Worldbuilding 101 - Part 19: Welcome to the Jungle

I think we’ve got a pretty good grasp on the way the world looks, the cultures that make it up and the kinds of specific people who belong to those cultures. To use a theatrical analogy, we’ve set the stage, we’ve established the supporting cast and even some of the secondary characters, costuming and make-up are taken care of. We don’t have a plot (of course arguably, the whole point of a roleplaying game is about developing the plot and narrative), but we do have a few motivations for our characters.

Some recent roleplaying games would state that this is more than enough world-building to get the story happening. There are relationship maps for the players to interact with if they choose to indulge in a “character-driven” narrative, but for players who want a “plot-driven” narrative or an old-school game, there is probably a bit more work to do.

Personally, I like my settings to generally be sandboxes with some pieces already in place. I like to have my players able to choose the destiny of their characters, not forcing choices of any type, but pushing a tendency to certain story paths. There will always be a few possible stories within a setting, and plenty of hooks leading into those stories. If a player chooses to latch onto one of the story hooks, they get drawn into one of the stories (but may choose for themselves whether to join or oppose the flow of the story). Players can also choose to ignore the hooks that are offered to them, but there needs to be some kind of ramification for this as well (the players become aware of what happened because they didn’t get involved, perhas even feel a pang of regret for not making a difference when the opportunity presented itself). I don’t like making static worlds that simply wait for the characters to make their impact, I prefer a dynamic system of cycles, a general tension pulling the world in a certain direction, or perhaps even a downward spiral.

So far there have been hints toward the world’s direction in various parts of the design process. There is a change in the air, the Pirates speak of democracy and a social order beyond the aristocracy of the empire (the privateers have a tendency toward this too), the settlers murmur of revolution, the cult subverts the established hierarchy of church and state perhaps to bring in a new age or maybe restore a lost age of the past. But these concepts are fairly vague and nebulous, there needs to be some kind of path from the immediate world of the characters through to these grand background concepts.

Here is where we move from Worldbuilding to campaign initiation.

I start this process by defining two or three short term events that I’d like to see occur in the setting, then a couple of medium term events that might cause pivotal decision points that will change the way the setting works, and a few possible long term goals.

I expect a short term event to manifest in play as the climax of a session, the first one after a game or two, then every two or three games thereafter.

Every time a short term event comes into play, or passes the time when it is relevant, I write a new short term event that might point toward one of the medium term events. Once more than half of the players have shown an interest in various short term events leading to a certain medium term event, I bring that event into play. If a mdedium term event no longer seems relevant because players aren’t interested or because the timeframe for the event has expired, I’ll write a new medium term event to replace it. I specifically don’t write more than that, I like my stories driven by players.

In a LARP, there are typically more people involved, so it might be more appropriate to think of a short term event coming into play every session, but only a third to a half of the total players get caught up in it (we try to make sure different players get involved in the climax event each time…it’s not always possible and often the same players appear time and again, but we try to spread the fun around as much as possible).

To start this campaign off, I’d look at something violent, something political, and something mystical. This should generally cover the various types of characters that players would bring into the game (If I was running a smaller scale game for a tabletop group, I’d tailor these short term goals more specifically to the characters after holding a group character development session). For “something violent” we’ve got a natural setting, the arena, we’ve got a few characters who come from cultures that like a brawl, and we’ve got some characters who might be willing to bet on the outcome of such a fight. I specifically don’t force an agenda on the characters who might become involved in this climax scene, I just create a series of hooks that might lure characters toward it. It might start with an advertisement in the local news sheet, perhaps one of the characters has an ally who has a reason to get caught up in the fight (if the character doesn’t get involved they risk losing this ally), and another plot hook might say that a local pirate captain is looking for crew who can hold their own in a brawl (and thus anyone who is willing to make a good show in this brawl might find lucrative employment). Some story hooks use the carrot approach (a character possibly gains a bonus if they get involved), other story hooks use the stick (a character possibly suffers a penalty if they don’t get involved), those characters who are already caught up in the events underway might find both carrot and stick outcomes possible.

We can tie in the following characters;
Federico Rodriguez y Carillo (who may be aware something is about to go down and is looking for ways to stop it)
Mary Jones (who knows her healing concoctions are about to be in high demand and therefore she needs new ingredients)
Half-pint Henry (who knows that there will be a few captains looking to recruit from the brawl, but wants to make sure his captain gets the best brawlers on offer)
Nell Smith (who thinks this is a terrible way to recruit new sailors to her ship, and is trying to end the brawl before it begins)
Josephine the Cat (who thinks this looks like all sorts of fun, and maybe she can find some crew for her own captain in the process)
Moana (who has been hired by a secretive individual wanting to learn about the fights and maybe place a wager on the outcome)
Xavier “Lobo” Perez (Who is one of the pirate captains behind this crazy plan to discover the best brawlers in El Puerto de Isabella)
One storyline, seven background characters with a vested interest in it. Once you’ve got the basic structure in place, things just start fitting together.

For something political, we’d could look at something in the royal courts (at the keep), while this might prevent some players from accessing it, that’s not entirely a bad thing. The kinds of players who’d be likely to get involved in the fight climax aren’t the kinds of players we’d want involved in the political story. I’m thinking that we might look at something involving trade routes across the island between El Puerto de Isabella and Trader’s Port.

Characters interested in this story might be: Jacinta Moreno y Silva, Orlando Cortez, Erihapeti, Lisandro De La Rosa y Cortez, and Mary Flynn.

For something mystical, we might look at a mad scientist or sorcerer experimenting with something that they don’t fully understand (in a hidden lab somewhere in the Borderslums). Some characters might be pulled in to stop the experimentation before it goes awry, other characters might want to help it work, then there would be those who would be interested in profiting from the outcome.

Characters for this story might be: Half-pint Henry, Mary Jones, Marina DuBois, Father Taurino, Adalita Batista, Harriet Black, and Anahera.

If I find that there are any characters who have slipped through the cracks on all three of these stories, I’ll go out of my way to make sure one of the next short term goals is alluring to these characters. There are some players who engage in games like this because they like to dress up and follow along with the stories of other characters, so it’s important not to force them into stories that they don’t want, but I like to make sure the option is there. It’s often through bringing characters like these out of their player’s shells that cause worlds to really take on a life of their own.


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