What is *worldbuilding* for?

pemerton

Legend
It does occur to me that the bribing officials in Traveller is a bit of a red herring. The fix is in there as well, because that rule is built in because there's a omnipresent corrupt bureaucracy that player characters will often have need to engage as part of play. So the bribing rule is only in that context against that much larger enforced setting and operates as a mechanical relief valve on that constraint. Fiat rules that deal with fiat setting restrictions aren't necessarily the best examples of things that increase agency. They preserve agency against setting constraints, but don't increase it.
This makes no real sense to me.

It's like saying that combat rules in D&D don't give players any agency - they only preserve agency against the constraint that, by default, a sword thrust in the fiction can be deadly.

All action delcarations presuppose (i) a fiction, and (ii) some way the player wants the fiction to be. (An exception to (ii) is an action delcaration whose purpose is to get the GM to narrate more fiction. But these don't manifest player agency at all, except in the very weak sense of triggering the GM to say more stuff.)

In Traveller there is an implicit setting, which includes officials, and law levels, and the possibility of bribing people. That's (i). And the players can engage with that fiction, and impose their will on it (this offiical will let us through, because I've bribed her), by declaring actions and then getting good rolls. That's the player succeeding in relatoin to (ii). That's agency, in the context of the RPG.
 

pemerton

Legend
Agreed. But considering a homebrew setting, I guess that building your world in advance is way more easier than deciding and making up everything on spot. Especially when you wish to minimize making mistakes, defying your own logic or to avoid the need to retcon.
My view on that is that "it depends" - what sort of details do we care about, who is etablishing them, for what reason, in what play context?

If you want to (eg) maintain an intricate and consistent calendar, that might be so.

If you want the world to be vibrant and engaing, then maybe less so - I personally think there's no substitute for narrating the setting as part of actual play, which is driven by the responses, contributins, enthusiasms (or not) of the players you're playing the game with.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
You can count me out on that idea. One of the problems with the 2e ranger was it was full of too many conditional abilities yet it was still stuck on the same XP track as the paladin with its more absolutist abilities. Absolute abilities are a lot easier to administer and plan for on the player side because they're reliable. But because they are absolute, you can plan for them as well.

If you can't run a "lost in the woods" adventure because the ranger has forest as his favored terrain, get them lost in a marsh, or a grassland, or badlands, or the underdark. He's going to max out at 3 terrains, surely you can coax them out to somewhere other than those three.
I'd rather not have to re-write my adventure, my quests and my world every time someone picks a ranger. It is far easier to say the ranger ability grants advantage on such checks than it is to re-write volumes of world-stuff to accommodate them.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
You can count me out on that idea. One of the problems with the 2e ranger was it was full of too many conditional abilities yet it was still stuck on the same XP track as the paladin with its more absolutist abilities. Absolute abilities are a lot easier to administer and plan for on the player side because they're reliable. But because they are absolute, you can plan for them as well.

If you can't run a "lost in the woods" adventure because the ranger has forest as his favored terrain, get them lost in a marsh, or a grassland, or badlands, or the underdark. He's going to max out at 3 terrains, surely you can coax them out to somewhere other than those three.
My problem with this ability is that it requires getting lost stories to exist to have any impact -- ie, the ability is pointless if I, as DM, don't push getting lost as a complication in my game. For it to matter, at all, getting lost needs to be something that's a threat in the game. At that point, it negates that story in that terrain, so for that to matter and be interesting, I have to push getting lost in other terrains. Bleh.

Most of the absolute abilities elsewhere in the game deal with things that are commonplace in the basic play -- poison, fear effects, etc., that I don't have to make any special effort to include.

That aside, not being able to get lost doesn't imply that you know where you're going. You just always know where you are. If you're exploring a forest, this ability just means the ranger can find places he's been to before or that he has firm description of the location that fits with what he already knows. There's still plenty of exploration challenges in the forest I can throw at a party with a ranger.

I still don't like that I have to make a specific effort to include getting lost as a threat for that ranger ability to even matter. I'd much rather have seen a blanket thing like advantage on all INT (Nature) and WIS (Survival) and WIS (Perception) checks in the favored terrain, and that's broad enough to be applicable to a number of stories instead of the more specific and non-core mechanic engaging abilities that did provide to rangers.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
To me, that seems very Gygaxian. In his rules for evasion of dungeon encounters, the first step is to check what the GM's notes say.

If the PCs are defeated by the monsters, and the players come back with new PCs - or if the same PCs who escaped/were driven off return - do you stick to the same patterns of behaviour? That seems important for the players to be actually able to learn and so improve their play.

Hard question?

In broad terms, I think there are at least four, or mabye three-and-a-half (some of this thread might be about whether that half is really a whole!).

<snip>

Huh. It seems you already have a very good idea what you think the answer to your question is.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I think it's inherent. Which is not to say it's bad.

