Mar 222010

Though everyone approaches it differently, I find that one of my most significant challenges when I write a world for a game or campaign is the overall concept. Since I write original material for the vast majority of games I run, this is a frequent problem, and one I’ve solved in many ways. My two campaign worlds that are closest to “finished” are pastiches of well-trodden genres (space opera and cyberpunk) with my own personal flair. Of course, when I sit down for something new, I usually draw a blank.

One interesting way to develop a new concept, and something a bit out of left field as well, is to start with a basic idea you’re familiar with, and change it in one way. From there, map out the consequences, and begin writing your new world.

Here’s an example. Wicked is a novel by Gregory Maguire, which serves as, among other things, a prequel to Frank Baum’s the Wizard of Oz. The novel follows the story of Elphaba, who would become the Wicked Witch of the West, through her life leading up to the arrival of Dorothy in Oz. The story adds a significant amount of detail on top of Baum’s already fantastical Oz, including backstories for other Oz characters. Though I have no idea how exactly Maguire actually came up with the idea for the novel, a potential starting point could be one simple question: What if Glinda, the good witch of the North, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, were roommates in college? This is clearly not a scenario Baum used, and it leads to a lot of further questions that can be answered through an elaborate and compelling story. And it’s easy to argue that Maguire’s story is compelling; it was adapted into a Broadway musical, not a common fate for most fantasy novels.

So a single leading question can be a good jumping-off point for many potential stories and worlds. The post-apocalyptic genre is an obvious example: What if the polar ice caps melted? What if there was a nuclear war and a portion of the world’s population survived in vaults? What if a disease killed off 99% of all men on Earth? All of these scenarios lead to different follow-up questions, and a distinctly different play experience, as far as gaming is concerned. The same exercise can be done for fantasy elements. What if trees can speak to each other? What if a certain portion of people had some sort of supernatural talent? What if dolphins were secretly plotting humanity’s downfall? Each question leads into more questions, and many opportunities for something unique.

Starting with a single “what-if” question is a good brainstorming method for worldbuilding because it allows you to use an idea that would probably be too nebulous on its own, but is still worth investigating. There are a potentially infinite number of fictional worlds that can be built around melting ice caps or evil dolphins, but both of those ideas have merit if further elaborated upon. You may decide that, in order to spy on humans, the dolphins capture fishermen and make them into their agents. And then, you decide how this happens, be it mind control or threats in a secret dolphin interrogation room underwater. Before you know it, the players are psychics out hunting for elite dolphin agents on the high seas. And that’s probably not what you were thinking when you sat down and began wracking your brain for what your next campaign would be.

[tags]role playing games, game mastering[/tags]

About Aaron Marks

Roleplaying games are my hobby. Writing, running, playing, I have spent more time and more money in the last decade on gaming than anything else, save school (time) or my car (money). When not envisioning the next cyborg apocalypse, I'm trying to finish graduate school, writing material not suitable for gaming, or playing bass in a Klezmer band.

  One Response to “The Power of “What If” in Worldbuilding”

  1. That’s a really good way to start. I love working in modern settings, simply because I do so much of my storytelling on-the-fly. I don’t build entire worlds often, partly because I’m lazy, and partly because I’m not as comfortable pulling an entire world out of my ass as I am a city block.

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