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Worldbuilding: The Illusion of a Vast Land

If you only have a sketch of a little area and haven’t planned out the rest of the world, don’t worry– that’s one of the best ways to start. You shouldn’t waste your time working up beautiful maps and histories long in advance, unless you have the time and get a lot of pleasure from it. For a good overview on detailed world building, this wikipedia article [1] has a lot of things to consider, though it’s tailored more towards authors and people working from big to small.

Aappilattoq(Picture by Kim Hansen / CC BY-SA) [2]

Why work on a setting?

A good place to start is to ask yourself why you’re bothering to work on the setting at all. Having a basic concept of your world is important, if only so you can help them make characters who fit the world. Remember though that you don’t want to bury people in trivia. In the big picture, setting is an angle [3]— a way to add tension and deepen the engagement of your players. From Chris Chinn:

Why is it some games can give you 1-4 pages and sell you on the concept and give you enough to roll with, and other games have 200 pages of made up history that does nothing for you?

The trick to setting is that it has to be meaningful. The meaningful bits are what you load context with, that makes any given scene or event powerful instead of mundane. These are the hooks with which players build stories and meaning for play.

Life around here

The first bit of setting you’ll want to establish is the local area. There are many good ways you can approach this– and, as ever, stealing is faster than building.

If you’re playing in an established setting, you can ignore 95% of that huge book and just read up on the specific region, kingdom, or planet that you’re set in. In most cases, this is just a few pages– often just enough to spark ideas that you can develop into your own version of the world.

One good trick to make your world feel realistic is to remember the weather. Unless I’m playing in Shadowrun’s Seattle, I rarely remember to change the weather– it’s always endless clear summer days. Bringing the weather in can be a great way to alter a battlefield or change the mood of a scene. One great tool is Drow’s Random Weather Generator [4]. Now your spring days will feel like Spring.

Another easy alternative is to peg your weather to that of a real city, and just keep up with it on the web. Like, say, Chipinge, Zimbabwe [5]. If your game is set in the real world– it’s pretty easy to look up and borrow the landscape and environment of that city. For sci-fi, you can take the weather somewhere “normal” and make it extreme– take Baghdad’s weather, add 20 degrees each day, and change all rainfall to sandstorms to get weather on Tatooine.

Another great setting source to borrow from is your life experience. If you lived in Colorado for a few years, you can pattern your weather after your time there. If you play in a game I run and it’s an oppressively dry, hot summer day… welcome to a disguised version of my hometown. You’ll know you’re right if the winters have only sporadic rain but constant dense fog.

Town Life
The characters will probably treat the town where they start as home base for a while. Inkwell ideas has a good post on design considerations [6] for the home hamlet or village, particularly for fantasy settings. The way the village looks should be influenced by the weather and landscape you picked above. Fierce winds and bitter cold winters encourage substantial buildings to resist the chill, while an area with sparse rain might be a tent city that picks up and moves to the next watering hole when the current water supply runs out.

If you want the town to be more than a rest stop, you’ll probably want to build in some conflict. If you already have some NPC ideas, try creating faction leaders and putting them in conflict. Chris Chinn’s conflict webs [7] is a great tool to get you started. If you want to make the village a real focus for play, run the town through Levi’s broken places [8] situation maker. Now you can start hinting at the ills that need addressing. After a few sessions they’ll probably be ready to right the wrongs in the sleepy village. For a town full of intrigue, instead his long knives [9] worksheet is a great way to keep track of who has leverage over whom.

Adventure Setting

Random Dungeon Map Now that you have a home base and a vague idea about the weather and the layout of the nearby region, look at your first adventure. Check out the adventure setting: is it a dungeon built into the side of a mountain, a vast city in the middle of a great desert, or does the adventure assume pastoral hills and thriving towns? How does that match the home base region you designed above? If your adventure needs a mountain, then it’s time to add a mountain to your map.

Similarly, if there are interesting aliens or monsters that you want to use, make sure you add swamps (or whatever terrain they inhabit) to your map. This can be done over time, as the PCs explore more of the area– again, you don’t want to spend the effort to create a huge map when the players only get to experience a tiny portion.

Local Legend and Rumor
A nice way to tie things together is to take the NPCs in their comfortable village and have them tell the PCs what they’ve heard about the area. If an goblin tribe lives in the forest, have the NPCs talk about Old Man Morrison’s disappearance in the woods right in front of the PCs. When the PCs plan going along the south road through the swamp, have one of the rangers show them one a giant rat pelt he bagged on his last journey into the swamp.

A good thing about this method is that it’s okay if the NPCs aren’t always right right. If it takes the PCs five levels to get to the swamp and you want to change what’s there– well, why did they trust a stay at home fool anyway? Time gives you another excuse: maybe the swamp lizards were there, but something chased them off. Something that has a taste for PCs too…

World Building and You

GMs tend to build a lot of worlds over their lifetime. Even GMs who only play in published worlds still have to pick where the campaign is set, and which information gets screen time.

What tricks do you have for planning out an area quickly? How do you remember to bring up the weather, foreshadow local threats, and engage the players in their home town? Please share your tips in comments.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Worldbuilding: The Illusion of a Vast Land"

#1 Comment By E-l337 On July 13, 2010 @ 2:56 am

I’ve personally tried building several worlds before – each one has gotten progressively better, though. My latest attempt is rather far-fetched – an entire solar system, actually. It all is mostly focused on a single planet (so far), but I keep hinting there are other things for the players to do.

That right there has given the PCs a great long-term goal – something to start working towards. It makes them curious about what might be out there – but none of that is planned yet, since they are still working on the ‘base planet’, and getting that all dealt with.

