FAQs For Hawke Robinson: World Building

Question: With all of your experience and being a game master, what is your favorite world building approach?

The following is an edited transcription from a number of panels and interviews where I was asked the same question between 2004 through 2020, turned into a more complete response in this document. This is why it has a more conversational style than typical of my regular "papers".

I prefer talking about our group of people working on research and community projects, not my self, but since you asked it as a more personal approach, I'll try to respond accordingly. 

My favorite self-created setting is a multiverse setting (Worlds of Beru, as illustrated in the actual play show series Heroes of the Mist [1][2]). It allows me to bring in anything that I want, to fit any genre and setting that I, and my players, want into the setting, allowing maximum flexibility, so that particular aspect, when I’m making my own world is my favorite thing.

As far as a world building detail, creating worlds themselves, there are many different philosophies about them.

Some claim you need to detail everything versus those that recommend just creating it on the fly, versus other different variations and balances between.

I prefer, and recommend, adopting the RPG Ability Model in many areas, and with worldbuilding this is also very applicable.

Diagram showing progression in the bottom right corner with "railroading" through the middle at "training wheels" to the upper right as "sandbox".

For new GMs and new players, I think that this where we do come back to BECMI D&D as a great starting model and template for helping new participants to learn and grow – the Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters/Immortals D&D of Frank Mentzer from 1983.

While there is an initiative going through RPG Research, RPG Therapeutics, and the Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, and there have been many other commercial attempts, to date, BECMI D&D is the only complete role-playing game system series that appears to actually (intuitively) understand the cognitive neuropsychology of learning for absorbing complex systems most effectively. BECMI is the most effective at bringing in brand new players (and GMs) to the joys of RPGs without having to rely on the GM Mentor Model or "massed learning". Unfortunately about 99% of role-playing games published are simply doing it wrong. If they would follow the BECMI model as a template (not the RPG system itself, it has many issues, I'm talking about the learning model used to layer in the rules learning), I believe that instead of only around 100 million tabletop RPGers, we would have billions!

This model applies to world building as well. The model I'm referring to is that:

  • It starts small.
  • Grows incrementally and differentially, over time.
  • It starts local.

For example:

You’re a little farmer person, not a hero, you don't have any special powers, you are the average underdog rising up from nothing, and slowly claw your way up (with many PC deaths first) toward becoming a competent hero.

This brings up another topic to discuss another time regarding the radical sociocultural change in "first world" countries from the 1900s, regarding players embracing the underdog bootstrap approach, versus the 2000s rejection of the bootstrap concept, opting more for starting as already very powerful super heroes approach. These are increasingly more often anti-heroes/non-heroes and even often rejection of the concept of good and evil or heroic play as a good thing, but those are topics for another discussion.

You’re known to your local village and there is an abandoned keep you need to go root out because there’s starting to be trouble coming from there, so you decide to go check it out, though you know the risk is extremely high that you will be outmatched.

This is starting with local geographically and its local in context. You have your character go and have that adventure.

Your PC/group goes back and forth between the town and you slowly build the relationships.

Your route mostly sticks with going between that small town and that adventure location, going back and forth until you finish that particular adventure.

Then you find another location, either using the same home base, or starting at a new base for recovery between adventure efforts. And iterate with the same narrow focus.

Over time you progress from railroaded dungeon crawls and limited geographic travel, to increasingly more geographic, geopolitical, and other knowledge, expanding the map, picking up rumors and lore, building relationships, etc.

Then slowly as you go, from Basic rules to Expert rules for example, you increasingly find your PC going out on more arguably risky wilderness adventures, you start to explore the world, brave the elements, and see what’s out there.

With this approach, for the GM, its not necessary to have every single little detail of the world worked out well in advance, because of the initially locally-focused aspect of the introductory adventures.

The GM _should_ put a lot of effort and a fair amount of detail in the local geography, people, lore, etc., and just have rough outlines of what is out there that can be conveyed to the PCs/players in drips and drabs.

