In theory we all know what worldbuilding is. The process of creating a fictional world isn’t technically related to role-playing games, but it has become inextricably intertwined with the hobby, given the preponderance of science fiction and fantasy settings in the most popular games. In considering and examining worldbuilding, I’m not going to spend a lot of word count talking about what it is, or even how to do it well. Instead, I’m going to talk about how worldbuilding affects RPGs specifically, which boils down to a lot of mistakes, missed opportunities, and general poor form.
Fact is, we are utterly trapped by tropes in RPGs, both on the mechanical side as well as the setting side. Some of the more unique problems arise when you consider that as setting informs mechanics and vice versa, we are actually in a vicious cycle. Fantasy games ape D&D, science fiction games ape Traveller or Cyberpunk, and horror games ape Vampire: the Masquerade. Indie games do a better job of breaking this cycle, with many angles, treatments, and twists on every genre you could possibly imagine, but even they get into surprising setting traps due to the mechanical form issue (i.e. the overwhelming popularity of PbtA and FitD from a sales perspective). Not every superhero game excels with an ambiguous dice resolution mechanic, even if Masks does. So how does one build a setting that’s their own for their next campaign? You pick your themes, you pick your mechanics, and then you write with eyes wide open.
Pick your themes
The reason you need to know what your themes are for your game is simply that that’s going to drive you to both a ruleset and a genre. When you’re developing a world for a game you aren’t creating a world for the fun of it, you’re making a setting with intent. If you want to create a world for the fun of it…do that, knowing that using it in a game without considering the sort of campaign you actually want to run or develop will be closer to *subjecting* your players to it than entertaining them with it. I say without judgment that creating a world complete with its own weather patterns and holidays and six constructed languages is its own self-indulgent hobby, and I say without reservation that that sort of worldbuilding is almost wholly incompatible with running role-playing games. But what was I actually on about? Right, themes.
Your world is the basis for a campaign, so it should be one where the sorts of conflicts and overarching storylines you want to focus on arise naturally. This is less restrictive than you think; there is a compelling argument that all bog-standard Dungeons and Dragons settings are post-apocalyptic, because that is the historical situation which implies the need, popularity, and success of bands of 4-6 people of disparate skills wandering around and violently plundering underground ruins. These are the sorts of questions you need to ask. Are you running a game about exploration? You’re developing a setting with unexplored areas, and you need to know why that is. Are you running a game of high intrigue? Then you need to build out a society where people have reasons to pursue power, but also reasons to do so subtly.
This is also where the broad brushstrokes of your setting are likely going to come into your head. Definitely track them, see what intrigues you. Don’t write too much, or you could fall into a trap. We’ll come back to that.
Pick your mechanics
Yup, system matters. When you have a thematic direction you should have an idea of what sort of game would best support the vision of how the game will play out. Now, unless you’re set on a generic system like GURPS (and realistically even if you’re set on GURPS), running your own setting in a game is going to take some tweaking and hacking. When picking your mechanics you aren’t necessarily looking for the easiest game to hack (though that’s definitely a fair criterion), but rather the game which has core gameplay that’s closest to what you envision. If you have a vision of a sprawling sci-fi epic, Burning Wheel could be a good fit…though you might spend man-days of time with the Burning Wheel and Burning Empires books rewriting. Still, if you thought you were going to write about fictional tectonic plates, that may end up being a fair tradeoff.
Remember that mechanics imply things about the physics of your world. This need not mean that you live in an Order of the Stick universe where all the characters are aware of what level they are and what edition it is, but the relationship between how characters are built and how they interact with the world should inform truths about your world. Now, in full disclosure the majority of traditional RPGs are actually pretty terrible at this. When your ruleset is built around combat, base human abilities, and maybe something cool like magic, there’s usually very little word count spent on things like economics. D&D is a good example of a game which actually started out doing this pretty well, and got progressively worse until 5e, where the implied progression mechanics make the economics downright nonsensical. In early editions of D&D, it was expected that adventurers would, at a certain level, begin to attract camp followers and eventually become leaders of a domain. This is both a) completely rational given the power level of D&D player characters compared to the average person and b) a huge money sink, which worked out pretty well when you consider how rich most characters were by then. By Third Edition, domain rules had almost completely disappeared, replaced with a constant treadmill of ever more expensive and powerful magic items. Now, this solved the economics issue by creating another…where are all these immensely powerful magic items coming from, and what exactly does it say about the world the characters are in where coming across said items has to be a narrative inevitability? It is high fantasy, yes, but you’d think such a surplus of magic would show up anywhere other than the characters’ inventory. Incidentally this is one reason settings like Eberron are popular; they’re simply better written to explain the game’s wild progression mechanics. By 5e, the magic item treadmill and the domain rules are both gone, you could still have your characters build a castle but there’s no mechanical reason to do so and that only really tides them over for a few levels anyway (by the time the castle is done in game time they’d have enough gold to build five more).
