Leave yourself room for later. If there’s anything I’ve learned from doing lots of worldbuilding—for my own linear fiction and for the collaborative fiction of RPGs—it’s that trying to fill every last nook and cranny of a setting is a daunting task. And actually filling up everything is choking, stifling. Don’t fill up everything. It leaves no room for the future, and it leaves no room for anyone else.Continue reading
Tag Archives: Worldbuilding
Progress for Deep in Trouble
It’s been a while since I last wrote about Deep in Trouble, Cesi’s sequel to Bury’em Deep. A friend of mine inhaled Bury’em Deep recently, and her enthusiasm has reinvigorated mine. It’s also prompted me to revisit the setting and my ideas for how Deep in Trouble would work, and I’ve started making progress again!Continue reading
5e is wrong about Charisma
Hot take: D&D 5e gets Charisma dead wrong. 5e only acknowledges a tiny slice of the greater whole: Charisma isn’t about being likable, it’s about being compelling. It’s about being a metaphysical Mack truck on a highway full of smart cars.Continue reading
Circles of Belief, Quick Thoughts
I first heard the phrase “circle of belief” as a young teen, and have found it to be a useful mental model ever since. I thought I’d written about it here before, and was wrong. While looking for other sourcing for this post I found a lot of Slayer lyrics and not much else, so… here goes.
Someone’s circle of belief governs what they see as plausible, something they can follow along with, versus what they see as implausible or alien. There’s a lot of overlap with genre expectations or something similar, but they’re not quite the same. The key is that everyone has a circle of belief for any given context. When I’m trying to shape someone’s circle of belief I’m not trying to alter their genre expectations writ large—just their specific assumptions for a given story or game.
Note: this is more or less how propaganda and political messaging works. Here, though, I’m going to focus on fun fiction and story games.
Expected and accepted elements exist inside the circle of belief—they do not require any additional suspension of disbelief from the audience. Working inside a circle of belief is relatively low effort. Inside the circle of belief, you don’t have to convince the audience to agree with you. You don’t risk alienating your audience by including an element that doesn’t fit. Breaking an established circle of belief, however, may push someone out of the story.
When reading a fantasy story, elements like dwarves and elves probably fit inside most people’s circle of belief, while giant killer robots probably don’t. Similarly, a sober spy novel has lots of room within most readers’ circles of belief for skullduggery and betrayal. But if that spy story suddenly featured a goblin going on air and declaring herself a prophet, that might break the audience’s circle of belief and create cognitive dissonance. That cognitive dissonance can lead to confusion and disenchantment. Breaking the circle of belief can break audience members’ emotional investment in a story or their suspension of disbelief, and a story which had been fun could become too bizarre to enjoy.
This isn’t to say that those examples above would be inherently bad stories. Each of those examples could exist and be done well. The audience’s circle of belief could be shaped to include them. But shaping that circle of belief requires specific work, and it takes more work the further the new circle of belief is from the audience’s existing circles of belief.
That work could involve carefully laying out clues and hints before some surprise reveal, a genre twist. Alternately, that work could require laying out the future story elements as early and blatantly as possible to prepare the audience for later. Tropes and foreshadowing, for example, offer more options for manipulating circles of belief—as does marketing copy. If I describe a story as “Harry Potter but ___,” the audience will probably assume they know large chunks of what to expect.
Each person’s expectations will be a little different, of course. Everyone has their own circles of belief.
In many ways, this laying-out-the-elements is what worldbuilding is about. Every little detail can build context for the larger story, and thereby shape the audience’s expectations. But it’s easiest to do this work at the very start of a story. That’s because, in general, the longer a given circle of belief remains static the more work you must do to change it.
In RPGs, and any time that you’re in a shared narrative space, it’s important to know what is inside and what is outside of your fellow players’ circles of belief. That could be for the structure of the game itself: I might assume that my character could die, or that the storyteller is my adversary, while someone else might assume that we’re playing a collaborative narrative game. It could also be for the fiction within the game: I presume that we’re playing a hard fantasy game, while the storyteller thinks this is a magical post-apocalypse full of the ruins of ancient civilizations. These assumptions aren’t all incompatible with each other, but you can probably see how they might cause trouble if unaddressed.
The simplest way to handle this is to talk about the story elements everyone wants to play with (or avoid) before you play. You can also check back in about these things, and see whether there are any pieces people want to add or remove after any given session. I recommend checking in every once in a while. You’re less likely to be unhappily surprised that way, and more likely to make stories that everyone finds fun.
Worldbuilding: Ephemera & Epigraphs
Reading The Butchering Art, with its record of snarky arguments in medical journals, gave me an idea.
The setting for my stories about Miska, along with all the various Andre & Jerome stories I have, is a complicated one. It’s big, in-depth, and just enough like our own world that it regularly leaves people guessing when I try to explain it. Perhaps I should try to simplify some of the setting, but… I think the perverse complexity and deep similarities to our own world are what makes the setting engaging and exciting. It’s a what-if, a thought experiment, and a sometimes-grim sometimes-hopeful social commentary.