Look at MarkB's example. It's inherent in that way of handling the bribery scenario that it is the GM's idea about the presence or absence of a bribeable NPC is favoured in establishing the shared fiction. Because the way the shared fiction is established is by the GM creating it; and the player, in play, learns what it is that the GM has created.
When you snip out the full context of a remark and direct your response to an incomplete selection of the idea, it's hard to continue to have a productive discussion. This an excellent point, where you pulled out a sentence fragment of a very short post and only directed your response to that fragment, which allows you to look like you're responding to the points of the post but, in reality, you're avoiding the full question and only answering a part of it. This is a favored method of politicians to control a dialog only to those points they're prepared to respond to, but I don't see how it's useful in an honest and open discussion. Why do you persist in doing this?
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
So I've been following this thread, and have found it interesting, but I've held off on commenting because I feel like the matter is mostly one of opinion, and it seems most folks are decided how they feel.

But I do have one question that I don't think has come up...or at least not directly.

Is it possible to have an RPG game or campaign without worldbuilding?

What I mean by that is, it seems to me that no matter what setting or system with which you decide to play, there absolutely must be some amount of worldbuilding that happens prior to the start of play. And I mean this in the sense of "worldbuilding" that seems to be hinted at in the OP and throughout the thread, of material pre-authored prior to the start of play.

I don't see how it is avoidable. It establishes the setting and the options/elements/conditions that will be present in play. Now, this worldbuilding can be done by others (a pre-published adventure or setting) or by the GM....but it must happen to one degree or another. It can be minimal, or very involved, and it can probably be either to a fault. Too little and the game becomes a directionless, pass the conch session where everyone is making up elements on the fly that never cohere into anything substantial or worthwhile. Too much, and it could become the GM reading the players a story (his own or one published by a third party).

But is there any game that does not involve some level of worldbuilding? If so, how do these games function? If not, then do we consider "worldbuilding" a fundamental aspect of play?
 

chaochou

Adventurer
Let me try an example.

There's skullduggery going on all over the city. The place is rife with rumours and plots and spies and gossip, and into all this prance the innocent naive low-level PCs looking to spend the spoils of their first real adventure. They take a room at an inn, and go out for a night on the town. At some point things go a bit sideways - there's some yelling and pushing and screaming and the party mage ends up having to discreetly charm a local harlot in order to calm the situation down; the charm works, well, like a charm. The mage now has a new friend, adventurers-plus-new-friend go about their merry evening, and a good time is had by all. The adventurers, including the mage, pass out around sunrise whereupon the harlot wanders off.

Player side: mage charms harlot who at his invitation joins mage and friends for a night of partying before slipping away a bit after sunrise. String pulled, result obtained.

DM side: harlot is actually an agent (who, depending on developments, the party may or may not have met later in this capacity) working for the local Duke. She realized the yelling and pushing was a distraction intended to mask something else, and joined the fray in order to get herself into the scene so she could try to determine what was being masked by the distraction. She managed to notice two men sneaking into an alley that she knew led to a hidden access to the Duke's manor house, just before being charmed by the mage and taken along for a night of revels. She didn't report this - in fact, she failed to report at all - and thus the two sneaks get where they're going and none the wiser. Meanwhile other agents who really can't be spared are sent out to search for the missing one, who none too sober comes in on her own not long after sunrise. String pulled, dominoes fall.

Ramifications: next morning word gets out of an attempt on the Duke's life during the night by two unknown men.

The PCs might never know of their unintentional involvement in this crime. Conversely, their mage might suddenly find himself arrested for treason and thrown in jail.
I really don't understand what such a DM needs players for. They may as well DM for themselves.

What this reveals, probably inadvertently, is completely self-indulgent GMing. It's purely for the GMs entertainment. You admit the PCs know nothing about what's happening. And will probably never know. And if they do 'find out' all they are ever, ever going to 'find out' is what the GM had pre-decided had happened. I get more agency reading a book.

And then you add in a new layer of GM force. The mage may get arrested for treason. And if he does the players get the joys of unravelling the GMs smugly convoluted plot to clear his name.

Was this supposed to be an example of 'player agency'? Is this the GM in 'full on react mode'? I'm genuinely confused by what this example is supposed to demonstrate. But what it actually reveals is quite telling - players as powerless stooges and pawns being exploited to help spice up a GMs solo game.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Prior to that, no one knew them to be true of the shared fiction, because the fiction wasn't established.
I believe this goes to your final argument about the nature of gameplay versus fiction. I address that below, but let's say that I find this answer to be special pleading.

This claim is just wrong. The next passage or two will elaborate.

It's not secret backstory used to adjudicate an action - exactly as you say, the players are looking for the GM to narrate some more fiction.

But if the player opens the door to find the secret exit, and the GM (with no reference to action resolution mechanics) drops down a map with no exit, then that is secret backstory used to adjudicate an action.

They're different cases.

A third case, also different, is if the player fails the check - and so opens the door hoping to find (say) a study but instead finds a kitchen. Or a study infested by bookworms (so to check it out involves risking the papers I'm already carrying). Etc.
You keep saying this, but you haven't yet shown me the difference between narrating more fiction and determining action outcomes.

What is the function difference between 'we open the door to the study' and being greeted with an encounter map and 'we look for a map in the study' and being told there is, in fact, no map? Both are requests for the DM to narrate more fiction, yes?

The central conceit here really seems to be revolving around some distinction between an action declaration that you classify as 'asking for more DM fiction' and an action declaration that you classify as 'not asking for more DM fiction.' You haven't clarified the difference. To me, it really seems to differ only in the established conceits of the game. In BW, you don't ask for more fiction, you introduce a desire for specific new fiction and then the DM provides more fiction based on that request, current fiction, established tropes, and mechanics. In more traditional D&D, you interact with the established fiction to and then the DM provides more fiction based on mechanics, established tropes, and prepared notes. The difference between these approaches is really if it's expected for the player to request specific new fiction or is expected to interact with the established fiction.

