Friday, February 11, 2022

Here's Why You World Build

Dennis's blog post today referenced my recent world building post and offered the following observation:
The question Adam raised was, why world-build when character backstories aren't encouraged? And JB, instead of answering directly, started off by musing on why bother playing D&D at all...

SO...what is probably unclear, O My Gentle Readers, is that what I was addressing in my post (with my first two questions) was some of the underlying reasons why world building is necessary, and that my third question ("why world build?") was more of a "why spend copious amounts of time and energy crafting the imaginary setting for your D&D campaign?"

In other words: Why is it desirable to do more work than sketching out Town X, Dungeon Y, and the distance between the two points?

What I did NOT address (re-reading my post) is the absolute NEED to build a world. In D&D.

I have very little time this morning, but I'm going to try to address it. Succinctly, if possible.

D&D "out of the box" doesn't come with a world. It has some assumptions about the setting that can be inferred from the rules (magic works a certain way, certain species and monsters abound) but there's really little more than instructions on how to play the game. In the Original and Basic versions, the DM was directed to create a dungeon, and then advised that after a while, players would want to move OUT of the dungeon and explore the larger world and that the DM should prepare a "wilderness" (though one with towns and cities and castles) for this purpose.

Anyone who has played D&D for a long enough time will probably tell you this isn't sufficient. Playing the game like this is little more than a board game without a (player facing) board.

For a deeper engagement, one needs a world. 

These days, of course, there are plenty of "worlds" available for purchase: Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Krynn, etc. Much easier to BUY a built world than to construct your own. I'll talk about that in a later post. However, there is a reason why there is a market for such products: a world is necessary for serious (i.e. non-superficial) game play. People buying the these products are LOOKING for a world (or ideas for their own creation) because they have played long enough to understand the need for a world.

The newbie player doesn't get this. They're just trying to figure out how the mechanics of the game work. Players need to figure out not just how to roll D20s to attack, what "AC" means and how to pick the right spells, but how to judge risk-reward when it comes to perilous danger of the D&D world. So that their character doesn't die and...instead...succeeds in the game.

The newbie DM has even MORE they have to learn when first picking up the game: not only the lingo and mechanics and extra rules for monsters, but how to craft scenarios that aren't too deadly, too easy, too rewarding, etc AND how to manage a table of unruly ruffian players. That ain't easy. The DM has "absolute power" in the D&D game...but abuse that player and the players walk and there is no game. Give away that power to the players (let the players push the DM around) and they'll still walk once they get tired of manipulating their punching-bag DM (and assuming the DM doesn't quit in frustration and self-disgust first).

It takes time and effort to learn how to be players and DMs (and the latter requiring substantially MORE time and effort than the former). But once you've got it down, once you have all that tuned, you'll find there's still a piece missing from the game: the world. Only the most superficially engaged players are satisfied with just step-and-fetch quests or killing trolls for gold, once they're done learning the ropes. If that's ALL they want, they might as well be playing a MMORPG like World of Warcraft. You still get camaraderie, you still get laughs, you still get to team up for challenges, you still kill shit for money and incremental achievement. And all it costs you is the initial outlay of funds and a couple bucks a month for the subscription. That's a need that the market's filled...there are lots of MMORPGs one can choose from (and probably more on the way as VR tech advances).

To get beyond that requires a deeper engagement with the game which can ONLY happen if there is a world to explore. And the better built the world, the more there is to explore...not just in terms of geography but in managing history, politics, culture, metaphysics, etc...the deeper the engagement that can be achieved.

I'll draw a quick parallel with real life: most of us are pretty attached to living. Regardless of the state of your being, and your beliefs about the afterlife, few people are truly ready to "shuffle off this mortal coil" at the drop of a hat. Why? Are you a bazillionaire with a harem of love slaves and the respect and adoration of millions? Do you live in some tropical paradise where the weather's always perfect, surrounded by loving friends and family with not a care in the world?

Regardless of how shitty our lives may get, we're pretty attached to them. We're invested in them. We want to keep living them...for as long as we can. I mean, there's always the potential for things to get better, right? Always the hope of fun, happiness, love, whatever...yeah?

Ideally, one's game world should be built well enough that the players become invested in a similar way.

