smoke and mirrors #2


In this post we're going to cover the process for world creation that we use at Wickerman Games, as one of our major focus' is creating game worlds, for us to use, to support our games. Some of the elements of this post allude to “Narrative Design”, which is a method of storytelling that whilst not wholly unique to games. It is a major factor of many games across many genres. We won’t be covering “Narrative Design” in depth in this post, instead we’re focusing upon the creation of a game setting specifically.

The post details the techniques that we’ve used to build our game world. we aren’t using our game as an example and the examples we are using are purely hypothetical.

This is going to be a pretty wordy post - brace yourselves.

In the beginning…

To create a convincing believable world, there is always a starting point. This can and has been inspired by many forms of media over the years. When I think of world building, I am instantly drawn to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Firstly he had his mythology meticulously planned out, he gave his world a history and this history was used to at least partially inform the plot of his novels, and to breath life into the world of Middle Earth. The result of this detail gives the locations within the world, a real sense of history, telling a story within the larger context of history, the rise and fall of civilisations, and races that exist in the world, and informing the reader of a time before the events which are taking place. I think it’s impossible to talk about creating any kind of game world without referencing Tolkien, whilst he wasn’t the first, and I am sure that many would argue that other authors have done a better job. He is very widely known, and this topic - that of world building would be disingenuous without mentioning him, as the very depth that Tolkien went to in creating Middle Earth is worth being familiar with if you want to create believable game worlds or any imaginary world.

Many writers build up history and lore around their works, be it H.P. Lovecraft's ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, Robert E. Howard’s ‘Hyborean age’, or Andrzej Sapkowski’s 'Witcher' series. Many dungeon masters also employ mythos building techniques into creating their game worlds.

If we look at Dungeons and Dragons as an example of this - we have several campaign settings - Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Eberron, Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Planescape, Spelljammer and a multitude of other homebrewed alternate realities concocted by DM’s over the years. Each of these has their quirks and each of these has their own mythos and sense of world history built up to reinforce the game's world. What this allows a DM to do is come along and cherry pick an event that interests them and build from it, splitting off their own little reality that has been guided by the players actions.

Computer games do this as well, some admittedly better than others. Some examples would be The Witcher, Fallout, Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Shadowrun Returns, and of course the classic CRPG’s Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights (which are built using the Forgotten Realms, Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting).

All of these examples have one thing in common. They all have a sense of world history, if we take for example Shadowrun, there is a specific timeline of events that happens, without any players having to have gotten involved (or if the DM is feeling particularly fun, throws their players into the middle of). These historical events usually tend to have a rather large impact upon what can be referred to as the “Metaplot” - this being the larger overarching story thread that connects everything in the game world together and gives it a direction.

The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings contain a larger metaplot, the forging of the rings of power, the finding of the one ring, the destruction of the one ring and Sauron, along with the impact upon the creatures within the world. There are events that happen around this main thread but everything in some small way feeds into the metaplot, giving the world a sense of narrative direction and not the chaotic actions of a multitude of individuals working with or against each other as is often the case in real life.

Using our earlier reference to Shadowrun. We have the Great Dragon Dunkelzahn’s assassination shortly after he was sworn into presidential office. After Dunkelzahn’s death, his worldly assets were divided as per instructions in his last will and testament. This caused some corporations to be swallowed by others and a multitude of other side effects and had a rather dramatic effect on the universe as a whole. Where this gets interesting is that in the Shadowrun universe there is a saying, about never making deals with dragons, and from what I've read it is heavily implied that even in death he was still behind these events transpiring. Playing a hugely complex game of chess with the world as a stage. If you create a game universe where you link characters in association to other characters, corporate entities etc. The effect of removing said character instantly results in a domino effect of logical consequences.

So what does this mean for us? Well obviously this is a somewhat shallow dive into the events, and lore of other settings, however, there are some key things we can take away from this:

  • A sense of world history

  • A Timeline of Key Events

  • A Metaplot that gives us a direction

  • Relationships between key players.

Relationships between key players.

Removing one of these elements can make the results of the world feel a bit thin. If we take a generic first person shooter as an example of this, the world history rarely tends to go back more than a few years to cover key events - if at all. It’s important to note that this doesn’t detract from the overall experience because the game is about shooting first and foremost, and that experience is not about the storytelling experience that role-playing games really rely on. Likewise, it's possible to go too far in the other direction and make the world feel overwhelmingly large and unknowable - this is not always executed to ill effect. An interesting example that plays with this sense of unknowable world history would be the ‘ souls’ games.

