I was going to enter into this assuming that people had a fairly good idea of what it is and what it's for, but sometimes you can reveal a lot by asking these fundamental questions.
And as I went to slowly talk a little more in the following months about the Free Kriegspiel movement, it's even more important to start with the basics.
So here's how I'm going to describe, to the best of my ability, World Building and what it is for.
World Building is Context for Play
In any role playing game or any war game that is not attempting to simulate a real world historical battle, the first thing the game needs is context. The players need to know why they are engaging with the scenario.
In a war game, they have to know what kind of equipment their military uses, whether it is more important to preserve the life of troops or to gain victory, what defines a victory, and what the Rules of engagement are.
If you are simulating a military battle in the modern period, things like the Geneva Convention come into play. If you are playing a medieval battle, you may need rules of engagement, or at least an understanding that Knights need to follow the code of chivalry. And if they don't it may have consequences on future scenarios or the morale of troops. If you are dealing with a fantasy or science fiction setting, you have to know what the magic and technology is capable of and what the stakes of loss or victory are.
If you are playing an immersive role-playing game, you need even more than that. You need to know the geography to understand what's available to your characters. You need to know where you can go for healing, where you can sell the treasure you have found, who may or may not object to you delving a local dungeon, and even if there is a dungeon, or if you're going to be adventuring in the wilderness, or engaging an intrigue in the cities.
When you are building a character for a game of Dungeons & Dragons you need some level of understanding of who the character is and how they fit into the world. Not necessarily an eight-page backstory, but enough to develop goals for the character:
- If you are a magician, you have to understand how relatively powerful you are, and how to become more powerful. And what laws govern what happens when you use magic in town.
- If you are playing a holy man or a cleric, you have to understand your religion and what it means. Not to mention a code of conduct.
- The same if your character is a nobleman or a politician.
- If your character is a thief, it might help to know if they are a member of an organized crime group that will demand a cut and if they have a code of honor.
This honestly does not have to be complex.
These answers can be simple as telling your players "Imagine yourself in World X," like Greyhawk, or Robert e Howard's Hyperborean age. Assuming that the players have access to the source, and a common respect for it, that may be all you need.
The Intersection of Game World and Game Rules
One thing that is noteworthy is the fewer mechanical and written rules you have, the more important the world itself becomes.
In Free Kriegspiel they have a saying: "We play worlds, not systems."
Whatever there is a conflict, either a referee is meant to work it out or the players are to argue it to one another based largely on reasoned argumentation. In a crunchier rule system, if someone tries to mind control an elf, we have mechanics like saving throws and racial immunities.
You might have an exchange like the following:
Player: That elf girl is just the kind of company Cugel wants right now. I will have him cast a charm on her.
DM: Deedlit knows a spell being cast when she sees one you'd better be quick. Roll initiative.
Player: I got a five, how did Deedlit do?
GM: Deedlit rolled a three. You can cast your spell if you want to . Which one do you want to cast, exactly?
Player: I want Cugel to cast charm person on Deedlit.
DM: You rattle off the spell making, the appropriate gestures. A smirk appears on her face and she laughs at you. Unfortunately, Cugel forgot that elves are immune to charm magic.
In a lighter RPG or FKS system, it may look more like this:
Player: That elf babe is exactly the kind of person Cugel needs on his arm to get into the Baron's party. I want Cugel to cast charm person on her.
DM: That's a pretty risky move: she knows a little about magic and she will know a spell when she sees one coming. She also has a very easy to draw weapon. How do you think you can get the spell off before she stabs you for trying?
Player: I have cast this spell so many times I've lost count, it's one of my most familiar spells. There's also a very simple one.
I would imagine anyone who wants to develop a mind control spell like this would need it to be quick for these very sorts of circumstances. I don't expect that any magician who developed a version of spell that took longer to cast then it takes to draw a sword would live to pass it on to an apprentice.
And she isn't expecting it.
DM: All pretty good reasons. Okay, you can get if off on time. Are you sure that you want to cast that spell?
DM: you swiftly cast the spell before she could get her hand to the hilt of her dagger, for a moment she develops a hazy look in her eyes as if in a dream, and then she giggles and a smirk crosses her face as she can't keep up the facade.
Player: What? Why didn't my spell work?
