[OK then! So this was written last April - nine months ago - and I don't have the patience or time to revise it. It is nine thousand words long. It is about roleplaying games, but it speaks to more general concerns about worldbuilding raised in some earlier posts of mine.
I hope you enjoy it. I enjoyed writing this piece, and am glad to have written it and come through on the other side, but it's never felt 100% successful. Please forgive me, jerk.]
Nearly a year ago I wrote 'Worldbuilding Is Storytelling' to fill space on ChattyDM's site while he was away on vacation. Now it's getting included in a li'l book of RPG-related writing, Open Game Table 2, which I can recognize as a nice compliment even if I can't bear to look at the essay anymore. The title is the thesis (how's that for professionalism?!): campaign-world writeups should be evocative rather than exhaustive, and should be built around player action and narrative possibility rather than the sometimes-obsessive documentary/rationalist impulses shared by many RPG players, particularly 'dungeon masters' and the like.
In that essay I tried to make the point that, since the point of roleplaying is playing a role, the campaign guide shares some functions with a playscript, in that it suggests specific (inter)personal dynamics to play. The best campaign setting guides are allusive and evocative without getting mired in statistics. One rule of thumb (wish I'd written this in the essay itself) for a junior worldbuilder: If a piece of information wouldn't enrich a novel or play, you can probably do without it in your RPG setting. Just because you've thought of it doesn't mean it'll help the reader/player. No one cares about the exactly population of your fantasy city, only its scale, its scope. You don't need the name of the Sheriff of Forkinstone's horse, only the fact that since the Sheriff's wife died he's talked to the horse and insists to the townspeople that the horse talks back. The name is apparatus, a mnemonic, an object; the bit about the horse is fiction. Story-stuff.
All this seemed terribly important last year. My wife and I were visiting family (the in-laws!) in Colorado, the Rocky Mountains were vast and cool and unsympathetic all around us, I was a couple of months deep into the hardest writing job I've done (or rather the one I've worked hardest at), and it was nice to vent some spleen.
Now I know more - one year more, more or less - and solitary reflection has led me to a humbling realization - I was right, but I was also wrong - and the neutral observation that such an article really needs lots of illustrative examples more than anything else.
So lemme explain the realization by acting on the observation. Let's consider a couple of bog-standard campaign settings to start.
The Eberron Campaign Setting for D&D 3rd Edition, which was chosen by WotC as its next campaign world (from among 11,000 entrants to a worldbuilding competition) and published to great acclaim in 2004, contains the following timeline:
961 YK Boranel becomes king of Breland.
962 YK Zilargo formally aligns with Breland.
965 YK House Cannith perfects the modern-era war- forged, living constructs designed to fight the Last War.
969 YK Haruuc leads the hobgoblin rebellion, and the nation of Darguun is born.
972 YK House Thuranni splits off from House Phiarlan.
976 YK Regent Moranna of Karrnath outlaws the Order of the Emerald Claw.
980 YK Queen Aurala’s reign of Aundair begins.
986 YK A trio of hags known as the Daughters of Sora Kell arrive in Droaam with an army of trolls, ogres, and gnolls.
987 YK King Boranel pulls settlers back and seals off the land west of the Graywall Mountains. The Daughters of Sora Kell declare the sovereignty of the nation of Droaam.
990 YK The first elemental airships go into service for House Lyrandar.
991 YK Kaius III’s rule of Karrnath begins.
993 YK Jaela Daran assumes the power of the Keeper of the Silver Flame.
994 YK Cyre is destroyed; the Mournland is created.
996 YK The Treaty of Thronehold officially ends the Last War. The treaty officially recognizes the nations of Aundair, Breland, Thrane, Karrnath, the Talenta Plains, Zilargo, Q’barra, the Lhazaar Principalities, the Mror Holds, the Eldeen Reaches, Darguun, and Valenar. House Cannith is ordered to destroy all creation forges; the remaining warforged are granted the rights of sentient beings.
998 YK The campaign begins...
This excerpt nicely (unfortunately) illuminates a point that I tried to make in my previous post but never managed to say explicitly: the only reason to include material in a campaign setting (or stage play!) is that it makes for compelling roles and rich stories. Not a single line of the listing is interesting save for the last; the bit about 'creation forges' is a nice detail (I'm thinking of a magical equivalent of the IAEA), but that's it. The timeline really is just a timeline - it has the look of a scholarly/reference work, but it doesn't do any other work. It's there, presumably, because Eberron creator Keith Baker had the dates worked out, and this is 'how it's done.'
Actually, let's not pussyfoot around the issue: every campaign setting includes shit like this timeline because Tolkien did it. It really doesn't get any more complicated than that. Lord of the Rings is one of the major influences for all Anglo-American fantasy of the last half century, but the designers of roleplaying games obviously take their inspiration as much from LotR's appendices, thick with chronology and etymology and taxonomy, as from the novel itself.
[Insert boilerplate about the autism spectrum and the taxonomic fetish common to geeks/media fans here.]
The banality of the Eberron timeline isn't a major strike against the book; it's just important that we establish some norms, so that when we see an example of literary art in the guise of a roleplaying game we'll recognize it right away.
The most well-regarded Eberron book, near as I can tell, is Sharn: City of Towers, a guide to the New York City of that fantasy world. (Ken Hite's first rule of worldbuilding: 'Start with Earth.' If only...) Here's an excerpt from that book's entry on dining options:
Striking views enhance a meal, and for that purpose no restaurant can compete with the dozen or so establishments in Skyway. Of those, perhaps the best known is the Celestial Vista Restaurant, a tourist attraction. In-the-know locals celebrate special occasions at the Cloud Dragon or the Azure Gateway, both of which have views as stunning as the Celestial Vista’s, food no less impressive, and generally smaller crowds. All three restaurants in Skyway serve all of their food purified by House Ghallanda.
