Monday, April 22, 2013

World Building: A Lament


Back when I started playing RPGs, the GM had a huge job.  He had to create an adventure hook, create a world, create monsters, magic items, NPCs, and props each week in order for us to have a great time.  He had to portray all the NPCs, roll dice for random events, roll dice during combat, keep track of maps, XP, treasure, and everything else while trying to keep the power level of the challenges relatively in line with the power level of the characters.  This was an immense amount of work, and most games gave the GMs very few tools to help him do that.  It was up to each individual to figure out how to get all these different chores done while keeping everyone happy and without getting burned out in the process.

In the modern world of RPGs, however, this is not as much of a concern.  Games like D&D4e have terrific tools that help DMs balance the power level of encounters with the power level of the characters.  Games like Apocalypse World have taken the need for dice away from GMs so they don’t have to worry about fiddly numbers all the time.  And most indie games today come with some kind of pre-fabricated setting or situation (e.g. The Mountain Witch, My Life with Master, Psi-Run, Hero Quest, Shock, Poison’d) that takes a huge load off the GM’s shoulders by significantly reducing the amount of prep time necessary for play.  This is great, especially for guys like me who have a job, wife, kids, school, church, and other interests that devour free time.

At the same time, though, I think there is an art that is being lost.  Designing one’s own setting used to be an important form of expression for roleplayers- especially new ones.  Almost certainly everyone who comes to roleplaying has read the works of J.R.R. Tolkein, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, Ann Rice, or Louis L’Amour.  Those novels inspired us, provided us with a window into fictional worlds full of love, vice, triumph, and redemption.  People who take up roleplaying have those experiences and feelings welling up within them.  Play is one way to express those things.  Setting design is another, and it’s something I want to talk about today.

There are several ways to approach setting design.  First, there’s the AD&D method where there’s basically no guidance at all in the core books.  They just present you with things that *could* be in a fantasy world, and then you have to figure out where to go from there.  That’s not a good way. 
Second, there’s the build-as-you-go method.  The game might give you something to start on like in Sorcerer or Prime Time Adventures, but then it’s up to the all the participants to fill in the blanks as play unfolds.  This is a nice and functional way of doing things.  However, it’s not where I’m going today.

Third, there’s the formula approach.  I’m going back to my old standby game: Dogs in the Vineyard.  Vincent has one of the most functional and practical set of procedures for original setting design I’ve ever read in a game.  You start with a sin, then from that you build relationships, and from that you build geography.  To distill that down, the formula goes: Conflict->People->Places.  It’s really quite brilliant and consistently produces engaging and effective micro-settings.  This type of method can be ported to any type of game from sci-fi to dungeon delving to gritty noir games.  In today’s hectic world, the DitV method may be the best type of procedure to use if you want your game to encourage/require players to pre-generate settings for play.  The one downside to this style is that if the PCs need to go “off the map” for whatever reason, GMs can get stymied.  If all their preparation is geared toward the setting within the boundaries the GM created, he may not know what to do if the campaign shifts to some other location.  Such an event could stall a campaign until the GM goes through the setting creation process again or comes up with something on the fly.

Finally, there’s the epic style of setting creation.  There have been several world-builder’s guide books published over the years.  My first published RPG that I wrote collaboratively with my college buddies included an entire chapter on building a world from the ground up- topography, mythology, anthropology, technology, etc.  This style of setting generation is the one that many of us remember from high school or college.  We had lots of time on our hands.  The newness of roleplaying games energized our imaginations.  And the impetus to create something unique to ourselves was very strong.  Part of the epic style of world building is emulation. 

Most fantasy world or science fiction galaxies resemble the worlds and galaxies the designer grew up with.  Middle-earth, Narnia, Gloranthra, Babylon 5, Mechwarrior, Star Wars, and Star Trek have provided countless baselines for roleplayers over the last 40 years. 

The obvious shortcoming of this style of setting creation is time.  It takes a lot of time to draw a poster-size map, write reams of histories, make up illustrations of important aspects of the world, and then distill all of that into something functional on the relatively small scale of a campaign.  There’s nothing wrong with including tools for this sort of thing in one’s game, but the designer should know that the audience for such a game is going to be small.

In the end, I think the third method (the DitV method) is as close to ideal for setting creation as we can come given the lifestyle limitations most adult-age gamers have to deal with.  Regardless of how you want to use setting creation in your game, if you even want to incorporate it at all that is, you should provide some clear tools and procedures for the GM (or whoever) to use as he builds the setting for play.  If you would like some further reading on setting design tools, I created some aids back in 2006 for game designers, but those same tools could be modified to work for players too if that’s your thing.




Veritomancer said...

This might fall in with DITV and other formula-based methods of setting creation, but I figured I'd mention it anyway. In a way, it's a blending of AD&D style "here's what might be here based on the genre" and DITV style "follow this formula to create a town/initial situation".

