Following on from last fortnight’s interview, this edition of World Build Wednesday here on Jellit is for all the Game Masters out there! We’re kicking back for a chat with Dan Rodgers, one of the regular GM’s over at Tinker Tabletop!
There aren’t many people I know who are as full bottle on creating worlds and playing with systems as Dan! So I asked him to share some of his experiences and insights with the rest of us would-be world builders!
Thanks for joining us Dan! First of all, tell everyone a little bit about yourself!
Hello! My name is Dan Rodgers, and I’m a booze peddler slash actual play livestreamer. If you happen to know me you’d know that I’m one of the founding members of Tinker Tabletop, and the GM of Voices in the Wilderness.
I’ve done some work with comics, prose, games, and honestly I’ve kind of settled on tabletop as a thing I love. My streams have tended to focus on systems that highlight collaborative world building, but I still love that feeling of players exploring something you made in real time.
Can you walk us through one of your world building projects?
The world I’ve spent the most time with at this point is the world for Voices in the Wilderness, the aforementioned actual play livestream I’ve been doing for, oh jeeze, over four years. We play a really fun system called 13th Age which provides you with a very open ended prebuilt world as ruled by 13 icons representing fantasy tropes. It’s elegantly designed for you to be able to take what they’ve given you and expand out to make it your own. It’s one of the best parts of the system. Since I’m such an incredibly smart person I threw all that out and did it the hard way.
This world I wanted to be a bit more of morally grey one so you still have all the ethical issues of necromancy, but a lord of the dead that’s a bit more driven by a noble goal…
Moam, this particular world, is a continent cut from a dying world and lifted into the sky by an extraordinarily powerful undead wizard. Kind of a noah’s ark meets control group as the wizard uses his eternal life to try and solve that dying world problem. In the default 13th Age this particular figure would be the Lich King, and since 13th Age deals in stock archetypes that Lich King is unambiguously evil.
I know that sounded more or less like character work versus world building but it’s these kind of huge figures that can really inform a living world…
This world I wanted to be a bit more of morally grey one so you still have all the ethical issues of necromancy, but a lord of the dead that’s a bit more driven by a noble goal (and the scientific method). Another example in the mortal realm: 13th Age has the Dwarf King be kind of the classic treasure miser who rules the underground. There’s not as much underground on a flying island so in this world the Dwarf King has teamed up with the business savvy Goblin Queen to form a trade consortium.
I know that sounded more or less like character work versus world building but it’s these kind of huge figures that can really inform a living world. One says something about the nature of the world: Magic is not only present but it’s something that is intrinsic to the nature of the world. The other about the people: if even dwarves and goblins get along this world is more a melting pot than one of tribal conflicts. Plus push and pull power dynamics, be them magical or political, are fun sandboxes for players.
I really really like the concept of soft apocalypses. That a cataclysmic event has happened and while life was forever changed it did not even come close to becoming extinguished…
Moam is also an example of a few other common themes in my world building. As I said it’s the product of a dying world and I really really like the concept of soft apocalypses. That a cataclysmic event has happened and while life was forever changed it did not even come close to becoming extinguished. I also like worlds that not just have a lot of varied creatures and cultures, but are very explicitly designed not to be human centered. I even combined those two concepts once by building a whole concept around the hypothetical: “What if in a fairly standard fantasy world all the humans had died?”
Can you tell us about some of your favourite fictional settings?
I feel like people way smarter than I am have talked about Discworld and you probably should read what they have to say over me. I have to admit that I read people inspired by Terry Prachett’s novels long before I got to them myself, but that’s very much my voice. The idea that things can be humorous and kind of nonsense but also be coherent and purposeful was a very important discovery for me.
I feel like people way smarter than I am have talked about Discworld and you probably should read what they have to say over me.
I’m going to pivot and rather than answer the question you ask I’m gonna reinterpret it into “what fictional setting are you really into at this very moment”.
