The 54 Card Guild: #7
If this is the first time you're seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It's a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you're interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com.
Typically when I think of worldbuilding, I think of a writer setting the foundation for a story they’re writing. One of the reasons The Lord of the Rings is such a phenomenal work, according to George R.R. Martin, is the level of worldbuilding that went into it. Instead of “Once upon a time,” paired with a healthy dose of literary yadda yadda, Tolkien created a world, a history, struggles, and the fabric of the universe. He created lineage, ancient conflicts, and motivations. It made everything more real and meaningful. Middle-Earth is almost a real place.
Except for Tom Bombadil, of course. That dude is weird.
I’ve been listening to a great deal of Mark Rosewater’s Drive to Work podcast. It’s a series of observations, essays, and thoughts regarding the design and creation of Magic: The Gathering, primarily through the lens of the design department, which is Rosewater’s role. It is difficult not to be taken aback at times to hear casual mention of the infrastructure that exists to create Magic: The Gathering. Namely:
- Design establishes the vision.
- Development optimizes the vision.
- Creative brings the vision to life through illustration, stories, and flavor text.
- You then have marketing and sales and such, who also help. Stop rolling your eyes.
Although I don’t think Magic is the most thematic game, it is a very flavorful game that is cohesively designed. When it’s at its best, they do so from start to finish. The team behind Magic knows what a red creature is, what it does, and why. They know the philosophical motivations of a black planeswalker in the fiction, as well as that of a player who plays with black. While it’s easy to discard this as a cute exercise, or merely a really extensive and elaborate process to inform illustrators, there are functional benefits to worldbuilding. Yes, even in a game that isn’t super thematic.
I’ve begun worldbuilding for Project Gaia, because I want to improve the quality of the output. The idea, is that at the outset I define a loose framework to create within in the hopes of ultimately developing a strong, rich game. Note that I didn't say a rich theme!
In this post, I want to step you through the worldbuilding process I'm using to guide Project Gaia. Perhaps you'll have insights to share, or you'll find value in my explanation for your own game. Gaia is still incredibly early in design, but I'm hoping the effort I put forth here will pay dividends in the long slog that will be this game's creation.
Bear with me as I go through this. I'm going to walk through the entire process, with more explanations at the end. I promise I'm taking this somewhere.
Firstly, I defined the perspective of my players. They are immortal beings, incredibly powerful, who take advantage of newly created worlds due to the machinations of the cosmos to build their own power. Imagine god-like beings fighting to create planets in their own image to better serve them. It's galactic war at its finest, a creation myth driven by the players.
From there, I thought about the actions being taken by the players, these immortal beings. The players are building a planet, then modifying the planet with species and landmarks and casting disasters (like tidal waves). Therefore, I needed to think about:
- What kind of planet is being made? Lush planets? Desert planets? Earth-like planets?
- What kind of creatures and beings would inhabit the planet? Real? Mythological?
- What sort of disasters and events can occur on a planet, especially one in formation? Do I look to things that plague us now (hurricanes?) or look to ancient creation myths, like the floods mentioned in several religious texts? Or both?
These first two questions provide a perfect opportunity for worldbuilding! I thought about the terrain types I wanted on my planet. After a bit of churn, I settled on the following:
There are a few possibilities for each of these. The desert can be sand and heat, like the Sahara, or wasteland, like Fallout and Mad Max, or arid scrub, like the Mojave. I love Dune, and the vision of Arrakis and its dunes, so I chose the Saharan desert flavor.
Wetlands were originally the ocean, but saying "ocean" didn't work well with the game. To me, ocean is a vast, deep body of water. In the game, ocean tiles are frequently surrounded and are more like lakes. Therefore, I chose wetlands. This better connects the tiles to the rest of the land spaces. Plus, swamps and wetlands are foreboding. Alligators, moss, crazy swamp people are all now possible.
The ocean also creates gameplay expectations. Can a land-based creature swim in the ocean? Maybe. It can definitely cross wetlands. What about from the other angle? Can a sea creature like a whale move on land? No, that's totally weird. Worldbuilding should reinforce the expectations of the mechanisms where possible.
Next, I went back and forth between forest and jungle. In the end, the deep jungle had strong a vibe of jaguars, monkeys, and more exotic faire. Things in which I was less interested. The jungle was also too much of an extreme next to a desert (extreme dry versus extreme moisture) and jungles present little to no room for civilizations to form. They're just too dense. Fictionally, it was the wrong platform. I didn't want to take players out of the world.
I liked the classic imagery of the forest, the kind you read about in stories and fiction. I love the ominous woods of Snow White, the deep forests of ancient Europe, and how snow speckled conifers look wonderful on mountain ranges. I wanted owls, wolves, and dangerous forest men in my game.
