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Worlds of Design: Worldbuilding 101 (Part 1)

If you want to make up your own adventures, your own campaign, instead of using something someone else wrote, then sooner or later you’ll need to approach world building. This is “beginners notes” for world building, it's not comprehensive. It's primarily for gamers, but much of it applies to fiction writers too.

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
Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.” M. John Harrison (author of more than 20 novels)
Some people devote big chunks of their lives to world building. Some fantasy or SF novelists have J.R.R. Tolkien in mind (see quote above), and how much time he spent on world building. Remember that a game world is a way to help people write their own stories, or to help you write your own story if you choose, so don't overdo the world-building. Your world is an adjunct to your game, not the goal. It's a means to an end, not an end in itself, unless you're very unusual. Read Harrison’s quote above, if you haven’t yet.

A mistake that many beginners make is to spend vast amounts of time on the world and not get around to what really matters, which is the game or the story. Most people can take the simple route. My friend Jeffro says you only need to know six things about the world to start the adventure. He doesn't specify categories; I don't think he was thinking in categories. In other words, you only need to know enough to let the adventure push forward. You don't need to know all the details about the world. Nonetheless, here are some questions you can ask yourself about a (fantasy) world.
  • What are the players going to DO?
  • Who are the main enemies?
  • Terrain? (Do you NEED a map?)
  • Is there “a war on?”
  • Who/what dominates the local area?
  • How “present” are the gods?
  • Is there a great mystery?
  • How much does magic influence the world?
  • How common are adventurers?
  • What is the speed of communication and transport?
Notice that I don’t mention the history of the world. Insofar as the history doesn’t make a difference to the players, why spend a lot of time on it?

What are the players going to do?

The first question is what are the players going to do? For the majority of game players, I think, games are about doing. They're not there to admire your world, and we can say that of novels as well. Even if you're talking about an entire world, it's part of a novel: what's important are the events of the novel. Occasionally the worlds are so striking that people are there in part to admire that - Larry Niven's Ringworld comes to mind. Tolkien’s world is often admired (in part because of the detail?), and so forth. But this is exceptional.

Who are the main enemies?

This can be anything from individual villains to entire nations or species. Individual villains can be more personal, more “me against him (or her)”. I'm going to get this guy or this girl no matter what. The large villains such as a nation or species can provide the feeling of being overwhelming, of inevitable failure or despair, and that may be a feeling you want introduced your game. I think the Underdark of early editions of D&D existed mainly so Drow could be a major enemy.

What's the terrain and do you need a map?

You probably need a local map (which will have terrain features) but not a world map. Games need a local map because players move about in it; novels often get away only with a large-scale map (so as not to give details away). Of course, if you're doing an RPG you can add to the local map as necessary and you can decide whether the new areas are mountains or something else. Maps are fun, on the other hand, if you make the entire world map now - that'll be much larger than you think- you limit yourself. Science fiction and fantasy author Glenn Cook (the Black Company stories among many others) doesn't like maps because they constrain what he's writing. So he doesn't provide many maps and it's hard to follow exactly where people are, because he's not worried about that he's worried about the events of the novel. Think about that.

Is there a war on?

War is a straightforward and immediate cause of action. It can be a generalized war on evil or can be much more specific. I always think of fantasy role-playing games as good against bad and that's the way I play. War also provides opportunities for action such as scouting the don't usually exist in peace time. War provides a focus that some campaigns lack.

Communication & Transport

I do want to mention communications and transport, which are two big questions. How fast is communication and how fast is transport? In science fiction we can have instantaneous communication, and much slower movement, though not the reverse of course. Movement speed is also communication speed in fantasy. Both are usually slow, as in a medieval world, but it doesn't have to be that way. Imagine a fantasy world with magical teleportation to any civilized part of the world readily available. . .

We'll come back to communication, transport, and the other worldbuilding questions in the next article.
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
No one's saying don't do all that background work. World building is fun, and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm not to going to speak for anyone else, but what I was saying is that specifically because I don't know what's going to needed I mostly don't do it, or at least not without specific reason. That's not to say I don't have a very rough framework, that part's easy. I just don't start hanging bulbs on the tree until it's almost Christmas. I prefer to spend my campaign design time on stuff I'm more certain I'm going to use. So what ever history I flesh out with be direct context for events in the present, to the extent that history informs those events and might be helpful to the characters. And even then, it's often just descriptors and doodles, maybe a mind map. I used to do more, but I got disheartened by the amount of work that went by the wayside when I was still having to adjust on the fly anyway. It wasn't adding anything to the campaign, and it was a lot of work.

