World-Building: It’s the Little Things

One of the things that varies between the Primary and Secondary World-Building (PWB/SWB) tasks I described earlier is the importance of details. This is due to the way in which we experience reality ourselves: in those details.

It's the Little Things

You absolutely do need to paint in the big picture of continents and kings, militaries and mega-corps, especially so that you’ve got your own head round the main themes and how everything fits together. However, when it comes to someone experiencing your fictional world, one of the primary goals is to make them believe in it. Never mind the scope or theme of your creation, the period or genre; if your audience don’t believe in it then you’re in trouble.

But that’s not all. Believing isn’t enough. You also want them to feel empathy and to be emotionally engaged. Ideally you want to create something so powerful that your audience misses meals as they can’t tear themselves away from what you’ve built. First things first though.

This level of engagement is very hard to do with the large-scale stuff as that’s not what most people engage with in their own reality. This is most obvious when you look at the characters who inhabit your world.

The people who your audience can most easily identify with are the ones most like themselves: probably not dragon-wrestling demi-gods. Assuming that most of us live relatively ordinary lives for our cultures, then the more dramatic, wealthy, heroic and amazing you make your heroes and heroines, the harder they are for your audience to empathise with, and the less suspension of disbelief and emotional engagement you’re likely to get from them. You need to bring these high-flying characters down to Earth. One way is to ensure that even your most heroic heroes have some mundane traits that anyone can understand: they sing in the shower, can’t resist a cake, or never miss an episode of their favourite cheesy soap. Or perhaps they are arrogant, take advantage of their friends, or are dangerously impulsive. You’ll know real people who show some or all of these behaviours and so will your audience. By including these facets and flaws in your fictional people you’ll give your real readers a solid reference to relate to, and make it much easier for them to believe in the rest of your tale too.

But it’s not just the characters in your world who have this issue: the world does too. Even the real world suffers from this problem of scale. Unless you’ve had personal experience of mountains or the sea, the scale is just too big to readily grasp, but everyone can understand a village pond, a hill, or a tavern, which is perhaps one of the reasons many fantasy games (especially RPGs) and novels include alehouses so prominently. They offer a ready location in which to give the reader a place to start their adventures. It’s somewhere they can empathise with, and feel at home in. It’s cosy. Familiar. Then, once you have your audience’s attention, you can branch out. Take it steadily though. Guide them through increasingly odd elements a step at a time. Allow them to learn your world in easily digestible pieces that won’t jar and break the immersion. Soon enough you will be able to retain their attention with flaming dragons and multi-dimensional alien worlds that would have been very hard to engage with from page 1.

By all means build yourself a vast and sweeping world to play in. Remember though, it’s the small details that sell the big picture.

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4 Responses to World-Building: It’s the Little Things

  1. tomsonn says:

    I seriously doubt this assumption. It assumes your audience is made up of dull little people with very little imagination who only like stuff that resembles them or with which they are already familiar. It’s the thinking behind bland generic fantasy of the forgettable kind. The way of the jobbing hack producing commercial “content” with no lasting value. Of second rate imitators offering cheap knock off versions.

    Of course “the small details” matter, but not in this way. They matter because they add color to your setting and even more importantly because they can be used to exemplify and make things real and concrete. Which is exactly why you don’t want them to be trivial. So f*ck alehouses and boring characters who are supposed to be interesting because they like cake or sing in the shower just like your supposed stick-in-the-mud hobbit audience. Be bold and creative instead, unless you are already resigned to producing second-rate good enough filler type stuff.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Welcome back tomsonn. I see that you’re feeling as confrontational as ever. You might want to tone that down a bit as it’s not necessary to get your point across. I clearly failed to explain this clearly enough as you seem to have the wrong end of the stick. Let me try again.

      Let’s start by saying that I do not imagine that my audience is made up of “dull little people with very little imagination” as you suggest. Not at all. That’s your misunderstanding of my point talking. Apologies.

      Personally, I imagine my audience is made up of humans with all the complex mix of intelligence and emotions that implies. Most are probably gamers, and if they’re still here reading my long screeds of text then they probably have a higher than average level of literacy and an enquiring mind.

      You seem to conflate intelligence with emotional engagement, and I think that’s a mistake. They are very different things. Let me give you an example. Scythe is a well-regarded and well-known board game. Intellectually I agree that it is a highly polished design, and mechanically slick; elegant, even. It has plainly been tested to within an inch of its life and would make an interesting case study for anyone wanting to learn about the mechanics of engine builders. That said, I really dislike it. That’s my emotional response. These two exist in my head simultaneously.

      My point in this post is closely related to the idea of the Hero’s Journey, as popularised by Joseph Campbell. Maybe it would be easier to look at it through that lens. Rather than explain it here, I’ll point you at Wikipedia for a fair summary.

