To me, worldbuilding is about creating hooks for characters to latch onto. If I’m developing ideas that can’t be immediately used to generate new stories, complicate existing stories, or add depth to stories, then I’m probably wasting my time on stuff that players might never interact with through their characters. You’ll note that I haven’t specified ideas that can be used to end stories. I should have made it abundantly clear that I’m not a big fan of deus-ex-machina, stories can be created by the environment (or created when the characters interact with an environment), but they should only ever be resolved by characters.
Places become locations for elements of the story to unfold; but if characters never go there, why bother detailing them? People become useful allies and antagonists on the path of the story; but again, if characters don’t interact with them, how much use are they?
It’s always useful having a few extra locations and a few more people detailed as a part of the world, just in case players take their characters in unexpected directions. This way a GM can divert the characters to these story elements, and they will seem like they belonged to the story all the way along. But there’s a fine line between being prepared and being an over-enthusiastic control freak. I like keeping things open so that players can help the development of the world, and that means leaving gaps each of which has a set of hooks to attach player ideas onto. Doing all the worldbuilding on your own can lead to very insular and one-track environments, creating collaborative worlds may not lead to the exact world you originally envisioned, but everyone involved becomes a bit more invested in the outcome.
Still, don’t go designing a world by committee, that’s a pathway to madness, and the dissatisfaction of everyone concerned. A single person needs to be the creative visionary who drives the world and keeps everything within a certain degree of focus. In a tabletop game this would probably be the domain of the GM/Storyteller/Oracle, in a live game it would be the organiser who coordinates the GMs, when designing an RPG with a group of collaborators there might be a line editor.
In our world design so far, there are ten locations in the main town, and two extra vaguely described towns, all on a generally mapped island. We’ve got seven cultural groups vaguely described, and three distinct languages. I could run a short game with that, maybe a session or two with lots of ad libbing. But that’s not really world-building, there are probably a few to many gaps, and a few too many details that are missing for long term play. Once you throw in a few ad lib elements or player generated ideas to fill in those gaps, you start to lose control of the setting. If the game is about to wrap up with a conclusion, this isn’t too important. Players will be satisfied that they’ve contributed to the setting, everyone will talk about how good it was, but you’ll have to do a bit of extra work to pull things back in line if you plan to revisit the world at a later date.
Personally, I’d rather throw in a few more details now, before the world gets touched. That way there are more elements to hook stories into without disrupting the overall structure of the setting.
What else do we need?
Plenty of things, but for the moment we’ll develop a few people.
In a top down design methodology, you’d detail the overall scope, the grand background stories, vast regions, and then slowly gradually work your way down to the specific places and people, knowing full well how they fit into the grand scheme of things. In a bottom up design methodology, the people get designed early, and then when you need to work out why they act in a certain way, this reveals some of the larger forces at work in the setting.
In a live action game, most of our interesting people are the player characters. But that doesn’t mean everyone interesting has to be one of them. The player characters often need some kind of social lubricant in the form of Non-player characters, these NPCs may work as allies, antagonists or simply useful people who can do things (and who need things done in exchange). Because we’re expecting players to belong to every culture, we’ll need NPCs from every faction.
Here is where you can really start to develop the nuances of the setting, in many ways including the way characters act, how they interact with one another, their goals and agendas, but also in fundamental things such as how many there are, where they are located, and relative power levels. Remember that you don’t need to create NPCs according to the same criteria as player characters, balance doesn’t matter, and imbalance is actually a better impetus for story generation. The live game (which we’ll call “Cogs and Crossbones” as a placeholder title) has a fairly specific mechanism for spreading out the races and cultures of the cultures but it will need a little tweaking because it’s inherently linked to the world being designed.
I toyed with the idea of modifying costs for different race/culture combinations, but that was just getting fiddly and confusing. Instead perhaps it might be easier to look at the options presented in a game like D&D, not the earliest incarnations, but later ones like 3.0 onward. In this way, we might apply some kind of bonus to characters where the culture and race are commonly associated with one another, and some kind of penalty where they’re not commonly found together.
Nullans are found in every culture. They gain no bonuses or penalties wherever they may be found.
Dhampyrs are fond of ritual and like positions of power, thus they’d be more likely to be found among the Empire or the Church, and less likely to be found among the Settlers or Natives.
Faeblood are dreamers and travellers, but typically work alone, thus they’d be more likely to be found among the Settlers or the Cult, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Pirates.
Wyldkin border on the bestial, sometimes violent and usually pack oriented, they’d be more likely to be found among the Pirates and Natives, and less likely to be found among the Church or Cult.
Avatars often claim descent from angels and saints and are more likely to be found among the Church or the Cult, they’re less likely to be found among the Natives or Settlers.
Incarnates are more natural in their spiritual origins, they’re more likely to be found among the Natives or Settlers, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Church.