Mouseguard is a comic series turned tabletop setting/system by David Petersen. It is a low fantasy adventure in a humanless world (hey look a theme) where the primary sapient race are mice. Hollow Knight on the other hand is a video game by Team Cherry where you explore the scantily populated ruins of a great civilization and uncover the disaster that befell it (another theme). The catch is this civilization is built in the underground world of sapient insects.
Most animals but human worlds tend to just tend to plunk the animals in a human sized and human adapted world. Mouseguard commits you to being mouse sized with all the benefits and disadvantages…
What interests me about these two worlds is not necessarily the “hey what if humans but mice/insects instead”, though in both cases it has lead to some really beautiful art. Instead what I love about these worlds are how committed they are to maintaining the proper sense of scale for the creatures they make sapient. Most animals but human worlds tend to just tend to plunk the animals in a human sized and human adapted world. Mouseguard commits you to being mouse sized with all the benefits and disadvantages. A single apple could feed a family, and if you can collect resources they can go very very far. On the opposite end minor dangers in a human sized world, like say weather, become massive challenges in a mouse sized world. A rainstorm may have just created inconvenient puddles on a human scale, but it could be settlement threatening flooding at mouse scale.
Hollow Knight on the other hand is a little looser insect sized scale but plays a lot more with the fact insects as a sapient race are varied in shape and size.
Hollow Knight on the other hand is a little looser insect sized scale but plays a lot more with the fact insects as a sapient race are varied in shape and size. So you end up with NPCs and enemies that are anywhere from twice your size to multiple screen lengths, and it still feels natural with this world where bugs built a city underground. Plus it has a little bit more magic, mystery, and cataclysmic corruption versus Mouseguard’s low powered struggle to survive.
What’s the most important thing you feel you’ve learned about building a fictional world from scratch?
The single most important thing I’ve ever learned about world building is to centre your process around things that you find fun. It sounds silly because why would you be world building if you didn’t find it fun, and who doesn’t love the rush of finishing that culture or continent? The problem is that way too often I find people going about it in ways that are completely boring to them because they think there’s a certain way you have to go about things.
The single most important thing I’ve ever learned about world building is to centre your process around things that you find fun.
For example, someone is building a fantasy world they’ll look to say Tolkien because he has to know what’s up right? And they’ll say: “Ok. I guess I need to start at the ancient legends, and then work through the genealogy of the dwarves, and I better work out exactly how their language works”.
Those are all super fun details and can really enrich a world, but just defaulting to that misses an important thing about Pappy Tolkien: He was a huge history nerd and sat on the staff that assembled the first goddamn Oxford English Dictionary. Because he loved genealogy and language he centred the focus of his world building around it.
If you love economic systems, start there for your world. If you’re super into textiles start at some tapestries. The thing about world building is it’s a massively messy undertaking and just thanks to human limitation the seams are never quite going to line up. However if you centre the world building on something you love you’re going to be motivated to write a lot, and people are going to have to paw through a lot of material before they find those mismatched seams.
I find people going about it in ways that are completely boring to them because they think there’s a certain way you have to go about things.
Rolling that back to myself you can see how I’ve applied that back there in my “talk about a world you created section”. I like following politics and worlds with lots of competing factions and figures are the norm for me. I also have a degree in the History of Science and Technology, so you’ll often see me focus on the technology of a world. Though a world builder with an engineering or hard science background may be more interested in how that technology works where I may be focusing on how it came about.
How do you approach it? Do you prefer to start small with a specific place and work out, or do you plan out whole continents before you fill in the little details?
The first step is set an upper limit. If I only need a country then I’ll try to stick to just stick to making a country. I find that helps avoid that classic world building trap of “I’ve made this huge expansive continent that is effectively big England”. Plus even at the upper limit of say a single city there’s still going to be empty space. This is fine. Embrace it. I like having that wiggle room to write in something I may need later, rather than the frustration of never using something cool the project never needed.
I am still very people focused when it comes to world building. I like to think about what type of environment creates what kind of people, and how it shapes their worldview.
