Making World-Building Memorable

Reality is what I make of it

February’s RPG Blog Carnival is being hosted by Evil Machinations, and deals with World-Building – something which ranges from a labour of love for some GMs, but for others is a nightmarish task better left to professionals.

RPGBloggers Carnival

February is World-Building Month

In my experience, populating a game world of my own design either in advance or on the fly has usually been easier than remembering all of it when the game is in motion. I have never been a fan of boxed text or having to flip through game notes or information, either in a printed supplement or of my own devising, during play, so for me – having everything hang together in an easily memorable way is essential. I receive tempting visitations by the Best Intentions, and they woo me with their excellent plans of file cards, databases, spreadsheets, and the like, but then Cold Reality comes home and kicks the Intentions out the door without as much as a by-your-leave. I suspect I am not alone in this experience.

It seems to me that it really doesn’t matter how good your memory is, or how familiar you make yourself with the material before play starts, details get lost, or somehow become invisible to the naked eye when you really need to find them. Not only does the frustration of that tend to spoil the fun for the GM, it has the direct effect of requiring information be generated in situ with no guarantee that that information will perform the function of the errant information being sought. Even if we are writing all of the information ourselves, keeping track of character, political, religious, economic, or other connections and interactions are challenging at best.

To ensure the retention of setting and NPC material once built, and thereby maintain consistency and the ability to create a rich and immersive experience for the players, I like to create my material in a series of stages. Each of these stages allow me to work with the material in a new way, so that I increase the potential memory hooks and add layers of reality which I might otherwise lose in a straightforward ‘create and record’ process.

Stage One – Theme and Intent

The first stage is one that I have posted about before, and deals with the establishment of themes and intentions for the campaign. No matter what length of story or campaign is being prepared, I like to begin with a clear idea of where the story intends to go, and how it intends to get there. All subsequent details need to tie back into these elements, and if they don’t I have good reason to cut them away as being irrelevant and unnecessary, but even if I do not trim them from the start, I have even better reason to believe that they will be lost in the shuffle of more important, relevant, and necessary events regardless. In play, good stories take on a life of their own; reacting and interacting with the players. When that is happening, unless things tie directly to the theme at the heart of the tale, I feel taking time out to pour over your notes, checking or searching for a detail is a real disservice to both you and your players. Additionally, as we all take it as fact that no scenario survives contact with the players, it strikes me that preparing notes, cheat sheets, et al to access in-game, is time that could be better spent on other aspects of your preparation duties.

To be clear, I am not implying that the end be scripted from the start. The reason why I like to use the terms ‘theme’ and ‘intentions’ is that these elements in no way fence in the development of the story, and the reactions of the characters; they spotlight them. When I put a story in motion with an awareness of the theme we plan to explore, it is with the knowledge that we will likely explore it from all sides. A theme of love may travel from seeking love, to finding it, to losing it, and ultimately to rejecting it. The only consistent element of the theme is that of the story’s and characters’ involvement with love. What happens is up to the choices made in play. Likewise, the intention of the story when I build it and set it loose is just a filter through which to view our progress. The intention may be for a character in a story with a theme of love to seek out romance, find a true connection, nearly lose it, and then regain it at the end. This intention keeps us reminded of who and what our characters were at the start of play, and demonstrates clearly how they have grown, and how their experiences have affected them. It helps inform me how to develop the NPCs so that a PC, growing more and more bitter as circumstance steals love from him, comes to choose a different path than he would or even could have ever intended as a younger man, bringing us to a conclusion of the tale that is wholly his own, and not what either of us intended. What makes this significant, is that without that initial, framing intention, there would really be nowhere for a story to go as it sets off on its journey – and that is a recipe for disaster.

Stage one, then, is creating a coherent framework from which to hang your developing ideas and through which to guide the development of the characters that will populate your setting.

Stage Two – Defining Limitations

The second stage – once I have laid the groundwork of what the underlying themes of the tale are, and formalized the intentions with which it is being started – is to establish the types of characters which need to exist to make the game work. This needs to cover PCs and NPCs equally. Explicit detail is not required, but a clear sense of type is. This is an area which needs real control – particularly in truly expandable settings – so that players can make informed choices about which roles will work best with each other and with the starting point the whole group has chosen, and be able to focus their creativity on making the character behind their choice something creative and worthwhile, rather than having their choice of class or occupation express the desire for unique snowflakery.

To be clear, I am not saying that there are right and wrong choices for a given set-up. I am saying that choices need to be made, and clear guidelines laid down both for yourself and your players so that the initial design criteria of your world are met, and so that once they are met, you can not only remember the details more clearly, you can more readily apply them in the chaos of an actual game.