The souls games have a very diverse and well thought out history. However for the most part the player is unaware of it, and only catches glimpses of this through item descriptions. This allows the players mind to try and fill the gaps and creates many wild varying theories that are competing at trying to solve the mystery. In the case of the Souls games this really also plays into the themes that the game is trying to convey and ends up filling out the world, giving it this sense of history, without overwhelming you with a barrage of information dumps the size of an intercontinental freighter. Point being, people generally love a mystery and having a partially unknowable element in there can be an excellent way to absorb someone into your world, hopefully deepening the experience if your story is any good. A few other games that do this well would be Bioshock, System Shock 2, Amnesia: the Dark Descent, Half-Life, and Portal. Fallout 3 also employs this to great effect with its environment design.

The discussion so far has covered what is loosely considered “Narrative Design”, a major pillar of game design as a whole, but how exactly are we executing this? What process are we using?

Brick by Brick

So where do we start? If we take a look at these cases we’ve described previously probably the largest and loosest thing would be the world history - all the events don't have to be mapped out, just the key ones, often the exercise of working out how you go from your beginning to your destination will help you even fill all the gaps out organically.

So let's play a quick imagination game, this will help establish a history for the world we’re going to create right now.

Imagine that we have a Clan of Dwarves, their civilization has grown from humble beginnings into an amazing fortress where the very streets are paved with gold. Now imagine that in the future of this civilisation, the Nobility of this Dwarven civilisation is populated entirely by goblins!

So what do we have here that’s important:

  • Clan of Dwarves

  • Amazing fortress

  • Goblin ruling class

Goblin ruling class

This begs the question, how did these goblins become the ruling elite of this fabulous mountain home. How did this come to be? There're a plethora of perspectives but for simplicities sake we’ll try two pretty different ideas. Firstly the goblins are in charge now through force, having conquered the dwarves and forced them into servitude. Secondly (and in my perspective, more interesting), The goblins married into the Dwarven Nobility, perhaps as a way to secure some kind of peace.

In both of these examples, we could have the overarching meta plot being that the dwarves want freedom from being ruled by the goblins. As the history for both these proposed worlds is different this impacts our story heavily.

In the first example the dwarves being subjugated by the goblins as a labour force would probably have some kind of underground rebellion movement working against their new elite, perhaps employing controversial terrorist tactics. In the second example, we could have a situation much more akin to the French Revolution, the Goblin elite have grown complacent off the backs of the hard working dwarf underclasses and now the dwarves want blood and severed heads.

As you can see in both of these examples we have a fairly similar outcome. Our simple metaplot works for these examples, however, I feel that the second example is a little bit more interesting, mainly because it's somewhat unusual but probably because it also has some clear historical parallels. So we shall be going with this particular angle for our hypothetical game world (which has just been dubbed “Dwarf Revolution - Dwarf Harder”).

A lot of works of fiction tend to do this, it's a great way to both explore the past and also be a little bit introspective. A lot of sci-fi tends to follow this kind of format, often sci-fi isn't so much an exploration about the future but an exploration into current or past events.

At this point we’ve got a relatively clear image of what we need in our world, we have a timeline, and basic history filled out, along with the establishment of a metaplot.

This just leaves us with establishing some key players, so that we can further fill out both our timeline and the relationships at the start of the game.

The Leg Bone Connects to the…

To keep the example simple a concise, here are the key players in our hypothetical game Dwarf Revolution - Dwarf Harder.

We’ve kept the elements brief, but what we’re mostly concerned about is the relationships between the characters and their underlying factions. at the moment this is pretty simple, let's complicate matters somewhat.

As you can see from the diagram. we have created a relationship of love between the goblin princess and the leader of the dwarven rebellion. In short, we now have Romeo and Juliet set to a backdrop of the french revolution with the capulets and montages being dwarves and goblins. Not sure about you guys but I'd buy that for a dollar.

So what happens when we put the player in there? Well as anyone who has ever DM’ed before will understand players are amazing agents of chaos and destruction. The players could side with the couple and help them, the player could go to the rebellion and snitch, the player could go to the goblin king and inform them of this and the player could even go so far as to become arch-bastard of the universe and tell everyone everything, probably igniting a very bloody civil war and attracting the ire of everyone involved.

That is roughly what we aim to achieve with our unannounced title. The player isn't really able to affect the larger events, but they are able to change the context of what happens, moving different players into their places, much like Dunkelzahn did in the Shadowrun example.

So we’ve established how to create a simplistic game world, what elements are required to make the game world more believable. Our simplistic example demonstrates this process, by establishing the backstory, having the events connected via a timeline, injecting a metaplot, and then creating some agents within the gameworld itself, and mapping out their relationships.

We’ve used this technique in our game world, to great effect, as we need to have this information exposed, albeit it in far greater depth than we have gone into here, in order to allow the world to react to player stimuli. The system behind how these relationships are mapped, and the outcomes of the particular desired results - in essence how we do this mechanically, is a topic for a later date.

-The Wickerman