Tops and Bottoms


Having previously explored how the GM can best tackle the roles of judge, storyteller, and adversary, in my last column I introduced the role of world-builder, and discussed the need to choose your genre and rules setting before you start building your world.

Now we come to actual world-building. And when it comes to world-building, there are two major schools of design that you need to know about: “top down” and “bottom up.” Proponents of “top down” design are world-focused. They like to establish a framework for their world, laying out the backstory, major characters, and points of interest in advance. The player characters, when they are created, are made to fit the world. In this way, the gamemaster achieves a holistic creation, in which each part makes sense in the context of the whole.

Proponents of “bottom up” design are player-focused. They begin with whatever will be in the immediate vicinity of the player characters, and flesh that area out in great detail. They generally leave the framework of their world open, or at most very thinly sketched, feeling that major characters and points of interest can best be developed over the course of play. Often he will create sections of the world as needed to fit the needs of the player characters, or even let them be created by the players themselves. In this way, the gamemaster builds an open setting that is shaped to the needs and tastes of the players as they evolve in play.

Many early campaigns in the hobby began with bottom-up design. Gary Gygax’s famous Greyhawk setting, for 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons, was a bottom-up design. Greyhawk began with a town (the city of Greyhawk), with a nearby dungeon (the castle of a mad wizard). The rest of the setting was fleshed out over time in increasing detail. The same is true of Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor and Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms. In contrast, many modern campaigns are designed from the top-down. Dark Sun, Eberron, and Dragonlance, for instance, were all campaigns that began with a framework and backstory, and both Cyberpunk 2020 and Shadowrun 1st edition were entirely top down, providing extensive details about the world and backstory, but a scant few pages on the actual micro-settings of the campaign.

Which is better largely depends on your personal preferences, but there are some tonal factors to consider. Top-down design lends itself to high fantasy, in which the scope of the adventures is potentially epic. Bottom-up design lends itself to swords-and-sorcery, in which the adventures are of a more personal scope, and what matters most is the characters, not the world. Top-down design tends to result in a world that is flavored and thematic, but less flexible. If you don’t write in a place for minotaurs into your top-down setting initially, they are very hard to add later. In contrast, bottom-up design worlds tend to be much more gonzo: Aztecs rub shoulders with Romans, and things tend to get added that don’t fit into any larger pattern, because there isn’t any. It’s Frodo’s Middle Earth v. Conan’s Hyboria.

My personal design method falls in between the two schools. I call it “top down, zoom in”. The “top-down, zoom-in” approach means starting with a light top-down framework, but creating increasing detail as you get closer to the areas of the setting that the players are most likely to interact with. Ideally, you end up with a setting that has much of the openness and playability as a bottom-up campaign, and much of the cohesiveness of a top-down setting.

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Top Down, Zoom In starts with a one-paragraph “high concept” that establishes the setting, the flavor, and the overall scope of the challenges. Here is an example from a recent Runequest campaign I ran:

AURA, City of Dawn, founded on an island said to be at the center of the world, where the Light of Ammonar first blazed and rose into the sky. Its founders claimed to be descended from the Seven Lords of Order, whom they called their ancestors. Imbued with gifts of power by their divine lineage, the founders built a city of marvels and an empire that spread across the known world. For centuries, Aura’s runic sorcery and disciplined legions have guarded the empire against the rising tides of darkness around it. But over time the lineage of old has thinned and the bloodlines have failed. With fewer men and women of power born every generation, the ancient sorceries are coming to an end. The great wonders of the city are dimming. Magic is slipping into oblivion. And terrible creatures of darkness are emerging in the empire. Will heroes arise who can restore the glory and the grandeur of the empire, or will the world plunge into an age of darkness one thousand years in the making?

After the high concept, the next step is to do a quick sketch of the game mega-setting, along with a one-page write up to accompany the map, covering the major regions, their cultures, allegiances, and wars. By “mega-setting,” I mean an area that is larger in scope than the area the game will actually take place in. For fantasy games that is usually the “known world,” but in other settings, the scope of the mega-setting is going to depend on your particular choices. For instance, in Classic Traveller, the standard mega-setting is the Imperium of Man, covering something like 10,000+ worlds. In Coyote Trails, a game of the Wild West, the mega-setting is the 1870s American frontier, a setting smaller than a single nation.