Maybe your players are different though, or maybe your campaign designs are different, who knows, that's why I'm explaining why I don't do it, and not why you shouldn't. What I actually strive for is a player-facing facsimile of age and history, not the real thing. Set dressing rather than history in some ways I guess. If the glimpses of eons past that you include are evocative and unique, it's easier to fill in the details at need. That's my game anyway, YMMV.
 

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dwayne

Adventurer
I have found many times that for the most part players care little about such matters and those that do are often times over shadowed by those that don't. I put close to 3 months into a game which was more dynamic than any other one i have ever done. What did they do, sat in a coffee shop eat pie and talk for the entire game session, mean while the other events unfolded and they missed things. People not playing the character but them selves and using out of game info in game and then getting mad because they failed in the mission. After the game ended i told them i would never do this with them again because all they want to do is sit around a talk and remissness. And others who did want to play, not try and one up the others or mess them over because they think it would be fun, were left out in the cold. I basically rewrote the d20 modern system for them for the game and got nothing from them but grief,but i did learn much and how to deal with players such as them. Still many say they want to game and make a character only to not show up or to never be heard from again after the first session.
 

Hussar

Legend
@dwayne - I hear you bud. Totally hear you.

I mean, I was a year into my Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign, had maybe 3 pages of setting history and background for Saltmarsh, realized that no one had even bothered looking at it. Actually had a player, upon choosing to multiclass as a cleric, when asked what god his character worshipped, honestly ask what setting world we were in.

That's how little some players care about setting, background or anything else. @Lanefan, if you have players who care about setting history to the point where they could actually point out discrepancies, you have hit a gold mine. Don't ever lose those players because they are a rare, rare thing.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
About retcons: historians in effect do this with some frequency, simply because of disagreements in interpretation, or discovery of new evidence, or even new political agendas. Yes, what happened, happened, but often we don't know exactly, so different historians have different versions of what happened. This can work out in the history of your world, as well (in fact, it's more likely in any medieval fantasy style world).
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
About retcons: historians in effect do this with some frequency, simply because of disagreements in interpretation, or discovery of new evidence, or even new political agendas. Yes, what happened, happened, but often we don't know exactly, so different historians have different versions of what happened. This can work out in the history of your world, as well (in fact, it's more likely in any medieval fantasy style world).
This happens especially because there was often no consideration for objective truth. A writer who did no like an individual ruler might describe that individual in a certain way, often giving them physical maladies that, in their mind, signify there are issues in their personality. A crooked, or corrupt noble might also have a crooked nose or a deformed leg, which later excavation of that persons tomb turns out not to be true or exaggerated. We have no choice but to believe these writers until some new evidence comes along. One such instance that comes to mind has been the change in our understanding of druids, which we used to view from a completely Roman lens.
 

Why not be self-indulgent? The campaign history is 95% for the DM's use behind the scenes* - it doesn't matter if most of it is never told to the players, provided it's there for you-as-DM to use and build on.
I think for the most part we simply have different preferences. Perhaps where we disagree is about the necessity of establishing history beforehand. I acknowledge that it works better for you that way, but that’s not the same as being necessary.

But the bit I’ve quoted above is a big part of why I have the preference I do. RPGs are (generally speaking) group activities. Anything that’s 95% for only one participant is just something I’m not going to say is worth the time at the table.

Sure, I may ruminate about this kind of stuff in between sessions....imagining things that have shaped the world and so on....but I don’t spend a lot of time in play on this stuff unless it’s relevant to play and/or the players have shown interest in it.

As you say, you never know how things will progress, so prepping everything to try and make sure that however they go, you’re prepared....it’s impossible. I don’t want to GM like Tolkien authored his work. And as a player, I don’t want significant parts of play to consist of the GM reading his Silmarillion to the players.
 

About retcons: historians in effect do this with some frequency, simply because of disagreements in interpretation, or discovery of new evidence, or even new political agendas. Yes, what happened, happened, but often we don't know exactly, so different historians have different versions of what happened. This can work out in the history of your world, as well (in fact, it's more likely in any medieval fantasy style world).
I personally think that retcons can be very compelling. Some people seem to think that retcon means “contradiction”. But it actually means the retroactive continuity that resolves contradiction.

