Location, Location, Location

It’s an old real estate rule, right? But for me, it’s been the type of gamer I’ve always been. I suppose I should say, the type of GM I’ve always been. I’m a worldbuilder – always have been. From as early a time as I can remember, I’ve been a worldbuilder. I love characters and people and the most important parts of my games are the interactions between the PCs and NPCs that make a world come alive.

But behind the screen, where I live, where I have the fun that only GMs get to experience, I’m a worldbuilder and a mapmaker. I. Love. Maps. I have shelves in my house full of atlases of the Ancient World, the Classical World, the Medieval World. I have framed maps, I have huge maps and little maps and… I just love maps. But even more than looking at maps, I love making maps. When I was in High School, I can’t tell you the number of times I got in trouble because I was doodling grasslands full of cat-warriors instead of paying attention to the teacher. But what I’m really wondering is this; how important is setting – and how often do you change settings – as a GM or a player?

I read a lot of what my fellow gamers write on the web and many folks seem very content with one setting. I hear people say they’ve been playing the same fantasy setting for 30 years. It’s impressive – truly – but I’m a compulsive creator. I have worlds upon worlds sitting in my hard drive with maps and histories and important NPCs and trade routes and legends and societal structures and… well, you get the idea. I’ve been gaming for 25+ years now, and in that time I’d say I’ve created at least 30 worlds.

Not all of them make it to the advanced stages. Some exist only as maps of places I thought of and then abandoned. Some exist in more detail – two or three pages of notes that I’ve made for myself to revisit. But about 10 of those have passed the test and been actual gaming worlds I’ve used to run games in, and fleshed out to extremes. A few of them have been greatly expanded over the years and have 10 to 20 years of work put into them.

The world of Ryllia – a somewhat non-traditional (read non-Tolkien) fantasy world full of ancient, declining races cursed for attempting to wipe out humanity. I wanted to run this one so much, I wrote my own game to facilitate it.

The world of Ar – A weirdly religious world, speculating on a land where “god” has gone away, but left an earthly champion in his place and the kingdoms of the tribes who settled around this religion.

The world of Gabrien – Another religiously motivated world where a race of winged, angelic beings lives in oblivious rulership over the ordinary people of their world.

The world of Irona – a funny little world created on a joke and then became the most played of all my fantasy kingdoms. A semi-traditional D&D-style campaign setting, it began by being based on my home town.

The Blighted World – a land where dwarves brought about the end of the world and now live in flying cities above the world as it slowly emerges from darkness.

The World of Kath – A place originally created as two kingdoms locked in a struggle inside a demi-plane, but slowly growing to encompass a greater world.

The World of the Light – A place created for 2nd edition D&D exploring what the world would look like if a race of militant, highly civilized elves (who have a secret) were in charge.

The list just goes on and on. Come to think of it – other than the Known World of BECMI D&D, I can’t say I’ve ever run a pre-published setting for fantasy. I admit, I’ve run the standard universes of say, Shadowrun and Star Wars (but even in Star Wars, I had to make up my own sector to set the campaign in… complete with map! Say hello to Iltrac Sector.)

This whole issue has been especially on my mind because I’m trying to set my next game up to involve a good bit of intrigue, romance, social climbing, politics, and all that those things entail. An important part of that will be players being able to educate themselves easily but comprehensively in what they need to know to “play the great game” as it were. Players will need to understand more than I am able to tell them in the course of a session, but I also don’t want to overwhelm them with INFO! So I’m designing with that in mind.

I suppose it leaves me wondering – how many of you out there are like me? I see a lot of people who play established settings, or have one setting they love and run to exclusion, even something they’ve created, but I don’t see many folks just churning out worlds. So, I’m curious about your styles. How often do you feel the need to just create a new world? More importantly, how often do these new worlds ever actually see the light of the game table for more than one session? Do you think world-building is even all that important? And if not, why? Heck, if so, why? I personally have never met a gamemaster who just enjoys creating worlds as much as I do. It always seems more of a chore than a joy. Well, I’ll shut up now… please discuss.


4 responses

  1. I don’t love making worlds nearly as much as you do. I also don’t GM as much as you do, so maybe those two are connected. I just don’t love making lots of things as I do making only one. I’ve made a couple, but only one ever made it to the table and that was my first time running a game, so it didn’t work too well. I like quite a few published settings, my favorite being Creation. My last game was set there and while it wasn’t great (since I’m still not a great GM, though I’m trying to work on it) I think it worked out passably.

    I do think that setting is important. As a player, I want things to interact with but I don’t care too much whether the GM or the Game Designer came up with it. Personally, I plan to generally just use tweaked versions of published settings for the games I run in the future. It saves me work and it can let the players learn about the setting on their own without me having to tell them.

  2. I sorta build worlds. I like people (in RPGs anyway), so I build people. If I throw enough people into the same setting, they form a world. My games are full of NPCs that the party never meets, living off in their own dark corner, acting according to whatever philosophy I was interested in when I built them. For the last game that I kept track of, I created 84 NPCs, of which the party interacted with 60.

    Most of my campaigns start from an idea of some NPC’s motivation, and then a world forms to support that NPC’s actions. Then I build more NPCs that feed of that original NPC, until I run out of inspiration. Then I create some location for the PCs to be, put some NPCs around it, and start the game.

    However, I am horrible at building maps. I am a crappy judge of distance, so anything I draw out ends up being incredibly unreasonable. My cities and locations are usually “x days” away.

    As for settings, I like prepublished settings that are so huge that my customized bits can fit within them. The Imperium in 40k and Planescape/Great Wheel in DnD are my favorites. Settings that are too detailed (Like Faerun in DnD) are annoying, because I am forced to either learn every NPC and location that the publisher created (because my players will find them), or to explain to the players that half of the setting is missing.

    I do think world building is important. The PCs need the freedom to explore and do what they are led to do by their motivations. And my legions of NPCs need to live somewhere. hehe

  3. I wish I had the ability to create worlds. Knowing me, all of my worlds would have so many logical inconsistencies that is should implode upon itself. So I stick to pre-published worlds.

    One thing I love about worlds is interacting with the people in them. It’s one of the main things I loved about Oblivion – I love going up to the NPC’s and hearing about rumors and daily life in their world. I have yet to see an analog to that in my table-top role playing experiences – mainly I think because our group has usually been goal oriented and tried to get down to business quickly.

    However, I’m always very impressed when a GM can make me feel like I’m actually apart of a living, breathing world, rather than just a game setting.

  4. I’m like you in that I love worldbuilding and, I. Love. Maps. I don’t have as many as you seem to but I do have plenty. It’s almost compulsive to keep adding to the worlds I do have and then I go draw up another map that is basically a physical world.

    Mara-Kai mentioned Oblivion and I really enjoyed playing that game for long hours – then adding Mod’s to it to make it more alive created a great experience.

    The key to worldbuilding bearing fruit is at least two fold, IME; the world has to be alive. To illustrate this events occur that can effect the players without their input or influence, or even because of their decisions. The players have to Want to suspend disbelief while playing in the world. They have to want the synergy of making a game work. The hobby attracts a lot of cerebral types and among that type is a propensity for exposition of knowledge; whether it be correct statistics, obscure trivia, or relating the present to their past and trumping it. When digressions cease the magic can start.

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