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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

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
"History is a set of lies agreed upon." -Napoleon

That sets the tone for any truth in History, those that support a certain narrative, usually have an ulterior motive.

My current setting is hard-ish science fiction, realistic star maps and events, economics, things like that. It works well enough, and is plausible enough; somewhere between mundane and awesome is where the characters are.
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
If the players take an interest in the setting that's a bonus. And if they don't, the DM still has the underpinnings to run a better and richer game even if the players don't appreciate it.

There's an eventual point, of course, where too much is too much; but I think that point is much deeper into the setting-construction process than the OP's article wants us to believe.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I think its important to differentiate the action of a game from the setting. What you really need the players to be interested in is the action. The setting will be just fine if all it does is provide set dressing and provide a framework to help drive the fiction. It's fine, and cool, if the setting itself is also a draw, but it really doesn't need to be, at least not to start. Some really great games start with very little wider setting material in place, and just fill in the blanks as the table plays to find out. When I'm writing my own setting I prefer to come up with one or two cool or interesting features to start, things that will be front and center in the fiction, and things that the players will actually interact with and/or make decisions with reference to. For example, if I'm writing a city setting, I'm far more likely to start with a couple of factions and political interplay than I am with a detailed map and several hundred years of history. If you want to talk about setting like a character class, the map and the history, generally speaking, are more ribbon that rock. Impulses, drives, motivations and actions are the rocks.

I find that when the players are instrumental in discovering and even helping to detail and define the setting, that their level of enthusiasm and engagement is almost always higher.
 

dwayne

Adventurer
If the players take an interest in the setting that's a bonus. And if they don't, the DM still has the underpinnings to run a better and richer game even if the players don't appreciate it.

There's an eventual point, of course, where too much is too much; but I think that point is much deeper into the setting-construction process than the OP's article wants us to believe.
I disagree you can never have too much detail, as to cover as much of the possible in the setting so your not caught off, guard, the realms "which i hate" has vast amounts of information about it. Anyone could read this and know were every little thing is and not much left to the imagination if you a player or GM, but the way i see it is that until the players discover the information it waits. And this is about discovery and exploration as well as adventures and getting treasure killing monsters and such. Like in my modern fantasy seeing as it is set in the real world the other part remains hidden from normal humanity and the players must unlock the secretes of this other world within a world. They could also play as a race of this hidden world knowing in part the history of it, as i have done years of putting it together, mixing the real world with the mythical parts. Just reading the race options in the book i did gives a glimpse into that setting and sets the stage for inspiration and picks the curiosity of most that spend the time reading it. "To live a life without imagination and wonderment is a boring one indeed and such a life must be as if all was in shades of gray. To never see reds of passion or blues deep of sorrow the brightest yellows as the sun on a mid summers day, yes that life should be a very dreary to be sure." - Quote Dwayne Butcher DM
 

Hussar

Legend
In so many words, no you didn't. In tone? Well, that's perhaps a more open question....

You can waste a lot of time, to be sure, but it's immensely better to have too much prepared than too little.
That I'm going to disagree with. If you have adventures prepared, the rest of the world can largely go hang. If you have setting prepared and no adventures? Now you have five people staring at you waiting for something to happen.

To put it another way, who cares what happened on this spot a year, ten years, a hundred years ago? Unless it's immediately relevant to the campaign, it's meaningless and largely a waste of time.

It's a problem I've always had with Paizo adventures. Far, FAR too much backstory, 99% of which is irrelevant to the adventure at hand, and, no logical way to get that other 1% into the hands of the players, even if they actually cared. There's no game without an adventure. You can play for months without a setting.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
That I'm going to disagree with. If you have adventures prepared, the rest of the world can largely go hang. If you have setting prepared and no adventures? Now you have five people staring at you waiting for something to happen.

To put it another way, who cares what happened on this spot a year, ten years, a hundred years ago? Unless it's immediately relevant to the campaign, it's meaningless and largely a waste of time.

It's a problem I've always had with Paizo adventures. Far, FAR too much backstory, 99% of which is irrelevant to the adventure at hand, and, no logical way to get that other 1% into the hands of the players, even if they actually cared. There's no game without an adventure. You can play for months without a setting.
I don't at all disagree that you need adventures!

My point is that you're likelier to have a richer and deeper game if those adventures have something solid by way of setting, background and history underneath them. Even if most of that foundation never reaches the players, some of it will; and you've no way of knowing which bits until after you've already dropped the puck. You want to be at least vaguely ready to handle whatever basic questions the players might ask, including:

--- physical and astronomic details e.g. how many moons, what are their phases (and by extension what does the game-world calendar look like)
--- a map of the local region showing major towns, major features, and homelands for all the various playable races in your game
--- names and positions (and usual locations) of the current ruler(s) and-or significant power-brokers
--- enough cultural details to give the players an idea of the milieu they're in e.g. feudal Saxon, ancient Greece, 1500's Far East, or whatever
--- any relevant inter-realm relations between the adventurers' realm and neighbours e.g. war, peace, ignorance, etc.; and how those came to be
--- the names of the last x number of rulers, so when the players ask how old a treasury coin is by looking at the ruler's head you'll know the answer
--- etc.

