From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy—and science fiction—authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.

World Builder’s Handbook was published in 1989 by Digest Group Publications, a small role-playing game company run, at the time, by one of the book’s co-authors, Joe D. Fugate, Sr.. Written by Fugate, J. Andrew Keith, and Gary L. Thomas as a supplement for the science fiction role-playing game MegaTraveller, this is an amazing resource, particularly for science fiction authors, but fantasists will find a lot of inspiration here as well.

Digest Group Publications' World Builder's Handbook, 1989

The role-playing game Traveller was first published by Illinois-based Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW) in 1977, one of the first follow-up’s to Dungeons & Dragons, the game that started it all. Traveller allowed you to create characters in a future space opera universe of far-flung interstellar empires. It was a big favorite of mine, and not only did I play it as much as I could, I started writing for it, and some of my first professional sales were to the various Traveller magazines.

The game went through a number of revisions, changed hands more times than you might imagine, and is still out there somewhere, being played by someone. For me, alas, it’s become a fond memory, represented by an increasingly dusty shelf of books lodged between Call of Cthulhu and Boot Hill—more games I tell myself I’ll eventually someday play again.

But the one MegaTraveller supplement that has not gathered dust for all those years is World Builder’s Handbook. I’ve used it time and time again, outside the context of the game, to help me create believable alien planets.

The book begins with a lengthy treatise on the methodology, equipment, vehicles, and starships of the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service (IISS), the human empire’s exploration and communications branch. Pretty specific to the MegaTraveller universe, it’s still good for a little inspiration, but not much that could be picked up whole-cloth for your own SF stories.

The real meat of the book, for me, begins on page 52, under the chapter heading: “Building a World.” And when they say “Building a World,” they mean down to some shockingly specific scientific detail.

Planets in the original Traveller game were expressed as a Universal World Profile (UWP)—a string of numbers and letters that represented ranges of the following conditions: size, atmosphere, hydrographics (what percentage of the planet’s surface is covered by water), population, government, law, and the extent of the world’s technological advancement. Within those ranges were already a huge array of very different worlds, but World Builder’s Handbook took those raw figures and fleshed them out, and this is where the genius of this forgotten gem lies. You will need to prepare yourself to do some fairly complex algebra (who says you’ll never use algebra in real life?), but herein are equations that will help you determine things like:

How close to the central star (depending on the very specific type of star the planet orbits) does a planet have to be to be in the “Habitable Zone”?

How to determine the density of a planet, relative to Earth, depending on the composition of the planet’s core.

How the density and radius can be used to determine its mass, and how the mass and radius determine its surface gravity.

The book will help you determine the composition of an asteroid belt in proportions of asteroids formed from nickel-iron, mixed, or carbonaceous materials and/or ice; and the width of the belt in astronomical units.

And that’s just the first three pages of the section.

With this book you can determine within impeccably-researched, realistic boundaries, the length of the planet’s day and year, whether or not it has seasons (due to its axial tilt), the effects of the length of a day and its axial tilt to give you mean surface temperatures at various latitudes at day and night and during the different seasons. It even helps you determine the planet’s relative seismic stability, the exact composition and pressure at sea level of the atmosphere and how that effects how hot and cold it gets there, and it’ll help you determine how many moons the planet has, and all the details about them, too.

From there it gets into some more MegaTraveller-specific stuff like what sort of natural resources might be found there, but that can be reinterpreted for your own purposes as easily as the rest of the information, which is to say, very easily.

The sections on defining governments and cultures is revelatory, providing no shortage of inspiration. You can actually roll dice and consult a table to determine of people on this planet have unusual haircuts or sport culturally-significant tattoos. They even reduce religions to a seven-digit string of numbers tracking elements like “God View” and “Liturgical Formality.”

The last section teaches you how to take all this data and create a global map of your planet starting with the relative proportion of land to sea and going as deep as how many tectonic plates there are, which will help you locate stuff like mountain ranges. And there’s advice on the placement of major population centers.

Now, here’s the hard part: Good luck finding a copy. World Builder’s Handbook hasn’t been in print, really, in twenty years, but role-players never throw anything away. There must me copies to be had on the secondary market. I absolutely cannot urge you strongly enough to seek out a copy of this book, and just play with it at first. Run through the wild extremes—one thing I’m sure you’ll find, like I did, was just how hard it is to build a planet as hospitable to human life as Earth is. The tiniest variation in one factor, for instance, can make a planet blisteringly hot or deadly cold.

I had an opportunity to spend some time at a Gen Con convention in Milwaukee, years ago, with Joe Fugate and he was a great guy, really one of the unsung geniuses of the RPG community. What he helped create here is only one of his amazing contributions to that great game, and one that for me at least, has had a life of limitless usability for more than two decades—and counting.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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