Guest Post: World building: Novels v. RPGs with James Silverstein

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In the spirit of sharing the awesome, I have a guest post for you readers today.
James Silverstein is the author of Necropolis, now available on amazon.com in print and ebook. He is a veteran game-master, and an articulate writer as well as a skillful storyteller. I can say from experience he’s also a solid friend to have in your corner on a bad day.
Fans of the podcast, Of Mooks & Monsters, should enjoy this post because it’s about world building for roleplaying games.
With that in mind, I’ll get out of the way now. Without undo ado, please welcome James Silverstein to the mental cellar.

Buy James Novel, Necropolis! Print Kindle Ebook
Of Mooks & Monsters Podcast

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World building: Novels v. RPGs
(or: Movie Sets vs. Community Playgrounds)

by
James Silverstein
World building for a novel. In the beginning, we said, “Let there be story!” And… there was still this sheet of blank white paper there. We needed a place for our characters to do their jobs in.
And while those two lines look mostly identical, and while the processes of filling those white spaces are quite similar, there are strong contrasts, in the end, as to what we’re building: Movie sets, or playgrounds.
When building a world for a novel, I get to mold the entire universe around an action, or a set of actions, that the characters in the book will do. While writing the novel ‘Necropolis’, I needed Marcus Sage to find out about an infidelity. Boom, suddenly there was a nice seedy hotel that he could peep into. The blinds were down, of course, so there were only silhouettes, but still, it was there because it needed to be there. Likewise, a steamy brothel, a dirty alleyway, a federal office; everything existed to further the plot as I saw it. In other novels, unlikely-placed planks of wood, or lonely roads, or diners in the middle of nowhere all sprung up, populated by a plethora of characters (even a monkey!), and all became part of the world. Many, if not all of these places and people would be revisited more than once in the course of the writing. Some would even become more central plot points along the road. And while I found myself sometimes writing spaces simply for flavor, even in the end, these places helped inform the action or atmosphere of the story itself. Everything was built, custom-made, for the plot and adventure I was trying to put forth. It was a movie set, with everything in a specific place, and the lighting, the scenery, the props, even the extras; everything was planned and placed exactly where I needed it (largely to be adjusted in the editing process, but this, too, made it like a film set.) Furthermore, I built this world alone. Yes, there were moments I would talk to friends or other authors to smooth out some rough edges, but in the end, everything came together for a story in my head that went onto paper.
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World building for a game. In the beginning, we said, “Let there be game!” And… there was still this sheet of blank white paper there. We needed a place for the players to play in.
World building in a game is another creature entirely. Most GM’s know that if you place your players in a static movie set, they’ll do one of two things. Either they’ll become bored at the possible railroad nature of what’s ahead of them (for those who aren’t familiar with the term ‘railroad’, I suggest checking out this excellent article: http://www.gnomestew.com/game-mastering/gming-advice/how-you-prep-is-how-you-run/ ), or they’ll immediately set themselves to knocking over that piece of scenery over there, or that light stand just next to the camera. Granted, there are those players who are just fine playing in a static world, but I find them to be few and far between.
The world building for an RPG, I feel, is best done dynamically. Much like the building of the world of the novel, things appear as they need to in order to serve the story, but in this case, the story evolves with the participancy of the players. You are no longer building a movie set, but a community playground. Because of this, I find that allowing the players share the heavy lifting can do a world (no pun intended) of good for the construction and the familiarity of the world. The dwarf needs a homeland to come from. If the player suddenly pipes up and mentions that his homeland has a problem importing grain, and he wants to make it a priority for his character to get some sent back? Instant world building detail, and the GM didn’t have to lift a finger.
Now, this particular detail can, of course, go off in many directions. You may, later in the campaign, revisit why the grain problem is as it is. Are there bandits? Is there some curse the dwarves are under? Is it politics? Is there perhaps a monkey involved? Suddenly the dynamic world building has brought you more game and more game-plot. Again, you didn’t have to lift a finger to get it. And if you don’t feel like you want to drive the plot in that direction? The world detail is still there for you to simply know about. It informs the dwarf’s character.
Further, a more dynamic approach allows the players to run amok in a world that they feel they have a greater stake in. When a merchant appears that one of the players mentioned in their backstory, there’s an automatic connection. Whether the characters know the merchant already or not, the players know that they helped create her, and that investment tends to draw players in much more quickly and completely. This is the ‘community’ nature of a community playground; when the entire neighborhood builds the swingsets and the slides, everyone feels they have a stake in both the upkeep and the general use of the place.
When writing for a novel, I almost always outline the action as I see it, and build around that. It is, as I’ve mentioned, a solo act. While writing a game, I have a small exercise I give to my players that involves them in the process; a sort-of forced brainstorming session that goes like this*:
During character creation, I have each player come up with three people their character gets along with, three that they don’t, and three that they just know, without any specific bonhomie or animosity. All they need is a name and a line or two of description. I encourage players to find ways to link their nine NPC’s together, and often I’ll give some small benefit to the players that do so (in the form of a little bonus XP or the like). If possible, I like to do this in a group; it fosters discussion about events, places, and people in the backstory of the characters. It’s more instant world building and investment for the players. Suddenly the elf’s uncle Chuck who was so nice to him is also the sneering noble that the human has crossed swords with, and their duchy is the one that the mutant druid grew up in. A whole corner of the world has sprung into being through the pre-game interaction of the players.
Of course, in the end, there is a certain level of authorship and editor-ship expected from you as the GM. You get key veto power. You can tell the dwarf that no, their clan didn’t invent the nuclear bomb, or that the mutant druid can’t live that far south, or that the mage isn’t betrothed to the princess. In lieu of this, however, I suggest taking the ideas and using them in different ways. Certainly, the dwarves did invent a super-weapon. It recently was stolen and is about to be detonated in the human lands. The PC’s might want to stop that. Certainly, the druid lived that far south. She was exiled from the northern tribes, and there are still bounty hunters looking for her because of it. Certainly, there was an almost-betrothal for the mage, but the princess has asked to extend the courtship for reasons that seem quite arcane and mysterious. In this practice, you as a GM still maintain power over the world, but the PC’s still get the feeling of investment from their work.
In the end, while world building for a novel encompasses a story, world building for a game encompasses many stories; at least as many as you have PC’s, and likely quite a few more. The lifting there is heavier, but you have a lot of extra hands to make the job light. Use them to your best advantage in building the best playground you can make.
Oh, and don’t ever forget to add a monkey. Trust me on this one.

*(Note: I apologize for not properly crediting whomever I lifted this from: I’ve been using it for decades, and I don’t remember whom I first got the idea from.)