Saturday, June 30, 2018

One Tip on How to Be a Great Worldbuilder


Going to say as I'm writing this, I'm drinking an Americano that cost me four dollars, a dollar more than my patreon.  And it's not very good.

I am thinking ... If I would give advice now on how to build a world from scratch, what would I say?  With How to Run, I approached the discussion by defining what function a world was supposed to serve in the game, and what sort of structure a world should take, and how a world should affect the behaviour of the participants.  In short, I took a theoretical tack.

And the answers I received from many persons was, "I wish there had been more examples."  Readers don't want to know what a world is for or how to build one; they want a point-by-point guide that removes all that difficult design technique.  They want "10 things I need to know about worldbuilding."

It's out there.

And it is virtually useless.  You will need geography. And economy.  And women.  And so on.  Go. Make it happen.

For most, I confess that my book's effort was, well, high brow.  Reading the chapters on worldbuilding after ten years of designing several worlds that faceplanted might serve to focus your mindset, but if you haven't made a world before it is pretty nigh useless.  I would say the same for the hundreds of post I've written about building a trade economy, infrastructure or building blocks.  If there are people who need to see the words, "Those mountains had to come from somewhere," in order to think, "Hm, maybe I should include mountains in my game," then I am obviously preaching to an auditorium full of monkeys.

Still, I'm not terribly interested in writing a elementary primer for readers who are compelled to locate the answers to the  question, "Why is everyone [in your game world] straight/cis?"  Um, just no.

Fine.  What would I say?

If the reader is looking around for advice on this subject, chances are the subject of a map is going to present itself ~ and the reader is bound to think that making a map of the world is a good first step.  I want to help: if you don't know how maps work, and what purpose they serve ~ and you in particular can't find your way around using a city map ~ then don't make one.  You are wasting your time.  Before a tool can be of any use to you, you must learn how the tool works and get some experience using it.  If a real map in the real world can't hold your attention for more than a minute, then please, for the love of gawd, just write a list of stuff in your world and keep it handy.  How each thing relates to other things physically isn't that important to you.  Save your time.

Have you ever been in more than one kind of forest?  How much detail can you remember about how these trees looked, compared to how those trees looked?  If your knowledge of forests does not extend past what you've seen in a movie, then I strongly suggest you don't bother to name any of the "forests" in your world.  I suggest you just call them all, "the forest," in small letters.  Because your players won't remember, because they won't care.  All that will matter is that they are in the generic forest that you, the DM, can understand.

The same goes for mountains, and sea coasts, jungles, prairies and arctic tundra.  If you don't know how these places look or feel, then please, for the love of all that's holy, downplay their importance in your world.  For all the value they will add to your game, your world's environment might just as well be "gray space," the sort that makes the background for a typical video game.  It is out there, but it's just a screen saver.

If the reader is thinking of inventing some awesome and amazing culture that will exist only at your table, stop and think for a moment.  If you were to start describing YOUR culture, the one you're living in right now, how many hours could you speak about it before either a) getting tired and bored of speaking; or b) get wrapped up in talking about the shared media that every other culture also experiences?  Let me put that another way.  If you live in Savannah, Georgia, how long can you talk about Savannah, and just Savannah, before you stop talking?  An hour?  Two?  If it is anything less than 10 hours, don't pretend you can make a culture entirely out of your own imagination.  You really don't know anything about culture, even your own.  How are you going to talk about it for 50 or 60 hours over the next few months of running your game world?

This goes double for any history you think you can create for your world.  And treble for any race you think you can invent for your characters to play.  Can you talk about being human for 30 hours?  Give it a try.  Then come back and tell me how my snorfblat fighter thinks.

While we're at it, spare us your Arabian World, your Japanese World and your Mayan World.  Unless you've done your due diligence, and spent a hundred hours or so compiling enough information about these cultures to let you talk about them for 10, 20 or 30 hours, stick with your screen saver.  It is all that you can handle.

And this, for the clever reader, is the solution to your problem.  LEARN something.  Your next vacation, instead of flying out to Malaga, Mazatlan, Cuba or Las Vegas to lay on a beach or gamble, or get drunk with your buddies, get in your car and drive to an empty forest, mountain, desert or polar expanse and walk around.  You want to try a Japanese Campaign?  Fly to the Ryukyu Islands, south of Japan, far from the modern experience, and spend two weeks living in a hostel.  Not a hotel.  Learn Japanese and live with actual people.

Or at least learn a little more about the town you live in.  Learn about culture.  Start a business and learn how an economy works from the ground level.  Educate yourself.  Get some experience.

And please, learn how to talk more about things that you actually know.  Get a job as a tour guide where you live and get into the habit of explaining to outsiders how things are in Savannah, or wherever you are.  Being a guide or taking a volunteer position of any kind where you have to explain things to people who need guidance is the best experience you can ever have as a DM.  It will help you understand how maps work, as you explain to people how to use a map to get somewhere inside your city, or your country.  It will give you some experience into how people from other cultures think, and what matter to them ... so that your Arabian Campaign doesn't sound like Arabia, South Illinois.  More talking will make you more confident.  More talking will focus your goals.  More talking will educate you, as you have to listen to the questions other people will ask.

If you really need a list of things you need to know about how to build a world, you're not ready to build a world.  Go learn how to build.  Even if it is only a decent sandwich.

9 comments:

Alan Kellogg said...

Yes, it's work!

Michael Julius said...

Delta of Delta’s D&D hotspot recently responded to a forum post in which I had complained that the game has become too self-referential that “Without irony almost everything I know is from researching for D&D. :-)”

Reason enough.

James said...

Such a high bar you set, but certainly one worth remembering. Probably explains why I prefer to keep my settings in cities. Those are things I can comprehend.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well you know, James, there are plenty of people around who are setting the bar very low.

James said...

I laughed at that one. You are definitely right about that.

Vlad Malkav said...

Wow, that's a motivationg post ! It's work, yes, but it's good work; I'll take it.

Carl Hess said...

You should never try to build a whole world. Start with one place like a small region with a few farms and a grange hall. Iterate. Add more. Revise what you've written for consistency and then go read Wikipedia on the Dordogne region of France. The bigger you go out of the gate, the more likely the whole thing will end up in the trash.

When I first started, I wanted to build a "whole world" too -- I imagined rivers and cities and mountains and forests and deserts and oceans. I was going to have it all. It would feature weird races of intelligent creatures, bizarre civilizations, breathtaking geological features, and massive dungeon ruins hidden all over everywhere. My mistake was profound. Instead of starting from space and zooming into the world, I should have started from a single tree and worked outward. I would have had more usable world sooner.

Start small. You can always scale up.

Alexis Smolensk said...

On the whole, I agree with you Carl. Except that I disagree with saying, "never."

After two failed attempts, I absolutely DID try to build a whole world. I started in 1984. I'm still building that world.

I did, as you say, "start small." But it was my intention, IS my intention, to build everything. Unfortunately, I expect death will get in the way.

Alan Kellogg said...

You can't do both?

Start with an overall framework, then when that is in place focus on one particular region.