Once the world is established, and characters are exploring it, this stage still applies, both in terms of replacement characters, and non-player characters. The primary NPCs need to connect in some way to the theme, and need to be informed and filtered through the intention of whatever tales in which they appear, and so too do the ‘throw away’ or ‘one-off’ ones. We can never be sure which NPCs will draw the attention and repeat visits of our player characters, and so, we must be prepared to summon more and more detail about any one of our temporary cast at a moment’s notice. What will help keep things sane and memorable is to build these sudden expansions of ostensibly transient characters with the same framework of theme, intent, and defining limitations as all the primary ones. You will still be doing it piecemeal, as you would any other ‘extra,’ but each of these pieces will be much easier to recall later.

Stage Two, then is to form and then provide everyone with a clear sense of the type and range of characters will be acceptable at the start of play. This is not an excuse for bullying or abuse of power, and it will often result in the players asking questions which alter the basic foundation on which you had initially decided to build a game world. This is usually for the best, as it increases detail in the area of the specific interests of each player, prevents some possible disappointment with the setting once play starts, and keeps everyone involved. Setting limits which define the methods through which your players will interact with the setting allows those players an insight into what is coming and lets them tell you how they would like to interact with it. The resulting push and pull of design input will help you build a much better world from the outset.

Stage Three – Creating the Heavens and the Earth

Finally, in stage three, we get to actually laying down the basic blocks of the world. That might seem odd in an article which purports to be about world-building, but to my mind, matters of story qualities and character qualities must come first, with the world being built from the bedrock up to reflect and support those qualities. While it is possible that new ideas using new systems and approaches may require you to establish setting elements first so that you can make decisions about character, this post will focus on what I consider to be the more common practice of applying known character types to a setting of the GM’s creation.

With published material, or home-made handouts it is theoretically possible to have players read up on the game world before play to help increase their level of immersion. Hell, it is even realistically possible that it will happen… but often it does not. Players often rely on in-game experiences to give them a sense of the world, and they always rely on you to bring that world, and its responses to their investigations to life with your words. Your descriptions are the very reality of any game world through which your players’ characters will pass, regardless of what they encounter in other media. With that in mind, the importance of being able to supply them with a consistent, evolving, and interactive environment cannot be understated.

I have found that if I create each world element from the point of view that it have a purpose, it is far easier to recall, implement, and expand on my creation in play. It is said that the Devil is in the details, and the truth of that in my experience is that we can get lost in trying to provide a rich experience, or worse lose the players in a sea of essentially pointless exposition about shoelace styles, or the technical wonders of the geological features of caves in the corner of the map. If a detail does not serve any function other than to be a detail, and exists solely so that there is abundant detail, it is not an enhancement of what I am creating for and with the players, it is just one more thing that takes my attention from where it needs to be. I believe it is far more effective to have each part of my world serve to reinforce the underlying themes, intentions, and characters we wish to explore.

For example, in a coming of age tale about a group of thieves, we might have the characters flee punishment for their activities and come to a new land. While it might be tempting to really lay it on thick and create layer after layer of detail to present the players with the glory of our creativity, it will speak far more eloquently if the whole setting works in concert to evoke a sense and experience of your world instead.

Let’s say that this new land into which the group has fled is filled with a stern folk, with a strong sense of personal honor. This lets us explore our theme of coming of age by putting the characters’ way of life in contrast to the locals’ way of life, and it also tells us what sort of land, society, and customs we will need to portray. The theme and intent lead us to a natural development of a setting element, and that logic leads us to create an internally consistent, and above all memorable environment, so long as we remember what purpose of scenes in that area, rather than getting bogged down in mere details.

If the denizens are stern, and have a society built upon personal honor, we know that their lives must be harsh and require each person to pull their own weight, not detracting from or diminishing the efforts of others. We can choose to have this be any sort of harsh climate from high mountains to searing desert, and from this we can choose the sort of industries which drive the settlements, and sustain that sort of personal lifestyle. It allows us to further infer the sorts of cultural shifts which might be working in opposition to that way of life, but regardless, that choice serves to highlight and reinforce both the current state of the characters and the counter point of the NPCs. Everything is working in concert to tell the story, and everything is easy to remember once made, or create when needed.

Stage three, then is to keep your eye firmly on what your group is trying to accomplish in terms of playing the game, and to build accordingly. All the historical detail imaginable about which kings signed pacts of witchcraft for the sake of which desires will not amount to a hill of beans should those facts never enter play, or worse, never enter play with any relevance.


So to wind up this long post, I feel I should say that these three stages, while powerful and important, are just the beginning. They will allow you to focus where you need to focus, and they will keep your game moving toward your group’s goals. They will help you use all that you have designed. Used well, they will definitely enhance play by allowing your setting to be readily memorable, and by channeling it into structures which speak directly to the players. These stages will not, however, be of any use should there be no creative spark, or no time in which to fill the lands, seas, and skies of your world with expressions of your ideas. That power rests solely with you.

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