Worldbuilding Questions and Ideas for Six Planet Types

Worldbuilding is a massive undertaking.

You're responsible for figuring out who and what exists, how days are spent (and how long is a day, anyway?), and what these beings believe about everything from religion to politics to pineapple on pizza to medicine and everything else under the sun(s).

Now imagine doing that for an entire planet.

Yeah. My head just exploded, too.

Looking at some of my favourite fictional universes, and a few others along the way, it feels like one of the best ways to keep things more manageable (and less "the Big Bang is throbbing inside my head") is to break things down. One step at a time.

Speaking in terms of a galaxy full of inhabited planets, we're looking today at what role a planet holds in that galaxy.

We'll investigate six different planet types, with fictional examples and questions to spark your creative fire. The questions have largely been written with the "one planet in a broader civilized galaxy" scope in mind, but you could totally adapt some as more general worldbuilding questions with a little ingenuity!

Let’s embark on our galactic tour ...

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How to Worldbuild a City Planet

Imagine a world so dazzlingly cosmopolitan that every artist for light years around grows up saving their credit chits for the interstellar passage when they come of age. Or perhaps it’s a world seemingly made for diplomatic negotiations, with a calming scent emanating from the plants that wind their way up and over the peace domes. Maybe it’s a military powerhouse of a planet, its varied terrain serving as both breeding and training grounds for the galaxy’s most terrifying army, from birth to embarkation. The sky(scraper)’s the limit when it comes to urban planets.

For example ...

The original inspiration for this blog post, Coruscant, home to the Galactic Senate and the capital of the galaxy (and later the Empire), made its first onscreen appearance in Return of the Jedi.

"From space, "the jewel of the Core Worlds" can almost be mistaken for an artificial construct. Where other worlds have forests, grasslands, and oceans, Coruscant has factories, skyscrapers, and aquifers. Every scrap of surface area, except for the tiny polar ice caps, has been smothered by a dense layer of urbanization. In many places, this layer is covered by another layer, then another and another, creating canyons that plunge vertically for kilometers."

Coruscant and the Core Worlds, a Star Wars Roleplaying Game Sourcebook

Worldbuilding Questions

Is this planet a self-contained entity or part of a network of city planets?

How many cities are present? Is it a planet-sized New York City, for example, with areas like Brooklyn and Manhattan being the equivalent of countries, or does the planet consist of several different cities?

Was this planet developed as a city planet from the start or did it evolve over time? The latter may have resulted in a more scrabbly, patchwork city, while the former could have put more efficient infrastructure into place with expansion and growth in mind.

How does this planet fit into the governmental scheme of the galaxy? Is it the centre of everything? Does it govern itself, with no outside influence or pressure?

What’s the cultural makeup of the planet? If there’s more than one culture, how well do they co-exist? Is there an inherent hierarchy? If there’s predominantly one culture, has it spread elsewhere in the galaxy? Did the culture originate here or elsewhere?

With so many urban resources and opportunities at its disposal, a city planet can drive powerful shifts if it's dedicated enough. Does your city planet have a pacifist focus? Military? Diplomatic? Commercial?

How does this city planet support itself? What’s the basis of its economy?

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How to Worldbuild a Mining Planet

Nothing comes from nothing (as suggested by Parmenides, a Greek philosopher, and Maria and Captain von Trapp), but sometimes it’s easy—too easy—to forget what it takes to get hold of certain raw materials. A mining planet in your galaxy could be anything from a high-tech marvel staffed by robotic workers with a 4.2 percent malfunction chance to a haggard operation with tools in various states of disrepair and miners so overwhelmed by an unrealistic production schedule that they’re making deadly mistakes.

For example ...

Kerenza IV, an illegal mining colony trapped by the interests of rival corporations and forced into a deadly conflict in The Illuminae Files series.

For an old classic, look no further than the planet of Arrakis in the Dune series, which was the sole source of melange or "the spice", an immeasurably valuable (and highly addictive) substance that could triple life expectancy and fuel interstellar travel, among countless other uses.

Worldbuilding Questions

What resource is being mined on this planet?

How rare is this resource? Can it be found elsewhere in the galaxy?

What is the resource used for? Why use this resource and not something else?

Does this resource regenerate in some way, or is the supply permanently depleted after enough mining?

Does this mining planet operate under the radar or above board? If it’s an illegal operation, is the resource itself illegal? Are mining operations strictly regulated? Is there too much red tape for a legal operation to be a profitable venture?

How are the workers treated? Could they leave if they wanted to, or are they bound to work in the mines? Are they (and potentially their families) on this planet for life or would they have the resources to leave?

What are working conditions like in the mine? How stable is it?

Are there any detrimental health effects of the mining, over the short-term or long-term? Can they be treated or will they worsen over time?

Is this mining operation, and by extension the planet, self-governing or does it answer to another force?

Who’s funding the mining operation? Has this always been the case or has it changed hands before?

