On our last podcast episode, we sat down with good friend and long-time game master Chuck Rozakis for a discussion about world building and storytelling. As a supplement to the pointers he gave during the interview, Chuck has sent us a list of some very helpful tips for those of you who want to design your own game worlds. They’re insightful, practical and definitely worth a look.
For those of you who are interested in purchasing Chuck’s book about loopholes and imbalances in D&D 3.5, “The Broken Rules Compendium,” it is available through iTunes or Lulu as a paperback and an eBook.
(Chuck’s world building tips after the break.)
When it comes to world building, here are my big pieces of advice:
- Know your Audience:
Cultural insensitivity only matters if someone involved knows or cares about the culture. For that matter, “accuracy” is the same way. Ignore details if they aren’t interesting or wouldn’t be fun. Comic books, movies and TV have done that for decades.
- Steal from the Best:
Copyrights only matter if you plan to publish something. The only danger of wholehearted plagiarizing for game ideas is that your players might have seen the source material. (Hence my saying, “Guys, don’t watch Buffy this week.”)
- Let the system reinforce both the world and the story:
Some systems work better for high vs. low-magic campaigns, so the amount of magic in your world should reflect that. Some systems are better for dungeon crawling vs. politicking vs. detective work. Choose the mechanics that are best for the story you want to tell and that best reflect the atmosphere you want the world to have.
- Don’t Railroad:
Video games are a great source for ideas, but often only if you’re willing to let the players use the wide open sandbox, or better, if they can go off the rails in a way the game wouldn’t let them. In some cases, you can use this for a game everyone has played—keep the world and translate the systems, but let the characters take the plot in a completely new direction.
- Test Everything:
When you build new mechanics, I advise playtesting everything, and preferably having it done by your most optimizing, game-breaking, munchkin friends. Then patch the rules to fix whatever gaping loopholes they find. (It’s kinda like the line in the Evil Overlord List about having a five-year-old child look over your plans before implementing them.)
- Know Your World:
Try to have backstory prepped and at least in your head, for when players ask about it. How old is the ancient tower? Who is the king of this realm? How does the shopkeeper prevent telekinetic shoplifting? Where do these people get their food from?
- Use your strengths, but don’t push them on the players:
Every world I construct has a fully-functioning economic system, but it doesn’t come up unless the players show an interest in it. Indulging yourself is not the same as boring your players with a diatribe. And occasionally it means that after the adventure the D&D party will choose to retire and become mattress salesmen.
- Use a Catalyst:
CrossGen Comics, a company with many faults, nonetheless had a very good method for creating plots: Build a world with detailed but stagnant politics, personalities, etc. Then add a catalyst (presumably in the hands of the characters) that messes with all of that. In CrossGen’s case, they gave one or two characters on every world superpowers that specifically upset the status quo. The old 2nd Ed D&D Book of Artifacts was classic for this purpose—every entry was a One Ring style powerful-but-cursed magical item that you could base an entire campaign around.
- Always Say Yes, except when you don’t:
Say yes as long as it makes things more fun. This may break your game, which is a shame, but it happens. The only reason to say no to one player is when saying yes would make other players unhappy.