Worldbuilding in RPGs

I was talking about this the other day with a fellow DM - What's your strategy for making up a world and presenting it to your players?

He has an unusual blend of hard-and-fast truths and wide latitude. It may be because he heavily railroads, but he can say exactly what the internal politics of the jungle kingdom are, but hasn't defined at least two of the six dwarven gods, despite the dwarven religion being a major part of the setting. It's most surprising to me because he has played in this world for almost a decade, through several campaigns that ran into high levels, but it seems he never defines what something is until he is directly asked about it by a player.

For my own part, I prefer to use a top-down, broad strokes approach. I'll work out what the major themes of the game are going to be, and design a world out from there in general terms. Is it about politicking, cooperation and brinksmanship? Then there's a bunch of petty city-states with geographical features that keep them from ever properly unifying. Is it about sacrifice and hubris? Then there is going to be a long history of great leaders and figures who shaped the world and died suddenly, leaving others to pick up the pieces. Once the campaign gets rolling, I'll work out what the likely path the party will take is going to be, and flesh out the areas in their path.

On a side note, I've found using dice drop maps a very relaxing way to pass the time and get creative juices flowing. You just print out a hexgrid, define what your dice will be (for example, you could use d12s to represent mountains, with the number indicating relative height, and have d6s as points of interest, which each number a different result [major city, lost temple, crashed vessel, etc]), and drop your dice onto the map. Write down the results, link them up in a way that makes sense, and you've got an entirely new area to explore and populate. Combine that with the Decamer Campaign or some random monster tables, and you've got a whole campaign from scratch, doing things you never would have done before.

I'll start with a map, then history. If a setting provides one I'll focus on an aspect of it I can control and put my players there. Pre or post wartime, government types and their adversaries, high social classes and their alliances and enemies, low social classes and rebellions. When you draw lines on a map... you are giving yourself an opening for a story about why that line is there. Rivers and coastlines will provide you with high traveled and strategic areas with much turmoil. Mountains can be either remote and desolate or mineral rich and strategically important... or even just strategically important for defense in their own right.

So I'll start with a map, that will give me some history to build a setting for my players to live in. The third element I utilize is severe challenge level. You make it a hard enough environment just to stay alive in, you increase your players caution (letting you guide them more subtly than just railroading them) and their sense of achievement in even the little victories. Then when I introduce a villain, when they defeat them the achievement seems even more impressive. I also have a goal I want them to work for, but I try and let THEM get to that goal. If the idea is for them to help a kingdom in a victory over another I'll start them simply needing money. They come up with a business idea that incorporates their characters' variety of skills... and I'll have the villain or that country or whatever start messing with their business. Maybe they get some help and then betrayed, or get recruited to work for the good guys... I don't start them with a "end boss." I let it develop... even though I've already made that storyline and boss.

Being an exceptionally uncreative motherfucker, I have a tendency to play RPGs that have pre built worlds. CP2020, TW2K, WHFRP. Most of the work's done, I can just fill in any necessary details.

I did make up a world for a 2nd ed campaign about 15 years ago and just realised I still have all the material for it. It was never finished as the group I was intending to play with were straight up Faerun types and my interest in RPGs was seriously on the wane, but it had that RPG sourcebook kind of setup.

http://www.giantitp.com/Gaming.html

There are 9 articles there that might be useful. Looks like there were going to be more, but didn't happen.

Zykon TheLich:
Being an exceptionally uncreative motherfucker, I have a tendency to play RPGs that have pre built worlds. CP2020, TW2K, WHFRP. Most of the work's done, I can just fill in any necessary details.

Nothing wrong with that; especially in well-constructed worlds, it's easy to fit in details that flow naturally from the established fiction, letting the difference between pre-built and GM-made become nigh-invisible. As someone who once ran a module and tried to spin a world out from it when the players wanted to continue with their characters but not with that plot, it can get very clunky very fast.

Hmmm...

If I have an idea going in, in a relaxed, high-fantasy setting, I usually start blathering about races and very general history, including gods and exceptional or otherwise noteworthy customs and quirks that should be common knowledge (like a matriarchal society for humans, or how there are no gnomes in this fantasy setting, or how everyone knows about the disappearing fish trade around the cape of Dawn, or how dragons are ancient myth, etc.)

If the idea is more personal/specific or the campaign has more intrigue to it than our norm, then I will tailor the information I give others, often taking individuals out of the room to talk privately about their character's concepts and motivations, thereby revealing essential background intel directly pertinent to their idea. I try to tailor this sort of info to a, appeal to their individual character ideas/goals, and b, under the understanding that, eventually, at least some of this information will be shared or likely later learned in-game by the rest of the players, if not the characters themselves. These sorts of games rely on more mature playing, and also less meta-game discussion at the table, but more role-playing, often in order to solve specific mysteries.

Have your encounters be more then just "hit guy with X". Having enemies use tactics or have fallback plans if things go south makes the world feel much more alive then "You encounter 5 bandits and they fight you to the death...even though you murdered his other four companions with a SINGLE fireball spell."

I know typically combat is the least entertaining part of an RPG, but you can go a long way in making what seems like a mundane encounter into something cool.

If people have brains and use them, all of a sudden the world becomes interesting. Now you start thinking how someone else might use their intelligence to outsmart you, no longer taking things just a face value.

I'm interested in this, I'm putting my own RPG together for a Wraith: The Oblivion campaign (I surely could have picked a harder game to DM for the first time?). The problem I'm finding is that the game has a lot of abstract worlds stacked on top of one another, each of which will need their own description.

So far, I plan to use a couple of props to help; make some vague map/diagram showing the worlds, so people can keep track of which is which. I plan to do a similar thing for characters with quick, charcoal drawings of them on reference cards. They're not vital to the story, but people love props!

