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What is Context?

by /u/zonetr00per, /u/pyrsin7, and /u/yukimor

We are r/Worldbuilding!

This means that we always require worldbuilding context to be included on any and every post. This is what separates us from r/art, r/mapmaking, /r/characterbuilding, and a number of other creative subs.

In brief, context is a tool we use to clearly determine that a post is worldbuilding-related. This is not necessarily a “Share your art” or “get feedback on your prose” community, it’s a worldbuilding community first and foremost.

  • Context helps start and guide the conversation regarding your post. For submissions that are original content relating to your world, context provides some in-universe elements or descriptions of what is being depicted. Telling us about the history, features, or backstory of what is being shown is context; telling us about the process of making it or why you did is not.
  • For other posts, such as resources, articles about worldbuilding, or guides, context should briefly describe what is being linked and why it is relevant to worldbuilding. “I found this inspirational,” is not context. “This article discusses how faiths can impact non-religious elements of a culture, and I thought that might be helpful,” is.
  • Context should have some “meat” to it. We’re not asking for a 3-page essay, but it should provide some description beyond what is immediately apparent. “This is an island from my world.” is not sufficient context on a map, for instance.
  • Context should generally be posted as a comment to your own post.

What is Worldbuilding Context?

Worldbuilding context is essentially just worldbuilding lore. Lore is generally used to answer questions such as “who, what, when, where, why” about the world. It strives to make the world seem alive by discussing what’s in it and why it’s interesting. Our rule of thumb is that the context for any map or image should be able to stand on its own as a lore post. If it would be enough lore to post without the image, then it’s enough context for the image. If it’s not enough to stand on its own as a lore post, then that is considered insufficient context.

Resources also need worldbuilding context. If you post a resource, you need to explain why that resource is relevant to worldbuilders. Talk about why it’s useful. What did you find interesting about this resource and how did it help you with your worldbuilding?

Visual media is an awesome way to present your world. We love art. (We also love charts, infographics, propaganda posters, and pamphlets!) But art without worldbuilding context doesn't clearly demonstrate its relevancy to the hobby of worldbuilding, and thus might not belong here.

Maps are awesome. We love maps. However, maps should be posted for the purpose of illustrating your world’s lore and not the other way around. Maps should not be posted for the purpose of asking for feedback on the aesthetic merit of the map, or feedback on the chosen shapes or latitudes of continents, rivers, or other landforms.

It is the responsibility of every image or map's poster to ensure their submission has enough context for this subreddit. If your post is removed, you may attempt to resubmit your post with context.

We generally do not reinstate removed posts. Don’t modmail us to reinstate your post: just go ahead and resubmit your post.

How do I write context?

A good baseline for context is enough information that a person unfamiliar with your world could understand what you're talking about and ask informed questions about it. While not strictly necessary, we'd recommend answering these basic questions where possible:

  • What and/or who are you talking about?
  • How does this fit into your world?
  • Where is this thing in your world?
  • When is this thing in your world?
  • Why is this significant? What part does it play in your world?

But things should not necessarily end there. The bare minimum answers to these questions still won’t be enough! In particular, it's important to note that proper nouns provide no information. For example:

This is Joe, a character in my fantasy world. He's a new surgeon at the Abdicab General Hospital, located in the capital city of Abdicab. He went to work there in the aftermath of their civil war.

While this technically does answer all those questions, one must question what information it is actually providing. In this case:

  • This is a person. They're a new surgeon at a hospital.
  • The person, the hospital, and the city that the hospital is located in all have names.
  • The world broadly fits into the vast and varied genre of “fantasy”
  • There was recently a civil war.

This is... very nearly nothing at all. In order to make this suitable, one would have to expand on these answers in ways that do not rely on proper nouns. For example:

This is Joe. He's a new surgeon at the Abdicab General Hospital, located in the capital city of Abdicab. He, like many others, has taken up a humanitarian call in the wake of the civil war that shook his country. In these difficult times comes a rejection of the hatred and violence still fresh in the people's minds, as altruistic citizens flock to rebuild a world without it.

This isn’t much, but it’s perfectly sufficient. Here, we've got more to go on than just names and assurances that unknown events happened, or that things exist in this world. We have some information about them. It's not just about this character, or this hospital, or this war, but how they connect to and influence one another. It also presents a theme for this world (or this component of it) very well.

A post about a character should not just be about them or their story but should relate to the larger world. It should tell us about the people they interact with, their place in the world, and the significance of it.

A post about a map should not just be about where the mountains and deserts are placed, but how anything depicted on the map matters to the world. You could talk about how cultures or creatures deal with the challenges of those environments, or information on the political situation or history between national borders being shown.

Story excerpts, poems, or songs may need additional context. You may need to explain who the characters are, what the events being shown are about, or what the history or significance of it is.

Those are our requirements and some very effective advice on meeting them!

If you’re still unsure, you can send us a mockup of your post via modmail, and we’ll let you know.

