Crafting Worlds: Do’s and Don’ts

Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds good games

Too many games, and too many settings, run into a pair of contradictory problems which work against the setting. On the one hand, you need to make a world your players can understand. If the world and its people are important enough to matter, then obviously it has to be comprehensible to players, especially if they don’t own every sourcebook. But on the other hand nobody much likes worlds which are too familiar, too boring. This is where The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion went wrong (we’ll get to that another day), by making the game world so generic that it became flat and lifeless.

There are three things to keep in mind, and collectively they’re a huge pain:

(1) The setting must make sense as a human (or whatever) society and must be reasonably sane for the players.
(2) The setting has to be different enough for the players to be interested.
(3) It has to mesh well enough with the rules so that it passes the Sniff Test.

So it has to be different, but not too different, and not get crossed up with the actual game, and nobody’s going to tell you when until they start playing with it.

Well, that just sucks.

Fortunately, you can usually boil things down to a few key principles based on your game.

First, is this is a game where the player characters and/or the major NPC’s are grossly more powerful than “normal” people? In the real life, no individual is grossly more powerful – tougher, stronger, able to do quantitatively more, than another. Even the difference between, say, specialist Olympic athletes and normal, in-decent-shape people is usually much less than a factor of 5 or so. Most jobs do not require extreme capabilities, and even fairly complicated surgical techniques are mostly things which everyday people could do if they practiced, or have good instructions. The most “powerful” members of society aren’t those who are tough, fast, strong, or even skilled, but those who put a lot of effort in persuading and influencing others.

The most dangerous people alive are probably special forces soldiers, and they need endless training, support from hundreds if not thousands of other soldiers, and many others feeding them information to be effective. And any of them could be killed by a single bullet, or one just moment of bad luck.

But game heroes, even in nominally “realistic” settings, aren’t like that. They’re often capable of taking multiple hits which would be lethal to a lesser man and a dozen (and up-Up-UP!) times more effective in their chosen specialty than a normal but skilled professional. They’re often capable of killing hundreds of normal people, and might even be capable of depopulating cities by themselves, given some time. We’ll call these people Heroes, because this tends to be more of a fantasy trope, but it is definitely NOT limited to people who are actually heroic in nature.

This consideration absolutely influences your game setting – and may be the single most important factor. If nobody has this kind of power, then you can have a relatively normal political situation. It might be complicated, but fundamentally the world follows from real life: “power” is your ability to persuade lots of people to agree with you and your ability to motivate them to get things done. Almost anyone can potentially kill anyone else.

However, if Heroes do run around, society will very likely congeal around them rather than a political or economic system, and will change as these figures die or otherwise pass on. Simply put, they *are* the armed forces as well as Kings or religious figures in their own right, and they can largely do what they like because no one can stop them. Usually in these settings, monsters or similar threats also exist that the heroes have to deal with, and these are equally capable of wrecking civilization if not stopped.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have “normal” nation or states, but those groups are going to need their own, equally effective, protection. This can and should lead you into new ideas to refine your game world. Note that we said “equally effective”, because they don’t have to have equal Heroes of their own, although there’s nothing wrong with that either.

Some quick ideas: A decentralized society that can largely ignore the deeds of Heroes. This might be a nomadic tribal nation that avoids monsters, or an agrarian people scattered over farmland that mostly handles its problem through resettlement and militias. These don’t directly challenge powerful characters, but also can’t be easily controlled by individual bullies. Or perhaps the nation is a wealthy trading power which hires mercenaries as needed to deal with problems. Or society might publicly laud selected Heroes and reward them well, gaining loyal allies through respect and praise, so that they want to protect the people from other dangers. Or society might be intensely nationalistic so that any heroes who come from it have a natural interest in defending it. Or you may have outright divine aid, or mystic balancing forces which keep any one power group from completely dominating the world. Any and all of these could appear together as well.

So from the get-go, you have a lot of options to work with. Just make sure you adapt them intelligently when adding them to the culture you want to borrow (which, let’s face it, you probably do).

Second, beg, borrow, and steal everything in sight. The most common way to build a setting large or small is the take a human civilization and build off of that. This approach has many problems, but it has one huge advantage which usually outweighs all of them: the players have some idea what the hell they’re in for.

There are few writers with enough talent for world-building to create (and then sell the hell out of) an entirely new culture. Tolkien probably did it best, in developing multiple cultures for Elves and Dwarves and Men and even some tidbits for Orcs. Even then, he borrowed many pre-existing ideas, but certainly there was immense amounts of invention. George R.R. Martin borrowed many more existing fantasy images and style to construct his world, but he also worked hard to create an original (and ridiculously complex) world with varied peoples inhabiting it.

If you’re neither of those two, you probably have to steal heavily from an existing culture.

This is not bad. Unless you’re a genius historian, linguist, architect, fashion designer, and economist all in one, you need to show your players what the gameworld is like as much as possible. In order to do that, you need to give them mental images as much as descriptive text. Consider trying to describe what Feudal Japan was like. Libraries could, and have, been written to describe it.

Now consider one – just one – picture, found in a random search for the term Feudal Japan.

We've been dead for a century and we're still more badass than you.

We’ve been dead for a century and we’re still more badass than you.

That picture is worth far more than a thousand words in describing the scene. Your players know what it means, and what it implies, even if they know little more about Japanese culture than late-night viewings of Evangelion and couple of horrible ninja movies. Give ’em five minutes and they’ll be arranging tea parties (possibly OF BLOOD AND DEATH!) and trying to quadruple-wield katanas.

While it’s not good to stereotype things, putting some cultural weight on the matter can give your players a starting point for understanding the nature and style of the setting. And it’s not like you lack for choices: a huge Empire might borrow from Rome, Persia, Mongolia, China, Russia, France, England – and that’s just mentioning a handful of real-world nations with Imperial ambitions. But you can take themes and elements from any time and place and develop it into a new idea.

