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, MERP, Cadillacs & 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]