Or, you could set down with your potential players and collectively create a world on shared objectives. A number of modern games follow this approach, and it has real value. Shared world-building generates commitment and buy-in from all the parties involved, and off-loads some of the responsibilities of the process.
But I don’t have a group in mind for this, and I want to see where the process takes me. Ever since that first basement dungeon crawl in my early teens, where none of the rules made sense but my imagination was exploding with the potential, I’ve wanted to build worlds.
Sharing the sandbox
Note that I said build worlds, not stories. If your world image includes a titanic struggle between good and evil where the hero must sacrifice himself for the future at the right moment, you’re writing fiction NOT a game setting. The magic and horror building a game world is that you unleash players in it to add color, texture, and depth — all while systematically destroying your plans and vision.
Its what they do. Every gamer comes to the table (real or virtual) for their own reasons, and is at least as much responsible for how a story moves than the creator. It is the creator’s job to create interesting options and angles for players to take the story and interesting (and often completely unexpected) direction.
Again, I guess it begs the question why would anybody do that? Why go through the effort of building a world filled with people, cultures, terrible monsters and fabulous treasures just to have a bunch of players crash thorough it like proverbial bulls.
I’m sure ego has something to do with it. You do get to play god, and pull back the curtain on how a world is put together. You get to build things you’ve always wanted to see in a game, and create conflicts that are truly interesting to you.
You get to explore concepts you’ve never seen before. What if earth was invaded by space-faring gnolls? Find out! Or if necromancers were civil servants, creating a ready labor force so that living citizens can live a life of leisure. Its your world.
Its also a great way to experiment with rules. Long-lived game systems proliferate expansion books and rules options to the point where no single campaign could really use them all. Just picked up Pathfinder ‘Occult Adventures’? Create a world where wizards and clerics are secondary, and psychic magic is the cornerstone. Or grab any two GURPS sourcebooks from a box (my collection is a little frightening) and create a mash-up.
Or pick an environment to dig into. An entire campaign populated by runaway slaves in a dark elf mine? Why not. Or a desert island with no idea what lies beyond the horizon.
It is also a great way to be surprised. You rarely know what an idea is until you see it filtered through someone else’s eyes. You quickly find that your subterranean slaves have cornered the moss market, and working to overthrow the dark elf economy. Or have split into rival encampments and have trained the island natives to make war on each other.
World-building is like playing Lego with toddlers (with all respect to both players and toddlers). You can pick out knights and horses and all the castle parts, but you will never be sure what will be built out of it.
And that, for me, is the true joy of it.