On World Building
Hi. My name is Jon Cleaves and I am the lead designer for DGS Games. DGS Games’ main game line centers on a game called Freeblades, which is a fantasy skirmish tabletop miniatures game played with 32mm models that represent characters and creatures from our fantasy world of Faelon. Tabletop miniatures means the game is played with miniatures that players move across a modeled terrain setting and not according to a board or grid. Skirmish means each model represents one person or creature and the game is relatively small scale – a small group of characters and not an entire army of soldiers. Fantasy means exactly that, the game plays out in a high fantasy world where the players not only get to read and learn about the world and the people and things in it, they get to carry out their story on the tabletop with other fans of the background. Freeblades focuses on the world’s adventurers for hire and the trouble they get in trying to accomplish the tasks their patrons set for them.
Yes, we make the models and yes we make the game rules. But that is not why I am here. I am here because pieces and rules are not enough to make a truly enduring and endearing game – the world matters.
When Karin asked me to write a blog post for Heroines she left the subject matter wide open. I know this is mostly about sharing ideas, so I thought I would share my ideas about fantasy world building and setting fiction within it. Not that my ideas are better or worse than anyone else’s, but I sure do have a lot of lessons hard learned that I would not want someone to struggle with in the same way.
Yes, it is true, our fantasy world is derived from the one I designed as a kid in the late 70’s for the original Dungeons and Dragons game. It’s been a long 35 year road since scribbling out the original map on my dining room table. I think every game master dreams of their world gaining the international acclaim of something like Westeros or Middle Earth. Like a lot of us, I drew my inspiration from the fantasy authors I loved to read. I drew maps, made up languages, arranged lineages, sorted out timelines. I had a lot of material stored up when myself and a group of friends decided to not just be gamers, but to join the business end of things. Since none of us wanted to start at ground zero with our background but each of us knew how important background is to a game like ours, we decided to go with Faelon. That’s when I learned just how much more there needed to be done.
The first rule in game design is: don’t make the game for yourself, make it for your players. I think that should extend to world building. I originally built Faelon for me. Sure, I game mastered dozens of people in it over the years, but if I had not enjoyed the making of it for the making’s sake, I could not have put in all those hours. Like an author trying to get published, you are trying to capture an audience with this world of yours. And unlike Tolkien, you have to compete with hundreds of worlds whose builders already have many laps on you. Give some thought to whom your world is really *for*. There is a truly big difference between a world that will appeal to 14 year old boys and one that will appeal to 30 year old women. Ask yourself which fans you want. And then take a moment and think about the fact that, unless you are targeting kids who just learned how to read, you are going to have to supplant something they are already into. That should lead you to examine what your target audience *doesn’t* like about the things it is currently into. What can you give them that they are missing? You want them to need you; you have to figure out why.
In our case, we recognized that gritty and steampunk fantasy are the orders of the day. Also that worlds have had to seek to outdo each other in over-the-top elements. And finally, that we as a genre still are not giving the best home to the female fan. Surprisingly, high fantasy is not terribly in favor. This, I think, is partly because it seems boring to the young fan who just has to have another laser-shooting mega-death sword and partly because derivative trad fantasy is so played out. So, we chose to carve out a niche where we gave the fan a high fantasy world with some familiar elements, but with their own unique story, with characters with which one could identify without the need for super powers and in a way that our female fans could find themselves equals and without the need for barbie proportions or chainmail bikinis. Are we right? Don’t think we know for sure yet. The response has been very favorable, but we are not yet well known. Yet I still would not do this without some clear thought for whom this world is supposed to become a second home.
I’d suggest hanging the world together with some sort of theme. A lot of the material out there on world building makes this suggestion and I think it important. In world builder books, you will typically be asked a bunch of questions about how wealthy people are, how much of the land is wilderness, the presence of monsters and a great dark being, the role of magic. Our theme is basically that people are monster enough. We have chosen to focus on groups of people and their interactions and the things they do to one another. In Men in Black, when the soon to be Agent J tells Agent K that people are smart, K says “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals…” In Faelon, we tell the story of the things countries and religions and factions do to each other. At the person level, they typically look like they are doing something perfectly normal. We leave the theme of individuals constantly doing horrible things to each other to George Martin… Do we have monsters? Yes, but they are on the fringes of the world and not walking down the street or serving as mayor. Do we have magic? Yes, but it is wrapped in religion and is too much for our people to handle without periodically causing a catastrophe.
A theme helps you hang together why things happen the way they do. You’d be surprised at what it gives you. The first act of future sci-fi world building is to decide if and how FTL travel works. The first act of fantasy world building is to decide if you are going to have a great darkness. I would suggest not on the great darkness thing, it’s just simply been done to death. So try this. Choose not to have a great darkness and then decide who your enduring antagonist(s) will be. I bet once you do that a whole lot of things fall out for you.