And that last line really clicked for me jsut now as to what these discussions revolve around. You're approaching this from the mindset that the player should be requesting new fiction, and therefore the DM denying that request based on pre-determined notes is bad play -- it breaks the expectation that players are to introduce new fiction and DMs are to accept or test that fiction using mechanics. Since you're looking at this from only that perspective, you will consistently reject arguments that do not adhere to that concept. Sadly, it seems that you're so wedded to that concept that you cannot even consider not playing that way to be valid, hence the constant creation of threads and posts that keep circling back to this central disagreement.

Personally, I can play either way. I see merits to both styles, and drawbacks to both styles. I prefer to run in the secret backstory mode, as I'm much more comfortable and have much more experience with that playstyle, and my players, on average, prefer it to the other. Heck, I'm having a hell of a time just trying to get them to shift away from requesting rolls to declaring actions, much less introducing new fiction and rolling with the results. But, as a player, I have no real preference either way. My only preference is for a GM that runs an engaging game.

Due to this realization, I'm clipping out the long response to most of the rest of your thread, as it's more of my trying to understand why you don't see the similarity of things. I will address your final argument, as I find it to be reductive and counterproductive.

<snip>

In my view this statement is false, and only gets a semblance of plausibility because the ficitonal is given (metaphorical) reality.

The orc doesn't exist. There are some words about the orc. Then some more words are authored - the orc is dead, say.

The map doesn't exist; nor does the study. There are some words about the study. Then some more words are authored - the study has a map in it. In the real world, we treat the death of a thing as metaphysically different from the presence of an object in a place for reasons to do with differences in causal processes, constitutive independence, etc (the death supervenes on the thing; the object's existence doesn't supervene on the place, so it might have been elsewhere).

But none of these reasons pertain to the authoring of fiction. Adding a sentence to the orc's description: it's dead; and adding a sentence to the study's description; it contains a map; are identical causal processes. And in RPGing terms, that means they are structurally equivalent game moves.
I believe that you do not see a functional difference between killing the orc and creating the map in the library. However, I do believe that you see a difference between killing an orc and finding a ray gun in the library. And, right there, you defeat your own argument.

To delve into this more deeply: You say that the fiction doesn't really exist. Okay, we'll leave aside the game implications of that statement for now and take it for argumentation. Since the fiction doesn't exist, then whatever you author into the fiction doesn't matter: it doesn't exist. Only the act of authoring is a real thing. So, therefore, all acts of authoring are the same. This is absurd, and counterproductive to discussion. If all acts of authoring are the same, then restrictions such as genre appropriateness or fictional positioning don't matter. You've strongly argued that these do matter, so that means that there is a difference in what is authored into the fiction -- some acts of authoring are preferred to others. Since those limitations are subjective -- there's not objective reason that genre appropriateness be a deciding limitation -- then it stands to reason that many things can impact what can be authored depending on the subjective choices of the participants. Following that to it's conclusion, it would seem that, since you yourself argue that there are some limits on authoring and those limits are subjective, that different styles of authoring can exist that serve to limit what can be authored into the fiction. This means that how the fiction is authored in game is actually based on subjective preferences of the players, and that, depending on those preferences, this can very well be a difference between killing an orc and creating a map in the library.

Returning briefly to the game implications of the fiction not existing -- I find this quasi-nihilist as the very concept of the hobby is creating and interacting withing a shared fiction. Stating that it's really a game of make believe and so has no impact in the real world is saying that RPGs can't engage our emotions and thoughts in ways that benefit us outside of telling ourselves a story. There are a number of games out there that are built on the concept of using the fiction as a separation from reality to explore things in reality -- to beat around the bush, so to speak, of emotionally fraught things and find ways to engage them. This definition also completely disregards LARPing, where there's a mix of reality and fiction ongoing. Or even SCA, where there's a fictional construct that's entirely played out in the real world. Your definition of the fiction as not existing is so against so many core tenets of the broader hobby of roleplaying that, as I said, it borders on nihilism.

That wasn't as brief as I expected.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
So I've been following this thread, and have found it interesting, but I've held off on commenting because I feel like the matter is mostly one of opinion, and it seems most folks are decided how they feel.

But I do have one question that I don't think has come up...or at least not directly.

Is it possible to have an RPG game or campaign without worldbuilding?

What I mean by that is, it seems to me that no matter what setting or system with which you decide to play, there absolutely must be some amount of worldbuilding that happens prior to the start of play. And I mean this in the sense of "worldbuilding" that seems to be hinted at in the OP and throughout the thread, of material pre-authored prior to the start of play.

I don't see how it is avoidable. It establishes the setting and the options/elements/conditions that will be present in play. Now, this worldbuilding can be done by others (a pre-published adventure or setting) or by the GM....but it must happen to one degree or another. It can be minimal, or very involved, and it can probably be either to a fault. Too little and the game becomes a directionless, pass the conch session where everyone is making up elements on the fly that never cohere into anything substantial or worthwhile. Too much, and it could become the GM reading the players a story (his own or one published by a third party).