Is the colony housing the workers fairly well-established, perhaps even urban, or is it more bare-bones? Are there a variety of shops, amenities, and resources available to the workers, or is life quite spartan?

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How to Worldbuild an Archaeological Planet

Many a modern-day human finds themselves intrigued by those who came before us. We look to the past for knowledge, wisdom, novelty, and sometimes even entertainment. Consider the burst of Egyptomania in nineteenth century Europe, for example, or the latest instalment in the Assassin’s Creed video game series, which has you playing as a mercenary in a mythological interpretation of the Peloponnesian War.

Spacefaring beings are no less fascinated by the past, so a planet covered in the ruins of an ancient civilization might be just the thing your story needs.

For example ...

Feros, a planet visited in the first Mass Effect game, is home to both Prothean ruins—a mysterious civilization remembered mostly for their scientific contributions—and the recently established human colony that made a home in the ruins themselves.

If you’re more familiar with Star Wars gaming lore, you might think of Korriban, the planet filled with ruins, temples, and artifacts from the ancient Sith empire. In Knights of the Old Republic, its sequel, and The Old Republic, this is where you can find the Sith Academy.

"Surrounding the academy are the tombs of the first Dark Lords. Used as testing grounds by the academy overseers, the tombs remain filled with traps, monstrosities and relics, even millennia after their construction-along with the bodies of a generation of failed acolytes."

In-Game Codex, The Old Republic

Worldbuilding Questions

What’s most notably remembered about this civilization?

What’s the significance of this civilization to your story?

What effect did the civilization have on the rest of the galaxy before its fall? Were they bearers of knowledge? Were they galactic peacekeepers?

How did this civilization fall into ruin? Was it due to internal forces (a civil war, perhaps), external forces (such as an environmental catastrophe), or a combination?

Did the civilization spread elsewhere in the galaxy or is the whole of their story told on this planet, in the ruins left behind?

What state are the ruins in? Can you still see the form of their architecture, for example, or find evidence of the items that furnished a home?

How are the ruins perceived, and by who? Are they thought of as a junk heap to be bulldozed? A holy site to be revered? A priceless fount of knowledge? A primitive stain on history?

Do the ruins exist separate and apart from the new colony, or have they been incorporated in some way into the new settlement(s)?

If neighbouring or combined, what effect does this proximity of the ruins have on the settlers?

Are any aspects of the ancient civilization still alive and able to be communed with? This could take the form of things like spirits, ghosts, or artifacts. For a fictional example, have a think about the information storage devices known as holocrons left behind by the Sith and the Jedi Order.

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How to Worldbuild a Post-Apocalypse Planet

In worldbuilding a post-apocalyptic planet, you have the opportunity to explore the story of a society pushed to a breaking point ... and perhaps even past it. Whether that story ends in triumph or tragedy, or a dusty road somewhere in the middle, is entirely up to you.

It may have taken centuries or hours for this catastrophe to pass the point of no return, but the effects on society will be global. It’s time to see how things pan out when the dust settles.

For example ...

Tuchanka, the krogan homeworld in the Mass Effect series. What used to be a jungle planet teeming with life is now a scarred landscape that’s been scorched by nuclear firestorms.

There’s also the post-apocalyptic version of Earth in the Fallout series. Not only is it filled with factions desperate to survive the wasteland, but a shadow government in the United States known as "The Enclave" has leapt on the opportunity to conduct mysterious scientific experiments and manipulate their way to governing not just the USA but the world.

Worldbuilding Questions

What was the cause of the apocalypse? Did it happen quickly, in a short series of catastrophic events, or was it a gradual evolution?

If the apocalypse was caused by a singular event, how long ago was that event?

Before the apocalypse, what was the world’s place in the galaxy? What role, if any, does it have now?

How does the galaxy perceive the fate of this planet? As a tragedy? A warning to the rest of the galaxy? A sacred cleansing?

What was life like on the planet before the apocalypse? What is society like now? Have any values, industries, or cultures, for example, survived relatively unscathed, or do some still exist but in a changed form?

What aspects of culture, history, flora or fauna were irrevocably lost to the apocalypse? (To focus your answer, try narrowing it down to aspects that are still remembered or memorialized in the present day.)

What environmental effects have taken hold of the planet as a result of the apocalypse? How does this affect daily life?

Did anyone find a way to take advantage of the apocalypse, on-world or off?

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How to Worldbuild a Failed Colony Planet

For every possible motivation behind the colonization attempt of a planet, there’s the potential for a consequence of equivalent stakes if it fails.

A failed colony meant to be a new outpost in a galactic war creates a weak spot on the front line.

If the colony was a last-ditch attempt at survival for citizens of a dying planet, failure could lead to extinction.

Was the colony intended as a refuelling point for a valuable trade route? Failure might open the door to a vote of no confidence in the current CEO and a company-wide shakeup that impacts multiple planets.

