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How to Build an Immersive World on a Budget

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Today we’re going to get practical and learn how to build an evocative setting for an immersive event, on a budget.

We’ve talked about how immersive events are so much more fun than normal events -- and just a quick review, when I say immersive event I mean any activity that’s meant to make the participants feel as if they’ve traveled to another time and place, like an Alice in Wonderland tea party, or a night at Hogwarts. You can watch lots of examples of how to plan specific themed parties on this playlist. But today let’s talk about the basics -- how can you plan an immersive experience based on ANY fandom?

NOTE: If you'd prefer to watch this discussion on YouTube, please CLICK HERE

The key to creating any really engaging immersive event is worldbuilding. Some of you may have heard this term in relation to writing, but I’m using it in a slightly different way. Worldbuilding in this context means replicating the most evocative elements of a fictional world, so that the participants in the event can recognize where they are. You’ve heard the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief”, right? Well, the first step in helping the guests in your fictional world block out reality is to surround them with visual connections to the fantasy world, almost like little magical talismans that take center stage, and force the items from the real world out of focus.

In any fictional world, there are iconic items that everyone recognizes. For example, lightsabers from Star Wars, or the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter. If you were to walk into an otherwise empty room and see the Sorting Hat on a pedestal, you’d know immediately that there’s a Harry Potter experience waiting for you.

Beyond this kind of specific symbol, we can also use more generic items to suggest certain worlds. For example, a medieval type of space would include a lot of candles in it, and crude wooden bowls and primitive metalwork. None of these are specific to any particular fandom, but they immediately suggest a feudal or gothic timeframe, in which guests can lose themselves. In contrast, a Victorian era space could also include candles, bowls and metal, but the candles would be tall and thin in candelabras instead of short and chunky, and the bowls would be made of patterned china and filled with sugared fruits instead of porridge or stew, and the metalwork would be filigreed gold or silver, not simple iron. You can really identify a specific time and place by grouping together just a few iconic items that visually tell your story. And it’s amazing how your brain doesn’t need a whole space filled top to bottom with cues to feel immersed in another world … all it needs is a few meaningful items, and your imagination fills in the rest!

Now, it would be wonderful if we were all Walt Disney and had unlimited resources to build our favorite fantasy world from the ground up, but we all know that our Harry Potter party is going to have to take place in our apartment or our yard or our classroom, and we can’t be spending thousands of dollars on it. Luckily, I’ve learned a lot of money-saving tricks over all my years of creating immersive spaces and activities, and now you can cherry pick the ones that work for you!

The three main things you’ll need to do to create your immersive space are:

  1. Remove the anachronistic items

  2. Collect generally evocative items

  3. Collect specific fandom items

Let’s start with number one, which is pretty obvious but really is the most important thing you can do. Whether you’re building your world in an apartment common room, or your own living room, or a school gym, or your yard, take a hard look at what items are there that will ruin the mood, and are light enough to move. Grab a friend and move the worst offenders into another room, or stash them in the basement for a while. Take the electric clock off the wall, move the water cooler, put all the charging cords and the calendars and the car keys somewhere else. And if you’re stuck with something that’s too big to move, or it’s permanently installed, like a tv on the wall, try to cover it up.

And don’t feel like you have to go out and buy something special to do the covering … use what you have! You’re going to hear me say this a lot. Go find a tablecloth, or some sheets, or even curtains from another room. If you’re already a fan of the particular genre of your event, you probably have some things around that vibe with that setting. Maybe you have a rustic woven cape that you used for LARPing … drape that over the computer. Or maybe you have an oversized paisley scarf … that will do very nicely to cover up the microwave (just make sure you unplug that!)

Now it’s time for step number two, collecting generally evocative decor. These are the simple items that form the base or the background for your fantasy world. Now where are we going to get these?

There used to be a lot of home decorating shows on tv that would feature a professional designer redecorating someone’s room by rummaging through their house for things they already had and repurposing them. This is how you’re going to save money on step number two. Go on a scavenger hunt through your whole house and gather up everything you already have that “suggests” the era of your world.

