13 November, 2014

Worldbuilding 101: Part 5 - No Man is an Island (or woman for that matter).

Now we’ve got places to visit, and people to meet, but how do they all tie together, and how do we use those components to tell stories?

The other question that might be asked at this point is “Why do we need them to?” That’s an easy one, because it’s been stated in our intended story types that we want “courtly intrigue” and “mysterious exploration”. This s a world where things looks stiff and proper on the surface (at least from the Empire’s official documentation), but there is a boiling, churning underbelly of corruption. Too often I see in computer RPGs independent NPCs who have no real connection to one another except for the purposes of sending characters on quests where a message might need to be sent from one NPC to another (typically in a completely different part of the world). You get an idea that there is a larger social network at play, but it doesn’t really immerse the players. That’s fine for those games (which are typically about combat and not social intrigue anyway), but this is a setting specifically designed for players to interact socially as well as physically. We need to know who knows whom, how well they know one another and how threads of narrative might spread across the ‘ecosystem of narrative’.   

There are a few ways to set up an immediate ecosystem of narrative, one of the more popular options in recent years has been through relationship maps. We’ve already got a few basic frameworks to hang a relationship map from.

Relationships link people, but how do those relationships form?

We could say that characters from the same race automatically know each other, but if there are roughly 50,000 people in El Puerto de Isabella, and if we assume that the spread of NPCs roughly matches the spread of citizens in the city then there would be 20-25,000 nullans. That’s a lot of people to develop relationships for, but if we’re just focusing on “prominent figures” it’s a bit more likely. Personally, it seems a bit trite that all elves seem to know all other eves in Middle Earth, so we won’t be following that route (even if it is just for the prominent figures).

We could do the same thing for cultures, since there seems to be more of an even spread among the NPCs. We could also do the same for locations, if Josephine the Cat and Mary Flynn both spend time at the docks, there’s a chance they’d run into each other.

I actually prefer the idea that a stronger relationship develops when two different people share more things in common. It’s unlikely that a relationship would develop between people just because they share the same race, the same culture or if they frequent the same places. There might be a chance of a relationship, but I’d only do it if there was a distinct storyline where I needed both the characters present. If two characters shared two out of three (race, culture, a location), I link them with a basic relationship and possibly make it more significant depending on story ideas I’ve got. If two characters share three aspects (race, culture and a location, or both locations and either race or culture), they gain the strongest relationship. If two characters had the same race, same culture, and both locations they’d basically just be duplicates of one another for the purposes of narrative…I try to avoid this, but when it happens there must be a damn good reason.

Relationships aren’t inherently determined as good or bad using this system, it’s just a guideline to the intensity of the relationship. We can often determine the way the relationship might go based on the way different cultures tend to think of one another, a strong relationship between a pirate and a member of the empire would be stereotypically bad, a hatred between them. Playing to all the stereotypes doesn’t tell a good story, this is the bit where you throw curve balls…a member of the Cult who is good friends with a member of the Church, a settler who has an absolute hatred of a certain member of the Empire.

Trying to develop a single relationship map between all characters can be a nightmare, so I’d develop a range of relationship maps, basing each one around a specific location. For example…here are the people who can be regularly found at the markets, and here’s how they inter-relate. Since a game will typically involve the player characters visiting specific locations, then it makes sense to see how different people’s social relations unfold in different settings. This has the added advantage that some people might react in different ways to one another depending on where they are. If two NPCs share two the locations of “The Keep” and “The Arena”, they might act distant or present an air of dislike to one another when at royal court in the keep, but they might be thick as thieves when watching the bloodsports at the Arena. This says a lot more about their relationship, and gives further hints at deeper levels of storyline behind the scenes.

Here’s a list of locations, indicating who is likely to be found where.

Keep – Federico, Jacinta, Lisandro, Mary F.
Docks – Federico, Oliver, Marina, Half-pint, Harriet, Josephine, Xavier, Mary F.
Markets – Orlando, Mary J., Marina, Albertine, Charlie, Moana, Jack
Cathedral – Jacinta, Taurino, Lisandro, Albertine, Salvatora
Borderslums – Half-pint, Adalita, Harriet, Tama, Moana
Village – Taurino, Erihapeti, Tama, Salvatora, Anahera
Temple – Adalita, Anahera
Arena – Mary J., Nell, Josephine, Xavier
Withered Hag – Oliver, Nell, Charlie
Sentrypost – Orlando, Erihapeti, Jack

We might add one or two extra people to some of these locations. These would be signature characters who represent the stereotypes found in each place (a courtier for the keep, a dockworker, a market stallholder, etc.) Each of these characters would be the lowest power level roughly equivalent to a starting character, and they might work as conduits for specific stories about the designated location. 

Using each of these we can make an interconnected series of relationship maps (we’ll do that in the next instalment).
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