let’s narrow it down. “Necromancy exists, but it can only create mindless undead.” Better… let’s go further. “Necromantic ability is inborn, not learned. Undeath can only be created through a complex magical ritual, not as a contagious disease. Undead are animated through elemental energy, not by tampering with the deceased person’s soul.” That’s good enough for now; we can go more specific later if need be.
Now, let’s go through STEEPLE and look for ripples:
- Society: Let’s say that necromancy is a valuable service, so necromancers are social elites. Because the undead are mindless, they don’t change the social structure on their own. There are many cultural norms surrounding the undead (maybe it’s considered bad luck to look an undead in the eyes, so they’re usually blindfolded), but I’ll say that for this world, none of them are negative. They’re just accepted as a part of life, not inherently good or bad.
- Technology: Research around necromancy would be incredibly valuable. Ways to make them more docile and obedient, cheaper to create and maintain, more durable, able to follow more complex instructions, etc. There would be lots of supporting technology, as well. A natural result (in my opinion) of culturally-accepted mindless undead would be their usage as labor. We’d have yokes for humanoids, masks/muzzles if they’re aggressive in this world, and more. They could also be a source of power—like water wheels and windmills, undead could be hitched to something to help it turn, powering rudimentary machinery.
- Economy: As mentioned, the undead are another source of labor—the webcomic “Unsounded” uses the fantastic term, “recycled labor.” Effects here depend on how prevalent the undead are, as well as the complexity of the tasks they can perform. If they’re expensive to create and maintain, then they’d be a luxury for the wealthy, pulling carriages and the like. If they’re cheap, then every family might have one or more, plowing the fields and maybe even serving customers. If undead can repeat relatively complex tasks, then they could even create a pseudo-industrial revolution, as people realize they can use zombies to form assembly lines.
- Environment: As far as I can tell, there wouldn’t be any effects on the geography and climate. Perhaps there are some necromantic side-effects, but I don’t feel compelled to add any here.
- Politics: It’s almost unavoidable that there will be some ethical conflict over whether it’s moral to use undead labor. Even if it’s scientifically proven (somehow) that a person’s soul is unaffected by reanimation, there’s sentimental value to a body. That’s why funerary norms are such an important part of culture. On another note, while necromantic families would almost certainly be elites, they probably wouldn’t be career politicians/rulers, since their value comes from producing and researching undead. They’d definitely be an important group to keep on your side, however—especially if the undead can be used as soldiers.
- Legislation: Laws could get complex fairly quickly. I imagine that they would follow the same lines as real-world slave regulations. Depending on the capabilities of the undead, they could be aids for law enforcement. Maybe they have acute senses of smell, or, if they’re faster than your typical pop-culture zombie, they could be used to chase down and incapacitate fleeing suspects. This type of necromancy probably couldn’t help much with investigations and court cases, since the soul of the deceased isn’t involved; otherwise, authorities could interrogate murder victims or slain criminals.
- Ecology: This is another one that could get interesting, depending on the nature of the setting’s necromancy. If an undead escapes, do they eventually decay? Do they have to eat to sustain themselves? If they’re effectively immortal so long as they eat—but can’t reproduce because of our magic-only rules—then they would be severe nuisance pests, but not habitat-destroying plagues. It would make sense for there to be career undead-slayers, cleaning up those that escape. Maybe the undead wear collars with tags, so if people find them, they can be returned to their owners.
As you can see, we’ve taken a relatively-generic seed (undead), drilled down to make it a more unique prompt (inborn, relatively benign necromancy), and created a lot of depth to our setting just by looking at how that seed would affect the rest of the world.
STEEPLE isn’t perfect. There are elements of worldbuilding that aren’t covered here. There are also aspects that are technically contained in STEEPLE’s categories, but could be useful if they were teased out. Some things to consider (if relevant) include, in no particular order:
- Warfare: How do people craft weapons and armor, build militaries, and wage war?
- Demographics: What is the makeup of a population?
- Biology: Are there special ways that living organisms work? Are there new things that affect organisms?
- Religion: How do people understand and relate to the supernatural?
- Cosmology: Are there different planes, different worlds? How was the universe created?
- Ontology: What is the nature of the soul? What happens when we die? (Stretching the definition of ontology here, don’t worry about it.)
- (Meta)physics: Is there magic? How does it work? Are there different laws of physics?
- Astronomy: Is what happens beyond your planet important? Is it physically different from Earth in meaningful ways?
- Art: What do people consider beautiful?
- Architecture: Do people make buildings or infrastructure differently, either for aesthetic or practical reasons?
There are many, many more. The seed idea will probably lend itself to additional dimensions if they’re relevant.
And there you go! I hope this was helpful. Feel free to leave feedback or suggestions in the comments!
“To me, the revelation in the first Pirates of the Caribbean that a curse by an Aztec god could create undead felt like that. Shouldn’t that affect something around the world? Religious beliefs, at the very least?”
This is such a bad example. The curse clearly isn’t common knowledge, so why would it have such a sweeping effect? Besides, there are stories about the Black Pearl, so clearly it HAS affected people’s beliefs, in exactly the way you’d expect of any seemingly impossible phenomenon that most people haven’t seen and can’t provide any evidence of.
Glad to hear from you!
You make a good point; the curse was very isolated, so any effects would be localized (if anything). Do you have a better example?