After choosing a theme, you will have to sort out your rules. The advice you will get or have gotten that your world needs rules is dead on. I’d add that having a ton of them different from normal human experience is not necessary. And the more core to our experience, the more difficult, and likely worthless, the rule change. I started out with a 10 day week and 30 hour days and 10 months er year and a bunch of other stuff about the calendar and struggled mightily to make that work in a world with two moons. Too much, ultimately. What was important to me and the world was having two moons, so I abandoned all that with the explanation that the units of time were normalized to our own to make it easy for the reader/player to follow. I then made an appendix the interested could look at if they wanted to know Faelon’s actual astronomical calendar. Turned out the audience didn’t want that either and were perfectly happy seeing the moons change in the sky the way two moons would and not worrying about constantly having to account for a ten day week and four leap days. If you need your rivers to flow from the ocean to the mountains, you have a lot of work ahead of you. Make sure it is worth it. I’d suggest focusing on your magic first. If it is not going to be a big part of your theme, make it small magic. If you need magic in a big way, spend a LOT of time on it. It’s the first thing that makes fantasy not medieval historical fiction. I got lucky. Having a specific thing I wanted to do with magic is why I left D+D behind and wrote my own rules oh those many years ago and I have a 30 year head start on a lot of what is out there today. Here is what I would do if starting from scratch. I would make a list like this:
Who can do it?
Do they need a god to do it? If not, what do they need?
How do they find out they can do it or learn to do it?
How do they get to do more?
What does it cost a person to do it?
What is the least a person can do and what is the most?
How do items of magic get made and by whom and why aren’t they a dime a dozen?
Answer those – and THEN go read a bunch of magic sections of different roleplaying games. Don’t read another book with magic in it until you have answered all those questions and made the answers fit your audience and your theme.
And why is that? The Similarity Conundrum. You are going to face situations where you develop things and then find someone has done something exactly like that. The best defense is to establish what is of core importance to you without looking at one more thing in your research and readings. Then, stick to your guns. I named my world Faelon nine years before Faerun was published commercially as a D+D setting. But Don Greenwood invented Faerun for himself in 1967. Should I have changed it? I have a county named Kandor in Faelon starting in about 1980. In 1990, Jordan’s Eye of the World is published and his world has a Kandor in it. However, products about Faelon did not start to get published until 2010. My/our plan – stick to our guns on what is core and let the rest change if it needs to. So, with magic, and anything else in your world that makes it what it is, get those core ideas down first. Make that the backbone of what you want to do and don’t sweat changing the small stuff as you need to. Remember, Tolkien has the Misty Mountains and Robert Jordan has the Mountains of Mist, so if it is good enough for them it is good enough for you.
There are two things from which Faelon has benefitted because it serves as a backdrop to a game that I would recommend to someone making a fantasy world even if that is not its role. The first is, put your friends in it and have them move around. Roleplaying games test the mettle of a world by having thinking humans doing things in it. They uncover flaws in your lingual schemes, lapses in timelines and rules inconsistencies. Put them in a scene and ask what they would do and what would be important for them to know and see what happens.
Secondly, let other people help. In a so-called perfect world, I would have developed the fantasy world to end all fantasy worlds. Everyone would stop reading Martin and Tolkien and Jordan and revere me for my genius. I would be the sole author of the coolest thing to happen to the fantasy genre for the next hundred years. One of the hardest things I have had to learn is that is colossally stupid. The best worlds are not designed by a single person, nor are they designed by committee. They are designed by an integrator with a vision who lets others help – and takes an ego chill pill to do it, even if hard to swallow at first. A Roddenberry-only Star Trek would have sucked and the Okuda model is even better. A Lucas-only Star Wars would have condemned us to Binksawoks forever. I like the model of Thieves’ World as an alternative. Faelon is a better place for the involvement of my friends and our fans. Try letting a friend or two have a hand in a couple of parts of your world. Yes, you need to stay in charge of the overall theme and vision so it all hangs together. But give them some basic marching orders about a country or faction or region or language or culture and tell me if it is not better and does not make your world more alive and colorful.
There are, obviously, a hundred more aspects to world building I have not covered. I will say that most of the world builder advice books you will find do a sound job at the basics. What I have tried to do is give a more macro and practical view to the larger pitfalls. And remember, skip the glottal catches.
Jon Cleaves has been gaming for over 40 years. He is currently the lead designer for DGS Games LLC (www.dgsgames.com) make of the Freeblades game line and the World of Faelon. Previously he has been President and lead designer of Fourhorsemen Enterprises LLC (www.fourhorsemententerprises.com) which designs and markets "Warrior, Miniatures Rules for Ancient and Medieval Warfare, 3000BC to 1485 AD". He is also the published designer of "Star Fleet Battles: The Vudar Enclave". Jon is the developer for "The Lost Battalion, Strategy and Tactics Issue #217". Jon has extensive experience in freelance play testing and design work in over 40 published products for GMT, Decision Games, XTR, Battlefront, and Amarillo Design Bureau. Jon has published articles in "Fire and Movement", "Moves", "C3I", "Captain's Log" and "Spearpoint". He has served as past president of 5 separate gaming organizations. Jon is a 1984 graduate of the United States Military Academy with a Bachelor's in Computer Science. He holds two masters degrees, one in Strategic Intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College in 1989, and the second in Military Art and Science from the Army's Command and General Staff College in 1997. Jon has 20 years of experience as a US Army Military Intelligence officer retiring with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Since retirement from active service, Jon has been employed as the Director of Threat Integration for the US Army.