A very different, but no less striking, view can be had at the Lava Pit, an up-and-coming restaurant in — of all places — Tavick’s Cogs, in the heart of one of the city’s industrial districts. True to its name, the Lava Pit overlooks a gigantic forge powered by molten rock, suffusing the place with lurid light. The restaurant began as little more than a hole in the wall with an interesting location, serving a variety of barbecued meats in a Shadow Marches style. Its popularity has grown tremendously, allowing the restaurant to improve its facility and expand its menu (though spicy Marches barbecue remains its specialty), making it by far the most upscale establishment of any kind in the Cogs.
For variety of cuisine, no region of the city can match the Menthis Plateau, with its diverse population. Culinary purists argue that the only place to sample halfling cuisine is in Little Plains, and likewise for the other racial neighborhoods in Menthis, but most people agree that the University district in Upper Menthis is the best place to sample the wide variety of cuisines Sharn has to offer. Halfling specialities, gnome delights, elf cuisine, Karrnathi fare, and even exotic Riedran food are all available...
In other words: 'Sharn is the New York City of Eberron; map accordingly.' See the problem here? The quoted passage (which is about half of the section on food) offers lots of detail that would be useful to, say, the Script Supervisor on a TV show, the cat in charge of watching over continuity. But the Dungeon Master is not that, at least not primarily. She's a writer - arguably the head writer, or the writing producer. She cocreates stories with her fellow writers (the players), who double as actors (and occasionally grips). This material is mostly useless; it's there for flavour, but not for the players - it's to seed the DM's imagination.
This is wrong way to go about that task. Indeed, shy of listing actual street addresses and colour combinations for the outdoor signage, it's hard to think of a bigger waste of space in a fantasy-city guidebook. Food and dining culture are such rich topics in themselves, so full of historical weight and personal meaning, that it's somewhere between disappointing and disgusting to read material so antiseptic and weightless. You're describing a fantasy city, you're free to imagine any kind of dining experience you want, and the best you can do is...a nice view? A list of 'ethnic' food types without even a glance at what makes them exciting? Rubbish.
(C'mon now: exactly what do elves eat? Why is 'elvish dining' worth dramatic exploration? Do beings that live 500 years have a different attitude toward eating schedules from ours? If you have enough cash to sit on a volcano for dinner, wouldn't you demand something astonishing on your plate too? Are there warforged whose sympathy for humans extends to, say, an interest in the culinary arts, the sensual pleasures their robotic anatomy denies them?)
Don't get me wrong, some of the material in this book is superb. It's an exhausting book, but its topic is a rich and vibrant city with a compelling fantasy-steampunk feel, and the subject matter alone brings me back. I did include it in my 'good examples' list in the original post, after all, and stand by its inclusion; if the monumental, obsessively detailed Ptolus: City by the Spire makes the list, so does this one. I come away from Sharn: City of Towers wanting to read novels set in the world - in other words, to be allowed to skip the goddamn appendix, you feel me?
I bring up NYC again to make a point I left out of the earlier essay: if you can start your fantasy world from real-world structures and networks, you get enormous amounts of imaginative/cultural capital 'for free.' As many RPG theorists and tipsters have pointed out, no one cares about 'lvl6 Drow rogue Gazzt Ga'skeyn, scourge of the Partha Peninsula' without pretty heavy context, but 'Gazzt Ga'skeyn, a spider-elf Jesse James' immediately conjures up a host of images - not least the generic baggage of 'Jesse James,' who after all lived in a fantasy setting called the 'Wild West'...
Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms is one of the flagship settings for D&D, and has been ever since the first full-scale Realms releases in 1987. The Realms are legendary among RPG players - or perhaps 'infamous' is the right word. On one hand, they're among the most detailed RPG settings ever released, documented in thousands of pages of game materials and tens of thousands of pages of fiction (including R.A. Salvatore's surprisingly popular novels). Greenwood's home campaign is (in) famous for its level of throwaway detail; when TSR purchased the rights to the Realms and asked whether they were worked out or created on the fly, he responded 'Yes to both!' and meant it.
On the other hand, the Realms are among the most ploddingly generic RPG settings ever put to paper. They have personality of a kind, but it's Greenwood's: the escapist fantasy of a slightly pervy game nerd who wrote his first Forgotten Realms stories at age eight and whose best-known fictional creation is the near-omnipotent (and quite sexually successful) superbeing Elminster, one of modern fantasy's most transparent Mary Sues and an unbearable fucking bore.
The 320-page 3rd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting begins with Elminster's game stats: 3/4-page of tiny print. The prestige-format hardcover volume is full of equally tiny letters and equal focus on minute detail. Many 3rd/4th edition D&D players consider it the best campaign setting book ever made; certainly it's one of the densest D&D resources put out by Wizards of the Coast in the last decade. Here's a promising-sounding section of the FRCS 3e, chosen at random:
Creatures of the Outer Planes
In addition to deities and the souls of their followers, outsiders of many shapes, sizes, and temperaments inhabit the planes. These native creatures include planar animals, guardinals, tieflings, and elemental creatures. Within the realm of a divine power, the natives are loyal to that deity. Creatures native to a plane shared by several deities have an affinity for all of them.
On their home planes, these creatures are the natives and therefore not subject to outsider-based warding magic (such as the bodily contact prevention aspect of protection from evil spells, if evil) or attacks that would send them back to their home plane. Note that in the planes and realms it is still possible to use summoning spells, although quite often a summoned creature of like alignment to the current plane is actually summoned from the plane the caster is on, much as with a summon nature’s ally spell.
Spells such as summon monster and other effects that bring outsiders to Toril follow rules based on the nature and resonance of Toril and its associated planes. All summoned outsiders come from a realm or plane appropriate or similar to their alignment and type. The deity living in a realm determines a realm’s alignment, and a plane created and shared by several deities reflects all of the alignments of the powers living there. If a priest summons a creature that is appropriate to his deity’s plane or realm, the creature actually comes from there.
