Wednesday, July 5, 2017

D&D: The Pros and Cons of World Building

(with apologies to Roger Waters)

In a recent Tweet, Mike Shea (@SlyFlourish) made a controversial pronouncement about world building (he has since moderated his stance a bit), but I considered it thought-provoking enough that I wanted to “deep dive” on it a little, especially for those who don’t follow the #dnd Twitter verse… and I also made a bit of a joke that I was going to refute each one of his tip tweets with a blog post (It was only a joke).

I had meant to write this post back when this occurred, but with Origins and other life events, it took me a couple weeks to post about it. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original tweet (possibly deleted, since he clarified his stance later), but you can see a fair amount of the discussion that ensued by searching through the various Tweets and replies.

As noted, Mike moderated his stance after reviewing both sides of the debate, but the original gist of the comments were:

No one cares about your world building. Spend more time becoming a better DM (encounter building, PC hooks, etc) rather than exploring the intricacies of your fictional world, especially given that players will not see (nor possibly care about) most of that effort.

This stirred up a bit of a bees nest, because he is both absolutely correct and utterly wrong at the same time (yes, I know this statement appears self-contradictory).

Roger Dean paintings always put me in a world building mood.


First, I’ll start with the Cons as Mike (and others who agreed with his stance) originally stated them:
  1. If you build a big sprawling world, your players will not see most of it and therefore your effort is wasted.
  2. Time spent world building would be better spent focussing on the PCs, their backgrounds, recent actions in the campaign, etc. Focus on the players and work on what they care about, rather than spending a lot of time on what you care about (which they may not).
  3. If your detail a lot about the world, it doesn’t leave as much room for the players to contribute to the details of the world.
  4. There are oodles of pre-published worlds out there. Use one of them instead of spending scads of time building one from scratch (i.e. - Why reinvent the wheel? Your generic fantasy world is not a special snowflake).
  5. Once you’ve spent a lot of time on your snowflake, you may be hesitant to let the players make large changes to your intended timeline of events or political landscape, which would lead to railroading, rather than letting the player’s agency contribute to the shape of the campaign.
  6. When prep time is constrained, world building time is better spent on game preparation which has a more immediate and lasting impact on the quality of play.
These are actually all perfectly valid points. Assuming you are spending more time on world building than you are prepping for the upcoming game sessions, you may be falling into one or more of these traps.

However, there are also Pros (Pro’s?)... benefits that came out of the discussion which I will attempt to summarize (and add my own thoughts):
  1. World building is one of those solitary D&D activities where the DM can stretch their creative wings. Just like players who build PCs that they may never use in play, it's an exercise in imagination that keeps creative juices flowing and generates new ideas.
  2. It is not necessarily time wasted as most GMs will likely focus development on the areas in which the PCs are already exploring. This creative endeavor will very likely produce NPCs, hooks, and adventure ideas for the campaign.
  3. Without homebrewing, no one would have invented Forgotten Realms (Greenwood’s homebrew), or Eberron **. 
  4. A homebrew is not weighed down by published game world canon, nor is there much mystery left in those well known settings. (i.e. - “What’s over that next mountain?”)
  5. The players may engage more if the GM is world building with the players' interests as well as the their own in mind.
** There is some debate whether Keith Baker created Eberron specifically for the WotC setting competition or if it (or elements of it) existed prior to the competition.

These are all perfectly valid points as well.

All Things in Moderation


Like Mom says, “There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. All things in moderation.”

It always boils down to moderation. If you spend more time world-building than you do on campaign prep, you may be on the wrong track because you are focussing your energies in ways that may not directly lift up your game mastering skills or the player’s engagement. On the other hand, if you focus your world building on the things that your players do care about, then it is likely your creative labours will cultivate some in-game fruits.

One of the best adventures of the 4e era
As an example, I ran a Nentir Vale campaign based on the Reavers of Harkenwold module for D&D 4th Edition. The module doesn’t go into a lot of detail as to why the Iron Circle is invading Harkenwold. They are merely presented as the conquering Bad Guys and no more need be said about that. While Nentir Vale is technically a "published setting", there is actually very little published about it, so it's largely a blank canvas. During my own Nentir Vale home brewing, I built up some backstory about the Iron Circle and gave the villains their own ideals and motivations. This lead directly to several ideas about how the important NPCs would react to the PCs’ interventions and created other hooks as I opened up the sandbox wider. Not all of the notes I wrote up directly impacted the PCs, but it did give me a scaffold upon which to hang future events and adventures. It also turned a "Levels 2 to 4" module into a 3 year campaign encompassing 8 or so levels of content.

There is also something to be said about deriving your own enjoyment from your campaign. A GM’s enjoyment is as important to the game as the player enjoyment. As a GM, you don’t want to burn out, and if world building keeps the fires lit, then more power to you. However, keep in mind that the actions of Queen Forgothername from 400 years ago will probably not be important to your players. It’s fine if you want to write out a complex history for your own sake, but don’t let yourself be frustrated by the player’s disinterest in the historical trivialities of the world… because they likely won’t care. However, throwing in a piece of historical trivia here and there does add verisimilitude and may lead to other adventure hooks (or red herrings) if the players do happen to glom onto a casually-mentioned historical aside.

Roger Dean
As general world building advice, I would recommend prioritizing the aspects of the game world that have a more direct impact on the PCs, their backgrounds, NPC relationships, etc. Detail those people and places with which the players are already building a relationship. I would also prioritize those ideas that make the world a bit different than the traditional fantasy world, especially details that have impact or consequences related to the actions of the PCs. Those consequences will add interest for the players in what might otherwise be setting noise in the background.

There may be times where you are drawing maps or detailing places the players may never explore, and that is OK as an exercise in solitary creative fun, but make sure you also leave time for planning for the next few upcoming sessions of your game and improving your GMing skills.
If the time spent world building negatively impacts your session organization and how well you are actually running the game, you need to rearrange your priorities to improve the game at the table rather than the setting awaiting in the wings.

Final Thoughts


There are always two sides to every coin and at least as many in any debate. World building can be an excellent way to get into a creative flow for your game as well as come up with new ideas for adventures, plot hooks and NPCs... But make sure the hours spent world building help improve the overall game as well. Don’t short change the session preparation side of the equation and make sure your world building involves and integrates the players’ actions and interests.

What fun or interesting ideas have come out of your world building that paid off in the campaign? Tell us in the comments!

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