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Worlds of Design: Game Design vs. Story Framework

Making a Tolkien-like history for a game can be self-indulgent if you let it get in the way of the game. Making it for written stories is something else entirely.

gamevsframework.png

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Stories require some kind of setting. J. R. R. Tolkien made his history and setting as a place for his linguistic efforts. But it worked pretty well for his stories! Was that much detail necessary even for the stories? I doubt it. I suppose what matters is whether you're designing a game, or making a framework for a GM to tell stories to players, two quite different endeavors.

Game vs. Framework​

Unfortunately, many world builders are frustrated admirers of Tolkien who want to go into the past of their world, and perhaps show the “beauty and intricacy” of their conceptions. However, the distant past is rarely relevant to game players. Game players usually need to know what’s happening now and in the recent past, not what happened 5,000 years ago; or better, what happened 5,000 or even 1,000 years ago can be summarized in a paragraph. For that matter, what happened 100 years ago can usually be summarized. What matters in world building for games is the current situation, what’s likely to happen in the future, and what happened in the recent past that affects the present.

There’s an element of self-indulgence in writing about the long-ago, which can be bad for tactical role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. The writer wants to share what he/she has in mind even though that doesn’t make sense for the game. It’s a little like films: when you have a writer who’s also the director you can get something that’s very good (Guardians of the Galaxy or Avengers) or via self-indulgence, that’s awful (many movies most of us never heard of).

There are game masters who see their campaign worlds as creative frameworks, and that’s fine, but expectations should be low that the world will become more popular than just that, an exercise in creativity (in much the same way Tolkien, as per his quote above, originally created his world for his language skills). If you're planning to publish your campaign so that others can use it, the detail can be helpful to future game masters. But for the most part, from a game design perspective, much of the lore and language probably won't come up in actual play.

Granularity​

While I'm on the subject of what amounts to elaborate backstories for game designs rather than characters (see "Which came first, the character or the backstory"), I want to address granularity. For game purposes, changing your level of granularity in your history can be distracting. That is, talking about centuries of time, then switching to a timescale of weeks in order to tell a particular story (that’s too detailed to be useful in the game anyway) can confuse players, or worse, bore them.

Yes, the Silmarilion does this; but that’s a compendium of bits left by Professor Tolkien, not a work he finished. You want to make a finished game, don’t you? Moreover, it wasn’t written for gaming. (Reading the Silmarillion is often like reading the Old Testament of the Bible.)

Retcons​

Another related topic is retcons, going back and changing history by introducing new information. GMs sometimes do this to solve a problem in the history. Real-world historians in effect do this with some frequency, simply because of disagreements in interpretation, or discovery of new evidence, or even new political agendas that influence the historians. Yes, what happened, happened, but often we don't know exactly, so different historians have different versions of what happened, and certainly different versions of why it happened. This can work out in the history of your game world. Few people in the world will have access to "the historical truth" in such a setting, so it's easy and believable to change it as you go along.

In other words, don't let your setting become a straitjacket. The game's the thing!

Your turn: How much work (like creating a language) have you put into your game world?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Hussar

Legend
Recently? How much work? Virtually none. Just ain't got time for all that setting stuff. And, frankly, the players couldn't give two rat's petoots about it anyway. I can count on one hand, with fingers left over, the number of players who ACTUALLY read the setting background. Most won't even bother with a page long summary.

What's the point of doing all that extra work if it's never going to be useful? Do enough that everything kinda/sorta hangs together and call it done and dusted.
 

damiller

Explorer
I had never really done backstory for most of my games, mainly by setting them in Tolkein. But for a superhero game I used Microscope to help me generate the eons past, and I can tell you, that history has and will effect my players directly in future campaigns.
 



John R Davis

Adventurer
Good article. I create a lot of gaming stuff but as I have no desire to write a novel such things never get in the way. I dislike characters with even slightly long backstories and the history in my gameworld rarely goes back beyond the lifespans of the last few generations. If stuff can't be interfered with by PCs I rarely see the point in having it.
 

JohnF

Explorer
Your turn: How much work (like creating a language) have you put into your game world?
Very little. Broad strokes at best to kick off. My current homebrew setting started a year ago with character-driven inspiration from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker as the starting point, and, like a cartoon snowball, has rolled on collecting bits of new inspiration along the way (recently adding some of the settlements from the newly-snagged Over the Next Hill collections). So, the historical emerges when needed.

Thematic patchworking in process suits me just fine!
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
I have a fair amount of depth to my world, but that's only because I've been using the same basic world forever. Everything started out as broad brush-strokes and then as little bits and pieces (sometimes as a result of improv) get added I make a note of it and make sure that it "fits" with the overall story. If something "historical" changes it's because the historical record was incorrect or told from a different perspective.

So broad brushstrokes, adding in detail as needed to make sure there aren't too many jarring inconsistencies. When I add detail I simply take note of it and that gets added to the lore.
 

aco175

Legend
I would echo what @Hussar and @JohnF said about player cares and DM cares. A few paragraphs sets up the campaign. I tried some homebrew over the years with some story and most players only want basics. I could make up a bunch of gods, but my time is spent better on making a dungeon and just using the FR gods or the PHB gods that we have been playing with.

