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Let's Talk About RPG Worldbuilding

Reynard

Legend
I put this in General because I don't want to get bogged down with D&Disms in abroader discussion about world building. That isn't to say we can't talk about D&D world building, just that we should take care not to make it ABOUT D&D world building specifically.

So, that said: what sorts of things do you think are important in RPG world building? From a player's perspective and separately from a GM's perspective. What areas do you personally focus on when you engage in world building? How much world building do you do prior to launching a campaign in the world? What tools do you employ?

What are some of your favorite examples of RPG world building, professional or otherwise? What are your least favorite examples?
 

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pemerton

Legend
I think it is helpful to consider whether worldbuilding is (1) an element of play, (2) a resource for play, or (3) an activity that is fun for the worldbuilder but largely independent of play.

An example of (3): the details of the Oeridian and Sueloise migrations described in the World of Greyhawk. This information does not generate consequences for play. It does not support scene-framing or otherwise developing situations for play. It's role in D&D play is similar to speculating, in LotR, who exactly was Queen Beruthiel and what was up with her cats?

An example of (2): the relationship between the Assassin's Guild and the Thieve's Guild in a classic D&D city like the City of Greyhawk. This provides material for developing situations for play. In some contexts, a GM might use it to determine consequences for action declarations.

An example of (1): there is not too much of this in D&D play, but it can be an important part of other systems. Eg in a Cortex+ Heroic/MHRP game, a player spends a plot point to establish a Resource which, in the fiction, is a piece of information or a contact. Now we have a bit more of the world built.

A different example of (1): a player fails a check, and the GM establishes some new element of the world to establish the nature/reason/context of the failure in the fiction. Eg in a Burning Wheel game I GMed, a player failed a check to identify a useful trait on a magical item, and I narrated that instead the character noticed the item was cursed. Given the context of the item and the check this established further backstory about the item's origins in the Bright Desert.

I think most of the action in RPG worldbuilding is in the interplay of (1) and (2) - that is, in the interplay between what are typically GM roles (framing, establishing situations, narrating failures for consequences) and player roles (declaring actions, establishing what happens next if the PCs get their way).
 

For me, designing a world starts the same as designing a character.

What's the "schtick"? What is the one thing that is different, unexpected, not seen or done before about it?

Then, "How did that come about?"
 

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
For me I start with a map of the general area, roughly 500 miles in each direction. Then knowledge the players will have, what is in each direction. Then I define what is evil in the game world and build up a world myth.

Start to provide more details on the place the characters are from, the town and at least one major city. Some of this will be driven by what classes the characters are.

As the players advance and move in a direction I will start to fill in details, what the map starts to look like is an octopus, only details along the tentacles, the space between; blank.
 

MGibster

Legend
So, that said: what sorts of things do you think are important in RPG world building? From a player's perspective and separately from a GM's perspective. What areas do you personally focus on when you engage in world building? How much world building do you do prior to launching a campaign in the world? What tools do you employ?
My top priority in game world design is to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for exciting game play. I tend to focus primarily on those parts of the world I expect the players will be interacting with on a regular basis. Are the players likely to spend a whole lot of time dealing with the Weighs and Means Council? Probably not, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time detailing how taxation works beyond what's necessary for a particular adventure. A good setting will provide the PCs with some ideas for what they can expect their characters to be doing.
What are some of your favorite examples of RPG world building, professional or otherwise? What are your least favorite examples?
I'll give Shadowrun a lot of credit. They have a very rich and interesting world designed for the PCs to be shadow runners in. I'll nominate Blue Planet as both bad and great. It's great in that it's a rich complicated world with so much to do. But it's a rich complicated world with so much to do and no direction is given to players on what exactly they'll be doing.
 

Puddles

Explorer
My experience is players love to come up with the towns, cities and even nations where their characters come from rather than having to ask the DM, so before the campaign begins I, as the DM, actually do very little world building. I usually just create the starting town and the starting quest.

Then after session 0, I take all of the world building my players have done and start fitting it into the larger world while I add in more details around it.

