Jun 9, 2021

Worldbuilding in My Own Way

 This post will be a rambling thing, like my thinking. If you're happy with how you develop the history of the world in which your games are run, feel free to skip.

When I think of worldbuilding, I don't think of it in the way it is generally used now, with multi-page design documents that detail the history or even pre-history of a world, the great wars between spiritual planes, the rise of individual peoples, and so forth. What I think of the term is somewhat different, and of course to make my definition sensible, I have to provide some rambling, seemingly off-top thoughts.

Most game worlds now for virtually any tabletop engine are a libertarian's wet dream, in my opinion. Roads, food, money, items, rest and recuperation, etc. are all just present for whomever can afford them. They have sprung from nothing, whole-cloth, to be taken or used by whomever is best equipped to do so. No one made a magic item that is discovered - it has no secret or old purpose. It is just a magic item to fill out a loot table.

But these sorts of goods and services don't just exist. Someone had to make them, and there was a reason they came to be. Thinking of why these goods and services came to be, and the consequence of their existence, is what I mean about worldbuilding.

I don't want to even get started on the topic of money (for this post at least). 

Let's talk roads instead. Even in a civilization with modern heavy equipment, roads require an amazing expenditure of resources in many forms to bring into existence, and in pre-modern times the investment in labor would be even larger. 

For the idea of a road to come to mind, there has to be a need that will be addressed by the road's construction that isn't satisfied currently. A person or group with sufficient influence determines the need, and then sets in motion the process of procuring the resources and deploying them to build the road. 

There have to be resources available (foremost labor) to make the road, and of course there are resources associated with labor that also need to be addressed.

The road, in turn, makes civilization of the the areas near the road more likely, even if resources aren't optimal, as it makes travel over it just that much easier, thus making resources used for exploration or travel go a little further.

So, for an example of my thought processes, I will provide this hypothetical example of a multi-hex road network in an area of moderate population, with at least one ruin.

I'll use Caius Trismegistus (C3, as they refer to themselves), a historical magic-user of no modern note, as the prime mover. They are a three-souled revenant ruler of a frontier hex they've subjugated. A complex of ancient ruins was the main feature of the hex, and after C3 and their hirelings dealt with the inhabitants in the ruin and beat down the local wildlife, C3 has decided to use the location as the starting point of their own demesne.

C3 would like to:

  • a) convert the ruin they're currently using as their fortress into a stronghold proper, to serve as their residence and base of operations, 
  • b) establish a population to convert the resources of the area they control into goods or materials that other people might want, so they can 
  • c) accumulate goods, material, and people to protect the borders of their conquered territory and to purchase the necessary rare elements they need to continue their all-consuming magical research. Attracting a population will make it easier to gain more resources, and will also facilitate running the whole operation without needing to micro-manage the day-to-day affairs of their territory.
In order to facilitate the construction of their stronghold as well as bring in residents to convert the untapped resources of the hex they've conquered into usable goods and services, C3 knows they need to make travel and transport as reliable, safe, and expeditious as possible. To that end, a network of roads would seem to be the first order of business:
    • a road to the nearest trade port (Port Mud) two hexes away, where goods and people can be gathered or recruited to be brought along to the stronghold,
    • a road or roads to the nearest convenient (within 1 hex) locations for construction materials and resources to be used for payment or trade, and
    • a road to one or more areas (also within 1 hex) where food production in some form can be undertaken for the (hopefully) swelling population of the territory, and
    • other roads to other resources, as they are identified and as capital and labor permit.
C3 knows that any workers they recruit will want to be compensated for their labor. They have sufficient gems, precious metals, and other items from their decades of adventuring to bootstrap the project, but they know magical research requires the expenditure of tremendous resources and so acquisition of trade materials should actually be a high priority on the list. Otherwise, they'll have to spend decades more adventuring, thus delaying their magical research or perhaps even dying, thus setting the research back even longer.
C3 expends some resources to hire labor from Port Mud to hack a rudimentary road from Port Mud to the ruin, along with guards to keep the laborers safe, and provisions for both groups. Meanwhile, C3 also hires a prospector, who identifies an area that would be a great local source of limestone, and identifies a location for an opal mine. As the labor to establish a road goes on, month after month, C3 have been taking great care to be sure the remains of those killed in the process (as the area between their pacified hex and the port is still wild and dangerous) are "treated with the greatest respect", compensation is offered to the families, and proper local religious services observed. In fact, C3 have been collecting the remains to use as an additional labor team of restless dead (the creation of which is a spell they have mastered), though not within sight of any of their living hired hands. They use these tireless laborers to establish, if not roads, at least tracks to the quarry and the mine to ease the construction of more improved roads at a later time.

