Worldbuilding for Roleplaying: Hows and Whys

I’ve written on worldbuilding before, and I want to go over some very broad general ideas before I get back into it (which I’m hoping to do soon).

One thing that I want to talk about is how particularly to write for worldbuilding where you can have an effective roleplaying game based off of it. Many settings are really good at this, and some really aren’t, depending on how they’re implemented and written.

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Worldbuilding can be thought of like erecting a series of pillars. How tall you build the pillars, the spacing between them, and how many there are will be the final metrics of the quality for the setting (at least if you’re doing everything else right). Each pillar serves as a lens into your world, and it is the part of the world that you prioritize showing off to your audience at one point or another.

There will be some stuff in your world that is minor or unimportant and just has to be there for continuity reasons, but that’s not something to spend a whole lot of time on. You don’t need to know that followers of the god Xet call him Yevet in the north unless you are introducing both places and you have a good reason to care about the religion or you are developing some theme that makes the differences between sects following the same deity important, so don’t put it first and foremost.

As a storyteller, you need to be careful to consider your medium. I’m writing this primarily for game designers, because I had someone ask me a question about this earlier today. However, these rules are going to be different; there are times when you want few tall pillars, for instance.

You are using your pillars to give characters anchor points.

When you have only a few pillars, characters are forced into homogeneity, and you need to make sure they’re really great. When you diversify, you can create really interesting settings, but you need to make sure you have a good grasp on how your world is getting set out.

Most of the advice I give is going to be general; I’ll suggest a couple numbers, but that’s not a hard rule. Your scope and scale determines how you will develop your setting. Just make sure to stay coherent. Build over time. Don’t try to make a universe in an instant.

I’m going to give you a little advice that I’ve found helpful in my observations and my work with worldbuilding, including my own painful experiences of burnout and triumphs of acclaim.

Build One Tall Pillar

One example for this is the book versus the Netflix series of Altered Carbon (content warning: Altered Carbon has very heavy violence, language, and sexual themes). While the book is almost certainly superior in a lot of ways with regards to worldbuilding, they both excellently leverage worldbuilding methods.

And before I go too far: worldbuilding is not trying to simulate a universe. You can do that, but it doesn’t automatically translate. Your pillars are what your audience sees, and no matter what you will only be building more pillars, and perhaps making them more shallow, as you broaden your scope.

The metaphorical height of your pillars is the depth to which you tackle certain subjects. For instance, a large portion of Altered Carbon‘s plot focuses on the notion of cortical stacks, which allow people to transfer and upload their minds.

This one pillar of the setting (how do cortical stacks work and what effects do they have?) makes up a tremendous part of both the novel and Netflix series.

Now, this pillar serves as the basis upon which other things can rest: the philosophical quandaries of potentially infinite life, and the people denied it; the protagonist being put into a new body a couple hundred years after his death; the decreased risk of potentially lethal activities.

These things all serve as great plot points and ideas, and your job once you build a pillar is to place things on it. This is one of those flaws with the comprehensive simulationist worldbuilding, which is that you’re not going to necessarily have time to put anything on your pillars.

Think about Bethesda’s video game Skyrim: there’s a central conflict between two factions, but it’s shallow (there are things I’m leaving out for the sake of explanation, but there’s not a whole lot more there and the player doesn’t get the luxury of interacting with these nuanced elements anyway). There’s not a whole lot of detail, and it changes things on the map. However, it plays into themes of sectarian and violent resistance against authoritarianism. Since the player really only needs to have one response: revulsion against one faction or another.

This worked quite well, actually, because it was one of several pillars, and one weakness could be overlooked, since political intrigue was somewhat secondary in a game about killing dragons. Really, if anything, the civil war existed to create a dark tone for the setting, rather than make major goals for the player.

In designing a world for roleplaying, you want pillars of different height. Some really well-thought out details add a ton to a setting. But not everyone is going to connect with everything in your setting. Going too heavily into one thing that people really hate will turn into revulsion (Mindjammer convinced me to stop reviewing tabletop games semi-professionally, for instance, because of its incredible focus on one element I didn’t care for).