For example, an outsider dog brought by summon monster I (see Chapter 11 of the Player’s Handbook) has a lawful good alignment and comes from any plane or realm that has a lawful good alignment, such as the realm of Torm (a lawful good deity) or the Golden Hills (a plane inhabited by lawful good, neutral good, and neutral deities). An outsider eagle brought by summon monster II has a chaotic good alignment and comes from the realm of Sune (a chaotic good deity) or from Arvandor (a plane inhabited by neutral good, chaotic good, and chaotic neutral deities). A neutral evil salamander might be a native of the Elemental Plane of Fire (because it is a fire creature), the realm of Shar (neutral evil), or the plane of Fury’s Heart (chaotic evil, neutral evil).
There are some exceptions to these rules. For example, the gnome deities have an affinity for burrowing creatures such as badgers. There are badgers in the Golden Hills, even though the summoned badger listed in summon monster I is chaotic good and no chaotic good deities live in the Golden Hills.
This is the section of the book on what comes from the realms beyond when you dick around with summoning magic; in other words, this is a prime chance to fire the reader's imagination. But it's goddamn soporific! Nearly 500 words of pure adolescent fantasy-by-numbers pap. I can imagine a (rare) circumstance in which a player might need this information, but what player is going to want even a single paragraph of this kind of stuff? 'The fake-earth is ringed by a collection of buckets full of monsters, each of whose moral character corresponds precisely to the "alignment" of the bucket it's drawn from.'
There's no drama here, and the rule presented (plane/monster alignment concordance) is trivial. I mean that literally: it took Greenwood and his coauthors 500 words to share a single piece of trivia. You can write this stuff but sure you can't feel it.
Yet Greenwood obviously feels it. I don't want to be mean-spirited, but there's something about Greenwood's writing that's disturbing in a very familiar way: to me it feels compulsive. He once said that his intention for the FRCS 3e was that a DM could open the book to any page, put down his finger, and build a campaign around whatever detail he finds there. He nailed that part: the FRCS 3e is a well-oiled machine for generating endless streams of utter cliché. It records in detail the private fantasyscape of the man who proudly said this of himself:
My concept of Alustriel as de facto ruler of Silverymoon has always been glossed over by TSR (and now WotC) for Code of Ethics/Code of Conduct reasons, because I see her as the Realms equivalent of ‘the Queen of Courtly Love,’ presiding over a Court that amuses itself (along with delighting in wit, new songs, new inventions or clever craftsmanship, and fashions) with dalliances, courtship, and lovemaking. Er, lots of lovemaking. :}
In the same way that real-world kings in some places and times enjoyed droit de signeur [French for: “As the King, I have the right to sleep with anyone” :}], Alustriel takes many lovers for short periods of time, and is one of those rare kind, understanding, warm people who has the knack of staying close, affectionate friends with former lovers, even in the presence of other ex-flames. In fact, it’s quite likely that any meeting of courtiers will contain a majority of folk who have visited the royal bed or baths at one time or another -- and most of them remain fiercely loyal to Alustriel and to her dream of Silverymoon.
“Aerasume” is a surname, and all of the tall, strapping lads who bear it share the same father, who remains Alustriel’s lover on nights when she needs comforting, but these days is often away from Silverymoon on explorative expeditions into the wilderlands. As I said: with very few exceptions, Alustriel remains on good terms with her former lovers, and manages somehow to keep them comfortable with each other (I guess it’s like being members of a club one very much enjoys being part of). So they all get along well together. At long-ago GenCons I often ran Realms play sessions in which PCs were sent with an urgent message to Alustriel [a stranger to them by all but reputation] through a secret portal that admitted them to the Palace but removed all metal -- weapons and, er, BELT BUCKLES -- and all enchanted materials [items and garments vanished, spells operating on the bodies of the PCs just melted away] in doing so. Stumbling over their own falling clothing but under imperative, overriding orders to get to Alustriel right away (and bearing a pass that would let them do so), the racing PCs were directed to a certain chamber, and burst into it to discover that it was taken up by a vast, shallow bath filled with warm rosewater and naked people making love. SOMEwhere in all of that sliding flesh was Alustriel. Their mission: find her.
I loved watching players’ faces, right at that moment.
I know it's inappropriate or at least unfair to hold this kind of thing against Greenwood; his professional writing is one thing and his fantasy life is another. Yet for the last 35 years his professional life has been organized around making his fantasy life available to adolescent males craving escapist adventure. And the fantasies he's shared, sometimes quite skillfully and always with admirable generosity and fellow-feeling, are frankly juvenile. Greenwood's a bit like Steve Wozniak in his aggressive cheeriness and slightly unsettling naivete, the key difference between them being that Woz is one of the true geniuses of the early PC era (whose personality changed markedly after an auto accident, as I recall), while Greenwood's fertile imagination seems to bend toward a kind of dedicated cliché-recycling program: ecologically sound and creatively frustrating.
And that's one of the big problems with the roleplaying game industry and hobby as they've evolved since the early 70's: Greenwood is one of the canonical RPG worldbuilders, and the presentation of the Realms is equally canonical. The emphasis on comprehensiveness, on fantasy world-simulation even at the expense of reader/player narcolepsy, would be merely annoying if it didn't pose a real (however small) development obstacle to adolescent fantasists who might fall into the Realms. That kind of shit leads indirectly to the hollow abstraction of The X-Files and LOST: dead-on impersonations of better and deeper genre examples, immensely complicated 'mythology' that doesn't bother illuminating anything but itself, and a dippy transparent wish-fulfillment (Greenwood's Elminster sex fantasies, The X-Files's breathless romance of Illuminated cool kids, the endless daddy-issues regression therapy 101 of Lost) that only occasionally gives way to something like autonomous fictional energy. To life.
