Embracing contradictions in worldbuilding

Imagine that someone wrote a travel guide to the US with the power to shape reality. Whatever the authors write is the way reality is, forever and ever. Imagine that that travel guide was only 50 pages long. The authors try to keep it close to our reality, but still, some corners get filed off. What would the US as created by this travel guide look like?
Map of the Genericton Coast

  • Democrats would always be more liberal than Republicans. There would be no such thing as a pro-choice Baptist or a pro-gun liberal.
  • No little town would ever have a museum, major company headquarters, or ethnic diversity. Every major city would, by definition, have a major university, an Army base and a huge public park.
  • There would be precisely one crime network in every town.
  • There would be no women firefighters or male ballet dancers. Many other forms of diversity would also not exist.
  • Every location in the US would have a single name, and everyone would agree how to pronounce it. No locations would have nicknames. Everyone speaking English would easily understand everyone else speaking English. The entire country would use the same names for “submarine sandwiches”, “casseroles”, and “fizzy drinks”.
  • Every town would have rigidly-defined rich areas and poor areas.
  • Earthquakes would only happen in California, tornadoes would only happen in Kansas, and it would never be unseasonably warm in Minnesota.

Doesn’t make much sense, right? But — and my metaphor is probably pretty obvious by now — that’s how a lot of game worlds are written and executed. Everything about a place can be reduced to permanent, objective, undisputed, simple facts.

It’s definitely good to have a broad understanding of what places are like. It’s good to lay out general details and then stick to them; this builds consistency. It would be amazingly frustrating to not know from day to day which street you live on, or what number to dial in an emergency, or which direction the Sun would come up from.

But at the same time, it’s good to break from the norm in big or small ways. Have a tiny town be home to the best architect in the kingdom (and come up with a good backstory for why she chose to live there); give a place alternate names, and figure out why it has them; discover that for some reason, a big group of an unexpected minority lives in an unexpected place.

Not only is this fun, it’s a necessity for realism. One of my constant truisms is, “The hallmark of reality is that it is complex”. Pretty much everything in the real world has a fractal level of detail; if something is simple, even on close inspection, that’s a good sign that it doesn’t exist in the real world. Little unexpected details are one of the best ways to show that something is real. (This always reminds me of the ‘commode story’ from the movie Reservoir Dogs — warning: very NSFW!).

To achieve a fractal level of detail, there needs to be a broadly predictable pattern, while still having small details that are surprising and interesting. If you’re the worldbuilder, or the GM, how do you generate small contradictions?

A major way is to get player suggestions. Playing something like Microscope or The Quiet Year always generates a ton of interestingly unexpected details. This is because the worldbuilding is shared out, and because different people are pulling those expectations in different directions. This can also work in a much more traditional game: Ask the players what makes this little village exceptional, or ask one player to come up with a reason why this NPC is unusual for a blacksmith.

Random rolling can work, but this can make it very tempting to do nothing but random rolling. (Drop tables and wandering monster charts are but two examples of this kind of thing.) This quickly tilts the balance from “interestingly unexpected” to “a complete mess that makes players have no idea what’s happening”. So I tend to be pretty cautious about approaching it that way.

My main way: just think of what would exist by the rules, and tweak one element a little. Find a third way.

I’ve also embraced slight mistakes made in play. There’s one town in Calteir that’s named Chaegrae. However, one time when I was telling some players about it, I misremembered and called it “Chaebrae”. This became a little bit of a running joke, but also a bit of linguistic variety: the town had, at some point along the line, acquired another common pronunciation. Canonically, Chaegrae is now frequently called “Chaebrae” by Westerners, due to an ancient misunderstanding. A nice way to harness a poor memory for purposes of worldbuilding!

There’s a whole class of ‘expectations’ that deserve to be contradicted constantly, of course. This is ‘expectations’ that fall fully into the realm of stereotype. Games where the only women are sexy minxes or sexless nuns; settings where non-white ethnicities are turned into orcs or goblins; societies in which trans people simply don’t exist. These are the kind of assumptions that some hail as ‘realistic’, even though the assumptions behind them and worlds they produce are anything but realistic. And of course, not only do these assumptions produce unrealistic worlds, they produce worlds that are pretty awful, too. So there are some ‘expectations’ in worldbuilding that deserve to be contradicted every chance you get.


Why does Traveller’s Imperium have a Scout Service?

