This post has been in the working for over a week now, having been interrupted by computer troubles and then growing into a huge monster of semi-coherent rambling which got me to decide to cut it all down to essential parts and get to the point. I hope this will at least somewhat get the main points across in an understandable way. It’s still a monster of a post, but it seems mostly tamed now.
When it comes to fantasy world, bigger is usually considered better these days. People are often more interested in the settings than the plots, but back in the 90s and before you really only got your books that you might read a second or third time to discover another neat little detail or two that you missed before. Today it’s very easy to set up big archives and databases and make them publically accessible, which I think is one of the main driving forces behind the current popularity of and love for getting deeply invested into the background lore of various works of fantasy and science-fiction. When you find something neat, you can share it with all the other fans in the world and discuss it. What was once an occupation for a few hardcore fans is now very much a mainstream activity. I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon. I remember back in the 90s when people gushed about the scale of the worldbuilding in Forgotten Realms and the Dark Eye setting Aventurien, and let’s not forget that “Tolkien-Scholar” is a word that is actually being used without any irony. People always loved fantasy lore, it’s just now become much more accessible.
The Problem with Loredumps
But I see a tendency of people creating huge piles of lore and backstory simply for the sake of having lore and backstory, not so much because it really adds anything to the stories that use the world as a setting. When it comes to literature, this is mostly a matter of taste. Infodumps are only bad when it’s done in a boring way. If all the backstory is presented in an entertaining way it’s called exposition. When you open a book you already signed up to being told a story. Whether it’s story happening now or a story being told within the story doesn’t make a huge difference. But with roleplaying games the situation is different. When you sit down to play, you have come to do things. You’re not really interested in listening to a story.
Getting players to become invested in setting lore is often like herding cats. When you write a three page introduction to get the players familiar with the bare basics of the setting, you generally can not expect that this stuff is known by most of them when the game starts and they create characters. When you have an NPC tell the players the backstory for a quest or an item, almost all of it will go in one ear and out the other. If some of the players might remember next session that they did talk to “a guy” who told them “something”. But often even that is a risky bet. I believe a great part of this problem is presentation. The human brain has an automated mechanism that filters data for pieces of information that are considered relevant and immediately discards everything else. When you have a questgiver make his speech, the players are concentrating on picking out the “what” and “where”, as these are relevant to their next action. Everything else is irrelevant in that moment and means nothing to them.
But that’s really a topic for another time. The reason I am mentining all this is that you have only a very limited amount of information you can get the players to remember, so make it count. When running a campaign, having a compact and lightweight setting can be quite a considerable advantage. But that’s also not without its problems. If your setting has few distinctive features it can easily become generic, forgetable, and feel rather artificial instead of like a believable world. And people really love big and expansive worlds. What ways do you have to recncile these conflicting priorities?
One type of fantasy stories that have always fascinated me greatly in both literature, movies, and videogames are those set in worlds that seem to float disconnected from both space and time. Stories where you don’t have any idea what might lie beyond the horizon and know nothing about what happened in the past or is currently going on in other places. Perhaps the most succesful fictional universe was first introduced to audience with the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” There is also the D&D setting Dark Sun, which is just a small stretch of rocky hills with a handful of heavily fortified cities surrounded by sand dunes in all directions, possibly covering the entire world, and (at least in the first release) we’re only being told that the world was once green and alive, but this was a very long time ago. Now there’s just the desert and the sorcerer kings ruling the cities, and nobody knows how long it has been that way and what came before. Then there’s the adaptations of Dune (never read the book) and the stories of Kane by Karl Wagner. There’s Shadow of the Colossus, the Legacy of Kain series, Dark Souls, and also the Halo games (excluding the expanded universe). Or the continent Xen’drik from the Eberron setting. These are all fascinating settings even though – taken by themselves in their original form – they are really very sparse on lore.