I also like to world build as I go, using the "leaving doors open" method. What this means is I drop loads of tidbits, hooks and little details here and there, not only to see which my players pick up on, but which ones take my interest later on too. In the first session I added a silver brooch in the shape of a Kraken clasped onto the cloak of a dead Dwarf. Now, 21 sessions later, Kragomandir, the sleeping Kraken worshipped by the Dwarves has become a major part of the plot. I had no idea that would be so when I first put that brooch onto that fallen Dwarf. For me this is one of the spices of DM'ing, I love not knowing where even my own world building will go. :love:
 

Greg K

Hero
I am going to focus on fantasy, but as a player, I, generally, want many of same things in post-holocaust or space opera (with some variation due to genre):
1. A map with the various nations from which PC can hail? What are the major natural geological features (bodies of water, deserts, forests, mountains, islands, etc.), nation boundaries, towns, cities, etc.
2. The player races available?
4. The culture(s)within the races and where they found. I also want the DM to think about aspects of the culture such as the following (and some things may be based on other decisions)
a. What is the subsistence of the society foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, agrarian?
b. What is the technological level?
c. What is the social organization (band, tribal, chieftain or state)?
d. What is the social stratification (e.g. egalitarian, class, caste)? Is the society a democracy, matriarchy, monarchy, oligarchy, mageocracy, theocrachy or something else?
e. What is the belief system (e.g. animism, shamanistic, polytheistic, monothesitic, syncretism)
  • In a polytheisitc or monotheistic society: whom are the gods - their domains, symbols, any sacred animal/creatures priesthoods (including a strictures, vestments, some holy days, tailored spell lists)
  • in a society where spirit worship exists- animistic or shamanistic (one religious leader)- what the the major spirits?
f. What are the classes, class variants (if any), and subclasses found or not found in the society? The same for backgrounds.
g. Have some cultural guidelines on things like naming conventions, body adornment, views on magic, property ownership, and crime/punishment
i. whom are are the important NPCs (e.g. rulers, powerful wizards, religious leaders) and organizations (e.g. wizard academies, merchant guilds, thieves guilds, temples of deities) (if any) within the society whom my character might now and have ties. General notes are fine.
j. what are some things that my character would know based upon growing up in a specifc culture and even might know based on their class which might provide hooks or goals for my character?
  • noteworthy current events (e.g. feuding noble houses, an attack by a wizard's guild on religious leaders, the abduction of someone noteworthy, a usurper to the throne and a rebellion to take the throne back, mysterious lights in a forest, etc.), rumors or gossip.
  • past historical events of note (e.g. a war or long animosity with a neighboring people, a deity appearing where a temple dedicate to them is now located),
  • or other things such as possible adventuring sites (e.g. a haunted location, trolls in the local swamp)
  • a secret society based upon gender, age, social status, and/ or or character class
As a DM, having the above worked out prior to character generation helps me get everyone on the same page and ground pcs in the setting. In play,it also helps me when I need to answer questions or improvise- especially, when players choose to change direction in the middle of a session

What I do not need as a player are migration patterns, names of different coinages, minute details of architecture, etc.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So, that said: what sorts of things do you think are important in RPG world building? From a player's perspective and separately from a GM's perspective. What areas do you personally focus on when you engage in world building? How much world building do you do prior to launching a campaign in the world? What tools do you employ?

What are some of your favorite examples of RPG world building, professional or otherwise? What are your least favorite examples?

I'm going to work this largely from (2) that pemerton lists, above.

From this standpoint, worldbuilding is an activity to make things for the PCs to interact with. And from that we can see very quickly that as a GM with a particular table, my worldbuilding ought to look rather different from that of a published work.

When I do worldbuilding, I build only what I need. If I don't expect players to interact with it, I don't build it. If I don't expect it to impact play soon, I don't really need to build it. Huge swaths of the world can be left blank, because they are not relevant for my upcoming sessions.

This is different from published works - I have some good idea of what I'll need for my campaign and upcoming sessions. The guy who wrote the setting book years ago had no idea what I'd need. So the published work has tons more stuff in it than I need, ad I pick and choose what I want. But most of the work actually ends up falling into pemerton's (3), not ever going to impact play.

My favorite exmples of worldbuilding have been Classic Deadlands and the old Alternity Dark*Matter settings. Both of them amount to gigantic piles of adventure seeds.
 

kenada

Legend
Supporter
So, that said: what sorts of things do you think are important in RPG world building? From a player's perspective and separately from a GM's perspective. What areas do you personally focus on when you engage in world building? How much world building do you do prior to launching a campaign in the world? What tools do you employ?
I think it’s important to understand your purpose for worldbuilding and stick to it. If you’re worldbuilding for a campaign, and you end up doing it for its own sake, you can end up with material that’s not actually useful in play. That was the problem in v1 of my homebrew setting (currently working out v3).

When I first started working on my setting, I thought I had to detail how everything works. I thought I would do something “different” and have a setting that was built out as a function world. I spent a lot of time figuring out how various elements worked. There were a number of different polities, and it was cool. Except that we wanted to do an exploration-based game, and if there are no unexplored spaces, there’s not much to explore.

In v2 of my setting, I rectified that by reframing the setting as being perpetually in decline after a war long ago. There were frontier areas to explore, and that’s where we spent a lot of time playing. However, the setting was very vaguely specified. Even though there were a number of major polities, they had little influence on what was happening. It was basically a blank slate campaign with some fluff regarding the playable species. What should have been a source of adventures ended up leaving me having to wing everything, and the local politics ended up underspecified and unimportant. Even though my players had some interest in them, I wasn’t able to meet that need.

