Crafting Worlds for Games

Many games thrive on theme. That theme can range from a slice of historical life, like being a medieval farmer, to outlandish scenarios like alien races forming interstellar alliances. Whether rooted in fact or born out of imagination, every theme requires context, and that context is the world surrounding the events of the game. Today, we're going to take a look at building that world, and why it's worth doing.

Where do worlds come from?

With the exception of abstract games that claim to be nothing more than pieces on a board, every game attempts to place its players in some sort world or setting to carry out a narrative. This world can come from a number of places, including the world around us. Some common sources are:

  • History/Fact: Battle re-enactments, technical simulations and life-of-a-XYZ games all fall under this category. Their setting is our world, whether now or in the past, and use the facts of that time to build their rules and interactions.
  • Licensed universes: Many publishers will gain rights to an existing intellectual property and build a game within that universe. This provides pre-existing laws (both social and physical), characters and relationships that can be leveraged for game rules.
  • Previous games: While newer editions and expansions fall into this category, I'm referring to new games built in the same universe as an existing game, such as Carcassonne: The City or Lords of Xidit (which is set in the world of Seasons).
  • Generic universes: Some games may use fantasy or sci-fi elements, but don't rely on their specific characters or nations or creatures. You might see zombies or orcs or aliens that give you a genre, but the game is not set in a concrete, named world.
  • Original content: If you have unique characters or a novel mechanic, your game may require an entirely new world. Or you may have an existing world you've created that you're building a world within.

Benefits of world-building

Why is it worthwhile to build a world for a game? If a game is strong enough in its mechanics, or can rely on its genre for most of its theme, does it really need a concrete world built around it? It's not required, but there are definite benefits to defining the world around your game.

  • Internal consistency: Creating a world creates a pre-determined set of limits for your game. As long as you remain within those limits, your world will be more concrete and it will be easier for players to immerse themselves.
  • Ideas for mechanics: Certain interactions within your world may spur ideas for dynamics and actions within your game. Does your world contain magic that burns resources as a fuel? Those resources may be much more valuable for that reason.
  • Natural factions: Nations, races and groups all make for logical and effective factions that players can control in a game. Characters or classes can also become natural player roles.
  • Aesthetics: While not a preliminary concern in game design, the setting of your game may help influence graphic design and artwork, and help narrow down your search for artists and the kind of visual style you want.

Ways to build worlds

Building a world can seem daunting, and there are many ways to creating a universe for your game. With so many factors at play: the physical world, the population, society, physical laws, technology, magic, culture, etc., there is no one right way to craft a world. Here are a couple considerations as you start yours:

  • Inside-out vs. outside-in: These are two popular approaches in RPG setting creation. Some GMs start their world focusing on a single town, building, or even a character, then building out to neighboring towns or other characters, their relationships and so on. Other designers start with broad strokes: the continents, nations and legends of a world, and then narrow in where needed. Neither is the right approach, but chances are you'll be more comfortable working one way or another, and it's good to figure out which.
  • World-for-a-game vs. game-within-a-world: If you already have a game designed or in mind, that can affect you you build the world around it, in order to maintain internal consistency. If you're building a world first, you have more freedom, but you need to make sure that you're creating a world with enough interesting dynamics and engaging limitations to ensure that games within the world are interesting.

Someone could really write an entire blog on world building. In fact, there are many RPG blogs and creative writing websites that focus on just this sort of thing. Creating a world for a game can be a little different, with rules and mechanics that need to be implemented, but the fundamentals are the same: create a rich, dynamic world and your players will want to come back to it.