But is there any game that does not involve some level of worldbuilding? If so, how do these games function? If not, then do we consider "worldbuilding" a fundamental aspect of play?
Well, [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION], for whatever reason, grabs terms that have an established meaning and then imparts a special definition to them that you have to tease out through conversation. He'll also switch to other terminology mid-stride that means the same thing, seemingly giving back the originally contentious term, but then go back to the original term still using his special definitions. I don't believe this to be malicious, I really don't think he attaches much importance to the terms used so, to him, it's all what he's talking about. Frustrating and confusing until you figure out what he's really driving at.

In this thread (and in most threads, honestly) the things he's driving at is DM's using their pre-game created notes to control play during the game. Some things are okay-ish, like in games like D&D with complex combat rules premaking some encounter maps to have fights on and using the MM is okay because those things are hard to do quickly in play. But, even there, there's a line where it's hard to figure out when you cross from okay-ish to nopesville for [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]. Trying to find that line turns out to be frustrating, as you usually figure out there's a massive perception difference between what you're talking about and what he's talking about. But, the gist is that he thinks player declarations should only be adjudicated by what they declare and the mechanics of the game and never, never ever, by what the DM wrote down in his notes and isn't known to the players.

Except for invisible things, and beholders in chasms, maybe... again, hard to understand, the ground keeps shifting at the margins.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
I really don't understand what such a DM needs players for. They may as well DM for themselves.

What this reveals, probably inadvertently, is completely self-indulgent GMing. It's purely for the GMs entertainment. You admit the PCs know nothing about what's happening. And will probably never know. And if they do 'find out' all they are ever, ever going to 'find out' is what the GM had pre-decided had happened. I get more agency reading a book.

And then you add in a new layer of GM force. The mage may get arrested for treason. And if he does the players get the joys of unravelling the GMs smugly convoluted plot to clear his name.

Was this supposed to be an example of 'player agency'? Is this the GM in 'full on react mode'? I'm genuinely confused by what this example is supposed to demonstrate. But what it actually reveals is quite telling - players as powerless stooges and pawns being exploited to help spice up a GMs solo game.
Before we climb too high up the badwrongfun bandwagon, the GM does, at times, have to GM for him own enjoyment as well as the players. Thinking through the implications of PC actions is a fun thought-exercise and can really help stimulate ideas for how to connect events and people within the campaign world and enrich the experience for him players. But it also can have a more direct benefit for the players as well even if that isn't immediately realized. They may not know they had a brush with an assassination plot right away, but the GM doesn't know when or how the PCs might circle around in their careers and interact with the same general locale or NPCs again. Seeing how the actions of the PCs have affected the game world beyond their immediate reach can really be satisfying. Plus, the idea of a small action or chance encounter having broader implications is part of the inspiration literature, particularly with projects like the Thieves' World anthology.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I really don't understand what such a DM needs players for. They may as well DM for themselves.

What this reveals, probably inadvertently, is completely self-indulgent GMing. It's purely for the GMs entertainment. You admit the PCs know nothing about what's happening. And will probably never know. And if they do 'find out' all they are ever, ever going to 'find out' is what the GM had pre-decided had happened. I get more agency reading a book.

And then you add in a new layer of GM force. The mage may get arrested for treason. And if he does the players get the joys of unravelling the GMs smugly convoluted plot to clear his name.

Was this supposed to be an example of 'player agency'? Is this the GM in 'full on react mode'? I'm genuinely confused by what this example is supposed to demonstrate. But what it actually reveals is quite telling - players as powerless stooges and pawns being exploited to help spice up a GMs solo game.
Yeah... I have to agree that's a bit much. Not my cuppa. But, [MENTION=29398]Lanefan[/MENTION]'s players have been at it with him for ages, so clearly they like this kind of thing.

I think there's room for that kind of game next to one that doesn't plan anything and just rolls with what happens in the game. I prefer a middle ground - I like to have my story beats in the game, but I'm loose with them and adapt those beats to the ones the players bring. Usually, at the beginning of a game, my beats are loudest, as I'm setting the hooks of the setting into the players and their characters and establishing some concepts. But, by the end, it's almost all player beats driving the game as we're doing what they want in the setting and I'm only occasionally resounding an earlier beat here or there. My current game just started. It's a hexcrawl exploration. My beats are 'you're from somewhere else and came here unexpectedly through a portal -- why was that?" and "this world is dangerous, with things from all over, and you're stuck here, you have to find a way to survive." To those, I set a small fortified hamlet so they can have a home base, populated with with some characters with personality hooks and talents that the players can engage, and set up some immediate tasks that the hamlet needed for safety as tasks for the party. Now, they're still only 3rd, but their deciding where they want to go based on where they want to explore and what resources they want and what rumors of what's been seen nearby. For instance, they really wanted to go investigate a stone circle a few miles to the north until the hamlet's sheriiff (for an easy handle, that's not what he is) said that one of his scouts claimed they saw a "Tinnysore Next, whatever that is, up that'away a few weeks ago." That ended that idea and they're now exploring south.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
Well, [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION], for whatever reason, grabs terms that have an established meaning and then imparts a special definition to them that you have to tease out through conversation. He'll also switch to other terminology mid-stride that means the same thing, seemingly giving back the originally contentious term, but then go back to the original term still using his special definitions. I don't believe this to be malicious, I really don't think he attaches much importance to the terms used so, to him, it's all what he's talking about. Frustrating and confusing until you figure out what he's really driving at.

