When Game Mechanics Drive World Building: Part 1


Most rpg designers working with original settings want to create a world that is vibrant and alive. Yet often the adventure backdrop feels flat or derivative in some way. Usually this is due to missteps in world building, and one of the most common of those, in my experience, is what I call “rpg-think.”  

Rpg-think is the unconscious tendency to impose game mechanics onto world design.  It is putting the cart before the horse in world building: instead of growing a setting with its own, internal logical sense, key design decisions are made purely to accommodate the requirements of crunch. If they are rationalized at all, it is after the fact, with often far-fetched leaps of logic that do not make sound sense in the given world design.

In this way, a world can become sprinkled with contradictions and artificialities before it has a chance to become a robust* and coherent whole. Indeed, it may never become robust at all.

In addition, rpg-think can easily “genericize” the setting so that one medieval village (for example) begins to look like every other one, not only in this one setting but in other modules and products related to a given game system and its mechanics.

Rpg-think is so easy to fall into—especially for folks from an rpg, rather than fiction-writing, background—that many never realize they are doing it in their design work. But thankfully, there are ways to identify it, and ways to avoid it.

In the first part of this post, I'll give a couple of examples to illustrate exactly what I mean by this seductive but crippling paradigm. In part two, I'll continue with a final example of rpg-think, then offer some techniques that help avoid this pitfall and create worlds that make better sense.  


Examples of RPG-Think

This design approach can occur in any game genre, but for now I'll take my examples from fantasy rpgs. Fantasy is the largest market segment, and the enduring influence of D&D and the OSR have ensured that rpg-think occurs quite frequently in these settings. So I will draw my examples from that subset of game design, where things like this happen all too frequently:


Design Element: Magic Shops

The scenario

In nearly every town and village, a magic shop can be found where player spellcasters can restock their spell ingredients. If a place is too small for a shop, there is always some hedge witch or old retired mage nearby who has a thing or three for sale—no doubt just what a given PC is missing in the moment.


The crunch that drives the decision to put this element in a setting:

Game mechanics require that ingredients be used in spells. A character running low on ingredients must have a way to resupply if she wants to continue to cast spells.  


Why this makes no sense, and the problems it causes:

A steady supply of WizMarts implies many things about a fictional setting. First and foremost it strongly suggests that magic is pretty common—common enough, at least, for random shopkeepers in every other town to be able to make a living meeting the needs of what must be myriad spell casters passing through or living nearby.  

If the promise of “commonplace magic” is lived up to, the designer of a well-built world needs to consider things like:

  • How many spell casters actually do live in or pass through locations (or regions) where magic shops supply them? What does this imply about random encounters with NPCs?
  • What array of magic user levels are there in a typical population cross section?
  • How are they all trained, and what social impact does the training system have? (For instance, an established school network will have a far different footprint than a mentor/apprentice tradition.)
  • What is the effect of this relative abundance of magic and magic practitioners on the world at large? Do we have self-igniting cooking hearths (controlled fire elementals) in every well-to-do home? City streets illuminated with continuous light spells (thus impacting nightlife and street crime)?   Cheap mass storage? (a Bag of Holding in every house?) And so on.
  • If things have taken this turn in the magic-as-technology area (or military might, or economic power, however you like to spin it),then what are the economic and social consequences?


And that last is the most important question of all. A society steeped in magic will develop differently (and have a wildly different economy) than one which resembles a medieval setting from our own history. Feudalism itself might be very hard to maintain with magic relatively readily available, or at least available to elites. (Oligarchy or plutocracy might be much more commonplace.)

Looking down this path of possibilities, the designer comes to a major decision: do I want to work out the consequences of a magic-abundant society? Or do I just want to stick with a simpler medieval world with a magic-and-dragons kind of flavor?

If they truly work out the implications of the high fantasy “abundant magic” design decision, they can easily evolve a world that is interesting, but possibly not what they at first envisioned. Or if they decide to stick with the comfortable and familiar tropes, then they ignore not only the consequences of abundant magic, but the very thing that advertises those complexities in the first place:  WizMarts in every town, and what they say about a world that can support them.

