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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.


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.


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.)


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


Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
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.
Two things.

I have players who care.

I find it easier to run if the world makes sense to me.

Neither of those things makes your experience a lie; they just make your experience different from mine.

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But... a lot of DMs get satisfaction from creating intricate settings for their games. We often overlook the needs of the DM in favour of the needs of the players, and so we have these sort of pronouncements that effectively tell the DM to quit pontificating on their made-up history and get back to letting the PCs punch dragons in the face. Granted, most DMs write derivative, or just plan bad, game content, which is forgivable when you get to stab a goblin and take his money, but less so when you have to sit through a lecture on how King Whatshisname conquered the barony of Whogivesacrap. So sure, let's remind the DMs of the world to keep it to a minimum, but let's also remind players that being a DM is a tough, often thankless job, and maybe we should just be polite and let them stretch their creative muscles a bit.


A suffusion of yellow
I enjoy world building and so put a bit of effort into doing things, for my own entertainment and edification so even if it doesnt come up in game, at least I can be entertained by my own personal little easter eggs. It also gives me a hook for extra flashbacks/cutscenes and recurring eastereggs (which PCs will hopefully start to recognise). Of course I’m not going to do Tolkien levels of story bible and even when blurbs are written up they are always done at the level of Metaplot with a view to how the PCs might fit in.

eg My first teenage homebrew world was a classic melting pot called Terayne and I did the history in a series of Songs
1 Songs of Creation - The deeds of the gods before the rebellion of the Titans
2 Songs of the Lawgivers - The rise of mortal to overthrow the Titans (prehistory to Bronze age)
3 Songs of the Nations - The rise of the Great Empires (Iron Age Empires)
4 Songs of War - The Fall of the Golden Empires (Classical Age, Fall/Magic apocalypsal
5 Songs of Heroes - The Current Age in which Heroes rise (Fantasy Byzantine)

Each of eras provide setting themes and major NPCs which can serve as background material for PCs stories. Most games happen in the Songs of Heroes - and the PCs can be those heroes, I’ve also used it to run sword&scorcery Bronze Games, which became historic easter eggs in subsequent games


Couple paragraphs about the past for reference and focus on the here and now works for me. I'll flesh out further anything that catches the player's fancy. If it don't, I didn't waste that time.

I like things to both be:
A) Consistent
B) Expandable

The way I do this is by creating content skeletons.

1) I have a history of the world that goes back over 80,000 years. It can be printed on a single page. The history (and prehistory) is divided into 5 ages, and the ages are divided into times (a total of 16). There are dates (or approximate dates) and notes on the general themes and event age transition events. I also have some notes on what groups of creatures (First, Elder, Younger) are present, common, or ascendant at various times as well as some notes on religion, and tie-ins to my astronomy stuff I did.

2) I have a world map that is a giant disc (both interesting and easier to map than a globe) about 64,000 miles across. The basic outlines of continents and oceans are drawn, as well as broad notes on which cultures live in various areas (no borders, just names in a few places). The map is also labeled with letters and numbers on the edges, so it can be divided up into 3,000 mile squares with notations like "K12".

3) I created a variety of other information with plenty of generalities and few concrete specifics:
-Human ethnic groups
-Overview of how the various subraces of the other PHB races are represented in the world
-General write ups of each deity in the the human pantheon, similar to something in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide (the standard D&D pantheons for elves and dwarves and such are also present)
-Some basic cultural premises, such as the political prominence of the Bardic College
-The role of certain classes and subclasses in the world
-A bunch of astronomy stuff (because I was really interested in doing that at some point)

And with that overview, I have the skeleton I need to set any games I want into the world. When I need a region, I can just pick an unused map grid coordinate, and then pick a coordinate within the two smaller sub grids, and make a map that looks like it would fit there. I don't have to make any maps unless and until I need them. I can also set the game in any time period I want (in fact, prior to the start of the current campaign, I ran a theme adventure in the Time of Dragons in the Age of Legends, 60k+ years before the "present", and another one 50ish years before the current campaign start) and already have sufficient context to expand it if needed. I know when the the major empires of history were in broad strokes. I know the last empire (the Iteran Empire) had 5 great member (or successor) kingdoms, because I made a note of that at some point, but I have zero information (not even names or locations) on 4 of them, because I've only used one of them. Because my map is so big, I don't need to worry about drawing boundaries for where the Iteran Empire used to be unless a particular boundary is relevant.

Most people seem to think there are only two ways to do design. Either you draw a village and a dungeon and wing it from there, building everything around the PCs and their actions, or you try to be Tolkien and create languages and genealogies of ruling lineages for thousands of years. That's ridiculous.

It's a false choice for DMs to be given the impression that they must either go the route of full improv (or collaborative world-building) or start a meaningless fools quest. By creating a skeleton for time, space, and culture, you have all the room you need to zoom in, fill in details, or expand outward while maintaining consistency by having general starting background from which to start your improvisation.

Another unstated communication barrier which I think is hidden just beyond the surface of these discussions and needs to be brought to awareness is the nature of games that are being run. In particular, whether a world is being created as a temporary backdrop for a modern 6 month to 2 year campaign with a certain group of players, or being created for a lifelong persistent world where dozens of family and friends can theoretically experience a variety of adventures in. In the case of the former, of course you wouldn't want to put too much work in to start, because you'd be unlikely to get your time's worth out of it in play. In the latter, consistency and other issues of depth can greatly benefit by some more work upfront to set the stage for a lasting creation. It doesn't have a thing to do with whether it's a novel or an RPG when it's about exploring a world.


I probably write too much backstory, often to explain why certain things in the campaign are that way. If players never ask, well, it satisfies my internal sense of logic. And if one or more or them do ask, I am not caught flat-footed to answer them. I like having a better answer than "A wizard did it." I also tend to have some big plot-important issues arise from some historical events.

Most of my players do not care too much, but one in particular takes good notes and pays attention. I can usually rely on him to catch references to things and make connections. They are not essential to moving things forward, but could give them a slight edge or benefit, and I know he enjoys this aspect of play.

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