Empty Worlds

As an advocate of discovering a tale during roleplay versus telling one, my exertion for games occurs more often in formulating realistic interactions with the activities of the players and NPCs according to the framework established for the game, coupled with expansion of that framework based on the events of each session. When choosing to tell a tale, I find that my energies need to be directed toward creation tempered by prediction and plotting prior to play, and then once play starts they are spent in a balancing act of presenting and preserving what has been prepared. I do not believe that one approach is more demanding than the other in total effort required, but they do place very different demands on the GM in terms of when and at what speed that effort needs to be delivered. For those of us who prefer to establish a world and then let players choose their own course amidst the pleasures and perils therein, the engagement with the creation of the world is most often in the course of actual play. Working with the established framework of the world, and interpreting action and reaction with the internal logic and truth of that framework, the GM plays jazz with the story and discovers its form and ultimately its arc along with the players – albeit it in different ways.  This is tremendously rewarding when everything is flowing like it should, but if you are not able to focus the necessary creative energy when required, play can develop into a world that reacts to player action instead of interacts with it, and slowly fades into a two-dimensional caricature of itself – most notably because it slowly becomes devoid of life beyond the actions and characters of the players. There are no stories to discover in empty worlds, just success and failure versus cardboard cutouts and temporary backdrops which erode the glittering promise of a living and breathing game world in Lucasian fashion.

Conservation of Energy 

You cannot possibly predict all that your players and your world will do once you commence the campaign, so rather than chase that particular folly, you can accomplish the same effect by getting to know the mood of your setting, and the tendencies of the NPCs. Rather than wearing yourself out trying to be prescient, entertain yourself by emulating it instead.

Know Thyself – The Universe Hates Me

Emulating prescience requires becoming aware of your own tendencies in regard to populating the world. By that I mean learning whether you favour populating the world with events or with people when things in-game are moving quickly. Events are NPCs by another name, but favoring them heavily contributes to the sense of an empty world. Taken to extremes, which can happen when things really heat up in play, the universe itself can seem to be hounding the characters. With absentee, faceless, and/or nameless opponents only ostensibly orchestrating events behind the scenes, combined with the simple eventus interruptus approach of bombarding players with things that suddenly need doing to keep things in motion and dam the flow of questions you strip the world of its depth, reality, and context. When that happens, you might be better served with video games. Knowing this tendency in advance can go a long way toward keeping things vital

Know Thyself – Counting Tales in the Naked City

Favoring the introduction of a vast cast of characters would seem to counter this sense of an empty world, and at first it does, but as there is no overarching plot or metaplot to serve, adding in new layers of complexity and character actually acts as a barrier between the players and comprehension of the events their characters would find compelling. At the end of the day, no matter how talented you are at adopting roles, the players are interacting with you and on some level, expect everything that comes out of your mouth to be relevant in some way to the tale that is developing – even if it is just, “Move along, there is nothing to see here.”  Once the cast reaches a certain size, or once it keeps replicating to fill the world with a lattice of unrelated voices and stories, the emptiness creeps back in as the characters stand apart from the whorl and rush of pseudo-humanity you have created – isolated from their own story by the cacophony. It’s not that players cannot follow through on ideas, or motivate themselves to directed action in a true sandbox, it’s just that they cannot hear themselves think, and have no way to identify the significant from the insignificant, if there is a tale under every rock and every bush burns with import and urgency.

Balance in All Things

It seems to me that when roleplaying in this way, the GM needs to shoulder a larger portion of the responsibility for recapping and organizing information gleaned in play. This gives the GM their chance to contribute to the flow of events like a player does, and keeps ambiguity at a manageable level. By taking on a slightly more active role in reviewing and discussing events, you can work behind the scenes to help players keep their sense of the potential avenues to adventure open to them at any given time.

Another necessary approach is to know the PCs and major NPCs like you would your own character. Build things into the initial framework of the setting which will spark certain lines of action and reaction among groups and regions. Make these things clear to the players so that they can build their characters in ways that resonate with the world. This leaves you with less to consider when in play and frees up more of your mental resources for keeping things on a more realistic path and tempo. Who could and would learn what, at what time, and what would, could, or should they do about it should not be things you have to assess each and every time something occurs.

Know when you’ve got a good thing

When you have a good thing going, it can be very tempting to try to improve it. When you don’t realize how well things are going it can be even more tempting to make lots of sudden changes to get some sort of feedback. I tend to think that as you are introducing your game world, it is extremely helpful to see how the players interact with it:

  •  How soon do they shift from referring to their characters in the 3rd person, to saying “I?”
  • How interested are they in connecting with characters and locations within the campaign?
  • How much do they remember from session to session, and how much of it are they piecing together into a logical view of events?
  • How proactive are they in terms of establishing their place and protecting their allies and assets?
  • How willing are they to accept and react to the events of the campaign like they would real world events?

By consciously assessing how they play, as opposed to how much fun they seem to be having, I believe we can establish the firm foundations necessary to provide a good play experience, but also to realistically perceive how full and real the world is.

3 Responses to “Empty Worlds”
  1. vbwyrde says:

    Thanks for the post. Very good advice!

    I’m also interested in creating story out of my game world’s adventures with the players. One thing that I do to facilitate this is to record each game session and then write it up in prose on my blog. If you’re interested in seeing how that turns out, you can check out the table of contents here:


    The world’s adventures have turned into something of a novel at this point. The players have given me great feedback on the story, and read them every week – delighted to see their hero’s adventures in print and therefore part of the permanent (and public) record of the world. It also provides us an accurate history of the campaign so if we have forgotten something we can go back and find out what happened. I do have to say, though, that it is quite time consuming, so I can’t necessarily recommend it for everyone. I probably spend about five or six hours per two weeks listening to the recording (we usually play for three hours or so), and transcribing it. The great thing is that I get all of the player dialog that way. My players are clever role players and say a lot of funny things which I record into the story as actions their characters took or things they said. Sometimes I’ll add in the Out Of Character comments as little bits of humor or foreshadowing, or whatnot, as well. The other ancillary effect is that the players know that what their characters do is becoming part of this RPG-Story-Book, and so in some ways I feel they play their characters better for knowing that. Anyway, it’s been a lot of fun, so if you do have the time as GM to write up your game it has lots of positive effects.

  2. morrisonmp says:

    I wish I had read this before posting today… you did a great job of covering some of the stuff I find most important in my sessions and the challenges that go with being an “improv” GM. It can be a tough balancing act but it is also so rewarding that it’s addictive…

    Great post.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Glad that you both enjoyed it~
      “Improv” when done intentionally is definitely addictive and offers so much more than the traditional plotted adventure to both players and GMs, I feel. Not easy, of course, and prone to botching, but then – what skill isn’t? I saw your post on adventures today. We seem to be on the same page, Oh Rhetorical Gamer~

      I also like to keep written records of games, and have been known to fictionalize them when the spirit moves me, and time allows. You can check my archives here for our Time of War campaign, Hair of the Dog, and our Palladium Fantasy campaign, Long Winter Shadows. That said, we have nothing like the huge backlog of stories collacted on VBWyrde’s Elthos site. That is commitment!

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