The Art and Science of Worldbuilding For Gameplay [+]

Reynard

Legend
I think you're approaching this from a sense that setting stability promotes long term play... and I don't really agree.
Specifically, long term use of the setting. I am only making the distinction so it is clear that I am talking about successive campaigns in the setting. But note I never said and do not mean "stability" to mean "no change."
 

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Reynard

Legend
On the drive home, I was thinking about scope as it relates to world building and gameplay. Specifically, I was thinking about limited scope world building: a city, an island nation, a generation ship, etc... So I am still talking about depth and detail, but not expanse.

One danger of a tightly limited scope would be that you might unintentionally limit the kinds of adventure that can be had in the setting. Well, I mean, that is going to happen anyway, but I mean artificially so. For example, if the world you want to build is a fantasy metropolis, you should be careful in your world building to make sure that you aren't funneling players to just playing thieves. Unless, of course, that's your goal. But if it isn't, world building toward playability means making sure there are lots of avenues open for different kinds of player characters.

In the fantasy city example, world building should detail the various social strata in the city, the boroughs and neighborhoods, law enforcement and criminality, academia and government, religion and entertainment. It should allow the PCs to try and climb the social ladder, or delve haunted catacombs. But it doesn't have to talk about what lies beyond the city walls at all. The world outside the city is obscure, perhaps even irrelevant.
 

I am not really disagreeing, but I'm not quite sure how this follows from what I said either. You were talking about setting as vehicle for a story the author wants to tell, and I said I tried to avoid an overarching story. I.e. the intended play is more sand boxy and less Big Main Plot.
Yeah, I get what you are talking about. I found that, for my play, the generic stuff of that ilk felt pretty bland and often had to be disregarded or reworked later to make things really interesting when play came to that point. This happened to me in a sort of climactic campaign experience in the '90s in my D&D 2e campaign. So ever since that point (and frankly to a degree before that, perhaps due partly to laziness) I have refrained from more more than a sketch, possibly with some little solid bits here and there. Like there's a whole major Kingdom, Othan, in my campaign world. Its part of the general continental area where most games have focused, but aside from a couple of names of important figures, a couple of cities on a map, and some details about the "Hulamic Academy of Magic" which featured in some game or other at some point, nothing about it is really known. I think I described some history once to some players where it was founded by 'barbarians' who occupied some of the core territory of a previous empire (Cardol) a few centuries before the time when most of the PCs have been active. That's it. If someone goes there and does stuff, undoubtedly a bunch more detail will be constructed to support that particular story, and then it will remain as at least potentially canonical information in future games set in the same milieu.
 

I wasn't advocating a "static" setting, just not actively breaking a setting as @Vraal was suggesting. If I am going to spend weeks, months or years building a setting, i absolutely do not want "extremely good odds that after a few sessions... [it] will never be the same." I want that setting to be a place to play for multiple campaigns over long periods of time.

"Breakable" settings are fun, but for limited campaigns IMO.
Right, and that's kind of what we mean by setting being restrictive and cutting off story options. Nope, you are not overthrowing any kingdoms, destroying the setting's thematic super bad guy, etc. This also tends to produce the 'small fry' syndrome, your characters are but bit players in the world, incapable of doing anything really profound. At its worst you end up with FR, where the world is filled with a whole host of Mary Sue NPC 'whales' and 'sharks' and the PCs are just bit players in their dramas. Blech.
 

Reynard

Legend
Right, and that's kind of what we mean by setting being restrictive and cutting off story options. Nope, you are not overthrowing any kingdoms, destroying the setting's thematic super bad guy, etc. This also tends to produce the 'small fry' syndrome, your characters are but bit players in the world, incapable of doing anything really profound. At its worst you end up with FR, where the world is filled with a whole host of Mary Sue NPC 'whales' and 'sharks' and the PCs are just bit players in their dramas. Blech.
I guess, if your only concern as a player is that you have the potential to run rampant. But I don't know how common that is in any campaign. Do players usually burn Waterdeep to the ground or go extinguish the Silver Flame?

Remember that I said a good idea is to not have a big singular story at the center of your world. There is no reason to have a setting wide BBEG unless you want the PCs to go defeat them and irrevocably ruin your world. But doing big things in general doesn't have to break the world. Wars happen. Elder dragons get slain and hoards looted. It isn't a choice between do-nothings and world shakers. There is a vast continuum between those ends.
 

On the drive home, I was thinking about scope as it relates to world building and gameplay. Specifically, I was thinking about limited scope world building: a city, an island nation, a generation ship, etc... So I am still talking about depth and detail, but not expanse.

