Top-Bottom-Up World Building

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0975

Today’s short tip is about taking a different approach to building your own world to host all your adventures in.

Building a complete RPG world takes dozens if not hundreds of hours. Who has that amount of time these days?

Continents, gods, empires, kings, sorcerers, beasts…. It’s such a massive commitment. And all so overwhelming and time-consuming.

Sitting bright on my shelf is the world-building trio of Microscope, Kingdom, and Downfall by Ben Robbins. I have not fully read each nor played them. But the idea is, through gameplay you fashion worlds.

And you can employ these games to build worlds for tabletop RPG use.

In the future I’ll be giving each of those three games a spin.

However, the idea of world-building through normal gameplay has caught my imagination.

There’s always been two approaches to world-building: top-down and bottom-up.

Let’s Take It from The Top

Top-down means you spend a huge chunk of time first designing and writing. Then you game. Everything you need to play for a long-time has been taken care of. Build a wiki or use an app like Evernote or Campaign Logger for easy reference during play.

Start Small

Bottom-up means you start in one small place of the realm and just about everything is GM and player fog of war. Design what you need as the character expand. From village to wilderness to capitol to empire.

My Combo of Both

My approach will be top-bottom-up. A merging of the best of both methods.

Spend a little time up-front with the big questions. Then game the rest out. Use your campaign to dig into the big questions again so players feel there’s a grand, wondrous place around them to explore, affect, and be affected by.

I will also combo Top-Bottom-Up with my Campaign Seasons approach.

Summer’s Coming

Campaigns suffer from momentum loss. They falter, wither, die. Campaigns crumble way too often.

To combat this I carve my campaigns into Seasons. Like an awesome Netflix series you can’t stop chain-smoking, each season has an arc with build-up and exciting climax.

And following the Infinite Game philosophy, each Season opens up gameplay for more seasons.

The pacing of fresh new Seasons coming to an exciting grand finale every 12 or so sessions keeps players excited and engaged.

No more crumbling campaigns.

Each season offers new dramatic questions. Nothing gets stale.

Finishing a season gives you a keen sense of accomplishment. Each finale gives you pride, confidence, and desire to do that again.

World Dev Between Sessions & Seasons

Top = Create what you need to satisfy the mechanics of your game and to answer basic questions of your players.

Who are the gods? What’s the calendar? How do people buy stuff and how can PCs spend their loot? What’s the name of this place and where is the adventure?

Bottom = Flesh out your world starting with the region of your current Season of adventure.

Up =  Who do the PCs meet? Where do they go? Play to find this out. What questions do they ask about the world? Answer tricky questions between sessions. Refactor and tweak big stuff between seasons.

Ideas Become Reality Becomes Ideas

This approach flexes with how much player agency you want to give.

Some GMs have a clear vision of what they want or fear everything being named Bob by their players. Those GMs can use Top-Bottom-Up and retain control. All player input gladly accepted for evaluation and possible use between sessions and seasons.

Some GMs want players to lead the charge and make the world up together. Top-Bottom-Up is perfect for this. Take an idea and game it out. Build on previous ideas. Repeat.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We want players to bond with the world by making it theirs while we ensure things stay in-genre and in-theme. Again, the Top-Bottom-Up approach works great.

Start with framing up your big ideas. Then focus on the first session and the first adventure. Expand the milieu as you get a feel for the place you’re creating and the characters’ impact increases.

This is not a new idea. But it’s a grand experiment for me. No published world books as a safety net. Just some initial ideas and a new season to GM soon!