In comics, some of the most compelling and innovative stories have been retcons.
 

Theo R Cwithin

I cast "Baconstorm!"
Not even remotely certain how to approach it off he top of my head, but I think the concept of "retconning history" could be an interesting premise for a campaign.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I personally think that retcons can be very compelling. Some people seem to think that retcon means “contradiction”. But it actually means the retroactive continuity that resolves contradiction.
Contradictions that, in this situation where in theory "all the evidence" is already present, are 100% preventable and thus should absolutely never happen in the first place.

Put another way - and I've had this happen - if I-as-player take some bit of setting history or lore and base some aspect of my play on it, then later the DM retcons that history or lore and makes it something different, I think I'm justified in feeling I've been wasting my time for however long I've been playing that character.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Put another way - and I've had this happen - if I-as-player take some bit of setting history or lore and base some aspect of my play on it, then later the DM retcons that history or lore and makes it something different, I think I'm justified in feeling I've been wasting my time for however long I've been playing that character.
Honest question here. Do you not think that this reaction is a little bit out-sized compared to the problem? I understand being upset, and I'm not saying its nothing, but this seems strong.
 

Li Shenron

Legend
If you want to make up your own adventures, your own campaign, instead of using something someone else wrote, then sooner or later you’ll need to approach world building. This is “beginners notes” for world building, it's not comprehensive. It's primarily for gamers, but much of it applies to fiction writers too.




Some people devote big chunks of their lives to world building. Some fantasy or SF novelists have J.R.R. Tolkien in mind (see quote above), and how much time he spent on world building. Remember that a game world is a way to help people write their own stories, or to help you write your own story if you choose, so don't overdo the world-building. Your world is an adjunct to your game, not the goal. It's a means to an end, not an end in itself, unless you're very unusual. Read Harrison’s quote above, if you haven’t yet.

A mistake that many beginners make is to spend vast amounts of time on the world and not get around to what really matters, which is the game or the story. Most people can take the simple route. My friend Jeffro says you only need to know six things about the world to start the adventure. He doesn't specify categories; I don't think he was thinking in categories. In other words, you only need to know enough to let the adventure push forward. You don't need to know all the details about the world.
Sorry, NO!

You just can't title a thread "Worldbuilding 101" where your key idea is to claim worldbuilding is bad and useless and should not be done. That's like starting a conversation claiming you'll teach gourmet cooking, then just tell everyone what's the best way to get fast food. Or a primer on how to best invest your money that says "screw it, you don't need money, here's a list of things that will make you more happy".

Despite the fact that your suggestions ARE actually GOOD for DMing, I find the thread insulting, almost fraudulent, simply because of the title.

Worldbuilding is a side hobby of itself, like miniature painting. You don't do it because it's useful, you do it because you like doing it. How would it feel to start a thread Miniature Painting 101, and go "miniature painting is slow and expensive, you don't need it to play D&D, just use markers"?

Nobody in the miniature painting hobby thinks they can't play D&D without it, and similarly worldbuilding is an unnecessary extra, but it is never a mistake if someone actually does it for their own enjoyment. And who knows once in a while sometimes that someone could be a Tolkien, an Asimov or a Greenwood, and their hobby become something much bigger than expected!
 

Contradictions that, in this situation where in theory "all the evidence" is already present, are 100% preventable and thus should absolutely never happen in the first place.

Put another way - and I've had this happen - if I-as-player take some bit of setting history or lore and base some aspect of my play on it, then later the DM retcons that history or lore and makes it something different, I think I'm justified in feeling I've been wasting my time for however long I've been playing that character.
Do you have a specific example of this hypothetical?

I’d expect that, as with anything, a conversation could be had to work it out.

