This post will be a rambling thing, like my thinking. If you're happy with how you develop the history of the world in which your games are run, feel free to skip.
When I think of worldbuilding, I don't think of it in the way it is generally used now, with multi-page design documents that detail the history or even pre-history of a world, the great wars between spiritual planes, the rise of individual peoples, and so forth. What I think of the term is somewhat different, and of course to make my definition sensible, I have to provide some rambling, seemingly off-top thoughts.
Most game worlds now for virtually any tabletop engine are a libertarian's wet dream, in my opinion. Roads, food, money, items, rest and recuperation, etc. are all just present for whomever can afford them. They have sprung from nothing, whole-cloth, to be taken or used by whomever is best equipped to do so. No one made a magic item that is discovered - it has no secret or old purpose. It is just a magic item to fill out a loot table.
But these sorts of goods and services don't just exist. Someone had to make them, and there was a reason they came to be. Thinking of why these goods and services came to be, and the consequence of their existence, is what I mean about worldbuilding.
I don't want to even get started on the topic of money (for this post at least).
Let's talk roads instead. Even in a civilization with modern heavy equipment, roads require an amazing expenditure of resources in many forms to bring into existence, and in pre-modern times the investment in labor would be even larger.
For the idea of a road to come to mind, there has to be a need that will be addressed by the road's construction that isn't satisfied currently. A person or group with sufficient influence determines the need, and then sets in motion the process of procuring the resources and deploying them to build the road.
There have to be resources available (foremost labor) to make the road, and of course there are resources associated with labor that also need to be addressed.
The road, in turn, makes civilization of the the areas near the road more likely, even if resources aren't optimal, as it makes travel over it just that much easier, thus making resources used for exploration or travel go a little further.
So, for an example of my thought processes, I will provide this hypothetical example of a multi-hex road network in an area of moderate population, with at least one ruin.
I'll use Caius Trismegistus (C3, as they refer to themselves), a historical magic-user of no modern note, as the prime mover. They are a three-souled revenant ruler of a frontier hex they've subjugated. A complex of ancient ruins was the main feature of the hex, and after C3 and their hirelings dealt with the inhabitants in the ruin and beat down the local wildlife, C3 has decided to use the location as the starting point of their own demesne.
C3 would like to:
- a) convert the ruin they're currently using as their fortress into a stronghold proper, to serve as their residence and base of operations,
- b) establish a population to convert the resources of the area they control into goods or materials that other people might want, so they can
- c) accumulate goods, material, and people to protect the borders of their conquered territory and to purchase the necessary rare elements they need to continue their all-consuming magical research. Attracting a population will make it easier to gain more resources, and will also facilitate running the whole operation without needing to micro-manage the day-to-day affairs of their territory.
In order to facilitate the construction of their stronghold as well as bring in residents to convert the untapped resources of the hex they've conquered into usable goods and services, C3 knows they need to make travel and transport as reliable, safe, and expeditious as possible. To that end, a network of roads would seem to be the first order of business:
- a road to the nearest trade port (Port Mud) two hexes away, where goods and people can be gathered or recruited to be brought along to the stronghold,
- a road or roads to the nearest convenient (within 1 hex) locations for construction materials and resources to be used for payment or trade, and
- a road to one or more areas (also within 1 hex) where food production in some form can be undertaken for the (hopefully) swelling population of the territory, and
- other roads to other resources, as they are identified and as capital and labor permit.
C3 knows that any workers they recruit will want to be compensated for their labor. They have sufficient gems, precious metals, and other items from their decades of adventuring to bootstrap the project, but they know magical research requires the expenditure of tremendous resources and so acquisition of trade materials should actually be a high priority on the list. Otherwise, they'll have to spend decades more adventuring, thus delaying their magical research or perhaps even dying, thus setting the research back even longer.
C3 expends some resources to hire labor from Port Mud to hack a rudimentary road from Port Mud to the ruin, along with guards to keep the laborers safe, and provisions for both groups. Meanwhile, C3 also hires a prospector, who identifies an area that would be a great local source of limestone, and identifies a location for an opal mine. As the labor to establish a road goes on, month after month, C3 have been taking great care to be sure the remains of those killed in the process (as the area between their pacified hex and the port is still wild and dangerous) are "treated with the greatest respect", compensation is offered to the families, and proper local religious services observed. In fact, C3 have been collecting the remains to use as an additional labor team of restless dead (the creation of which is a spell they have mastered), though not within sight of any of their living hired hands. They use these tireless laborers to establish, if not roads, at least tracks to the quarry and the mine to ease the construction of more improved roads at a later time.Years pass. The road network has been established, the Main Road (as it becomes known) to Port Mud has been improved with rest stops and watch stations, the stronghold constructed, and additional mines for gems and a massive petrified forest are established. The roads see use not just by C3 and their forces, but by explorers and traders in their own right, along with others who have brokered agreements with C3's agents for exploiting the mines and quarry themselves. A local population center never really takes off as locally-sourced food supplies never truly thrive, but C3 accumulates enough remains to create and maintain a massive restless dead labor force. Discrete inquiries find suitable individuals willing to oversee and control the local 'population' in the quarry and mines, and C3 can finally get down to the real work of research.