For v3 of my setting, I’m following the campaign creation procedure in Worlds Without Number. Kevin Crawford reminds you frequently to design your setting for playability first. If it’s not a potential source of hooks, you can do that if it’s fun, but it’s not going to be useful, and you should focus on generating content that is useful. Even though we had an existing setting, I treated it as a retcon, but it’s more like a reboot. Some of the basic parameters are similar, but the details are often very different.

The end result is a setting where there are spaces for PCs to go explore, but there are larger actors who are pursuing their own interests. Since I’m trying to pursue a Right to Dream agenda, I want to make sure the world continues to move once set into motion. The setting I have now combined with the tools WWN provides for content creation and maintaining dynamism will let me do that.

I’d like to think I’ve done something right when upon showing my players the map in this post and explaining the setting, they point to the fallen capital, and say, “we want to loot that.” They’ve already started working on their plans for that, which has become the group’s aspiration for the game. I also like that if we made new characters somewhere else, we could just pick up and start following what happens with them.

What are some of your favorite examples of RPG world building, professional or otherwise? What are your least favorite examples?
I’m our forever D&D-like DM, so my experience with other settings is pretty limited. When we do Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020 or Scum and Villainy, someone else is the one doing it. Consequently, I don’t know enough to say whether I have a favorite. My least favorite setting material are the gazetteer format that’s popular in D&D settings. A lot of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting stuff I have tends to be in that format. You’ll get a lot of information on history and cities and stuff, but only a fraction of the book is dedicated to content for adventure hooks. I don’t like building the setting during play. We tried that with Dungeon World, and it was too gonzo. Since it was mainly about establishing the current context, it wasn’t much of a source of adventure hooks.
 

If I am doing any significant world-building before the fact, then that means I've got a concept that players desire to use, so there will be specific parameters. Here's an example:

A few years ago some of the people I have played a lot of RPGs with were talking about various ideas. I don't recall who suggested what exactly, it was mostly emails and exchanging some ideas for character backgrounds and whatnot, but in the end we all decided we wanted to create a mini-campaign to make a classical Arthurian Romance kind of story, but for some reason that I fail to recall now, decided to invent a sort of fantasy France to set it in.

So, I built the outline of 'Fantasy France'. It has a map, some regions, towns, and castles are indicated on the map, along with some dark forests, an area which is a separate kingdom said to be the abode of giants, etc. Most of it was pretty vague and few details were filled in. The players were busy making PACE characters and figuring out their backgrounds (basically various knights and ladies and such, IIRC one character was a 'Druid'). This filled in a few missing bits in terms of the rulers of the country, Alleterre, a curse of some sort, and a starting point for play.

To kick things off I did create a few NPCs that would be required for the starting part of the story, and a few more that I thought would tie in later to the existing plot strings. Since all the people playing were either super experienced RPGers and/or writers, I didn't really have to try much to get a decent starting scenario (IE asking people questions or anything like that) but normally I'd do that if it was needed.

Decades ago I might have done much more 'high prep', but IMHO it really just gets in the way. I am not telling MY story, it is coming out of play and will be about what interests the players. I make up a good chunk of it, but it is rare nowadays that I add something whole cloth which lacks any suggestion that it would engage the people playing.
 

ART!

Hero
I try to force myself to stop noodling away creatively and ask myself what aspects of this world are going to do the most for creating the tone we want at the table during play? Basically: work smart, not hard. What's going to give me the most bang for my buck: the "bang" being flavor that's useful to the players in helping them get in the mood and make characters that are natural fits for the tone, and the "buck" being my/our time and effort spent developing things.

Choosing or tweaking a system that will emulate the tone you want is essential, I think, but beyond that, I think imagery is very useful. I'm very visually oriented, so doing that comes naturally to me and is an easy way to get me in the right headspace. People who are less visually-oriented might not be inclined to think that way, but I've found that an evocative image or collection of images does wonders to inspire even those folks.

Similarly, a map or maps rendered in a style that evokes the tone and (sub)genre could be a great thing to hunt down, make, or commission.

A short list of well-known cultural touchstones could also be very useful in letting everyone know how things should feel.

A lot fo that is not technically worldbuilding maybe, but is at least useful in prepping for the actual worldbuilding.
 

Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
I start small but not small in terms of world-size. I start small in terms of quantity of details.

The Kingdom is a feudal bureaucracy! Why? Because of something to do with the creators...who cares, really? Well, I do but I leave these open because when I don't have them tied directly to a certain concept, I can use these leftover details to directly relate to the adventure or the PC's.

