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World Builders: What Would Marvel Do?

If you are a creator of fantasy universes and worlds, you might be familiar with the euphoric rush of the initial brainstorm.

After several years of gestation, a new universe is ready to be born and there are so many amazing things you want to incorporate into it, that during the initial brainstorming a wave of creativity pours out of your very being.

You decide you want a cyberpunk world, but with an eldritch horror tone, but also there are powerful alien forces trying to infiltrate earth (but it's not earth, it's a clone of earth where the continents are all different).

There are sea tribes, merpeople and psionics, and there's also time travel back to previous generations of this world where arcane martial arts were taught by the ancient ones, in order to prepare for the titanic battle with the Darkseid/Sauron/Thanos type dude who is invetivably coming to cause some trouble.

After you've written it all out and the initial wave of euphoria has passed, there's a slight come-down because you start to see two things.

Firstly, the thing you want to build is huge and it will take several years and hundreds of hours of work.

Secondly, you've got too many working parts in your world, two many different competing concepts, but you don't know which ones to keep and which ones to dump. It breaks your heart to 'kill your babies' and conventional writing suggests that you should simply be brutal and swing the axe.

If you do that though, you wind up with a truncated world that is accessible to your audience but won't necessarily wow them or excite them. If you chopped up all the concepts listed above, you'd create half a dozen worldbuilding experiences that your audience is already very familiar with.

Recent cinema history has shown us, however, that there is a different approach.

What would Marvel do?

Imagine having access to seventy years of Marvel characters, a huge budget and top directing and acting talent.

Imagine also being told you can make as many films as you want and that you have total artistic license.

What would you do?

Here, in all honesty, is what my world building brain would tell me to do:

'Ok, so I definitely want mutants in there, we need all the X-Men, plus I love Thor, I'd be gutted if we made a film that didn't have him in. We could also do the plot of Secret Wars and I'd want to introduce Spider Man and the whole 'how he gets his powers' backstory. Oh, yeah and we need magic, lots of magic so Dr Strange and all that, plus what about Iron Man....'

The results would be predictably terrible, but this is what the world building brain does to world building projects all the time and unless there's clever and strategic concept management, then ideas choke each other out.

As far as I can discern, Marvel Studios took the following approach. They thought

'our audience is going to be much bigger than comic book fans, it's going to be lots of people who have never read a graphic novel in their lives so they won't know the universe. That means we need to guide them through it gradually until the concepts are embedded and the narratives and characters are understood, then we can add layers of complexity on top.'

The MCU first established the Avengers over several films, then introduced the Guardians of the Galaxy, then introduced non Avenger heroes like Dr Strange and Black Panther who would play a part in the Infinity War. Only now are we starting to see the pre-history of the Marvel Universe with the Eternals coming soon and we're several years away from the Fantastic Four and the X-Men.

The MCU is in essence following basic pedagogy, which suggests that basic concepts need to be introduced, established, reinforced and mastered by an individual before we get on to either more complex concepts or we start a parralel system of ideas. They chose to start with the stories of individual Avengers, who then became characters that one could mentally navigate the MCU around (Tony Stark appearing in Spiderman: Homecoming and his interaction with Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War are examples of this).

What does this mean for you world?

Well it either means a lot, or not very much, but it provides an easy structural model to follow that will help you take the reader on a journey that makes sense. We have to bear in mind that readers who are taking a punt on our world (or who have backed our kickstarter/patreon) have so much bandwidth for intricate lore and no more. We make the mistake of imagining that they want instant concept overload and in most cases that's not the case. If you've ever had the experience of watching an overly complex TV show or movie where you have to stop and scratch your head and think 'eh?', then you'll probably be close to experiencing how a confused reader reacts to your over-stuffed concept. You don't need to discard any good ideas, you just need to schedule their introduction in phases. There are some concepts so fundamental to the world you create that you won't be able to do anything other than introduce them at the beggining, but for everything else, think like Kevin Feige and create phases of your universe. You need to give your readers time to become comfortable in new parts of your reality before taking them on to the next bit, and only when your fan base literally wants to binge on your content, can you give them everything.

If you want more weekly world building ideas and hints, subscribe to the Verse Online YouTube Channel here

You can also check out the Arcverse, our RPG universe compatible with 5th Edition D&D here and find our additional RPG content on the Arclands Online Patreon here

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