How to Run: An Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games, Worldbuilding, Chapter 10 – Beginnings.
"Desirably, a DM creates a world based upon a vision they have. My friend John, I remember, had created a milieu in which the land comprised of large masses of stone, miles across, that floated in an undefined airy space. The players could remain where they were, isolated, or they could glide to other ‘rocks,’ a risky venture involving riding the air currents either upwards or downwards.
"This sounds compelling, but what I’ve described is as far as John’s imagination took him. The coolness of the idea was not followed by a well-formed structure that gave the rocks coherence. Individually, the rocks bore too much resemblance to one another, so we quickly began to resist risking our lives only to leap to another place that was pretty much the same as what we were standing on. John’s vision failed because while the idea was appealing, there wasn’t enough function incorporated into the world’s formulation.
"That is why, before making a world, we must understand what function the world will serve. We need a motive – one that is stronger than merely providing a ground upon which the characters will stand. There are a wide number of factors we want to consider, such as size, movement, uniformity of space, density of features and population, strangeness, aggressiveness and special interests. We want to know how large the world will be. We’ll need to establish how movement will take place, by what means and with what tools, systems or beasts of burden, along with the difficulties in the terrain or space that will matter. There’s the question of how uniform the world will be in its design. Different parts of the world could be relatively homogenous, or they could be radically different, even metaphysically different. Cultural norms can vary. The ethics of one group of citizens could be wildly different from those a mere county away. We need to ask ourselves if the various cultures and entities live in closely packed groups, or scattered … and if the features of the world are themselves stacked one atop another, or whether it’s a twenty-day journey just to see something new. We should have a clear idea of how strange the world is … in terms of physics, biology, geology and so on. Perhaps the inhabitants of the world are affected by climate or physical forces quite differently than we are. The world, therefore, should be established as either predominantly natural, supernatural, or a mix of the two. Then yes, there is the matter of aggressiveness – the world could be benign in nature, or deliberately designed with the kill dial set to 11. Finally, there’s the question of what the players might be especially interested in: the world might be based on pirating, zombie fighting, the investigation of vice, political oppression, rebelling against an empire, surviving for just another day in a distopian landscape, adhering to a fine-tuned social system and so on. This last, in particular, should meet with the party’s expectations, if the world is going to survive.
"In mulling over these questions, we’re questing for a cause-and-effect relationship between the world’s creation and the manner in which the players will react to that world. Rather than simply making a world and insisting with argument that the players view that world with a particular emotion – say, with awe – the better practice would be to design the function of the world so as to invoke awe automatically. No one needs to tell the buyer that the appeal of a lava lamp is in how it looks; if the world is going to inspire awe, it must be awe inspiring.
"Function, then, is always incorporated into the world with an eye towards the desired behavior of the player.
"Consider my own world. I have already described it as immense. The purpose of the world’s immensity is to convey a feeling of subordination … the players view the world as far too vast to ever be ruled – or even explored – within the player’s lifetime. Thus the players, seeing great armies squatted upon empires stretching their dominions over millions of square miles, and tens of millions of occupants, cannot help feeling a certain insignificance where it comes to history and events. I could as easily have produced a very small world, that in turn would have trasmitted feelings of claustrophobia and restraint. I could have then filled that world tightly with people, so that the party felt robbed of any privacy. Alternately, I could have contrived a world full of open, empty spaces, where the denizens lived in isolated communities … so isolated that the party would soon discover that no matter where they went, they would always be provided with a fresh start once they went there. It might take a long, long time to pull up stakes and begin again, but that option would have been open to them.
"I did not create either of those worlds, but I could have.
"It was my decision to choose cultures and forms of inhabitation that the party would find familiar – and therefore comforting—so that although the world would be incomprehensible as a whole, small parts of the world could act as safe havens. Because the world was full of familiar people with familiar motivations, the party would be able to relate to them. I might have created peoples that were terrifying, or who behaved erratically, so that the party had to treat the natives xenophobically, never knowing for sure who they could trust or who might be an enemy. The inhabitants might have been fanatics, encouraging the party to either embrace their cause, or risk being seen as enemies. The whole world might demand the party ‘pick a side,’ with concommitant rewards and consequences being inherent no matter what decision they made."
*I do go on to talk more in the book about function, and how my world addresses it, but I felt this was sufficient to get across the purpose of function for the present. The book will be available for purchase in July, 2014.