The Art and Science of Worldbuilding For Gameplay [+]

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
NOTE: This is a + thread, which means that we won't be discussing the actual merits of GM Worldbuilding. There are other threads where that is happening. Argue in one of those, please.

In a certain style of RPG campaign play, the world is established in pretty concrete terms and the players explore, discover and change that world through their characters experiences and actions. This was probably the dominant for of play for most of the history of traditional RPGs (although books like The Elusive Shift show us that even during the earliest days there was a wide variety of playstyles).

Sometimes, the world is defined in supplements and adventures, created by a publishing company. Sometimes the world is adapted from other media, from Middle Earth to Earth 1 to A Galaxy Far, Far Away. And sometimes, perhaps most often, the world is the creation of the GM, custom built for play. There are, of course, combinations of these elements, with the GM taking ownership over existing worlds and changing them to suit, to publishing companies producing licensed worlds of existing properties, to fan creations informed by uncounted contributors, and more.

While we can debate the relative value of each of these different techniques in this thread, I am more interested in a specific aspect of world building for RPGs: playability.

Playability includes a few things. First and foremost in my mind is does the world provide opportunities for "adventure" (whatever that means in the context of the game the world is meant for). Do the player characters have stuff to do in the world? Second and only slightly less important is does the world mesh with and support the game's mechanical elements? Sometimes a world blatantly clashes with the game it is meant for (looking at you, MERP) and that can either be a disaster or create an unintended new thing. Finally, does the world inspire the GM? This is more for published worlds. Does reading the setting book send the GM's mind racing with possibilities? For me, the original Eberron Campaign Setting is the ideal expression of this aspect.

What do you think about world building toward gameplay? What are the techniques a world builder can use to build toward gameplay, and what should be avoided? What happens when a world builder finds they are building more for their own pleasure or for bespoke stories than for gameplay? How can they salvage their world? What TTRPG worlds really speak to you from a "built for gameplay" perspective, and which are interesting worlds but fail in the gameplay department?
 

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A solid bit of advice I'd give to this is that much like Players need to give their characters a reason to be out adventuring, Gameworlds also need to provide a good reason for there to be adventures. While non-specific, it is a good mindset to get into when you're looking to design a world and tune its lore towards the needs of the game.



But, an interesting case study on this subject is I think the two Zelda games Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom.



Breath of the Wild, first off, is near perfectly designed from the aspect of being playable, and its near perfectly in synch with the gameplay loop, reinforcing it at, quite literally every possible turn. The designer's Triangle rule to govern line of sight and the considerate use of enticement Landmarks make up a big portion of why the gameplay loop works to foster a sense of exploration and adventure (which is the entire point of Breath of the Wild). Everything you can find in the world in-between these bigger pieces all serve to not only flesh out the world but bring that same sense down to a smaller scale.



But what Breath of the Wild does as well thats extremely important is provide a careful amount of negative space; ie, nothing at all. Open world games tend to fall into a trap of cramming millions of things onto the map (even when the game world is comparatively tiny) and then also marking every single one of those things on a map, which not only creates a sense of claustrophobia but also ruins the sense of exploration (because everything is already there and "discovered" or will be once you go through the minutia of climbing the reveal map tower). Breath of the Wild solves this by not only giving a lot of space even on the small scale, but also by being very limited in terms of map markers, and by inviting players to use towers and other high vantage points as they would be in real life, giving you an overview of an area, and letting you make sense of where you want to go. The game essentially doesn't make value judgements on whats interesting to explore for may be 90% of the things you can find on the map, with the remaining 10% all being things you can see from basically anywhere, assuming you're up high enough.



But narratively, the world is also designed around the gameloop. Breath of the Wild famously doesn't have much of a main quest, and after the short tutorial you're literally just given the quest to Destroy Ganon, and that's practically it. The entire loop is to explore Hyrule and gather Link's strength while doing so, and the narrative itself is fully integrated into it. The main quest isn't a series of missions, its literally run around and train up so that when you assault Hyrule Castle, you won't be ganked by all the things protecting it from you. While both BOTW and TOTK are not quite as well done narratively as they are everywhere else, the idea they took towards designing their narratives is the right direction.



But, Tears of the Kingdom also serves as an important look at how these things can backfire a bit. Tears of the Kingdom uses, more or less, the same map from Breath of the Wild, but with added Sky and Depths portions. For someone like myself and who had not played Breath of the Wild before, I'm not affected by this. TOTK to me feels even bigger than what Breath of the Wild feels like, and thats a good thing, as it means that what the designers added to the map is fundamentally the right idea.