I want to use a couple examples, the first of which should be pretty familiar by this point: Warhammer 40:000. It’s one of the “grand-daddies” of tabletop gaming, and has a whole spin-off line of novels, video games, and tabletop roleplaying games, most of which are good.

What Warhammer 40:000 does is build one great pillar, generally the Imperium of Man, but it has a few other factions as well that get a fair amount of detail. Part of the genius that they stumbled upon was inherent in the wargaming mode in which it was derived: each faction got their own separate book detailing them, with some broad generalities in the main book.

And each of the titles linked to the Warhammer license takes a look at one slice of the setting. That’s partly for intellectual property purposes, but it allows people to love the setting and hate individual elements. If you don’t enjoy gangsters in Necromunda, you can play Dark Heresy as an Inquisition agent, Only War as a soldier in the great war against everything that wants to consume humanity, the Space Marine video game, or even the Tau-themed video game (which, admittedly, is pretty dated by this point).

Setting up the one great pillar, you then build outward. There’s not a lot of information on daily life in Warhammer 40:000 that the average player knows about. It’s not necessary, because you don’t do worldbuilding in symbiosis. Improving one part of your setting does not improve the whole setting.

Warhammer 40:000 is important to note because it has as sacred a place as Star Wars or Star Trek in many of its fans’ hearts and minds: even a series of writers who have been critically panned and significant changes to the setting (including the Imperium of Man) haven’t shaken its stability, since it provides everyone with their own little pillar, which we’ll get to later.

However, Warhammer 40:000 largely expects the majority of its player-base to get behind humanity (at least with its extended product lines, which focus on human protagonists as a rule). This works okay, since it’s got some very compelling elements (that would require a whole different essay to explain).

There’s a tabletop game called Eclipse Phase (copies of the game are freely available from the author’s blog), and Eclipse Phase was heavily lauded for its worldbuilding because it embraces this concept: Firewall is a tall pillar, and all other pillars build out from it. Now, Eclipse Phase sometimes gets panned because its writers have a very far-left interpretation of economics, but it still has a world that builds on the notion of a largely decentralized agency trying to fight the apocalypse. Since the agency is decentralized, its members come from all sorts of locales and backgrounds, and that allows everyone to make characters that appeal to them.

Unlike Warhammer 40:000, the characters in Eclipse Phase thrive on the small pillars. You can have an AI in a robot standing beside a bird uplift and a re-engineered human. Eclipse Phase plays this off quite well by having the central pillar, the Firewall organization, run through all the other sections of the setting, even the ones that seem to be hostile to it at first (after all, survival is a strong motivator), then taking them together with a unified point.

One game that persistently gives my group issues is Degenesis, and it’s one that has been giving other people issues for pretty much forever. It’s a great game, but the setting is divided into regions and faction, and each character belongs first and foremost to their own sectarian identity. While that lets it explore some interesting themes about society and the ways that cultures come into conflict, it’s something that worldbuilders need to think carefully about.

The weakness of Degenesis isn’t that the world is bad; it’s got a 300-page or so beautifully illustrated setting book that’s probably worth the cover cost by itself, and the mechanics are solid too (characters actually feel quite distinct based on their background, which is a huge plus).

The problem is that there’s no central pillar, or at least not one that’s easily dealt with: there is the background notion of the Eshaton, an apocalyptic event that introduced the alien Primer to the world, and that’s something that everyone fights against. However, the Primer is left fairly mysterious, and the mutants it created, “homo degenesis”, often fail to drive the plot.

Degenesis works very well with compatible parties, and it falls apart when you push it to its fullest. That’s not to be taken as a criticism; I’ve spent a lot of my life on Degenesis (including making a fairly large homebrew supplement), but it’s an illustration of how a great writer can accidentally drop the ball in the worldbuilding department (which, fortunately, can be recovered by clever enough people who use a strong adventure hook to overcome the tensions between the factions).

So the first part of worldbuilding for roleplaying games is to have a strong central pillar, something that rises tall enough to hold up your ideas and premises. This is as true of a tiny little homebrew setting as it is of a published setting for a large work, though the caveat is, of course, that if you are writing for a game you’re running you really just need to create a skeleton and flesh in the details later.

As a side-note, your central pillar needs to have a compelling idea. This is too big a topic for the current discussion: use things that make up core parts of the human experience.