[and don't worry about the DM. The DM gets invested just by dint of the time and effort being put into world construction]

A lot of RPGs don't require any substantial amount of world building...the world is already built for them. The World of Darkness games (Vampire, etc.), most Palladium games (Rifts, etc.), Shadowrun, BattleTech, Star Wars, MERPCadillacs & Dinosaurs, Over The Edge, etc. All have a world (or worlds) built in. All have histories (and conflicts based on those histories) baked in. Very, very few RPGs require the same kind of world building in order to offer engagement...for the GM, all that's needed is to create some NPCs and write some scenarios based on the existing world of the game.

For PLAYERS of these games, the main thing needed (besides learning the mechanics) is some sort of "buy-in" to the world being presented. Character backstories can facilitate insertion into the game's setting, but I think it's debatable the benefit that is achieved in/by doing so.

For D&D, where no backstory is required (or, in my opinion, desired) the blank slate of the character allows the game to focus squarely on the players in the present moment: the action is NOW and what the character is doing, not on what the character was or has done in the past.

Because here's the thing: we build emotional investment through our experiences. I get cut from the soccer team in high school...that affects me. I have sex for the first time...that affects me. I travel to a foreign country (where I don't speak the language)...that affects me.  And all of it impacts my life and how I act and react going forward.

But a fictional background or backstory created by a player (or DM) has NOT been experienced. The only thing experienced in the game is the actual experiences that occur IN PLAY, AT THE TABLE. My half-elf's mother was killed by orcs and my father hates me for being half-human and exiled me from the Woodland Realm? None of that matters to ME (the player) because I didn't actually experience them. My father abandoned my family, out-of-the-blue, when I was 17...sneaking away like a thief in the night...and that DOES affect me...because I experienced it myself!

The only thing that you can experience in an RPG...the only thing that will change and transform your character and your personality and your approach/action/reaction to the ongoing game IS THE STUFF THAT HAPPENS IN THE GAME. Conflicts with the game world. Conflicts with your fellow players. Events that occur that are humorous, exciting, tragic, whatever. These things can and will affect players and deepen that investment in the game.

The world building is necessary to facilitate this. Otherwise, players simply see D&D as a challenging game of kill or be killed. There can still be emotional investment (we enjoy becoming great killers) but it won't have the deep attachments it might otherwise have.

Okay...that's all I have time for right now. Happy Friday folks!
: )

[edited to correct the link to Dennis's blog]


  1. Beautiful rejection of backstory there.

  2. I agree with you on the importance of worldbuilding to a deeply complex D&D game. That said, I don't think you've sufficiently addressed the question of backstory. In this post, you say that "we build emotional investment through our experiences," and imply that we build it only through our experiences. But this is not true, as your earlier post about Diego and Bork the "half-orc" shows. Diego had emotional investment in Bork because of the imagined experiences in his backstory. You say of this that Bork "was only just created and should contain ZERO emotional attachment." That "should" acknowledges the issue more accurately: you value the attachment that comes from experience at the table but not the attachment that comes from backstory. You say that this is because players should be invested in the game, not their characters, but the character is the player's prime point of interaction with the game: how can you expect them not to get invested in it?

    1. @ John:

      You're right: I did NOT press as hard on the question of "Why Not Backstory?" as I could have, though folks might infer (from this post and some of my others) the reasons I find the benefits of backstory to I wrote above..."debatable."

      Here's the deal:

      Aside from the idea that investment is best grown organically through the experience of actual play...aside from that concept (though it's pretty important)...ASIDE from it, what exactly does the writing of a backstory do?

      I'll tell you: it focuses the player's attention on their own creation.

      Which is NOT what D&D is about. I'm tempted to say "it's not what RPG play is about," but I'd first have to reflect on all the many RPGs with which I'm familiar. And anyway, these posts were really (in the main) supposed to pertain to D&D.

      So why is "not a benefit" for the player to focus his/her attention on their own character? Multiple reasons:

      - the game, as designed, is meant to be cooperative.
      - the game, as designed, REQUIRES players to be cooperative and group focused (for success).
      - it distracts from focusing attention on the present, which mean you're trading one sort of investment (personal fiction) for another (cooperative group, experiential).

      And that last explains the LIE of "backstories." In the end, the creation of a backstory is a SELFISH act. It usurps narrative control from those at the table (both other players and that of the DM), in order to aggrandize the self-importance of the player.

      That sounds extreme, I understand. "I just wanted to give a reason why my half-elf decided to become a ranger! Jeez!" Okay, but you are kicking open the door a saying, "Um...that wouldn't happen because [backstory]." Or "My character wouldn't do that because [backstory]." The former is usurping the DM's world building authority, the latter is a direct challenge to group cohesion and cooperation.