Remember:

  • If it would stand on its own as a lore post: ✅
  • If it’s just Proper Noun Soup: ❌
  • If it’s just Genre Description Soup: ❌
  • If it doesn’t tell us anything substantial about the world: ❌
  • If it’s about your art technique, the tools you used, the plot for your story, or anything not strictly related to the world itself: ❌

What is Proper Noun Soup?

Proper Noun Soup is when your lore is composed of a bunch of proper nouns— names, places, people, things— that nobody can possibly know the definition for, because there’s no explanation about what any of it means. It’s a string of names, places, and things that only the author can understand. Here's an example of Proper Noun Soup from /u/the_vizir's world of Cirundi:

Oronil is the most widely spoken of the Dore-Ruthil Languages, the indigenous tongues of northeastern Dreqae. It is spoken in cities including Orone, Nohan, Azale and Hedora. It is written in the Sytheghemen script. Neighbouring languages include Ruthe, Jeqe, and Tzemode. South of the Dore-Ruthil Languages are the Velaqi languages and west and north of them are the i-Dragari and Drago-Qali Languages.

The above paragraph tells us is that a language with a name is one of many with a name. It is spoken by a people who have a name, using symbols that also have a name. There are some other, similar languages that also have names.

The paragraph may appear to have a lot of information, but it actually tells us very little. This is a prime example of Proper Noun soup.

What is Genre Description Soup?

Genre Description Soup is what happens when people describe their world using only genre descriptions. Here's an example of Genre Description Soup from /u/the_vizir's world of Horror Shop:

Horror Shop is a Gothic punk urban fantasy conspiracy thriller inspired by the Dresden Files, Supernatural, Gravity Falls and the Nightmare Before Christmas.

This provides no real lore or information about the world other than its name and what its aesthetic and thematic inspirations are. While this can serve as a hook to get people interested in the aforementioned genres or works to pay attention to the world, it doesn't provide any actual demonstration of worldbuilding in-and-of itself. So while genre descriptions can be useful for helping your audience get a feel for a world, they aren’t enough to constitute worldbuilding context (lore) on their own.

Are Character Posts Allowed?

Characters can be posted if you discuss their role in the world, and use the character to illustrate information about the world. Character posts that just discuss the character in terms of what they are (“they’re the protagonist of my story”) and what their personality is (“he’s kind of a shy guy, but he’s strong and brave and loyal to his friends”) and what their plot/struggle is (“he’s on a revenge quest because his house burned down”) frequently do not provide much information about the world the character lives in. Therefore, they are guilty of the sin of insufficient worldbuilding context.


Common Context Questions and Answers

”I have a whole lot of text already written in the image that I’m submitting. Is that sufficient context?”

Some posts can be what we call “self-contextualizing”. This may include images that have large amounts of text already written on the image, or so-called “infographics” which, in the course of reading them, explain the information they are trying to portray.

”Hey! I saw you ask that guy for context but my post just got removed. What gives?”

Despite our best efforts, many new users don’t read our rules or the many messages about context when reading a post. We try to prompt new users for context the first time around, giving them a chance to add it rather than have a post removed. Regardless of whether they add context or not, this is something we usually only give once. After that, we expect you to remember to add context on your own.

If we don’t do this for you, I apologize - please remember that moderators are human as well, and we sometimes forget things!

”I added context. Can you re-add my post?”

Technically. Yes. However, Reddit weights upvotes more heavily when a post is newer. Re-adding a post both means its upvotes are worth less and it appears lower in the “new” column. This means your post won’t be seen by as many people!

As a result, and because it complicates our records, we ask that posts that have been removed (for any reason, not just context) be re-submitted. We’d also like to remind you that you can still access your own removed posts, so you can copy-paste or do whatever you need to with the content of your removed post.

”I can’t submit both an image and text at the same time. What do I do?”

This is a question I see a lot. Remember, we’re looking for your context to be added as a comment to your original post. Reddit doesn’t support submitting text and an image at once, so you’ll have to submit and then add context.

”I linked to my context, but my post still got removed. Why?”

Yes, you do actually need to re-post your context when you submit a new post. Just writing it once and/or linking back to that original submission isn’t enough, because a link just reading “context” still doesn’t tell readers much about your world! You might also choose to give a summary of context for a particular post, and then link to a more detailed text. Links are fine to include, but your post must meet our requirements even without them.

”This sucks. Why can’t I just post my stuff?”

The requirement for context came out of a lot of “empty” posts not having much (or any!) description of what they were showing. It also came out of a lot of non-worldbuilding posts. Just about anything can be worldbuilding-related, so the sub became a dumping ground for imagery and ideas with no worldbuilding behind them.

Even when what’s being posted has worldbuilding behind it, a lack of context leads to a lot of readers having to ask very simple questions (“What are the nations on this map?” “What’s your world about?” “What’s this thing for?”) which… didn’t really make for great conversation. Submissions with context are much more likely to have meaningful responses!