Players will confound those who over-plan much the time anyway, so be careful about trying  to pre-design everything in advance for TRPG campaigns. Electronic RPGs (ERPG) are very different creatures and require much more robust world building skills, discipline, planning, etc. For now we're remaining focused on the original RPG format for this topic, tabletop RPG.

Over time this experiential adventures approach to exploratory learning keeps progressing iteratively, building on prior knowledge adding more nuanced details and elaboration providing more memory cues for application in life.

I have run many campaigns that spanned many years with the same players, including some that have collectively spanned decades with a variety of groups. Using this process, the worlds over time become living, breathing entities where events happen whether the characters do something or not, but of course they have an influence on some key narrative events here and there.

There are some things that just happen no matter what the PCs do. Natural earthquakes just happen. Certain natural weather patterns will just happen, right?

The characters are just going to have to deal with the consequences of that if they come into an area where such significant events are occurring or occurred.

Other things they’re going to have an impact that they may or may not be aware of, until later, or perhaps never looking back unaware of the changes they are causing to the world, and only other groups will find out later.

For example, that group of Thri-kreen that the PCs took out years ago, there may have been one surviving child brood, or something similar, who’s had a vendetta ever since,. They went and ran across the countryside, training intensely, building up a new swarm, and has brought back a much larger force to attack the village the PCs helped, years later in revenge, and it’s all because of consequences that the players caused long before.

Let’s say maybe the characters were more cruel than they needed to be, right, they maybe tortured or did something along those lines and so the ramifications catch up with them much later.

Allowing the world to be responsive to the players’ actions is very, I think, important for world building.

The world doesn’t fully center around them either, right? The PCs definitely have an impact, but it is a world with lots of other entities and creatures and events and things going on.

It is important that there’s a balance between these approaches, between a single PC group-centric world, and a world completely unaffected by what the PCs.

Examples of multiple simultaneous groups in the same setting but keeping them separate, though their impact is "felt".

In my case, I often have multiple groups playing in my world simultaneously, and the PC groups occasionally hear rumors about other groups, not realizing these are other PC groups. I adopt concepts from the Thieves' World original author's collaboration approach from Robert Lynne Asprin, with set events, and allow different PCs and groups to impact the others, though often the others don't always know at first.

And so this is kind of how it all grows over years and decades.

Different approaches for bleed through effect of groups to other groups in the same setting.

So, for another example of another approach I take. This approach is to have the effects of one group "bleed through" into the other group in different ways, but generally the groups can never directly interact with each.

I’ll have a group, and the world is a variable multiverse setting.

I’ll have one group go through one campaign and another group going through another campaign.

They’re in the same setting, but they’re going through two different adventures in different parts of the continent.

Or they may be doing it at the same time or they may do it in slightly different phases/dimensions of the multiverse and some of it may, or may not, bleed through the 'verses.

Either way, I intentionally leave the consequences of their key actions, with their imprint to come across for other players in the future.

For example, the other group will come across a summoning circle, that one of the other characters created from some group five years before, and it is a left over. Allowing that impact to keep happening and rippling out to other groups.

Example of letting groups run into each other and work together.

On the other hand, in a single-world non-multiverse setting, when I was running a classic Greyhawk campaign back in the 1980s, with three groups simultaneously, I was providing paid game mastering sessions to multiple groups, as well as unpaid groups "for fun".

I had two groups on Saturday, one on Sunday; they were all in the same Greyhawk campaign, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition.

Each group was on a different quest, in different parts of the continent.

The PCs in each group had unknowingly heard about each other’s exploits, even though they had no idea that they were hearing about other actual player adventurers. They thought that they were just hearing about background material or story hooks that I was putting out there. When in fact, the rumors they were hearing, were of the other groups and their exploits.

So, when group 1 took down the slave lords, groups 2 and 3 heard about it, that this particular group took the slave lords HQ out. The players assumed it was just part of the flavor of the world setting, when in fact, it was actually what the other players were doing.

However, at one point, all three groups coincidentally all picked the same kind of quest hook around the same time, for the same artifact.

