Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Why World Build

A couple posts back, Adam commented:
You do use Level Limits for Race but don't use Alignment? Backstories are bad but there's tons of World Building?

Why? What is the purpose of fictional world history, cultures, and politics if the PCs aren't part of said elements? This isn't a criticism. I'm honestly curious how it all works.
There are short, terse (probably insulting) answers to these questions, but I think that the underlying thing here is a disconnect between how I am (currently) playing D&D and the misconceptions about the game that are all over the internet these days. I know I've been trying to communicate my own position for...oh, months now, I suppose. But I've been somewhat less than "clear" and "succinct."

So let's break it down.

#1 Why play D&D at all?

D&D allows us to experience a world of fantasy adventure. That's the best summation I can come up with. There are nuances and elaborations I can make...additions that expand and justify the choice of a tabletop RPG over, say, a networked game like World of Warcraft. But the bottom line is what I wrote. If you aren't interested in experiencing a world of fantasy adventure, then D&D probably isn't the game for you.

Of course, to "experience a world of fantasy adventure" requires a world, right?

#2 Of what importance are rules?

This is the million dollar question, of course. And there are lots of potential answers. However, for this effort, I'm going to go down a particular, specific route, building on my answer to question #1.

Rules are recognizable limitations. We live in a world governed by rules; rules are familiar to us. And I'm not just talking about paying the tax man on April 15th or wearing a mask inside the grocery store during a pandemic (still a thing in my town). We have rules like physics. Like gravity: you drop a crystal wine glass on a tile floor and it explodes all over the place, regardless of whether or not that would make "a good story." We live in a world regulated by uncountable rules of nature, rules of law, rules of etiquette, rules of economy. To better experience a world of fantasy adventure, we need rules.

Why use racial level limits and not alignment? Because one provides a particular rule regulation I desire, and the other does not. I do not want 15th level dwarf fighters. But I do want players to be able to adventure together despite "alignment restrictions" for particular classes. 

I do not measure comeliness (a new ability score, found in the 1E Unearthed Arcana). Neither do I have attributes like "sense of humor," "will power," or "thrifty-ness." The ability scores present...and the given rules...are designed to apply to experiencing adventure. Some rules are better at promoting this than others. I mentioned in an earlier post that I allow magic-users a couple extra spells to start, but I do not allow them to have a giant "recipe book" to pick and choose spells from. These adjustments are waaaay out-of-bounds for AD&D ("bad grognard! bad! shame!") but I've found they promote the adventure experience I wish to foster at my table.

Disregarding rules, ignoring dice rolls, cutting systems...these actions are generally taken in aid of helping create some sort of "story," or is taken as removing "clutter" that gets in the way of "meaningfulness" (yes! that's a word!). But that's not the reason I play D&'s not about telling a story or finding meaning. Instead, it's about experiencing adventure. Rules aid that experience.

[and I've found "clutter" generally only occurs in games that lack attention, focus, and preparation]

#3 Why build a world?

There is a particular school of thought that runs along these lines: the game world isn't important. All one needs to enjoy [insert RPG] is:

A) a great adventure (hopefully run by a competent GM), and
B) players that have an emotional investment in the adventure.

The wizard-duke of Arth has been oppressing his people for generations from his Mountain of Power. Rikki the Rogue saw his parents tortured to death by the ducal guard for daring to start a revolution. Ferdinand the Fighter's one true love was kidnapped to be one of the tyrants concubines. However, Sal the Cleric has has discovered a secret entrance into the castle through the sewers...can they brave the dangers of the wizard's cellars and bring justice to the evil overlord?

The appeal of playing out such a scenario is understandable...hey, we're heroes just like in Star Wars (or whatever)...but it brings a variety of problems with it...and not just the problem of "the tired trope."

However, I'm not going to dwell on (or berate) that "stuff." Instead, I'm going to fall back (again) on my answer to question #1...just why the hell are we playing this game instead of watching a movie, reading (or writing) a book, or just going for a walk in the sunshine? We are playing to experience a fantasy world of adventure

Not "to experience a scenario." A world. And a world is a big place with lots of possibilities, not just a single mad wizard in his fortress. 

We humans live in a world. Worlds, like rules, are...or should be...recognizable. Not in the "hey, this NPCs is my high school gym teacher" way, but in the "hey, sometimes it rains a lot and there's the possibility of flooding" kind of way. Because when the world is recognizable, we can use our real world experience to determine our actions (and reactions) to what is going on in the fantasy world.

Which makes for a deeper, richer, experience. An immersive one. 

The more world-building you which I mean "putting thought and care into the creation of the imaginary game environment"...the more engaged the players can be with that environment. If they know that "Jimmy the Town Orc" has a family/clan/tribe living nearby, perhaps the PCs will deal differently with the small band of orcs they encounter in the woods outside of town. 

Or perhaps not...and maybe their eagerness to whet their blades will lead to serious and/or tragic repercussions.

In reviewing Adam's questions...especially his final one...I'd say world building is necessary precisely because it is vitally important for PCs to become a part of the "history, cultures, and politics" of the game world. Because becoming a part of that will result in a deeper level of emotional engagement in the players. Which will make them care more about the game...perhaps as much as the Creator DM who is building this imaginary playground for them.

