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Let's Talk About RPG Worldbuilding

Greg K

Hero
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.
You can have setting notes about cultures while both keeping things useful and relevant and not ramming a 200-page tome down the players' throats.
 

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dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I am going to put up a science fiction setting on DTRPG soon, 242 pages, with over 30 star maps of real stellar cartography, and over 30 world maps. It is 12 years in the making, with a good 7 of those being played, and in fact I decided to publish it after people said I should. A German game designer called it "insanely detailed", which I am unsure if that is a compliment or not. :LOL:

Obviously maps are important to me, and I say this as I like making maps, beyond a stellar map, and world map, there are usually 10-20 other maps: the star system with all the planets, local area maps, city maps, tactical maps, all that. Right now the main folder is 46.5 GB, with 40,000+ files. That includes all sorts of stuff, a lot of NPC's, spacecraft, notes on organizations, as well as astrometry, and other technical data.

On the flipside, the players don't have to read anything, just do the character generation, and start playing. I am happy to let them see the setting, and some do, devouring all I write, most limit themselves to the few paragraphs at a time I generally write for background on a situation.
 
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Reynard

Legend
That's an important note: you can focus on play related world building, but if you play in that same setting long enough you end up with a highly detailed setting with a lived in feel.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I let it build naturally, having only a rough outline, and filling in details as players interact with it, freely changing things that they do not know about, to fit with the constantly evolving game. Such as the attack on a randomly generated space-liner, develops into their dealing with a Wintermute style AI that controls a bank, to writing up a page or three on banking and its involvement in developing the frontier of interstellar space.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
It may just be me but I tend to start by envisioning a single scene and then building a story around it. For instance I got in my head the scene of a woman on a rugged cliff overlooking the sea giving birth in the middle of a storm.
That sparks some questions like -who is the women, where did she come from, why is she out here on this cliff, where is her family, what happens to the baby? Its the answer to those questions that become the setting - a harsh windswept peninsula jutting into a stormy sea (reminds me of Cornwall), the woman Wenna Kernowek, is from an isolated fishing village on lands owned by the Squire of Penruthen (Manor House on the Moors). The villagers are Wreckers who lure in passing ships (Lighthouse). Wennas baby is taken by the Storm Witch and will become a new sea hag. The Storm Witch is Patron of the local warlock/druid cult - Granite Moors, Rocky coast, isolated fishing village, offshore islands, dolmens, a lighthouse, a Manor house, a old shrine, a new chapel, the port at the base of the peninsula, surly locals, wreckers, customs agents, ghosts, bog hounds, selkies, hags, warlocks, druids, mermaids. NPCs: Storm Witch, Sea Hag (Morvah Kernowek), The Squire of Penruthan, Surly Locals

Then its deciding how the PCs will get involved (they’re on a ship lured in by wreckers? They’re Customs Agents from the local Magistrate? Something else?)

Once I’ve got those details I’ll get the Players to determine how they fit in and ask them to come up with their own NPC connections and any other motivations they might bring. I also give flexibility in scenes - essentially scene aspects so even if its not mentioned previously, if its reasonable to assume something is present the PCs can use it)
 
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Yora

Hero
You can have setting notes about cultures while both keeping things useful and relevant and not ramming a 200-page tome down the players' throats.
Players don't do homework anyway. Don't count on anyone reading more than one page, and even then some will never get around to it.
 

Nobby-W

Far more clumsy and random than a blaster
I let it build naturally, having only a rough outline, and filling in details as players interact with it, freely changing things that they do not know about, to fit with the constantly evolving game. Such as the attack on a randomly generated space-liner, develops into their dealing with a Wintermute style AI that controls a bank, to writing up a page or three on banking and its involvement in developing the frontier of interstellar space.
I think that's pretty much the best way to do this sort of thing. You also end up with something that feels lived in. Quite often lore written in isolation has a sterile feel to it.
 