This is a question that has bothered me for a long time. The Imperium, in its most common iteration, is more than a thousand years old. There isn’t a star system that hasn’t been visited dozens of times. Yet for some reason, the Imperium has a major government agency dedicated to exploring and figuring out what’s out there. When, logically, they should know everything that’s out there already. Long since.

Over the course of centuries, things will change, of course. Planets will get hit by comets; stars will go nova; planetary nebulae will grow and distort; etc. But realistically, the amount of change that will occur doesn’t require anything like a huge, sector-spanning government agency with probably thousands of starships and tens of thousands of workers. Think about how much exploration and discovery we’ve done while almost entirely bound to the Earth over the past century: We’ve mapped a large fraction of the stars in our galaxy, we’ve discovered thousands of exo-planets, we’ve imaged a black hole in a galaxy half a hundred million lightyears away! And much of that in just the past few decades. How much more could we discover if we had centuries at this level of technology? Today, our best radio telescopes are limited to about 13,000km in maximum baseline. Imagine if that was several orders of magnitude better! It’s hard to believe that the Imperium doesn’t already know everything there is to know, at least in terms of what a Scout Service would be tasked with.

Assuming that humanity continues on into the future (and that’s a big assumption), there will always be a need for updates about things that change more on human timescales: politics, economics, culture, natural disasters, etc. But that’s not the job for a Scout Service — that’s a job for journalists, and researchers.

Of course, the real answer to the question of why the Imperium has a Scout Service is: Because it’s cool. And because the Imperium isn’t meant to be realistic; it’s meant to be a fun mish-mash of tropes, allowing PCs to ride sandworms while wielding lightsabers and flying starships. But I tend to prefer more ‘realistic’ games, ones that require as little suspension of disbelief as possible. And while Traveller’s default assumptions aren’t diamond-hard, they also aren’t science fantasy, either. There’s a lot of lip-service paid to self-consistency and a modicum of realism. So I still have a hard time with a setting that’s more than a thousand years old, has FTL and antigravity, and still hasn’t finished a decent stellar mapping program.

Which leads me to another of GDW’s exploration-style campaigns: Bayern. This is a nifty adventure module for the 2300AD (or Traveller 2300, whichever) game. Bayern is about a multi-year voyage to the Pleiades. The Pleiades are a totally real celestial object (and very nice to look at — check them out in binoculars sometime, if you haven’t already), and a very interesting goal for a stellar exploration mission. There are still some odd tensions, such as: Why would the ship ever go explore anything at all other than the Pleiades, if that is their ultimate goal (and they have a very strong reason to want to get to the Pleiades as soon as humanly possible — no spoilers)? Side-quests don’t make a lot of sense when you’ve got a really good reason to finish the main quest right away. Also, there are some odd design choices, such as having a press corps onboard the ship who are motivated to investigate everything but have basically no sway in doing so.

Journalist: “Captain, you’ve decided to take the ship on a multi-light-year detour, even though the mission clearly states we need to get to the Pleiades with no further delay. What do you have to say?”

Captain: “I say that the next journalist who asks me a question gets thrown out the airlock.”

Journalist: “In other news today, there are cherry tomatoes in the mess hall again…”

But the overall mission is a very compelling one. A very tempting one, really. If I were to run a prepackaged adventure or campaign as written, Bayern is very close to the top of the list.

A field of black, on which the Pleiades Star Cluster appears as a scattering of bright or moderately-bright stars, in a shape resembling a dipper or seahorse; in the foreground, a CGI starship (shaped like a spindle, with cylindrical spin habitats and a glowing engine at the back) points as if heading toward the cluster.What does Bayern have that the Scout Service doesn’t? Primarily, it has a sense of exploring places that are truly new. In the 2300AD setting, humanity has ‘only’ explored out to about 50 light-years from Earth. The mission to the Pleiades is a real stretch, many times further away than any person has ever gone. The Imperial Scout Service, by contrast, is ‘exploring’ places that have been visited a gazillion times already for centuries. It’s unlikely that the Bayern is going to find any planets, much less any star systems, that they don’t already know all the basic parameters of; but there will definitely be new situations, never before encountered by any human.

“Before we left Earth orbit, we already knew this gas giant would be orbiting at 0.3 AU from the primary and that it was rich in carbon; but we couldn’t have realized until we got here that the carbon was in the form of a ring of naturally-occurring carbon monofilaments, just above the cloud-tops…”

That’s what makes the Bayern’s exploring so much more appealing to me than the Scout Service’s: There’s a sense of newness. Of actually seeing things no one has ever seen before.

