(This post is primarily directed toward GMs, but also has some elements relating to players.)
(If you do not agree with something I have written, or would like me to flesh something out more, I would be happy to add to the post, edit it, or otherwise expand it in some way. Please list your grievances in the comments below. Thank you!)
I have been roleplaying pretty much nonstop since I was 10-years-old, I am 18 now so that makes it eight years I've been roleplaying (I just turned 18 the day before yesterday... Gods, I'm old). In those eight years, believe it or not, I have only been a player in a true tabletop campaign ONCE. Which means I have a lot of GM-ing time under my belt.
When it came time to sit down for my first ever D&D campaign (without rulebooks and using dice I had stolen from my grandmother's 1950s chess set), I had asked my friend how to play. He said, "You just think the world and the people in it up, and I'll have my character go through it." I was flabbergasted. I had to think up the entire world and the people living it just for my friend to tear it down? Then I took a step back, thought about it for a moment, and said: "You are standing at a crossroads, will you go left, right, or straight?"
What followed is one of the greatest memories of my short life, and the beginnings of my obsession with GM-ing; particularly its world-building aspect.
I was 10-years-old then, so you can imagine how bare-bones and simplistic the story and world was; how dull the characters were; how arbitrary the rules were; and how spontaneous the hare-brained schemes and "epic" ideas were. But it was perfect to us, a story that appealed to 10-year-olds. It had scary monsters, screaming maidens (always beautiful), greedy kings (always fat and white [I grew up in the ghetto, though I myself am white, I had a bit of a self-racism complex back then]), and hilariously outlandish story-lines. Like I said: it appealed to 10-year-olds.
But I have come a long way from then to now, and like to think that my world-building has come a long way too.
What the point of this post is, is to list the obvious and not-so-obvious facets of good world-building. Some of the things I will list often go overlooked in the roleplays (and, sadly, books) I experience, and some of them (the more obvious ones) are overused to a nauseating degree, so as to feel forced, lazy, or boring.
Also, just so everyone knows (some people legitimately don't), world-building is done in EVERY SINGLE genre, even modern. Every single action in a story is a piece of world-building, but, of course, the Tolkien-esque and Grisham-esque obviously stand on different planes. Tolkien had to work a good bit harder than Grisham with his world, but the overall processes were the same. If you don't know this fundamental rule, you will never be a good world-builder in any genre. End of story.
Also, I NEVER GM other worlds. This is a world-building post for your own worlds. I think it is boring to memorize another world that some other person has made up (Star Trek, Middle Earth, Westeros, Bran Castle, Gormenghast, etc) and tell your own stories within them. I think it is especially boring to take characters from those worlds and incorporate them into your narrative (sometimes, shudder, even being related to or in a relationship with them), though I understand why people do it and enjoy doing it. People write fan-fiction, after all, and I abhor fan-fiction.
With those final alsos out of the way, we can begin. Now, without further ado, here is a list of world-building rules, organized from most to least basic:
World Building Rule Number 1:
Laws or Rules, and the Consequences for Breaking them.
By far the simplest, but sometimes (very rarely) overlooked world-building law is laws or rules with strict consequences for breaking them. This is the most fundamental technique for a convincing world, and if it is ignored or these laws or rules are broken, then the world will immediately deflate. These could be something as simple as the laws of physics, science, or actual physical (probably Christian) laws; or something as complicated as a new religion, creed, or queer/alien social mores.
These MUST be thought up or adhered to in order to have a fun roleplay. And while, yes, some movies and books and T.V. shows (comedies) do set up laws to be ignored or made fun of, this is pretty much impossible to do in a roleplay setting without the rules or laws becoming a farce, and setting a tone for any laws to be immediately broken or ignored for the sake of "comedy". If this ends up happening, the roleplay will derail into an ongoing joke that will quickly become stale. Nip in the bud as soon as possible if it has happened. Explain it away, retcon it. Do SOMETHING or the roleplay will - I repeat- WILL die!
This most basic of laws is a way to inject realism, which is the spine of good world-building. You will hear that word "realism" pop up often. It is very important.
World Building Rule Number 2:
If you have ever read, watched, or participated in a story that is relatively competent but its world is falling a bit flat WBR#2 is typically the culprit.
Historicity means "historical actuality", which means that the subject that is historicitous - in this case, a world; its history; its civilization; and its geography - is similar to real historical events. This is another very basic rule to follow when building a world that is, sadly, often bungled through laziness or ignorance.
I can't tell you how many times I have gotten interested in an original book, movie, or roleplaying world only to find that its creator is completely ignorant of the fundamentals that make up our world, namely science, geography, psychology, and, above all: history. Because I am cynical (and have been burnt way too many times), I often look into the storyteller's world before I get into or join the story; and what do I most often find? For fantasy it is terribly-drawn maps demonstrating a complete lack of knowledge of geography and diplomacy, cookie-cutter empires, and boring races (lifted from Tolkien but lacking his original charm or some interesting spin); and for Sci-Fi it is bad science and physics knowledge, giant democratic nations (typically a Federation or two) and more cookie-cutter empires (IN SPACE, but usually somewhat medieval or Victorian), and more terrible races, usually Humanoid but with furry tails or some boring superpower.