I'm sure the Realms are utterly alive for Ed Greenwood, but that is not enough. Tolkien isn't famous for the fucking Silmarillion; in order to get anyone to care about Middle-Earth he did the hard work of writing one nice children's novel and one darkly brilliant war-and-remembrance novel for grownups. There is no comparable literary legacy among the worldbuilders of TSR and WotC - not one fantasy world among the D&D settings in print that's the equal of Middle-Earth, never mind an actual literary successor to Tolkien et al. - and precious few in the entire RPG hobby or industry. Say what you want about how much fun you had exploring Castle Ravenloft or the Tomb of Horrors, but they're respectively a knockoff and a dumb joke.
Worldbuilding is storytelling; the apparatus of the 'campaign world' is a machine for generating adventure, not a transcription of your private fantasies.
So where's the good stuff nowadays? What the hell does it look like?
The Day After Ragnarok
Hitler's magicians invoke Jörmungandr the Midgard Serpent, which opens its mouth 350 miles wide and swallows three troop convoys and a handful of aircraft carriers off the Portugese coast. The B-29 bomber Strange Cargo is redirected on Truman's emergency orders and flies into the eye of Jörmungandr to release its deadly nuclear payload. The serpent dies, but not slowly, and not without exacting a terrible toll on those who summoned it (and every other living creature): Germany is vaporized by the Serpentfall, the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. drowns beneath a miles-high tidal wave, and the world-snake's body blocks the Mediterranean Sea having swallowed all the United Kingdom.
The shock resounded around the world, but nowhere more than in the icy depths of the Caucasus Mountains. These peaks that Hitler tried to reach in 1942 (on what advice, learned from what unknown insects’ mead?) held the bound giant who had betrayed the gods. Hitler would call him Loge or Loki, the Eton-and-Oxford lads would have known he was Prometheus, but to the Ossetians of the valleys he was Nasren, greatest of the Narts, the giants at the dawn of the world. The thunder of the Serpent’s fall shook him loose from his icy chains and he slid down the mountains, walking north toward Moscow, where he knew another god-hater ruled.
East of the Serpent’s fall, the Red Army was mostly intact, and Eastern Europe likewise, safe in the Red Army’s embrace. Russia had lost little, and the few hundred thousand dead in Hungary were nothing next to the thirty million that Stalin had killed or left to die in the last two decades. Moreover, the deadly venom fallout never touched Mother Russia; her monsters would be solely of human making. And of the giants’: Molotov and Suslov declared Nasren a bogatyr, a glorious Russian giant born of Soviet Man from the scientifically nurtured soil of Soviet Georgia. Stalin’s scientists (and those who had been oh-so-recently Hitler’s scientists, at distant camps in Poland) pulled venom from the fallen beast and injected it into “volunteers,” or collected Nasren’s wisdom about the dawn time. Mysterious ﬁres burned all across Siberia. Frozen mammoths struggled back to their feet, and resumed chewing their buttercup breakfasts. Other giants clambered out of the permafrost, or sailed south on the ice: Soslan of the steel body, Batyrez the invincible swordsman, Satanya the beautiful. It is a shame, Stalin told each of them, looking at them with his wise brown eyes, it is a shame that your sons the Ossetians and the Ingush were killed to the last child by the fascists and the imperialists. It is a shame, they agreed, and their own icy eyes narrowed.
This is Kenneth Hite's Day After Ragnarok, a truly great RPG setting.
Most gamebook prose is workmanlike at best, but Hite is a master; not a word is wasted in this short passage. Count the subtle turns in the first paragraph alone: the secret history of Hitler's 1942 expedition and the insinuating phrase "what unknown insects' mead"; the rich territory alluded to with 'Nasren, greatest of the Narts'; the incredibly efficient tone-setting of 'the Eton-and-Oxford lads would have known,' which suggests not just a style and setting but a very specific genre of sci-fi/pulp storytelling; the multiple names for Prometheus establishing a kind of mythic matrix for maximum idea-portability; and of course the sly political stage-setting, 'another god-hater,' establishing Stalin not just as a political figure but as a character of myth. In a single paragraph Hite marshals a huge array of symbolic resources in order to compound the depth and meaning of each world-element.
And look there in the second paragraph: this is a 'Weird War Two' story of a kind, which means somehow you've got to deal with the Holocaust, and Hite does a neat little concentration-camp two-step here. (I really really never expected to write that particular phrase.) Hite is telling a Cold War story, of a kind, and he draws a dark line between the sickly evils perpetrated by Hitler's and Stalin's (mad) scientists. Instead of being about armies and governments, the creepiness here is the work of magicians and technicians - Hite lets young American players' somewhat murky sense of '20th century totalitarianism(s)' work in his favour here; the history is strange enough to be scary and familiar enough to force connection. Hite's evocation of eerie Soviet industrial-technophilia plays on modern historical (and narrative-generic!) knowledge while allowing players to experience horrible state actions in cosmic (i.e. 'differently, perhaps more accessibly horrible') terms.
The entire book is as rich as this opening. Here's a throwaway sidebar from later on in the slim (128-page) volume:
Top Five Places To Be Attacked By Pirates
In addition to the five places listed here, ships on the high seas increasingly suffer from submarine piracy: “ronin” Japanese sub captains and “wolfshead” German U-Boat skippers bribe port officials for sailing manifests and course plots, then hijack cargoes in the empty Pacific or Atlantic. Some steal small valuables, others whole ships: they sell the loot in Peru or Argentina.
THE ARABIAN SEA
To shore up local support, their British governors give fractious warlords based in Somaliland or Aden free rein to harass Russian (or Russian-friendly) shipping; Russia (and increasingly Congress India) have begun to fight back by arming and supporting Gujarati and Tamil pirates.
