When Game Mechanics Drive World Building Part 2

In Part 1 of this post I cautioned against what I call “rpg-think” in world building: the tendency to put certain design elements into a setting primarily because they serve the game mechanics. The problem here is that there is no sound world building reason for these things to exist, and their presence can strongly incline a setting towards feeling shallow and derivative.  

I gave two examples of “rpg-think” in Part 1; here is one last example, followed by some thoughts on how to avoid this pitfall.  


Example of RPG-Think

Design Element: A Pantheon-Related Temple in Every Town

The scenario:

As PCs go from place to place, they can fairly easily find temples dedicated either to the god followed by the party's cleric or a deity related to the same pantheon, and take advantage of services and connections there.  


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

Clerics often need to seek blessings from their gods, or get certain supplies for spells and healing, or hire fellow clerics for a quest.  A resurrection spell in particular may require the use of a proper temple. A temple fills all of these needs and therefore one or more are conveniently found along the route of the characters' travels, specifically to provide needed support to clerics.


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

This PC-needs-driven location of temples never addresses questions such as how widespread a religion actually is, how well known the specific deities, and what kinds of resources exist locally to even build, dedicate, and staff a temple in the first place.  

In addition, there is a tacit assumption that a religion is practiced homogeneously throughout a region-- which may or may not be true, but should be a conscious design decision, not a default bundling of “easy resurrection points and blessings” for the convenience of clerical PCs.

Historically, there is a huge diversity of religious forms and practices in our own world.  How might diversity play out in the character's world, especially over geographical distances? Perhaps the god she is dedicated to only has a local following at home, which she doesn't realize until she travels to a neighboring province.  Maybe the temples of other pantheon deities are not in fact inclined to be friendly to a follower of “that god.”  Or maybe there are unexpected alliances and aid to be found at humble roadside shrines and remote monasteries instead.  

Well-thought-out practices, places and forms can do much to add layers of depth to a cleric's role, and move temple visits out of the realm of “service and resupply stops” and into something much more nuanced and powerful. But this happens only if the designer gives mindful consideration to how religious organization works in her setting, and what resources are actually on tap for a wandering or local cleric.

Cumulative Disbelief

There are two big problems with rpg-think design.

First, it creates a world that lacks internal consistency and consequences. For instance, magic shops (discussed in Part 1) are the visible edge of a complex of factors (how many spell casters there are, how commonplace magic is, magic's societal impact, etc), but these factors never impact the surrounding world. The result is a world inconsistent by design, and its consequences are not allowed to play out properly.

The second big problem is that, given enough such inconsistencies, the cumulative effect is to create a world that feels implausible in part or in whole.  Aspects of it feel imitative or shallow; its attributes are things we've all seen before (“Let's go to the local Thieves Guild” - something said in many settings where social or cultural circumstances would likely preclude the existence of a Thieves Guild at all.)

There is a distinct limit to how far an audience is willing to suspend disbelief in order to come in line with a setting. One jarring element might be ignored; one weak logic chain rationalizing something's existence can be overlooked. But the more inconsistent constructs there are, the less believable the setting feels.  

Eventually, a subtle tipping point is reached where some or all of the setting feels implausible, shallow, or derivative.  

At the mild end of this spectrum, the audience shrugs and chooses to overlook something that feels a little out of place or cheesy. At the extreme end of the spectrum, the audience shuns the work because it feels like a collection of regurgitated rpg tropes, with nothing new or original in it.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is not to create it in the first place. The reward is a more original setting with unique qualities and refreshing surprises for player characters. The cost is more time spent thinking through design decisions that avoid the “serve the game mechanics” mold.

Here are some thoughts on how to do that.


Avoiding RPG-Think: Some Tactics to Use

1. Does this make sense?

Look at an aspect of the setting and ask if what you have assumed about that element truly makes sense within the larger context of your world design.

If you have plugged in a Thieves Guild and now know they were originally conceived as (and designed to be) a “commonly accepted part of social life,” you must ask if this jibes with how your society works.  Are your people and organizations that tolerant of organized crime? If not, would such an organization ever be allowed to exist in the first place? What makes sense in your setting?

2. Assess consequences

Look at a situation in a fictional world and ask “what would the consequences of this be?”

Maybe you will decide that having relatively commonplace magic shops skews the balance of power and the economy too much in your world. You don't like those consequences. Okay, that's half the battle. Then you move on to this kind of question:

3. Ask open-ended, “what”, “why”, “how”, and “what if” questions

“How do magic users resupply if their craft is rare and shops are not commonplace?”

Now it's time to put on the thinking cap, because here you will have to be both inventive and logical. You need to build a solid road of logic that gets you from the question to a reasonable conclusion. You'll be surprised what you might come up with, given the other details you've established for your setting.   

Does your answer leave PCs with greater supply challenges than in a magic-shop-rich setting? Maybe that's not a bad thing. You need to decide how far afield you want or need to go with the limitations and opportunities you build into your setting.

4. Get some feedback on your design decisions

Before you write them in concrete, invite discussion about some of your new-hatched ideas with a fellow game designer. (You can also ask players, but I'd be wary of enthusiastic fanboy-ism from a friendship circle that doesn't offer any substantive critical input.)

In particular I'd ask things like:

  • Does this (design decision X) seem like a natural outgrowth of my setting?  
  • Do you think things would develop in a significantly different way instead? If so, what and why?
  • I think the likely consequences of X will be A,B, and C. Do you see something I am overlooking?

5. Does this design feature serve game mechanics? Is that its main reason for being here?

This is a reality check for #1, and also a good question to hand off to your colleague in #4.  

A lot of world features will incidentally complement or aid in game mechanics in-world, but the issue here is to locate elements where that is their primary purpose, and they do not have a natural, well-grounded rationale for their existence within the setting given the strictures and features of the world as designed.

6. Is my D&D showing?

The final (and easiest) way to avoid some blatant rpg-think is to ask a critical designer if there are tired rpg tropes at play in your world design. Sometimes we just can't see that forest for the trees, and it helps if someone is willing to look over our work and assess it for D&D-isms (or any other cliches peculiar to a chosen genre and dominant game system). This can be invaluable for pinning down elements unconsciously using rpg-think.

Those are just starting points. The list could get a lot longer or more detailed depending on the topic at hand.

Once you are comfortable with the new direction of development and its implications for your setting, then it's time to document that as part of “how the world works,” and proceed from there.

Every plausible fictional world needs to make coherent sense in its own right. This may be even more important for rpgs than for fiction writing, since the rpg world must be grounded enough for player characters to interact with it, instead of just passively observing it as a reader does.  Following these tips for avoiding rpg-think will help ease the path towards that kind of robust setting.


You can read part 1 of this series here.

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).