Tops and Bottoms

Tops and Bottoms

The trick to building a world is not getting too hung up on the big picture or the fine details.

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You forgot one small detail about World Design, that being the attention span of players... so to speak. As the GM/DM the big picture of the world is very necessary for you, but it is not so necessary for your players and hence more often than not your players WILL forget the names of important places, people and things, especially if there are a lot of them. It's one of the main reasons why Bottom Up is so popular, can't ignore a world that barely exists and is player focused.

A good general rule where your players are concerned is to keep all the important details confined to roughly a Single Typed Page, to avoid the TL:DR problem.

My usual strategy is to start top down, come up with broad strokes to define the world by. I then set up relationships, and the like by creating organizations of all sizes to populate the world with. It's always helped me make the world seem more real.

/sign its sad that as I get older its becoming nearly impossible to get 5-6 people together for 4-6 contiguous hours a week of gameplay and finding my 4-6 hours a week for dm prep work

I have so many ideas I want to run....

"Check for traps, Schmoopy!"

PedroSteckecilo:
You forgot one small detail about World Design, that being the attention span of players... so to speak. As the GM/DM the big picture of the world is very necessary for you, but it is not so necessary for your players and hence more often than not your players WILL forget the names of important places, people and things, especially if there are a lot of them. It's one of the main reasons why Bottom Up is so popular, can't ignore a world that barely exists and is player focused.

A good general rule where your players are concerned is to keep all the important details confined to roughly a Single Typed Page, to avoid the TL:DR problem.

I think that can vary widely based on your players. I, for instance, love to see a fully realized and interconnected world. The backs of my character sheets are generally scrawled with notes covering most of the blank space. My favorite gaming moments are often "oh hey, X makes so much sense with regards to Y detail that we learned earlier." It's the same reason I got the Explorer badge in our video game personality quiz, but everyone is a little different.

I get what you're saying, but really the top-down/bottom-up processes are really the same thing. It is just matter of commitment to the amount of pre-work done and the rigidity to that work afterward.

Whether it is only the city and nearby dungeon, or the various nations, cultures, histories of each person in the game, they just the set pieces. While the DM may put in a lot of work to building that world, until player interact with it you always have the option to change it to better fit what your players are going do. For more detailed worlds, this means more wasted effort but often a more cohesive place worth exploring.

Imagine a video game RPG where the graphics became shoddy and monsters and people became inconsistent in places because the game designers just figured no one who bother going there because none of the quests lead them through there. That is often what I've see with a bottom up approach. Everything feels like a Hollywood set, sure they look real from where you're supposed to be standing, but look around the side of them and they are nothing but plaster and two by fours.

As a player that enjoys exploration of new worlds, I prefer worlds that don't feel like they are held together with chicken wire and chewing gum. I understand the need for game masters to show off every little piece of work they put into game world and not want to change a bit of it. What I am arguing for is game masters to put in what work you can before hand but don't feel obligated to use every last idea. Lastly, feel free to change things if you think it would better the game and players don't know about yet.

Didn't Cyberpunk 2020 main book have information on Night City in it with some one-shot adventures in it based in Night City? Later, they had a whole book for Night City and a couple spin-offs such as Forlorn Hope (Bar in Night City) and the Night City Stories adventure pack. I don't recall a game of CP I played that wasn't based in Night City. Sure, we went round the world and ran through the adventures like Arasaka Brainworm or whatever it was called, even went into the LEO stations but it always Night City where everything circled back to.

So, in that instance, I think R Talsorian very much had a micro-setting concept in mind from the get go.

Also, Rifts can be added as a top-down gaming world with its expansions focusing on filling in the blanks of mass areas such as Mexico (Vampire Kingdowns) the Old West, The NGA(?) which was Europe, Rifts England, Rifts Africa, Atlantis then some alternate dimension source-books. Before the onslaught of expansions, the GM really had to take the campaign world and shape most of it purely out of their imagination.

