July 05, 2009

On Worldbuilding Relays, or Five Steps to A Fleshed Out World

This RPGnet thread is splendid. The idea by Matthias Wasser on RPGnet is a "Worldbuilding Relay" game with the following rules:

  • The first person in line rolls on a bunch of tables to generate the basic assumptions about the world. How old is it, what real-world cultures does it borrow from, what is the general morality of people, what races and "classes" exist?
  • He then makes up a geographic, a cultural and a metaphysical fact, which should all tie into at least two of the results from the tables.
  • The next person details five conflicts - wars, conspiracies, personal problems.
  • Next one describes five organizations. Royal houses, armies, merchant houses, whatever.
  • Next one details five individuals. One low-level, one mid-level, one high level, one antagonist and one ordinary person.
  • Last one gives five facts of any kind.
  • Restart by rolling on the tables again.


The first mesoamerican/roman world with humans, anthropomorphic animals and planetouched waging a war between gods and animistic spirits shaped up rather nicely. Though, after writing two entries in the thread, I found that even that takes work, and others may have felt the same.

Either way, those five steps (not counting the table-rolling) would work well for fleshing out any world a GM or setting writer is making. The conflicts, organizations and people showcase the world and provide hooks for PC:s to get interested in, and the GM to build adventures around.

(I thought of adding a bullet point for "five locations", but locations show up often embedded in the other categories. The same applies to religions - if the setting has them, they'll appear within conflicts and organizations, maybe even people.)

Another thought is to have a group engage in cooperative worldbuilding before a campaign. Just roll on the tables, let everyone provide one fact from each of the bullet points, and you have the seeds of a campaign setting in 15 minutes.

For reference - the tables:

Table A: The Wheel of History
Roll 1d8:
1: Civilization Unknown. The world is young. Light huddles in points.
2-3: Civilization Ascendant. A young political body or network of such violently expands and grows.
4-5: Civilization Regnant. A golden age, marked by hubris. We can do anything we want - but what?
6-7: Civilization Descendant: The social contradictions of the old golden age and the inability of its institutions to adapt to them demand that this civilization be destroyed. Will it be in ice or fire?
8: Civilization in Tatters. The Postapocalypse. Light huddles in points.


Table B: Moral Assumptions
Roll 1d6:
1: Preachily left: Equality is good, privileges are bad. Conflicts between societies are distractions from conflicts within societies. The elites naturally desire to maintain and expand their privileges and artificial hierarchies, which makes them evil, and only the willingness of the masses to collectively organize and set aside cultural differences can destroy them.
2: Preachily conservative: There is a natural hierarchy to the world, each station having natural rights and obligations: we must care for those below us and obey those above us, so long as they too are acting justly; if not, they must be redeemed or destroyed. Some beings are naturally evil, while others are led into it by hubris, laxity, and inattentiveness to tradition.
3: Preachily libertarian: Heroes are self-reliant individuals; villains are alliances of demagogues and cowards too afraid to think for themselves. Adventuring for no purpose but treasure is perfectly moral; merchants are generally good and governments are generally evil. The prose is awful.
4: Grimdark: The setting is metal as hell. Everyone involved is incredibly selfish, violent, and cruel; but we are to approach them from an ironic distance. Atrocities pile up in the background and actual play like sand on the beach and we mostly marvel at how wicked awsome it is.
5: Pluralistic: This is a world of competing values, none necessarily greater than the other. People generally act from principle, and they're all sympathetic and shown from their own perspective, but the competing ideologies cannot be reconciled. The conflict is instantiated both between organizations and within the human heart.
6: Amoral: People generally act from their self-interest, defined broadly enough to include themselves and the people they love; they almost always have some sort of code, but no fact about the universe makes one truer than another, and they have difficulties following them in practice. No one can stand to be very sympathetic or very unsympathetic for long.


Table C: Culture Clash
Roll 2d10:
1. East Asian
2. Mediterranean
3. Mesoamerican
4. Near Eastern
5. Northern European
6. Polynesian
7. Slavic
8. South Asian
9. Sub-Saharan African
10. Roll twice more

As an introductory mental exercise, start out with the assumption that you're taking Roll 1's broad geographic or political situation and reskinning it with Rolls 2's aesthetics, culture, and philosophy; and then have them interpenetrate each other in all sorts of ways.


Table D: Races
Roll 2d10, assuming that humans already exist:
1-5. Just humans here
6. Elves, dwarves, half-elves, and halflings
7. Humanoid races
8. Planetouched
9. Anthropomorphic animal races
10. Every published race you can find

If you roll double 10s, include everything but humans.


Table E: Power Sources
Roll 2d10, assuming Martial already exists
1-2. Martial only
3. Arcane and Divine
4-5. Arcane
6-7. Divine
8-9. Primal, Ki, or Shadow (whatever seems most appropriate)
10. the Kitchen Sink


Kudos again to Matthias Wasser. It was a splendid idea.
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