When it comes to the actual heavy lifting of world building these days I err closer to starting at a specific place and working my way out. In the past I’ve done the huge sweeping make a handful of races, and decide their homelands, and how they feel about each other, and cool places to explore nearby. I’ve found though, as I mentioned earlier, this just leads to one of two things: You’ve made more than you need and something cool is now confined to the margins, or you’re putting stress on your story or game as you try to visit all these places that may be at best tangential.
I am still very people focused when it comes to world building. I like to think about what type of environment creates what kind of people, and how it shapes their worldview. A historical example of this is how some cultures had very different relationships with river floods. If floods bought silt and nutrients, bam, benevolent gods. If they washed away good soil on swept in salt, well, those gods were assholes. These kind of cultural interactions, and how those interactions blow up when they come in contact honestly interests me a lot more than geography.
Don’t pre-build forever, just start. There are some things you’re only going to figure out about your world by populating it, using it, existing in it.
The last step is really important: Don’t pre-build forever, just start. There are some things you’re only going to figure out about your world by populating it, using it, existing in it. It’s easy to get caught up in “just one more detail” that you never get to your world’s intended purpose. As I said, it’s messy and the seams weren’t going to match anyway, you don’t have anything to lose by getting in there.
How about naming places in your worlds? Cities, oceans, forests… Where do you draw your inspiration from when you’re deciding what to call things?
I am incredibly horseshit at this. Early in Voices in the Wilderness you had such dry wheat toast fantasy names like “Guildholmn”.
I have been getting better though! I’ve been trying to draw inspiration from outside my regular cultural sphere lately. My group in the most recent arc arrived at the capital region of the empire. There’s a lot of cultures we associate with empires. Rome, the British, China, the Ottomans, Japan. I’m not really an expert on any of those. So like the idiot I am I pulled open a wikipedia list of ancient roman place names and ancient chinese place names and tried to find bits a pieces that fit well together.
Literally scrambling through cultures hoping for chocolate and peanut butter.
I did end up with a cool city that had Venice’s channels and Shanghai’s neon market aesthetic out of it though. So I consider that a win.
Can you recommend any helpful world-building resources available online?
Going at it collaboratively exposes you to new viewpoints, answers questions that you may not even asked, and may even give you a few ideas you can take to your private worlds.
As much as I talked about world building in the service of games, there are a tonne of games that help sharpen your own abilities. Going at it collaboratively exposes you to new viewpoints, answers questions that you may not even asked, and may even give you a few ideas you can take to your private worlds.
Both of these are single session games so you’re committing to an afternoon at most rather than a, let’s say, five year long campaign ordeal. They’re also available as super affordable PDFs on either DrivethruRPG or their respective creator’s website.
The Quiet Year takes takes you one layer of abstraction farther than most roleplaying games do. Instead of a character your group is collectively playing a community that has survived a hard winter and now has the chance to rebuild over the course of a year. You set what your community has in abundance and what they need to secure, and your primary method of interacting with other players is silently placing a “discontent” token in front of them when they take the community in a way you disagree with. It’s a good place to do some of that start small world building I was talking about. Collectively you get to decide why the world is so dangerous for this community, and how the randomized events that happen in the quiet year relate to the picture outside the settlement wall.
The Quiet Year takes takes you one layer of abstraction farther than most roleplaying games do…. Downfall is much more large in scale. So if Quiet Year ekes details out from a small story, Downfall lets you go right in and hash out the big picture.
Downfall is much more large in scale. It’s once again a collaborative game but this time you’re all charged with building the whole world rather than a community. So if Quiet Year ekes details out from a small story, Downfall lets you go right in and hash out the big picture. There are rules that walk you step by step through the world building process. You decide aesthetics, the people of the world, what virtues are adored and what vices are rampant. Then when you and your friends build this beautiful thing together it’s time for the second phase of the game: How does this world end? The very things you setup earlier are the things the game picks up on to start tearing it apart. It’s a great bit of fun, and that kind of “ties that bind” mentality can really give you perspective going into your own projects.
We’ll definitely be getting Dan, and the other crew over at Tinker Tabletop in regularly to share more of their insights and guidance on world building with us! But for now, check out the campaigns they are running and join in the fun over on Twitch!