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World-building for Games

People play tabletop RPGs for all sorts of reasons. Some like the idea of having an alternate persona accomplish great deeds whilst on grand adventures. For others, a role-playing game offers a chance to bring a by-gone era to life, replicating the past with the highest fidelity possible. But for me, what an RPG represents is a chance to cooperatively bring another world into existence.

I'm a writer, so creating new worlds is part of the job description. Even when writing more or less realistic fiction, I enjoy exploring how a certain corner of reality functions, how it is different or similar to my own experiences. But this is a lonely process. I'm creating a world alone knowing full well that no other person may wish to read about it. Additionally, no matter how exotic the world I create is, it can only be a product of my own mind, my own experiences. 

In a Role-playing Game, on the other hand, it is almost impossible to create something individually. Unless I'm handing the players at my table scripts and expecting them to follow stage-directions, the other people at the table cannot help but have an effect on the imaginary world. At the most superficial level, just by creating a character, players are inputting information about the world, providing context and hooks for world-building.

I prefer games that embrace this aspect of world-building and expressly structure it within the game. Two that I think do a really fantastic job at the idea of collaborative world-building are:
  1. Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker
  2. Diaspora (FATE system) by B. Murray, C.W. Marshall, T. Dyke, and B. Kerr
Apocalypse World is a triumph of minimalist set-up. Basically a GM is responsible for printing off a few play sheets for the players to choose from, and then conducting an initial session where the features of an apocalyptic scenario are introduced. The players, by interacting together, create the tensions propelling the story, but also the features of the world itself. Mostly this happens through the GM's leading questions: why don't you ever go to the green trailer at the end of the community? What madness did you gibber the first time you saw what lay at the bottom of the pit? Why don't you ever tell anyone about the pale rats that visit the camp at night? What I find so compelling about this system is that even the GM doesn't know what those pale rats are. The player won't know until he or she answers the question. But once an answer's pronounced, that aspect of the world is written. Does this lead to wild inconsistencies? Sure. Does this create worlds that people want to explore and interact with? Hell yeah.

The hard sci-fi space opera game Diaspora, like most FATE system games, has a nifty character generation system encouraging players to find reasons why their characters know each other. Typically, the other characters appear as guest stars in the story the players write for their character. Diaspora is unique, though, in its approach to world-building. The stories of Diaspora revolve around a cluster of worlds, each solar system connected to another by a series of wormholes. While the players have absolute say in the shape  each solar system takes, they have to find ways of fitting their worlds together. Who trades with whom? Which worlds have rivalries or conflicts? After finishing this world-building system, I decided that the world one of my friends created was so interesting I based my character there. A negotiation commenced between us about the features of this world, a process we both had a stake in. Where Apocalypse World is almost confrontational in its world building system, Diaspora truly takes it as an article of faith that a group of people can shape an entire universe together.

Really, any RPG from Red Box DnD all the way to the most dice-less squishy indie game include some aspect of world-building. The challenge is not building a world, it's making sure everyone at the table has a place in it.

Author's note: As I've mentioned previously, I will be part of a panel at Arisia 2013 on just this topic. If you're interested, make sure you have a ticket for the Sunday session and go to the Independence room at 8:30pm. Along with +Peter Maranci, I'll be on the panel with Alan Wexelblat, Ed Fuqua, and T. Christopher Davis. 
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