If you want to write for a setting, however, and then publish it and kick it out the door, you need something really solid and fleshed out at its core, with a lot of details and history tied in, plus dilemmas both physical and philosophical to confront players with. You won’t be there to do that.

Figure out Order and Spacing

Once you’ve decided what the pillars of your world will be, you need to decide their relationship between them. In a book or television show, or even a video game, you can have a very rigidly controlled setting.

In a roleplaying game, however, you need to make sure there’s room to breathe.

What do I mean by this?

Simple: your concepts need to have some breathing room. One of the things that weakens Degenesis is that it doesn’t give breathing room; it’s all fire and fury, and that makes it incredibly compelling but it also leads to difficulties, since about 70% of player characters are very heavily tied to the authority structures they originate from, and those structures tend not to take nicely to people who don’t go in lock step.

However, there’s another game that I think does this really well while still retaining many of the same conceits, and it’s a relatively recent release called Spire. Both Degenesis and Spire run on “punk”, but Spire takes the approach of leaving a lot of space for gleeful anarchy between the lines. That doesn’t mean that the world of Spire is any less oppressive, but since the player characters are joined by a strong central pillar (they are all secretly part of a forbidden religious order, with some of them being involved for more political than religious reasons) they can have more flexibility outside their core pillar.

And Spire does well by creating five or six different possible universal threads (and I’m probably missing a couple): Spire is a massive ancient city that may also be a god, and is almost certainly eldritch or malevolent; the drow are oppressed by high-elves who are literally incapable of feeling empathy; the corruption in their society has led to a lot of problems that are just about to boil over; a large portion of Spire is effectively lawless; most drow are barely above the poverty line.

Because there is a strong central pillar, the Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, all of these separate overarching pillars give a basis for characters to anchor to the universe without creating a situation where you have schisms between the player characters.

Remember that this is as much a matter of presentation as what actually exists in the world: Degenesis has many really strong pillars, but they’re so far apart from each other that characters who are trying to work together need to overcome their own sectarian biases. That makes an interesting campaign point, but can also be killer for novices to storytelling, and especially fall apart when a player says “But my Apocalyptic would hate the Spitalian!”

One other problem is that things are too tightly connected. I like to use Tom Clancy’s work to illustrate a perfect aversion of this flaw. Predominantly, Clancy’s novels are thrillers with a focus on military or espionage themes.

But he doesn’t limit characters just to hard-boiled operators and spies. Many of the characters are everyday people forced to confront the situations that arise throughout the stories Clancy tells.

There’s something to be said for the every-man protagonist (and Clancy’s writing is superb at capturing the American voice), but the real strength is in painting a world that comes together realistically.

Mind you, this is going to be more of a factor in who your target audience is, rather than how well your setting is received, but when you are writing for a roleplaying game you should keep in mind that there are various types of player; I’ll briefly classify them as the storyteller, the gamer, and the explorer.

The Storyteller

The storyteller likes strong, tall pillars. They will take the themes you create and run with them. Of course, they’re a little narcissistic and like to tell the sort of stories they enjoy. If you give them the wrong themes or atmosphere, they may try to create their own story. If you don’t have enough strong pillars to your world, they will disengage when they can’t tell their story.

The storyteller only really needs one pillar; they’ll go far with it. The problem is that you can’t always tell what they want. Providing more options across a reasonably broad narrative space helps them.

The Gamer

The gamer is more focused with the rules and accomplishments side of play. They take on challenges head-first, and often enjoy the world when it has some single theme that they can latch on to. Unlike the storyteller, they aren’t picky, they just need something to attach to so they can solve problems.

If you’re clever, you’ll create enough clear distinctions for the gamer to get into using the characters and polities of your setting to their advantage; they can be quite Machiavellian and giving the clever a path to power in your world gets the gamer to join in on telling stories, instead of spending too much time deciding which sword to use when they slay the dragon.

Give them a few pillars outside your main pillar, and let them find ways to leverage them.

The Explorer

The explorer is interested in finding out as much as they can about the world you have built. It’s tempting to look at them as pesky little sorts, because they’ll jump through all the holes and point them out, but they’re also a great ally because they can keep the plot going when the storyteller or the gamer run out of ideas.