In this thread (and in most threads, honestly) the things he's driving at is DM's using their pre-game created notes to control play during the game. Some things are okay-ish, like in games like D&D with complex combat rules premaking some encounter maps to have fights on and using the MM is okay because those things are hard to do quickly in play. But, even there, there's a line where it's hard to figure out when you cross from okay-ish to nopesville for [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]. Trying to find that line turns out to be frustrating, as you usually figure out there's a massive perception difference between what you're talking about and what he's talking about. But, the gist is that he thinks player declarations should only be adjudicated by what they declare and the mechanics of the game and never, never ever, by what the DM wrote down in his notes and isn't known to the players.

Except for invisible things, and beholders in chasms, maybe... again, hard to understand, the ground keeps shifting at the margins.
Yeah, I got the gist because I've had similar conversations with him before. But the term "worldbuilding" being interchangeable with "secret GM backstory" seems like such a big stretch that I thought there must be more to it....so that's why I asked the question I did.

Similar to the point you made above....worldbuilding is happening. Every game I can think of includes it to some extent, even if it's just genre limitations or setting details. So since that's the case, then there must be more criteria for the definition Pemerton is working with....and looking at it now, it seems to be that the information is secret.

I don't think worldbuilding can be limited to only be considered secrets the GM keeps from the players, so the whole OP is flawed. If the question is instead "What is secret GM backstory for?" then to me, that's something entirely different. And even then, a better way to ask would likely be "How can a GM use secret backstory to enhance play?" Wording it in such a way seems more transparent and less adversarial.

I can understand someone not liking the style of play where the GM has determined many details ahead of time, or does so by fiat throughout the game....but I can also conceive of someone enjoying that kind of play. I use elements of secret backstory in my game quite a bit. There's a meta-story that is in play. However, it's not ubiquitous....I leave plenty of details undecided, and I allow the players to introduce plenty of material, as well.

These discussions are tough because everyone seems to pay lip service to there being no wrong way to play, but as soon as they say that, they then proceed to point out why your way to play sucks. Not objectively, of course, that would be bad to say, but just in their opinion they'd rather smash their head into your table than sit down at it and play.

Everyone takes the worst possible version of another playstyle and argues from that point.
 

pemerton

Legend
Is it possible to have an RPG game or campaign without worldbuilding?

What I mean by that is, it seems to me that no matter what setting or system with which you decide to play, there absolutely must be some amount of worldbuilding that happens prior to the start of play. And I mean this in the sense of "worldbuilding" that seems to be hinted at in the OP and throughout the thread, of material pre-authored prior to the start of play.

I don't see how it is avoidable. It establishes the setting and the options/elements/conditions that will be present in play. Now, this worldbuilding can be done by others (a pre-published adventure or setting) or by the GM....but it must happen to one degree or another.

<snip>

But is there any game that does not involve some level of worldbuilding? If so, how do these games function? If not, then do we consider "worldbuilding" a fundamental aspect of play?
This has been discussed a bit above.

Here is a report of the first session of my Classic Traveller campaign.

The players rolled up their PCs. This process suggested backstory (eg consider the noble PC whose main skill is Gambling, who was forced to muster out due to a failed survival roll, and who rolled a yacht as a mustering out benfit - the player decided that this meant he had won the yacht gambling, and had then been beaten to within an inch of his life by the people he won it from).

I rolled a starting world. We agreed - based on its properties, and following a player suggestion - that it was a gas giant moon.

I rolled for a patron encounter. It was a scout. This suggested she might know the ex-(dry)navy PC. And we started from there.

I'd rolled up a few worlds and so had their stats with me - I dropped them in as they were needed. That's a case of prep - but the world was established in the course of play.

Of course Traveller has an implied setting (interstellar navy and merchants; the Imperial scout service; widespread use of bladed weapons as well as firearms; etc). But then so does D&D (clerics and paladins; towns with thieves and assassins; wilderness with rangers and druids; and all these people beset by orcs, kobolds, dragons, demons etc).
 
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hawkeyefan

Explorer
This has been discussed a bit above.

Here is a report of the first session of my Classic Traveller campaign.

The players rolled up their PCs. This process suggested backstory (eg consider the noble PC whose main skill is Gambling, who was forced to muster out due to a failed survival roll, and who rolled a yacht as a mustering out benfit - the player decided that this meant he had won the yacht gambling, and had then been beaten to within an inch of his life by the people he won it from).

I rolled a starting world. We agreed - based on its properties, and following a player suggestion - that it was a gas giant moon.

I rolled for a patron encounter. It was a scout. This suggested she might know the ex-(dry)navy PC. And we started from there.

I'd rolled up a few worlds and so had their stats with me - I dropped them in as they were needed. That's a case of prep - but the world was established in the course of play.

Of course Traveller has an implied setting (interstellar navy and merchants; the Imperial scout service; widespread use of bladed weapons as well as firearms; etc). But then so does D&D (clerics and paladins; towns with thieves and assassins; wilderness with rangers and druids; and all these people beset by orcs, kobolds, dragons, demons etc).

