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Let's Talk About RPG Worldbuilding

AnotherGuy

Explorer
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.
Sure, for some tables that definition works, but I also know players that would deem a GM as lazy if there had been no world-building. Time is limited and their definition of play does not include taking on the responsibility of world-building. People want different things at their RPG tables.
 

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pemerton

Legend
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.
This relates to my posts upthread (#2 and #36). I see the function of setting in RPGing being to support play - ie to support the players engaging and shaping the shared fiction through their action declarations for their PCs.

So the starting point for GM authority is in the context of action resolution - what is the GM's role going into this (ie framing) and coming out of it (ie consequences/"what happpens next")? Taking it as a given that the answers to this provide a discrete role for the GM rather than total authority over the fiction (otherwise what are the players doing at the table?), we can then infer what we need in the way of setting and who is best placed to create it.

This produces a different approach to "worldbuilding" from one in which the GM does it unilaterally and then uses it as the yardstick against which all action declarations are measured.
 

amethal

Adventurer
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.
That's very thorough. Do you have full page write-ups of all of the cultures, or just the ones players have expressed an interest in? Similarly, do you write out the holy days etc. for all religions, or just the ones PCs choose to play clerics of?
 

amethal

Adventurer
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.
Assuming you have an actual game which you are running, I think it would be all three - although I use a broad definition of (1) to include anything that actually comes up during play, including things the GM has made up on the spot.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
Sadly many people ignore worldbuilding in D&D, including WotC, and limit it to things that are immediately useful to adventuring.
That leaves the setting rather bare bones. Worldbuilding which goes beyond "this is a possible patron" makes the game much more immersive and allows the players to be much more creative when adventuring without relying on "say yes" GMs which in the end results in a disjointed mess.
 

AnotherGuy

Explorer
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.
Perhaps this is one of those areas we will just have to disagree on.
Entering a chamber full of goodies with various possible PC interactions I find is similar to entering a bustling tavern.

I do find it incongruent that you're establishing such a specific divide especially with the "too much going on" particularly because your AD&D argument for shared fiction relies on the paladin questing for his horse solely compared to everything else that needs to be included in the setting for material and social terms.
 

Aldarc

Legend
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.
Is it the appeal to authority of RPGing or to GMing or to Setting?
 

MGibster

Legend
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.
This is less a definition and more a political statement I'd expect to hear from someone shouting to a crowd of people standing in line at Gen Con, "Now is the time for the proletariat to seize the means of gaming from the bourgeoisie game masters! Gamers of the world unite!" The definition you've provided is next to useless for two reasons: It doesn't actually tell me what world building is. It also fails to take into account games like Dresden Files and Apocalypse World where the GM and the players collaborate to build the setting.
 

MGibster

Legend
Sadly many people ignore worldbuilding in D&D, including WotC, and limit it to things that are immediately useful to adventuring.
It's true. There are only so many hours in the day and I can't tell you the number of times I've spent detailing some aspect of an adventure or setting only for my players to respond with a resounding "meh!" After a while, you tend to focus on what you expect will get traction. Though that can backfire as well as sometimes players focus on some minor detail you haven't fleshed out and you gotta run with it.
 

Greg K

Hero
That's very thorough. Do you have full page write-ups of all of the cultures, or just the ones players have expressed an interest in? Similarly, do you write out the holy days etc. for all religions, or just the ones PCs choose to play clerics of?
I have full page write-ups of all the cultures. They sort of resemble a mix of a cultural anthopology breakdown of cultural elements and Rolemaster Standard System cultural descriptions.
The cleric stuff is done by deity and I have those prepared as well (focusing on major deities). However, the deities in several neighboring cultures are often the same deities, but expressed different culturally (which cuts down on the work).
 


Greg K

Hero
Though that can backfire as well as sometimes players focus on some minor detail you haven't fleshed out and you gotta run with it.
I don't look at it as backfiring. I look at it as opportunity. However, I don't begin with a pre-planned story/adventure path and having the various setting and cultural details worked out helps me to improvise when the players take things in unexpected directions in the middle of a session.
 

Yora

Hero
There is no need for a detailed world to provide a base for consistent scenes and encounters.
Yes! Exactly!

I was just reading through all the posts from today to check if someone already made the point I wanted to make, and you did.

I would say the main function of worldbuilding is to create situations. And great worldbuilding creates consistent situations.
When we look at other forms of fiction like books, movies, tv shows, and videogames, I think what mostly makes us think "I would love play in that world" really is "I would love to be in that position and deal with this situation in a game". When a world is engaging and captivating, it's because we start to recognize that there are certain rules for how things are happening in this world. And by learning these rules and patterns, we can understand what the protagonists are doing and why they are acting the way they do, and we can anticipate what will happen as result of that.
When the Emperor tells Luke "Let your hate flow!" and we want to shout at Luke to not give in to his anger, we feel engaged because we have learned how the Dark Side of the Force works. The realization that we understand what's going in a situation that makes absolutely no sense to someone who hasn't been innitiated creates a very rewarding experience. Especially when we're in an RPG and we can actually use our new understanding to gain an advantage.

I think great worlbuilding challenges the players with a setting in which events happen according to certain patterns that are not automatically obvious, but which can be recognized and understood by interacting with the world. And the greater the understanding is, the more efficient the PCs can act.

