With all the pre-written material out there, why should an already-harried GM bother with worldbuilding?
The pre-written modules make things easy. You’ve got your goal, you’ve got your maps. Here’s the people the PCs will meet along the way, and here’s the treasure they’ll receive if they survive the challenge. But what if the players aren’t interested in the dungeon? What if they decide to go running off into the creepy woods nearby, or visit the farms outside of town to gather more information?
Experienced GMs, back me up here: the players WILL DO these things, won’t they? Oh, you may THINK you’re prepared for anything that might come up, but invariably they’ll find a way to circumvent the main part of the plan, and now you’ve got to figure out how to keep the story going in a whole new direction. If there’s nothing in the module about what’s in the creepy woods or who’s running the farm, the GM has two choices: you can railroad* them into plodding along with the script, or you can start worldbuilding on the spot.
Worldbuilding can refer to anything from adding a few custom areas to a pre-written module to…well, building an entire world, or even an entire universe, from scratch. It’s a sure way to turn your little gaming hobby into a full-time job. (Now that some GMs are actually getting paid to run games, that might not be a bad thing…but don’t count on it.)
REASONS TO START WORLDBUILDING:
- You’ve got a great idea for a monster, an adventure, or a whole campaign
- You enjoy making maps
- Your players have already played (or read) most of the pre-written material available
- You’ve rolled up more awesome characters than you’ll ever have a chance to play
- You want to be ready to take the game wherever your players want to go
- No, seriously, you freakin’ LOVE making maps
- The PCs’ goals and back stories are so intense that they need something special designed just for them
- You’ve seen enough pre-written modules to know that you could make something better
- Did I mention the maps?
THREE WORLDBUILDING TRAPS TO AVOID
1. I’M GOING TO TURN THIS INTO A BOOK
Sure you are.
Ok, maybe you are. But when it’s time to game, remember: as a GM, your job is to entertain your players. They’re here to play the characters the way they want to play them, not to write your book for you. There’s nothing worse than trying to play with a GM who’s decided that the PCs are their own main characters in another project. If you want to tell your stories about your world, why not let your NPCs be the stars of that show? Don’t rely on game night for all your material, or you’ll just end up back at the railroad.
2. OBSESSING OVER THE DETAILS
Yes, it’s important to know everything about your world that you possibly can. However, if you put off starting your game until you’ve figured out the path of every river on the planet, the location of every rock and tree, and every single event that happened a thousand years ago, you’re never going to play.
Worldbuilding is a process. It’s okay to start small and hit the ground running. Write a short, cut-and-dried adventure and pack it with intriguing hooks and hints for the PCs to follow in future sessions…they don’t know what any of it means yet, and the great thing is that you don’t have to know yet, either! Once the players have decided which clues interest them, then you can start writing those details. (Even though I just said that your players aren’t going to write your stories for you, their speculations about what these hooks and hints may mean will give you some great ideas.)
Under your guiding hand, your world will grow organically. It’s a lot easier to work on a few ideas at a time and see how they all start to fit together than it is to fill in all the blanks before you even start to play.
3. LOOK WHAT I MADE
Maybe your favorite NPC has an amazing back story, one that brings tears to your eyes every time you think about it. Perhaps you’ve spent hours (weeks, more like) building and populating a city with all kinds of quirky shops and citizens. Or maybe the history of your world is so complex that it would put The Silmarillion to shame. You’ve got pages and pages of descriptive text and stacks of handouts for your players to marvel at. You’re brilliant! You’ve done a fabulous job!
However, your players are really confused. And maybe a little bored.
I fully admit that I’m guilty of the over-complicated plot dump (sorry, guys…I’m working on it). It’s hard to restrain yourself when you’re full of ideas, and they just keep coming, and building on each other, and you want so bad to show everyone the whole picture. Try to think like a player, though: they just want to hit things, or set things on fire, or seduce the bartender (maybe all at once, in some groups). Hopefully they want to be a part of the story, too, but they can’t do that if they’re so overwhelmed with details that they don’t understand the plot.
The main points need to be clear, but keep those thousands of glorious nuggets in your notes and dole them out in small doses, like the treasures they are.
READY FOR GAME NIGHT?
Now that you’re ready for anything the players may throw at you, here’s the thing: no, you aren’t. You know that one area way off in the corner of your world? The one that you’re still working on? Guess where the PCs want to go?
*Railroading: forcing the players to follow a pre-written plot. This keeps the game moving, but it does take away the element of free-will that so many players enjoy as part of improvisational role-play.