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Let's Talk About RPG Worldbuilding


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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Of course fiction creation is more than only worldbuilding. But you can not have much of a story without a setting.
I'm thinking that you're letting "setting" do quite a lot of work here, and mean it to be "any information at all." So, if I say, "you're in a big fantasy city," that's setting to you? Because, I can absolutely kick a game off with just that.
 

Of course fiction creation is more than only worldbuilding. But you can not have much of a story without a setting.

Agreed, although there's different school of though concerning how subordinate that setting should be to other elements, my hot take is that chekhov's gun is the worst thing to happen to fantasy fiction-- I also see it as interrelated with the idea that setting should be as minimalist as it can be while fulfilling its role in TRPGs.
 

Yora

Hero
I'm thinking that you're letting "setting" do quite a lot of work here, and mean it to be "any information at all." So, if I say, "you're in a big fantasy city," that's setting to you? Because, I can absolutely kick a game off with just that.
Of course. You have to have worldbuilding, but it can be very little to support a story.
 

Reynard

Legend
I'm thinking that you're letting "setting" do quite a lot of work here, and mean it to be "any information at all." So, if I say, "you're in a big fantasy city," that's setting to you? Because, I can absolutely kick a game off with just that.
Only because a bunch of tropes likely familiar to all the players does a ton of work for you. You aren't "not world building" when you say "big fantasy city" and leave it at that, you are just letting the players fill in the gaps with assumptions based on their preferences and experiences. That's efficient in its way, but it does pose the danger of folks internal image of the "big fantasy city" not aligning with one another's or yours. One player thinks they are in Lahnkmar and another thinks they are in Camelot and you are running an adventure someplace completely different.
 


Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Only because a bunch of tropes likely familiar to all the players does a ton of work for you. You aren't "not world building" when you say "big fantasy city" and leave it at that, you are just letting the players fill in the gaps with assumptions based on their preferences and experiences. That's efficient in its way, but it does pose the danger of folks internal image of the "big fantasy city" not aligning with one another's or yours. One player thinks they are in Lahnkmar and another thinks they are in Camelot and you are running an adventure someplace completely different.
Hasn't been a problem, likely because this approach doesn't rely on the GM having prep to follow. Everything's established at the table, in the open.
 



I technically don't use "worldbuilding," since I use Greyhawk or Rokugan for my RPG settings. However, in both cases I have to do a lot of filling in of details, which is where I focus my efforts. I usually design a primary base of operations, with most important NPCs being someone the party is expected to interact with, but a few just names for reference. I try to give the location a living feeling, with events moving forward even without the party interacting directly with it.

The few times I have done full worldbuilding, I usually focus on where I want to start and how we got there. This can be something as simple as a fallen empire or migration, or as complex as the creation of the universe, where the gods are active in the world.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I didn't say it was a problem. I said it was not "not world building."
Yes, you started there, and I agree. However, you continued by pointing out a "danger" with this approach, which I addressed as not a problem for me, meaning that this danger has never manifested, and why that it so. I don't think it's actually a danger with this approach, because the approach I use specifically avoids this. I mean, I guess if you're not actually talking to your players, then it's definitely a danger that you all have a different thing in mind. Practically, I don't run into this any more than I do when I actually use prep and worldbuilding (which I also do -- I like different games for different reasons) -- it's sometimes more of a danger in my prep games because I do already have an idea and have to convey it.

I also enjoy sketch settings -- where there's very little detail and anything detailed is done so at the thumbnail sketch level only and isn't actually true until introduced in play.
 

Aging Bard

Canaith
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.
A built world exists irrespective of the players. The players are free to pursue what interests them, but the world grinds on. If the game is nothing but player wish fulfillment, there is no surprise, suspense, or mystery, the quiescence of boring. The players can assert their preferences by the challenges they choose to pursue within the world, but how the world is built is up to the DM. I disagree with your contrary premise of player wishes over the DM who actually did most of the worldbuilding. Players are free to become DMs or write novels if they want build their own worlds. They are free to pursue the parts of a DM's world they enjoy and reject the rest (which may still be evolving and may affect them someday regardless of their choices). You don't get to choose all your battles in a believable world, just like real life. Sometimes the world is thrust upon you, and that's the gaming challenge. As I noted previously, players build the world by acting in it and changing it.
 

pemerton

Legend
pemerton said:
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.
I'm certainly assuming we're talking about RPGing, as per the thread title!