Air pirates ﬂy out of camps in the increasing “rain shadow” of the Serpent’s coil across the Sahara, attacking cargoes traveling on the few roads and rivers in French Africa. Rumor has it that at least one pirate mastermind (“Le Robur”) has run an elevator cable over the Serpent in a remote location.
THE GREAT LAKES
From Duluth to Toronto, every lake city sponsors armed vessels to protect its trade; these privateers become pirates in times of peace, or whenever they see a good opportunity come along.
THE GULF COAST
Raiders based in the Bahamas and other islands swoop down on salvage operations, trading posts, and anything else that looks proﬁtable or interesting from New Orleans to North Carolina. They can always sell their takings in Mexico, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, or to another salvage operation.
THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
Chinese and Filipino families run large-scale shipping operations that easily turn into pirate enterprises, or back again, depending on local conditions. “Freedom ﬁghters” from Celebes to Haiphong to Hong Kong prey on (mostly) Japanese ships to pay the costs of resistance, often with a handsome proﬁt to themselves. American authorities in the Philippines turn a blind eye to stolen Japanese goods; Japanese governors in China, likewise for other loot.
That 'Arabian Sea' entry is a bit opaque, even if 'Somali warlords' has an immediate resonance for modern Americans (even if they've only ever seen Black Hawk Down rather than the nightly news). But just look at the 'French Africa' paragraph: the possibilities leap right off the page. What's left of France still has holdings in Africa? Is the 'colonial' government able to maintain order even now? How valuable is an irrigated Sahara to the surviving Euro/African powers? What's up with that elevator cable - and what's at the top? Plus, compare the ready-to-wear sci-fi conceit of the 'rain shadow' to this bit from the Forgotten Realms 3e book:
An outsider eagle brought by summon monster II has a chaotic good alignment and comes from the realm of Sune (a chaotic good deity) or from Arvandor (a plane inhabited by neutral good, chaotic good, and chaotic neutral deities).
Greenwood desperately wants you to play, he's willing to help you figure out how, but Hite's writing is always concerned with giving you a reason why. It generates its own energy and refreshes its premises. Moreover, the relationship between states and cultures in a modern campaign setting is bound to be a good deal more complicated than in a pure fantasy setting. The reason isn't hard to imagine: Hite doesn't get to cook up his fantasy world from scratch, so he can't just assemble a worldwide political order to taste, but is forced to reckon with already-existing complexities. Greenwood (like Baker, or that Gygax fellow, or...) can stick to writing about nations that embody broad moral principles, if he wants. Hence the idea of an 'evil magocracy,' say. Hite can play Stalin's secular god complex for cosmic shivers while still exploring the block-by-block complexity of a real-world city's microcultures. He has no choice. That's what 'start with earth' means, after all: it saves you the bad sort of trouble while causing you a heaping helping of the good kind, productively constraining you and forcing you to build a fantasy from complex cultural materials. When you start with earth you don't give in to the escapist/fantasist's temptation to wish the world away.
An even richer example of Hite's seemingly casual (and by the way funny) worldbuilding:
Top Five Places To Find A Remote Castle Ruled By A Madman
THE POISONED LANDS
Did you know there are more than 70 castles in New England, and that many again in New York alone? That there are 30 castles in each of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and 25 in Illinois? Eccentric millionaires, reactionary prison architects, and occasionally genuine European aristocrats built castles throughout the United States down to the 1930s. Without any nearby artillery—or government—their potential truly blossoms.
'Reactionary prison architects.' It's the fantasy roleplayer's gold mine: historical context, architectural justification, mythic concordance, and ready-to-go regional setting detail for a goddamn mad wizard's dungeon. Compare that to the paper-thin backgrounds that usually go with RPG 'dungeon crawls' and the value of Hite's worldbuilding is clear. You can't help but do more with narrative and character development in a setting like this, because you don't have to expend so many imaginative resources building the setting from scratch. Its full complexity is available intuitively - in the form of memory rather than a best guess at correct generic structure.
Well, but what about whole-hog fantasy worldbuilding? Sure, Ken Hite can do alt-myth-history modern pulp easily enough, but what would a good medieval fantasy campaign setting look like? If Greyhawk and the Forgotten Realms and (hmm) Dragonlance fall short, if the default D&D 4e 'setting' is totally denuded - Christ, it is - how do you write this stuff well?
Lemme be blunt:
By which I mean: Compelling is more important than comprehensive. In other words, a good RPG supplement needn't broaden its setting, but it must deepen it. Hamlet provides no information about the power structure in Shakespeare's 'Denmark,' and King Lear is set in a totally abstract dream-England, yet both plays are (partly) about royal succession and court intrigue. The playwright eschewed every detail that didn't make for a stronger story (roleplay). The same principles of setting- and story-construction apply to worldbuilding for games (and e.g. comics, though let's not talk about that).
An example from Uresia: Grave of Heaven.
S. John Ross's Uresia is one of the great RPG campaign settings - or rather, one of the great setting books. Uresia was originally written for the Big Eyes Small Mouth anime/manga RPG, got a D20 conversion later, and is soon to be released in 'systemless' form; indeed its statistics are almost meaningless. Uresia's value comes from Ross's efforts at nontraditional storytelling. Even the timeline is interesting. Here's a snippet of Ross's Uresian pantheon, the only information he provides about one of the world's four surviving gods:
The Sea Dragon: The serpentine goddess of wind and storm at sea, and the protector of the secrets of the deep. A fickle and destructive god, driven by alien motives and fond of drowning anything weak enough to require air to breathe. Villains who attempt to get on her good side end up just as drowned as anyone else. She commands a tiny secret cult of children.