This is a type of fantastic storytelling that has a lot in common with how we today perceive mythology. 2,500 years ago the Greeks knew exactly where their myths were taking place. Those where the places where they lived or where they might have been visiting relatives (if they were rich). But to us, Mythic Greece is like a completely different world from the actual Aegean Sea. A Greek merchant could have gone on a ship and sailed to England. But could a Greek hero descend from Mount Olympus and take a ship to travel to Avalon? Could he continue to sail north and reach Niflheim? That doesn’t feel right to modern audiences; it would be like a crossover between different fictional universes. It becomes even clearer when looking at time. Myths don’t happen as part of history. They just happen with no particular order at no particular time. You can’t assign a date to mythological stories. (Mythologized accounts of real historic events are obviously a different matter.) At least to modern audiences, myths are mostly stand alone stories that happen pretty much outside of a greater context. They happen in a mythic place in mythic time. And as I see it, mythic time doesn’t actually flow. Events just float freely and independently, unconnected and in no order.
But all these universes are still really interesting and entertaining settings, even with their scarcity of lore. Which makes them great examples and precedents for the creation of compact campaign settings.
While researching for this post I found a very interesting post on Hill Cantons from a few years back. The idea it presents is that all fiction is partly created by the audience themselves. The author only creates the events of the plot and some basic rules for the world, all the details are actually filled in by the audience. (It might even be true for all art.) Even in a movie the camera only shows a small part of the world but the viewers automatically create the space that lies beyond the edges of the screen. Inception is all about this. It looks like a trippy heist movie to entertain a wide audience, but it really is a movie about filmmaking and storytelling in general. The whole part of Ariadne’s training after the introduction is about worldbuilding in particular. (A lot of basic but good lessons in that movie. The deal with the dream people attacking intruders who mess with the reality is all about the suspension of disbelieve. If you break the rules of the fictional world too much, the audience will butcher the author.) As an author you really only present ideas, the audience will then add their own thoughts and emotional responses to those idea and turn them into a full world that exists in their heads. This happens with all fiction, but when your goal is to make a world that has only a small amount of actual hard facts but feels much larger and full of wonder and magic, it’s a great tool to use.
It’s not just that it allows you to get a big world with relatively little work. I also consider it to be crucial to create a sense of wonder and mythic atmosphere. When the audience is presented with a mystery, every person will speculate what might be the true answer behind it. Some people might actively try to puzzle it out analytically, but I think much more often people just have an emotional expectation of what they think the reveal should feel like. This expectation is individual to every person and specifically matches what that person would like to see and thinks would fit the story. When asked to make up a great answer to an open mystery, you probably won’t be able to come up with something really great. But you emotionally know what feeling would be great. Unfortunately, when you answer a mystery as an author, you can not remain vague and base your answer on feelings. You have to be specific and give the audience facts. Not only is this a lot harder but whatever you come up with is based entirely on your own expecation what would seem right in that situation. There is only one answer that has to be true for every single member of the audience. And for this reason it’s pretty much impossible to reveal the answer to a mystery that will be as satisfying as the audience hoped it would be. If you have a really clever twist then the audience’s amazement at that twist will overshadow the fact that expecations have not been met, but otherwise a mystery will usually feel a lot more fun and interesting while it’s still open then when it’s being solved. Actually, it’s not just enough to have an answer that is as clever as the audience expected. It has to be even better as the amazement has to compensate for the end of anticipation.
So my advice: Don’t solve all your mysteries. Give the audience some answers, but not all the answers. Always leave a bit of ambiguity over at the end. This ambiguity is the space where all member of the audience are putting their wishes, expectations, suspicions, and hunches that slightly change the mystery to match their individual tastes. It also means the fascination does not have to end but can continue forever. Nobody wanted midiclorians. There might have been some people who had been wondering how the Force works, but I think most of them were much happier when they wondered about it than when they got midichlorians as the answer.
However, you have to be careful with this. For its first seasons the TV show Lost was hugely popular. Now we know that the creators didn’t really had a plan and just kept making new weird shit up as they went without rhyme or reason. Once audiences caught up to that its reputation greatly plumeted. There were no answers from the very beginning, but people still loved it because their minds created stuff to fill the blank spaces with placeholder connection between the various clues and details. Which is a lot of fun. It keeps you looking out for more clues and makes you feel clever when something you expected actually turns out to be true. But this only works as long as people think they are hunting for a solution. When they know that there isn’t actually any way in which it would make sense the whole exercise become pointless. As I said, don’t give the people all the answers. But you still have to make sure that there are some actual answers to discover.
