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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

TheSword

Hero
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.
 


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