That’s a big part of RPG gaming for a lot of us, I think. Being able to explore things that no person has ever seen before is really evocative and fun. It can even work if it’s just exploring something that no one has seen in centuries (but for me, if the Scout Service is ‘exploring’ systems that must’ve been visited in the last decade or two at the outset, that still doesn’t work).

This gets at one of the biggest advantages in running fantasy games. A huge difference between fantasy and SF is that SF tends toward an information-dense environment. Or perhaps I should say, an answer-rich environment. How does this plant fit into the ecosystem? What’s in that cave? How long has this structure been sitting here, and who made it? In fantasy, finding each answer is an adventure in itself, or maybe outright impossible. In SF, technology makes finding the answers much, much easier. Clearly, there are still mysteries, and especially important answers are usually that much more difficult to achieve. But still, considerably easier than in fantasy. Obviously, no hard and fast distinction between fantasy and SF is ever going to be very accurate, but one of the biggest tendencies is this: SF tends to make finding the answers a lot easier, and then deals with what the answers mean; while fantasy thrives on the mystery. (And horror, going even further along this continuum, tends to say “trust me, you don’t even want to know the answers.”)

Also, in fantasy, information tends to propagate much more slowly. “What’s life generally like on that other continent?” is the question of a lifetime in most fantasy worlds, but if you’ve got access to modern technology or better, it’s answered with a quick internet search.

So fantasy games make it much, much easier to feel like the PCs are the first ones to experience something. In an SF game, you have to work pretty hard for there to be real mystery. Add a sector full of ion storms, so no one’s ever been able to return from it; throttle the FTL, so that humanity is restricted to a small sphere within the larger setting; say that humanity is just getting back to FTL, after a long period of technological collapse (or put your setting at the beginning of the FTL age); focus on a colony ship with decaying infrastructure and limited ways of learning about the outside world — there are lots of ways to add that bit of exploring mystery to an FTL setting. But it still takes work. I think that’s one of the main reasons why fantasy tends to be more popular in gaming than SF: fantasy makes it easier to create mystery.

It’s also important to think about the motivation for exploring in the first place — the desire to be the First or the Only to find/see/do/experience something — and how that can lead in a lot of bad directions, including colonialism, imperialism, and erasing the existence of people who were already there. But that’s a slightly different issue, and maybe one for a later post.

A simple RPG: 8 Tokens

A pile of glass beads, all quite shiny, in green, deep cobalt blue, clear, and teal.The GM and players agree on a setting and general scenario.

Think of a character. Write down three things your character is good at, and one thing your character is really good at. Write each in the form of “[Really good/good at] [gerund verb] [object] with/without [indirect object]”, such as “Good at performing songs with my flute”, or “Really good at crafting magic without a spell-book”.

Each player gets 8 tokens. The GM also gets 8 tokens.

The GM sets challenges by spending 1 to 4 tokens per challenge. Higher numbers of tokens should be increasingly rare and dramatic.

Spend the same number of tokens for your character to succeed at the challenge. If you are good at the challenge, spend 1 fewer tokens. If you are really good at it, spend 2 fewer tokens. Minimum is zero tokens spent. When the characters succeed at a challenge, regardless of how many characters, the GM adds 1 token to the GM pool.

You can choose not to succeed; if you would normally be good at the challenge, add 1 token to you pool, and if you’d be really good at it, add 2 tokens to your pool.

I’ve had an idea similar to this rattling around for a while. Also, wanted to see if I could write a very brief RPG. Not very well playtested; let me know if you try it out.

A brief reminder

A rainbow, apparently moving between two cloudsDiversity of representation is quite important, if we’re going to have a better world. But diversity of creators is just as important, perhaps even more. Corporations are figuring out how to get the “diversity” label slapped on without actually changing underlying structures. If you’re celebrating diversity in gaming by continuing to give money to already-successful publishers, and to people who are male, cis, hetero, white, etc., you may be doing it wrong.

A new edition of B&C?

Illustration of a heraldic sunWould you be interested in a new edition of Blade & Crown?

It’s now been out for more than six years. It’s had some small degree of success. I always wonder, though: would a new edition help it get more notice?