Put another way, yes you can play for months without a setting but that play will soon show itself to be lacking something.

And note that everything above assumes one is running a campaign bigger than a single hard-line AP, for which you need next to nothing.

As for Paizo adventures and their crazy amount of backstory: my issue is more that 99% of the time their provided backstory doesn't match the backstory that's already arisen within the campaign that's brought the PCs to the adventure; and I also wish they'd leave it out.
 



Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
We obviously have very different needs. I am part of an indie game club that plays a variety of OSR and indie games.

It basically works a lot like a TV show. You get a pilot session and if that works out you might basically get an HBO show style season (12 sessions or so). It can also get cancelled at anytime do to scheduling issues or if we are just not into it anymore. Additional seasons sometimes happen.

When I run a game I need a compelling premise, some initial content to get things started, and enough for players to build characters off of. Often for OSR play it is "playing this module".
 


Ulfgeir

Explorer
You might not need to know the exact details of what happend in a setting, but you might have bards telling old legends. Maybe they were based on facts of something that happend a long time ago (most likely very much embellished and distorted over time). Would make for man interesting thing if they then came across some being that was actually present there..

Feuds, can linger a long time, and at the end no one might not even remeber why they started in the first place. For example in one of the Dresden Files novels, Queen Titania casually remarks that she hasn't talked to Queen Mab (who is her sister) since before Hastings.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Sounds like you are admitting that not every DM needs to write gigantic backstories for their worlds.
No, I'm admitting not every player cares enough to ask detailed questions about elements found during exploration and-or looting; while maintaining that even if it turns out they don't a DM still ought to assume that they will.

DM: "On looting the Orcs you find a total of 23 copper, 81 silver, and 6 gold pieces, along with [some mundane gear]."
Players collectively: "OK."

Now, how many players would think to ask details about those coins - are they mostly local, or have these Orcs also been raiding elsewhere? Are many of them particularly old (as shown by the head on the coin; and who's head is it?) indicating they've maybe found an ancient treasure stash along the way? Are any of them particularly new, indicating very recent success in raiding? Etc.

And of course a DM can make up answers to all these questions on the fly. The issue there is that eventually - and inevitably - doing this long enough and in any depth of detail will inevitably lead to glaring contradictions arising, and then down comes the house of cards: a completely avoidable outcome if the DM has her setting sorted out to begin with.

Here, all it needs is for the DM to know who reigned when as monarch, or reigns now: "These coins are almost all fairly recent - they've got King Athelrede's head, and he's only been on the throne for six years or so."
 

Aldarc

Legend
No, I'm admitting not every player cares enough to ask detailed questions about elements found during exploration and-or looting; while maintaining that even if it turns out they don't a DM still ought to assume that they will.
You're splitting hairs, but the end result is the same: not every DM needs to write gigantic backstories for their worlds.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I played in a 18 month Beyond The Wall game before. We never left the village and surrounding area and rightfully did not care who was king.
 

Aldarc

Legend
I played in a 18 month Beyond The Wall game before. We never left the village and surrounding area and rightfully did not care who was king.
But I imagine that the entire game would have collapsed into an inescapable black hole if just one of you asked the GM who the king's great grand aunt was and the GM didn't prep that beforehand.
 


Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
DM: "On looting the Orcs you find a total of 23 copper, 81 silver, and 6 gold pieces, along with [some mundane gear]."
Players collectively: "OK."

Now, how many players would think to ask details about those coins - are they mostly local, or have these Orcs also been raiding elsewhere? Are many of them particularly old (as shown by the head on the coin; and who's head is it?) indicating they've maybe found an ancient treasure stash along the way? Are any of them particularly new, indicating very recent success in raiding? Etc.
Well, that's an interesting example, innit? Lets unpack shall we, because I do think it illustrates your point well, but it also (oddly) illustrates something like the opposite. Here's my first point, PCs find coin all the time. Unless you give them a reason to ask, they're never going to ask about the coins. Why would they? OK, so every now and then a PC might ask out of the blue, but mostly they won't, and I don't really think that's a controversial thing to say.

If I were that DM, I would telegraph the potential importance of the coins, probably using an adjective or two, perhaps old and interesting, or whatever. Without some telegraphing the players don't know to ask and are then either left asking about bloody everything, just in case, or asking about nothing, which is probably more likely. I do think that the DM will have had to do some of the background work you advocate for in order to use the coins as you describe, but there's two approaches there.