One danger of a tightly limited scope would be that you might unintentionally limit the kinds of adventure that can be had in the setting. Well, I mean, that is going to happen anyway, but I mean artificially so. For example, if the world you want to build is a fantasy metropolis, you should be careful in your world building to make sure that you aren't funneling players to just playing thieves. Unless, of course, that's your goal. But if it isn't, world building toward playability means making sure there are lots of avenues open for different kinds of player characters.

In the fantasy city example, world building should detail the various social strata in the city, the boroughs and neighborhoods, law enforcement and criminality, academia and government, religion and entertainment. It should allow the PCs to try and climb the social ladder, or delve haunted catacombs. But it doesn't have to talk about what lies beyond the city walls at all. The world outside the city is obscure, perhaps even irrelevant.

Brennan Lee Mulligan did this really well with how he set up the Unsleeping City
 

I think its a question of how severe the stakes actually are, and if the unraveling of those stakes actually leave room to keep telling stories.

For example, Lord of the Rings. Tolkien started a sequel, but it never gained traction because how he ended LOTR was so final, for lack of a more precise term. To continue to tell the stories that would logically follow would undermine those stories, and that from what Ive learned about Tolkiens thoughts on his sequel is more or less why it never gained steam.

In the scheme of things this is sort of the inverse problem of Superhero movies having basically no real stakes so that there's basically no restriction or limit in terms of sequels and continuations.

Finding a middle ground is usually best, and in RPGs I think its been pretty common for sequels and such to have substantial time skips between big stories, as that time skip allows for more or less a reset (or a degradation) to occur so that the game can exist again.

Incidentally, I do think if Tolkien had more years under his belt he would have found a way to make his sequel work without taking away from LOTR. He had, after all, already hit on the right formula in how he handled Bilbo, but it'd take a lot more work to do it for basically everyone else of note in the LOTR.
Tolkein would have had to construct yet another conflict of the sort which drives LoTR, and he has a limited pallet to draw from (Sauron is pretty much KIA, so now what, Morgoth himself, that means portraying a final 'Armageddon' essentially). Basically he'd have to one-up LoTR too, or it would simply be an afterthought. He's already explored the theme pretty systematically, so it may be possible to deepen the examination, but it would not be anything like the previous story. For instance he could actually explore Melkor (Morgoth) in more detail. Is he really the abominable monster he's made out to be in Quenta Silmarillion? Is he even ultimately 'evil' or is his purpose simply to help drive the ultimate plan of Illuvatar? He would have to start to engage with these deeper questions about the nature of good and evil. Why does the omnipotent and omniscient Illuvatar have evil in his plans if he is supposed to be good? etc. It sure wouldn't be the same simplistic (though Tolkein certainly isn't simple in many respects) free will vs tyranny sort of stuff that makes LoTR go!

So, frankly, I am of the opinion that ME, as envisaged in LoTR at least in its 3rd Age incarnation, is pretty much a single-use setting. Yes, you can tell small 'fairy tale' type stories, even up to the scale of "fighting mighty dragon Smaug" or something equivalent, but the story of the War of the Ring is pretty unique, it cannot be rehashed within that setting in an effective way. Given that Tolkien already wrote There and Back Again (The Hobbit) as a prior story of that ilk he's got even less space. At best another similar tale has to equal or best Bilbo's tale, which is going to be hard to do. Even if he pulled off such a thing its hard to give it the salience that was retconned into the finding of the Ring and Gollum, etc.

I mean, various RPG authors have produced material/systems for play in 3rd/4th Age ME. In my experience it doesn't come off as an especially great vehicle for that. The authors are stuck trying to provide some adventures that turn out not to change anything (because they don't have the authority or desire to establish divergent canon). Tolkien didn't actually describe ME in much detail either. Yeah, there's a bunch of place names and various things can be inferred or are casually mentioned in passing, but the setting is actually profoundly deficient in everyday 'stuff'. Outside of the Shire we get very little to no examination of everyday life or ordinary people. When you start to inject that stuff it tends to mar the high fantasy feel of the setting. In the end my conclusion was that something like WoG, my own homebrew, etc. end up playing pretty much equally well in practice and I have a lot more freedom in my homebrew to define the major conflicts and the nature and feel of things.
 