We
Maybe your post was cut short? Seems like you may have had more to say.

But what you've listed here are, to me, examples of worldbuilding. It is minimal compared to many games. But even just going with the default assumptions of Traveler is worldbuilding. It's just that other people did the worldbuilding years ago, and you've decided to use that world they built. Then you allowed your players to contribute to the worldbuilding with the gambling backstory bit for his character. You came up with an NPC with possible ties to one PC. Then you chose a world, and some others in case they came up.

How is this not worldbuilding?
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Yeah, I got the gist because I've had similar conversations with him before. But the term "worldbuilding" being interchangeable with "secret GM backstory" seems like such a big stretch that I thought there must be more to it....so that's why I asked the question I did.

Similar to the point you made above....worldbuilding is happening. Every game I can think of includes it to some extent, even if it's just genre limitations or setting details. So since that's the case, then there must be more criteria for the definition Pemerton is working with....and looking at it now, it seems to be that the information is secret.

I don't think worldbuilding can be limited to only be considered secrets the GM keeps from the players, so the whole OP is flawed. If the question is instead "What is secret GM backstory for?" then to me, that's something entirely different. And even then, a better way to ask would likely be "How can a GM use secret backstory to enhance play?" Wording it in such a way seems more transparent and less adversarial.

I can understand someone not liking the style of play where the GM has determined many details ahead of time, or does so by fiat throughout the game....but I can also conceive of someone enjoying that kind of play. I use elements of secret backstory in my game quite a bit. There's a meta-story that is in play. However, it's not ubiquitous....I leave plenty of details undecided, and I allow the players to introduce plenty of material, as well.

These discussions are tough because everyone seems to pay lip service to there being no wrong way to play, but as soon as they say that, they then proceed to point out why your way to play sucks. Not objectively, of course, that would be bad to say, but just in their opinion they'd rather smash their head into your table than sit down at it and play.

Everyone takes the worst possible version of another playstyle and argues from that point.
Totally agree. I try to make sure I argue from the point of just advocacy for my preferences and not to show other styles are wrong. This is difficult sometimes because describing my journey includes me determining something things don't work for me or that I don't prefer them, and that's negative language that triggers defensive responses (understandably). And then, sometimes, I get tree vision (as opposed to forest vision) on a point. This happens especially in threads where fisking is more common, as ideas get separated out into elements that then undergo the same transition. I admit there's been a few times that I've looked back at something and suddenly realized I'm now arguing against an earlier position because of how the details have been taken up. Lately, I've adopted looking at my post and trying to figure if what I just said was helpful or not. A large part of my last reply to [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] was me boring down on details that really didn't matter and were being argued because they were being argued. I like to argue, so this is an easy hole to fall into.

Largely, though, I think that there's a lot of self-identification wrapped up in our hobbies, especially ones that are as personal as RPGs can be. I used to manage a hobby shop and the three classes of customer I had the most problems with were the train guys, the Napoleonic wargamers, and the RPG players. Pretty much for the same reasons -- they all had incredibly specific demands for inventory, they didn't accept that I could order in very expensive lots of things without a promise of purchase (you don't go into the hobby business to be rich), and would all try to monopolize time talking about their hobbies to exhaustion. These were always minefields to negotiate, as you wanted to keep a customer, make a sale, make them happy about the sale, and not spend all day on a small or no sale interaction. Huh, I had a point when I started this, but now it appears I've just gone off into storyland. Still, maybe there's something in there that might make someone think or laugh or relate, so I'll just again say that RPGs are something people really identify personally with, and it's hard to extract that when you hear someone say something that sounds like you don't play right.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
Totally agree. I try to make sure I argue from the point of just advocacy for my preferences and not to show other styles are wrong. This is difficult sometimes because describing my journey includes me determining something things don't work for me or that I don't prefer them, and that's negative language that triggers defensive responses (understandably). And then, sometimes, I get tree vision (as opposed to forest vision) on a point. This happens especially in threads where fisking is more common, as ideas get separated out into elements that then undergo the same transition. I admit there's been a few times that I've looked back at something and suddenly realized I'm now arguing against an earlier position because of how the details have been taken up. Lately, I've adopted looking at my post and trying to figure if what I just said was helpful or not. A large part of my last reply to [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] was me boring down on details that really didn't matter and were being argued because they were being argued. I like to argue, so this is an easy hole to fall into.

Largely, though, I think that there's a lot of self-identification wrapped up in our hobbies, especially ones that are as personal as RPGs can be. I used to manage a hobby shop and the three classes of customer I had the most problems with were the train guys, the Napoleonic wargamers, and the RPG players. Pretty much for the same reasons -- they all had incredibly specific demands for inventory, they didn't accept that I could order in very expensive lots of things without a promise of purchase (you don't go into the hobby business to be rich), and would all try to monopolize time talking about their hobbies to exhaustion. These were always minefields to negotiate, as you wanted to keep a customer, make a sale, make them happy about the sale, and not spend all day on a small or no sale interaction. Huh, I had a point when I started this, but now it appears I've just gone off into storyland. Still, maybe there's something in there that might make someone think or laugh or relate, so I'll just again say that RPGs are something people really identify personally with, and it's hard to extract that when you hear someone say something that sounds like you don't play right.
Yes, I do it too, sometimes....I didn't mean to exclude myself from my earlier comment. I try not to speak negatively of other peoples' playstyles or preferred GM techniques or what have you....but sometimes it's hard to not sound negative when you're talking about one thing among many that you prefer. The many are implied to be lesser in some way.