In that context, I don't tend to think (3) adds very much.

I think the interaction between (1) and (2) does a lot to shape the feel of play.

The last three RPG sessions I've played have been The Green Knight, Burning Wheel and Agon 2nd ed.

In our BW game, setting came up (i) as an element of PC build (eg my PC has living and dead relatives), and (ii) as a mutually agreed element of framing as we went along (eg we agreed to start the PCs in Hardby, because we're familiar with the geography from a different campaign; we posited inns, and docks, and so on without any controversy; etc). This is a pretty light mix of (1) and (2).

In The Green Knight, there are pre-authored rewards/penalties for outcomes of each encounter. Part of what the players have to do is work out what they need to have their PCs do in the scene so as to maximise their honour and minimise their dishonour.

In Agon, the session starts with arrival on an island, and the GM reads out "the signs of the gods". But it is up to the players to interpret the signs and make sense of what the gods do or don't want, and it is that interpretation that then determines rewards/penalties (in the form of divine favour or wrath) when the PCs leave the island.

While The Green Knight and Agon therefore have a superficial resemblance at the story level - the heroes find themselves in a situation, and have to resolve it, and in doing so accrue favour/honour and wrath/dishonour - the actual play is pretty different, because in The Green Knight this is determined via the GM's prior decision-making (a form of (2)) whereas in Agon this is determined via the players in their actual play (a form of (1)).
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
A built world exists irrespective of the players. The players are free to pursue what interests them, but the world grinds on. If the game is nothing but player wish fulfillment, there is no surprise, suspense, or mystery, the quiescence of boring. The players can assert their preferences by the challenges they choose to pursue within the world, but how the world is built is up to the DM. I disagree with your contrary premise of player wishes over the DM who actually did most of the worldbuilding. Players are free to become DMs or write novels if they want build their own worlds. They are free to pursue the parts of a DM's world they enjoy and reject the rest (which may still be evolving and may affect them someday regardless of their choices). You don't get to choose all your battles in a believable world, just like real life. Sometimes the world is thrust upon you, and that's the gaming challenge. As I noted previously, players build the world by acting in it and changing it.
There is not a duality where it's either a "built world exists irrespective of the [characters]," or "nothing but player wish fulfillment." I mean, I get the Trad approach here, and that's great, but there's lots of ways to play that do not boil down to your strawman there.

I'm a huge fan of Blades in the Dark, for instance, which has a thumbnail sketch for the world and is largely detailed and expanded by play. I very much would be interested in you finding a player of BitD that remotely suggests that game is anywhere close to any kind of wish fulfillment, much less nothing but. Or that Dungeon World, where the setting is also thumbnailed, but is built entirely as part of play, with heavy player input, as being wish fulfillment. The very systems of these games are fundamentally opposed to granting any sort of player wish fulfillment, and yet they can both operate quite well with little to no worldbuilding, and they absolutely, totally, and without a doubt, are not games that feature settings independent of the characters -- the setting, in large part, serves the characters.

Of course, if you're approaching from a Trad point of view, then it can be a challenge to see how play differs, and, in Trad, if the above were true, the GM is not doing their job. I'm not a huge fan of self-play anymore, though, so I tend to ease way off the 'things happen regardless of the characters' thing, and just stick to what's going on around the characters. Still plenty deep -- I haven't notice a distinct difference in immersion of my players since I stopped doing solo-play in my settings. So, even there, in the built world concept space, the need for completely disconnected setting that the characters have to find their own connections to is not necessary. It can be a fun way to play, for sure, and don't take anything I'm saying here as suggesting you play incorrectly. My point is that yours is not at all even close to the only way to approach these things, on multiple levels. Mostly I'm standing up against the false dichotomy of and uncaring pre-built world vs unchecked player wish fulfillment. That doesn't even make sense within D&D.
 

DrunkonDuty

Adventurer
I'd love to have more player contribution to world building. It would make the game feel much more like a fun group activity and I'd get to share in that sense of discovery and wonder that is usually reserved for players over GMs.