Here’s why mechanics are important, and why I feel compelled to highlight D&D’s setting/mechanics interface as particularly bad even though it’s obviously good enough for most people. As I started to imply with the comment about Eberron, the internally consistent stories that make use of the same assumptions have the potential to be way more interesting. What do healing potions mean about people’s life expectancies? Would feudalism collapse if socialized healthcare could be bottled? Does this suddenly mean mixing potions is high-demand labor? What about the ingredients, do we suddenly have a wave of Faerun colonialism to extract potion reagents? Trying to answer these questions almost certainly will make your world more interesting than what’s in any of the 5e core books or supplements, and that’s just one (fairly small) example.
The mechanics of your game reflect the reality of the world in which the game takes place. If you are serious about writing your own setting, you need to fill in some of the gaps left behind by mechanics, especially those where the mechanics imply answers or questions. If you’re writing a modern or historical game you can skip this, but then…you aren’t really worldbuilding, are you?
Write with eyes wide open
The points about mechanics are reflective of broader worldbuilding advice regarding cause and effect when it comes to the truths you decide about your world. The only difference between writing a constructed world for an RPG and writing a constructed world for any other reason is that when you’re writing for an RPG, the game is more important, so writing to accommodate the themes of your desired campaign and the mechanics of your desired ruleset come first. To the degree you can, alter the rules to fit your envisioned world rather than the other way around. As you write your setting you will find places where the mechanics you’ve chosen don’t quite fit, or the implications of the mechanics like those discussed above lead you away from your envisioned setting. Change them. Most rulesets bend before they break, and often simple addition, subtraction, or numerical modification (i.e. keeping the same rule but changing a property of it, like a multiplier or a difficulty number) can keep things in line. Just know: adding things will always make gameplay more cumbersome, and subtracting things will always make things feel less complete. As examples, imagine changing D&D’s initiative, and then getting a group familiar with the original system to remember how the new one works each time. Or imagine playing D&D after having removed divine magic. It might make more sense in your world, but the source text is, unfortunately, merely lesser.
Writing in tandem with your mechanics is important. So is considering, reading, and hopefully abandoning some source material. I don’t think it’s bad to want to run games inspired by or even set in your favorite books, movies, and video games. I wouldn’t call it worldbuilding, though. Adapting someone else’s setting is a different (and just as challenging) task from writing your own, and if your “original” setting ends up being (to cite an all too common example) “like Tolkien but”, it’s probably not interesting, certainly not more interesting than a good adaptation. And while you can be proud of your not interesting setting, I could make a similar one just using the core 5e books in a weekend, so what exactly are you doing?
Don’t fall into traps. Don’t put elves in your damn game. Don’t let your Western World ass get stuck into a loop of what’s “normal”. The best reason I can attribute to these mistakes is laziness, and let me be the first to say that if you’re feeling lazy when it comes to running games, then don’t waste time writing a world. And to be clear: drawing a map and putting towns, cities, and ruins on it for a D&D campaign isn’t writing a world, it’s making a new version of D&D’s implied setting for your table. You can put a lot of work into it, and it can be used to run a great game, but you aren’t worldbuilding. And don’t mistake this as judgment: I don’t worldbuild for 80+% of the games I run.
So here’s what I really mean by “write with eyes wide open”. If you want to create something, really create something, you have to be aware of the tropes of the genre you’re working in, why they’re tropes, and what it means that they’re tropes. Every cookie cutter fantasy world that includes elves in it is getting further and further from both the mythos and the allegory that caused Tolkien to design his elves the way we now understand elves. What the fuck does “long-lived, pointy-eared, aloof magical humans” mean? Why do they exist? I can answer that one: because they’re already in a bunch of fantasy properties. Well, come off it. If you want to build a world, do better.
There’s a common myth in Jewish folklore that a Rabbi must turn away a convert three times before they can join the faith. I’m not saying this is where the article comes from, but I’m well aware that it seems that way! I don’t want to dissuade anyone that wants to build a wholly original world and use it to run RPGs. I do, however, want to make sure they actually build a wholly original world and that it can actually be used in RPGs. I have a task for any aspiring worldbuilder. There are two immense and unique fantasy worlds which both predate the role-playing game itself, but became the basis for early games. These are Glorantha, the basis for Runequest, and Tekumel, basis for Empire of the Petal Throne. Find one of these games, with the setting material, and read it. Compare and contrast the setting with Dungeons and Dragons, or Tolkien, or any of the numerous other derivative fantasy settings out there today. Now say to yourself, with a straight face, “I can build a world that has a character of its own, that isn’t another reproduction of what Tolkien or Gygax already did. I know I can build something as unique as Greg Stafford or M.A.R. Barker.” Got it? Actually believe it? Good. Now go build.
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