That's a big part of why I held off on commenting in this thread.
 

pemerton

Legend
Maybe your post was cut short? Seems like you may have had more to say.

But what you've listed here are, to me, examples of worldbuilding. It is minimal compared to many games. But even just going with the default assumptions of Traveler is worldbuilding. It's just that other people did the worldbuilding years ago, and you've decided to use that world they built. Then you allowed your players to contribute to the worldbuilding with the gambling backstory bit for his character. You came up with an NPC with possible ties to one PC. Then you chose a world, and some others in case they came up.

How is this not worldbuilding?
OK, so just to clear some ground - my purpose in starting the thread isn't to work out what "worldbuilding" really means. It's to ask about what a certain technique/method in RPGing might be for. And I think you realise that, so the purpose of this paragraph is just to establish that we're both on that cleared ground.

Now, the technique/method I'm interested in is the following - the description may be rough, but hopefully gets at something recognisable: the GM, in advance of play, establishes certain elements of the shared fiction - "the world" or "the setting". These details may be high level and fairly abstract ("Here's the pantheon"). They may be low level and rather gritty ("Here's a map of your inn room"). These details may or may not be shared with the players in advance of play, but that's a matter for GM discretion as governed by certain conventions (eg if we assume that none of the PCs is blind or in the dark, then there's a convention that the GM will show the players at least a rough map of the area the PCs are in, or describe it them if words are being used rather than pictures).

These details can be used to constrain or even veto player choices at PC generation. (That hasn't been discussed much in this thread, but is frequently discussed on these boards.) And, as has been discussed at some length in this thread, these details may be used by the GM to establish elements of fictional positioning, in the context of action resolution, which are secret from the players. The result of this is that a player can declare an action for his/her PC and have it fail not because of a bad roll (this thread has mostly been focused on dice-based action resolution) but because the framing for the declaration - unbeknownst to the player - has already been established by the GM to be such that the action can't succeed.

The recurring example of the last point is the GM's prior determination that the map is in the kitchen (hidden in the bread bins) and not in the study, and hence that an action declaration by a player "I search the study for the map" cannot succeed, in virtue of the GM establishing in advance the content of (that aspedct of) the shared fiction.

A further consequence of the sort of worldbuiling I've just been describing, which is important to me but has received much less attention in this thread than the above point, follows on from the idea of constraints on PC build. When the game begins from this sort of worldbuilding, the focus of play is established by the GM. The "big picture" of the campaign is established by the GM. The local, nitty-gritty moving parts of the ingame situation are established by the GM.

A further thing is that the second and third consequences can feed into one another. So the established but secret elements of backstory which determine - in ways unbeknownst to the players, because while they may know there is secret backstory there they don't know what it is (because it's secret) - whether or not action declarations succeed or fail. So the play of the game, via action declarations, is apt to lead to outcomes that reflect the GM's establishment (in advance) of the key setting elements.

Anyway, that is the sort of worldbuilding I have in mind. I think it's very common. I have played games where it occurs. I read posts about such games nearly every day on ENworld. It's inherent to any AP campaign that it have more-or-less the above character. [MENTION=29398]Lanefan[/MENTION] has given multiple examples (both imagined and actual play) which illustrate RPGing in the above fashion.

In the Traveller game I referred to, we started with PC gen tables: I had written up tables that mostly reflected the original ones in Book 1 and Supplement 4, but with an additional line - Special Duty - borrowed from the MegaTraveller tables; and changing a couple of skill entries on the skill roll tables to incorporate (some of) the skills introduced in Books 4, 5, 6 and 7.

And we had a patron encounter table. And world generation tables. And I had a piece of paper with stats for 4 worlds written down (Lyto-7, Byron, Enlil and Ruskin) - their existence as elements of the shared fiction was not established (and in the case of Ruskin still hasn't been - it's there if I need a comfortable, mid-tech world with a bucolic lifestyle and strong immigration restrictions, but so far I haven't).

The nearest recent experience I would compare it to is running a one-off AD&D session where the players rolled up 2nd level PCs and then I used the Appendix A random dungeon generation system to generate a dungeon as they went along.

In both cases, there are tecniques used to establish a setting. In the AD&D case, rolling on the tables tells us what the starting room looks like (there are six to choose from); how long the corridoors are; etc. There are charts for working out whether a room is empty or not, and if it's inhabited, by what. In the Traveller case, I rolled a starting world and the players and I worked out a sketch of it based on the rolls. Instead of the room occupants charts in Appendix A, Traveller has a patron chart, which established this scout in need of assistance as a part of the setting.

Because the player of the noble had already established that he'd won a yacht gambling, but had been hopsitalised as a result - which is how he had met the ex-Navy medic - it made sense that the scout would be needing the PCs' help because her old crew had lost their ship gambling! And because one of the PCs - generated on the diplomat table - was clearly a spy (skill in carousing, interrogation, streetwise, gambling, recruiting, forgery, wheeled vehicles), it made sense that the mission should have a clandestine element to it (although what that was was not established until the player of the spy had his PC seduce the scout, and succeeded in an interrogation roll, which then obliged me to make up some more backstory about the secret element of the job she was offering).

