3 Common World Building Mistakes
By Danny O’neill and Ivan Sadzakov from Hammerdog Games
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1081
Mistake #1: Avoiding All Tropes
While it seems like everything has been done before, our favourite characters, locations, and world features fit many tropes.
It’s less about being original and more about how well you execute and whether you can make these things stick.
Through an over-the-top performance, a twist, how you weave them into your story, or combine tropes, you can make the old seem fresh and interesting again.
Gandalf is a great character, right? He’s a wizard, old, mysterious, sometimes like a grandpa. But he lives in a low magic world, so his power is limited. That’s a twist from today’s perspective.
What about Harry Potter? He’s also a wizard, but he’s young and goes to a school where everything is magical and wondrous.
Harry Potter does not build from mystery and thrill like Gandalf does. He builds from awe and wonder and bringing us back to a childhood that’s a bit more magical and adventurous.
Tropes help us identify with someone or something. We recognize an element we’ve seen before and it scares us, makes us happy, or even angers us. They help players form instant connections with your world’s elements.
Using tropes as a foundation, take your creation to the next level by adding new layers, because it won’t only be about that trope.
For example, to make a world feature your own, give its trope a twist. And show why it is awesome and nothing like the first emotion you intentionally mislead your players with.
The party encounters a gnoll. Everybody draws their weapons. The gnoll drops to its knees and cries out. They lost their puppy hyenas. They looked away for only a few seconds and the pups were gone. The hyenas likely chased a rabbit down to the river.
Now your party won’t know if they will be ambushed by the river or if they can actually do some good. Are gnolls not strictly hostile? Does the captain of the guard sending bounty hunters for their heads have an unknown agenda?
Use tropes as a strong point to toy with and even reflect upon players’ thinking in real life.
Almost anything can start out as a cliché creation. Build on it and peek the players’ interest in a natural manner.
Mistake #2: Not Creating Working Societies and Political Institutions
Sometimes you just want to tell a hero story in a black and white world. But society and politics are interesting and expansive. They offer many hooks without burdening GMs or players who don’t care about the politics section of the news.
It’s a wasted opportunity for societies of any type and size — from the smallest village to an interstellar conglomerate — to assume everything simply works and there are no tensions.
This is a wasted opportunity.
No society is without flaws where everyone is happy with their status, rights, and neighbour’s values.
In a hamlet perhaps there is a power confusion. With no dedicated mayor, every issue becomes a debate. Could be two rivaling inn owners, or the most influential breeders of a certain creature. Maybe there is a small council, but each member has different interests. The small populous becomes divided.
In a solar system ruled by a king, it is lawful to kill all members of a certain belief system or species on sight. What happens to people affiliated with these? How do the victims of the laws feel about this? Are there movements? Uprisings?
Wage gaps, totalitarian governments, bureaucracy, rival leaders, religious conflict, state versus private military or economic powers. Use rifes within working societies and political institutions to build a deeper world.
Players can take a side or merely observe. At the least, you will always have a chance to let them explore and create new hooks.
Mistake #3: Making Your World Revolve Around Your Players
World building doesn’t stop when the campaign begins. Let players know what’s happening in other places without them being affected immediately.
Share news and gossip of world events to gauge reactions and see what catches player interest. For plot hooks the party bites on, expand your world accordingly. For neglected hooks, tell a story you’ve always wanted to tell, even if the players never took this path.
For example, local chatter speculates about an unexplored planet. The PCs travel elsewhere, so you have rivals find a dire threat on-site.
Even if you mention ten things characters don’t respond to, you’ve still improved everyone’s experience by allowing glimpses into your world.
Though your story might focus on the party, perhaps somebody somewhere found a huge cave filled to the brim with gold, and now the players’ assets such as gemstones are increasingly more valuable as the gold value drops over the next few weeks. Or maybe a town became inaccessible as a gaping maw opened underneath, devouring it whole.
Your world lives! The story evolves around your players, but the universe you play in does not.
Fill your world with life to show your creative prowess, spark character development, or make characters pick a side.
Avoid these three world-building mistakes so your setting adds ideas, opportunities, and great experiences to your campaign.