Many designers choose to carry on with the habit of  “easy spellcaster resupply” in the form of frequently occurring magic shops.  This makes the world feel off because something subtly (or obviously) world-changing is left to have very little impact beyond the needs of resupplying PCs. Some people can shrug this off or dismiss it with handwavium, but those who want a more immersive and believable gaming experience get shortchanged by this kind of flawed setting design.  Much more interesting questions emerge in both game-play and design when we ask, “How do spellcasters keep themselves supplied when there is not a magic shop in every town they come to?”


Design Element: Guilds

The scenario

In a large enough town or city, an organized guild of thieves (or sometimes fighters) exists which a suitably classed player character can join without too much difficulty.

The crunch that drives the decision to put this element in a setting:

Thief characters need specialized training not easily found among the legitimate sections of society.  Then too there is the question of where they can easily fence their goods, or get thief (or assassination) related quests, and at higher levels what kind of “career path” they might have to fulfill their roguish ambitions. Enter the Thieves Guild, typically found in every major city and larger towns. Voila; PC training/supply/connection problem solved.

In some games (and I think this is some incestuous bleed-over from the video game industry), we find Fighters Guilds sometimes receiving similar treatment, and serving the same purpose: specialized contact centers offering training and support that a player can walk into in major urban centers and get his training/supply/job referral needs met.

Why this makes no sense, and the problems it causes:

One nation-spanning guild with subgroups in major locations implies a very high level of bureaucratic organization and inter-organization communication.  With such an expansive network comes implications of political “power behind the throne” abilities and much plotting and machination to keep these organizations preeminent and untouched by the powers that be.  If the guild concept is modified to be “local group on friendly terms with peers around the country”, even then the same implications apply, along with a larger overlay of likely in-fighting behind the scenes.  

Yet none of these complexities—and their inevitable impact on politics, power, and economies—is reckoned with in the simplistic “Thieves Guild” approach to rogue-class PC training and supply.

The smart designer will ask first, are thieves organized at all? Historically there is no evidence for this, although there are records of some groups of beggars being well-organized gangs in some medieval cities. This is not equivalent to the scope and influence of a guild structure, though, which historically was a merchant and artisan-based endeavor.

A designer who wants specialized thief services to support rogue PCs needs to ask, “What makes sense in the setting as it exists? Where will they find this kind of help—or will they find it at all? If not, what are their alternatives for getting trained and connected with fellow thieves?”  

AD&D's underlying premise about this organization is “The Thieves Guild is an accepted part of communal society.”  (AD&D Players Handbook 1978, p 107.) If that is not completely in keeping with the tenor of the setting the designer is creating, this concept needs to be rethought from the ground up.

*robust: this is not a term often used in world building, although I think it should be. By “robust”, I mean a world that is internally consistent, makes sense within the givens of its design, defines its own “laws” (of physics, magic, whatever) and follows their logical consequences. It has social and cultural systems that make sense within the setting as it has been established. It has nuance and depth. You can introduce the strangest of events into such a world, and the world will accommodate them according to the precepts for how that world works—not how another, nearly analogous, adventure setting might work, but how that particular, unique world works, with all its givens and interactions and complex systems.  This is a robust world, the product of good world building decisions made all along the way.

In Part 2 of this post, I'll give one more example of rpg-think design, then offer suggestions on how to avoid this pitfall and create better-grounded fictional settings.

Deborah Teramis Christian is a sf/f novelist published by Tor Books, professional game designer, and founder of the World Building Academy. She is on Facebook, Twitter (@Teramis), G+, and offers free world building tips here. At IndieGoGo, she is crowdfunding a story collection, many with roots in rpg settings, and will be offering video tips on the connection between rpg and fiction writing during the campaign (Sept 18 through Oct 18, 2015, at this link).