Thursday, March 28, 2019

30th Class: Worldbuilding and Life

Finally, with this class we're going to discuss the third "insolvable" problem of role-playing: "How do we create a world that is believable and interesting enough that our players will care about it?"

First, we must identify why we consider the problem insolvable.  In a word, time.  There is not enough of it to contain the imagination of a human being, who is comfortable living in a real world that includes within it concepts of space, people, technology, history, culture, social structure, commerce and other piddling details like climate, random events and physical laws.  It is not enough that we have physical laws ~ we demand a set of physical that enable an element of fancy and imagination, permitting the existence of impractical things like dragons, magic, intelligent mutated beings and laser pistols.

As humans, we're fully capable of conceptualizing all of these things, even making them so real in our thoughts that we may convince ourselves that gnomes really do live in the garden, that there really is a cloaked alien ship watching Earth's culture from an orbit just beyond the moon's and that a boogeyman really is sitting in my closet right now.  Human imagination is compelling, far reaching and quite capable of mastering reality and making it submit.  But worldbuilding is not merely imagination.

Worldbuilding is fixing imagination so that the people at my game table, Geri, Sam, Matt, Michelle and Jordan, all understand exactly what I'm describing, to the point where their imaginations fall into alignment with mine.

Moreover, it is one thing to ensure that we agree on what a boogeyman looks like, what his motivations likely are, what powers he possesses and what things we must do to preserve ourselves from him ... it is another thing entirely to master the details of hundreds upon hundreds of different fictional beings, then to design homes for them, then to collect the homes into jurisdictions and assign personalities and motivations to each of those jurisdictions, until we had a composite arrangement that was large enough to fill a world and indeed a whole universe.  If human beings measured their lifespans in centuries instead of decades, we might each embark comfortably on the notion that we will "create an imaginary world" quite comfortably, even as a mental exercise without any purpose except to amuse ourselves.  Unfortunately, we're playing together this Friday, so we're a little pressed for time.  No one is prepared to wait for our first efforts to manifest by 2063.

As such, we don't build worlds.  We build facades, which come in two forms.

The first is the top-down approach, also called outside-in.  This is intended to create a general overview of the setting, determining its broad characteristics.  Using this perspective, we divide the land from the sea, giving the world form.  We scatter the land with greenery, deserts, mountains, rivers and so on, establishing where it is livable and where nothing will grow.  We divide the land generally into nations, or peoples, perceiving in our minds whom these peoples will trade with and war with; and we scatter towns and cities over the nations according to our whim.  We then populate both the fruitful areas and the barren areas with beasts and monsters.  In our process of doing this, we feel like gods.  We look at our creations and we sigh with the magnificence of order that we have brought forth with paper and ink.

But where it comes to running any part of that world, as a DM presenting the game to players, we might just as well not have a map at all.  The broad strokes delineating space for seas, and borders between lands, and towns within borders, have told us nothing that we did not already know would be there.  The existence of war or trade are a certainty.  Towns are a certainty.  Regions and seas and all the topographical features we can splash about are all certainties.  As a player in the world, I expect the kingdom I'm in, whatever title the entity is called, will be run by someone, it will employ an army and a police force, it will have laws, it will make room for merchants to sell things, it will regulate the population's behaviour and it will act in the same old way that large political entities must.  A map and a god that makes the map provide me nothing I do not already know about the world, though the map may look impressive and represent work the DM is prepared to perform, that I am not.  For that reason I bestow my awe, as I look upon the great wall map that has been presented.  But then I sit at the table and the map is merely an affectation.  I do not care how far I am from the Kingdom of Grengramore.  I care how far I am from the treant that is angrily rattling its branches.

The second form is the bottom-up, or the inside-out.  Now we build a small part of the world, with detailed local geography, customs, an immediate social structure for my benefit, the specifics of the who is the boss of whom and perhaps the source of wealth.  Every building is described and its location dictated, the monsters and people are carefully placed, each relevant person in the area has been given their personality and I am introduced to their names, one by one.  I can see from the locally drawn map that the tavern door is six graph squares, or 30 feet, from the town well, which in turn is 7 squares from the front steps of the church, or temple.  Each tree is drawn in.  It is a very tactile, defined space, providing me with all the details I need to know as a player.

We presume that because it is detailed, that it is alive.  It isn't.  The presence of the butcher and the taverner, the churchman's daughter and the gentleman farmer are as bland and lifeless to me as are entire fictional kingdoms and vast seas.  Nothing in this detailed set-piece is a surprise.  I know going in that someone must be in authority here, and that something must be the cause of the area's wealth, and that someone pours drinks and that someone else attends to the spiritual needs of the people.  These "people" are nothing more than empty masks, moving about in a charade that is designed to service my presence as a player and nothing more.  It is a set-piece.  Each creature in it waits in repose, motionless, until I walk into the shop, until I ask for a room.  The more detail that is given, the less compelling it becomes.