I think the main application of this is to have consistent and understandable patterns for how certain types of people in the setting tend to react to certain things. When players are able to recognize to which faction, culture, or society an NPC belongs, and can make informed predictions for what kind of things will make that NPC happy, proud, agreeable, angry, or hostile. When you have a good guess how you can steer NPCs to perform certain actions. To bribe, scare, or fool them.
This can be done by basing these things on a backstory for whatever group an NPC belongs to, but that backstory can be really very short and simple.

BioWare in their prime had this nailed down. The Mass Effect series has a huge amount of Database entries where you can read up on stuff with additional information, but none of it is necessary to understand the relationships between certain groups. The story that is important is extremely simple.
"Quarians developed artificial intelligence and had to flee their homeworld in a Robot-Revolt, and they've been living on space-ships and in poverty for the last 300 years" is all you need to know to understand everything that happens in the three games revolving around Quarians and Geth. And they really got a lot of mileage out of that one-sentence history. The situation with the Krogan is a bit more complicated, but you get a lot of interesting situations and interactions out of two minutes of backstory. And neither of those two stories involves a single named character, specified location, or a specified timeline.
 


Yora

Hero
I'd say you can't have a campaign or adventures without worldbuilding. I think almost all RPGs come with a good amount of pre-packaged worldbuiling included. (GURPS and Fate being examples of purely mechanics games.)
If GMs don't put work into their own worldbuilding, then they are getting theirs of the shelf. Which is of course a valid way to do it, but when using a generic setting, you also get generic situations.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'd say you can't have a campaign or adventures without worldbuilding. I think almost all RPGs come with a good amount of pre-packaged worldbuiling included. (GURPS and Fate being examples of purely mechanics games.)
If GMs don't put work into their own worldbuilding, then they are getting theirs of the shelf. Which is of course a valid way to do it, but when using a generic setting, you also get generic situations.
This assumes that play is about the setting. Why can't play be about the characters?

I don't need a setting to have a game about the characters.
 

Yora

Hero
When the game is about characters, those characters still need things to interact with to express themselves.
A campaign which only consists of the PCs in a close off environment might hypothetically be possible, but probably never actually happens.
When you have NPCs with plans and motives, there's worldbuilding involved.
 

I understand Worldbuilding as a process for creating fictive elements and themes the table gets to explore, this process is a tool and different tools produce different results. The fictive elements are those that pertain to setting and characters (mainly the NPCs, although if you can get your players to choose to engage with your setting materials it can inform their characterization.) Worldbuilding can be finely curated, cohesive and consistent, or it can be any combination of the above, or none of the above. It can be collaborative or not, and both produce valid play experiences that if done well, can't be replicated by the other.

Different players react to worldbuilding in different ways, with 'explorer' or 'discovery' oriented players enjoying the feeling of learning about it and unraveling it like a puzzle, and others enjoying it or resenting it based on how it intersects with how they have fun in the game, and whether they view it as opportunity or obstacle to doing that. Some actors resent the world getting screen time or constraining their backstories, other love it for defining their role and providing a stage and themes for them to interact with, for instance.

Personally, I do it well, so I tend to prefer games that don't view it as something to be discouraged and instead let me enjoy it-- part of the appeal of GMing for me is actually getting to be a designer, which includes the world in which the game takes place. Similarly I don't give much weight to feedback from players that would prefer a loosey goosey setting that can morph to become whatever is necessary in the moment, the consistency and thematic cohesion of my secondary creation (or someone else's) is part of the point for me, and I stop having fun when it isn't present.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
When the game is about characters, those characters still need things to interact with to express themselves.
A campaign which only consists of the PCs in a close off environment might hypothetically be possible, but probably never actually happens.
When you have NPCs with plans and motives, there's worldbuilding involved.
I think even in a collaborative process, ie between GM and players, they are still worldbuilding, if just ad hoc.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
When the game is about characters, those characters still need things to interact with to express themselves.
A campaign which only consists of the PCs in a close off environment might hypothetically be possible, but probably never actually happens.
When you have NPCs with plans and motives, there's worldbuilding involved.
I disagree. Worldbuilding is not a catchall for fiction creation, it's a specific activity used to create a setting absent the characters. I don't need to know a thing about the PCs to engage in worldbuilding -- look throughout this thread for statements that it's the player's job to align their PCs with the setting. I can, however, create fiction quite easily while engaged in play, and that can, at the end of the day, result in a vibrant world the characters interacted with. However, the difference here is that the fiction is created to engage the characters, which is not how worldbuilding operates.

Look to how FATE works, with collaborative setting that hinges on the characters, for one options. Another is to start with a genre or set of tropes, make characters, and the start play with those characters in a tropy opening scene and then build out from there in play. This requires a system that aides this kind of play, so, yeah, you'd probably get bad results using 5e, for example (which has a strong implied setting and also a complete lack of any system to engage characters in this manner).

And the myth that you can't have a coherent, consistent, and deep game if you don't do worldbuilding ahead of time is just that -- a myth. One that largely rests on the shoulders of trying to do so with systems that fight such play (like D&D) and in play cultures that treat this as bad play and lean on examples of poor execution to prove their point -- as if prep never delivers terrible game experiences.
 

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