While plotting itself is not central to world building, plots develop out of the situations built directly into a setting. Are there muscular power politics going on? Perhaps court intrigue plays a large role in background events. Are two rivals vying for control of a organization or the military? The ripple effect of this contest will affect much of the world around them. Has a drought-stricken area lost its aqueduct, and now a city’s very survival is threatened? And so on.
Virtually any element of a setting can become central to a story line.
But what happens when these situations collide with character actions? In stories, we develop events to support a plot line in our fictional setting. If things go awry for the main characters, this is the very substance of the narrative itself, and the worldbuilding author can control how things unfold.
But when we design for role-playing games, this takes on a different complexion. PCs can easily take actions that ignore or break the GM’s plot, or head off into the Great Unknown in pursuit of their own plans. Player agency can easily toss the game world into disarray and take the plot in an unforeseen direction.
While a game master must respond to this in the moment at the table, the challenge can be mitigated by the world builder (who may or may not be the game master as well) by planning ahead for unexpected events within the context of that particular setting.
Character Behavior and Contingencies as World Building Elements
We can mitigate potential plot and gaming derailment* with a little forethought put into the world building. Namely, when developing characters and plot elements that relate to them, be sure to ask yourself specifically “How will they react if [fill in the blank] happens?”
- What will the antagonist do if his plans are thwarted by the PCs at an unexpectedly early point in the plot?
- What happens if the main NPC is killed by the PCs at some random point in time (before the foreseeable boss showdown)?
- How do NPC characters react if PCs cause unexpected changes in their situation or environment?
Add other relevant questions as you think of them
Before doing this, I find it useful to think of the world as a set of complex interactions already in motion quite independently of the player characters. As I have said to my players, “The world ticks on without you” – and I, as the world builder, must understand what that looks like.
Fictional characters behave in particular ways, and events will develop in a predetermined direction if PCs do not interfere. But what happens when PCs do effect some kind of critical change? The new direction of events will be shaped by the NPCs’ goals and motivations based on what they have been doing up to that point in time.
How to Plan Ahead
In order to extrapolate likely outcomes, consider the goals and motivations of certain world building elements. Those elements include NPCs and notable organizations such as government offices, guilds, and the military, and in fact anything that can have an impact on the world around it in response to character actions. An ancient dragon in its mountain lair might be a case in point, or a humanoid tribe pushed into migration because of warfare, and so on – the possibilities are endless, but the essential questions are:
- Who or what will react to PC actions and the consequences of those actions?
- What does that reaction look like?
This does not need to be a major brain-drain exercise. When designing a campaign world, certain factions or individuals or places suggest themselves as hotbeds of activity and adventure focus. Just pick a place or person to focus on (which will typically be the locus of adventures set in that world), determine what’s afoot for NPC activity, then ask the two essential questions for contingencies.
The nswers can be added to game notes or sourcebook as singular sentences used to expand NPC or encounter descriptions so a reader has some direction if/when it is needed. For instance, following the description of the main antagonist NPC, the world builder might add, “If PCs kill him before the final encounter, his lieutenant takes over the organization and continues to implement their plans to control the city.”
Obviously this becomes a plot element, which normally I would consider a little outside the realm of direct world building, but it springs forth from the circumstances of the world as it exists. That is a situation the world builder has the best handle on and can make the best extrapolation about.
A little contingency guidance like this is helpful for a personal campaign, but really essential for a published adventure or campaign setting. It can make all the difference between a game that is suddenly difficult to handle on the fly, and one where the general direction of improv (and future plot developments) is taken in a direction that makes sense within the game setting.
* “Derailment” – I use this word in the general sense of something going in an unexpected direction, NOT to imply that a game should railroad the characters into a predetermined path.