After establishing the mega-setting, the next step is to write a two page backstory to accompany it, with a timeline of major events. A good backstory needs to provide for the following historical periods: (a) Recent history; (b) Modern history; (c) Classical history; (d) Ancient history; (e) Forgotten history. Recent history is what’s happened so recently that people are still talking about it – an invasion of orcs, a discovery of gold in the hills. Modern history is the history of the dominant culture of your setting. Classical history is the history of the culture that directly led into the modern one. For instance, in a Dark Ages Europe setting, classical history would be the Roman civilization directly preceding the fall. Ancient history is the history of culture(s) prior to the Classical. Forgotten history is the secrets that no one living remembers. I generally do about a paragraph for each.

Exactly how you write up your backstory is, again, going to depend on your choices of genre and setting. For instance, if you’re running Call of Cthulhu set in 1920s Europe, in a sense the backstory is already written. In that case, what you are writing are the counter-factuals of the setting: Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by agents of Great Cthulhu who sought to bring about worldwide bloodshed. On the other hand, in a space opera or fantasy setting, you’ll truly be spinning something out of whole cloth.

After the backstory is written, next turn to whatever the primary culture or region of the game is going to be, and write three pages about its culture. This material, along with mega-setting map and overview, and the recent and modern history, is ultimately going to be provided to the players for use in creating their characters, so I focus on things that people need to know to create characters: How people look and dress, what weapons and armor are used, what tools and technologies are available, how they get around, what their general state of knowledge and learning is, their religion and government, and any important cultural attitudes. Even if you’re running a pseudo-historical campaign, it’s worth taking the time to write this up. You would be surprised how many of your players won’t actually know what firearms were available in the 1870s Old West, or whether or not women wore corsets in the 1920s, or what the standard kit was for a soldier in Vietnam.



At this point, it’ll be time to turn to the micro-setting of the campaign. The “micro-setting” is the scope of the setting that the players will actually interact with. Again, the size of the micro-setting can vary widely from a city to an interplanetary region; it all depends on the genre, tech, and style of the game. In Cyberpunk 2020, the micro-setting is usually a particular city, such as Night City or Neo-Tokyo. In fantasy, the micro-setting is usually a kingdom or duchy, such as Dragon Age’s Ferelden. In Classic Traveller, the micro-setting is usually a sub-sector of space, covering a dozen or more star systems.

When it comes to the micro-setting, you’re essentially going to follow something not too different than the steps you just followed for the mega-setting. You’ll start with one paragraph “area concept” describing the micro-setting. Here’s my micro-setting area concept for my Auran Empire campaign mentioned earlier:

Straddling the 100 miles between the Empire and the Great Waste beyond, the Borderlands have been contested throughout recorded history and its landscape is littered with ancient fortresses and battlefields. The great fortress of Türos Orn was built a millennium ago, during the Empyrean War, on the shores of Lake Laman by the great warrior-king Valerian Bellësareus. East of the Krysivor River are 400-year old keeps and watchtowers built by Audarius Tarkaun to watch the Dark Wall during the Two Centuries War. In the remnants of the elder forests, elven keeps lost during the Argollëan War, two hundred years ago, lurk hidden under vine and leaf. Along the Mirmen River, doughty forts from the Krysean Wars of last century still face westward. And along the western bank of the Krysivor, newly constructed strongholds guard against the latest threat from the Waste – the Great Invasion. For the past fifteen years, waves of beastmen barbarians have invaded the Borderlands, many breaking through to raid and pillage the Empire. Twelve major battles have been won against the invaders, but each victory has been by a narrower margin, against larger numbers. Monsters continue to pour into the Empire, and the border forts grow increasingly isolated and out-matched. Travel has grown perilous, and the power structure of the Empire has begun decentralizing to local warlords and private armies.

The dates and references are, of course, drawn from the mega-setting backstory previously written. After the area concept, the next step is a sketch map of the setting and a one page write up of the geography covering the major terrain features and settlements, and a two page outline of the recent history of the micro-setting.

Like the mega-setting information, this material should be largely information that can be shared with the players, and in fact at this point, you will have reached a good stopping point. You should have about 10 pages of material. Go through and remove anything secret or sensitive, and compile it into a document. This is your “Player Reference Guide,” which is the starter packet you can give to your players to create characters for your new campaign. While they are busy doing that, you’ll be starting work on your Gazetteer – which we’ll discuss next column.

Alexander Macris has been playing tabletop games since 1981. In addition to co-authoring the tabletop games Modern Spearhead and Blaze Across the Sands, his work has appeared in Interface, the Cyberpunk 2020 fanzine, and in RPGA AD&D 2nd Edition tournament modules. In addition to running two weekly campaigns, he is publisher of The Escapist and president and CEO of Themis Media. He sleeps on Sundays.

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