If I published a new edition, it would be mostly about getting some good art. It would definitely need to involve paying some artists what their work is worth.

There isn’t much I’d change about it mechanically. There has been a little errata over the years, but not enough to really require a new edition. I’ve messed around with alternate rules for healing a bit, and I’ve had some ideas for a simplified damage system, that might save on the cascades. (That would need to be an alternate rule rather than the main system.) But that’s about it; there hasn’t been much that I’d consider ‘official’ changes to the rules over the years.

So, if there was a new version, it would mechanically be pretty much the same thing as the old system. Probably just prettier. Would you buy such a thing? Do you think it’s a good idea?

Videochat systems

A lot of my gaming these days is long-distance. Many of us are in vastly different time-zones. Trying to make things work in person would be basically impossible. As a result, we’ve come to rely a lot on videochat systems.

Six abstract figures in a variety of colors arranged to appear like a videochat.At one time, it seemed that the standard for online pen-and-paper face-to-face RPG gaming was Skype + MapTool. By the time I started to get into videochat-moderated play, though, Skype wasn’t great. Connection quality was, and is, frequently very juddery; and what used to be a pretty user-friendly application has become increasingly about a shiny interface atop a money-grubbing, hard-sell social network. I’m very much not impressed with Skype these days.

For a good few years now, the main videochat system I’ve used is Google Hangouts. The bandwidth is far better than Skype is these days. Hangouts works directly in a browser, not requiring a separate app like Skype does. Hangouts also offers the ability to save call URLs, so everyone can come back to the same chat location later on.

Hangouts is not perfect, though. My standard joke is that every session, we need to assign a number to each player, and then roll a D6; that # is the player who has connection problems that day. Juddery sound, difficulties getting video working, or whatever else. Also, like most free Google products that were once useful, Hangouts will probably one day get consigned to the Google Graveyard.

My main concern about Hangouts is much like my concerns about many Google products: It’s really easy to use, free of charge, feature-rich, and all about giving Google access to our private information. Gaming isn’t necessarily stuff that needs to stay super-private — heck, a lot of us play in FLGSs, which are quite thoroughly public. But I’m still not a fan of giving Google any more of my information than they already have.

So for a while, I’ve been on the lookout for a videochat system that allows for private conversations. My first big hope was Signal, which is end-to-end encrypted, gets lots of praise from security experts, etc. However, Signal has other problems; most importantly, it still doesn’t do videochat from the desktop. It’s primarily an instant messaging/SMS replacement, at least on the desktop. That is apparently a feature they’re working on.

There are a bunch of other videochat systems out there, including ones designed specifically for online RPG play, such as Roll20. It has a lot of kind of amazing features, including an interactive map system, character sheets, dice rollers, and more. However, the overall feel is pretty D&D-esque. I could probably adapt it to Blade & Crown, but it looks like it would take a lot of work. Not ruling it out, but I think it’s a bit too fiddly for now.

There are lots and lots of (fairly) secure messaging systems out there, many with videochat abilities. None are perfect, of course; but there are certainly better choices than Hangouts.

One I’ve experimented with recently was Jitsi. There are actually a bunch of different Jitsi projects, including a server you can install, and more things that I kind of don’t understand. The main thing I’m interested in, though, is Jitsi Meet, which is pretty much a direct replacement for Google Hangouts: A web interface to create and conduct videochats. Not only is it much more private than Hangouts, it has some really kind of nifty features: You can set all the chat windows up in a tiled mode, to see everyone at once (instead of just whoever talked most recently); there’s a “raise hand” feature to allow people to signal that they’re trying to get a word in edgewise, or that there’s a question from the audience (which I could see being really, really useful if you were holding a panel discussion via Jitsi); and the audio and video quality has so far been significantly better than Hangouts (though I suppose this may go down once more people start using it). It doesn’t have a built-in map, or dice rollers, or initiative trackers, but there’s an ability to do screensharing, which allows showing maps and what-not, and that’s most of what I usually need, really.

No videochat program is perfect, but for now, I find Jitsi very promising. It’s certainly a good replacement for Hangouts.

And mostly, of course, it’s just very neat to be able to game with folks who are far away — often, not even in the same country.

Confronting problems

City Pages, the main Twin Cities weekly alternative paper, has published a pretty important article about harassment that’s gone on at the Source. As unfortunately all too common in these kinds of situations, it’s meant massive disruption for the person who has to call out the problems, but very little disruption for the people causing the problems. I’ve previously praised the Source pretty highly. I think I probably have to rescind that, until there’s evidence that they’ve thoroughly turned things around there.

