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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.

worldbuildingpart1.jpg

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
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.
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
I’m reminded of Ray Winnegar’s excellent dungeoncraft essays. Appropriate as he’s now the head of D&D.

Maxim One: Never force yourself to create more than you must.

You risk boxing yourself into a corner if for instance you decide the human kingdom is more interesting than the preceding elf one so you decide you need to make it last 500 years longer, or you decide instead of elves you want dwarves to feature as the main historical element of the campaign because the players find dwarves more interesting.

Personally I enjoyed both part one and two of your series and they make very interesting reading, please continue. I think there needs to be sensible advice on the subject.
 

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Aldarc

Legend
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.
PC: We found coins. Whose image is printed on the coin?

GM: Roll a History check.

PC: 12.

GM: You know that the Americans once liked to put presidential figures on their coins and that this man is Benjamin Franklin.

PC (to others PCs): It's President Benjamin Franklin.

- later in the library -

PC: There is no record of a President Ben Franklin.

GM: There was no President Ben Franklin.

PCs: OMG! Retcon! The game is broken. Mutiny! Riot! Worst DM ever! Everything about this game and all our prior fun have been irrevocably ruined!
 

Rdm

Explorer
@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.

quite often when the players don’t care it is becausethe GM doesn’t care and doesn’t make it relevant to the players through engaging them in it.
 

Hussar

Legend
quite often when the players don’t care it is becausethe GM doesn’t care and doesn’t make it relevant to the players through engaging them in it.

No, I'm going to disagree on that one, because I've seen it happen far too often to other DM's as well. Many players are passive consumers who want the DM to roll up the plot wagon and dish out a plausible reason why the characters are supposed to kill whatever monster du jour happens to be in front of them. I mean, look at the adventure paths. Linear adventures with barely any setting and, what little setting there is, the players entirely ignore.
 

Rdm

Explorer
No, I'm going to disagree on that one, because I've seen it happen far too often to other DM's as well. Many players are passive consumers who want the DM to roll up the plot wagon and dish out a plausible reason why the characters are supposed to kill whatever monster du jour happens to be in front of them. I mean, look at the adventure paths. Linear adventures with barely any setting and, what little setting there is, the players entirely ignore.
I can only speak from personal experience. It depends on the players. However, if you don’t ever bring up the Background you usually won’t get them to engage in it. And adventure paths usually do have all sorts of available background details in them.
 

Rdm

Explorer
No, I'm going to disagree on that one, because I've seen it happen far too often to other DM's as well. Many players are passive consumers who want the DM to roll up the plot wagon and dish out a plausible reason why the characters are supposed to kill whatever monster du jour happens to be in front of them. I mean, look at the adventure paths. Linear adventures with barely any setting and, what little setting there is, the players entirely ignore.
‘Quite often’ allows for both the ones you describe which exist and the I do which exist. Both are a thing.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Looks at 243 page setting doc.

The thing that often gets overlooked in these discussions, is that world or universe building is often entertainment in itself, as a way of playing the game solo, with various mini-games. Last time a player asked, I gave them a link to it, with saying that it contains spoilers, as well as being a 'work-in-progress' so that info they haven't interacted with can change.
 


Nobby-W

Far more clumsy and random than a blaster
World building is useful if it produces things your players will interact with. I've seen plenty of settings - including some famous ones you've probably heard of - that have a whole load of lore, history, military dispositions and other background that's several degrees of separation removed from anything your players will actually touch. If it's had 20 years to marinate and mature it might read well, but often it feels quite sterile.

Some big picture is needed to hang everything together. You do have to come up with the basic setting conceits and overall layout and major parts of your world, but this gets into diminishing returns pretty quickly. Once you have the big picture, the mid-level stuff beloved of world builders is mostly a waste of time.

After that, It's better to drive your world building off what's needed for adventures. You can build your factions, NPCs, locations and other artifacts based on need, which also means that you're doing stuff that will probably get used. It will also get done at a useful level of detail and tends to be a lot less sterile.

You can add in mid-level stuff as needed to support the high level and low-level items. Produce events as needed to explain the world as-is. You don't need a comprehensive historical timeline, and pre-building that sort of stuff is as likely to paint you into a corner as it is to provide any useful inspiration. A small chunk of your world built in enough detail to run adventures in is more useful than a grand sweeping history.

TL;DR: You need a big picture to hang everything off, but that gets into diminishing returns pretty quickly and it's better to drive subsequent world building off what you need for your adventures.
 
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Aldarc

Legend
An Old Post, but as a Necro has me re-reading this thread...
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,
I agree. It seems that the important part of preparing "too much world-building" should transpire at the level that the PCs will actually see in play, particularly in the upcoming session or following one.

It seems important to remember that the setting exists for the sake of the gameplay rather than the gameplay for the sake of the setting. I've had far too many GMs who lost sight of that basic idea amidst their own world-building rabbit holes, and they now serve as my cautionary tales and friendly self-reminders when I'm doing setting creation for my games.
 
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It seems important to remember that the setting exists for the sake of the gameplay rather than the gameplay for the sake of the setting.

That’s a great way to put it.

I’m currently thinking about what my next game/campaign will be when our current one ends, and some of the games I’m considering have a specific setting, and others have a very minimal or build as you go kind of setting.

For the latter, as I kind of brainstorm about it, I’m keeping things loose. I have a home base type location and a nearby adventure site, and not much beyond that. Some of the NPCs in each location have a but of history, so that’s something to consider because it informs their drives and their relationship with others. But beyond that, I don’t want or need much more.
 


TBeholder

Explorer
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.
It's a good example, indeed. Players don't ask details, GM doesn't tell… unless HINT HINT NUDGE NUDGE, it's not a railroad, just wheel marks ground into cobblestones. :)
Now suppose the detail level is always 1 step higher. That is, specific type of coins found in a given area is randomly generated all the time, unless either degenerate case (small foreign coin is practically absent, for lack of foreign sailors or other small spenders anywhere nearby) or overwritten by the plot ("It's a golden what? Wait, there was that merchant from the Mountain Kingdom who disappeared, right?").
This would both paint the setting a little better (you find the weirdest crap in a port, not so much in a deep rustic province) and make players pay attention, no?
 

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