I think the DM needs some rough notes on the history to place dungeons and plots along it for the players. You would still need to remind most players that the strange symbol the find at 8th level looks a lot like the one they seen at 1st and left alone.
 

Marc_C

Solitary Role Playing
I made the mistake of changing how I usually did things and created a detailed world for 4e. Wrote a 30 pages Gazetteer-like document that no one read. I had to info dump the all general concepts at session 1. We ended up using only 10% of the world.

After that I returned to my usual method: One page of notes and a map of the area the PCs start in.

As long as you have a semi-detailed starting location, a god for the cleric and interesting villains you are set to go. Just add details as you go along based on the characters actions.
 


univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
It think of history for the howebrew worlds I have created as window dressing. There isn't all that much behind it but its there to give the illusion of depth (which is what Tolkien wrote all those histories for in the first place).

I use history a lot when I create game, whether playing in my own world or a campaign setting. I am running a 5e in the Dalelands right now and having been away from Faerun for such a long time, I really had to bone up on the history of what happened in the region over the last couple hundred years. Having all that stuff in my head allows me to do a lot of detail filling on the fly for when the characters ask questions or go in a direction I wasn't expecting.

Where using history can backfire is the fact that players probably don't know this stuff. In a game set in the "real world", I set up a situation where the characters seeing a cross styled in a certain way gave context to their situation, which there characters would recognize but the players did not. Giving the players a knowledge check in order to receive the context can just turn into them rolling dice to receive a history lesson. And while the lesson may be germane, it may require an inordinate amount of explanation.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I disagree to only focus on the here and now. Thats good (enough) for one shots, but once you expand your game world nothing will make sense as you never thought about why things are the way they are.
As someone that's had great fun in zero myth games, this isn't a given. It may be true, but it can easily not be true at all.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
As someone that's had great fun in zero myth games, this isn't a given. It may be true, but it can easily not be true at all.
Zero Myth, as I understand it, doesn't mean there's no backstory; it just means the backstory isn't worked out beforehand. It seems plausible to me for a Zero Myth game to be intensely focused on the history of the setting, as that history emerges during play.

That said, it seems like a reasonable position that it's easier (for some people/tables) keep the history/backstory clear and consistent if it's worked out ahead of time--some people don't improvise that sort of thing easily or well.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Zero Myth, as I understand it, doesn't mean there's no backstory; it just means the backstory isn't worked out beforehand. It seems plausible to me for a Zero Myth game to be intensely focused on the history of the setting, as that history emerges during play.
Yup.
That said, it seems like a reasonable position that it's easier (for some people/tables) keep the history/backstory clear and consistent if it's worked out ahead of time--some people don't improvise that sort of thing easily or well.
Perhaps, but that's something you say about a person, not an approach. EG, "Bob finds it easier to do this beforehand than in the moment." This doesn't mean that it's always or even often true that prep means more coherency. Heck, the WotC adventure paths should immediately disabuse this notion, and they're professional products for sale!
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Perhaps, but that's something you say about a person, not an approach. EG, "Bob finds it easier to do this beforehand than in the moment." This doesn't mean that it's always or even often true that prep means more coherency. Heck, the WotC adventure paths should immediately disabuse this notion, and they're professional products for sale!
I ... thought I was saying it was reasonable to say it was true for some people and/or tables. I didn't mean to imply it was reasonable to claim as a universal truth.
 

mr_monkius

Villager
Years ago in college when I had lots more free time, I created 10 years of history for all of the regions on some map I had found. If I remember correctly, I used some simple software I wrote to give me ideas (Group X has split, Fighting between X and Y) while I was creating it. Sort of cliff notes version of the history.

I had everyone make basic versions of their characters. Then I walked each of them separately through 10 years of adventures. They could wander and interact with the events to some extent. One of the characters traveled to find a swordsmaster. Another was a pirate and took part in some of the big raids. Another was captured by slavers based on where he went.

That did a few things:
  • It impacted how their character evolved and increased in power before we started
  • They each had a custom history that popped up during play
- I want to stop and visit my swordsmaster since we are traveling near there
- The ex-pirate visited one of the cities he had helped sack . . . and was arrested :)
 

I have created massive histories for campaign settings. I know the probability of any of it coming up in the game approaches 0%. I like to do it for me, so that I understand the whys of the world. This helps me present a living, breathing world to my players. If I absolutely must make a change, I make a note of it for my history to figure out what this means.
 

Hussar

Legend
I disagree to only focus on the here and now. Thats good (enough) for one shots, but once you expand your game world nothing will make sense as you never thought about why things are the way they are.
The problem is, the players don't care. They really, really don't. It's very doubtful they will remember, other than in very broad ways, anything from a campaign world. The notion that things "won't make sense" just doesn't come up. I've had it come up when something doesn't make sense right here and now - where exactly is everyone pooping in this dungeon? - but, outside of that? No one actually cares about why this group of elves hates that group of elves. Or, sorry, I shouldn't say no one because I can hear someone furiously typing right now telling me how they care.

Not enough people care to make it matter.
 

Argyle King

Legend
As I see it, the bigger issue is when the mechanical structure of the game conflicts with the style of story.

I like playing games.
I like reading stories.
I understand that sometimes story sacrifices are made so as to make a game playable.
At the same time, I think (when possible) game rules should enhance (rather than detract from) the ability of a player to buy-in to the fiction of a setting.
 

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