Some people like to make things up as they go. Start with something simple first, listen to the audience what they like, and then create a satisfying solution. While possible, this is fiendishly difficult to do well. When facts keep changing it becomes harder and harder to track what is currently true and what things have already been revealed to the audience. Eventually you will stumble and contradict yourself because you made two changes in different places and didn’t catch that they can’t both be true. You also have a very hard time with foreshadowing anything because you can’t make any definitive statements yet while you still have not decided what you’ll do at the end. Sometimes this means that new things seem to appear from nowhere and that’s really frustrating for players. Playing an RPG is all about agency and agency is the ability to change the outcome of events in a way that you want by analyzing the situation and coming up with a plan. If major portion of the world don’t exist before the players interact with them it can become close to impossible to make any real plans because you can not get accurate information. And particularly as a GM running a campaign, you can never know what information might become important or relevant later. Things that you think are not important and change at a later point might actually be something that one of the players remembers and is crucial to a plan the player comes up with. Consistency of the fictional world extremely important when it comes to player agency so I am very much opposed to start a game without having all the basics nailed down.
Lore without History
People love lore. I love lore! But I don’t like history. And in a campaign, players really have a very hard time to remember any history. I have ADD and from trying to understand the condition you can learn a lot about how humans collect, filter, and store information. It’s not really about the content of information but about the way the information is recieved. When someone tells you something but you don’t know why any of this would be relevant to you it goes in one ear and out the other. It’s like a website with no links. It’s somewhere but you can’t reach it and won’t even know it’s there. But the brain is more efficient than computer and when it detects memories that don’t connect to anything else they are deleted in a matter of seconds. Good chance a player won’t even remember that you’ve read him an infodump of background lore. When a player knows recognizes that the information is the answer to a question the party is currently struggling with the information has a very good chance to stick. It’s connected to other parts of the mind that the person already considers important. An even better method to make something stick is when people discover something themselves. Something that the players piece together through their own effort will be much more memorable than anything they are being told. (Again, one of the key ideas of Inception. Actually that’s exactly what the term inception means in the movie.)
The problem with history is that this is really something that you can only be told, but not something you can discover. You can figure out how certain historic accounts fit together into a greater narrative, but in the end you still have to either have an NPC tell you the stuff or read a paper that has it written on it. So my solution: Ditch history. As I mentioned when talking of the idea of Mythic Worlds, history is not really necessary. Lots of great and interesting settings don’t have any real historical lore.
If not historical lore, then what? This is where the participation of the audience comes into play. Instead of history, think more of archeology. When creating the world all you really need is the archeological remains of the past. Ruins, wall paintings, magic artifacts, artificial landscape features, corpses, and so on. These are all clues towards the past and also the present state of the world. But unlike an actual timeline of the past, these only have to paint a very broad picture. You use them to create a framework for the past and then leave it up to the players to create their own hypotheses what kind of place the past was and who the people were who inhabited it. Depending on the “archeological” evidence they come across they will draw some conclusions that are either objectively correct or wrong, make some speculations that might be correct or not, and be left with still a good number more complete mysteries.
The first category are facts that are either correct or wrong. This is where the actual hard worldbuilding happens. Some things you simply decide to be objective truths of the world. For example, until a thousand years ago the giants build big castles, then they stopped. This is something that with sufficient collecting of data the player could be able to discover. Or as another example, sorcery was first discovered by naga in the great city Sarhat. 3000 years later the city was lost and nobody knows where it was. This is true and evidence can be found to support it. With these things the creator of the setting is in total control. When it’s something that the characters in the setting should know, you can correct the players when they get something wrong. If it’s something that the characters assume based on their findings and it’s actually wrong, you just let the player keep playing and perhaps eventually they will disover they had been wrong. Or they might not.
The second and third categories are things that are deliberately left completely open. Why did the giants stop building and living in castles? How do you lose a major city? These are things that have no objectively true answer. Players might draw a total blank on this and decide to treat it as unsolvable for the time being until they find new clues and evidence. Or the players might speculate what could be the true answer based on the hard evidence they already have, which might be entirely correct but could also be misinterpreations of clues. I am a person who is pretty bad at creative cooperation and always hate the idea of other people making changes to my precious setting that don’t match with my original vision. By using an approach like this, I can eat my cake and have it too! The players can decide what they think should be true about the world. And it’s completely okay that their characters also think these things. And even if I don’t like their ideas there is really no need to correct them as it does not conflict with what I have decided to actually be true. This is where everyone at the table can have their own headcanon and nobody will be told being wrong.