It’s also worth noting that City Pages doesn’t have a great record here themselves; they tend to report on fandom as if Convergence was the only con in the Twin Cities, and they tend to focus shallowly on the “sex and drinking, whoo!” aspect of Convergence at that. Maybe this article is evidence that City Pages’ reporting on fandom has turned around. Let’s hope.

The great exodus

I was barely on G+ to start with, but like a lot of folks, I’m leaving it. Will be trying to stick with networks that don’t center rich/white/hetero/cis men quite so much.

For more thoughtful, longform stuff, I’ll continue to post here (probably with about the same low frequency).

For faster, shorter stuff, I’m on Mastodon at bladeandcrown tabletop.social . Probably won’t post much there, either. But it’s another place you can find me.

How do you build a social contract?

A really important element of an RPG session or group is the social contract: the rules, explicit or not, between the people in the room about how you’re going to play and how you’re going to treat each other. For something so important, though, it can be really hard to find ways to craft a good one. It can be especially hard when you’re in a situation or a culture where explicitly discussing this kind of thing is difficult.

There are a lot of elements to consider when you’re thinking about the social contract:

  • What level of racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, etc. are the people at the table going to tolerate? (And before you say “zero tolerance”, remember all the problems with “zero” tolerance policies.)
  • When something objectionable does come up, how are you going to handle it? This is almost more important than what levels of various objectionable things your group can tolerate, because the fact is, though you may say “Our standard is no X and only a little bit of Y”, different people will have different definitions in different contexts about what constitutes X, Y and “a little bit”. Someone might bring up something they thought was Z, but it turns out is totally someone else’s X. Is it the responsibility of the person who finds something objectionable to bring it up then and there? (But some things are so sensitive that it’s difficult to even discuss them, in the moment.) Are you going to use the ‘draw a curtain’, ‘X card’, or other methods of handling those difficult moments? How will you deal with those kinds of things after the fact?
  • To what extent are the people at the table willing to push boundaries? (Some kinds of games may demand pushing boundaries to work; but not everyone wants their boundaries pushed, and different people have different limits at different times.) What protocols should be in place to check if this kind of thing is okay before it happens, and how do you handle it when it comes up?
  • What styles of game are everyone interested in? How much railroading is okay? How will narrative power be shared (or not)? What do you do when tastes change? What about when new definitions or understandings emerge? What different play styles do you all have? What if someone usually prefers gritty action with a lot of GM prep, but today they want to play a comedic game with equal narrative control? How do you all want to handle it when one player is just rarin’ to kill things and someone else is in a mood for something contemplative?
  • How much time do you want to spend on the game play itself, and how much time is okay to spend on joking around, catching up on each other’s lives outside of the game, and other time spent not actually gaming?
  • How is everyone getting to the game? Can/should anyone help others with transportation?
  • Are snacks okay? What about drinks? Are you going to permit alcohol at the table? Who brings what? Is it any particular person’s responsibility?
  • What is everyone’s time commitment? How do you agree on scheduling? How late is too late? How many sessions do you want to have planned in advance? If someone has to cancel, how should they let everyone else know? What kinds of cancellations are acceptable, and what aren’t? What’s the minimum number of people to still play with, and who makes the call? How often can someone cancel and still be part of the group?
  • What is each person’s tolerance for Monty Python jokes? What about awful puns? What other kinds of jokes are appreciated, disliked, ill-tolerated, etc.? Is it going to be annoying if someone constantly makes up nicknames for the NPCs?
  • Who brings all the supplies needed? Does each player need to bring pens, paper, pencils, dice, beads, minis, etc.? If not, who? Who keeps track of what? Who keeps the character sheets (if any)?
  • Are you going to keep notes? Will some designated player do so? Do they get any compensation (a free share in the carpool gas fund; an extra slice of pizza; double XP)? Who keeps track of the notes? Do they also present the notes to the group, or does someone else do that? Are there other things that members will get incentives for (being GM, bringing food, bringing supplies, keeping track of character sheets, consistent attendance, etc.)?
  • Are there going to be reminders of upcoming sessions sent out by email or text or whatever? Whose responsibility is that? When should they send them out (a day before the game, a week before, immediately after the previous session, etc.)?
  • What forms of communication (text, phone, email, IM, etc.) does everyone prefer for discussing or notifying each other about the game?
  • Where are you going to play? If a particular person is going to host, what is expected of them for doing so? What is their reward for doing so? If you’re playing at an FLGS or other public space, what rules of the space do you need to abide by? If there’s a fee, who pays it and how? Are there pets in the gaming space? What to do about potential allergens? How about accessibility issues?
  • When you’re playing games that require a GM, how much prep should the GM do? Do they get a reward (a ride, a free share of the pizza, etc.) as a result?
  • Is it acceptable to be on your cellphone at the table? Is everyone supposed to stay off electronic devices while gaming? What about people who need to be on call for work?
  • Which of these questions do you care about more than others?
  • How are you going to discover what the answers are to all this? How will the group work through differences of opinion? What happens when the answers change?