BUT...they don't start with attachments. They start with a character in the world. It's not about writing a's about experiencing. And they can only experience through play. Which is the whole reason why we're playing this D&D game: to experience a world of fantasy adventure.

Hopefully that all makes sense.


  1. Honestly, the basic answer to "Why world build?" for 95% of referees is going to be "it's fun". I don't understand how worldbuilding isn't something frankly just a recreational default; it is a simple great pleasure.

    1. With you here. Right now the world building is about the only part of gaming I actually enjoy anymore.

    2. I agree. It's also something I can do when I can't get a group together (which is most of the time). And these days I consider it as much a hobby as the actual playing around a table.

  2. World building on more than a superficial level can require a lot of time/effort on the part of the DM..."work" in other words.

    For some folks (including ME...for many years) the investment required is off-putting, despite the pleasure. I've brainstormed many, many worlds over the years, but there's been little depth to them...and because of this, none had any longevity.

    I'll talk about this a bit more in my next post.

  3. I have so much to say I am very likely going to have to write a whole post on this (though I may have to wait until I finish my next post).

    My main issue for now is with the very first question and its answer.

    "#1 Why play D&D at all?

    D&D allows us to experience a world of fantasy adventure."

    All Fantasy RPGs let you do that. I could name a dozen Fantasy games off the top of my head and I am not even into Fantasy.

    Did you mean, 'Why play Fantasy RPGs?' Your answer seems to fit that better. I still don't really know the answer to 'Why play D&D?'

    1. There are RPGs like D&D (for which my #1 would apply)…and there are RPGs that aren’t.

      And it’s not about Old vs. New games. Call of Cthulhu, for example, isn’t about “experiencing a world of fantasy adventure.” It’s about investigating mysteries until your character is lost to the insanity of cosmic horror. If you don’t want to investigate mysteries, you probably shouldn’t be playing CoC.

      Perhaps your definition of “adventure” is too broad compared to how I’m using it; perhaps my definition of “experience” is too narrow compared to your own conception of the term. Because I did mean exactly what I said. Not all RPGs do what D&D does; your assertion is incorrect.

    2. Different yes but incorrect? Again, I can name games that allow players to experience a world of fantasy adventure.

      Do people playing Troika not experience a world of fantasy adventure? Do Rolemaster players not do this? Is Rolemaster about something D&D isn't and vice versa? Ars Magica? The Fantasy Trip?

      I can name dozens if not hundreds of games that are NOT Call of Cthulhu or Champions, not games that aren't about fantasy adventure.

      Granted, not all games do what D&D does but unless D&D does it in a way I am not aware of (which is certainly possible), I still don't see a good answer to the question of 'Why play D&D?' and not something else.

    3. Your assertion

      "All Fantasy RPGs let you do that."

      with regard to my statement about D&D is NOT just different. It is incorrect.

      I can name quite a few RPGs myself. Some do things similar to D&D. A person looking to "experience a world of fantasy adventure" might choose to play one of those games instead. The question was not "Why play D&D instead of other RPGs?" it was "Why play D&D?"

      The subject I'm trying to address is world answer the question of why/how world building is necessary, I have to address the question of why we are playing THIS particular game (D&D): because the answer to THAT question explains the necessity of the other.

      Comparison between RPGs is muddying the waters a bit.

    4. I see what you're saying. Very well then. This is world building for D&D, even more specifically D&D as you see it and play it. I will adjust my point of view to keep that in mind.

  4. Excellent; I'd wish I'd thought to write a post on the first question, "Why play D&D at all."

    I want to take it a step back from your position, however. Your answer presupposes you're going to play something, or that D&D is the only way to experience a world of "fantasy adventure." It is, but that's not important just now.

    I find your answer to be an a posteriori conclusion; the proposition emerges or derives from experience. I want the a priori proposition ...

    What lack, specifically, does D&D fulfill? A lack of experiencing a world of fantasy adventure? That doesn't strike me as getting to the root of it. Why "fantasy" adventure. Why adventure at all?

    We go along through our daily lives; we get hungry, we eat; we get tired, we rest and sleep. We get horny, we ... well, you get the idea. What need does D&D satisfy, precisely?

    1. @ Alexis:

      Yeah, I actually have an answer for that (another post I've been considering for a while), but you may not like the answer...especially as it quotes a certain Mr. E.G.G.

      However, it's pretty much all I've got at the moment...and some answer is better than none.
      ; )

    2. I don't have an answer, myself. I have the compulsion to play and run fantasy games, so there must be an answer. But I'm ruminatin'.

    3. @JB & @Alexis

      This is another very stimulating topic (i.e., what drives the need to play; what is being satisfied/gratified by playing D&D?). The need for a specific kind of gameplay, competition, escapism, connection, etc.?? I suspect the particular satisfaction/gratification will vary from person to person, but narrowing the inquiry down to D&D and not just any rpg might turn up a shared answer (or answers). I look forward to what you come up with in the next post, JB.

  5. Why play dnd(as opposed to other fantasy rpgs)? A shared sense of familiarity. Everyone has heard of dnd, has some preconceptions about it, there are similarities that have endured over the last 40+years. Even if my version of dnd isn't exactly the same as the one Alexis plays, we(and pretty much every roleplayer)can still talk about the game and understand each other. Not really so if I start talking about the fantasy trip or rolemaster or ars magica, any of those and I have to explain the game before I can talk about anything more than broad strokes.