09 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101 - Part 1

We’ve basically run our course with the development of a Boffer LARP system. How about designing a new pseudo-renaissance fantasy world to go with it?

I always figured that there were a few key things to decide before the process of world building can begin. This is true whether your “world” is a single city, a region, a continent, a planet, a star-system, a galaxy, or an entire multi-planar continuum.

The first decision is the type of stories that you want to tell. If you want to tell different types of stories, then you’re basically designing different worlds. They might overlap and might share a lot of the same geography, but there will be a fundamental difference in the way you approach the design. If you don’t come at the design from a specific idea of the stories you are trying to tell, then the world will be pretty generic and vanilla…not much different to anything else that you can get in a thousand cheap pdfs on DriveThruRPG, or in the discount bins at your local game store or second hand bookshop. If you’re not going to do something interesting with it, why do it at all?

Think about the various settings that were available for 2nd Edition AD&D. Each had it’s own flavour…Ravenloft if you wanted horror, Al Qadim if you wanted to retell the tales of the Arabian Nights, Dragonlance if you wanted some traditional fantasy but with more dragons than your average Tolkein, Dark Sun if you wanted bleak fantasy post-apocalypse, Spelljammer if you wanted a pseudo-sci-fi setting which was more about travelling in the void between worlds than the worlds themselves, Planescape if you wanted to tell stories of metaphysical politics and arcane strangeness involving the most powerful beings in existence. Sure Spelljammer and Planescape (and to a limited extent Ravenloft) allowed crossover between settings, but each of these settings did something interesting in its own right, they bordered on other settings but were unique entities in their own right. Planescape most notably so, all encompassing, but taking a very different spin of the multiverse.

Now think about RIFTS. A kitchen sink setting, if ever there was one. Some describe it as an incoherent mess, other just don’t like talking about it at all. The problem here is that every “world book” in Rifts is a specific setting designed to tell specific stories. Personally, I think it’s actually pretty good, as long as you stick to one or two world books rather than trying to incorporate everything into a single story.  Personally, I think it’s actually pretty good, as long as you stick to one or two world books rather than trying to incorporate everything into a single story. You want to retell a sci-fi version of King Arthur, then just use the “England” book. The biggest problem I have is the fact that you need to cross reference a few different books to get all the information you need to run a single one of them. It’s a world with too many options, and you need to know a lot of them before you can play one of them. It has no focus and that’s its downfall.

While we’re on the topic of world-building that has got it wrong. Synnibarr.

I’ll say no more, while you take the opportunity to conduct whatever ritual purifications are necessary to cleanse your soul after the uttering of that single word.

[BREAK IN TRANSMISSION] 
[RESUME TRANSMISSION]

So, you’re back with me?

What is your world about? What tales are you trying to tell?

My Walkabout setting is all about tilted perspectives, a world out of balance, a post-apocalypse with spiritual ramifications. It made sense to simply tilt the Earth’s axis and see where the geography led. This was top-down worldbuilding (I’ll get to that in a later post), specifically I focused on the continent of Australia, and basically I allow players and GMs to define the specifics within a framework of background information with plenty of gaps.

My Goblin Labyrinth setting is about telling stories of strange magic far older than anyone can remember, where everyone is insignificant, the world is stranger with every turn, and magic keeps everything in flux. It has no map, and no worldbuilding.


The Pirate/Steampunk world will probably employ more of a bottom-up approach to worldbuilding. Where we start with some small element (in this case the main town where adventures will take place), ad get more generic and vague as we move away from the point where stress occur. The beauty of this design style is that it begins with focus, once you start losing focus you can stop…then go back to the points where you had focus and refine them. The core stories in this setting are about swashbuckling adventure, mysterious secrets of the past being systematically revealed then neutralised or claimed by a pair of oppressive regimes (one secular - the colonial/imperial forces, and one religious - the "church"), and the interplay of politics between various factions who make this setting their home. On one hand we have the oppression that drives rebellion, on the other hand we have strange mysteries that might be better of left secret...these two extremes drive the conflict and most of the characters are caught between them at some level.
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