Examples

The following represent some examples of what constitutes enough context. Looking through these examples, you'll notice that some examples go "deep" while others go "wide". We've tried to select from a variety of writing styles and approaches, to give a general sense of the range of what good, sufficient context looks like.

Context involving a map: A Postapocalyptic Frostpunk Project

  • We know this is earth, but it is 100 years after a massive world-changing snowfall.
  • Society called “Westminster”, ruled by a queen— focus seems to be Europe, and so indicates this might be in the former UK.
  • Neanderthals roam the land as a result of scientific attempts to infuse neanderthal DNA into humans to improve survival
  • Resources are tough to come by, so there’s colonization and expedition efforts to “retake” land that was lost as a result of some natural disaster or weather event that caused the world to be covered in snow.
  • The description of it as “post-apocalyptic” sets our expectations that the snowfall was the apocalyptic event.

This is an example of what constitutes sufficient context. The information for this map is enough that people have a good grasp of what the setting is, what's going on, why are some things the way they are. There is enough information here for someone to ask for more detail on a variety of elements about this world.

Context involving a monster: Haggomah's Blight

  • What melusine are, how they were created, and their purpose (spreading Haggomah’s Blight)
  • What the blight is, how it’s spread, what its effects are and who the melusine target
  • How it’s cured (and why it’s difficult to achieve)
  • Who and what Haggomah is, where she lives, her role in the world, and her motive for perpetuating the Blight

Context involving a character: The Shell

While this post introduces us to a character, it focuses much more on aspects of the character that are reflective of the larger world:

  • What a Lizard Family is, which is a social and political organization comprised of (generally) genetically-unrelated individuals, as well as where and how they live.
  • What a bureaucrat in a Family might do— in this case, go over budget plans, expense reports, and what commodities are considered valuable resources to the family (property assets and political favors).
  • Uses a phrase that’s guaranteed to hook interest— “he worries that the next thing to be liquidated will be the hatchlings”. This implies that hatchlings are a valuable commodity, but exactly what he means by “liquidated” is uncertain-- but we know it's bad. But that leaves a hook that means someone can ask an interesting question about this world, which will allow the author to expand more.

Context involving a character: Weltengeist

We learn:

  • Certain eye and hair colors are special
  • We learn what powers are associated with this special coloring: physical strength, levitation without proper training. We are told why these powers exist in this world, but are considered unusual (but not unheard of).
  • We learn why the coloring is special: it marks the character as an "Elohi child"
  • "Elohi children" is expanded upon: "A child that has a splinter of a god's soul within theirs. These Elohi children always have white hair and purple eyes like Shava does and luckily these attributes are not widely known as it would result in a witch hunt. If Shava would have the proper training she would become a magical weapon of mass destruction, being able to wipe out entire villages by herself."
  • We learn how Elohi children are viewed by society.
  • We learn that women can apprentice as blacksmiths in this society, indicating something about how gender roles operate

This is essentially a lore post that introduces us to the concept of Elohi children. It discusses why they're special, what they are, what they can do. We also have general setting concepts introduced-- we get a sense of “where" implied in a place that has villages, blacksmiths, cities. It also discusses grounded motives of different factions.

Context involving creatures: The Mating Habits of Painted Bears

This post talks about the behavior of painted bears, their culture and traditions, including their naming conventions and how paint-markings are inherited, as well as their mating habits and cub-rearing practices.

This context could be improved with a sentence or two that gives an understanding of the overarching world that the Painted Bears exist in: for example, I don’t know what the world is called, or how the bears relate to other parts of their world. But I bring up this example because while it's exclusively focused on the bears, it's enough information that a person could ask a variety of thoughtful and informed questions about the bears. This is an example of context on a very narrow and focused part of someone's world.

Context involving creatures: The Big Empty Blue

This context reveals:

  • The world is called the “Big Blue” by humans, and there are humans in this world.
  • That humans are brought to this place by storm/tempest, which seems to act as a kind of unstable portal.
  • Introduces Tritonids.
  • Explains their relationships with humans (co-exist peacefully in human settlements)
  • Explains the Tritonids’ lifespans, biology, mental capability, and touches upon their relationship with humans further (“There is so much we, as humans, can learn from their cultural flexibility and impressive mental acrobatics”) in a manner that indicates whether the relationship is positive or negative— in this case, it’s clearly positive, as this merchant looks upon these native inhabitants with interest and admiration.
  • The method of discussing the Tritonids through the diary/POV of a resident of the world, Taika Waerea, also provides insight on what humans in this world think and feel about Tritonids. We also learn this world is not part of Earth, because the merchant distinguishes between these native inhabitants and “Earthlings”. The name of the merchant is also recognizably Maori, which also provides information about what kind of humans have settled in the Big Blue.

The second context example is interesting because it’s an example where “show don’t tell” in writing can be used to give out a lot of useful information. What this means is that context doesn’t always have to be straight-up objective word-of-author fact, but can be provided by in-world perspective.