Thursday, December 8, 2011

World-Building for One, or No One Cares About Your Stupid, Made-up Calendar Except You (And That's OK)

I have been thinking a lot about world-building as I work on this Wizards project.  World-building is one of those excrescences of gaming that the OSR has ruthlessly attacked.  It was a necessary thing.   There was a time when you couldn't have "proper" setting without a third-rate rip-off of Tolkien cosmology and a stupid, made-up calendar that was basically the modern calendar with silly names on all the months (I'm so looking at the Mystaran Gazetteers here, as much as I like some of them). I, myself, was an awful perpetrator of this back in the later part of my first gaming cycle (mid-to-late 80's). How I slaved to create a living, alien world and how I grew frustrated when the players refused to appreciate the beauty of my work.  They wouldn't even use the names of my stupid, made-up calendar!  So, I get the attack on the world-building.

Yet, sometimes I feel it goes too far.  A necessary corrective at one point, perhaps, but one that could be reined in a bit now.  The dirty little not-so-secret about world-building is this: it's fun. And, as Dr. Seuss tells, us, fun is good; particularly when you are playing a game.  The real problem with world-building is not the creative part, but rather knowing your audience.  And I'll set this out in bold, by itself:

World-building is fun for you, the GM, and no one else.

World-building has an audience of exactly one and as long as you remember that, there's no problem.  When I set up my Onderland Campaign, I was still a bit shy about world-building.  But after a while, I realized that I was deliberately stopping myself from having fun, just because I thought I shouldn't do it.  That's when the real magic of a wiki hit me: I could happily let loose my creative energies, as long as I made clear to the players that they are not expected to read any of it. Wait, let me set that one out too:

The Players are not expected to read any of my world-building stuff.

The setting had a simple pitch that I could explain in a few sentences and that should be sufficient to get the players going.  That's not to say that they can't read the setting materials; I'm not advocating that.  If the player like reading your Silmarilion-hack, they can go for it.  But, in my experience, very few players really do.  Thus, the wonder of a wiki, where you can make all that information available, without actually handing your players a big stack of paper and saying, "Please read Customs of the Aardvarkians by game time next Saturday so that you know what's going on."

Now, I think there are a lot of GM's out there who really don't need to do world-building. Particularly the gonzo-style settings where a new player asks to be a robot and sure, why not, let's have robots in this game.  I can admire those settings and even enjoy playing in them, but I absolutely can not run that kind of setting.  My brain is too classical and not baroque and I have to be able to tell myself why something is there in order to run it.  It's why I can't do random dungeons with all those awesome geomorphs that guys like Dyson Logos have been coming up with.  I admire the hell out of them, but I can't run a dungeon that is assembled like that and has goblins next to zombies next to dragons without knowing why those guys are there.

World-building, then, is both fun and necessary for me.  So, expect to see some world-building as I try to make sense of the Enchanted Isles, but feel under no compulsion to read it.  There will be no pop-quiz next Frizzles-day.


  1. From here on out, I will always force my players to read "Customs of the Aardvarkians."

    Because there should always be Aardvarkians. And they should always have customs. That people need to read about.

    I kid, of course. Great post.

  2. Actually, the Aardvarkians are a fascinating people with many interesting customs which open up vast potentials for role-playing scenarios....

    Uh, yeah.

    Thanks. :)

  3. Gonzo referee here (with robots even) world building provides me with a conceptual framework, which i find exceedingly useful when designing adventures/encounters or deciding how a particular NPC or group thereof will react to the PCS.

  4. For me, the purpose of world building is to give the players a meaningful world to explore. If you give players the almanac stuff, the histories and gods and legends, all before they've raided a single tomb, they haven't earned it. In this way you can have a campaign of meaningful exploration while avoiding the extremes of the random dungeon and the over-written Tolkien appendix. "The diary is written across three months, using the old Hygorlian names ... Rendmoon, Breakmoon, and Firemoon."

  5. "World-building is fun for you, the GM, and no one else."

    "The Players are not expected to read any of my world-building stuff."

    Amen to both.

  6. Even if the players never know the rationale behind the world, I think it plays better if the GM has a reason for things being as they are. The internal consistency makes the setting feel more like a place that objectively exists outside the characters, not just a grab bag of places & events.

  7. The same applies to the cartography. The Map of the world is there for the DM to keep track of the big picture. For the PCS the world drops off into oblivion just over the hill until they prove otherwise.

    You can be in the Month of Swords or you can be in the Ides of March.

  8. On the calendar point I want to say that out of the couple of dozen regular female players I have had over the decades, 90% or more of them seemed to care what their birthday was and what the month was called (compared to a little less than half the guys ever giving an F what day they were born).

    I think that is the main reason I came up with a calendar for my world fairly early in it's existance back in the day. So the girls and the character completists could get that info.

  9. That's fascinating, Brunomac. I have such limited experience with female players. Hmn.

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