Tolkein would have had to construct yet another conflict of the sort which drives LoTR, and he has a limited pallet to draw from (Sauron is pretty much KIA, so now what, Morgoth himself, that means portraying a final 'Armageddon' essentially). Basically he'd have to one-up LoTR too, or it would simply be an afterthought. He's already explored the theme pretty systematically, so it may be possible to deepen the examination, but it would not be anything like the previous story. For instance he could actually explore Melkor (Morgoth) in more detail. Is he really the abominable monster he's made out to be in Quenta Silmarillion? Is he even ultimately 'evil' or is his purpose simply to help drive the ultimate plan of Illuvatar? He would have to start to engage with these deeper questions about the nature of good and evil. Why does the omnipotent and omniscient Illuvatar have evil in his plans if he is supposed to be good? etc. It sure wouldn't be the same simplistic (though Tolkein certainly isn't simple in many respects) free will vs tyranny sort of stuff that makes LoTR go!

So, frankly, I am of the opinion that ME, as envisaged in LoTR at least in its 3rd Age incarnation, is pretty much a single-use setting. Yes, you can tell small 'fairy tale' type stories, even up to the scale of "fighting mighty dragon Smaug" or something equivalent, but the story of the War of the Ring is pretty unique, it cannot be rehashed within that setting in an effective way. Given that Tolkien already wrote There and Back Again (The Hobbit) as a prior story of that ilk he's got even less space. At best another similar tale has to equal or best Bilbo's tale, which is going to be hard to do. Even if he pulled off such a thing its hard to give it the salience that was retconned into the finding of the Ring and Gollum, etc.

I mean, various RPG authors have produced material/systems for play in 3rd/4th Age ME. In my experience it doesn't come off as an especially great vehicle for that. The authors are stuck trying to provide some adventures that turn out not to change anything (because they don't have the authority or desire to establish divergent canon). Tolkien didn't actually describe ME in much detail either. Yeah, there's a bunch of place names and various things can be inferred or are casually mentioned in passing, but the setting is actually profoundly deficient in everyday 'stuff'. Outside of the Shire we get very little to no examination of everyday life or ordinary people. When you start to inject that stuff it tends to mar the high fantasy feel of the setting. In the end my conclusion was that something like WoG, my own homebrew, etc. end up playing pretty much equally well in practice and I have a lot more freedom in my homebrew to define the major conflicts and the nature and feel of things.
Yeah. Whilst I love Middle-Earth, I really have no desire to roleplay in it.
 

I'm not sure what you are driving at. Are you suggesting that if the changes aren't immediate and immense, they don't "count" somehow? Or that without the ability to break the world, the players have no agency?
This becomes an interesting question of agendas and how they relate to world building in some sense. So, there's nothing particularly wrong with the idea of 'small people' as the PCs, they do small things, like saving villages from orcs, or whatever. There are a couple of pitfalls with this in a D&D-esque sense. First of all what happens when I'm a 14th level Magic User with massively powerful spells and the ability to slay Demon Lords and such? Classically D&D answered that by simply foisting you off into another realm of play where you are still just a country bumpkin banging yourself up against the eternal immutable forces of the Great Wheel! Blah, I'm a pawn forever! If you want to be a pawn forever, well that's fine, but this sort of world building is not conducive to all the other sorts of stories, which actually make up a pretty large fraction of all the literary and cultural referents which FRPG play draws from.

4e is a hugely instructive game in this regard. It takes the D&D sort of power evolution thing and develops a real progression of character salience. The World Axis is not an eternal architecture which cannot be changed! Neither is the more ordinary world, instead they are each the result of, and contain, deep primary conflicts. Yes, the PCs probably start out their lives as savers of villages, but in their course to 30th level they will certainly become world shakers, and eventually they're likely to shake the very foundations of the cosmic order, even if they don't end up smashing the whole thing to splinters. That potential is meant to be on the table though! Certainly if you adhere to the default cosmology and PoL world design outlined in the books there are ample opportunities to inject it.
 

No one mentioned "breaking" the setting except you. Irrevocable change is not the same as "breaking". You took change to be equal to breaking.
I think the problem is, if you do this sort of super-detailed design work where you document 100s of NPCs, buildings, towns, locations, and histories/cultures/politics/etc. all in great detail, then when the big change comes along, guess what? Its all swept off the table! The City of Pillars is now in ruins, conquered by the Bat People. The Barber Shop no longer exists, Fred the Barber is no more, or he's a refuge someplace, etc.

This is one of the fundamental things I find hazardous about producing this sort of comprehensive detail. It has a cost, and nobody really wants to write down their investment. The GM is invested in the status-quo and stories in such settings will probably largely consist of "maintain the status-quo" sorts of action. As I described in last(?) post, this often leads to 'small character syndrome' where even if the PCs constantly progress in levels they simply face a succession of landscapes within which they can only have marginal effects. That's not tragic, you can tell stories about people who just accomplish stuff that is relevant to them and their immediate environment, but it IS highly constraining! In a way that I am finding isn't always really acknowledged.
 

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