Written by Rachel Beck
You have a world at your fingertips, or will, when you’ve finished building it. Running a tabletop RPG is one of the best exercises in world building for a storyteller because you’re building a story in which you have little to no control over how the protagonists react to its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Anything can happen. It’s the quintessential joy and terror of running a game. Building a world is a huge task, but employing a strategic approach will keep you from biting off more than you can chew.
Stay On Target
Before you start building, know what kind of a game you’re aiming for. Is it a one-shot adventure? It’s probably not worth your time to flesh out the geopolitical workings of the entire continent. Is this a high-adventure, cinematic story like Indiana Jones or a gritty, take-no-prisoners tale? Cinematic tales typically cross a wide variety of exotic landscapes and cultures. Grittier tales might be contained to a single slum, where stepping outside is risking your life. Know the scope of your project before diving in.
Invest in What You Need
Once the creativity starts flowing, it can be hard to know where to stop. Check yourself periodically to make sure that what you’re working on is worth the time you’re putting into it. Your reinvention of the Dwarven language – complete with its own grammatical rules and punctuation – is impressive, but your players are probably not going to take the time to appreciate it. Focus on the aspects that improve gameplay: cultures, colors, location names and histories. What are the aspects of your world that will make your players’ imaginations come alive?
A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words
Clichéd? Yes. True? Also, yes.
Use pictures both to inspire and inform. You could spend a half hour of prep-time crafting an elaborate description of a market place, and then five minutes of game time reading it aloud to your players, or you could show them a picture to set the scene. Print it out and leave it on the table for that location, or use a laptop/tablet. Your players’ imaginations will do a lot to fill out the setting details.
One of the trickier parts of world building for living characters is that you’re never sure where they might go next. You can corral and nudge the story along, but if you force characters to stay only in the parts of the world you’ve created, players will call foul sooner or later. Instead of expending the time and energy to build out every conceivable corner of the world, keep a cheat sheet of names, locations, and one-sentence descriptors to improvise off if and when the players merrily leave the beaten trail. Some systems, such as D&D 3.5 include a list of handy “randomized” tables for descriptors, personalities, locations, and even monster encounters. Use them as necessary, but try to conceal what is or isn’t part of the plan.
Let us know if any of these tips were helpful to you in the comments below! If you’re new to tabletop storytelling, check out “Why All Storytellers Should Play Tabletop Games” and “Discovering Dungeons & Dragons: An Outsiders View of RPGs.”