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13 October 2021

Guest Article: The Worldbuilder's Journal

A few months back, I made a guest appearance on the well-established and excellent WorldCraft Club podcast. With one of its creators, James, we discussed the impact of collaborative worldbuilding in tabletop roleplaying games, among other things. I'm excited to announce that he and the rest of the WorldCraft Club podcast members launched a Kickstarter recently called the Worldbuilder's Journal. Below is a dissection of what worldbuilding means to James and a summary of what is written in the pages of this upcoming worldbuilding supplement.

Enjoy, and take a look at the Kickstarter if it piques your interest!

Worldbuilding for DMs

By James John

Worldbuilding is a Dual Art

When you think of worldbuilding what comes to mind might be the long scrawling elven script that Tolkien created based on Finnish and Celtic languages. It could be binders full of lore and locations, cultures and races. Maybe local rumors and royal family trees. All of the details that make up a world in a fantasy setting. There’s honestly tons you can do. You could fill books before you even set a date for your party to get together and roll dice. But there’s more to Worldbuilding than well… the building part.

When an author takes the time in a written work to nod to a phenomenon and the reader is given a little picture into the world beyond the narrative, that author is said to have applied ‘good Worldbuilding’ to their story. Take for example, the Expanse novels, where the large Belter arm gestures borne from years of communicating through vacc suits where faces and hands cannot be clearly seen are included in conversation. We’re never told much about them though they are occasionally described. We mostly just get ‘an exaggerated belter shrug’. We are told it is different, that we should notice it but are not forced to understand every, or even many, facets of it. This causes us to see the story we are reading as part of a larger story world where many other stories have already taken place. After all, worldbuilding is all about the stories on the margins, the stories that are hinted at but not told in full. It’s about the potential for stories beyond what the reader can see.

This ‘checks out’ for the world and we are immersed. This is ‘good worldbuilding’ because it gives us a sense of the world. It’s two parts: James SA Corey created the content in a notebook and displayed it well in the story.

That’s our task as GMs. We are practicing worldbuilding not just in the curation of vast amounts of content stored in countless notebooks but in the ‘showing’ of that world we made. This means that the world we’re making is half written and half performance art. I propose that too often the effort on the binders outweighs the effort at the table which is really where the worldbuilding rubber meets the road.

What Your Players Need

This is really a plotting concept with some worldbuilding thrown in. I’m a big fan of building worlds by theme. What this means practically is that you establish a ‘big idea’ for your world and expand on it. It’s essentially the way your world should feel (or, for that matter, how your party should feel in that world). Once you have a sense of that it only falls to you to make your world match that feeling so the place looks consistent. Here’s how I like to do it. Make a (short) list of things your players need to know about the world. Keep it VERY short if possible, no more than 3-5 items. If you need to strike some off the list to keep it short do it in order of plot significance. An example might be ‘there is a big divide between rich and poor’. 

This is a thing you want to bring home. It’s important to the theme you’ve established which might be ‘gritty corporate dystopia’. Now take this list and add them to whatever you use to plan your games (OneNote, piece of paper, corner of napkin) and check them off as you mention them. If possible, do it three or four times for each item. An example of checking them off might be, ‘as you’re about to enter the bar you notice a vagrant sitting by the door seeking handouts, a group of sneering well-dressed bar patrons eye him with distaste as they push past you to enter the bar’. Check your box, that’s one. As the game progresses you may want to revisit this theme to drive the idea home. You may cause the party to cross paths with a homeless camp near the bar they just entered or witness the decadence of wealth in the trade district of the city.

What this practical method helps with is making sure that you drive your best and most important ideas home for your players. They know in the future what’s the norm in your world. If later in your campaign a key villain is a revolutionary balking against this broken system your party is primed to understand the conflict and see them as sympathetic. This can cause some internal conflict with characters and make some great role playing moments possible. Many GMs do this instinctively but writing down a key two or three ideas will help you to keep your eye on the ball and ensure that things aren’t missed.

Don’t be Afraid of Tropes

‘She’s psychic!? That sounds like science fiction!’

‘We live on a spaceship dear.’

Wash and Zoe, Firefly

Everyone wants to be original. It's, ironically, not a unique impulse. A trope is born when we tell a story or use a technique long enough that folks can recognize it. They’re essentially a trusty tool that everyone has grown familiar with in writing. As a result they get a bad rap. This isn’t without good reason, an overused trope can be painful to witness. Why do villains leave a timer to show the protagonist just how long they have left before the bomb goes off (to build tension with we, the audience)? Are we going to think the hero is dead due to an explosion only for them to limp into view of the camera from offscreen a few moments later (yes, and we’re going to feel so relieved when they survive for the sequel)? Ugh. Been there, done that. But that’s the point. A trope is when a technique becomes transparent to your audience. It gains self awareness. And this can be used to your advantage either in subverting them or using them as stepping stones toward grander ideas. 