What I like about this in particular is that you never have to reveal to the players which of their believes are correct, which wrong, and which pure speculation. Pretty much all believes will first start as speculation, but for some of them more and more evidence will come in that will either convince them that they are right or prove that they are wrong. But some of them will always be speculative and they will never find enough evidence to tell one way or the other. And they won’t be able to tell the difference between them not having found good evidence yet or there not actually being any evidence to find. The scaffolding you provide with the objectively true worldbuilding covers only the first category. The second category exist entirely in the mind of the players but the key is to not let them tell where the first one ends and the second begins. I think in practice most players will always think that they have discovered much more hard facts than they actually do. And that’s totally fine. Actually that’s very much desireable as it makes the players believe that the world is much bigger than what is actually there.
After my second or third discarded draft for this post, I found this interesting piece on Goblin Punch which turned out to be exactly the kind of ideas I needed and that had me completely change my entire concept. By this point many might have started to wonder what kind of things players might be learning about the world from the things they discover and the concept of Dungeon Mastery is exactly what I needed to give a good answer to that. Dungeon Mastery means the ability to learn from the things you encounter in a dungeon and use that information to better deal with the things that lie still ahead of you. The same principle works just the same way on the setting level. Instead of leaning only about one dungeon you acquire knowledge and skills that you will be able to use again in many other places you’ll visit later.
For my Old World setting, there are seven different types of ruins from different ancient cultures. For each of these I have a number of rules: Where are they most often found? Where are they never found? Does the architecture have to accomodate special features of the builders? (Giants need high ceilings and wide doors, naga use no stairs.) Are there certain decorations that make it easy to identify the builders? Are there any creatures that are very often inhabiting this type of ruin? What types of traps are usually used in these ruins? What treasures did the builders collect that may still be hidden? This is also lore. And this is lore that the players can discover themselves by observing the places they visit. I mentioned earlier that information sticks best in the mind when you can connect it to other things you already know and especially when you know what the information will be useful for later. And this kind of information can be really very useful. It helps the players avoid dangers and look specifically for hidden treasures. This is stuff that players not only care about when they are told, but which they will even want to look out for once they have learned that they can.
There are other kinds of lore that work just as well. Being able to read the signs indicating dangerous monsters and knowing their preferred form of ambush is extremely valuable. Understanding how they react to certain other kinds of creatures and how they can be lure to specific places is also very useful. In the 2nd edition of AD&D about a third to a half of each monster description dealt with information of this type. Sadly this is very rare with monster books from any other games, but it really shouldn’t be too hard to come up with some rules for the major creatures of your own setting.
Then there are the cultures of and traditions of the various people inhabiting the world. Learning to understand the values of different groups enables players to avoid offending these people (or offending them on purpose) and what kinds of gifts and other displays of goodwill might persuade them onto their side. It helps understanding who the important people in a village are and who they should be asking for when looking for help with certain things.
Factions are another major part of lore that always gets a lot of attention by fans. Just as with cultures understanding their goals and priorities and their forms of combat is a great advantage to any players who have to deal with them.
Keep it compact
One thing that probably becomes immediately obvious with this approach to worldbuilding is that you need much more depths that breadth. Not only do you need a good amount of details that can be learned about each environment, group of creatures, or group of people, but players will also have to encounter them repeatedly to find the patterns and learn how they can use this information to their advantage. So I think it’s probably best not to get too big. In the old world I have four types of humanoids, about 10 types of intelligent creatures, and only about 70 creature types in total. There are only a dozen or so countries which each have only about three named settlements each. There’s a dozen deities and five major factions and that’s about the extend of the “global” setting. For actual campaigns it’s even much less of that as not all creatures, cultures, and factions are found in the same areas. But as I mentioned earlier, I always like to have the big facts all nailed down before the game begins. If for whatever reason the game shifts to a different area or the players have reason to learn about it, I already know what to tell them. The basic for these places already exist and I can mention them through traveling merchants or the tales of veteran heroes and it will all fit together.
Because of the depth of detail it can be quite an amount of work, but when you’re creating a setting for long term use I think it is very much worth it and you get more payoff out of it than a planet sized setting that only glosses over each place briefly and has 40.000 year of history that the players don’t care about to hear.