RPGs & Worldbuilding

God_Creating_Heaven_and_Earth_LACMA_65.37.54In the world building stakes, linear narratives have it easy. The author controls which questions are asked and answered. A character can look out the window and see a field of crops, or a factory, or a skeletal thing with the head of a bird that juggles stars, and ask any many or as few questions as the writer wishes. In a tabletop rpg, the players can demand answers from the GM- “what grows there?”, “a factory? what sort? who owns it? I thought you said this was a small fishing port?” “what the hell?” – and the GM has to answer them.

Or, to put it another way – rpgs are a conversation, books are a monologue.

However, just because the author can avoid posing awkward questions in the text, that doesn’t mean the reader automatically follows along. In the example above, the narrator may glide over the bird-headed star juggler, but it’ll certainly bring the reader up short. (In surreal fiction, that sort of jolting incongruity may be exactly what you want, but let’s assume we’re talking more conventional speculative fiction here.)

Early in the book, the reader will stick with the story, holding their questions back, assuming the author will answer or address their concerns later on. “Ok,” says our hypothetical reader, “this world has skeletal bird-headed star juggling things of some sort – that’s weird, but let’s see where it’s going.” As the book goes on, though, unanswered questions rankle. You have to keep the reader’s trust.

At the same time, you can’t stop your story every two minutes for long asides about crop rotation, or the fascinating history of how this fishing port’s traditional bespoke driftwood furniture craft got commercialised, or deep dives into your setting’s mythology. Juggling exposition and plot development is tricky enough when the exposition is directly relevant to the story you’re telling – it’s even trickier when a particular piece of world building isn’t germane to the main narrative, but you still want to include it.

Tabletop games are especially sensitive to this; players are notorious for fixating on obscure side details, especially ones that are only intended to be flavourful quirks. So, how about some techniques from tabletop games to keep your world building from interfering with the enjoyment of your story?

Make Them Care More: If your story’s compelling enough, no-one’s going to interrupt it. If your hero’s hanging from a rope over a chasm, and you mention the rope is made from spider-silk, no reader is going to say “wait a moment! stop the action! Why haven’t we seen those giant spiders before? Are they farmed like silkworms or…”

Bilbo Baggins has a clock on his mantlepiece, which implies a considerable level of sophistication in terms of engineering and metallurgy – but the reader cares more about the fact that he’s suddenly running out of his house to catch up with the Dwarves, and is willing to leave discussion about the economics of Middle-earth for another day.

The reader has to care, though; mere excitement isn’t enough. If you try to paper over cracks in world building with more and more action, it just becomes sound and fury.

Set Your Weirdness Baseline: If skeletal bird-headed star jugglers are the only bizarre entities in your otherwise low-weirdness setting, then they’re an anomaly, a mystery that demands explanation. If your setting is shown to be full of strangeness, then the reader automatically assumes that only some of the weirdness will be explained, and that most of it is just background flavour that can be ignored. You can watch Star Wars without being surprised when another alien shows up; Alien, with a much much lower weirdness baseline, shocks us with a single xenomorph.

Calibrate Your Figleaf: Readers want to keep going. They want to suspend disbelief, so as soon as you give them a half-way plausible justification, they’ll accept it if the wider story is compelling. The fig leaf needs to be short enough that it doesn’t become a lengthy aside, but big enough to cover any problems. If you mention a flying city in an otherwise low-key fantasy setting, then the reader instantly wonders why that city can fly, and why it’s the only flying city, and if they can fly a city, why don’t they fly other things? Are there transoceanic aircraft all of a sudden? You can explain it with “a wizard did it”, but if wizards can do it consistently, then you’ve just exchanged one problem for another. But a figleaf like “it was made by a long-lost civilisation” or “one long-dead wizard managed it, but the feat was never replicated” works – it’s not elegant, but it’s enough of an answer for now to permit the reader to keep going (or the players to keep playing).

A last thought – weird, obtrusive, strange, lumpy bits of setting are good. They’re interesting. They’re memorable. And often, they’re right out of your subconscious, and have a deeper purpose later in the story that you haven’t discovered yet. For example, in The Gutter Prayer, the Tallowmen started out as a just a bit of weirdness I dropped in for no conscious reason. I could have replaced them with human guards, or some more conventional monster, without affecting their place in the story as conceived at that point. I gave the reader a fig leaf (“they’re alchemical creations”) and set the weirdness baseline (“these monsters are commonplace in the city, but they’re still weird and remarkable because they’re a recent addition”) and kept going.


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