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Worldbuilding: Cut It Out

Today’s guest article was written by Lord Byte, and it looks at a worldbuilding technique that doesn’t get much attention as some other approaches. His lens is D&D 4e, but the advice can be applied to a wide range of RPGs. Thanks, LB!

The dwarves live in the mountains to the north, the elves in the forest, the humans in cities along the coast… I’m willing to bet that pretty much every first campaign world started like that. And the second. And third. (Guilty!)

Every campaign world I made was an exercise in me trying to cram as much as possible into it. I would want an Arabic-style land to the south somewhere, so I could include Al-Qadim influences. Then psionics arrived so a floating crystal city somewhere. Then some new race was released and a couple of new classes which I had to fit in so players could take them if they wanted.

Inevitably I would abandon every single campaign world. It all felt like a giant cliché, every splatbook seemed duct-taped in, and it left a sour taste in my mouth (even though my players loved it). So abandoned my world and took my players to Eberron, but it never felt right.

When the 4E “Wizards presents…” books arrived I dove in headlong, hoping to find the spark that would reignite my love for world-building. And I did: As soon as I read the “points of light” theory, my mind made the switch. I could break away from a medieval world with fantasy tacked on the side, but how?

Cut to Highlight what Matters

Then the core rules arrived and I immediately hated the eladrin. A recent article had also changed my mind on half-races, so I started cutting those out. I felt elated. I was free! Then I realised something: World-building isn’t about trying to fit everything in, it’s about making choices and sticking to them, creating something different by only picking what you want, what your world needs!

Once I started I couldn’t stop, and each time I removed a race, class or monster, my vision of the world became clearer. Every thing removed tells a story about the world that every addition just doesn’t. It all becomes to much to try to fit in and try and think of every consequence and nuance and what the effect would be on the world. By sticking to a few core races, I told a story, one in which I could see what the impact was on my world.

Change or Flip instead of Cutting

It’s not just taking giant scissors to the game system; dare to change things or completely turn them upside down. My elves are cannibalistic, and basically the only humanoid race that isn’t integrated in society; they are universally reviled (with good reason, for most). There are no intelligent humanoid “monsters” apart from them. Orcs in my world are the saviours of society, an honourable martial caste that keep the few remaining city-states safe from the dangers of Nature.

Change the name and function of classes. My clerics are called avatars, because they each exemplify an aspect of the one god. The avenger became the mage-hunter, an agent who hunts rogue wizards. The artificer became the inventor, and just by describing its powers differently it seems an entirely different class.

An other effect is that you can make races or classes rare by giving them a social stigma, and telling your players to not take them unless they have a really good back-story or reason for them. (Like the way that elves in my world are reviled and hated, and get an enormous amount of racism aimed at them.) Of course this didn’t stop some of my players when the campaign started, but most of them came crawling back before long, retiring their character just to play something less “hard.” Others actually exulted in the challenge of playing strange races (one elven druid is changing the world slowly, and another is playing a young minotaur, who was frozen in ice, the last of his kind).

You don’t have to stop there: Remove wizards and sorcerers entirely, and suddenly the only arcane magic user is the warlock. This changes your world’s dynamic entirely, as magic is purely a gift from great and terrible creatures, be they ancient gods or demons from hell. Remove the cleric (and warlord), suddenly the paladin becomes the only source of healing magic, making the clergy of your world a martial class.

What could’ve caused that? What kind of world is that? You tell me…

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Worldbuilding: Cut It Out"

#1 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On February 27, 2012 @ 7:25 am

Yes, yes, yes! Or to quote an old agade, “Less is more.”

As long as your players are willing to go along with it, I say all the power to you. Not in the trimming / flipping of the flavor items, but in eliminating character classes. Not that isn’t a brilliant solution — should not the worl d be made up only of classes that make sense? — but I find that players want the range of classes to play with, regardless of the campaign. As in all things, communication is the key.

