Before we go too far, though, it’s time to introduce you to the First Rule of Dungeoncraft: Never force yourself to create more than you must.
—Ray Winninger, “Dungeoncraft” from Dragon Magazine #256
I was in my junior year of high school when I first read those words, and ever since that day they have left an indelible stamp on the way I view running an RPG.
Often, when the subject of worldbuilding is brought up, a lot of different advisory questions get tossed around. What do the continents look like? What sorts of governments run the various nation-states in the campaign world? Who’s at war with whom?
I’m here to tell you none of these questions matter.
There is certainly something admirable about a well-crafted world. I enjoy all of the current campaign settings for Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, and naturally I have my own pet project I poke at from time to time. Carving out an imaginary world from the void of imagination is nothing to scoff at.
But do you want to build a world, or do you want to play a game?
Avoid Information Overload…
“Never force yourself to create more than you must.” It’s sage advice and saves the would-be worldbuilder a lot of time. The players also benefit. As a game master, have you ever run a pre-made setting? Have you ever run a game set in our own world? Chances are reasonable that either you know more than most of your players, or one of your players knows more than the rest of the people sitting at the table. If you find yourselvesall on equal footing, you are either all brand new at this hobby or you have found a group that is a paragon to roleplayers everywhere. Congratulations either way!
For the rest of us, however, this can sometimes lead to issues. “Hey, isn’t the Lost City of Sha’Na’Nah west of the river?” “Wait, I know the queen is a werewolf! Why is my character’s amulet of lycanthropic advance warning not going off?”
Let’s face it: pre-made settings (including the one you’re sitting in now) and many homebrew worlds have a lot going on. Not everyone has memorized the setting guide. In all honesty in a group of five you’re lucky if more than one of the players even owns a copy of it.
This problem is only amplified if you have created your own world, since it is almost guaranteed the only “guide” in existence is your own. The players have no independent method of learning about—and therefore immersing themselves in—the setting.
If you’re starting from the ground floor, creating only what you need is a great way to avoid this kind of information overload. If something is not immediately important to the setting and events at hand, don’t worry about it. Details can be filled in later. In fact, using this approach allows a fair amount of flexibility for players to insert their own ideas. The dwarf player insists his family keeps a small shrine dedicated to their ancestors? Bam! Instant bit of dwarf culture. You didn’t even have to worry about it before your players sat down for character creation!
…Or Spill the Beans
If you are hell bent on involving many elements of a world right from the start, full disclosure is the best method. I wouldn’t be afraid of giving away too much information; I find that GMs tend to err on the side of too little information in an effort to keep “secrets,” which paralyzes players from making choices that are in line with the setting. If everything the players learn about your world comes from their characters going there and experiencing it, it leaves very little ability to ground them in anything meaningful. The PCs become eternal tourists, especially if they travel without the benefit of a solid home base.
This free flow of information helps keep all of the players focused on the game at hand, because they aren’t busy wondering about what details they might miss. It also allows them to convey to you what they find interesting, and you can plan your sessions accordingly. That’s a lot of stress off your shoulders, not trying to constantly come up with interesting scenarios whole cloth. If you’re on a roll, it can certainly seem easy and engaging, but often life gets in the way and you don’t have nearly the kind of time you once did.
Here is the main reason why I emphasize full disclosure for a world, especially one that you have created: you only have so much time.
It’s an unfortunate fact. You probably hear about games that last for years, but a sad truth is that many do not. If you put a great deal of effort into something like creating an entire world, and you wait for your PCs to travel it like college students with backpacks, there is so much you are likely to never get around to.
Don’t do that to yourself, and don’t do that to your players. RPGs are a social activity; don’t keep secrets that don’t need keeping.
Or start from the bottom, and never force yourself to create more than you must.
Edited by Cassey Toi