Part of the similarity is in geography and place names. That’s the thing that trips up folk the most, I think, and the thing I’ve considered rewriting time and again. The world is—mostly—our own. The continents are mostly the continents we would recognize from our own Earth. As such, I have regularly used our own world’s historical names for cities that match up with a city’s location in this setting (e.g. Paris and Marseille). At times, when I’m trying to convey that there’s something distinct from our own world, our own expectations, I change a city’s name (as I’ve done with most bodies of water). But I know that’s confused readers even more, at times.
It doesn’t help that I’m not totally consistent about it, or haven’t always settled on names for some places.
But those shifted names still don’t address the shift in social conventions, or the difference in histories. Explaining why I’m using some of our own world’s city names doesn’t give a reader any understanding of the detailed history of this alternate Earth. In some ways, I think it actually makes understanding the setting harder for readers—which wasn’t my goal at all.
Enter my flash of inspiration.
The snarky medical journal arguments presented in The Butchering Art conveyed so much more than their surface disagreements. They served as a touchstone for the culture of the time, and they contained such startling similarity to modern academic sniping—and comment section flame wars—that I immediately felt like I had a better connection to, a better read on the world depicted by the book.
So I started writing in-setting documents for this world. Some were the stiffly polite and horribly condescending disagreements of people writing to various society papers’ opinion sections. Another was an excerpt from a personal letter between two people involved in city politics and what might be called clandestine activity. Every so often I have another idea and try it out.
With this, I think I’ve finally found the way to give readers a window into the setting. This material can preface some chapters or stories, or serve as introduction to a section of a book. What I’ve written so far feels clunky as an epigraph, but I think this can finally give enough context to ease readers into the world. Better yet, I can showcase in-setting struggles and disagreements, political squabbles, and personal opinions. I can reveal information that some of the characters might know, or comment on at some point. And, I hope, I can do some of the world-building work that would otherwise clog the rest of my story with exposition.
So here, enjoy the first idea that came to me a while back. It won’t be nearly enough on its own to show you all of this setting, but maybe you can enjoy peering in through the cracks.
Letter on the latest troubles of the Inner Sea, to the editor of The Parisian, first and finest of the continental ladies’ magazines
Regarding the recent abuse levied against the fine Doctor Gilarien of our daughter-city Marseille, this writer must protest heartily. It is by no means sensible for any to wage too harsh a battle against the natural allies of our fine city, and this is precisely what La Fleur du Sucre proposes to do. Our daughter-city—along with her denizens—is our responsibility to protect and guide, and the true proof of Parisian majesty will be evident in the beauty, grace, intellect and fortitude of her daughters in the face of the dangers of the world. Certainly I would hope that La Fleur du Sucre would not be the type of mother who so admonishes and smothers her children that they never learn to fly from the nest of their own accord. No, what is needed here is not chastising whip-tongue remonstrations, but rather the gentle guidance and support of a mother for her child. We may prune back ill-reason and train the growing limb of intellect to our trellis where we know it will be healthy and bear fruit.
The estimable Doctor Gilarien is entirely correct that our city’s agents operating as they are, along the coast of the Inner Sea, have brought forth suffering amongst the many tribes present there. But the good doctor must recall that these tribes have long allied themselves with the Ones to the East, the very same who sought to maintain “Enlightened” dominion over all of us despite the wishes of the Good Masters. Given these tribes’ warlike disposition and their frequent exercises upon the borders of our allies, it would be insufferable for us to not interrupt their works, lest they grow too numerous and powerful and form once more the armies that they once were. For let us not forget that those selfsame tribes, the ones the good doctor feels such concern for, were once the engines of destruction which drove the burning of Köln, Rotterdam, and even our lovely Paris. Thus it is that one would do well to balance the—admirable, and well-reasoned!—concern for innocent life made more difficult by our own actions, against the cost of allowing such hostile forces to regain their strength and organization to rampage across our continent once again. This writer is entirely certain that the good doctor will agree that the actions of Paris and her agents must, in the greater balance, come out the lighter price to pay.
As to the fine doctor’s points with regards to the treatment of the prisoners of war captured amidst the strife along the Inner Sea, this writer must surrender to their local experience and expertise. It is the doctor’s knowledge of the prisoners’ circumstances which must, clearly, take precedence here, and La Fleur du Sucre would do well to recall that one’s daughters will only grow into their own skills of reason if they are trusted to observe and report their own findings in all earnestness, and assess proper courses of action from there on—with their mother’s guiding hand, of course. Therefore to the doctor this writer suggests that it would be to everyone’s benefit if some documentation could be made of the present circumstances of the prisoners during their transportation. There is no course by which the transportation may be stopped—it would not do to domicile prisoners too near the fighting, nor to leave them anywhere they might escape unsupervised, and as such the verdant gardens of the New Sea must be the best solution—but perhaps the transportation might be made less onerous and perilous to those transported. Certainly there is no need to torture, as the good doctor would have it, those who have surrendered or otherwise been captured. After all, these vanquished foes are not insensate beasts, but merely the doughty and fearsome battle cadre bred and trained from birth to serve in the Enlightened Ones’ armies.