Purebloods are nomads who like to blend into a mixed crowd, they’re likely to be found among the Pirates and the Privateers, and less likely to be found among the Empire or Natives.
To keep things simple we’ll create a Nullan character from each culture (two each from the common cultures), then two characters from each other race (one from each of their favoured cultures).
That gives us:
Nullan – Empire (x2)
Nullan – Settler (x2)
Nullan – Privateer (x2)
Nullan – Pirate (x2)
Nullan – Church
Nullan – Native
Nullan – Cult
Dhampyr – Empire
Dhampyr – Church
Faeblood – Settlers
Faeblood – Cult
Wyldkin – Pirate
Wyldkin – Native
Avatar – Church
Avatar – Cult
Incarnate – Native
Incarnate – Settler
Pureblood – Pirate
Pureblood – Privateer
So that gives us 4 Settler characters, 4 Pirate characters, 3 Empire characters, 3 Privateer characters, 3 Church characters, 3 Native Characters, and 3 Cult characters. That’s 23 characters, surprisingly well balanced across the cultures, and as I was writing this I didn’t expect it to work out this way at all. When I’m writing up a campaign, I’d usually try to aim for twice as many NPCs as there are players, but a live game fills out the population with unpredictable player characters, so there usually isn’t as much need to introduce plot twists through NPCs. 23 characters are plenty to start with when setting the intrigues for the main city.
Now we’ll detail these characters a bit. We’ll do this by giving them each a name, a gender, a rough power level (novice, veteran, master), an attitude, a job/place in the local economy, and a pair of locations where they might likely be found. If we were playing D&D we might put an alignment as well.
Federico Rodriguez y Carillo (Nullan – Empire, Male, Veteran, Surly, Sergeant of the Town Guard, The Keep or The Docks)
Jacinta Moreno y Silva (Nullan – Empire, Female, Master, Manipulative, High Courtesan, The Keep or The Cathedral)
Orlando Cortez (Nullan – Settler, Male, Master, Gracious, Burgermeister, The Markets or The Sentrypost)
Mary Jones (Nullan – Settler, Female, Veteran, Down-to-Earth, Apothecary, The Markets or The Arena)
Oliver Rackham (Nullan – Privateer, Male, Veteran, Flamboyant, Ship’s Captain, The Docks or The Withered Hag)
Marina DuBois (Nullan – Privateer, Female, Novice, Shy, Artificer Apprentice, The Markets or The Docks)
Half-pint Henry (Nullan – Pirate, Male, Novice, Eager-to-Please, Cabin Boy, The Borderslums or The Docks)
Nell Smith (Nullan – Pirate, Female, Master, Disciplined, Quartermaster, The Arena or The Withered Hag)
Father Taurino (Nullan – Church, Male, Veteran, Fatherly, Abbot, The Cathedral or The Village)
Erihapeti (Nullan – Native, Female, Veteran, Inquisitive, Herbalist, The Village or The Sentrypost)
Adalita Batista (Nullan – Cult, Female, Novice, Friendly, Street Urchin, The Temple or The Borderslums)
Lisandro De La Rosa y Cortez (Dhampyr – Empire, Male, Master, Strict, Governor, The Keep or The Catherdal)
Mother Albertine (Dhampyr – Church, Female, Master, Gracious, High Priestess, The Cathedral or The Markets)
Charlie Thatcher (Faeblood – Settlers, Male, Novice, Friendly, Newssheet Vendor, The Markets or The Withered Hag)
Harriet Black (Faeblood – Cult, Female, Novice, Secretive, Gaslighter, The Borderslums or The Docks)
Josephine The Cat (Wyldkin – Pirate, Female, Novice, Careful, Cabin-“Boy”, The Docks or The Arena)
Tama (Wyldkin – Native, Male, Veteran, Brave, Mercenary-for-Hire, The Village or The Borderslums)
Sister Salvatora (Avatar – Church, Female, Veteran, Hyperactive, Legate, The Cathedral or The Village)
Moana (Avatar – Cult, Male, Novice, Thuggish, Bodyguard, The Borderslums or The Markets)
Anahera (Incarnate – Native, Female, Veteran, Motherly, Shaman, The Village or The Temple)
Jack Teller (Incarnate – Settler, Male, Novice, Diligent, Blacksmith’s Apprentice, The Markets or The Sentrypost)
Xavier “Lobo” Perez (Pureblood – Pirate, Male, Veteran, Flamboyant, Pirate Captain, The Docks or The Arena)
Mary Flynn (Pureblood – Privateer, Female, Master, Sinister, Fleet Commodore, The Docks or The Keep)
An interesting point that I discovered doing research for these names was the traditional Spanish naming convention of using two surnames, one derived from the paternal side, and one from the maternal. I think I’ll keep this for members of the empire, it makes names sound more regal and convoluted. This leads me to another thing I love about worldbuilding, and that’s doing research into other cultures.