By the usual RPG standards, this is a frustratingly limited bit of setting detail. Of course it's 'gameable' - if you can't figure out what to do with a secret cult of sea dragon-worshipping children there's no hope for you - but it's just so thin. No statistics? No name, no home base, no physical description? No 'alignment,' even? Yet Ross's decision to keep the gods a little abstract is a smart one. Why play a roleplaying game? Because they're wonderful. What inspires wonder? Not statistics, lemme tell you. Ross could write that the Sea Dragon's physical form is 150' long if he likes, but every reader's image of 150' will be idiosyncratic anyhow - better to allow the reader (presumably the gamemaster/referee/storyteller) to provide her own physical parameters for the Dragon, according to the natural categories of her imagination. Ross can drool out the contents of his brain regardless of shape or content - the 'facts,' after a fashion - or he can help you feel what he feels. Which do you think is the more generative relationship, in the long run?
(On the other hand, which experience comes more naturally to the peculiar demographic that's drawn to tabletop roleplaying games?)
We'll come back to Uresia in a moment. First let's swing by a new D&D product, Hammerfast, which details the geography and inhabitants of a small dwarven necropolis.
The genericism of this product is almost touching. Writer Mike Mearls is lead designer for D&D 4e and a highly-regarded figure in mainstream RPGs, and Hammerfast's weak spots feel like honest effort falling short. The good bits are just a teeeeeeny bit less interesting than they should be. Here's one of Mearls's major NPC descriptions, advertised on the book's opening page as '':
LOREMASTER GELD SEEKINGSTONE The head of the Lore Guild long ago gave up on research and study in favor of politics. Geld is Marsinda's greatest rival, and he constantly seeks ways to undermine the High Master's authority. Geld, an opportunist, takes a great interest in hiring adventurers. One of the wealthiest people in town, he sponsors mercenaries to undertake expeditions against monsters. Any victories his hirelings achieve help establish him as a benefactor of the town, especially if he can avenge a looted caravan or track down notorious criminals.
My first thought upon reading this was: 'Oh, so he arranges for bandits to loot caravans, smiles through the inevitable hue'n'cry, splashily arrests the baddies, then releases them into the wild when no one's looking (after dealing out their percentage). Of course.' A plausible hidden motivation, rudimentary psychology (amoral loremaster tries to maximize his degree of connection to the town by readily-available means, finds himself involved with Bad Guys), and a handful of possible stories suggested themselves right off. On the other hand, Geld's main job in Mearls's writeup is obviously to assign quests to the players: he's a structural element, and that's it. Similarly, 'Lord Commander Tenkar Stoneshield' is the head of the town guard, and 'discipline is lax among the guards' precisely so that the players will end up front'n'center in the Big Battle that Mearls has planned for character level 10.
On the other hand, there's this beautiful detail on page 12:
The dwarf Telg, a ghost, tends to the trees. He appears at midnight and walks from tree to tree, speaking to them as though they were old friends. Most folk assume that Telg fades away during the day, but in truth he simply goes about invisibly under the sun. Thus, he overhears many conversations while he walks among the trees. Telg can conjure a small rain cloud to appear above the trees, and during long, hot, dry spells, a solitary gray cloud hovers over the Trade Boulevard.
Kralick, an orc who died trying to cut down the trees, is Telg's nemesis. The orc appears each night and attempts to hew the trees with a ghostly axe. Telg succeeds in driving him off each time. The orc has sworn to either fell a tree or find and shatter his axe in revenge for its betrayal. A cackling, half-mad fiend, he taunts and howls at travelers each night.
There's a touching story hidden in there, I think, but Telg and Kralick are in the writeup to set up a 'PCs guard the orchard from Kralick after digging up his magical weapon for themselves' skill challenge. (The 'skill challenge' mechanic, one of Mearls's babies on D&D 4e by the look of things, is the most interesting and least successful bit of design in the game.) Telg is around to provide information about hidden doings in the town, too, but that's all Mearls provides - the hard work of building an interesting plot around that mechanism remains for the players, or rather the DM.
On one hand, the 'Now you go imagine the hell out of it' posture is admirable; on the other hand a less abstract conflict might more readily prompt reader/player imagination. Again, why not start with a familiar relationship structure? The dwarf and orc could have a relationship like, say...
- Jim Halpert and Dwight Schrute
- Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner
- Ralph Kramden and Norton
- Legolas and Gimli
- Obama and Clinton (or McCain)
- Yorick Brown and Ampersand (or Dr Mann)
- Bugs and Porky
See where I'm going with this? I read the description of the melancholy dwarf and the yapping cackling orc and I start trying to fill in a relationship between them - but if you give a strong relationship right on the page, I'll start figuring out what to do with it. The characters aren't dressing or 'fluff,' they're tools for storytelling - or just toys for play. Either way, shouldn't they be interesting tools?
(There's a simple reason why SimCity is a great game and Spore isn't: The advertisement for SimCity is 'Come be mayor!' The ad for Spore is 'Come play with this toy!' Both applications are toys; the former suggests a game and nested subgames, while the latter needs further explanation. SimCity is an abstract open-ended simulation like Spore, yeah, but in SimCity the rope pulling the player forward goes taut sometimes. It has to. You miss some of the complexity of storywork if you think 'evoke' is opposed to or even extricable from 'demand' and 'compel.')
As written, keeping Kralick from cutting down the trees is a game whose motivation is 'winning the Kralick game.' But that's a relatively abstract approach: without some (implicit or explicit) emotional pull the DM/players will recur to readily-available tools for generating the adventure. In this case that will be, alas,
and the last thing we want here is genericism, right? Isn't the best stuff going to happen when we overflow genre boundaries? Shouldn't that be our explicit goal?
Don't get me wrong: Hammerfast is an excellent product of its kind. But its powerful genericism (orcs/goblins/bandits in the perilous mountains! rumour says there is treasure in the dungeons!) is hard to avoid. The best parts of Hammerfast are thrilling though:
26. THE ICE TOMB Kavik Torlin, a half-orc, drives one of the coaches. A bit dimwitted, he keeps careful notes on where he takes each passenger each day. The notes are handy reminders for him, but the bandit Carthain's spy in town, Tarras (see Location 12), pays one of the inn's maids to steal the discarded list each day. Many of Kavik's passengers end up as victims of Carthain's gang as Carthain learns of business transactions in town by studying who visits whom. The bandit lord plans to use innocent Kavik as a scapegoat if ever the need arises.