Different answers to even one of these questions can lead to radically different experiences around the table.

One of the trickiest parts of hammering out a social contract is the actual work of discussing it. There are a lot of variables to handle; it’s not really practical to just sit down and talk about every single item and expect to reach a clear consensus. At least, not with any group I’ve ever been in.

One thing I don’t like is trusting the mechanics of the game to create the social contract. A lot of games have really good advice for how the game runs best; and a lot have nifty mechanics that encourage great play. But no game can stop players from accidentally getting outside someone’s comfort zone, hogging the cheese-puffs or narrating more than their fair share. The game itself can help a bunch; but the actual forging and enforcement of the social contract is always going to depend on the people at the table.

It feels like there should be some way to turn the creation of a social contract — the process of asking important questions, and finding good answers to them — into a game. I’ve gotten as far as designing cards for a card game, based on many of the questions above, but I couldn’t figure out a way to make it an actual game.

There are, of course, tons of questions that don’t have to be answered right away. Not everyone even knows what their tolerance for Monty Python jokes is, right? And a lot of the questions kind of get answered organically, as part of organizing the game. “I’m running a multi-year campaign at my house. I will supply snacks and diet drinks; if you want anything else, please bring some to share. Please leave your pets at home.” “We’ll be meeting at Pizza House on Donnerville Rd., in the back room; we’ll get a pizza first thing, then start gaming once we’re done.” “Game will be on Roll20, starting at +8 UTC Wednesdays; please make sure your AV setup works well before joining.”

Overall, I think it’s good to aim for somewhere in the middle. Don’t try to set down a legalistic contract from the start; that way leads to rules lawyering and annoyance (even to the point of never being able to get a group together). But at the same time, don’t leave huge swaths of important issues unsettled. I’ve been in gaming groups where leaving answers to some of these questions dangling meant the eventual end of the group. Be neither afraid to ask important questions, nor intent on only finding ironclad answers to them. It’s a gaming group, and the rules are supposed to be a way to help everyone have fun.

How to “Build a World”

At WisCon 41 in May, I again ran a session of “Build a World”, the quite fun group-world-building activity. It went pretty well. We ended up with a world where “with great hair comes great power”, powered by some sort of hair singularity at the center of all things. Rather than writing up the world, though, I thought I’d write up how to run one of these sessions.

I give credit for this way of running the game to Ben Rosenbaum, who ran it much this way the first few times I encountered it.

You need an audience, hopefully between about a half-dozen and a couple dozen people, and a moderator. Too few audience members and I think it wouldn’t be as fun; too many, and it gets difficult for folks to have input. One session takes about 1 or 1.5 hours.

You also need some way to write up suggestions and have them be constantly visible to everyone. You could possibly do this with a projector/laptop setup, or an overhead projector, or something of that sort. The best format I’ve found, though, is using giant Post-It easel pad paper (c. 25×30″) and easily visible markers (dark and not running dry). If they’re Post-It-style, then they’ll stick to walls pretty well. As long as you have a nice, big, blank wall space available where the audience can see it, you can stick the sheets up as you get to them, and then leave them up afterward to help everyone immediately see what’s going on and what’s gone before. (This assumes that you have fairly decent handwriting, and that folks in the audience can see easily; if not, you might want to have someone do the writing for you, be in charge of restating what’s gone before as necessary, etc.)

As the moderator, you start by explaining the premise to the audience: We’re going to create a world together. It might end up silly, it might end up serious, it’ll probably be fun regardless.

