“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
― Abraham Lincoln
Its been widely reported that a world can be created in less than a week, but my experience has always been that it takes much longer. I might even go as far as to say that it doesn’t end until the last player leaves the table, and the last Cheet-oh is swept off the floor.
As the “world” includes everything that is not a player character, its a hefty load to bear. Luckily for us, at any moment all a PC needs to know what is in their immediate vicinity. The rest can be filled in when needed.
The urge to build a world from whole cloth is very strong. To put yourself in the place of George R.R. Martin or Gene Roddenberry and pull the strings on an epic scale is exciting. Its also a truly horrifying amount of work. I have always found that the pressures of juggling a real life along with a ‘game’ life is too much to pull off a top-down approach like that, especially when players are ready to run off the edge of your map at any opportunity.
Game designers (or at least game bloggers) call that a top-down approach, where the designer tries to cover every base before a player experiences the world. Usually they propose a bottom-up approach where the designer creates a small environment, and builds out in concentric circles as players explore the world. This provides smaller, bite-size chunks of development, and lets a designer create and texture a world based on the players actions.
This can make the process a lot more manageable, but I always felt that it was incomplete. The Shire is not Middle Earth, and Tattoine is not the Galactic Empire. I have always felt the need to have a rough estimate of the whole world before delving into the details of a local environment.
You don’t need an outline, and you definitely do not need a plot. But you should have a concept, or a central theme in mind before you start. Whether its dragons, space pirates, or railroad barons; its a good idea to have something to hang your thoughts on. Think of it as a trunk, which supports all the other branches. It helps connect and balance out ideas, and maintain a certain logic throughout your world.
If you don’t already have a ‘big idea’, don’t worry. Look around you for inspiration. Ever seen a movie or a tv show and thought, “I’d like to go there?” Or seen an image on DeviantArt and suddenly started creating a back-story and environment for the characters in it? Run with it. Even better, talk to you players and share ideas. My current long-running Pathfinder campaign is based on one offhand comment by a player. He probably doesn’t even know he said it.
To steal a concept from sympathetic magic, “as above so below”. If your vision of the world is of an evil god looking to topple the reign of a noble deity, then perhaps the local vicar might be a little out of touch with the feeling of his community. Or a charismatic young bard might be in town exciting the youth with irreverent verse. Even if you don’t know where the players will take your campaign, a little foreshadowing of possible themes builds groundwork for things to come.
With a concept in mind, you can give players a glimpse of things to come from the very start. Especially if your concept gets rejected out of hand, its better to learn that upfront.
Picking A Fight
Beyond the concept (i.e., cowboy Cthulhu), you should have some type of conflict in place. This may not be the end game, or even a major accomplishment. Just something to get a group moving. Even the best sandbox needs some toys in it to get the kids playing. Drama is born of conflict, so give players something to react to. Whether its goblins on the edge of town, or seedy tavern known to be frequented by werewolves, ensure that there will be something for the players to do once they are in your world.
The last thing you’ll need is commitment. As rewarding as it is, world-building takes a lot of time and effort. You have to want to do it, or you’ll run out of steam long before you can show it to a table full of players.
We will discuss tools and techniques that will be helpful in designing and organizing an RPG in the future, but there is no substitute for commitment. You need to believe in the process and have faith that the finished work will be something you will be proud of, and your players will enjoy exploring.
Before we get going, what are the most important things to you in world-building? Are there tricks you’ve found? Mistakes that can derail the whole process? Let us know.