      In a game that features only ONE PLAYER, perhaps the player and the DM can collaborate to create an interesting background/backstory around the single PC, because...hey...there's only one, so make the character the star protagonist.

      But that's not how D&D was originally conceived/designed. It's a form of drifted play. And, dammit, if it's just you and your buddy telling stories, why not go write a screenplay together instead? Roll dice every time you come to a point in the plot that you need (or don't mind) a random decision to be made. Sheesh!

      Lastly, John: I have said now, multiple times, that emotional attachment to one's character is both an INEVITABLE *and* DESIRABLE result of long-term play. We (DMs) WANT players to be attached to their characters, and it WILL HAPPEN (to one degree or another) given a long enough period of time for the player to become invested. BUT we want that investment to come from the EXPERIENCE OF ACTUAL PLAY...from the fiction being created AT THE TABLE by the group playing the game. That way the investment is SHARED. That way the players can build relationships between their characters...they end up having emotional investment in EACH OTHER as well as their own character.

      Writing a backstory for a character does not provide any reason for the other players to be invested...and little good reason for the player whose character it is.

      Hope that all makes sense.

    2. This is all eminently clear, and it nicely addresses your reasons for rejecting backstory. Your argument still seems a little suspect, though. I'm not a great fan of elaborate backstory, because it tends to be a waste of time: newly made D&D characters are inherently fragile, so they often don't last long enough for the backstory to matter. That said, I don't see that backstory creation is necessarily as selfish and destructive of play as you claim. You at least imply that if a player simply comes up with a reason why their half-elf became a ranger, that will inevitably lead to the player contradicting the DM ("Um...that wouldn't happen because [backstory]") or some other player ("My character wouldn't do that because [backstory]"). This assumes that the worst imaginable consequence of backstory will be the normative one, that the worst that can happen will be the thing that usually happens. I think that there can be other outcomes. A limited backstory can help the player feel that their character is real before in-game experience further and more fundamentally supports that reality.
      Also, if players collaborate on their backstories (a possibility you seem to ignore), it can actually promote group cohesion. Lastly, it is possible that character backstories can contribute to the DM's worldbuilding.
      I'm not sure what you think of anyone but the DM having any say in worldbuilding; your comment about how the first of your examples "is usurping the DM's world building authority" suggests that you take a dim view of it.
      I may be mistaken.

      As for those examples: I've really never seen a player try to tell the DM that something can't happen because of a detail of their backstory, and it strikes me that anyone who did that would look for another way to get round the DM if the backstory weren't there. In other words, the problem is the player, not the backstory. Turning to your second example, I don't see when this would come up. When is anyone but the player determining what the player's character does? The DM might, under circumstances like a charm, but then the character is by definition not acting normally. Other players might suggest a course of action, but they can't compel it. Perhaps you mean that the player gets more attached to their backstory than to aiding the party's goals, but again, the problem is with the player, not the backstory.

      In short, it seems like you asked yourself "How would the world's most selfish, jackbox player use backstory?" and then generalized that to all players. I don't believe the issue is that simple.

    3. There are ways to do "collaborative world building" with multiple people involved (yes, even in D&D). Creation of character backstories...even as a group not the way to do it.

      REGARDLESS of intentionality (that's an important point: let's not just assume players are assholes).

      Regardless of intentionality, creating a backstory puts creative constraints on the DM, drawing attention away from the game...and from the other players.

      Let me put it another way:

      If the player's backstory does NOT require attention (from the DM, the player, the other players) then why bother drafting one at all? Why should we care? If it's not "important" (the quotation marks are deliberate), if DM (me) doesn't need to worry about it, if it's not going to interfere with anything I have planned...then why are you bothering to tell me about it? Why must you tell the rest of the table about it? Are you trying to say "look at me, how cool I am with my fiction ideas?" If it's solely for YOUR OWN BENEFIT (as a method of "understanding your character" or some such) then fine, have at it...but keep it to yourself.

      Thing is, most backstories created by players (especially elaborate ones) are things the creator in question feels the desire to share with everyone at the table.

      And...dammit all!...this isn't "group story time." That's not the point of play. The point of play is the play that occurs. Stop distracting us with your BS about your village being slain by manticores and now you hate all manticores for the emotional scars you carry...