But, for those people who have played Breath of the Wild before, and in particular have played an absolute ton of it, the use of the exact same map is rather detrimental, as the single biggest portion of the map for these people is something they've already spent countless hours in. Theres little new to find, and the new Sky and Depths don't cut it as they just aren't quite as large as the Surface is. This is something that has to be considered not just in terms of generating sequels, but also in revisiting old content, which is an issue even Breath of the Wild has. Once you've seen it, you've seen it, essentially, and the gameworld doesn't have the capability to make an old area feel unfamiliar again.



So how can these ideas be applied to TTRPG game worlds?



Well, thats a question I've been working towards answering for the better part of the 6ish years I've been playing TTRPGs, as its been my proverbial white whale to find, and now to write, a game that perfectly captures and synchronizes the sense of Exploration I've been chasing since I got tired of Morrowind after 6000 hours of game time (and I still haven't actually done and seen everything in that particular game), but also manages to keep it fresh even when I come back to familiar places.



And, to toot my own horn a little, I do actually think I cracked the code on that particular endeavor. The system for this I have in mind is still being formed (both literally and figuratively), but I think it'll be quite successful. But to get into that would be a whole long post unto itself, and not one I think would necessarily be appropriate for this topic.
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
This is a big big big topic so imma just start with a simple technique I like doing. When I was worldbuilding I'd drop historical hints about places, people, and things. Usually, i'd also hint at magic treasure in these places as bait to get the players to go explore them. That was usually a winning combo. The GM gets to have fun with an exploration piece to build, the players get to discover it, survive, and get some cool loot on the other end.
 

aco175

Legend
Playability does mean having 'stuff' to do. What this stuff is depends on the DM and players expectations and thoughts of what is fun. What what @payn just said about dropping hints and having locations to explore. I like to make a thread of adventures based on what the PCs are doing. A lot like movies where there is a BBEG and the hero needs the magic McGuffin to defeat him. There is the quest to find the party, the one to get to the dungeon, the dungeon in getting the McGuffin, the BBEG stealing it from the party, the getting it back, etc... All of these involve having a bad guy and his minions and having them in places to explore.

Some places are defined dungeons where lore is lost in time and myth. Other places might be a remote location few travel to. Some might just be in town, but all have something to do and someone to meet/defeat.

I also like to try and create places for each character/player depending on what they would like. An old tomb filled with traps and riddles might be cool to player 1 but player 2 hates that so next is a caravan of traveling halflings that provides a cool roleplay and storytelling bit.
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
Playability does mean having 'stuff' to do. What this stuff is depends on the DM and players expectations and thoughts of what is fun. What what @payn just said about dropping hints and having locations to explore. I like to make a thread of adventures based on what the PCs are doing. A lot like movies where there is a BBEG and the hero needs the magic McGuffin to defeat him. There is the quest to find the party, the one to get to the dungeon, the dungeon in getting the McGuffin, the BBEG stealing it from the party, the getting it back, etc... All of these involve having a bad guy and his minions and having them in places to explore.

Some places are defined dungeons where lore is lost in time and myth. Other places might be a remote location few travel to. Some might just be in town, but all have something to do and someone to meet/defeat.

I also like to try and create places for each character/player depending on what they would like. An old tomb filled with traps and riddles might be cool to player 1 but player 2 hates that so next is a caravan of traveling halflings that provides a cool roleplay and storytelling bit.
So do you do your world building after the PCs have been decided upon? And if so, what do you do if a PC dies or retires or otherwise becomes nonviable?
 

aco175

Legend
So do you do your world building after the PCs have been decided upon? And if so, what do you do if a PC dies or retires or otherwise becomes nonviable?
I play a modified FR world where a lot of the background is already made. I tend to develop a shell of the campaign like an outline and come up with a few hooks for a few ideas on starter things and see where the players take it. I might have a loose idea of a couple bad guys they will meet but not the BBEG overlord. Some of the threat develops along the way and some tends to be forced upon the PCs. I tend to develop in story arcs where a part of the campaign is levels 1-5 and another part is levels 5-8 where things start to open up. Level 9-12 arc is with a main bad guy or the BBEG since my campaigns do not last much longer than this.

