April 29, 2023


This will most likely become the first of a series of articles I post on worldbuilding and game running advice. I will be sure to link any new articles I post that are directly related to this as it pertains to advice or new takes on old ideas.

Where to begin?

Turns out when you play games of imagination you sometimes find yourself looking at a single dungeon and then just bombarding it with your PCs and then coming out the other side with no intention of continuing in this part of the world.

Starting in media res has become a standard practice in many circles of TTRPGs. We forgo the visiting of a town or homebase until it is necessary, if it ever even actually becomes so. A whole dungeon could be self contained and your party may never need to emerge from the depths to rest, resupply or even return for quest rewards. Sometimes the delve is what drives the game. There is no problem with this. If the party never returns then they never really needed the town in the first place.

Now imagine in this game you spent 2 hours preparing the town for the PCs to explore. That would be wasted time in your preparation. I know that in my life i barely have 2 hours to devote to writing this article, let alone spend 2 hours of preparation on a town that may never get used. How do you determine what you will spend your valuable time on? Is it worth creating an elaborate back story for your NPCs if your players choose to just swing on by for supplies? Will your party benefit from learning that the bakers family has been sick and require the waters from deep within the dungeon to brew the potion that will allow them to be healed? Does your group of players just want to go slay some beasts?

These are the types of questions that one may ask themself as they sit to determine how much time to the dedication of a building a world for your players to play in. If you answered no to any of these questions then feel free to grab a premade module and get running. But if you are trying to build a persistent world rife with conflict and interesting places to explore, then hold on tight we are going to talk about different ways you can work smarter not harder.

By what mechanism do we build?

It is important to sit with your thoughts and decide what it is you are looking to create when you start to think about world building. there are a few different ways to build worlds to play in. The academic in me wants to start by jumping into top-down and bottom-up as methods for building worlds; I will be saving these for another post where I follow up on formal ways to build worlds. These are both great ways to build a world. What I am referring to with this article is worldbuilding; my working definition for this article will be based on this quote:

Worldbuilding is the act of creating a setting through inquiry and play.

The Halfling Master, I can quote myself, this comes with the role of T_he Master_

When looking at the game we play one will notice that we are sharing an experience through play. Our world is tied to the players that are pretending to be characters that are living and interacting with the world we are sharing.

As a game’s master, or referee it is your job to introduce the world to the players. It is your job to describe the world in which you play, to set the tone for the setting and give an interesting set of descriptions to the players so they can make informed decisions.

As the arbiter of the world it is the referee’s job to facilitate and make rulings in times when there is need. But who is trying to enjoy this world? It is not just you the Referee, as we said it is as important to include the players in the world. So why should they not also get a say in the worldbuilding. If we are going to share this experience then we need to be willing to share the world’s creation with the players. It is with these individuals that the world is to be enjoyed.

I can hear the haters right now…

Did the halfling just tell us to let the players make the world?”

We can’t let them make the world, how can there be any surprise in the world?”

My Players do not want to make the world, they want to play in it…”

If I’m running the game then I will be making sure this is the world I want to play in….”

Fear not my little sweet rolls, the halfling master will not lead you down an impossible path. It is possible to work with the players and allow them to build some elements of the world you play in, while managing to maintain control over the world you play in.

Where are we going with this?

Whether you play story games, or are running a dungeon crawl in some completely procedurally generated setting, you can easily include your players needs into the world. To do this we need to consider the way we play.

A referee will provide some sort of description for the situation your player characters have found themselves in. When you are done describing this the players at the table then take their turn either by asking clarification questions about the description or describing how the characters interact with the world. The Referee then updates the players on how the interaction affects the current game state, even calling for dice rolls which will then insight the process to start over. The referee and players repeat this process indefinitely until a conclusion of the game session.

This is a fairly standard method of play and holds true for most any game that is played with a referee (even in solo play this methodology should be fairly familiar). The worldbuilding I am referring to happens in real time as this course of play unfolds if you take the extra time to really listen to what the players are telling you. Often the questions they ask about situations will inform you of how they want the world to take shape. I would be willing to bet that most referees take these suggestions and include them without even realizing they are doing it.

In my experience there are very few referees that do not make slight adjustments during play or at least between play sessions; however, the worldbuilding I’m suggesting takes this another step further and make it a conscious decision to take into account the players wishes and desires.

TLDR: The advice is here

When you are playing keep a notebook or scratch pad nearby (you probably already do this). Before the session you should write down a few questions that you can ask throughout play. These questions should be leading and pointed at the way the world behaves in relation to the players or other elements in the world.

How does the political unrest of the feuding Duke and Duchess effect the lower class citizens in the capitol?

When the party crosses the river what do they see in the water that causes them to hide below decks?

Where does your character call home? Describe to me their home when they are not adventuring.

Questions like these can help to create player buy in. It gives them the chance to ask you questions to further allow you to collaborate on the world. When they make suggestions you can always help them form ideas and also give them time to create those ideas. Maybe these become homework for the players each week that you play, though they can be asked anytime, you should insert them when appropriate.

In conclusion

Play games with the players. take an extra step in letting them describe the world they are getting to play in. This experience should be enjoyable by all. Create a play experience that allows the players to help inform the world. This will create more buy in. You still get to control what they provide for input as they are answering the question that you are asking. Play through inquiry is important. There are already questions being slung around throughout your game night, make a habit of asking the players some more pointed questions than the ever popular What do your characters do?”

Derek Bizier, The Inquisitive Halfling Master

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