The explorer doesn’t go into much depth (this is why it’s good to not rely on just one really good pillar), but they do bounce around between pillars. Unlike the storyteller, they’re fairly apathetic to how broad your setting is in thematic scope. They’re not trying to tell a story, they’re trying to see all the sights. As a result, if you feel like marketing to a niche audience but know that you need to attract everyone, give them a few similar concepts to explore so that they don’t get bored.

A side-note: explorers can ruin games if you didn’t do your job right. I’ve learned the hard way that including too much stuff in a setting can lead to a drawn-out and thin experience for everyone involved  when the explorers outpaced my content. I find that most explorers will begin to look a different theme or idea after a couple of sessions in any given place.

Geographical space and cultural barriers can constrain an explorer, but they can then function a lot like a gamer in trying to leverage things to get past obstacles. If you put hard impassable obstacles in your setting, the explorer will try to find a way around or past them. Let them, unless it’s absolutely impossible to.

How to Space Pillars

If we remember that our whole point in working with a setting is to create concepts for players to follow, it’s important to talk about what I mean when I talk about pillars in proximity to each other.

If your pillars share themes and in-world relationships, you’re going to have issues. Remember that each pillar is a cross-section of your world presented to illustrate something for your audience.

There are times when you want your pillars tightly grouped; Altered Carbon loses a lot of its pillars in its Netflix adaptation because it’d really ruin the experience to have to go through a bunch of exposition and narration with characters who come and go very quickly, while in the book that’s less of an issue. The pillars that were cut were the outliers; things that helped to define the protagonist and universe, but which weren’t necessary for the core story.

In a roleplaying setting, you want to give a fair amount of space to ideas and concepts. In 13th Age, this is codified in the form of Icons, characters and concepts so heavily powerful that they take on a sort of deific role. It also has each character have one unique thing. This is a great way to blend mechanics with storytelling, and since the Icons are almost always distant and yet influential it gives the players some room to explore central pillar issues without forcing them into conformity.

The same thing can be seen with similar yet different implementations in SLA Industries, Symbaroum, and 7th Sea. All of these games have a strong central core conflict (the titular SLA Industries, the decay of a golden age and the darkness brewing in Davokar, and the end of the old social order in Theah), but give a good amount of spacing to their other strongly-developed pillars, giving a good amount of space for people.

If you want to space out your pillars well, it’s important to make sure that you have a well-developed main pillar (or even a couple main pillars) that serve as a frame of reference for everyone else.

It’s for this reason that I’m not a fan of huge comprehensive settings like Pathfinder’s Golarion that attempt to have a little something for everyone; to me they often feel like they’re missing the central pillar entirely, but you might want to check out a couple of these sorts of settings (Golarion, Eberron, and the Forgotten Realms being the most immediately obvious suggestions; I find Eberron to be a little above the rest there).

If your pillars are so scattered that you can’t find your way back to the main point of your story, you need to abort and start over, or create new ways to lead people back to the big idea (and there’s always a big idea, even if you haven’t learned to listen for it in your own writing yet).

Deciding When to Stop

Before I begin, I want to bring something up:

In this day and age, you can publish infinite content to an infinite number of readers.

If you have an idea, a system exists to help you transmit it.

So with that said, you need to decide when to stop expanding your world.

Now, that’s not to say that your setting needs to be small.  Star Wars has a giant setting, including a historical time span that goes over centuries (technically, there’s a larger  gap, but we don’t count it because we don’t get to see what’s going on during it).

But one of the things about Star Wars is that it has a limited number of pillars; there’s a dualistic struggle between good and evil at the middle. Everything else plays on that, asking separate questions like “can a good person belong to an evil organization” in The Old Republic era, or questions like “how many characters can we fit into this movie before it falls apart due to incoherence?” in the more recent films.

Sorry, had to gripe. More seriously, The Last Jedi asks important questions about falling from grace and redemption in its treatment of Luke (and it’s new enough that I’m not going to spoil it here, but I found it interesting to say the least).

One of the flaws that I saw when I was reviewing games on DriveThruRPG was that settings were sometimes incoherent. Sometimes games had incredible storytelling capabilities, but they didn’t have any story they were designed to tell.

