FAQs For Hawke Robinson: World Building

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

My favorite self-created setting is a multiverse setting. It allows me to bring in anything that I want, to fit any genre and setting that I want into the setting, so that particular aspect for me, when I’m making my own world is my favorite thing.

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

Some claim you need to detail everything versus those that just create it on the fly versus other different variations and balances thereof.

Fr new GMs and new players, I think that is where we do come back to BECMI – the Basic/Expert/Companion/Masters/Immortals D&D of Frank Mentzer from 1983.

It is to date the only complete role-playing game system that intuitively understands the cognitive neuropsychology of learning complex systems most effectively. It is the most effective at bringing in brand new players to the joys of RPGs without having to rely on the GM Mentor Model or "massed learning". Unfortunately about 99.9% of role-playing games published are simply doing it wrong. If they would follow the BECMI model (not the system, it has many issues, I'm talking about the learning model used to layer in the rules learning), instead of only around 100 million tabletop RPGers, we would have billions!

The model I'm referring to is that it starts small.

It starts local.

You’re a little farmer person, not a hero, you don't have any special powers, the average underdog rising up from nothing, (another change socioculturally from the 80s to the 2000s, but that is another topic for discussion) who becomes a warrior.

You’re known to your local village and there’s this abandoned keep you need to go root out because there’s starting to be trouble up there and go check it out.

Again, it’s local geographically and its local in context.

You have your character go and have that adventure.

You go back and forth between the town and you slowly build the relationships, and your routes between that small town and that adventure location, going back and forth untill you finish that adventure.

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

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.

Players will confound you all the time anyway, if you try to pre-design everything in advance.

However, over time...

So I run campaigns that span many years and, collectively, have spanned decades, so 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 they do. Earthquakes just happen. Certain 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 orcs that the PCs took out years ago, there may have been one surviving child orc or something who’s had a vendetta ever since, who went and ran across the countryside, training intensely, building up a new clan, and has brought back a much larger force to attack the village 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 like 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.

And so that’s kind of how it grows.

So, for example, 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. They may be doing it at the same time or they may do it in slightly different phases of the multiverse and some of it may, or may not, bleed through the 'verses, and I intentionally leave their imprint for other players in the future, so, the group will come across a summoning circle or whatever that one of the other characters did from some group five years before, and it’s a left over from one of the previous groups that was there. Allowing that impact to keep happening and rippling out to other groups.

On the other hand, in a single-world non-multiverse setting, when I was running a classic Greyhawk campaign with three groups simultaneously, this was back in the 80s, I was providing paid game mastering sessions to players back in the eighties.

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.

However, at one point, they coincidentally all picked the same kind of quest hook, for the same artifact, and it became clear to me (unless I did some railroading that I didn't want to do), they were all converging on the same location. 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.

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. T 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.

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, that it would be worth the schedule change hassles.

This was back when my individual sessions were typically more six to eight hours (nowadays, based on decades of experimentation, research, and evidence-in-practice, we standardize on 3-4 hours per session most of the time/).

They all showed up at a single long table I setup for a little over twenty people!

I has 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.

I had them all sit down quietly, not knowing exactly what’s going on.

Then as I unfolded the adventure session, slowly one by one the groups showed up 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.

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

They ventured together for a few weeks like that, 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.

Ten delivering it to the next group, etc. Then they all went their separate ways, but now, every time they heard rumors of some adventuring party taking out this bad guy here, or rescued this person, 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 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 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. It’s educational; putting together the 1600’s Tokugawa era campaign cause 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 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 that’s going to have specific events and challenges happening, 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 and then incrementally migrating them to tabletop 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.