Instinctively, we've convinced ourselves that if we make a semblance of a kingdom, or the semblance of a culture, or the semblance of a person, then the realness of the person will follow in its wake.  This is cargo cult thinking.  We have performed the ritual of worldbuilding.  We know this is what's expected of us as DMs, in some regard at least.  And having performed the ritual, we wait.  We wait for our creation to shudder into life.  But all we've done is to build a barren monstrosity.

Intuitively, we need to understand that we cannot bring to life something we don't understand.  Lines on a map are not oceans and images of mountains are not mountains.  We need to know something about the formation of these things, and how one part differs from another, before we are able to present any part of it to the players.  We need to know how a kingdom works.  We need to know more about the taverner's life than his propensity to serve drinks.  A village is not just a collection of buildings, depicted as being such and such a distance apart.  People are not merely heart, brain and limbs.  To run people, we must understand people.  We must have the experience with people in order to give them the spark that will make them alive.

It is not the drink-serving that defines the bartender, but what led him to a life of serving drinks.  It is not the location of the tavern that matters, but the dependency the village has upon it.  The shape and the size of the village are less important than the sense of hope or transformation that is taking place while the players are there.  I don't care who runs the place; I care where it is running.  The borders and the history of the kingdom mean far, far less than the kingdom's health and future.  Where is everybody going?  What wonderful or horrible consequence is prayed for or feared, that consumes the population?

Nor is it enough that I understand kingdoms or people.  My players must understand them also.  My players must be on board.  We discussed the importance of the players taking part in the presentation of the game; they must likewise invest themselves in the world.  They must show interest.  As the world jostles forward into the future, the players must strive to find their seats, they must have the opportunity to say what future they want to see.  They must be able to take a part in creating that future.  They cannot just sit in the car, as though we were on a midway ride.  They must have the power to get out of the car, then rebuild the car, then create their own track to put their rebuilt car upon.  The world we build must be maleable enough for that.

But still ... time.  It is always time.  It takes less time to build a straw plane than one that will fly.  It takes less time to make a person out of straw than it takes to read books and investigate the whole human race, from its biology to its prejudices to its purposes.  And it is often easy to fool people who have done no reading themselves that a straw man is every bit as good as a real one.

Worldbuilding is not insolvable.  It is, however, mind-bogglingly complex and research-driven.  The estimate of how much time it will take alone is enough to daunt pride, crush hope, diminish resolve and explode expectations of success.

Class, listen to me carefully as I say this.  So what?  So it isn't easy.  We shouldn't expect things to be easy.  Success and triumph, the sort that will define what we are and why we feel pride at all, are things that cost ... but the payoff gives us the power to look others in the eye with amusement, when we hear them complain about effort and time and difficulty.  It is, in truth, none of those things.  It is effort that rewards us, and time spent fruitfully that gives us delight, and difficulty that intrigues and brings the satisfaction of success.  It is all upside, when the question is considered, what were we going to do with all that time, anyway?

Until our next class, people.


JB said...

: )

Martin R. Thomas said...

I've really been enjoying your classes and I've seen you mention a few times that people don't comment that frequently. I typically read your posts on my phone and I hate typing on my phone, so I rarely leave comments. However, I wanted you to know that I do read them and gain a lot from your classes.

For world-building, where I often struggle is when to stop researching and start actually applying what I've researched. I spent a large part of the late 80's and all of the 90's without a group to play with, so I began spending hours at the library at my university researching anthropology, geography, geology, history, religion, philosophy, and more, taking hundreds of pages of handwritten notes to apply to my campaign when I eventually started to run it. I found all of this so fascinating that I very often fall into a research hole from which it's hard to escape. I love reading about all of these topics, but as a consequence I've spent way more time doing that than I have spending time becoming a DM who is good at applying that research. I can see things clearly in my mind, but my abilities are lacking in terms of translating them into things that are interesting for my players. But, I do think all of this research has made it easier for me to improvise when my players do something unexpected, as chances are that I've read or researched something that will help me and keep things consistent within my world.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Martin R.,

If I could figure out a way to hand you the formula on a platter, I would certainly do so. I've proposed several versions of some formula, trying to nail down I do it; but so far I think they've missed the mark.

Ozymandias said...

"Instinctively, we've convinced ourselves that if we make a semblance of a kingdom, or the semblance of a culture, or the semblance of a person, then the realness of the person will follow in its wake. This is cargo cult thinking. We have performed the ritual of worldbuilding. We know this is what's expected of us as DMs, in some regard at least. And having performed the ritual, we wait. We wait for our creation to shudder into life. But all we've done is to build a barren monstrosity."


Vlad Malkav said...

Thisnis another golden post. Can't agree more ...

The whole series is a gold mine, and only hard work can get something out of it. But what something it is ...