One effective way I have found to get player contribution to world building is to have characters with interesting backgrounds. More than just the DnD idea of that. Rather background factoids that have ongoing effects, both positive and negative, going forward in the game; disadvantages and perks (as they're called in HERO.) The simple fact of a character having an enemy can lead to all sorts of interesting world building ideas from a player.

In my last session my players contributed an interesting bit of world building to the game. The players want to lead the bad guy into a trap. The baddie is a necromancer from a land where necromancy is outlawed. They reasoned that the baddie must have friends, or at least colleagues he's known over the years. Colleagues who might be willing to contact the bad guy for them. This immediately put me in mind of the way Catholics had a secret network of communication in England, back when Catholicism was outlawed. So now there's something similar (a secret academic network, necromancy is not a mass movement in this game world) in the game.

This act is in itself pretty revolutionary for this group. So I was more than happy to "say yes" when they brought up the possibility.
 

pemerton

Legend
you can not have much of a story without a setting.
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.

<snip>

If GMs don't put work into their own worldbuilding, then they are getting theirs of the shelf.
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.
Only because a bunch of tropes likely familiar to all the players does a ton of work for you. You aren't "not world building" when you say "big fantasy city" and leave it at that, you are just letting the players fill in the gaps with assumptions based on their preferences and experiences. That's efficient in its way, but it does pose the danger of folks internal image of the "big fantasy city" not aligning with one another's or yours.
I think Ovinomancer suggests a quite reasonable way of avoiding the "danger" of trope/genre collisions: some sort of collaboration or consensus, either in building the setting a la Fate or agreeing on genre and tropes. The last three sessions I've played have each been "beginnings" - a one-shot of The Green Knight, and first sessions for Burning Wheel and for Agon 2nd ed. The first and third of these put genre front and centre - Arthurian romance for the Green Knight; The Odyssey or The Clash of the Titans for Agon. In neither case did the players have trouble conceiving of their PCs or making sense of the setting.

BW is a bit broader in its possible genres, but my fellow-player and I (in a two-player/co-GMing game) still had no issues. I said I wanted to build a (Silmarillion-style) Dark Elf. He said fine, and that he would build a Weather Witch and make sure he had a lifepath in the Outcast setting to make sure it made sense that our PCs paths might cross. I framed an opening scene in which we were both disembarking from a ship, and the ship's master was refusing to pay the crew; and we agreed that the port was Hardby, which is already established in our play as a typical/all-purpose S&S city in the middle of the Greyhawk maps.

If in due course our internal images diverge, and it matters, the system has plenty of mechanics for resolving that: a Duel of Wits between the PCs; or Circles or Wises checks (so that the acting player's conception will prevail on a success; and that of the other player, wearing the GMing hat, on failure).

Upthread I contrasted worldbuilding as (1) an element of play, (2) a resource for play, and (3) an activity that is fun for the worldbuilder but largely independent of play. I take Ovinomancer to be saying that (1) may be a mode of setting creation, but isn't worldbuilding at all. I'm not too fussed about labels; my main point was that in the context of a discussion of worldbuilding and RPGing, the creation of setting (which might be taken to be an instance of the "building" of a "world") can be an element of play.

If we confine worldbuilding to my (2) and (3), and if we then set aside (3) as largely irrelevant to play, we can think about how setting creation in advance of play can create a resource for play - ie the setting in which situations occur. The sort of model Ovinomancer seems to have primarily in mind - ie creation by the GM independently of the players, even with an expectation that it will generate normative weight for the players eg in PC building - is one. It's not the only, though. There can be player creation in advance of play (eg the player details his/her PC's background, thereby establishing elements of setting that matter to play). There can be GM creation in advance of play but having the players, and their characters and their play of their characters, in mind. This is how Apocalypse World suggests the GM go about creating setting elements, after the first session (which is expected to have a whole lot of my category (1) stuff taking place); and is roughly the approach I've used in my Classic Traveller game. There can also be GM creation of setting elements that are independent of particular players and their PCs, but not independent of situation: this is how The Green Knight, Prince Valiant, and Agon (for instance) all approach scenario design.

A further issue, which is related to who authors setting and what they have regard to in doing so but isn't the same as those things, is how the setting relates to action resolution. Does it provide a whole lot of answers to action declarations? Ie the GM knows what is there, and how things work, and tells the players. Or is it mostly for framing? Which is how the RPGs I mentioned at the end of the last paragraph use it (although The Green Knight does have evaluations of Honour/Dishonour predetermined and independent of play).