My idea, and one that I'm using for my Zombie Apocalypse RPG project called Fear The Living is group setting-creation at the beginning of play.

I wrote up a list of questions that establish baseline answers to the sorts of questions one would ask about a zombie movie's setting like "How's humanity doing thus far against the zombies?" and "What are the Zombies like?" Each question has a number of different potential answers listed below, and to create a setting everyone votes on their favorite answer(s) in each category.

If there's a tie in the voting process or if people are deeply divided, then the GM should propose a compromise.

Example: Lets say a group comes to the question "What caused the zombie apocalypse?" and one player is gung-ho about demon-animated zombies ala Evil Dead, another wants a vague rationale for the apocalypse like Night of the Living Dead, a third wants virus-based zombies that aren't actually dead like from Dead Rising, and the fourth wants zombies arising from an alien parasite like Slither.

The default method of dealing with something like this is to find a way to combine the disparate elements coherently like so:

"No one knows what brought them into our world-the sins of man, the interference of sorcerers, or the cruel whimsy of the stars. Twitching slimy things like out of Dante's wildest hallucinations, the put out a gaseous miasma that turns you into one of their drones-a living but hollow shell that seeks only to eat and bring back victims for the otherworldly parasites.

Those sad victims have it worst of all. Burrowed into by the foul things, their forms are twisted into hellish mockeries of who they once were. These "Demons" control the drones, leading them on a campaign of utter annihilation."

You know, something like that. The reason why I like this approach is because it provides the structure of a formula with the open nature of a "grab-bag" setting like AD&D.

It also has the added bonus of creating a fully coherent setting from the outset. Don't get me wrong, I love "create the setting as you go" type systems, but unless the GM or the group maintains a firm control over the tone of such additions, it's possible for the resulting product to feel a little bit muddled.

Nargosiprenk said...

I once came up with an idea when going to roleplay with two friends of mine.

A simple """dungeon""" (four towers rounded by stone walls), where there was a book, wich contained all the information the reader wanted to know -something like "El Libro de Arena" by Borges (good translation right here: So it was asking something, opening the book, having some willpower, and there was the page that served you. But you would never find that page again, not even asking.
Well, the castle belonged to an ancient magician, but now it was "hunted", since long ago. There was a Chaos guard in there, an eternal one, very powerful, whose job was to stop everyone from reaching the book.

I had nothing else.

But with my friends I tried something: the would create characters, asking questions and the like, and the things to describe mechanically the characters where "aspects" like the Fate ones, and Destiny Points. But there was NO other mechanically important thing in the characters.

The system was rolling a d4 vs. a d4 when you had some opposition. You could add "free" one aspect (+1), and pay a Destiny Point to add another from yours or the thing that oppose you, the GM (me) having his own DP pool. You could regain DP allowing the opposition to invoke one of your aspects or by being compelled, like in Fate games. You could spend all your DPs in one roll, or none (so, minimum d4+1 and maximum d4+5, for they had 5 Aspects).

The thing was, all or almost all the Aspects had to add some setting data.

One character was an ex-condottieri (Italian warlord) who had gone to Hell in order to save his wife, failing, but returning with "seven scars": seven general demon's body parts, as the tradition says (he who lose would give one part of his body to the winner). His motivation to find the book was obvius: to save his wife from hell.

The other was the Guardian of Reality, or at least an aspect of it, addicted to souls, who has Excalibur, and loved adventure (his motivation).

(There can be some details I am missing right now.)

The first roll was to find a way to get in the tower stealthy. The player said that he wanted to "find the Stealthy-ness", as one of his "scars" was an eye which could see the "intangible", and the concept of "Stealthy-ness" was intangible. He succeded, so he got a Warren, like the ones in tha Malaz sagas (there are a minor spoiler in the link, and it is so short ir amy not ecplain the point, but whatever:, and the Path guided him to the nearest tower.

So I came up with the idea that Reality is alive, the Warrens are veins and arteries, and the planet Earth was like an organ, and there was another planes and spheres the warrens lead to, if you could use them. So, the Guardian was like a white corpuscle.

And the metaphysics of this setting came to my mind, incomplete, ready to fill.

Then, on another game, another player wanted a time traveller. So, he was a scientist, who had lost his son, so he create a "time machine" (a chip in his neck which can focus his will to open a warren to the *future* or the *past*, instead to another *place*. There was fixed facts and flexible ones, he could change the flexible ones with little problems, but his son's death was a fixed point in time and space... and it happens, no matter what he changes in the past or the future. So he look for this book, in hope of an answer... (The previous game the book was not taken in the end.)
But he has a symbiont which was a trouble and a help at the same time, and a problem of amnesia when he travelled in time...

So i came up with a great setting, just because I "forced" the players to add something to the setting with every aspect, and most rolls.

(Sorry for the wall of text.)

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