      Campbell calls the first step in this universal and timeless human story the “Call to Adventure” and describes it as follows: “The hero begins in a situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.” Read that first part again: we begin in a state of normality. This is what I was talking about.

      As it happens, we can easily refute your assertions about “content with no lasting value” and so on by looking at a couple of well-known examples that follow this principle: Star Wars and Harry Potter. Whether you like them personally or not, it is undeniable that both franchises have emotionally engaged millions of people across all walks of life, and all levels of intellect. In both cases, they do this with a tale that starts with a fairly mundane central character. This principle absolutely works, and has done since humans began recording their stories. The fact that it still does, and that it works across culture and time, with any audience of humans, is why it’s worth knowing whatever medium you tell your tale in.

      If you still think that my point here is wrong, could you list some examples that show your proposed alternative in action?

  2. First up: great to have Quirkworthy back and blogging again! Always love your perspective on game design and the industry.

    I fall somewhat between the two camps (now that tomsonn has pitched an opposing camp in his usual fashion) in that I think small details can bring a world to life when you’re talking about an RPG adventure module or a novel. In an adventure, describing to players some unusual fruit for sale in the market that they’ve not seen before is a good way to draw them into the idea that *this* place is different to the *last* place. They could ask about the fruit, taste it and discover whether they love it or hate it, and all of these little interactions really serve to establish a relationship with the imaginary world around them. In a novel, a similar thing can happen to the detached eye of the reader. So to that extent I’m definitely Team Quirkworthy.

    But I also think that, when it comes to the higher level of world building involved in writing a new game from scratch, it can serve to confuse and discourage engagement if players or GMs feel that, to engage with the world, they have to memorize details of social conventions, sewerage systems or foodstuffs that are novel and unfamiliar.

    I can only draw on my own experience. But I really like open RPG systems that give me some broad brush strokes for a setting and then let me get on with it. D&D5 is a great example. Savage Worlds or GURPS are almost too open, requiring me to do work that, frankly, I quite enjoy but not every GM does. The Infinity RPG went the other way with its endless stream of sourcebooks that are proscribing the society the game it set in. And I does not like (so I ignore them, obviously, and my players experience my own version of the Infinity universe).

    When it comes to miniatures games, meanwhile, I painted a very broad brush of the setting in Horizon Wars, intentionally to allow players to fit their own vision into the game without feeling that it could be called “wrong”. It’s interesting that, in Zero Dark, I’ve focussed down more precisely. Horizon Wars offered four “eras” in a timeline in which battles might be set. Zero Dark, whilst still a generic game, zooms into one era and three distinct factions.

    Still, I’ve tried very hard to leave a lot of room for players to fit their existing collections of minis into the factions in a way that makes sense for them without the unwelcome still of gatekeeping purists telling them they are “wrong”.

    We’ve seen this for years in 40k, with the long-running “can space marines be female?” debate (without wanting to open it up again): the written setting says “no”, invalidating the vision of those who would rather it said “maybe”. And I tend to think that, as the writer of a setting, you should always leave room – even if just a little – for “maybe”.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I agree with most of what you say. A few additional thoughts:

      Like any other tool, detail is something that you need to apply with an appropriate hand for your specific audience. If you’re a GM, then you can do that for your particular group of players with live feedback to make sure you’re on the money. When you’re designing a game for a wider audience you need to pick a level for them, and they need to adapt because you can’t see their feedback until it’s too late. It’ll be part of what appeals or doesn’t to each group that plays.

      Some folk will always want more, and others less, than what you provide. That could be detail, art, rules, or anything else. As a creator, you need to pick a target and go for that, and it makes most sense to do whatever appeals to you personally because you’ve got to play it many times. However…

      It’s also true to say that the appropriate level of detail in the background of a game varies enormously depending on the game type and other factors. There are times when I’d absolutely want to leave things as broad as possible to leave plenty of room for player’s imaginations. In other instances, often when the theme is tied closely to the way the game works, I want to be quite proscriptive. It works in this way, it doesn’t have airships or flying boots, it does have zip ties. It may need to have these strictures to make sense and work as intended, even if that crimps the options for the player’s imaginings. If you need either end of this scale then it should be mentioned in the brief.

      With written work, like a novel, different authors leave more or less space for the reader to fill in blanks. The most skilled creators tailor their levels of detail to fit what is best for the end product, so this is what I try to do. It’s what you seem to have done already with HW and ZD 🙂

      Plus, don’t forget that you can vary the amount of proscriptive detail as you go. Some scenes in a story may want more or less. Some areas may require detail to keep the story in line. Others may want to lean on the reader’s imagination. It’s a big topic that could bear lots more discussion.

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