DM: You said it yourself, she is an elf. And you may remember that we established when we created this world together that elves were type of fairy, and fairies are the origin of magic of illusion and mind control. They use it, but they can't be harmed by it.
Player: Oops! Yeah, I did forget that. I would ask to back up, but we also have established that Cugel isn't the brightest bulb in the box.
DM: I'm afraid that you are surprised when she stabs you, so you take a light wound. Now it's time to roll some dice and find out what happens next....
System, Rules, and World
In both cases, how charm magic works and whether it works on elves are part of the world, and determine a lot of the in-game outcomes.
When you play a role playing game like Dungeons & Dragons with a lot of mechanics for magic, part of the building of the world has been done for you. If you are playing the game as written, elves are going to be immune to charm magic, for example. Charm spells are going to require initiative to cast on someone who knows a spell when they see it.
But other things, like whether Deedlit will stab Cugel for the offense, demand a year and a day of service, or turn him into a toad will depend a lot on how elves work and their culture in the established world.
This is the sort of thing that the GM has to establish ahead of time in order to help players make decisions effectively while playing the game.
When you start a role playing campaign, is expected that you give the players some kind of information about the world. This can be as simple as
"I want some really trashy pulp Sword & Sorcery: think Deathstalker II."
Or "This one is going to be in the forgotten Realms on the sword coast, here's a website you can check out for ideas."
Or "We are going to be playing in Eberron, and every character is going to be an agent of the Dark Lanterns starting in the city of Sharn. If your character isn't Brelish, I'm going to need a reason why they would be working as a spy for the king."
Of course, not everyone wants to use Eberron, Forgotten Realms, or even the Hill Cantons mixed with The Swordfish Islands and Purple Islands. Instead, they want to establish the rules and structure of the world themselves in order to hone the experience the players have in a direction the GM thinks the players would like.
The rule system will always do part of the work for you. For example, playing a B/X-based game will determine how magic works, it will tell you that the player characters are basically average people not Heroes, and that it is a world where common folk live relatively impoverished lives, and that there are wondrous treasures and riches to be had by taking big risks and going to dangerous places.
On the other hand, if they're playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the characters are going to be exceptional, but not super heroic, well many of the other assumptions are the same.
If you're playing 5th edition, you have a different set up where characters are exceptional, almost superheroic people who go on adventures to be heroes, to save the day, or because of extraordinary circumstances, and where treasure is plentiful, but does not do much to help a hero along their way.
But, when you build your own world, beyond the system you chose, the act of building the world, describing its context, politics, culture, religion, and people will dictate a huge amount of the game experience and how players make them decisions.
The Value of Pre-Built Worlds
Is no surprise that the current trend is to make both the system and the setting at the same time. Almost every modern role-playing game comes with a baked in setting, and it's game mechanics are designed to be congruent with the setting in many ways.
The original Cypher System game, Numenéra was built upon the idea of explorers who solve problems by cobbling together pieces of technology from long-dead civilizations to create miraculous, but barely-understood effects. These "cyphers" as weird artifacts that a player character can salvage and use for randomized miraculous effects is the linchpin of the game engine. Much of the game's design is built around making sure players have incentive to use those items, then search for (and find) new ones. The entire setting is built around cultures that thrive by salvaging technology, while having very little original inventions of their own. Everything from the majority religion to the politics is built heavily around salvaged tech.
The World-building Process
The kind of details you choose to provide at the beginning in particular will make a difference to how the players set up their characters. And there is an art and a science to giving the players enough information to go on.
Most campaigns need to start with some kind of document or overview of the setting in order to help establish the rules, goals, and play style of the game. However, World building is a constant process, every ruling the GM makes becomes part of the World building process.
For example, it is possible that the DM has no idea until the moment it happens an elf might respond to having someone try to control her mind. How Elven culture deals with insults of that nature will have to be established then and there, and will become part of the world thereafter. What happens to Cugel after he fails to enchant Deedlit will shape the way players interact with, and understand elves for the rest of the campaign.
There is mountains of advice on how to go about World building online. Some of it is useful and some of it is not. I would argue, that the experience you wish to offer your players will determine what kind of World building exercise will serve you best. Different games and different campaigns demand different amounts and types of information both at the start and during play.
I'm going to devote a handful of articles on this topic, including what kind of campaigns demand what kind of world building. And I will recommend some tools that I have found useful in different cases.