World building as a group activity

David Hume’s Dialogues concerning natural religion is famous for demolishing the so-called “Argument from design,” which attempts to prove the existence of God. The argument can be boiled down to the idea that the natual world exhibits a design (natural laws, patterns, highly organized living organisms, etc.) and that if there is a design, there must be a designer; this designer is known to the religious as God. Hume’s characters in the dialogue examine this argument and determine that even if there is a “designer,” literally nothing about the designer can be known just by looking at the designed artifact. For example, that the designer is one being rather than many, is alive or dead at this time, is intelligent or an automaton, and so on, none of these can be determined just by looking at the design.  So while Hume allows the possibility of a designer, he still shows the argument to be far too weak to actually prove what most of its proponents really want to prove; namely that there is a God like the one described in the Bible.

I didn’t start this blog to discuss philosophy or religion, though. The reason I mention Hume above is that a large chunk of the “blogosphere” I follow (mainly Grognardia, The Cimmerian, and their many, many satellites concerned with “old school” role playing games, fantasy fiction, and so on) has had some discussion lately about “world-building.” For example Grognardia details the author’s creation of a role playing campaign in a setting of his own devising, and he frequently discusses his philosophy of world building (what makes a good game setting, what books and other media inspire him, how he incorporates other people’s ideas, etc.). Over at The Cimmerian (a blog loosely dedicated to Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan and many other interesting but less well-known characters), one of the contributors has begun a series of articles about Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth. Interesting discussions have developed at both of these sites and some others about how authors such as Howard, Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and others built their own fictional worlds. In a related vein, in my mind at least, Save or Die! is a blog describing how a campaign might develop if a gaming group used only material released for D&D at the very beginning (the “Little Brown books,” the supplements, and the first few issues of Dragon magazine) and incorporated every element in the order it was introduced.  New character classes, monsters, and rules are added as they are published, and the blogger has woven a relatively coherent narrative as why, for example, Druids, who were introduced as a non-player character monsters become available as player characters with different abilities than those in their “monster” description. I don’t know if the campaign described will ever be run but it is an amazing work of imagination, in my opinion.

The thing that is really striking to me is that unlike fiction worlds (Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or Howard’s Hyboria), game worlds tend to be the work of many creators. The referee/Game Master/DM may take a lead role in much of the work, but the players contribute a great deal too, or should.

I can’t decide if this is just the old-school way of world-building in RPGs or if it is intrinsic to role playing games.   I can certainly think of a lot of published RPG settings that admit of very little player input beyond the actual sequence of events in the adventures played.  At one point there was an effort to have a series of campaign, administrated by TSR/WotC (“Living Greyhawk,” and other “Living” campaigns) that incorporated the results of RPG tournaments of conventions, but like the published settings I think there would be a hell of a lot of material handed down by the publishers, and to play in these campaigns the players give up the freedom to actually create their own worlds.

In the games I’ve played in (almost always as a player but sometimes as GM), the best encouraged player participation in building the world. This could be as minor as providing a short written character background, or as elaborate as writing summaries of each game session. In the game I’m playing now, our GM has encouraged players to not only write backgrounds for their characters, but to also describe their place of origin as the game takes place on an isolated and mysterious island that all the PCs are strangers to. Being the GM’s brother, I also got to be somewhat involved in bouncing around ideas before the campaign started. I’d been reading the blogs I mentioned above, and also things like Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign, which describes how his Blackmoor campaign, a precursor of D&D, developed. The results so far have been one of the best, and most memorable, RPG campaigns I’ve participated in. At this point the campaign world is still largely unknown, and our adventures, and efforts, will determine the shape of things. Each player has described their home country, and we recently found a map showing the outline of the island we are on. 90% of the game world is terra incognita. You can’t beat that.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 1:53 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’d like to think that The Cimmerian is a bit more than “loosely” dedicated to Robert E. Howard, personally: he and Tolkien are the primary focuses of the site, as per site founder Leo Grin’s intention.

    However, that focus on Howard and Tolkien doesn’t mean it should exclusively be about those authors: they didn’t write in a vaccuum, so discussion of history, mythology & other authors is only appropriate.

    Still, very nice post.

  2. Thanks Al! No disrespect to the Cimmerian intended, and I do appreciate the coverage of authors like Poul Anderson and so on.

  3. Hey I’m wondering what your view is on the existence of God. Not trying to be deep or anything, but just wondering what your thoughts are! After all, that’s what makes posts really good – your opinion. 🙂 You did mention that you didn’t write for that point, and I definitely understand. 😉

    Taylor J. Beisler

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