Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Worldbuilding 101

Worldbuilding isn’t an easy task, and in this new series of posts, I will show you some tips and tricks to make it easier.  This week, it’s the people of your world.

It doesn’t matter what kind of world you are building, steampunk, fantasy, science fiction… Chances are, there will be groups of people in it, and more importantly, the stories you weave will involve the groups of people as well. To make a believable and interesting story, you need to create believable and interesting people…

1.      People are different
 People are not simple creatures. If you are not creating a society of mindless drones, you cannot let yourself to create a mass of boring uninspired clones.

Most games (and stories) make the mistake of pigeonholing whole species/races into badly written stereotypes… Orcs are aggressive, dwarves are greedy, elves are haughty etc. These standardized descriptions are really bad for your storytelling, as they limit your thinking, not even mentioning the thinking of those who do not possess the intimate knowledge of your own world like yourself.
Let’s say your world has dwarves.
(Dwarves are an easy example, because many works of fiction used dwarves, and therefore there are many different stereotypes available.)
 When writing about your dwarves, from an objective point of view, try to avoid sentences like “dwarves are all greedy, foul-mouthed drunkards”, instead try to write behavioral thresholds, that they fit into. You need to find axes of principles the group would find important, to find what values they hold dear. 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons describes dwarves as long lived people who like to hold a grudge, value their gods, clans and golds above all.
Based on this, we can set up what are the most important things for their culture. Gods, Clans and Gold are clearly very important aspects. Therefore Piety, Loyalty, and Ambition would be the things this culture would value the most, but, just as humans, dwarves aren’t perfect either, so let’s find the extremes of these values. Piety becomes Zealotry, Loyalty becomes Mindless devotion, and Ambition becomes Ruthlessness or Greed.
Based on these, the behavioral threshold for this particular dwarven culture would somewhat look like this:

  • -     Religion tends to be very important in the life of the dwarves. At their best, dwarves are very spiritual and enlightened, while at their worst, they are zealous and unaccepting of other beliefs.
  • -          Clans are the dwarves’ extended family, neighbors, guild mates and friends as well. Being part of the clan means very much to most dwarves. At their best, dwarves are loyal, and they treat clan as close family, loving them, despite their flaws and mistakes. At their worst, dwarves are blinded by their loyalty to the clan, and this unquestionable loyalty can lead to horrible things.
  • -          Achieving prosperity in a barren environment like mountains is no easy task, and it demands dwarves to be the very best. At their best, dwarves are ambitious, and they strive to achieve greatness for themselves, their family and their clan, but at their worst, dwarves may forget the reason behind the hard work, and care only about the results, doing more and more, caring not about others or the consequences.

Characters may embody one of the extremes, but more often than not, they are somewhere between. Try to create a behavioral threshold like this for your players when you start your next campaign, and watch as the players bring more interesting characters to the game, and you will also find it easier to create an NPC with this method.
Also, using words like “tend to”, “often”, “mostly” or “rarely” and “unlikely” helps a lot. Never write absolutes about any race, just write general tendencies.

2.      Races are not cultures!
Most games (and stories) also make another mistake, namely, creating a “dwarven” culture, or “elven” culture… If you think about it, just for a little while, you can surely see the problem with that. Let me help. Have you ever been abroad, and seen how people acted differently than your folks? Even though they are humans, just like you? (If you are a martian, I can’t speak for you) Can you see it now? Yes, you guessed it right. Cultures differ racially. Just because you are the same species, you will not have the same beliefs, customs and traditions as the rest of your people.
(These cultures are all the same people... Why can't you have the same with other races?)

When creating a country, any kind of country, you should consider creating a culture for it as well. I will detail this more thoroughly in another post about creating countries, but the idea is the following. Each race should have more than ONE culture, and if you create aspects for a race, consider creating them for the culture rather. Two groups of people from the same race can be drastically different, to the point where you start doubting they are the same people. Compare Japanese stereotypes with American stereotypes, and you will have an idea of what you should strive for. Don’t have a single culture for a whole race, try and create several different cultures. Using the methods detailed above, you can create several distinct cultures for each race.

3.      Damned Scots… They ruined Scotland!
Are you familiar with the common idea that elves hate dwarves, and vice versa? Of course you are, and why wouldn’t they? Elves are noble forest people, in tune with nature, while dwarves are greedy mountain dwellers, trying to extort the land as much as they can. They are polar opposites, completely different people, living in completely different places, doing completely different things… But why do they hate each other then? They are not competing for the same resources, they are not MEETING each other in most cases, and I am pretty sure that most dwarves haven’t seen an elf in their entire lives. Elves have little to no business in the deep mines, and dwarves get itchy when not underground. 
Here is the thing. Groups of people do not hate each other because they are different. They hate each other because they are the same. If you think about our world’s history, you can recognize this pattern. The Inquisition was fighting against other Christians most of the times.

When you were a kid, you didn’t fight with the neighbor kid for that slice of cake served on your birthday party… He wasn’t even there! You were fighting over it with your siblings. Brothers and sisters are natural enemies (like Scots)

When creating a group of people, and you want to include a “hated enemy”, do it within their own race (which now has several cultures), or at least with some other group that they have contact with, and compete for resources. The desert people won’t hate the people living on the icecaps. They don’t even know what an icecap is!

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