Nobby-W

Far more clumsy and random than a blaster
You can have setting notes about cultures while both keeping things useful and relevant and not ramming a 200-page tome down the players' throats.
It's certainly not impossible, although I feel this sort of thing gets into diminishing returns fairly quickly and (IMO) matters less than a lot of folks might think. To take Traveller as an example, you could set a sandbox game somewhere in the Third Imperium or generate a sandbox using the process described in How to make a Traveller Sandbox and the players' experience would likely not be materially different.

Taken to extremes, it also tends to act as an attractive nuisance as this sort of setting canon serves better as a topic for pedantic old grogs to witter about online than as material that informs actual campaign play. Several major franchises (Traveller, Glorantha and Tekumel come to mind) have actually gotten a bad reputation on the interwebs as being hostile to new players because of this essentially useless lore and the intimidating antics of the old grogs arguing about it online. I've seen multiple instances of folks posting about wanting to get into a game but being intimidated by these people.

That's not to say it's all useless, but - to take another example from Traveller - CT Supplement 7 (Traders and Gunboats) is a far more useful than Supplement 9 (Fighting Ships). S7 covers a handful of designs that are on a scale relevant to a party of adventurers, and gives background aimed at helping a DM to use them in a game, including deck plans. S9 has a series of one page vignettes on a couple of dozen mostly large capital ships that are way too big to use in most games. It doesn't provide deck plans or (unless you're playing Trillion Credit Squadron) much in the way of useful support for actually using them in a game.

I think setting canon is an area where it's possible to have too much of a good thing and/or put a lot of effort into stuff that isn't terribly useful.
 
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dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I think that's pretty much the best way to do this sort of thing. You also end up with something that feels lived in. Quite often lore written in isolation has a sterile feel to it.
"Oh, the places you will go ..." Never thought I would be reading up on Swiss banks in the 1880's and the development of their railroad, but here we are. History is a good way to do setting with out it getting too sterile, such as the players arrived at an asteroid base during a war where the troops there were in a semi-sort of rebellion, they had fun and asked where I came up with the idea for the adventure, I admitted that I had used the Étaples mutiny.

Everyone is different though, my way is no better or worse than someone building off a picture in their head, or anything else, we all wind up at the same place, hopefully.
 

Greg K

Hero
Players don't do homework anyway. Don't count on anyone reading more than one page, and even then some will never get around to it.
Find better players. I have never had an issue with players not reading through 1 to 5 pages of handouts that are parcelled out.
First, the player players, normally, receive 1-2 pages containing a general summary of the various culture cultures (a few sentences on each). Next is,another page to page and a half based on the culture that interests a given player. These pages will have more indepth information on the culture (including available classes, class variants, and or subclasses found within the culture), notable NPCs, some current events and other notable information. Finally, based on certain class choices (e.g. clerics ), they may get an additional 1-2 pages. For clerics, it would have information on vestments, holy days, tenets, stricture, tailored spell lists to deity, etc. Only after they have read the relevant information, will I consider player submitted concepts, goals, background, etc. for a character (and this is before a player can create their characer mechanically).
If I had a player not wanting to read, they will have to listen to me go over the general and then read the remaining information before they can make a character. If they still do not want to read, they do not play and can find the exit. There is no exception.
 
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Greg K

Hero
It's certainly not impossible, although I feel this sort of thing gets into diminishing returns fairly quickly and (IMO) matters less than a lot of folks might think. To take Traveller as an example, you could set a sandbox game somewhere in the Third Imperium or generate a sandbox using the process described in How to make a Traveller Sandbox and the players' experience would likely not be materially different.

Taken to extremes, it also tends to act as an attractive nuisance as this sort of setting canon serves better as a topic for pedantic old grogs to witter about online than as material that informs actual campaign play. Several major franchises (Traveller, Glorantha and Tekumel come to mind) have actually gotten a bad reputation on the interwebs as being hostile to new players because of this essentially useless lore and the intimidating antics of the old grogs arguing about it online. I've seen multiple instances of folks posting about wanting to get into a game but being intimidated by these people.

That's not to say it's all useless, but - to take another example from Traveller - CT Supplement 7 (Traders and Gunboats) is a far more useful than Supplement 9 (Fighting Ships). S7 covers a handful of designs that are on a scale relevant to a party of adventurers, and gives background aimed at helping a DM to use them in a game, including deck plans. S9 has a series of one page vignettes on a couple of dozen mostly large capital ships that are way too big to use in most games. It doesn't provide deck plans or (unless you're playing Trillion Credit Squadron) much in the way of useful support for actually using them in a game.