That right there is pure 24K gold. Kavik, Carthain, and especially the maid at the inn (God damn it, Mearls, why doesn't she have a name? Must we dive headfirst into sexist cliché at every single opportunity? Do you really not see that she's the most interesting figure in this little story?) are rich roles crying out for bold play. Hell, you could structure several evenings' worth of play around the unforgivable manipulation, unintentional betrayal, and teary apotheosis of Kavik the manchild. (He's a half-orc. Hmm, what's the other half? Is he alone? The one nobody looks at is the one who sees everything. Can adolescent male fantasy gamers learn to treat Kavik with the dignity they'd unthinkingly accord heroes-at-arms? Wouldn't that be a mighty fine accomplishment for an escapist entertainment...)
Worldbuilding is an emotional act. Dungeons & Dragons isn't sociology, for Christ's sake; it's drama. Undramatic detail doesn't belong. Kavik and his betrayers are the stuff of drama; Hammerfast isn't all on that level, but it ain't bad at all. Just...middling. Is that a horrible thing to say? Can you go through life happy, thinking of 'middling' as an insult?
Back to Uresia
I mentioned the Uresian timeline. Here are a few entries from the middle of that section:
1202 Grail Park is constructed in Shadow River.
1210 The trapped bodies of Ondro and Beshek are discovered, secretly, in the Volenwood (on the future site of the town of Delerain).
1214 The Moon Stones, the key to the Lenthan Gates, are first discovered.
1221 Duke Orgo dies; Lord Governor Quain reinstates trial-by-combat in Shadow River.
1261 Laöch begins building new railroads.
1277 Lady Ephemeran of Winnow begins taking demon lovers.
1291 Sindra recognises Boru as a place of High Magic.
1294 Village of Mullinham granted recognition by the Lyrian church of Eagan (will later become Rogan's Heath).
Comparison with the Eberron timeline is instructive: Ross's Uresian chronology touches potentially earthshaking events like the discovery of Ondro and Beshek (two gods long believed dead) as lightly as it treats parochial recognition of the Village of Mullinham. The Eberron book, meanwhile, has its gaze fixed on the very Bigness of its world, as its timeline reveals: it's all kings, countries, and world-changing magic. What in the world are players supposed to do with a tidbit like 976 YK: Regent Moranna of Karrnath outlaws the Order of the Emerald Claw? Yet the capriciousness of the Uresian timeline encodes story seeds and inspiration: it doesn't really matter who reinstated trial-by-combat in Shadow River, what matters is that (1) 'justice' in that city is carried out by dangerous means specific to its place and time, (2) this is the Governor's idea, and (3) the place is called 'Shadow River' rather than the millionth small variation on 'Karrnath.'
The tone of the Eberron timeline is relentlessly self-serious (though the setting leaves some room for spirited Indiana Jones-style pulp hijinks). Ross's Uresia actually encompasses tones and genres other than Portentous High Fantasy Boilerplate, in places as unlikely as the official history! Another example: Ross pulls the usual 'rumour has it there are dungeons here' trick, referring to lost catacombs left over from the Skyfall (Uresias's founding apocalypse), but he takes that setting detail one crucial step further, taking about the meaning of the idea within the storyworld:
As more sorcerers begin to accept the Sindrans' theory that Uresia is built on the ruins of Heaven, Koval is grasping the opportunity to appeal for sympathy. Yem is gloomy because it's built on death, Koval sorcerors reason, and thus Koval was a greedy, corrupt superpower because it's built on the graves of a veritable pantheon of conquest, madness, and abuse-the-servants gods...
[N]o clear evidence of active god-ghosts has been found. Many secretly suspect the horrible truth: Koval was the way it was because it was run by power-hungry, immoral villains - and its long road to redemption will depend on a comparable record of charity, honesty and fairness. There seems to be no scapegoat.
If you're able to apply the Koval fantasy-history template to a real-world moral question like 'How could WWII (or the Holocaust) happen?' then you're well on your way to Ross's thematic framework for Uresia:
The whirlwind variety of the setting needed a glue to bind it together, a theme that would be reflected differently in every kingdom. That theme had to be strong enough to hold the world in place, but not so bullying that it led to some kind of suffocating “metaplot.” I settled on “Tradition versus Reality” as my keynote theme, the tension (often violent, historically speaking) between the honored past and the needy present, and one with lots of interesting hooks to both American and Japanese culture in my lifetime.
Of course the Uresian timeline seems arbitrary: history's job is not to tell some group's favoured story, and mere human experience refuses to correspond to convenient scale.
A moment for Candlewick, and then our task is nearly done
Benjamin Baugh's Dreadful Secrets of Candlewick Manor is...well, it's extraordinary. This supplement for Baugh's Monsters and Other Childish Things is even better than the streamlined, evocative game that spawned it. Here's the beginning of the character-creation sequence for Candlewick, an example of scene-setting so compact and efficient that you might not even notice what it's doing. Our setting is...
...a dreadful orphanage.
Begin with an image. Start with a cue. Something like, “The big black car pulls away, leaving your orphan at the great front stairs to Candlewick Manor, with her meager belongings in a small trunk at her feet.” At that moment, who is your character? All that has gone before is a mystery to be explored and revealed.
Nailing down who this lonely girl is right now is essential. If someone offers her some hot cocoa, how will she respond? Will she warm immediately to the friendly face? Will she be wary? Will she suspect some trick? Will she simply refuse? Will she answer at all? You don’t need to know why she would react as she does just that she does so. “Why” is to be revealed through play.