Also, how would you as a player know if something is a retcon versus it being the way the GM always intended it when he wrote his Silmarillion, and you/your character only just learned the truth?
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Despite the fact that your suggestions ARE actually GOOD for DMing, I find the thread insulting, almost fraudulent, simply because of the title.
Fraudulent? Insulting? Really. I'll pick this back up...
Worldbuilding is a side hobby of itself, like miniature painting. You don't do it because it's useful, you do it because you like doing it.
Well, yeah, sure. World Building is a hobby, you are correct. However, what is at issue is world building for an RPG campaign. Perhaps we should take the caps off and call it practical world building. And practical world building is pretty obviously not what you're talking about. You don't need the Silmarillion to play a campaign. It's a whole lot of time and effort, very little of which speaks directly to running a good game in many cases. What you need is one good adventure location, some good factions and NPCS, and a good idea what the dangers facing the world and party are (Dungeon World calls those fronts). You tie the characters in, maybe expand a bit to attach what you have to the character designs, and you have enough to start. Everything else is nice, but extra.

I'm not suggesting you shouldn't sit down and bang out pages on your world's cosmology, and gin up a nice map and detail all the nooks and crannies of that map. You enjoy, it makes you happy, of course you should do that. However, what people need to to do to run a campaign isn't what you like to do, and telling those people to do what you do is, well, the opposite of helpful. Not to start a campaign anyway. It isn't fraudulent or insulting to anyone to drill down to the essence of what's necessary in a design process. It's not ruining anyone's fun, it's just indexing what the most important moving parts are.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Honest question here. Do you not think that this reaction is a little bit out-sized compared to the problem? I understand being upset, and I'm not saying its nothing, but this seems strong.
Maybe, but one doesn't like to see one's experiences and-or memories invalidated.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Maybe, but one doesn't like to see one's experiences and-or memories invalidated.
No, obviously not, that sucks. I also have no idea exactly what the impact on your character was either, or why the decision was made, which is why I asked. Having to, or worse deciding to, retcon elements of the fiction that bear directly on character concept isn't something I'd normally recommend or do myself. I'd have to have a really pressing reason to do that.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Do you have a specific example of this hypothetical?
Yes, though it's a long story; actually involving many characters (not just mine) and a very long run of play.

I’d expect that, as with anything, a conversation could be had to work it out.
Not so easily this time; the DM had - it seemed - been planning for some time that history as we knew it was going to be in some ways wiped out and replaced with something else; which happened some ten years (real time) into the campaign. This pretty much means so much for some characters' backstories both pre-adventuring and during adventuring (though to be fair some reparation efforts have been made since) and so much for any outside-of-adventuring character development e.g. making contacts etc. as many of those contacts no longer exist.

Some characters - two in particular, one is mine - were affected much more than others, as the histories (and geography!) of some parts of the world were not all disrupted to the same extent as others. (some parts of the world never noticed a thing until really odd reports started coming in from foreign lands)

EDIT to add: worth noting all the players have multiple characters in this campaign, and not all characters even of the same player were affected equally

Also, how would you as a player know if something is a retcon versus it being the way the GM always intended it when he wrote his Silmarillion, and you/your character only just learned the truth?
Because usually the DM will say so.

Retcons can be much smaller, too. I'm a big believer in precedent, for example, when it comes to DM rulings: if something works in a certain way once then it should work that way for the duration of the campaign. Even if some rule is later changed it doesn't and shouldn't invalidate what went before, it stands as played at the time.

In other words, no retconning of this session next session because a ruling was wrong; you're stuck with it, so get it right the first time. :)
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Sigh. My title was "Getting Started with World Building". As sometimes happens, the editor changed the title, and as sometimes happens, his title may have been misleading.

I did not say worldbuilding is bad and useless and should not be done. I said the game is much more important than the world. And that you can waste a lot of time on building too much too soon.

If this offends you, I can only say that offense is taken, not given.

Sorry, NO!

You just can't title a thread "Worldbuilding 101" where your key idea is to claim worldbuilding is bad and useless and should not be done.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I did not say worldbuilding is bad and useless and should not be done.
In so many words, no you didn't. In tone? Well, that's perhaps a more open question....

I said the game is much more important than the world. And that you can waste a lot of time on building too much too soon.
You can waste a lot of time, to be sure, but it's immensely better to have too much prepared than too little.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
You can waste a lot of time, to be sure, but it's immensely better to have too much prepared than too little.
That's true, for sure, but I don't know that the immense open whiteboard space of deep world building is where 'preparation' actually happens. Not once you get past a pretty low bar anyway,
 

dwayne

Adventurer
It works so as to help the gm more than anything but only if the players take an interest in the setting it's self. It is all for nothing if they just slump along and caring and are just kill take the treasure and move on not even taking interest enough to be murder hobos.
 

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