One campaign had the Phandelver campaign for levels 1-5 and then ended with a few choices for where to go next. The group chose to help Gungren with a problem in the mines for a few levels but the other problem with giants in the mountains started raiding farms since the PCs did not go there. The other frenemy adventuring group tried to deal with it but were overwhelmed and blamed the PCs. Level 8-11 had the PCs dealing with this threat or going after an evil cleric of the plague goddess. They went after the cleric since a PC had ties with a NPC being poisoned and the giant threat became larger until they had to deal with a tribe of giants coming after Phandalin itself. I think the PCs were level 12-13 when they finished up taking out the leader of the giants.

If a PC dies, which is rare in my group, the others might continue and find a new PC in the next town or rescue on in a dungeon or something equally far-fetched. We have also ended campaigns when a member has a problem. The last campaign ended when my son went off to college and now we started a new one with 1st level PCs again.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
i think a good baseline concept to remember is have everything*, in some form or another connect to some other element, to provide mini-hooks in everything the players discovers, the tiara you found in the lich's hoard is marked with the crest of the royal family from the next region over, all these new bandits on the road are all from the city to the north who just got a change in leadership, the sailor who's ship you're using knows someone at the thieves guild...
edit: this doesn;t just mean as quest objectives, the connections can be entirely meaningless but the point is that they exist, investigating one thing will lead you something else, which will lead you to some other things, and ideally your players will find something during that process that they'll want to get involved with further.

*i think exception can be given in some circumstances to when you resolve things, to give the satisfaction of wrapping things up and that collecting herbs for the shopkeep doesn't turn into the neverending quest.
 
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payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
So do you do your world building after the PCs have been decided upon? And if so, what do you do if a PC dies or retires or otherwise becomes nonviable?
That is an interesting question, and I know you asked aco175, but id like to answer too. My answer is both before and after PCs have been decided. I start with a basic foundation, with eventual metaplot potential that can be fulfilled by any combination of characters. Once play starts, however, I also like to organically weave in bits for specific PCs. With a solid foundational metaplot in place, any character specific piece can die on the vine with the character and the game can go on.

To make this conducive to play, I like to lean on sandbox style with a overreaching goal. Something that will take the players many sessions to complete. The Pirates of Drinax Traveller campaign is a very good example of this. The characters are given a powerful ship, but are tasked with grabbing a seat of power in a vast region of space in flux. They can be pirates (obviously), diplomats, saboteurs, corporate overlords, etc... The players are always working towards the meta goal, but players can have individual goals like developing new nano-technology, uncovering secrets about the long lost Ancients civilization, building a custom ship, etc...
 

Reynard

Legend
Supporter
I play a modified FR world where a lot of the background is already made. I tend to develop a shell of the campaign like an outline and come up with a few hooks for a few ideas on starter things and see where the players take it. I might have a loose idea of a couple bad guys they will meet but not the BBEG overlord. Some of the threat develops along the way and some tends to be forced upon the PCs. I tend to develop in story arcs where a part of the campaign is levels 1-5 and another part is levels 5-8 where things start to open up. Level 9-12 arc is with a main bad guy or the BBEG since my campaigns do not last much longer than this.

One campaign had the Phandelver campaign for levels 1-5 and then ended with a few choices for where to go next. The group chose to help Gungren with a problem in the mines for a few levels but the other problem with giants in the mountains started raiding farms since the PCs did not go there. The other frenemy adventuring group tried to deal with it but were overwhelmed and blamed the PCs. Level 8-11 had the PCs dealing with this threat or going after an evil cleric of the plague goddess. They went after the cleric since a PC had ties with a NPC being poisoned and the giant threat became larger until they had to deal with a tribe of giants coming after Phandalin itself. I think the PCs were level 12-13 when they finished up taking out the leader of the giants.

If a PC dies, which is rare in my group, the others might continue and find a new PC in the next town or rescue on in a dungeon or something equally far-fetched. We have also ended campaigns when a member has a problem. The last campaign ended when my son went off to college and now we started a new one with 1st level PCs again.


This is important in the context of the thread subject: "campaign design" is an explicitly different thing than "world building."
 

payn

I don't believe in the no-win scenario
This is important in the context of the thread subject: "campaign design" is an explicitly different thing than "world building."
While true, I think in the context of an RPG it is important to be mindful of putting the two together. You can certainly world build without any game in mind, and add campaign design later, but I find more success in doing them simultaneously. YMMV.
 

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