The main thing I'm going to be doing though is conserving detail. A friend of mine is DMing a D&D game for the first time, and he's spent way too much time describing how the setting operates, instead of keeping these things on a need to know basis. Everyone is either bored, or forgets everything he's said.

I'm mostly into the pre-built stuff. But when it is called upon I just quickly make stuff up, basing it in what would make "sense" to me or just stealing whatever trope I've recently come across. Remember "Tropes are not bad, tropes are tools".

I think the only time that I've been "forced" (most of the RPG's I have come with their own world) to build my own world we used "Dawn of Worlds". It can make just about anything you (and your helpers, if you so desire)can imagine. It casts everyone in the role of a god and you forge the world from the ground up. It is somewhat hard to inspire intrigue in another players faction but that is about the only weakness of it that I can think of on the top of my head.

I am going through this for the first time now. I got into D&D 5e a couple months ago as a player and have DM'd a few sessions of the Lost Mine of Phandelver starter set with 3 in the party. It is going very well and they want to continue afterwards so I am putting together my first campaign.

I think I'm going to stick with the Forgotten Realms simply because that's the kind of setting I prefer anyway, and building stories using the existing towns and races. What I have brewing now is a continuation of the starter set campaign where two important NPCs the players have worked with come to conflict and their ideologies completely clash. That will form part 1 which is essentially maneuvering between both sides in a potential civil war within the town. Then an invading force led by a returning villain or a new threat will arrive which the party has to find a way to thwart.

My main approach is looking at the characters I already have and thinking about what their natural next step would be. Very basic I know but I'm still getting my bearings as a DM with creative freedom rather than a module holding my hand.

You start with characters. World history is made by the great leaders and villains. Do NOT start with a map. Lines on a piece of paper mean nothing without characters.

Potjeslatinist:
You start with characters. World history is made by the great leaders and villains. Do NOT start with a map. Lines on a piece of paper mean nothing without characters.

You have it backwards, my friend. You must start with a map (even just a town map). People don't act in a vacuum. They need reasons to be heroes and villains. You look at your map and ask yourself, "Who lives here?" Then you ask, "Who lives next to them?" And you do that until your map is full.

Then, and only then, do you ask how the different people interact. What are the motivations of the leaders? Why do these people like/dislike their neighbors? World history is not made by individuals, it's made by circumstances. You cannot know the circumstances a group of people find themselves in without being able to visualize the world. Once you know the socio-economic pressures that force people into conflict (which are almost exclusively due to where they live), then you can start talking about heroes and villains.

I start with gameplay mechanics (is there magic, what's their level of technology) then races, then world map, then alliances betwixt the races, then story.

I personally find it easier to keep my ideas pretty loose. In general most players aren't going to hear about the inner workings of the world, being more focused on their immediate surroundings. So when I am making my game world I come up with some background info for the world and then play it mostly by ear. I am pretty good at improv so while I have my ideas in broad strokes, if someone asks something specific I can make something up that I think the players will enjoy. For me personally if I get too wrapped up the minutia of the world as a whole it bogs down my planning for the immediate concerns of the players. I would rather have a smaller area planned in detail that the players will experience than the whole world that they won't see.

Ironman126:

Potjeslatinist:
You start with characters. World history is made by the great leaders and villains. Do NOT start with a map. Lines on a piece of paper mean nothing without characters.

You have it backwards, my friend. You must start with a map (even just a town map). People don't act in a vacuum. They need reasons to be heroes and villains. You look at your map and ask yourself, "Who lives here?" Then you ask, "Who lives next to them?" And you do that until your map is full.

Then, and only then, do you ask how the different people interact. What are the motivations of the leaders? Why do these people like/dislike their neighbors? World history is not made by individuals, it's made by circumstances. You cannot know the circumstances a group of people find themselves in without being able to visualize the world. Once you know the socio-economic pressures that force people into conflict (which are almost exclusively due to where they live), then you can start talking about heroes and villains.

I think both ways work. In the end we are making fiction so that others can play pretend within that fiction. Some times you have this awesome idea about a character that could serve as the focal point of a campaign. Other times you get this awesome idea for a location or area that would be absolutely perfect to set a campaign in and go from there.

In my last campaign I used both ways. I had a very broad strokes fantasy world and the start of the campaign was essentially made up by me coming up with a cool villain, so I gave her a cult to lead and from there the campaign set off when the players got on the cult's trail. The first act of the campaign was based on this character and me branching out to figure out her part in the world. The following acts took place in one of the major cities of the country, where I had begun with an idea for a medieval city and kept adding facts to this city until I figured out what the players would be doing there (lots of politicking, as it turns out).

I am usually less concerned with where I begin building my world and more with how I make sure the player characters fit into it nicely and feel as if their characters are part of the world instead of this sort of weird spectator that has no connection to it. It is all fine and dandy to have mapped out the entire elven pantheon or to have calculated the yearly trade revenue between your nations, but ultimately the player characters have to fit in. This usually means that my initial world is very broad strokes with some easy to grasp onto story hooks that lets the players start with vague backgrounds that can be defined later (in my last campaign a war had just ended, the army was demobilizing and winter was coming, so the players had to get out of town before starvation set in). As play goes on and the players figure out the specifics of their characters I let the world solidify around that (I had not intended for dragons, but a player came up with a great idea of his character being in a dragon cult and so dragons became part of the backstory). That way I don't have to do a lot of heavy lifting history-wise and the players feel as if their characters are part of the world and as if their input matters.

This has the unintended side effect that of some things becoming very detailed, like the court mage system, while others remain very, very vague, like the actual religion of the country. But this generally happens because the players where interested in those details and we fleshed them out together.

 

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