I think setting canon is an area where it's possible to have too much of a good thing and/or put a lot of effort into stuff that isn't terribly useful.
I think it depends upon whether one is using a default or otherwise published setting or doing a homebrew. Generally, the only time that I use an existing setting is if I am running a superhero campaign set in the Marvel or DC universe (in which case, I determine the era which will be between the 70s' to late 80's) or another media property/universe like Angel/Buffy, Firefly, Ghostbusters.
As a general rule, however, I and the people with whom I play do not play in existing settings outside of superhero rpgs (in which case it is Marvel, DC, or some hybrid of the two). Several of my players have no interest in playing in an existing tv/movie universe and several will also not play in a published gaming universe outside of WoD (which I will not run/play).
 
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Aging Bard

Canaith
1) Worldbuilding is mostly useful at the campaign level, running a group through many sessions in the same setting. It is less useful otherwise.
2) Worldbuilding is primarily for the GM to create an engaging, consistent setting for their players. Lots of new GM advice says to only prepare what is needed immediately, but I disagree. If a GM has the time, creating many key concepts of their world is very worthwhile, as it forms a base for consistent scenes and encounters. But...
3) That said, worldbuilding must be naturally discovered by players as they play. No lore dumps, no GM soliloquies about their fantastic world. The GM must sit dispassionately until the players discover something, and only relate what they can discover based upon their actions. The players should work for it, and the GM should reward that work with discoveries.
4) If you can manage it, the world should be "alive". Things should happen irrespective of what the players are doing. While some events should be tied to the players, some events should just roll on by themselves. The GM should even create a little calendar of key events. When big things occur, the GM should find a believable way for players to learn about changes.
5) The GM should subtly communicate to the players when they have done something big, when they have changed the natural flow of things. Ideally this should be through NPCs ("you've ruined everything", "wait until my mistress hears of this", etc.) But PCs should understand that they can change the world.

tl;dr: The players should know that things are happening in the world, these things can be discovered, and the players can change things. Their actions matter.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
A few more I thought of:

Authenticity is in the Execution. Trying to be too original is counter productive, say for example you have square wheels to be different, and write up a few pages explaining why you have square wheels. It becomes a mockery of the setting and in worst case scenario it gets known as the "Square Wheel" setting.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good. It will never be perfect, and one can spend a 1000 times the effort towards perfection as they did on the first 90% of the setting, and still never get to the point of perfection. Try to do it the best one can, except also know when to say when and stop.

The Sandbox is more an ideal than reality. While it is often upheld as the holy grail of gaming, truth is that between the sandbox and railroad, it is like a number line and most games fall in the middle somewhere. Thus it is good to rough out some paths; with the most rewarding work is often in NPC's, at least for my games.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
IMO, world building is way easier than people think, so long as they take a design approach. If you're going to build a world instead of taking one that's published, that means you want some thing different. Let's call that X, whatever the heck it is. Maybe you have a handful of things, call them X, Y, and Z that you want to be different, or specific, whatever. The point is that there needs to be a reason for the difference, there needs to be some way in which the actual games you run will be different, or more specific, in some kind of measurable or evocative way. In my case this usually has to so with narrowing the focus of play, I want a specific kind of game with a specific kind of feel. Either way, you need to identify that difference.

The design process would suggest that you start with these new, or different elements, and then ask what does each of these require in order to make sense and to function as I want? From there, you zoom out a little and ask that same question again, what does this setting require to do what I want it to? Once you have your requirements, which can vary in scope dramatically, then you can shade in the rest of the setting with whatever colour and shade you like that will be familiar to the players and not require them to lift to much cognitive load.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Most of the time, I try to give the world just enough detail that the players get the gist of what’s going on. Not necessarily the geopolitics or a deep delve into history, but…solid hints.

Because I’ve found that players will often come up with ideas that are as good as or better than my own, and if/when I yoink those ideas, the players feel extra clever and become more engaged.

