The most recent tabletop book I’ve purchased is the KOBOLD Guide to Worldbuilding from the fine folks at KOBOLD Quarterly and features essays all pertaining to setting design of different stripes from such esteemed authors as Wolfgang Bauer, creator of the Midgard Campaign setting, Keith Baker, of Eberron fame, Jeff Grubb, a co-founder of Dragonlance, and one of the designers of 3rd edition D&D Monte Cook. All around a powerhouse of names, and that’s just a quarter of the names gamers and geeks should know, and if they don’t they should. For this review I don’t want to go essay by essay giving some thoughts on each, but I would like to hit a couple of highlights. So I will.
I had seen a version of Jeff Grubbs essay, “Apocalypso: Gaming After the Fall” in some form before and the point it raises is an interesting one. All fantasy campaign worlds are apocalyptic in nature. In order for there to be dungeons and ruins, there had to be something there that is no longer there. It’s an example of something in this book that I had never thought of and now that my eyes are open, I can’t help it. The essay gives examples of how to, theoretically, flip the apocalyptic nature that could certainly be used to great effect. One thing that I might want to work on is how to allow player characters the opportunity to make artifacts. I’ll think about it.
“How Real is Your World” from Wolfgang Baur explores how realism and the fantastical can interact. I feel it’s important for players and GMs alike to really understand these fantasy RPG subgenres and which one the designer or GM is trying to go for. More important to me though, is using this to understand which form the game itself is trying to emulate. 3.5 and Pathfinder is great not just because it has a casual simulationism http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/587/roleplaying-games/dd-calibrating-your-expectations-2, or that it’s held up as a system so well in the past decade and change it’s been around, though those aspects are reasons for greatness themselves, but because it can so easily conform to different RPG subgenres. The best example of the opposite I can think of from personal experience is the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. It is great at replicating that weird, out there fantasy, or “wild eyed wahoo fantasy”, but the feelings it evokes are not compatible with my preferred form of fantasy, the low or “real” hard historical fantasy.
I also think the lessons in Scott Hungerford’s essay “How to Design a World Bible” are well took. Unlike the rest of the essays, this one isn’t about how to design a specific part of the goal, but how to organize the pieces into something that is expandable, easily referenced, and well organized. When I sit down, eventually, to create a homebrew world I will no doubt be using the techniques in this essay. All too often I would organize like the campaign setting books I own, but would always get hung up.
Why Can’t I have More Ptolus
I’d like to discuss Chris Prama’s essay, “Inside Out and Outside In” largely and Monte Cook’s “Different Kinds of Worldbuilding” limitedly. Pramas’ essay talks about the two directions of building a world, starting in the immediate area that players will interact with and working out, or starting with the big picture and whittling down to what the players will do or where they will do it. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve come across these ideas, though I do prefer bottom-up and top-down as terms so that’s what I use. I made the connection to Monte Cook’s essay when I read it which is about the needs of different forms of world building, be it for novelists or GM’s or game designers. The lessons in both were similar enough that I understood that top-down was for game designers and bottom-up was for GM’s.
I’d like to say that I largely agree, except that for a GM, there is certainly some top-down needs. In my nascent Hackmaster 5e game I recently started I had to ask questions other than, “Who are they fighting and why are they fighting them.” Things like how does the noble structure work in this kingdom? Which religions exist? What are the cultures of the different races? The system can largely define much of that, but you need to at least look into it. Here’s the kicker though, I’ve been working on a setting from a top-down perspective and have been hitting a block and I endeavored to specifically treat this game with total bottom-up and I’ve incorporated much of what I came up with. There is unquestionably some melding of the two forms once you really get to it.
My real question is why every commercially available campaign setting has been top-down? The only setting I can think of that was commercially released using a pseudo bottom-up form is the 3rd edition Dungeon Crawl Classics which was made from modules that were mostly system neutral but were ostensibly part of the same world. Yes, I realize that Greyhawk started as the City of Greyhawk and environs and that Golarion was originally just Varisia. My point is that they aren’t available bottom-up. There are highly detailed sections of a top-down setting. I think Paizo has come really close with their line of campaign setting books, although they aren’t detailed enough to be truly useful in a bottom-up fashion. Though they could be. It’s a matter of scale.
I’m looking to Ptolus as the base line of detail because it is truly a masterpiece of game design and is detailed in exactly the right way. Ptolus is the only campaign setting where I’ve been truly comfortable letting the players tell me where to go. That is, to me, the holy grail of GM'ing. I can start a session with the question, “Where are you? Where do you want or need to go?” and I can go with it. I can generally do that with a homebrew setting and you should, but the point of a pre-published setting is to be easy to run. I think back to Monte Cook’s essay and the Inner Sea seems more like it was intended for novelists or that the conventional wisdom for game designers and novelists are similar. If I wanted to run a game on Golarion, the information given to me (with a few exceptions) is mostly background. I still have to develop town maps and resource lists and enemy locations, except it is colored by the nation as set by the World Guide. I might as well call it something else, I did all the work anyway. And if they stray farther than I’ve done? I might as well be running a homebrew setting.
What I want from a published setting is the work having been done for me. The work is done for you in Ptolus. Did your characters run across some ratmen from the random tables? If they want to hunt them down there’s a nest map in the book. Improvise some and the nest leads up to a house in a different district. It’s a page turn away to find the name of an inn in that district. That is the game I want to run. I want an entire continent with the level of detail of Ptolus. But Ptolus is a 700 page book and as many pages of supplementary material. Surely we can’t give everything that level of detail.
When you look at it the sections of the book detailing the city is (very) roughly 300 pages when we remove the undercity, the spire, and the dungeon. That is a very do-able hardcover. But castles and villages don’t need nearly that many pages. For small villages you could get away with several pages each. Group them by shared region into a perfect bound softcover. Have adventure sites detailed in 30 or so page books basically creating a series of modules. There are a couple of keys to making this work though. You need a comprehensive travelling mechanic that most games lack out of the box. It also requires a certain degree of system and setting neutrality.
I mentioned before that the only setting to sort of do this was Dungeon Crawl Classics. Their modules were designed to be a part of the setting, but were developed to be able to place into any setting. I think the limited scope of geography helped that to a great extent but if it is marked as part of a setting, most people will overlook it. I also think that system neutrality is important. If I make a Hackmaster 5e setting it will be ignored by every pathfinder player and vice-versa. That is an easy problem to solve though, because names and maps are always system neutral.