Lastly, this writer must commend the good doctor’s dedication to the ethics of the profession; surely the doctor’s presence in this world is of considerable value to all, and a guiding light for all others of the daughter-city who might seek the health and well-being of their fellows. If this writer lacks any merest atom of knowledge of the arts of medicine, may it nevertheless be that this writer is able to remind the fine doctor of Marseille to think beyond the simpler personal suffering of a vanquished few and to encompass the greater wellbeing of free civilization upon the continent without the dominion of those who once held us all in bondage. It would be a foul sickness indeed were we to squander the freedom granted us by the Good Masters, and fought for by our ancestors, by failing to protect it from the encroachments of those who may wish us ill.
With love and kindness,
A Parisian Mother
World Building: Ancient history of the Fell Met Sea
First off, if you’re playing in my Fell Met Sea game please don’t read this yet. It’s 100% full of spoilers for my current thoughts on setting background that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not playing Fell Met Sea, I’ve put together some ideas about how the previous civilization(s) that preceded my PCs’ present world fell apart. Check out the consequences of sacrificial blood magic!Continue reading
Worldbuilding: The Mad Libs Approach
Building a setting piecemeal is sometimes difficult, but often fun and rewarding. By playing mad libs with your setting, you’re able to cram together a wild group of ideas that fill out your underlying concepts and give the whole thing its own distinct flavor. My favorite example of this was Continue reading
World Building: The Thousand Year Empire
I’m putting together a game for teens stuck in social distancing mode due to Covid-19, to be played over Discord. I’m using Exemplars & Eidolons, which I mentioned here. This is all being run through the auspices of the LARP camp where I work. I created this setting years ago, and have expanded it through several games since; for the quick and dirty version, think Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Avatar: TLA, with a soundtrack by Lustmord and Dead Can Dance.
The Thousand Year Empress disappeared 20 years ago. No matter what else they disagree on, everyone can agree on that. Some say she was murdered, others that she died of disease or old age, and yet others claim that she ascended into the Celestial Firmament and left the mortal realm to its suffering.
Another thing all agree on: the Empire has suffered ever since.
Without the Empress’ guidance, her vast Empire has descended into chaos. Provinces take up arms against each other, proclaiming themselves Protectors of the Empire or rightful people’s rebellions. Several provinces claim to have the Empress’ true heir to guide them: sometimes one of her children or more distant descendants, sometimes claiming to have the reborn Empress herself.
Drought, flood, and famine scour the lands. Bandit armies rise and maraud. Some provinces fall to plague. There are rumors of disappearances, of demons, and of other worse things. And it is known that in some places the dead themselves rise and set themselves against the living. Some even say that the dead walk at the behest of the Empress, whose talking corpse leads them to retake her domain from beyond the grave.
The Empire as it was is gone.
But it need not be so forever; there are still pockets of stability, and many struggle to protect the land and each other. Many members of the Empress’ ancient knightly orders—both honorable and disgraced—and many of her ministers still strive to prevent bloodshed, to restore peace, and to build upon what they saved from that which came before. Here and there provinces band together in amity, supporting each other against the dangers of the world. It is a dangerous time, but it is a time when a dedicated few may make a difference.
What will YOU do?
Setting Work for Swamp Gangsters
I did some thought exercises and prep work for the setting I developed for Latour and their friends, back around the time that I wrote the first story in that setting. I didn’t share any of that work with an audience when I wrote the first stories, but climate change has been eating up most of my brain space today and this seems like an appropriate time to share.
Yes, Latour and Ren and the Pats and Cap all exist in a loose version of our world. No, I haven’t ever decided exactly what year it is.
But there’s a reason that everything in those stories happens on boats and floating structures.
When I was first thinking through the setting for that group of stories (I have more that I haven’t posted, due to wanting to be paid for them at some point) my thoughts were as follows… Continue reading
World Building: Where Have All The Dwarves Gone?
Today’s post is brought to you by the caffeinated musings which have distracted me from my homework and encouraged me to write world background material instead.
The setting of For The King! is largely lacking playable non-humans at the moment. There are a few dwarves or elves who might be somewhere in the realm of Duval, and there are some gnomes and halflings and others scattered around, but most people, in most places, are human. The orcs and half-orcs mostly live to the northwest of the kingdom, generally part of the large nomadic tribes which roam through those sections of the Trade Lands. Heck there are centaurs too, but they generally stick to the lands northeast of the kingdom of Duval, and don’t have much direct contact except with traders who venture out onto the northern plains.
And yet there are remnants of dwarven architecture throughout the center of the kingdom of Duval, and historical records definitely suggest that they used to live in the area. So… where have all the dwarves gone?