"Wait, the ancient kingdom creator had a strong draconic bloodline? Hmmm...and they happen to be of the same draconic type as the draconic sorcerer? Hm...interesting. Maybe you should look into that Mr./Ms. Sorcerer! Could have a nice luxurious life as a commoner to noble hero with some groundbreaking political influence. Might even have access to resources useful in the next adventure that you wouldn't have without your new position..."
 

Nobby-W

Far more clumsy and random than a blaster
I feel a lot of world builders fall into the trap of making too much mid-level canon, for example, detailed histories or setting notes about cultures. It might feel like fleshing out a world but in practice a lot of that sort of work never really informs actual play, sitting a couple of degrees more abstract than things the players will actually interact with. Often it feels quite sterile to read as well. While it is necessary to have some sort of big picture in mind to hang things off, this gets into diminishing returns pretty quickly, and can even be counterproductive to go down too far.

I think a better approach is to have some sort of big picture to hang the bits together, but then to largely focus on detail that directly affects the adventures - drive the canon off what you need for the adventures. This keeps it (a) useful and likely to be relevant and (b) more likely to feel 'lived in' rather than static and sterile, as it is designed to be used in an adventure. It also lends itself to a show-don't-tell approach to exposition.

Plus, if you drip-feed your setting canon rather than ramming a 200-page tome down players' throats it's more likely to keep them interested and wanting to see more.
 

Reynard

Legend
While I generally agree that broad strokes and empty spaces work well for many elements of RPG world building, the place where I have trouble is remembering to write down and then go back and shore up whatever nonsense I come up with off the cuff.
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
While I generally agree that broad strokes and empty spaces work well for many elements of RPG world building, the place where I have trouble is remembering to write down and then go back and shore up whatever nonsense I come up with off the cuff.

Same here.

I do enjoy world building for its own sake. But I understand a lot of what I write will never impact play. And that's fine; as I said, I'm doing it for it's own sake. Very occasionally I do get a situation where a player starts asking questions about something that I have prepped and I'm able to pull out my wodge of notes and impress them with my preparedness. Those moments feel nice. :)
 

MGibster

Legend
I try to force myself to stop noodling away creatively and ask myself what aspects of this world are going to do the most for creating the tone we want at the table during play? Basically: work smart, not hard. What's going to give me the most bang for my buck: the "bang" being flavor that's useful to the players in helping them get in the mood and make characters that are natural fits for the tone, and the "buck" being my/our time and effort spent developing things.
I was working on a D&D world trying to come up with a way for each player to feel more connected to the setting. My brilliant solution was to create an organization of some sort based on character class that the PCs would belong to. i.e. If they were a Fighter Battle Master they were members of the Royal Academy of Arms, Eldritch Knights were part of the University, etc., etc. But it was a lot of work and I wasn't sure if any of my players would have been interested so I decided to direct my efforts elsewhere.
 

Reynard

Legend
I was working on a D&D world trying to come up with a way for each player to feel more connected to the setting. My brilliant solution was to create an organization of some sort based on character class that the PCs would belong to. i.e. If they were a Fighter Battle Master they were members of the Royal Academy of Arms, Eldritch Knights were part of the University, etc., etc. But it was a lot of work and I wasn't sure if any of my players would have been interested so I decided to direct my efforts elsewhere.
I think that's the kind of thing you can loosely define in your notes -- no more than a sentence or two -- and then keep in your back pocket in case it comes up in play.
 

MGibster

Legend
I think that's the kind of thing you can loosely define in your notes -- no more than a sentence or two -- and then keep in your back pocket in case it comes up in play.
It is though I decided on a more elegant solution. If I ever run the campaign I'll have the player come up with some organization for their character to belong to. Make those lazy players do some work!
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
My current preference is for world-building as PC discovery, meaning the characters aren’t expected to know much or any lore, and the campaign builds the setting’s details over time.

But yeah that can really restrict your choice of setting, since it works better if the general world is a familiar time and place, with other, weirder stuff layered on as you go. So I realize it’s not for everyone.
 

Yora

Hero
I actually ran into a quite considerable road block, getting hung up on creating more detail on a handful of city states that players aren't supposed to ever actually visit. Their role for the setting is to serve as places where the borderlands communities export their raw resources to and import their specialized goods from, and to serve as a bit of background for foreign agents stirring up trouble on behalf of their far-away lords. Because every time you look around for advice on how to make a setting, it's almost always "start with a continent, divide it into kingdoms, define their governments and relations, and work your way further down."
Unless it's "make one village and one dungeon and then make things up as you go."

What I think I really should be doing is to work out how a typical borderlands settlement looks and its people live for the different major regions of the continent.
 

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