#2 Comment By Razjah On February 27, 2012 @ 8:06 am

I agree with Troy, to start cutting classes and whole segments (magic uses who aren’t warlocks) you need player buy-in. I explain to my players that I have a smaller scaled idea than world saving, this lets me get more gritty by cutting divine magic, or bringing in the Tomb of Battle classes for a more heroic style.

But once you have the buy-in, the worlds you can create. An arcane resistance being hunted by the church with Clerics, and Paladins sent in as shock troops while Avengers do the hunting for apostates.

#3 Comment By shawnhcorey On February 27, 2012 @ 8:15 am

You have to have player buy-in to run any successful adventure, even the store-bought ones in known worlds. The best way to get buy-in is to ask your players want characters they want to play and meet. You can then eliminate the rest. 🙂

#4 Comment By undermind On February 27, 2012 @ 8:18 am

Third’ed on the player buy-in. As i read the article, i could hear the raging legion of torch-and-pitchfork sporting players. Kinda reminds me of that part of gamers 2 where Cass and Lodge disagree about the existance of monks in Lodge’s game world

I would consider doing something similar if i were to run a long campaign at one time. I would most likely also customize the availability of armor and weapons, so it fits the period. This works the best in pathfinder/D&D 3.5, where the sheer volume of options is staggering. If we’re in 800 AD arabia, you sure ain’t gonna find any fullplates!

#5 Comment By 77IM On February 27, 2012 @ 9:27 am

I love world-building. It’s my favorite thing to do in any RPG; to create the world. The question is, though, are you creating the setting because you enjoy it and want to make something creative and cool? Or because you want to actually play games? Because often the cool, interesting worlds aren’t really the best for having adventures.

So, when eliminating things, make make dang sure you’re not eliminating adventure opportunities. The best settings positively drip with adventure hooks. As an example, turning the avenger into the mage-hunter is totally awesome (it keeps the avenger-players happy AND presents great adventure hooks). Conversely, restricting each druid to a single grove is a classic anti-adventure setting element (at least for druid PCs). Just something to keep in mind when you cut an element; make sure you’re not cutting out a whole category of adventures.

#6 Comment By lordbyte On February 27, 2012 @ 5:05 pm

It seems there’s a lot of “let the player’s buy-in”. I don’t think that’s necessary. Players half the time don’t know what they want, and even when they think they do they’ll get the grass is greener on the other side syndrome.
You also get the “designed by a committee” worlds, and we have enough of those (hi Eberron).

My point is to simplify (fewer more pointed choices HELPED my players AND myself rather than the other way round), less things to fit in and take care of, players have much less choice-overload (they’ve got enough in 4E already). And by simplifying I noticed I created a world that was much more interesting, because everything was much more tightly woven.

None of my players minded and all loved the new world because it was different and much more integrated, and if anyone REALLY wants to play something else LET them. They’ll be the EXCEPTION, the last or first of their class / race. And they’ll love you for it!

#7 Comment By lordbyte On February 27, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

[1] – Definitely, when you cut something out or change something, you have to keep the big picture in mind.
What does this to the world, is there still a class that fills that niche, what does not having X tell about the world,… that’s the fun part 🙂

#8 Comment By lordbyte On February 27, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

[2] – Also, players can always have a say-in, I kept the Swordmage because a player actually wanted to play one and suggested a nice niche and background that fit well with the rest of the world.

#9 Comment By Svengaard On February 29, 2012 @ 5:10 am

It’s kind of funny, a lot of your race/class tweaks were things I was mulling about for my next campaign.

Personally I’ve found that players don’t really complain about the reduction in race or class choices and as a GM I find the party meshes together a little easier. During character creation there wasn’t as much stalling and indecision when players were trying to pour over dozens of books. As well it’s easier to plan adventures and balanced encounters when a ton of prestiege classes, templetes, and optional classes aren’t available. I also really like how games run smoother when there’s less sources to flip through for rules. Granted, I haven’t tried this with my power-gamer friends yet.