Third, make sure the world doesn’t have giant obvious issues, or least give a reason as to why those issues haven’t been fixed. People are not generally stupid, and the laws of economics are flexible but they apply everywhere, even to alien species. If you have a reliable solution to a problem, then people are going to use it, unless they have a better solution. And likewise, if something doesn’t work, sooner or later people will stop using it.

This means that if you can magically produce food, then people will try to use it unless food is so cheap and reliable that it’s not worth doing. If enchanted items can give near-permanent benefits, people will eventually invest in them if there’s any way to afford such useful magic. If armies get slaughtered by individual high-level opponents, then people won’t use armies, or the military does other things than try to fight powerful enemies. In short, there’s a lot of ways to go wrong and your players will notice sooner or later.

For an example of how to do this right, consider the basic game of AD&D 2’nd Edition. This was a good approach: magic is very powerful, but also very limited and focused. Wizards have many limitations and require a lot of careful consideration. Because of this, they were able to write worlds similar to our own, with limited impact from magic. Magic mostly mattered to adventurers or similarly powerful people, and you wouldn’t see it used for for mundane purposes. Making magical items was a difficult, expensive process in terms of lifespan, questing, and wealth, and they could easily go wrong. Further, getting or researching the spells for custom magic wasn’t easy, either, so many desired effects would be quite difficult. The system matched the world, at least reasonably enough to tell the kinds of stories players and GM’s wanted to tell. Magic was (usually) rare, precious, and difficult to find, and magic items simply couldn’t be made for most ordinary purposes. Ordinary people might get their hands on the odd healing potion for emergencies, but otherwise the best they could hope for was a very low-level local cleric or wizard to help out. There was certainly no way to use magic on an industrial scale, and magic items were made so rarely that they didn’t accumulate over time.

One of the flaws of 3rd edition (which was otherwise pretty good) was that the writers often forgot to explain how the system changes affected the game worlds. Let’s state this up-front: There is nothing wrong with the 3rd edition system in making a game world. The only issue is that most of the DnD worlds were based off old 1st and 2nd edition rules and didn’t properly update to consider the impact of the new system. Forgotten Realms was a particularly hilarious example of this, because some of the new rules changes were considered to be “recent developments” owing to a big in-universe event, some were considered to have always been in effect, and most was simply ignored. One small example, continuing from the Magic Item theme mentioned above:

Items with a few per-day uses are really, really easy to make. Characters as low as 3rd level could make them quite easily, and there’s tons of low-level spells useful to all kinds of people. How many communities beyond the most incredibly poor couldn’t scrape enough enough gold to buy a magic item which used curing magic every so often. How many towns couldn’t scrape up enough gold for a water-cleansing pipe fitting, or even permanent lanterns? These minor items don’t cost very much, and yet they substantially raise quality of life for many people. Even better – they’ll outright save money in a pretty short while. With a little bit more of an investment, civilizations could eradicate dangerous diseases, provide substantial quantities of food to the poor, provide power to machinery, or even reshape the land to suit. In real history, most of these developments required, and to this day still require, the hard work of millions of people and the outlay of billions of dollars. (Trillions, adjusted for inflation and adding it all up.)

It can all be done with third level magic or lower, with items that never wear out, and require no fuel.

In the Forgotten realms, we have canon examples of individual cities with assets in the many millions of gold coins. Even granting that you can’t always tax it all, individual characters can easy have a hundred thousand in cash, and much more in tradeable goods or land they can borrow against. Charitable giving is a major function of several religions and an entire character class (the Paladin). Can you really make the case that nobody – not one person – would feel like making the small investment these tools require? Would no merchant ever have the resources or interest to try? The math is simple enough to make sense for even the most evil of evil empires, and compelling enough to attract the greediest of the greedy, and cheap enough that you don’t need spectacular wealth to get started. Sure, not every wizard would willingly give up the experience points to make these items. But a retired wizard, who doesn’t expect to go adventuring certainly might – that’s a good income and a pretty low cost per-item, allowing him or her to perform spell research. Some casters, particularly clerics and some druids, would see it as a duty to occasionally help the common folk, and what better way to do so than make a small magical item which can continue helping the common man forever?

Bear in mind that these are just the basics – the first few ideas which would occur to people. You could go far beyond this into entire arcano-industrial civilizations, or entire societies devoting themselves to magic as we do science and technology. And sure, magic takes more work to build up – but it also takes a hell of a lot less to keep running. Most magical items require no power, no maintenance, and no direction to keep working, and will continue to do so indefinitely. In fact, a major aspect of D&D is that magic items (barring one-use stuff like potions) inevitably outlive those who make it, from weapons to mythallar to spell designs. That’s why adventurers loot useful stuff from eons-old tombs and lost cities.

In short, a jump from 2nd to 3rd edition implies a lot of changes to how a setting is run. This is not a bad thing. You can tell many new stories, and look at how change affects the people who have to live with it. There’s a lot of different directions you can take this, just as industrialization caused widely varying changes in all societies affected by it. new magic will affect people in even more extreme ways, and there’s a lot of ways you can develop it. Some societies may look identical to what they used it to except with huge changes hidden away. Others may be hardly affected – at least yet. Other could be completely transformed – or split into factions, or utterly destroyed.

In short, there’s nothing wrong with the rules, but most existing game worlds wanted to avoid using them as much as possible. And that’s sad.

However, also understandable. Writing and rewriting settings takes a lot of work and a lot of thought, so it’s not always easy to explain why they change or don’t change. In the next installment, we’ll cover some ways to do end runs around common sense, and get your setting where you want it.

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