Gazetteer: a worldbuilding writing tool

For the past few months, I’ve been doing a fun daily writing exercise loosely based off of Neel Krishnaswami’s Lexicon.  The premise is that you’re writing a gazetteer, which is a sort of encyclopedia-formatted companion to an atlas.  There are a bunch of entries and each one describes a different thing that one might find in the atlas or in other entries of the gazetteer.  The atlas is entirely fictional, as is the world that you’re describing.  Each day the game gives you a prompt for a new entry to write.

Entries are all cross-referenced, which sounds complicated but in reality just means that you name-drop other things you’ve written about into each entry.  As you go, the cross-references knit the world together in organic and surprising ways.

The daily prompt looks like this:

Unlike Lexicon, you name the entries ahead of time, instead of getting hit with blank-page “write an entry about something starting with Q.”  The game keeps track of which entries you’ve named but not written, and each day picks one for you to write, along with a few entries to reference, and prompts you to name a few new entries.  As you draw towards your goal number of entries, the game shifts the ratio of new and named entries to just named entries, so the last stretch is all tying things together.

While you theoretically could play this game with some dice and lookup tables or something, I made a javascript widget to keep track of the cross-references and generate prompts, which is where these screenshots come from.

You can start your own gazetteer here:  

The webpage doesn’t store your entries, but it does store the entry names and how they’re interconnected.  The tool assumes you’ll want to write your entries in your own word processor of choice.  I like to dream about doing up a more full-featured version that does store your full text and enables sharing and that sort of thing, but that’d require server-side storage and all of that is well beyond my capabilities!

After seven months of not-quite-daily writing, I’ve finished a gazetteer of one hundred entries describing a fantasy world suited for rpg adventures.  It’s swords and elves and magic and dragons, with tons of queer stuff, no clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys, and probably too much emphasis on trade routes.  What you’d expect from me, basically.

This is going to become the Gazetteer of the Speaking Lands, which I am super excited to be sharing with you over the next few months.  It’s aimed at being a setting for Keystone, but not the only setting and usable for just about any game you want to play with it.  When the Cortex Creator Studio goes live, I’ll be adding this as a world book, probably with some extra Cortex Bits sprinkled in.  But for the moment, it’s pure worldbuilding goodness.

This post isn’t about Speaking Lands, though, it’s about Gazetteer, because every time I mention my little writing exercise, folks ask if the tool I use is available.  I wanted to give it a thorough road test–100 entries seems sufficient–to shake out bugs and to find out the various things you want it to do when you’re fifty-seven entries in and need help navigating your own worldbuilding project.  I’ve done all that, gussied up a few parts to look pretty, and now it’s ready for use.

You obviously don’t have to take on a hundred-entry world reference document, though.  When you start a new project, Gazetteer asks you how many entries you want to write total and how many cross-references you want in each entry.  Then you ‘seed’ your gazetteer with a few entry names you want to see in the final work, and you’re off to the races!

I tried to aim for about 500 words for each entry, which usually takes an hour or so for me.  Of course I tended to wax loquacious and ended up with 500-1000 word entries, but only because it was so much fun making all these pieces work together.  And the curious thing is that the short entries still feel packed full of worldbuildy fun and a lot of juicy details.  The key is to write a little bit each day (or each weekend, or whatever) and slowly knit it all together into a big interconnected whole.

You can also do a very short, 20-entry Gazetteer with just 100-word entries and whip together a quirky little setting in one or two sittings.  I did a couple of those in early tests, and each one came out sounding super fun.

That’s about it, that’s Gazetteer!  I hope it’s useful or at least entertaining for you folks, and provides some background for the Gazetteer of the Speaking Lands, which will debut on Wednesday!

Peace Out!


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