My issue is the amount of background you need to be 'generally ready' for that kind of random query. You need a whole lotta history to be able to field random history questions with a prepared answer. Some people love doing that work to, which is awesome. I don't love it. So my approach is that the coinage is only going to be specifically important because that's what makes sense in the fiction. Maybe I prepared a little tidbit before hand as a hook or gentle index, or maybe it's something that emerges out of play, either way, I only need to know that tidbit, not all possible tidbits.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well, that's an interesting example, innit? Lets unpack shall we, because I do think it illustrates your point well, but it also (oddly) illustrates something like the opposite. Here's my first point, PCs find coin all the time. Unless you give them a reason to ask, they're never going to ask about the coins. Why would they? OK, so every now and then a PC might ask out of the blue, but mostly they won't, and I don't really think that's a controversial thing to say.
Fair enough.

I guess I come at it from the perspective of - as a player - sometimes being the one who does ask such things, either out of the blue or because I've rightly or (more often!) wrongly suspected there's something more to it.

If I were that DM, I would telegraph the potential importance of the coins, probably using an adjective or two, perhaps old and interesting, or whatever. Without some telegraphing the players don't know to ask and are then either left asking about bloody everything, just in case, or asking about nothing, which is probably more likely. I do think that the DM will have had to do some of the background work you advocate for in order to use the coins as you describe, but there's two approaches there.

My issue is the amount of background you need to be 'generally ready' for that kind of random query. You need a whole lotta history to be able to field random history questions with a prepared answer. Some people love doing that work to, which is awesome. I don't love it.
I'm not fond of it either, but I recognize its necessity and usefulness. This is largely behind my liking for long campaigns: if I do all that work, I'm then going to squeeze it for whatever it can be squeezed for. :)

So my approach is that the coinage is only going to be specifically important because that's what makes sense in the fiction. Maybe I prepared a little tidbit before hand as a hook or gentle index, or maybe it's something that emerges out of play, either way, I only need to know that tidbit, not all possible tidbits.
In my rather basic example, those questions would maybe arise if the players/PCs had any interest in or reason for* looking into how those Orcs came to be where they are, where they came from, and so forth.

Even something as simple as making sure the Orcs are local and aren't being paid by the neighbouring realm with whom we're at war ought to (but far too often doesn't!) get people looking more closely at the coins. :)

* - whether said interest or reason is on their own initiative or due to DM-supplied background doesn't matter here.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Fair enough.

I guess I come at it from the perspective of - as a player - sometimes being the one who does ask such things, either out of the blue or because I've rightly or (more often!) wrongly suspected there's something more to it.

I'm not fond of it either, but I recognize its necessity and usefulness. This is largely behind my liking for long campaigns: if I do all that work, I'm then going to squeeze it for whatever it can be squeezed for. :)
I understand completely. Just because I don't like doing the grunt work doesn't mean I don't like world building. I'd just like someone to give dictation to who could also edit my stream of consciousness ramblings. I also tend to be that player, and I know that sometimes puts pressure on the DM.
In my rather basic example, those questions would maybe arise if the players/PCs had any interest in or reason for* looking into how those Orcs came to be where they are, where they came from, and so forth.

Even something as simple as making sure the Orcs are local and aren't being paid by the neighbouring realm with whom we're at war ought to (but far too often doesn't!) get people looking more closely at the coins. :)

* - whether said interest or reason is on their own initiative or due to DM-supplied background doesn't matter here.
Yeah, this was more what I was getting at. If there was a reason for the characters to look I'd be more likely to telegraph the clue a little and to have something written up about it. I have no issue whatsoever with this kind of detail in general, quite the opposite. My issue is with the essentially limitless prep needed to be fully prepared for even most of them. I think oretty quickly on my feet as a DM, and it's never really bothered me to do the detail work on the fly. I take a few notes and move on. I know that not everyone likes to work that way though.
 

Hussar

Legend
No, I'm admitting not every player cares enough to ask detailed questions about elements found during exploration and-or looting; while maintaining that even if it turns out they don't a DM still ought to assume that they will.

DM: "On looting the Orcs you find a total of 23 copper, 81 silver, and 6 gold pieces, along with [some mundane gear]."
Players collectively: "OK."

Now, how many players would think to ask details about those coins - are they mostly local, or have these Orcs also been raiding elsewhere? Are many of them particularly old (as shown by the head on the coin; and who's head is it?) indicating they've maybe found an ancient treasure stash along the way? Are any of them particularly new, indicating very recent success in raiding? Etc.
/snip
How many players? Close enough to zero that it might as well be zero.

Never once have I ever had a player even hint at these kinds of questions, and, frankly, on the times when I have made a point to mention that the coinage was odd, the players shrugged and ignored it. No one cares.
 

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