"But herosvsbandits," I hear you asking, "sci-fi and fantasy are meant to be escapism. I don't want to be reminded of the real world in these places." I agree with that statement friend. AS A CONSUMER, not AS A WORLD-BUILDER. You see, us humans are very Earth-centric, meaning we can only think, consume, or create using our perspective. Basically, a story's world does not feel interesting if it isn't grounded in our little minuscule reality, that's why your uninteresting fantasy world with boring empires and lazy races and terrible geography is a joke; and your uninteresting sci-fi world with human-like races, boring nations, and terrible science is, too. Look to EVERY SINGLE successful alternate world and ask me if it isn't grounded in some human reality, folklore, or otherwise. You would be lying if you said you could find one that wasn't, or you just weren't paying attention.
So, what I mean to say is: study history, geography, psychology, and science and incorporate it (with tact) into your world. If you can't do that, don't world-build. And please, dear God, don't monetize it! Nobody wants to experience it!*
*Maybe grandma or mommy will, because they spent all that money rearing you, so they want to see what terrible monstrosity you put together...
World Building Rule Number 3:
People! People! PEOPLE!
The most important thing in our world (so, consulting above, any fictional world) is the people that live within it, how they connect, etc. In fact, all these religions, cultures, laws, superstitions, true and fictional stories were created by people for people so we can come to grips with how insignificant we are in the universe. You have to understand that, if every person in the world got a gun and began killing every other person in the world, or terrorists got a super-nuke and blew up the entire Earth, the Universe wouldn't even shrug a proverbial shoulder; in fact, it wouldn't even lift a proverbial eyebrow. But these things would and do matter to us because we are people.
What I'm getting at is, that people make a story human, and a human story is the only story there is, ever was, or ever can be. (Counting robots and aliens and other things human, because of course they are just humans with extra 1s and 0s. If we met aliens IRL, I doubt we could connect with them on a level other than "gross", or "interesting" because they would just be so foreign to us).
How do you make a story human, you ask? Well, populate it with people that actually feel like they live there. This means giving those people (if they are important characters) goals, connecting them entirely with the world, and making sure they fit and truly feel like they reside there; if they are unimportant side characters, make sure they obey WBR#1 ALWAYS, and make sure that they never act unlike a true person would act, and seem like a good backdrop to the world.
An example of breaking this rule would be this: main character or characters are just there... they have no real goal that connects in any way with the world or other characters that reside there. The world is just a backdrop; a set-piece, typically to stage more action or shallow romance scenes in. For unimportant characters, it means that they act irrationally, like guards or soldiers risking their lives for no real reason other than they were ordered to, or congratulating (or hating) PCs because the plot requires it.
Please, make every action have some consequence within the world; every scene descriptor truly mean something in the context of the setting; and every side character and main character have a tangible connection to it. All of this goes for villains, too.
Remember, people actually have to live in your world. Make sure they can and do really live there.
World Building Rule Number 4:
Roll With It.
When GM-ing, you must understand that characters are going to act how they act. As long as they act within the confines of the game, and understand that every single one of their actions has consequences (good or bad). Part of your job as a GM is to subtly lead them into fun things. This usually takes a bit of practice and a whole lot of patience, as well as a keen understanding of how players are and work, which comes largely from experience. But, sometimes, you must understand that they will completely derail your story at some point. Your only job is to make it impossible for them to derail your world, the story can go straight out the window if it makes the game more fun for it to go.
But I am a no-planning type GM, which is one of the hardest and most creatively-taxing types to be. It's hard to do it without experience, but ultimately makes for (in my humble opinion) a more fun and free-flowing adventure. Fully planning a story usually ends with heartache. Just lightly plan things here and there and see where the story goes. Though, you must fully plan your world, because no player in their right mind should try to break a world, because, with a good and ballsy GM, it should end in heartache for them.
Follow WBR#1, and this should go just fine. And if you don't like a decision, the consequences for doing it can always be Draconian.
World Building Rule Number 5:
The Little Things.
The last and most overlooked world-building rule is making sure that every little thing mentioned has some sort of explanation or reason for being there. If someone asks you a question, always be ready with an answer, even if you must think it up in that moment because you hardly planned things (like me, usually). I have been doing this type of thing for so long, and (I think) have such a fertile imagination that these little explanations come relatively easily. But for a lot of people, I have come to understand, it is an extremely difficult thing to do. In order to not have "that moment", in which you look like a total nincompoop because you didn't fully think your world through, you had better plan it well. (Remember: PLAN THE WORLD, NOT THE STORY).
Say characters find a book, give a brief plot synopsis and description. Say characters go to a planet, have its races, animals and cultures ready (or, like me, make them up on the spot) for use in the story. Say characters enter a dungeon, it had BETTER have a reason for being there. Even if no one asks or even cares, HAVE THE ANSWER. PLEASE!
If this rule, and the others, are followed, your world will feel so real that some people (real people have done this for people like Tolkien and Azimov) will think your world could be an alternate-dimensional place, and that you are some sort of arbiter to that dimension. Of course, if your roleplayers think this, have them committed; but feel flattered while you are calling the police.
Alright, everyone, there was my Onanistic, pretentious diatribe on world-building. Hope you enjoyed! It was fun to write!
Please feel free to leave some ideas and criticisms in the comments, and don't hesitate if you want to start a conversation. I would be happy to conversate with you!
Also, thank you Nim for welcoming me to the platform. Reading some of your old stuff in here and on the OW Blog is what got me wanting to do this sort of post in the first place.