Finally, the grasslands. This one seems obvious, and it's the one that hasn't changed throughout development. There is something romantic about the Native Americans of the plains and the majestic herd creatures moving in search of food. The peoples of the steppe, most famously the Mongols and the Huns, are also exciting. Grasslands are a nice middle ground between every other land type. They are the vanilla in the Neapolitan sandwich I'm crafting.
With the world established, we have our stage. We have our battleground. I know that I want creatures tied to these terrain types. This means I have the origins of my factions, if you think in Netrunner terms, or my colors, if you think in Magic terms.
For each terrain type I came up with three keywords to define what kinds of things would happen there and what that part of the world means. This is the point of origin.
- Desert: Potential, Dangerous, Extreme Heat
- Wetlands: Mysterious, Turbulent Weather, Stench
- Forest: Darkness, Evil, Stillness
- Grassland: Fertile, Bright, Windy
As a similar exercise, what are the three key words you'd use to describe elves, dwarves, hobbits, and humans in Middle-Earth? These keywords aren't locked in stone, and they aren't the only ones that define these terrains, but they are a point of origin for me.
Next, using these keywords, I began thinking about creatures that might exist in areas described in the manner I used.
- Desert: Sandworms, djinns, hawks, scorpions. These are creatures that can survive such a dangerous, extreme climate with almost no water. I looked to reality, Dune, and Arab fairly tales as a starting point. I'll need more, this is just a start.
- Wetlands: Frogs, moths, alligators, swamp thing-like monster, and Nutria rats. I looked to the actual creatures of Louisiana and the Florida Everglades and southern mist. I thought of things that could withstand the weather and hide, potentially underwater.
- Forest: Wolves, bears, owls, spirits/ghosts, the leshii, spiders, and serpents. All of these creatures move silently and stealthily. They are all predators. Some are evil, like the spiders and serpent and spirits. Others, like the wolves and bears, are a more noble counter.
- Grasslands: I think of civilization forming from here. Farming and bountiful resources. I think of Humans, horses, bison, locusts, and mice.
From here, I'll begin to conceive mechanisms that fit the setting and the creatures. But, things are getting lengthy and I want to get to the point.
Wow! That's a lot of blathering without a point. Any idiot can say a desert has a scorpion, right? What is the output here? What is the purpose? There are a few reasons.
If the mechanisms match the setting, they'll be easier for players to learn and remember. If the desert is harsh and dangerous, players will not be surprised when cards evoke that effect during the game. Or, creatures from the desert are particularly hearty. My game is about deckbuilding, which is a challenge both when making a deck or playing a deck. If a player sees and opponent taking several forest creatures and cards, he should know that stealth and surprise will be his opposition. Players will begin to internalize that wetlands cards mean a certain thing.
Don't believe me? When running against Jinteki, you know there are going to be traps. You know to draw cards to protect yourself against damage. You know NBN are going to tag you. You know that when you play against red in Magic, you'll be hit with direct damage and creatures with haste. You know blue will counter you and then do it again.
These worldbuilding techniques also keep me focused as a designer during content creation and development. When I did the content slam for Gaia, outlined in Guide #2, I merely came up with modifiers to flesh out the cards. The exercise was to provide a foundation to test the core mechanisms, not create cards that will lead to a compelling deck construction experience. But, ultimately that's what I need!
There is a common design mistake in thinking that card variety alone leads to compelling content. The variety that does exist must lead to meaningful and different play situations. They must legitimately vary the choices a player has, not just jostle the numbers. This worldbuilding exercise will focus my content creation so that I remain focused, consistent, and do so within a framework. It is setting a box within to work. Constraint is a gift to a designer!
Let's say I need to make 6 creatures for every terrain type. Using my keywords and creature ideas, I know that the creatures should follow the structure of my world:
- Desert: Resilient.
- Wetlands: Poisonous and treacherous.
- Forest: Stealthy and brutal.
- Grasslands: Swift, abundant, mobile.
Those notions translate to mechanisms. As mentioned in the paragraph just above, it's a win for accessibility if players know that desert cards tend to be hearty and strong. It's great if both players generally know that forest creatures will be stealthy. They'll attack silently and brutally.
Finally, worldbuilding can help me craft mechanisms that match player expectations. I already discussed this above, but it bears repeating. If I have ocean creatures that walk on land, I'm screwing with player expectations. I'm deliberately creating an experience that isn't intuitive. Worldbuilding can hem my efforts so that they are coherent and thoughtfully made.
In conclusion, worldbuilding is a useful exercise to:
- Bookmark an experience, such as red means a certain mechanism, for my players
- Create a constraint within to work
- Craft more intuitive mechanisms that match player expectations.
I'd love to know what you think about this exercise, whether you think this is useful, and if you have any ideas to share. Thanks!