Taking the world building plunge after 30 years

Over the years I’ve played loads of games, and loads of campaigns too, yet I’ve rarely come up with my own world before 4e came along. To help me (and others) understand why that is, I’ve had a look back at some prior experiences.

I think you have to love the system, and I love 4e. This is because, for me, I like the setting assumptions to be present in the system itself as much as possible. Take Burning Wheel for example, it’s what I call a strong implied setting and because of that, it’s the sort of engine that people like to try out with their own worlds. With 4e, it’s a looooong way from being a generic system and maybe that’s why I find it easier to world build with.

Looking at truly generic systems like GURPS, which on the surface would appear to be ideal for world building. For me, it was too much work to chop parts out of the system before I could build the setting from those parts. It’s an awesome system, but there’s too much of it, at too fine a level and so I could never be bothered to write up my base house rules. I know that some would find that all part of the fun, but I found it an obstacle.

From the other end of the generic spectrum there’s Savage Worlds, again, a system I have a lot of love for. It has the opposite issue, there’s too much I have to add to it before I’ve got my world basics ready. Edges, hindrances, trappings. Again, not complex in itself, but it’s not something I’ve had to do in 4e.

Then there’s those games that come with a built in setting. The Warhammer world is getting increasingly ‘coloured in’ over time, and I love what the writers have done with it. It’s way better than I could do, so I simply don’t! Same with Barsaive for Earthdawn, it’s someone elses (brilliant) world, I just want to visit it, not rewrite it.

Then there’s the potentially flammable issue of the previous editions of D&D itself. With 1e I never had the requisite skills in place, simple as that. I was happy to run the modules, and never really needed to tie them into a world at all. With 2e, well that was the edition with all the settings already built, so I didn’t feel the need to compete. With 3e I never wanted to invest the time needed to master the system, and honestly that’s what I think you had to do with 3e. Take Ptolus as a perfect example of how to make all the tropes mean something in a setting. I was always afraid of adding or subtracting anything in 3e because of the consequences later down the line. Again, take Iron Kingdoms as an example of where they tried and failed to change the D&D game to suit the setting (IMO).

Then 4e comes along and it’s a fresh start. The implied setting means you’re not looking at a completely blank canvas, yet it’s sketched in lightly enough that it’s still your world if you choose. The gods are suitably generic and you can stick with the names (as many have done) or go your own way with no resistance from the rest of the game. Classes? There’s enough there that you can snip one out without destroying the world. You could take out an entire power source if you liked, doesn’t matter. When the first settings came out I initially believed it would be tougher to play in my own world because everyone would want to play in the official one. Luckily FR turned out to be a) not very good b) not well received and c) perfectly mineable for ideas and mechanics. Then with Eberron, although it was a much better revamp, it was still all available to me in my own creation.

I’d invented what some people might have called a sandbox, but in truth it’s actually a big pile of lego with each coloured brick a tiny piece of what the pros had already put in the books.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of DDI for setting creation. It enables me in the strictest sense of that word. I can make a setting entirely out of encounters, from the bottom up. Or I can go from the top down and take a big bad as the pinnacle of my plot and back down through the tiers. When I tried those approaches with 3e and other crunchy games it just turned into prep work for prep works sake and ceased to be enjoyable. With 4e I can get real utility out of my prep time.

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4 responses to “Taking the world building plunge after 30 years

  1. I wish you the best of luck! World building is fun – i’ve built 3 in 30+ years of gaming – but don’t get overwhelmed. It’s easy to find yourself working on alot of details your Characters will never see, and absorbing time better spent elsewhere.

    It’s a hard balance tho – you know that stuff is there, and it’s cool and it makes sense.

    An SCA lady friend once told me that she insists upon wearing undergarments made in the style of the 12th century when she wears the rest of her costume. She says that while she knows no one but she (and maybe her husband) might see them, SHE knows they are there, and it makes all the difference to her.

    I know, odd analogy, but if you think about it…

  2. I love world building. To me, it is the most fun part of running a campaign.

    I like to start with a simple premise, e.g. there is a big city next to a river, and then asking questions. What do the people in the city do? Where does it’s food come from? Who runs the city? etc etc. Each question spawns a host of other questions and by thing about them all, I build a picture of world in my head.

    It is interesting that you find the generic gods and the rest of 4e’s implied setting useful. It really chaffs with me. I would much rather have the completely blank slate to begin with or to have the Warhammer approach where the complete world is already there.

    • Hi Chris,

      I love the Warhammer world with an undying passion (it paid my bills for a long time after all!). However, it’s not my world and has never really felt like it. Sure, I’ve written adventures for it, but that’s not world building per se. At the other extreme blank worlds are too intimidating for me! I need someting to start with. PoLand hits exactly the right spot.

      Cheers!

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