      Regardless of the you not see? Tim thought this idea about manticores was cool or just "interesting." Okay, Tim. So what? Why are you telling me about expect me to DO something with this knowledge?


      What if the group AS A WHOLE decided they all want to be from the same Adventurer School where they learned their skills together and Tim and Sarah and Bill all had this love-triangle thing in their youth and they still have some residual feelings...

      Okay, but I don't have an "adventurer school" in my campaign.

      Well, sure JB, but what if we're all from the same town, and...

      Look, if *I* do my job as the DM, there's no need to worry about all this. If I've BUILT MY WORLD WELL there should be plenty of "stuff" for players to get invested in.

      I do not want players invested in their fiction. I want them invested in the game world.

      I do not want players concerned about resolving their fictional histories. I want them to develop the campaign through their own actions.

      I do not want the players thinking about their PCs fictional relationship with each other; I want them to work together, cooperatively, RIGHT NOW IN THE MOMENT to SUCCEED AND NOT DIE.

      You want to name your character's parents? Fine. You want your character to be an orphan? Fine. You want your character to have had a torrid affair with his/her headmaster at wizard school? Fine.

      But keep it to yourself. As the DM, *I* might need to do something (like tell you you've received the deed to a haunted castle as part of an inheritance) and I don't want you stepping on my world. Thanks.

    4. Had I known that further commentary on this issue would drive you to the edge of rage, I would not have offered it. That was not the end I sought.

      Your position is now so clear to me that I need not comment further. Thank you for everything you have said; I hope it has not overly discomposed you.

    5. Ha! It hasn’t. It fact, it’s forced me to think and crystalize thoughts that were amorphous my mind. Me “yelling” in ALL CAPS is mainly due to the lack of blood and italic fonts to add emphasis.

      Anyhoo. I appreciate you starting the dialogue. Apologies for the scary ranting.
      ; )

      [and PLEASE…just to be clear…John: in that last comment of mine, when I’m using the word “you,” I am not directing that at YOU (John) particularly. Just trying to play out a hypothetical conversation with some unknown “other.” Apologies if you felt I directing my ire at you specifically!]

    6. Mmm… that should have said “BOLD and italic fonts,” not “blood.”

      Haha…MORE BLOOD! I need more to sate my thirst!
      ; )

    7. You can use HTML tags to make things bold and italic in the comments (at least I can).

    8. You're talking to an old man who has a hard enough time just making blogger work for him.
      ; )

  3. Technically speaking, a backstory is against the rules.

    Players are not allowed, in game play, to dictate the actions or speaking parts of an NPC (unless the DM permits this). Backstories largely require a description of what the player characters' NPC associates said or did in the players past. An NPC killed the player's father, also an NPC. The player was abandoned as a child, by NPCs. The player, creating the backstory, inevitably describes a whole lot of choices made by NPCs ...

    And by the game's rules, this is not in the player's power to do.

    1. I find this admirably cogent, and it has the virtue of cutting off any discussion of backstory before it can start.

    2. It does enable the player to have a backstory that goes, "I've always wanted to run a castle," or, "I want to help poor people," or, "I feel it's my duty to become rich."

      These perspectives are proactive; ambitious; and work wonderfully with written D&D. On the other hand, the traditional backstory is reactive: "The world did this to me and I'm going to get even."

      Completely unhealthy, as any counsellor would say.

    3. This, with maybe a bit more detail, is what I think of when I think of backstory.

    4. Then let's take a page from Disney's Tangled and say instead, "I've got a dream."

  4. Elaborate backstories aren't good for the game or the player. It takes agency away from the DM and other players, especially if that player tries to direct the game towards the continuation of their backstory. And when that 1st level character dies early, there can be extra frustration / anger.

    However, I allow and encourage more Role Play in my Role Playing Games. The basic concept of a backstory can really help a player "get in character", and I like to provide opportunities for players to "express their character"... primarily through NPC interactions. Not everyone can act, do voices/accents, sing at the table, etc. But I try to encourage "in character dialog" when appropriate. Over time, game play experience ends up defining the character much more than the original few bullets on backstory, but for some players, the characters brief "origin story" is a great seed for role play engagement.
    This all depends on the players at the table and also the gaming environment (e.g. dungeon delving vs city adventures).

    1. I don't particularly mind "character acting" (so long as it isn't distracting), but I don't encourage it.

      However, there's the strong possibility that a player attaching importance to the art of "playing in character" isn't especially engaged in the game being played...and THAT is undesirable.