In your world, you need to free yourself to tell a story. Whether you tell that story across a wiki with ten thousand entries or a booklet with fifteen pages you can only say so much with a setting.

So your goal is to set a sort of fence around your world, where you set absolute boundaries and say “past this point there is no return.”

That doesn’t keep people from exploring those stories in your world, they just have to read between your lines. Really strong settings create memorable characters that can be used in many different contexts. Their events and entities are drawn from, and ultimately transcend, reality and fit into stories beyond the ones you tell.

However, those stories are best left to other people. If your goal is to tell a story about a mad king abusing his power and how the abuse of power is a corrupting influence, then you need to build your pillars around that. 7th Sea does a good job with this; every portion of the world is caught in a state of transition, with things happening that make expectations worthless. SLA Industries is about overcoming incredible hardship only to find a Kafkaesque loop ahead of yourself. Altered Carbon and Eclipse Phase (and even Mindjammer, in its own dissatisfying way) are about what people are going to do with our rage against the universe once we move past our biological limitations.

Warhammer 40:000 is about purpose and sacrifice for a cause. So is Spire. So is Degenesis. So is Symbaroum.

That’s not to say that sacrifice is the only theme you should go for, but it’s worth noting that some pillars are built on stronger foundations than others. A later day, perhaps.

Bring It Together

So, if you want to write a good setting, decide what story you want to tell in it. When I was in college I worked on an interactive fiction piece on StoryNexus called Orchestra. The entire theme was about how to deal with the damaging effects that come as part of having a powerful central authority (a theme I continue to play with in many of my settings to this day), and while I never saw it through to fruition I was struck by how well it resonated with people.

Only in the postmortem did I really learn anything from it. That’s been true for pretty much everything I’ve written up to the point where I started Loreshaper Games, since I just wasn’t mature enough to look back on it.

Start with a message you want to tell. You’ll find that people might even be receptive to a message they disagree with if you provide a good setting in which you raise your concerns.

Build that into your central pillar, choosing characters, events, and societies in your world to highlight so that your audience becomes familiar with your world quickly and also link it to that main theme.

Then start building smaller pillars. Answer your main question in different ways. Ask or answer smaller questions that come up as you were working on your main theme. Make references to others and build constructively on their work.

Case Study

When I was working on The Legacy of Eight‘s nascent moments (back then it was intended to be used with the Open Legend roleplaying system), I spent some sleepless late nights/early mornings with a tiny little notebook jotting down ideas. I believe it was actually a notebook intended to be used for passwords, but since I can’t usually make sense of my handwriting I don’t tend to write my passwords.

As I was jotting down occasionally legible ideas, I started with one of the factions that would go on to be a really minor part of the world, the Supremacy. They’re a posthuman society with heavy industrial influences. I knew from the start that they weren’t going to be the main focus of the setting, but they formed the stepping off point to a larger question:

What will we do if we have an Asimov-style situation where we “win” the game of life?

From there the rest of the core elements of the setting flew from my mind pretty quickly: the Immortal Empire which turned out not to live up to its name and the Successor Empire and Eastwind Alliance that came from its ashes were almost natural breaths of the same thought.

I intentionally knew that the Empire would be focused back on traditional ways; religion, fashion, culture, traditions were all drawn from our own world, but they were often inauthentic. Built out of a desire to remain human in spite of an identity that had moved past what it really meant to be human, there’s also something of a commentary on our own digital age as well: are we just going through the motions?

The Eastrise Alliance is actually more traditional, even though it abandons any sense of modern fashion and style. Instead, they are a grasping, reaching, clawing expansionist faction trying to return to a former glory. There’s a powerful metaphor for our personal lives in there as well; an archetype of Eden and the Fall lived out in their civilizational ethos.

Then you have factions like the Supremacy and the Kettans (this was before Mass Effect: Andromeda came out, so those will probably get renamed before a final release so nobody can say I was ripping off EA) which both took very different approaches to posthumanity.

Each of those things has a different angle on the same story.

Before you go to build your own world, I want to leave you with two final thoughts to help you bring the full of your creative energy to the worldbuilding process.

What do you have that’s important to say/ask? How do you say it in your setting?

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