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.
I agree that the main function of setting/worldbuilding, in RPGing, is to create situations - and that excitement about playing in a world means (at least typically) excitement about the sorts of situations that world engenders.

I'm less keen than you on the "discovery" aspect, though. At least in my case, I don't really think it's about pattern-recognition and getting gameplay benefits from that. Eg when I've run games set in Middle Earth or The Marvel Universe the appeal hasn't been the sort of deciphering you describe, but rather the situations and characters - eg in the Marvel case War Machine fighting Titanium Man in an awesome aeriel duel; in the Middle Earth one Gandalf with a group of hangers-on leaving Rivendell to follow up rumours of a rediscovered Palantir. It's the tropes and situations in themselves which are fun!
 

pemerton

Legend
I'd love to have more player contribution to world building. It would make the game feel much more like a fun group activity and I'd get to share in that sense of discovery and wonder that is usually reserved for players over GMs.

One effective way I have found to get player contribution to world building is to have characters with interesting backgrounds. More than just the DnD idea of that. Rather background factoids that have ongoing effects, both positive and negative, going forward in the game; disadvantages and perks (as they're called in HERO.) The simple fact of a character having an enemy can lead to all sorts of interesting world building ideas from a player.

In my last session my players contributed an interesting bit of world building to the game. The players want to lead the bad guy into a trap. The baddie is a necromancer from a land where necromancy is outlawed. They reasoned that the baddie must have friends, or at least colleagues he's known over the years. Colleagues who might be willing to contact the bad guy for them. This immediately put me in mind of the way Catholics had a secret network of communication in England, back when Catholicism was outlawed. So now there's something similar (a secret academic network, necromancy is not a mass movement in this game world) in the game.

This act is in itself pretty revolutionary for this group. So I was more than happy to "say yes" when they brought up the possibility.
Burning Wheel has extremely robust tools for this sort of thing.

At their core are Circles checks - ie a check made to meet a NPC your PC hopes to meet - and Wises checks - ie a check made to establish that your PC knows something.

Every character has a single Circles rating. The scope of Circles is set initially at PC-gen, as a byproduct of the lifepath system; there are other PC abilities that modify it (eg Reputations and Affiliations), and there are rules for adding these abilities, and expanding the scope of Circles, in response to actual play.

Every Wise is a separate skill, so there are indefinitely many - one of the most important one that's come up in my play has been Catacombs-wise used by one PC to find his way (or not) through the catacombs under the city of Hardby. Because Wises are skills, new Wises are added to a PC sheet in the same way as any other new skill can be attempted and improved.

The difficulty of a Wise check depends on the obscurity of the information. The difficulty of a Circles check depends on the improbability of that sort of character being in the desired vicinity at the desired time. This can produce oddities, in that the difficulty of the check won't always reflect its utility to the player - but there are other features of BW that mean that players have an incentive to not always be making only easy checks.

If the check succeeds, the situation unfolds as the player hoped - the meeting takes place, or the posited knowledge is true. In your example that would probably be a Necromancer-wise or Mages-wise or Secret Societies-wise check to know of the secret network of Necromancers; which might then serve as a linked test (ie an augment) for a Circles check by an appropriate PC to meet someone in the network.

If the check fails, then the GM states the consequence. In the case of Wises, this can be anything from the truth is the opposite of what you hoped to something more subtle, like there is a secret network of necromancers, but they make it a rule that the will only meet with someone who provides them with a cadaver freshly dug up from the graveyard. In the case of Circles, failure might mean that no meeting takes place, but more interesting are things like you meet the person, but they're hostile to you! or instead of a representative of the necromancer network, there is a posse of inquisitors waiting for you - they must have heard that you've been ferreting around for impious information! The GM is expected to establish consequences for failure that keep things moving - and this doesn't have to mean shutting down the players' world-building ideas.