Frame your character in a moment in time, a frozen now, and describe it: how she’s dressed, what her expression reveals, how she holds herself.
A big black car. Of course. Great front stairs. Meager belongings, a small trunk. Yesssss, yes. Hot cocoa from a kindly employee...perhaps 'some trick.' If you've read/watched any of Baugh's touchstone texts (Lemony Snicket, City of Lost Children, even Twin Peaks) then you're already assembling images and relationships and imaginative postures. The role of the little lost orphan cries out for bold performance. (Think of hapless teenager Peter Parker wearing a spider mask to hide his millionfold compound eyes, clicking mandibles, gross bulbous arachnid form...)
Baugh's writing does something amazing: it evokes setting and character in linked terms, inviting the players to create their characters as part of a storyworld rather than as functional tokens in a gamespace.
Worldbuilding is storytelling, but what is worldbuilding?
Why build a world? To pass time, fine, but primarily to do things with it. To live there privately or among friends, one way or another. The act of worldbuilding isn't the same as 'selling your campaign setting,' of course, but (of course) as gamemaster you're going to have to 'sell' the world to your players, just as an author of fiction has to sell her creations first to buyer and then to reader - to compel personal investment. Most GMs (and most novelists) (but sadly not all) understand intuitively that this is best accomplished not through an almanac but through a process of evocation and emotional connection. As usual we must defer to David Milch here:
The tactics of fictive persuasion have nothing to do with reasoned discourse. [...] The important point that I'm trying to make is that storytelling has nothing, whatsoever, to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It's an illusion. It's a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That's the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth.
The standard presentation of setting material in RPGs utilizes the model of an encyclopedia; the purpose of this model is to enable readers (not necessarily players) to 'hold a world in their hands,' as it were, and most publishers - indeed most RPG writers, particularly in fantasy and sci-fi gaming - happily fall into the trap of thinking that fictional 'worlds' are comprehensive models rather than premises or tools. Even the 'old school' designers of the 70's and 80's tended to work within a 'modeling' paradigm instead of availing themselves of the millennia-old practices of the dramatic worldbuilder. (If gamebook fiction didn't tend to be exquisitely bad it could be relied on to do some of this scene-setting work.)
We tend to think of 'worldbuilding' as 'working out the details of a fictional setting,' but this assessment tends to rest on two tacit assumptions worth making explicit:
1) Worldbuilding must be revealed; an effective piece of worldbuilding must 'work' in some other context, e.g. a fictional narrative. Therefore the imagined world must consist of more than is presented - but from the reader's standpoint only what's presented matters.
2) 'Completeness' in worldbuilding is an illusion, and maintaining that illusion is not a rejection of sound worldbuilding but an essential component of it.
Why was Tolkien a great worldbuilder? He was consistent with names, generous with evocative detail, and attentive to the small details and seeming trivialities of individual life in Middle-Earth. Not for nothing does Lord of the Rings begin with a birthday party and a 'short cut to mushrooms' in the region of Middle-Earth that most closely resembles a real-world location (Tolkien's rural England). It's important for Tolkien's readers that he thought through the details of his fantasy world, but it's equally important that he left the vast majority of them out of his great novel; there's a reason no one reads the Silmarillion or prefers the Star Wars prequels to the original 'New Hope' trilogy, and it's that comprehensiveness in fiction is largely an interpretation, an impression, rather than an inherent quality of the text. This is a key lesson for gamer types: if the job of a game is to get players to do interesting things, then the world should be unfinished. This isn't to say 'thin,' mind you. Just...spacious. Suggestive. There must be room in the world for transformation (which we call 'drama').
My father grew up in England during WWII, and when he returned from evacuation in the Lancashire countryside he found his city of Manchester devastated by German bombs: houses reduced to rubble, streets impassable, the familiar neighborhoods become graveyards. He said that for a young boy his age the ruins of the city were 'magical.' When he told me that, I was horrified and confused, but now I understand what he means: a kind of otherworldly transformation had taken place, turning the world inside-out, offering up unfamiliar geometries and forms where the known orderly world had been. A mirrorworld had revealed itself. The city was again unfinished; Dad was free to imagine new story-stuff in a setting that had previously been not just real but (alas) realistic. I'm still sad for (and with) him, but I get that his sadness is one aspect of his sense of wonder at what had become of his world. Or, I suppose, vice versa.
When I explain what I do with my time, I often (defensively) point out that I spend most of it writing, though the production of finished, readable, or even useful prose on a given day is far from certain. Writing isn't just 'writing'; the experience of the reader isn't just a record of the experience of the writer, so much of the writer's process/experience has to be tossed aside in order to make room for the mechanism of story. What makes it to the page should be (1) necessary and (2) refined. Doctors shouldn't be glib and neither should writers. (Bit late to worry about that now, I know.) Since worldbuilding, as we're considering it, is in no small measure a 'writerly' activity, would-be subcreators should treat the emotional appeal and complex impact of their worlds (for players/readers) as responsibilities inherent in the work.
A big part of 'worldbuilding' is actually world-presenting, world-framing, narrativizing, personalizing, specifying, exemplifying - i.e. fictive persuasion of a kind. The world doesn't just have to 'work' in the sense of 'contain its component parts,' it has to work for the players/readers, to concord with categories of their imaginations via metaphorical connection, dramatic illumination, and internal resonance. Think of Lear and the Fool wandering on the blasted heath: the actions of the (ahem) players evoke unwritten aspects of the dreamscape that's the world of the (ahem) play. The rules of the world govern not only your precious background material but also, and more importantly, the stuff occurring center stage.
If the game is all about the players, give them meaningful roles to play. If the story centers on the characters, give them a world worth talking about. It doesn't have to be complicated, it just has to matter.
To sum up.
Are you kidding me? Read the goddamn thing over again and sum it up yourself!