You see, completely original concepts take time to unpack, time you may not have at the table. And tropes can be applied in incredibly versatile ways that allow players with a pre-encoded understanding of it to jump right in and start taking risks with the material, which is what you want. This doesn’t mean you should find yourself limited by them, there’s plenty of time to develop characters, factions, places and politics as the game progresses. Your villain might wear a black cloak and have a menacing voice to give your players the queues to work from but you can always unveil their sensitive side through the progress of the story. 

We could learn that they’re actually just very fashionable and collect awesome black capes as part of their schtick, that their disturbing voice was part of some bizarre magical accident and they only appeared to the party as a villain initially because the party’s aims were at odds with theirs. A trope is tool that plays with the expectations of your players and guiding those expectations can help you direct the world and the story effectively. They also provide the initial cues that your players can follow with some confidence before you subvert or redirect the trope. In short, tropes aren’t bad, they’re just tools and you should definitely make use of them but do so with full knowledge of what they are.

This site is an amazing resource for tropes (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Tropes).

Invite Your Players In

Players are great at lighting everything on fire. They’re, like, really good at it. It’s become cliche to point it out and if you bemoan this many people will tell you to just stop playing and ‘write a novel!’ There’s something to it though. Players are unpredictable, they run with ideas they think are good based on their understanding of the situation. This can lead to zany outcomes as every D&D meme will attest. Here’s the deal though. Players are less likely to break your world if they understand it. Less likely to be wantonly violent toward it if they have buy in. And more likely to have buy in and understanding if they have a hand in creating it. This means that players need to stop being passive and GMs need to hold their worlds in an open hand.

This is where an understanding of your core themes and big ideas comes from. If you know what’s important you can determine what’s not. You know where to be rigid and where to be flexible. This means that if your player is an elf, and walks up to an NPC and improvises a ‘traditional elven greeting’ you roll with it. It doesn’t matter if you had something else in mind you let 'em run with it and amend your lore. Over time this kind of trust in your players leads to them feeling like they belong in this place. If you’re lucky  they’ll take more risks and your world will be better for it. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as a player turning up to a game and RPing an improvised dwarven drinking song they invented on the car ride to the session.

This will take humility on your part. You’ll have to hold parts of your world in an open hand and leave some of the details to your players but, with a good sense of your core themes and vision, you’ll know what is flexible and what isn’t.

You Only Need Facades not Whole Saloons

There’s a reason the old westerns didn’t build whole frontier towns before filming. It’s expensive, time consuming and has little real impact on the final product. Don’t build a saloon where a facade will do.

Just like the budget for filming your brain has limits. There’s only so much it can process and only so many facts it can hold. Where possible it’s okay to not add work that has limited payoff. Take the elven greeting above. If you have it in mind that elves have a unique greeting and you’re highlighting it because you need elves to stand out culturally from other races, it’s not a big deal if you don’t know how the greeting was coined. It’s only important for your story that elves are viewed as a unique race. Here you have a facade. Your players are seeing a grand cultural structure hiding an empty lot and some bare scaffolding behind it.

If your players investigate further and ask questions it’s okay to be coy or give them some flexibility to answer it themselves (player ideas are often better than your own). Whenever you’re making something for your work consider this: ‘why am I making this?’ ‘Will it enhance my story or hint at something bigger?’ If those questions are hard to answer it’s possible you’re putting in more work than payoff.

Wonder Can Only Exist Where Knowledge Doesn’t

The black tar heroin of good worldbuilding is wonder. Wonder is what happens when your brain senses stories outside of its vision. We know this because of lore wikis. Have you ever fallen in love with a mystery in a story and then looked up the lore in a wiki only to be disappointed? Me too.

The stuff at the fringes of our imagination is tons better than actually knowing something. This grants us an ENORMOUS advantage as Worldbuilders. The saloon is much cooler in your player’s head than yours. The cave holds many more mysteries than your dungeon map allows for. All this to say. Don’t tell your players things they don’t need to know. Just let ‘em wonder because wonder is powerful.

So there you have it:

Some practical tips for building an immersive and engaging world at your table. I hope you found this useful and if you did I hope you’ll take a look at the Worldbuilder’s Journal. We distilled a lot of the theory that informed this blog into its pages. It’s a gorgeous faux leather disc bound masterpiece that will give you tools to help you focus your worldbuilding where it counts. It’ll shorten the path from thinking of an incredible idea and your players getting lost in it. 

The Kickstarter has officially launched today (October 12th) and we’d love for you to join us.

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