How Much World Do You Need, Part 2: The Players

Yesterday, I asked writers and game-masters alike how much world they needed to have together before they could begin a plot. But they’re not the only ones who are affected by the amount of world that’s been created; it’s also going to have an effect on the players.

Granted, the effect of world (or lack thereof) on players isn’t usually as crippling as it is for the GM or the writer. The players just have to be one character in the world, and in many cases can play a role where it’s perfectly reasonable for them not to know a lot of it; the GM, on the other hand, is playing the world, and has to either know or be able to figure it out.

For some players, it really doesn’t matter; they’re not too worried about how well the character fits into the world, so they don’t have to know the world that well. Either they’ll make something up, or they’ll just play someone who could easily fit into almost any setting in that genre and then figure out the rest as they go along. And generally they know what kind of character they want to play, so all that really matters world-wise is that the GM won’t reject the character out of hand for not being in theme. Or sometimes it’s not that, but that they’re choosing not to concern themselves too much with the details now so that they can have the fun of finding them out once in character.

Other players are a lot more concerned with details like that. In some cases, it’s wanting to know how their characters fit into the world because that makes them more interesting (to the player, anyway) characters. Then there are those among them who want to know the world because they need to find a concept somewhere, and there’s probably some little detail that they can find a question about or otherwise use as a jumping-off point. For some, though, it isn’t so much about the character; rather, it’s about being able to take advantage of the rules of the world (culture, physics, magic, what have you) the way more dice-oriented players take advantage of rule synergy and mechanics. Unless you’ve got a GM who doesn’t mind “I don’t see a setting-rule about this, can I make something up?” (and more importantly, doesn’t mind what happens when she says yes), not knowing much about the world really doesn’t work well with trying to approach it that way. Yes, I’ll admit it, I’ve got a little of all three going at any given time.

Yet even they can find too much setting restrictive; after all, if everything’s determined, then where does the player have room to make her mark on the world?

How much world do you need to in order to play comfortably? If you’ve got a range, how much world are you most comfortable with? Is there any level of worldbuilding that you just won’t touch?


  1. Brickwall says:

    I think there’s definitely a minimum level of setting information that’s necessary in any creative work. Some types are much more effective at communicating it subtly (I’ve run across more than a few paintings that are their own setting), but in a work of prose, whether you do so coyly or bluntly, quickly or slowly, you gotta say something. Sometimes you can hold off until later (some people have succeeded in the “snapping the entire book into context at the end” tactic), but blank slate just doesn’t work. The basics as far as I can tell them:

    Who: Names are a tool, but any entities that operate on an anthropomorphic level need a ‘who’. “Guy with square glasses who glances away from any eye contact” is a ‘who’. If there are no identifiable anthropomorphic entities, or none outside one character, well, you’ve created some new kind of art.
    Where: Again, names aren’t important. Even a book from a blind person’s point of view has environment, and it’s key to anything. I’d say don’t leave home without it, but without it, ‘home’ is meaningless.
    What: Something’s going on. You may think that just a good character and location are enough, but you’d be wrong. Some semblance of plot is necessary for anything to mean anything.
    How: In a completely straight-edged ‘real world’ setting, this is a somewhat smaller question. Then, you only need to decide on tone (e.g. Catcher in the Rye: whiny, pointless, defeatist, you get the picture). Important, as it pretty much affects all the other factors, but not requiring immense creative effort. Once you depart from the world we all live in, though, you’ve got more stuff to work on. That tone you want needs something to make it exist. That tone you want will make new things exist, or make things stop existing. This can be as concise as tone (e.g. Dresden Files: Fairy tales are real and it sucks for the rest of us), and just develop from there, but detail never hurts. Judge for yourself how soon you want to make definitive statements about it. For some, such statements guide, and guide well. For others, they feel restricting, and exist as a temptation to break.

    That’s minimums. I’ve found that maximums get much, much, much more subjective. I personally think that, besides the case of “How”, your detail limit is at 10%. If you have an identity for more than 10% of the anthropomorphs in your world, or more than 10% of the places in your world, or more than 10% of everything going on in your world (for all of these: at the scale you’re mostly dealing with), you might have too much going on. Take it easy. Set a story in Chicago, and you really don’t need more than 5 buildings and a couple other places to have more than enough space to work with. 10 characters with any real identity is indeed enough for a novel (admittedly, a small number to work with for such a length, but enough if your tone doesn’t need minor characters). If you’re saying something about everything, you’re not saying enough about anything. Or you’re just saying too much (try setting an RPG or long story in Middle Earth and having fun without running afoul of canon. It’s just not possible). If you have a canned setting, though, it’s best to allow for as many of the already-existing details as possible. You really can’t know what messing with them will affect (of course, if it’s a collaboration and already conflicts with itself…you’re just screwed).

    TLDR version: Minimums are really low, maximums are about 10% of detail.

  2. UZ says:

    Oddly enough I found that this is one of those cases where a constructed language actually helps. When you’re creating a language you usually do so in relation to aspects of the world, and the language’s construction helps to generalize those aspects (or fail to generalize them, which is also a characterization).

    Consider, for example, a not-too-unusual scenario in fantasy stories, that is, everything low-lying or underground is hideous and deadly. So, for anyone who lives on the ground, “down” is a really bad idea. Downhill is the swamp – there are drainer vines. Down the hole is underground – there are tunnel fangers. Down in the basement are those blasted rats, playing their music too loud. And down the river is the sea, and we don’t even want to talk about that. Down is bad.

    So it’s not that difficult to imagine a cultural linguistics where down is bad even metaphorically – where everyone lives on the hill ’cause it’s up and up is good, where it’s rude to sit higher than a guest, where forcing someone to bow or kneel is the height of insult. This gives us a broad idea of what the world is like, when everybody thinks down is bad because everything downhill from them literally is.

    Now if you don’t want to make it universal, we can have a comparator culture – say, the wingy people who live in the mountains. There is no “underground” here other than a few caves, no bloodsucking swamps, no giant sea tentacle beasts, and the rats live in the same room so they have to behave themselves. With no value difference between up and down – for a flying culture, “up” could mean active and “down” could mean safe – they have a different set of cultural biases and don’t understand the groundies’ up down thing.

    In this way, you could illustrate the difference in their cultural linguistics – thus, with a little care, you could tell whether someone had wings or not by listening to them talk.

    In this way I find that language serves as a good way to imply (and sometimes, to inspire me to address) the broad unseen aspects of culture that are often left unsaid.

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