The impact of failure will reverberate throughout the colony’s masterminds, and any colonists still on the planet’s surface are bound to feel the strongest aftershocks.

For example ...

Terra 1, better known as Monarch, from The Outer Worlds. Corporate conjecture would have you believe "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy" (as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said in a very different universe) but Monarch isn’t quite what it seems ...

"One of the habitable worlds, Terra 1 was a moon orbiting a massive gas giant called Olympus. Human terraforming didn’t work on the planet, and among other problems, much of the local fauna was dramatically altered, sizing it up into mega versions that pose tremendous threats to human life. In-game, Terra 1 has been renamed as Monarch, and it’s a dangerous place to live. It’s also where the board’s outsized influence has begun to fray, as many groups and individuals are rebelling against the companies."

"The Universe of the Outer Worlds", Game Informer

Worldbuilding Questions

What was the plan or hope for this colony? What role would it have held?

How high were the stakes? Was this a "last chance" kind of colony? A testing ground? One colony of hundreds?

In what sense has the colony failed? What conditions and/or events led to the failure of this colony? Could it have been avoided?

What’s the state of the colony now? Is it self-sufficient? What is it like to live there?

Is it possible to leave or are the colonists stuck on this planet for the foreseeable future?

What kind of support does this colony get, if any, from outside sources?

What’s the future outlook for this colony if nothing changes?

How do the colonists perceive the colonisation attempt and its failure? How do people off-world feel about the same?

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How to Worldbuild an Aesthetic Planet

Imagine a galaxy so full of habitable planets that some could be utilized purely as tourist spots. An entire planet could be an otherworldly equivalent to one of our Wonders of the World, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Grand Canyon.

Think of the possibilities, from an engineered extravaganza to a natural phenomenon.

For example ...

Two planets from Doctor Who come to mind, the first being Darillium, the site of the Singing Towers, first mentioned by River Song in "Forest of the Dead" ...

"Darillium also contained a cave system with a crystal layer. When the wind blew though the caves by the Singing Towers, it would harmonise with the layer and cause a song to be produced, the reason why the monoliths had been named as they were."

"Darillium", The Doctor Who Wiki

Secondly, how could we not talk about Midnight, the diamond planet? This planet is stunningly beautiful, and the entire thing has been turned into a luxury resort for spacegoing travellers. It’s not without its dangers, though, as we quickly find out ...

"I'm afraid the view is shielded until we reach the Waterfall Palace. Also, a reminder. Midnight has no air, so please don't touch the exterior door seals. Fire exit at the rear, and should we need to use it, you first."

"Midnight", Doctor Who

Worldbuilding Questions

What are the aesthetic features of this planet? Which sense(s) do they engage? How would a galactic travel guidebook describe them?

Are these features beautiful to some and horrendous to others? Who would despise them and why?

Is there an economical way to experience the wonders of this planet or is it purely a luxury?

Are the aesthetic features on this planet all that they seem?

"They call it the Sapphire Waterfall, but it's no such thing. Sapphire's an aluminium oxide, but the glacier is just compound silica with iron pigmentation."

"Midnight", Doctor Who

Is there a dark side to these aesthetics, perhaps even some kind of danger? Are tourists or locals aware of this danger, or does it skulk about in the dark, waiting for the right moment to pounce?

For those with the opportunity to visit the beautiful wonders of this planet, is it a calming experience? Thrilling? Romantic? Healing?

Is this an opportunity mainly marketed to and appreciated by tourists, or does it hold meaning for locals, too?

Have attempts been made to enhance the natural aesthetic features or do they remain untouched? Have improvements been made that obscure some aspects and highlight others?

Is there a natural ticking clock on any of the aesthetic features, say from the changing course of a river or an earthquake that’s due any year now? Have attempts been made to protect them in any way or is this simply an accepted fact?

Would the planet benefit or be endangered if the aesthetic features were destroyed or modified in some way?

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Worldbuilding Overwhelm Can Be Overcome!

And so we’ve come to the end of our galactic tour! I hope you enjoyed the ride. Please don’t forget to take your complimentary Tatooine sandglobe on the way out!

While you’re packing up, I just wanted to say that if you do find worldbuilding overwhelming, you’re not the only one. The hardest part for me is how wide-open everything is. I could do anything, and while that fact seems to inspire some writers, it turns me into an ice sculpture.

What I love about this approach is it narrows things down immensely, whether you come to it with some ideas about a planet in mind already or are starting completely from scratch. Once you know a planet’s role in the galaxy, and some of the specifics that go along with that planet type, you can start to layer on whatever you haven’t already: things like climate, culture, and a healthy dose of chaos for good fictional measure.

Whether your dream is to bring your planet to life on the page or the screen, I hope this helps you get there! May the worldbuilding spark be with you.

If you want to refer back to these worldbuilding questions later, pick your favourite planet type below and pin this post for future reference! (These images may appear small here, but they'll be larger than life on Pinterest!)