When I’ve been at my best, I also included some kind of information outlet that gave them insight as to what else was going on in the world. How the other parts were moving,

The best example of that was when I had an Agency newsletter that always included a recap of the party’s last adventure, but also had all kinds of blurbs about other agents’ missions and unusual news (IOW, plot hooks). I posted a printout of the newsletter on the host’s game room corkboard ASAP, and left it up until the next story arc had completed. It absolutely generated a lot of interest in the game, including open speculation about what was going on elsewhere.

…and I just quietly and secretly took notes.
 

pemerton

Legend
2) Worldbuilding is primarily for the GM to create an engaging, consistent setting for their players. Lots of new GM advice says to only prepare what is needed immediately, but I disagree. If a GM has the time, creating many key concepts of their world is very worthwhile, as it forms a base for consistent scenes and encounters. But...
3) That said, worldbuilding must be naturally discovered by players as they play. No lore dumps, no GM soliloquies about their fantastic world. The GM must sit dispassionately until the players discover something, and only relate what they can discover based upon their actions. The players should work for it, and the GM should reward that work with discoveries.
4) If you can manage it, the world should be "alive". Things should happen irrespective of what the players are doing. While some events should be tied to the players, some events should just roll on by themselves. The GM should even create a little calendar of key events. When big things occur, the GM should find a believable way for players to learn about changes.
5) The GM should subtly communicate to the players when they have done something big, when they have changed the natural flow of things. Ideally this should be through NPCs ("you've ruined everything", "wait until my mistress hears of this", etc.) But PCs should understand that they can change the world.
I look at the role of setting in RPGing very differently.

I don't think that a setting becomes more consistent, or more engaging, in virtue of being prepared, or containing a lot of detail-known-only-to-the-GM. There is no need for a detailed world to provide a base for consistent scenes and encounters. Virtually any two scenes or encounters can be consistent with one another - or to put it another way, there are very few scenes or encounters that are mutually inconsistent or contradictory - and so the setting can be allowed to be whatever one might extrapolate to from what has actually taken place in play. Things happening irrespective of what the PCs are doing can be similarly handled. These can be narrated as consequences in the course of action resolution. Having a list prepared in advance might help from the point of view of being an aide-memoire, but it doesn't need to be framed as a calendar in the style of LotR Appendix B.

The idea that players will work for discovery of the world the GM has built, such that these discoveries are rewards; and that the measure of "something big" is that it changes the natural = GM-pre-authored flow of events; is also very different from how I think of RPGing. I take it as given that the players, via the actions they declare for their PCs, will affect the content of the shared fiction. That seems to me to be the main reason for playing a RPG, and the role of worldbuilding is in facilitation of this. Your framing seems to get the priorities exactly reversed.
 

pemerton

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 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!
For this to connect the players to the setting, I think it has to matter, in play, that their PCs belong to these player-invented organisations.
 

AnotherGuy

Explorer
I see the concept of world-building no different to the DM mapping and keying out, sometimes in detail, a dungeon - with the reward being the exploration and the survival of such dungeon.
 

I've come up with the most succint view on world-building that I can, which is this:

World-building is the appeal to authority of RPGing - a circular process by which a GM both invents the need for such authority and then invokes it to justify their ongoing position as the controller of play.
 

pemerton

Legend
I see the concept of world-building no different to the DM mapping and keying out, sometimes in detail, a dungeon - with the reward being the exploration and the survival of such dungeon.
The basic function of a dungeon, in classic D&D, is to pose a challenge which the players hope to beat by declaring actions for their PCs. The fundamental measure of winning, or beating the dungeon, is treasure which then yields XP.

This isn't the function of the larger setting even in a lot of D&D play. And that's before we get into more technical matters like the relationship between the fiction of the setting and the processes of action declaration and action resolution - part of the way that dungeons work is by providing "artificially" thin fiction that permits a very particular relationship to emerge between it and play. This relationship can't be established for any remotely verisimilitudinous setting. Even a mediaeval village has too much going on - both in material terms and social terms - to be documented satisfactorily in a dungeon-style key.
 

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