I think it's possible to take some of these techniques into other systems. Classic Traveller (1977) already presents its Streetwise skill as something like a version of the BW framework, for meeting shady contacts or criminals who can help solve particular problems (the examples in the book include issuing licences without asking too many questions, and supplying illegal firearms). Traveller doesn't discuss how to adjudicate failure of a Streetwise check, but I think the BW approach can be used. At least some versions of D&D have a Gather Information or Streetwise-style skill or ability, and that could be used in a similar sort of way. Personally I think that's more interesting than using these abilities to drip-feed the players GM-authored setting information (eg as per traditional CoC modules or many urban-based D&D adventures), for the same reasons you give in your post.
 

pemerton

Legend
A built world exists irrespective of the players. The players are free to pursue what interests them, but the world grinds on. If the game is nothing but player wish fulfillment, there is no surprise, suspense, or mystery, the quiescence of boring. The players can assert their preferences by the challenges they choose to pursue within the world, but how the world is built is up to the DM. I disagree with your contrary premise of player wishes over the DM who actually did most of the worldbuilding. Players are free to become DMs or write novels if they want build their own worlds. They are free to pursue the parts of a DM's world they enjoy and reject the rest (which may still be evolving and may affect them someday regardless of their choices). You don't get to choose all your battles in a believable world, just like real life. Sometimes the world is thrust upon you, and that's the gaming challenge. As I noted previously, players build the world by acting in it and changing it.
Of course there's no disputing taste, but there are also some factual claims in your post that are not true (as @Ovinomancer has already mentioned).

I don't play games that are nothing but player wish fulfilment, but that has very little connection to how setting is established/the gameworld is built. See, for instance, the sorts of mechanics I describe in my post just upthread - Circles and Wises in Burning Wheel. I have fairly extensive experience with these both as a player and a GM. They do not leave how the world is built up to the GM. But nor are they nothing but player wish-fulfilment. They are mechanics that involve checks and success or failure just like anything else in the game.

There is a recurrent premise in discussions of worldbuilding, which seems to me to be present in you final three sentences. I think the premise is obviously false. It is this: that because in the real world there is a difference between (stable, enduring) things and (transient, ever-changing) events, so when fiction is authored in a RPG we must distinguish between who gets to decide on the things and who gets to decide on the events.

But in fact, there is no difference, as far as RPG authoring is concerned, between the Elves long ago built these towers, I find a secret door in the base of the towers, I meet the guardian of the towers, I attack the guardian of the towers or I kill the guardian of the towers. Each is a candidate proposition to be accepted as part of the shared fiction. Each can be made the subject of authorial fiat - eg in the DL modules it is the module author who decides, in advance, the truth of propositions about who built what where, and who might be killed by whom (via the "obscure death" rule). There is also strong encouragement for the GM to decide by fiat what things are found and what things are met. (It is left to the players, to some extent, to decide what things are attacked.)

But just as each can be made the subject of authorial fiat, so each can be made the subject of a check - eg an Elves-wise or Towers-wise check (to establish who built the towers, and when); a Perception or Secret Door-wise check (to make it true that I find a secret door in the base of the towers); some sort of encounter check, perhaps, to determine who if anyone is met when the towers are entered; some sort of personality or rage check, perhaps, to determine who attacks whom; and combat mechanics of the sort found in many RPGs to determine who kills whom in a fight.

Different RPGs, and different approaches adopted by players of those different RPGs, use different methods for settling the "truth", in the fiction, of these various propositions. I'm not aware of any particular correlation between those various mixes of methods and whether play is boring or not. Nor of any correlation with believability.
 

amethal

Adventurer
I'm certainly assuming we're talking about RPGing, as per the thread title!
My point was that sometimes I do worldbuilding without having an actual group to run it for, as the mood takes me. Maybe I'll end up running it with a group and maybe I won't, but until that happens 1) is not possible as I don't consider there to be any "play" in this context.

However, I still consider that activity to be RPGing.
 
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Asisreo

Fiendish Attorney
I believe good practice in RPG Worldbuilding is to relate the lore with the current happenings of the adventure and reward players for piecing things together organically.

For example, kobolds might be known to create tunnels in discreet locations for shortcuts or into secret rooms, so having a predominantly kobold dungeon have a few rooms with small tunnels that lead into another that are outside of the booby-trapped main corridors makes keen players search for rooms with these tunnels for secrets.

Its rewarding the player for engaging rather than expecting them to retain irrelevant information.
 

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