I generally try to run games that are set in worlds of my own devising so as to maximize the mystery for my players, and I find that if I try a top down or bottom up procedure I get hung up at some point either binding areas together or differentiating them enough. Instead, I like to pick a few themes for the setting and then build around them. That way I already have a theme that needs to bind the setting together and I can create things on a large or small scale as I need them. Usually this ends up with a world that has defined nations, religions and governments, without my having to fully define the areas my players will adventure in leaving the world free to respond to their actions and desires within the bounds of the setting.

i like this series, becuz it gives me insight on roleplaying i cant do myself, im still in HS and i a friend who wants to DM/GM but there are not enough players at me school, but anyways i like reading these

Thank you for continuing to pen the Checking for Traps line of articles. My husband and I find these very useful for reminders on the ups and downs of game design and running a game as well as generating discussion between us on future endeavors. Right now, we only really know the Dungeons and Dragons rulesets from the 3rd and 4th editions, but we're picking up others systems like Exalted to understand what should and should not be done for the group of gamers we want to target. I hope that tabletop roleplaying discourse continues on The Escapist for a long time.

Check for traps: Tops and Bottoms sounds like a different topic to me. Wish my group had a DM to play with =(. I suck at social interaction so I couldn't be that guy.

I've tried Top-Down, somewhat. Designed the city and the surrounding area, even though Players would likely only see a small part of it. Went into all the detail of where the important characters are, what factions are in operation, the quarrels and laws governing the area etc. etc. It was my first shot and I think it failed miserably from an efficiency perspective. The players had fun I believe, which is good, but I was spending more time preparing for each session than I would running the session itself.

I've just started going the opposite approach though, Bottom-Up as you say. All I have in mind is a vague setting and a starting antagonist. That's it. Well, I'm using the official lore and such for the setting more-or-less, but my point stands that I have no clue where the story's going to go.

I'm making sure to oversee the character creation much more though, it seems to have been a major problem when my focus was too large, so my theory is that the players/characters will give me enough to expand upon as we go, maybe turning epic or largescale by the end.

Jikuu:
we're picking up others systems like Exalted to understand what should and should not be done for the group of gamers we want to target.

A friend of mine has Exalted. I've not seen it in action, it's apparently too complicated to run leisurely for our common group. It doesn't seem built for a casual crowd to me, but I do like the lore of it.

LawlessSquirrel:
A friend of mine has Exalted. I've not seen it in action, it's apparently too complicated to run leisurely for our common group. It doesn't seem built for a casual crowd to me, but I do like the lore of it.

Just browsing through it, I'm not a fan of its presentation. My biggest bone so far is the fact that the book goes through seventy pages of its lore before you even SEE the character creation rules. I feel like it's a bad example of top-down design. I admit that with Macris' suggestion for the Player's Reference Guide, I can see some players appreciating and benefiting from the resource and others feeling put off by reading around ten pages of text. With Exalted, I wonder how many feel overwhelmed when first peering into it.

It would seem to me that the "top down, zoom in" model described here is the only possible top down model available - by necessity, levels of detail are going to increase the closer one gets to the specific area/events involving the players. The only time this could possibly not be true is when borrowing a pre-existing setting (like Dragonlance, Eberron, FR, etc.), which involves a very different kind of world-building/customizing - for instance, I once ran a FR campaign in one of those "off-the-beaten-path" parts of the world map and so my level of detail was actually less than the pre-packaged material available for the Sword Coast and/or Dale-lands. The closest thing to this I've seen in a custom world is when a friend of mine DM'd a Oriental adventures campaign and spent so much time on high-level issues/intrigues, that the whole adventure flopped when the players (rather maliciously, I think) decided to ignore the big picture.

That said, I really liked the suggested structure and examples from the player reference packet.

Jikuu:
I admit that with Macris' suggestion for the Player's Reference Guide, I can see some players appreciating and benefiting from the resource and others feeling put off by reading around ten pages of text.

I'm guessing that Macris plays with a group that would appreciate the reference guide - that is, a group that likes customized settings that depart from the typical setting for a rule-set in logical/predictable ways that they need to know about before generating characters. A group that lacks the attention span to appreciate such a guide would probably stick to a default campaign setting anyway and would not need anything beyond the core rule-books to understand the setting.