Uh oh!

Well, maybe it will be okay, I thought, one group will get there long before the others, and they'll see the evidence of whoever made it first, but they won't run into each.

No such luck.

It became clear to me (unless I did some significant railroading that I didn't want to do), they were all converging on the same location with very close temporal proximity.

Even more challenging it looked like they were all gonna get there roughly within a day of each other!

I had a bit of a problem here, because this was not a multiverse setting.

So here they were converging, and I needed to figure that out, and this is where we ended up.

I did not tell the groups, but I had them all adjust their schedule to come in on a Saturday and do some longer sessions temporarily. I assured them that it would be worth the temporary schedule change hassles.

Fortunately we made this work just in time.

This was back when my individual sessions were typically more in the range of six to eight hours each.

Nowadays, based on decades of experimentation, research, and evidence-in-practice, we standardize on 3-4 hours per session most of the time.

I setup a number of tables together and covered it with tablecloths and maps to make it appear as a single very long table that would accommodate a little over twenty people!

I had their seating all assigned so they sat together in their respective groups. Character sheets covered up, and asked them not to talk to the others that they didn't know, only the fellow players from their own group, but to do so quietly and cautiously.

I had them all sit down quietly, not knowing what was going on.

Then as I unfolded the adventure session, slowly one by one the groups showed up at the focal location in the adventure.

There were some tense moments there as they kind of argued over who had the first right to go hunt for the artifact first.

Luckily they did decide, as I had hoped, that they could all benefit if they worked together, rather than fight each other, and maybe if they took turns with using the artifact, they could make it all work out to each of their respectively different goals and purposes for needing the artifact. Fortunately it was a multi-use artifact not a single use one, otherwise it might have been an uglier outcome.

They ventured together for a few weeks like that, around 20 players all together (reminiscent of Gygax's original groups), and then, when they had achieved the collaborative goal of getting the artifact, everybody followed through with keeping their word and taking turns using the artifact for goals they had needed it for. That is, the surviving PCs, there were a number of character deaths in each group.

They all went their separate ways, but sharing each other's plans and adventure schedules and how to make contact in the future.

Group 1 used the artifact to achieve their goals. Then delivered it to the next group, etc.

Then they all went their separate ways for good, but now, every time they heard rumors of some adventuring party taking out this bad guy here, or rescuing this person there, or saved that city, they started to listen even more attentively, wondering, or knowing, that that was the group of player characters that they had met previously.

So these are just a few of the many different approaches I like to take with my world-building to give a lot more life to it.

Now, what I just described was mostly a recreational approach to world-building.

When I am doing it for applied gaming, for measurable research, education, or therapy goals, then it’s a little different, right?

Then it is something like: “Okay, I need to build the materials to teach the topic. I have a set curricula of material I must help them learn through the adventure.  It’s educational; putting together the 1600’s Tokugawa era campaign because I want to teach them about that time period in feudal Japan and all the things going on, and the Dutch traders and the Portuguese and all these other things going on." That’s a different world-building process obviously than the more recreational approach.

Or for the therapeutic goals, where I’m building the module or world that’s going to have specific events and challenges happening relevant to the client's needs, with specific stimuli, so they can bring up the issues for processing and discussion to achieve the therapeutic goals.

When I work with people with various phobias, social phobias, agoraphobia, some so severe they’ve locked themselves in their house or apartment, and are afraid to come out, I found that creating an electronic role playing game module (ERPG), such as using NeverWinter Nights Aurora Toolset, and then incrementally migrating them to TRPG sessions slowly, through an exposure therapy approach. Bringing in the topics that cause them discomfort but doing it incrementally and adjusting to their level of anxiety.

Those are obviously more targeted approaches for world-building to meet those specific client needs.

So I just wanted to throw that in there  that I do things differently than the recreational approach to world-building.

Hawke Robinson is President and Founder of the for-profit company RPG Therapeutics LLC. He is also founder and Executive Director of the 501(c)3 non-profit research and human services charity RPG Research.