Years pass. The road network has been established, the Main Road (as it becomes known) to Port Mud has been improved with rest stops and watch stations, the stronghold constructed, and additional mines for gems and a massive petrified forest are established. The roads see use not just by C3 and their forces, but by explorers and traders in their own right, along with others who have brokered agreements with C3's agents for exploiting the mines and quarry themselves. A local population center never really takes off as locally-sourced food supplies never truly thrive, but C3 accumulates enough remains to create and maintain a massive restless dead labor force. Discrete inquiries find suitable individuals willing to oversee and control the local 'population' in the quarry and mines, and C3 can finally get down to the real work of research.

We don't know what became of C3's research - the passage of many generations has worn away the historical details as it has some of the constructions and improvements. All that is remembered in the port (now a city) of Mud is that the ruins further inland have been shunned for generations as a region where unholy (in the terms of the ascendant local religion) practices took place. Some limestone is still pulled from the quarry, and there are tales of opals and other treasure to be pulled from the ground. Still, the region is, while not a frontier, not heavily settled, and it can be dangerous. Trade roads to settlements beyond the immediate region still use some of the bones of C3's original road network; the old Main Road in particular has held up well over its long history.

Information on the past doings of C3 might be found as ledger entries for labor or sale of opals or petrified wood in a buried cache of fired tablets used for recordkeeping in C3's time, or the surveyor's report may survive forgotten in the ancestral shrine of one of his descendants, or in the records of the religion predominant at the time in the form of sacrifices made for the dead. And of course, there are still the ruins of a road network buried among roads leading to their settlements, leading to quarries, mines, and the ruin of a stronghold built among even older ruins of which literally nothing is known. In this more modern age where a hypothetical game would take place, perhaps there are even penny-dreadful stories about the Necromancer of the Badlands, inspired by bits and pieces of Caius Trismegistus' history that have survived as folklore.

I just wrote all of this as I went along, in a sort of stream of consciousness as I was thinking about this hypothetical location. One could write it up in more detail about the origins of the city of Mud or which civilization built the original ruins, what happened to those inhabitants, and so on, but I don't know that those details really add anything to the above. I feel there should be some things in a game that are just not discoverable. 

I think some local rumors of the sort dungeon-delving folks and gossips would be interested in, why there might be legions of restless dead milling around an old opal or petrified forest mine, why the region is shunned now, etc. are enough to get started. Details on the local geological strata, the population of the entire geographic region, or the history of the currently ruling Hegemon can wait for when those things become pertinent.

Another person might want to think of the research of Caius Trismegistus and the products (so many failed products, and some successful ones), or maybe another group has stumbled on the ruins (from another polity that came about as a result of a successful network of roads), and is even now making use of some of those products. 

I wouldn't want to add too much detail, though - information systems through history have been unreliable (as generous a term as I could apply) up until very recently. Specific, factual knowledge was not the priority of historians of the pre-modern eras - their work was aimed to either rehabilitate or slander historic personages, or to put forth concepts that were either in fashion, or that the writer wanted to be in fashion. Facts seem to be limited to financial transactions or religious observances, and were generally ignored outside of those spheres. While we're not playing a recreation of the Ancient Near East (I'm not but I would be interested - ping me), we're also not playing a recreation of modern society, and easy access to truthful information is as anachronistic as cars, electronic computation, or a fully developed global economy would be.

At the end of all of this, does it really make a difference how I came at it? I don't know, truth be told. I do find I am more satisfied with my own work if it is internally consistent and logical (for a value of logic that is applicable to a game with magic spells and creatures from other realities), and for me that means I start small and in the past, and work my way up and out. I try to think on how interpretations distort based on the political and religious climates in between, and how rare it is for true information to survive intact. I try to keep anachronisms out of my games where they don't fit, and this sort of process helps me with that. 


  1. Good to "see" you in post form again!

    While I think tools can be useful for some people, I do appreciate you showing an example of a more "stream of consciousness" flow of an area.

    I think many GMs sell their own imaginations short and can rely too much on the tools and tables. So people willing to post just these examples of their own maelstrom of imaginings is good for all of us.

    1. Good to 'see' you, too! Since I'm more of an 'improv' referee, tables and tools help me when I need to answer something I hadn't thought of, and of course everyone has their own way of thinking and working.

      I agree about GMs selling their own imaginations short - maybe doing a stream of consciousness sort of exercise can help some folks see what sort of stuff they can come up with. Of course there are people who can extrapolate the craziest stuff from random tables, which is awesome. I find myself sitting in a box created by the table, which is less awesome.

    2. I think I need to use tables if I am stuck with improv/imagination. Then my brain shifts into "how can I smash these random things together", but doing it too much can then put me into that box.

      I wonder what are some good stream of consciousness exercises to do... May have to look into that!


Please keep the comments civil, or they'll be deleted.