I agree with you for the most part, but I wouldn't say every player's like that. Some players enjoy a rich custom environment rather than the generic setting but benefit more from an open dialogue between the GM and the players with lots of questions to fill the blanks they need before creating a character. It's not so much on the fact that the material's there but how it is presented. Some folks don't do well absorbing ten pages of text while four to five other people are talking and doing other stuff that may distract, but they may get just as great an understanding of the new game world through discussion and probing.
I would state that I agree with Mr. Macris on the GM generating that much content so that there is a solid grasp on the custom world. This is beneficial for all parties involved. I also think that his "top down, zoom in" recommendation is spot on. I just think that the manner in which it is shown to the players during the "player recruitment" and character generation phase should be tailored to the group's preferences. If you have a bunch of people who like to read, hand them the PRG and all's good. If it's a more talky, twitchy bunch, the discussion portion might get them up to speed better. It's a minor irk I'm mentioning, not by any means a scathing disapproval of the whole article's message.

Great article, Alex.

I'm definitely a fan of the top-down approach, because I find the world-building to be my favourite task as DM. While I'll borrow or outright steal from published campaign settings, I could never use one for my campaign. I'd feel like I didn't have ownership over it.

Unfortunately, because I am extremely detail-oriented, this means it takes me months to years to throw a game together, because I've found the more work I've put into a game before it starts, the better it runs once it gets going. I'm going to try your compromise method and see if I can finally start this game I've been planning for years.

To me, that first page begs the question:

Would you rather have your game in Middle Earth, or Hyboria?

I'd like to find a DM and a party that would choose Hyboria. Prejudice against magic aside, it's a wonderful place for D&D players. You can just be walking along then BAM you have an opportunity to save someone from a flesh eating tree with eyeballs all over it. Don't get me wrong, Middle Earth and it's stop a god-like power from screwing the world over potential is good too, but Conan would always whack off demons and demigods before they became serious threats to the world, and that just makes more sense to me.

Wonderful article, and very conducive to thought!

I myself greatly prefer bottom-up design for my games and worlds. This is largely due to my personal temperament, and I've seen plenty of really cool top-down worlds (my oldest gaming buddy does his worlds that way, and his campaigns are awesome). But a lot of it depends on what your strengths as a GM are.

I've found over time that I do much better with detailed, intimate settings than I do with sprawling and varied landscapes. One of my favorite campaigns ever took place entirely in a small, isolated valley that was inescapable and focused on the situation of the poor fools who were still trapped inside. There had once been three villages in the valley, but in the wake of a mysterious black rain that swept through the valley a generation or two ago the dead started spontaneously coming back to life and wandering around. The other villages were overrun, leaving just the one still there, teetering on the brink of destruction. I loved it because we ended up delving into extreme depth about everything in that town and that valley--every villager became an important NPC, every building had a clear image and a story by the end of the campaign, and all the little stories and legends of the area wove together. I found that, by restricting my scope, I was actually able to offer more places to explore than a larger world would have offered--every cave and old mine, every ruined mill, every forest thicket and old road, and each of the old towns and all the buildings contained in them. If you have a world with 10 points of interest in it, how much does it actually matter whether they are spread out across the entire world or concentrated in a smaller geographic area?

It's like freeway travel vs backroad travel. If you drive on the freeway you can travel very fast and you will get where you want to go very quickly and very efficiently, but everything looks pretty much the same, and you run across the same signs and gas stations and restaurants the entire way. Traveling on the backroads means you can't travel as far, but you will see a lot more. You'll see all the little rivers and creeks, the farm fields and houses and the different barn styles as you travel across the country. You see unique houses with unique things in the yard--some places will have neat lawns and beautiful flowers, others will have lots of toys, others will have rusty junk. You come across small businesses that you will only find in this one little town, and weird people who will say things you haven't ever heard before. When traveling through cities you will see each neighborhood, noticing the differences in architecture and how some are newer than others. You will go through different ethnic districts, seeing signs change from English to Russian to Chinese to Arabic and others. You'll hear street musicians playing, you'll see block parties and neighborhood festivals celebrating some local celebrity that people elsewhere don't even know about. Each has advantages and disadvantages, and each will give your game a different feel.

Cool advice, Macris. I've been struggling with designing a setting recently, this stuff should help me.

More than anything did Cyberpunk 2020 catch my eye.

Is this a game recommended for rookie roleplayers?

I find it really hard to top down world build it just seems to take me too long. But I do agree a logterm bottom up campaign gets a little mixed up. I think I will have to try your topdown zoom in sugestion.

Reading these has honestly made me a better pnp gamer.
Keep doing what you are doing.

"Topdown zoom in"

I knew someone else had come up with a name for what I'd been doing all these years.

 

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