In that example, the setting is not a constraint on PC gen - it follows from it. It is not a constraint on action declaration success - it is generated in response to it. Where details are filled out as part of framing and establishing the situation, the players are contributing together with the GM, and it is this interaction of ideas that generates a setting for the (imaginary) action to occur within.

Another, small but illustrative example: when the PCs stopped off at the world of Lyto-7 on their jump route from the starting world - Ardour-3 - to Byron, the ship owner decided to buy some cargo with the hope that he could sell it on at a profit on Byron. We rolled on the trading tables to determine values etc. But that left the question of what the cargo actually was. The world gen system had determined that the population of Lyto-7 was only a double-digit nubmer of people, and it had no government or law level, but a reasonably high tech level - so clearly it was a research station of some sort. That was my framing. The system had also decreed that the hydrographics of the world were 60%. The player therefore decided the cargo was ambergris (or something similar) collected as a byproduct of the research work being undertaken. Thta's only a modest bit of setting, but again it was not any sort of constraint on action declaration or resolution. Rather, working through those processes, in conjunction with the world gen results, yielded the setting via inputs from both GM and player.

Whether or not you want to call that "worldbuilding", it bears very little resemblance to the phenomenon I have described above. They both establish a setting, a shared fiction, which provides context for play. But the methods of doing that, and the consequences, are almost completely different.

So if you are asserting "RPGing needs setting" then I agree. If you are asserting "RPGing needs situation, and situation brings setting with it" then I agree. But if you are asserting "Because RPGing needs situation to get going, the GM must author some setting in advance, thereby unilaterally establishing some elements of the shared fiction", well then I disagree.
 

pemerton

Legend
When you snip out the full context of a remark and direct your response to an incomplete selection of the idea, it's hard to continue to have a productive discussion. This an excellent point, where you pulled out a sentence fragment of a very short post and only directed your response to that fragment, which allows you to look like you're responding to the points of the post but, in reality, you're avoiding the full question and only answering a part of it.
Here is the full quote:

I get that preference, but you seem to couch your arguments from a position where the DM is uses secret knowledge and fiat in ways that benefit the DM's ideas over the players. When you couch your arguments like that, it's easy to assume that the crux of your problem is worrying that the DM will be unfair in his adjudication of your stated actions. That's where I was coming from with that.

As for you being the GM, that's not counterindicative at all of having trust issues about the GM being unfair.
The last sentence is not something I intend to reply to. I'm not interested in analysing my own conjectured self-doubts in this thread. As I've said, a more prosaic explanation for my preferences is available - my pleasure in RPGing does not come from telling my friends stuff that I wrote in response to them making moves for their PCs that oblige me to engage in such tellings.

As for the first bit, you are correct that I "seem to couch [my] arguments from a position where the DM is uses secret knowledge and fiat in ways that benefit the DM's ideas over the players". The reason it seems like that is because it is like that. (I didn't clarify that in my first reply because I assumed it was obvious.) And the reason I couch my arguments (I would prefer to say "analysis", but that's orthogonal) from that position is because that position is correct. Which is what I said was evident in the post from [MENTION=40176]MarkB[/MENTION]: inherent in the use of secret backstory as a factor in adjudication is that the GM's ideas are given priority in establishing the content of the shared fiction.

I'll respond to the following bit too, though, if you like, though I think it's repetition: a GM may be fair or unfair in saying (on the basis not of action resolution, but of secretly established fictional content) that the map is not in the study where the players have declared that the PCs are searching the study for it. If every other bit of information points to the map being in the study, it's probably unfair. If the PCs have a potion of map detecing with a range that will encompass the whole house (kitchen as well as study) but are not using it, then what the GM is doing is probably fair.

I don't care whether it's fair or not. The reason I don't like it is because I find it uninteresting. When I RPG, I don't want to engage in an activity in which my friends are spending most of their time trying to establish - by way of game moves - the content of my notes. I want to spend the time finding out what adventures befall these characters. that my friends are playing, and part of that is finding out about what sorts of settings they find themselves in, and what things they find and do there.

To give a concrete example: when the PCs decide to visit a market on the low-tech world of Enlil to see if any trinkets on sale there show signs of alien manufacture (the Enlilians have alien as well as human elements to their DNA), I don't want a style of play in which I look up my notes (or the publishers) notes on the world, its marketplaces, their contents, etc. We rolled for it.

(For another market place example from Burning Wheel, which shows a mixture of "saying 'yes'" and dice rolls, see here.)

Why do you persist in doing this?
Many of the posts in this thread are quite long - mine included. I am trying to identify the core propositions at issue and address them. That's all. It didn't seem important to me to explain that I'm not talking about or interested in fairness. I was wrong - you did think it important. So I've explained that.
 

pemerton

Legend
a better way to ask would likely be "How can a GM use secret backstory to enhance play?" Wording it in such a way seems more transparent and less adversarial.
Well, what if the answer is "There's no way?" Then your wording would be begging the question!

Asking "What is it for" seemed pretty transparent to me. And I've had a number of answers in this thread.

Of course if someone else wants to start a thread with your suggested title they're welcome to. I haven't noticed it in the past 10 years on this site, though. Hence I started mine.
 
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