Steal my notes, Brandon Sanderson on World Building
Brandon Sanderson gives a lecture at BYU on Worldbuilding. These are my notes.

Brandon Sanderson on World Building

Lesson starts at 8:33

The notes:

The Iceberg:

If you compare your world to an iceberg, a certain part of the iceberg is above water and a much bigger part is below. The part above water is the part the player/reader sees. It’s what you bring across to the player/reader. The much bigger part below is the part the player/reader implicitly knows. It’s what the player/reader assumes through extrapolation of the above-water part. If what the player/reader extrapolates is correct, it will make the world feel alive. It’s consistent, it lives beyond the scene/page. It will also make the player/reader thrust you. The players/reader knows that if he’s engaged, extrapolates he’ll be rewarded.

Bringing your world across:

  • Prologue: Often used in fantasy novels. Considered info-dumping. Found boring and skipped by many.
  • Maid and butler dialogue: Comes from old stage play. The maid and butler explain to each other the world they live in using an “As you know….” dialogue. It’s no longer recommended.
  • Watson: Comes from Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The world is explained to a character/NPC to whom the world is unknown, a Watson. By explaining the world to him the world is explained to the player/reader. A Watson is a very powerful and easy-to-use technique. Be careful not to exaggerate.
  • Exploratory scenes: A scene where the characters' actions show the world to the player/reader. This is known as “show don’t tell”. It’s the most challenging method explained here. But also the most recommended one. Action scenes are what the party/readers enjoy. They bypass the boring explanation of the world completely. Keep the following in mind;
    • Don’t cheat, only explain the details of your world needed for the scene itself. If not, you risk turning the action scene into an info dump.
    • Don’t introduce too many names, keep the learning curve shallow.
    • Don’t use “throwaway terms” to spice up the scene. A throwaway term is a fact that is shown but isn’t rooted in the part of your world below the water. It might make the players/readers invest without a pay-off. If this happens too often it will leave your players/readers disengaged.

The learning curve:

The player/reader needs to learn about your world. The more he needs to learn the higher the learning curve. The shorter the time the player/reader has, the steeper the curve. When you’re having a learning curve that is too high and too steep you might lose the player/reader. How to keep the curve shallow:

  • Start from a world known to the player/reader. Ease your players/readers into your world.
  • Don’t make the world you’re introducing too different from our own.
  • Don’t introduce too many characters/places at once.
  • Keep the world’s details for later.


  • Info dumping: When too much of your iceberg is above water it might crush your reader. It will lead to telling your world instead of showing it. It’s why players/readers skip prologues.
  • World builder's disease: A term used for people who keep on worldbuilding without ever using that world for an adventure or story. An infliction made worse by the success of Tolkien. Tolkien built forever and was incredibly successful in it. Making many think they need to do this and will be able to do so.

Extra: World introduction through players backgrounds

If you as the DM/GM write your player's backgrounds you might be tempted to use them to introduce your world. Sneaky and clever but it's a prologue in disguise. And like the prologue, it risks getting skipped by many.
What you can do is ask your players to write their backgrounds and ground them into your world. Or build your world on top of their backgrounds. A much better idea but out of the scope of this article and for another time.

Author(s): Gregory Vangilbergen - (Updated:Jan 25, 2022)