Now this is the tricky part: If you give your PCs a space ship, you *have* to have a rough idea of how the world works. What will be out there, what kinds of things exist. So here was my approach to it all:

Start the players on a specified mission. Narrow things down to a very centralized area at first, and start throwing out ‘quest hooks’ to get them to see other places. It all began in a space station, where they found the ship, and then returned it to a makeshift town back on the surface. Since that time, they have discovered a large number of places – forgotten facilities, revisited two hometowns, an entirely different city on another continent. There’s enough material just literally lying around that I can grab at any time.

My approach to world-building is haphazard at best, but I find the best thing to do is create basic location ideas ahead of time. XXX is leader of Town ZZZ, and they have a problem with YYY. I’ll then try to throw in a few different plot hooks with that one visit – maybe there’s a problem with bandits, or there’s one of any number of groups the PCs have already met present there. By providing multiple hooks at once (and, in addition, allowing the PCs to follow multiple hooks at the same time), I can add a number of interesting things to the world – not just in terms of diverse locales, but in addition, alternative plots that I can kick off again later on, which can lead me to follow the previous to expand upon even more locations (and, once again, to create more lines for the players to look forward to).

I find it can become easier to involve the PCs into any given situation the longer a game has run. Sometimes, all you need to do is drop a name the players haven’t heard in almost nine months to grab their attention immediately.

My advice to anyone looking to create a world (or even several)? Make sure you have a great memory, or just write down random ‘cool’ elements you’d like to incorporate into your game. It could be a character, an encounter, or maybe even just some cool-looking location. Maybe you want to replay something you read in a comic once (lord knows I’ve stolen material from things like even Dwarf Fortress!). Steal what you can, adapt what doesn’t work, and hang onto any ‘cool’ ideas you might get. Who knows, maybe after some thought, you too can have awesome new towns that suddenly pop up out of seemingly nowhere.

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On July 13, 2010 @ 11:11 am

EI337 makes a good point about world building at the end. Make several. Practice makes perfect. Design a village with 3 or 4 plot points. Then do it again. And again.

You have three villages. Each a little different. Choose one as a central adventure hub and use the two others to serve as destination points. Now you’ve got a good sandbox to start building adventures in.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 13, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

[10] – You’re absolutely right about “have a good memory”– and that practice makes perfect. I look back at some of the worlds I build during high school and am amazed at the detail I worked up for some things [lengthy histories and wars], and how many others I just missed.

As I get old and crotchety, I avoid building worlds in advance. In a way it’s too bad– world building can be a lot of fun. It complements roleplaying… but can easily become its own thing.

[11] – If you have the time and interest, I agree that making a few cool locations, threading loose ties between them, and picking one for the start location will often make for a more complex feel than just starting in isolation.

If you, the GM, have the time and interest, you can really benefit from having a handful of interesting locations to bounce between. Don’t feel it’s a requirement to start, but it can be nice to have the next location sketched out– saving you time that you can reinvest in tailoring the adventure to your players.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On July 13, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

Rob Donoghue recently reposted an interesting take on setting. The post includes what he expects out of a book setting, how it should be presented, how it’s going to get broken in play. [12] for another interesting take on world building components.

Are you making a living world ready to be fixed? Don’t fall in the trap of writing about how much your coins weigh unless that’s going to be a big plot point later.

#5 Comment By outrider11 On July 13, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

I have only done one world for fantasy in the 30+ years I have been dming. It changes for each edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Each edition is a age. If I do another system, I change the history to reflect the differences in the mechanics, I define it as an alternate version of the prime setting. I am still expanding the setting as I am doing another part of the world and setting it to the Pathfinder game. I had some basic outlines before and am now expanding those outlines.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On July 14, 2010 @ 10:06 am

[13] – After all of those years, it sounds like your world is pretty complex. Have you tried to introduce new people to the game recently? How do you get them the essentials for the character they’ll make for the campaign?

#7 Comment By outrider11 On July 14, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

No there hasn’t a new player in over a year to answer the first question. Most of my players have been with me for many years. I do get inquiries fairly often about joining the game.

I do a one to two page blurb for what has happened in the recent past and what is currently going on. I also have information posted on Obsidian Portal for restrictions and other things.

[14]. this is the 3.5 setting. I am also running a pathfinder game within the setting. [15]

I am currently running a tabletop 3.5 and a online pathfinder. The tabletop is full and the online nearly so.

#8 Comment By BryanB On July 15, 2010 @ 10:27 am

This article was very timely. I’ve been trying to think up a homebrew setting for use with Reign: Enchiridion and I’ve been too engrossed in a macro scale frame of thinking. It would probably be a whole lot easier on me if I would narrow things down to a more manageable starting place and let the macro elements develop more slowly.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On July 15, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

A little macro thinking early isn’t bad– it gives you a name to hang on the raiders, if nothing else. But starting small is a great way to focus on what matters– if only because the small scale and initial adventure are so closely intertwined.

#10 Comment By OldSchoolfool2 On July 25, 2010 @ 10:52 pm

World building (nice ideas not workable today)

Its a nice idea, one I really was into a while back, my biggest issue is getting players to do more the 3-4 sessions. I have many players, (massive turn over) just they never play all at the same time. I run a set module for the month, its run on the pay-week Friday night and completed the next fortnight pay-week. Its a turn up & play. Characters are pre-made & collected when the session begins, I have had players turn up with characters from previous adventures but its not the norm.

#11 Comment By OldSchoolfool2 On July 25, 2010 @ 11:32 pm

I would have maybe 6-8 players do a module/quest.
Now from that group I would have maybe 1 carry over.
Most players are a 50/50 split of old gamers/new gamers . Most(90%) don’t care enough to purchase books are just having a random retro moment