World Building – How Deep To Go?

When developing a game, either for print, or just for a game that you’re going to run as a GM, there is a seemingly endless amount of world building that you can indulge in. The question is, how much world building is useful? How do you know how deep into the core of your world to go?

Most of the time, we think of a story setting as the players will experience it. Then we try and work out why the world is that way. In effect, working history backwards until we can explain why the setting is the way it is. Why do these people hate those people? What made people build this city? Why do people use a particular greeting? The problem is, these questions are endless. You can always work things a little further back. Most of the time, this is a fun exercise by itself so it could seem like there’s no problem with delving as far into the background as we can. There is however a rate of diminishing returns that we get from these efforts.

For one, it begins to be difficult to record and remember all the setting details. When it’s hard to keep track of what has been established already, you run the risk of players getting confused and breaking their immersion in the setting. The game may even break down into arguments and dissension. Some of the errors can be hand waved away but surprisingly often, setting errors and revisions effect the player characters.

There is also the danger of a setting designer trying to force the players to experience all the minutia of their creation. The designer has invested a lot of time into the setting, and it may be that the players are going to miss out on some of it. The designer might respond by railroading, or not giving the players the spotlight. In very small quantities, this may be tolerated, but it can quickly get out of hand. The designer should never be so invested in the setting that parading it out in front of the players gets in the way of playing the game.

With that in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself as you dig deeper in the setting.

  • When would this setting material make it into the game?
  • Would it make more sense to fill in this detail during play so I can adapt to the players?
  • Can the majority of the setting be understood by a new player without a lengthy introduction?
  • Can the players use this information more than once?
  • Is the setting information so detailed that material has to frequently be looked up?

I have to admit that I am way past some of these criteria for The Artifact but that’s partly because it’s been played for over eighteen years. A lot of our adventures have opened up new territory for us. I wouldn’t expect another gaming group to play the setting in exactly the same way that we have.

A setting feels deep when it reacts authentically according to it’s own history and culture. Having peasants talk about their favorite bands is usually going to seem inauthentic. Peasants in a remote village usually would only get to hear music if they learned to play it or if there was someone that could play music in their local area. Your favorite is going to be everyone else’s favorite in town because it’s their only choice.

On the other hand, in a city full of millions of people are likely to have some kind of entertainment available. To not have an idea of what city folk do for fun is going to cause the GM to default to what they’ve seen before.

To avoid this kind of oversight, plan out the following.

  • What do people do for work? (In the city, in remote areas)
  • Where do they get the things they need?
  • How much extra do they have? (Money, time, food)
  • How much do people travel? (This is effected by how much extra they have)
  • How does society keep order? (Police, religion, mob rule)
  • What unusual thing is allowed? Why?
  • What unusual thing is forbidden? Why?
  • What do people do for amusement? (In the city, in remote areas)
  • What pets/labor animals do people have?
  • What are the important landmarks? (Cities, land forms, bodies of water)
  • Who is important? (Heads of state, scribes, lawyers, warriors, hunters, etc)
  • Who are disliked? (Garbage men, itinerant salesmen, immigrants, lawyers)
  • What luxuries are most prized? (In historical settings, medicine is one of the most valuable commodities)

It’s unlikely that you have to go very deeply into any one of these questions to get the feeling of the setting. Beyond the basics, long descriptions are probably unimportant unless they are counterintuitive.

For a bit of flair, give the setting something unusual to hang on. Maybe the people here don’t use any utensils when eating. Maybe they really like big hats. You really only want one or two things to stand out because otherwise nothing stands out.

To make the setting seem really deep, pick something that society has gotten wrong but thinks they have right. It could be something about history or some pseudoscientific belief. It’s often best to assume the players won’t cure this ignorance with a simple explanation of the facts, so there has to be something to anchor their misunderstanding. All the better if the players take up the belief too.

In most cases, going any deeper isn’t necessary until the players are asking for more information. If something strikes the players as odd, they’ll ask. Otherwise, they aren’t looking for more information and more information isn’t desirable. Sure, if your game relies on the lineage of the emperor then go ahead and make it up. Isn’t it better though, to have left that kind of information open, until you need it locked down? Don’t assume that because you write it down the players will read it. The players are probably more interested in their own actions than what happened in the setting’s history. When they need a history lesson, culture lesson or geography lesson, have a helpful NPC explain it to them and keep it short.


Filed under GM Advice

3 Responses to World Building – How Deep To Go?

  1. An excellent post, Emmett. I have been quietly working on a post of “how to turn that life-long-campaign into a game” post and this is great fodder for the “cut it back” section. I think deeper is fine but not in a rulebook. If it is supporting information for fun, then I think that it’s OK to have it on a wiki, webpage, blog, etc. Putting it inside the game with everything else is a problem.

  2. Thank you! When I get round to it, there will be correct attribution/linking and so on and so forth. 🙂

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