You can pretty much go into the first topic. I generally recommend calling your first topic “Metaphysics/Themes”, “Atmosphere & Mood”, or something similar; not only does this help you set very high-level aspects of the world, it helps nail down some important questions: Are we going for serious? Silly? Rigorously self-consistent? Realistic? Steampunk? SF? Uplifting?

The way I do it, I put everything that gets suggested (or, well, almost everything — it can be difficult when multiple people talk at once, when one suggestion is only a slight variation on another one, etc.) up as an idea. I try to put things up as affirmative statements or descriptions:

There are talking cats

Afrofuturist eco-utopia

Humor has mass

You get the idea. It’s usually a good idea to include some basic style propositions, even if folks don’t suggest them:

Rigorously self-consistent

Silly is okay



Basically, I aim to fill up a single sheet, then vote. That usually means around 10-20 propositions get listed per sheet. How many of those get accepted is up to the voting.

For voting, I basically have everyone do a “thumbs up” (approve), “thumbs down” (disapprove) or “thumbs sideways” (meh/abstain/I wasn’t paying attention). I use this to get a sense of how the audience feels about a given proposal. Generally, if thumbs up outweighs thumbs down, the proposition passes. And I don’t vote myself, and I try to avoid influencing the vote.

It can be important to nail down issues about consistency right away, because otherwise you will very quickly end up with a world that’s a far-future, ancient Egyptian humorous noir where there are no humans but everything occurs the way it really happened in history, and everything needs to be strictly self-consistent and logical. Honestly, the most fun worlds are the ones where strict self-consistency isn’t a major goal. But if consistency is going to be a major goal, that’s something you want to clarify very quickly after starting. (As before, this part of Build a World makes me wonder if shared narrative control automatically tends toward gonzo settings.)

I put a check-mark by things that pass, and (if necessary) strike through things that don’t pass.

If necessary, I will suggest to everyone that things that got on the list later but which were directly contradicted by things earlier, shouldn’t make it. But if we end up with a world where water is a time machine and fur is also a time machine, and self-consistency isn’t necessary, then that’s not really a contradiction — just another interesting detail to work in.

When we finish with one sheet, I like to refresh everyone’s memory of what we voted on: “Okay, so we have a world where light only travels in curved paths, air is denser than water, there is no metal, and magic was once real but isn’t anymore… Wow, how would you know magic was real, when you can never look directly at something? Interesting…”

Then we move on to the next sheet. Generally, I let the room suggest what the next one should be, depending on what topics they most want to explore next. Some ideas:


If everyone was really taken with the idea that taffeta grants magical abilities, then you might end up with a whole sheet about Fashion or even Taffeta. But make sure there’s room to explore on each sheet. If the group isn’t going to be able to come up with a dozen or so different propositions about that topic, maybe think about folding the topic in with something else. And let the most recent topic suggest the next one — if you were just coming up with a bunch of questions about how the economy functions in a world where the cats are the nobility but are also the main form of currency, then maybe economics should be the next topic.

At some point, someone will say something like, “Well, because the main technology is based on cucumbers and lemon batteries, the sentient lightning storms obviously want to get rid of the batteries, because the batteries are making the storms redundant…”. Once you get to this kind of “well, obviously…” moment, I like to note this to the folks in the room. This, it feels to me, is the point where everyone is invested in the world and is starting to understand it, on its own terms, however silly they may be. It’s always a great moment.

Also worth noting: When discussing religion or similar questions of belief, we’ll usually come up with at least two contradictory ideas:

Wood is the divine element

Wood is a sign of moral depravity

When two such contradictory ideas both get passed, I like to commemorate the moment by saying “Schism!” After all, the hallmark of reality is that it is complex; you know a world is starting to feel fully fleshed out when people have beliefs about the world that are at once logical with their experiences of it and completely contradictory with other people’s ideas.

Many times when I’ve run this, someone in the audience will suggest that next we need to write a story set in this world. I tend to downplay this — the assumption that we have to write a story set in this world or somehow we’ve been ‘wasting’ our time buys into some messed-up assumptions about worldbuilding that I stridently don’t agree with.

The way Build a World tends to go, we finish around a half-dozen sheets in an hour. By the end, we usually end up with a wonderful, silly, fascinating world. Many audience members end up feeling like they’ve taken a visit to a world that is at once utterly bizarre and completely familiar. It can be a lot of fun. If you run it, let me know how it goes!