So for example, If you’re going for an ancient setting, like a castle or a sorcerer’s lair, look for things like pillar candles, wooden salad bowls, iron servingware, oriental rugs, old bottles, old books, wooden boxes, and fabrics like black velvet or red silk.

If you’re building a rich setting like a mansion, you can go dark or light here -- dark for something like a Great Gatsby evening or light for something like a Jane Austen tea. For your light mansion background, look for things like flower arrangements, china teacups and teapots, lace tablecloths, tiered cake plates, leather bound books and glass bowls. For your dark mansion background, you’re looking for black and gold fabrics, like tablecloths and napkins, gold votive candles, mirrors to place things on, really anything that’s gold and sparkly - even old mardi gras beads.

If you’re building a world in a very specific era, like the Art Deco era for example, look for things that you already own that have that shape and style, even if they’re not traditional decorative items. Maybe you have an Art Deco picture frame, or some martini glasses, or even something like a toothbrush holder that you can repurpose - stick some flowers in that and pretend it’s a vase!

And that’s a point that bears repeating. You can literally use anything as decor to build your world - when you group together related items you’re creating a still life, and you can put anything you like into that collage. A top hat, or white gloves, or a paper fan, or a string of pearls or a beaded purse.

Collect everything that seems to even remotely belong in your setting, pile it all up in your space, then artistically redistribute it around the room so it has the maximum effect.

What I mean is, you don’t want to just place one random item on each flat surface. That won’t give you the effect you’re going for. This needs to be more natural, like that items live in this space. You want to group together items of different sizes and textures on different levels, all around the room as sort of a frame for the activity in the center. Think of this not as dots distributed symmetrically, but as waves. You’ll put a few things on the walls, a few things on small side tables, a few things in the corners, something really special in the center of the table with the food, maybe something eye-catching at the entry door … everything should be spread around subtly, like it belongs there, so people see it subconsciously, almost out of the corners of their eyes, wherever they are in the room.

Now to make your little still lives look like they’re organically part of the room, you’re going to anchor them with a few other normal items that everyone has. You can use a tray to turn mismatched china into a deliberate group, or a pile of old books to put a magnifying glass on, or a mirror to pull together a hat and gloves, or even flowers string lights. Large potted plants are also a great way to fill in any gaps you might have around your space. The addition of these anchors transforms your items from “holiday decorations” that are set on top of real life, to artifacts from a real place.

And now it’s time for step three, which is to introduce a few specific iconic items from your fandom to narrow down your atmosphere from just A castle, to Hogwarts, for example. Again, if you’re already a fan of the world that you’re replicating, chances are you already have items all over your house that you can use for this step. And don’t limit yourself to the obvious … sure, bring out the Sorting hat, but also grab that empty bottle of pumpkin juice that you brought home from Universal because it looked cool. Everything works in a still life! Then, put your most prized possessions in central locations so they have the most impact.

Now remember, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to replicate the specific aspects of your fandom. Take this still life. There is literally only one licensed Harry Potter item in this picture, yet your mind just told you that you were looking at a Harry Potter space. This is a normal old trunk that I found in the basement, a regular broom, a decorative birdcage, a stuffed owl that’s not Hedwig, and a Hogwarts scarf, that was actually a gift. I set the scene and filled this whole corner essentially for free. I love things that are free!

One other very affordable way to bring specific characters from your fandom into your decor is by printing out photos from the internet and displaying them in old frames around your space. You can get old frames at your local Goodwill or thrift shop for a dollar or two, and now it looks like your favorite characters live in your space!

And on the subject of Goodwill, you may need to buy a few items to fill in the gaps in your decor -- maybe you’re having an Alice in Wonderland tea party and you need more teacups. Whatever it is that you need, definitely check your local thrift shop first. Serving plates, candles, vases, old books, themed hats … you can find so many interesting things at the thrift store for just a few dollars. It’s so worth it, especially if you think you might host more than one event. Because things like teacups work for all kinds of themes!

So those are the steps you’ll need to follow to build a fantasy setting for any immersive event. You can also use these same steps to create a permanent fantasy world in your own home -- maybe you’re dreaming of an Agatha Christie themed bedroom or a Narnia themed playroom.

I’d love to hear about the immersive events that you’re planning in the comments, and how you transformed your space into a fantasy world.


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