World Building Is Just Window Dressing
So What Could Be More Important?
You’ve been struck with inspiration for a wonderful idea for a tabletop RPG campaign. Deities, pieces of landscape, ideas for brand new races – all of these are flashing through your mind at breakneck speed. The inside of your skull is now an incubation chamber for a continent, a planet, or even a universe. You have a clear idea of concept, of theme, of the kind of adventures that you want to run in your newfound playground.
And so, you slave away, hour after hour, documenting lore, making sure rules exist for magic, or technology, or super powers (whichever genre you’ve chosen) in your favoured gaming system. Maybe you draw, or commission some art, so you have something to show your players beyond your adept powers of descriptive narrative at the table. Your world is looking, and feeling great. It’s a really unique idea. Everyone you talk to about it is interested, and you have a mile long queue of people looking for a place in the game. You can’t stop thinking about characters who lead nations or organisations, who fight against the odds to keep the world in balance, or who scheme to bring everything into darkness and ruin.
You’re on a winner, right? And then your first game session is a flop. Nothing goes how you want. The players run away with the game or, in the worst of all possible cases, they get bored, or they struggle hard to stamp their own identity on a world that they haven’t fully grasped yet. (Of course it may go completely the other way, and they might become totally absorbed and you have a smash hit on your hands – it’s not always all doom and gloom!)
So how can you make sure that the first game in your new world, and all games in your new world are successful?
Well, first of all, it’s worth bearing in mind that you’ve been living here for a while, and your players have only just moved in. They are exploring. Feed them some of the things that make your world unique. You can take them on a tour of castles, cities, space stations… you have room to inject a unique atmosphere into all of those kinds of things, but how many of them have your players seen before? What is it about their hometown or base camp that’s unique to the setting, or that makes them belong there? At the first opportunity, you’re going to want to give them the opportunity to explore one or more of the ideas that made you think that this was going to be a really good idea for a world setting – spark some interest and let them get inspired too.
An example – you’ve decided to run a high fantasy adventure, but yours is governed by deities that take great pleasure in intervening in the affairs of the mortal world, largely by “blessing” those that invoke the powers of magic – arcane, divine or natural, it doesn’t matter, they’re sat there watching, ready and willing to mark someone as their champion. Some of them are benevolent, some not so much. In adventure one, a few people in your party have rolled spellcasting classes. You have the opportunity to do something with that at any time you choose. You can absolutely say at the start of the adventure “I see we have a cleric, a wizard and a sorcerer in the party, so this could start to get really interesting when the gods take notice of what you guys are up to.” This might generate some excitement with your players, who might then become eager to cast a spell and see what happens to them, or they might be wary of even deploying their first cantrip.
Alternatively, you can approach it from a completely different angle. They’re level 1. The gods have an unwritten policy that they’re only going to grant boons to level 5+ characters because obviously they are omniscient and know how the rules work, and they don’t want to waste their gifts on squishies. Your unsuspecting characters are hanging out in the village inn, minding their own business (or whichever other cliché you’d like to deploy for an easy way to get everyone together) when there are terrified screams outside, and when they get there they find some kind of Akira-inspired flesh mound that vaguely resembles a humanoid, but it’s many times bigger. The twist, though, is that it’s on its last legs. It’s been so corrupted by divine boons that it can barely hold itself together any more (a la Games Workshop chaos spawn if you like) and it’s in the process of lashing out before it finally shrugs off its mortal bonds. It’s weak enough that it won’t instakill a level 1, large in size (so easy enough to hit), and down to its last few hit points. When the party kills it, they find enough on it to be able to identify the body, and it belongs to someone who used to live in that village. Someone begs them to find out what happened.
Suddenly, you’ve got the beginnings of your first quest, with an opportunity to let the players experience for themselves what the deal is with magic and the deities in this world you’ve built without you just sitting down and telling them. You can introduce any of the things you’ve created at any step along the way, and your players will get interested in them, of course, because they’re awesome, and you’ve poured your heart and soul into it.
So wait, doesn’t that prove the title of the article wrong? Well, to a degree, yes, but it wouldn’t be a shamelessly clickbaity article title if it was actually 100% true now, would it? World building is clearly of huge value. It’s an essential part of creating original games, it provides a chance for a GM or DM to stamp their own personality on their gaming sessions and for players to have unique gaming experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. Above and beyond all that it’s a huge amount of fun and a chance to exercise your creative muscles to produce something that you are likely to be proud of literally forever.
But – the key to making your players enjoy your world and keep coming back for more is ‘show not tell’, a technique that belongs not to world building but to writing, and that is a driver of the most important thing of all – plot. Even in the most expertly built RPG settings, it’s the plot (or meta-plot if the setting is big enough, such as Dungeons and Dragons’ Adventurer’s League) that’s what makes players wants to play. Arguably, you could hold a totally compelling RPG campaign set in a small car park if you can keep feeding your players plot twists and things that keep them interested in both their characters and the environment around them.
It’s worth bearing that in mind as you sit down to build your world. Yes, create cool looking monsters, dynamic heroes and dastardly villains. Build your cities and your nations, and the factions that govern them. But while you do, always ask yourself – what are you going to do with them? What plot lines will you weave in? Because that’s what your players are going to grab with both hands, and it’s what will make this world you built from scratch become the favourite game they ever played.
Thanks Ed for this article – the first of a small collection on RPG content. More from Ed, or our other guest contributors.