One of the pleasures of game mastering is creating a setting for your players to explore. Sometimes, we go all Tolkien on our settings with histories, lists of kings, cosmologies and other deep lore.
Some of us don’t have the time or inclination for that degree of secondary creation. We have jobs, school, families, and other interests competing for our time.
You want to have a setting that players will engage with and feel immersed in. At the same time, you don’t want to spend time making up a history of the universe that the players never experience because they don’t engage with it.
What follows are a few heuristics that can help you make the most effective use of your time when you are worldbuilding for a campaign and don’t have the time or desire to create a massive tome.
What needs to be detailed?
I have a few major criteria when I’m deciding what areas of worldbuilding I want to spend my time on.
- Can the characters interact with this?
- Will the players care?
Can the characters interact with it?
I focus the majority of my effort on what player characters can directly interact with. The things I anticipate they will spend the most time interacting with are the things I spend the most time on.
Any important NPC, place, or object that exists in your setting and the characters are going to be directly interacting with is worth thinking through.
The backstory of an NPC, the origin of an object, the history of an adventure location may be worth knowing. It doesn’t have to be a 5,000 word essay. A bullet point on an index card can be sufficient. I only write down as much as I think I need to know.
Often I’m wrong about this and I have to improvise when one of my players asks a question I didn’t anticipate. More can be better.
There are certain things that exist in a campaign that require other things to exist. Cities are centers of trade, craft production, and concentrations of religious and military power. If a city the player characters can travel to exists, I will put some time into figuring out where the food comes from, who lives there, what are their desires, and the obstacles to those desires. I don’t need a major write up on every element just an overview is what is necessary. If it is a city where you expect players to go often, more work will be needed. Lists of goods and services available, how much hirelings cost, languages spoken and more.
There is an exception to the rule of player interaction.
There are certain NPCs such as a crime boss or an alien who are working in the shadows, trying not to be detected. Their actions and intentions may well affect the PC’s even though the PCs may never identify or interact with that NPC throughout the course of a campaign. In that case, I may put some effort into their personality and other characteristics but only in so far as it informs me of their moves which affect the campaign world in a broad way.
There may be other forces in the world underlying the things your players interact with. The inscrutable objectives of the gods. Astrological alignments. Plate tectonics. Who knows? You may want to have a detailed understanding about any part of your world building that you want to have an effect on the world but the players may accept as something they can’t do anything about. This can tell the players that the world is bigger than the PC’s and their petty interests.
Will the player’s care?
Just because the characters can interact with an NPC, place, or object doesn’t mean the players will care about it. If the players don’t care, they won’t dig under the surface level description you’ve provided them and they’ll move on.
If I don’t think the players are going to care about an NPC, a place, or an object then I limit the amount of effort I put into it.
Nobody cares that the guy who constructed the keep died of grief when wife was horribly murdered. What they care about is that he is a wight, he can drain levels, and has 2000 gp under a loose flagstone in the cellar.
What makes a player care?
If an NPC, monster, faction, item, or place is dangerous to the characters or their interests, the player will care about it. The greater the danger or challenge a thing presents to the character, the more attention a player will give it. Mostly, what they will give their attention to is information about how to overcome the challenge or escape it unscathed.
If they have the opportunity, sharp players will do as much information gathering about a dangerous place or enemy as possible. They will scout, research, pay informants, go to the library, scry, commune with the gods, and recon in an attempt to acquire any relevant information that they can use to avoid death and maiming.
Likewise, players will interact intensely with anything that they find piques their curiosity, enjoyable, or advances the objectives of their characters. Magic items, a potentially useful piece of gear that is mysterious, places they think loot is hidden, an NPC that may have useful information or a skill that the players find helpful, a teleporter, a shopkeeper with unusual goods, a ruler, a morally questionable but lucrative patron… All of these can be NPCs, places, object that players will care about because it gives them some measure of enjoyment to interact with them.
Players will surprise me. Players latch on to things in ways that I find completely mystifying sometimes. When that happens, I improvise, use a random table or occasionally say, “I don’t know.”
Generally, anything that the players are after or they find fun to mess around with can do with a little more world building.
I build stuff I don’t use.
Sometimes, some piece of worldbuilding grabs me and I expect the players will never see it and would just shrug and move on if they did.
I still work on it.
I enjoy worldbuilding. It’s fun to think about the implications of certain “What if?” questions. That all the reason I need to indulge in the activity.
I also try not to convince myself that everyone at my table is going to be as excited about the names and lineages of the merchant families who bring luxury goods from the other side of the empire.
Players get curious about things I don’t expect, or come up with ideas I don’t expect. I get to pull out the extra material I didn’t anticipate using. If that doesn’t happen. It’s fine. I’ll build it for myself.
What about Sekaikan?
Sekaikan is a term from Japanese video game design used to describe the feeling that the world of the game is bigger than the player characters. Sekaikan helps to create an immersive experience where the players lose themselves in the game world.
If I can create immersion in the setting, that’s ideal. I don’t always manage it but it is my intention.
This goal does makes it challenging to limit my worldbuilding to what the PC’s can directly experience and their players will care about. If I have time, I will expand my worldbuilding as much as possible so that as players come in contact with it, I have something already invented that resonates with the rest of the world.
I don’t go crazy with it but it is something I’m thinking about. If I have an idea, I scribble it in my binder and move on. I may develop it later if it comes up in play.
You may not need as much as you think.
Some people have spent decades detailing the setting for their games. I’m sure they had a great time doing that work. I know I do. Do you need to put in that kind of time and dedication?
You do have to make a significant effort to come up with a coherent and interesting setting if that is what you want to do. You don’t have to pour every extra moment of time into it.
Focus on the thing that players are likely to interact with and what they will care about, and the rest of your worldbuilding can be made up of bullet points, quick sketches and scribbles on index cards.