This is another blog post that I mentioned a while back and have been sitting on for a while. I’ve been working for a while on interactive types of fiction, at the moment in the context of tabletop games, but I think this applies to other types of interactive fiction as well. I’ve had a few discussions with friends on this topic recently, so that’s enough, apparently, for me to go off on a rant here.
I don’t know how many of you have played any TTRPGs, especially ones that involve some sort of worldbuilding at the start or before the game, but I’ll assume you’re at least familiar with the concept. The part of the experience that’s relevant to this post is the decisions around what setting the group plays.
There are plenty of games out there (for example, Ruralpunk by Cass Kay) which include worldbuilding as part of the first session. In Ruralpunk, the players and the GM sit down and, as part of character creation, also create their small town together, including key NPCs (non-player characters, for those new to this kind of thing), key factions or groups who have influence and interest in the town, and other details about the setting and the world. Unknown Armies (by John Scott Tynes and Greg Stolze) also has a world creation alongside the character creation, done with pictures and mind maps where the players and GM link ideas, events, places and people together in order to form the setting.
These are cool, and they have an inherent … I don’t necessarily want to call it a ‘benefit’ because this could be positive or negative depending on the kind of game and the kind of story, but let’s call it a ‘feature’ for now … that the players and the GM all have equal information about the setting to start with. They may still have different ideas about how they want that setting to play out, or about the underlying motives and personality of particular characters before they get introduced in the game, but in terms of the concrete facts about the setting, all the players and the GM have equal access to those at the beginning of the game.
There is another way to go about this: the prefabricated setting. This is games like Numenera (by Monte Cook), where the rulebook itself comes with a setting description (which might be more or less large depending on the game – Numenera’s is quite extensive, but other games might have a much smaller one). In this case, none of the players or the GM were directly involved in the bulk of the worldbuilding, though they may agree beforehand to change certain facts or add certain details in order to customise the game. That’s completely fine, but still, the bulk of the setting was pre-made by someone else, and the players and the GM have equal information about the setting going in.
And now we get to the third option, which is the one that I actually want to discuss today: Where some of the group have less information about the setting at the start of the game than others. This usually takes the form of a homebrew setting, where the GM has created the world and the players know nothing about it going in except perhaps the genre of the game that they’ll be playing and some details about wherever it is that they’re starting the game. I don’t believe I’ve seen a game where the players have the setting information and the GM doesn’t, but now that I’ve thought of it, I would definitely love to see that.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course – as with the case where everyone knows all the information, it depends entirely on what sort of story you want to tell and how you want the dynamic to work. There is, I believe, a problem where some groups feel they need to choose between either a GM who knows all the facts, or an equilibrium of facts at the start (that is, playing a prefabricated setting or a homebrew created by the GM). I think this is because of the kinds of rulesets people are used to playing with, but that ties into a whole other discussion about default rulesets and automatic assumptions about TTRPGs and I don’t have space to go into that here. The point that’s important for this post is that there’s nothing wrong with one subset of the group starting with all the information.
But let’s talk a bit more about the scenario where the players don’t have all the information and the GM does, because there is something that needs to be addressed when you’re playing a game like that.
When you’re writing a novel (just bear with me for a moment, I promise this is relevant), especially a speculative fiction novel where you need to get the reader up to speed on a new world very quickly, one way to go about this is to write about a character who is new to the world, or to the relevant part of it, at least. The classic ‘magic portal’ story that I seem to recall being extremely popular in YA when I was a teenager (it may still be very popular, but I don’t currently keep up with the YA genre enough to know), or stories where a character discovers that there is a secret in their world (often hidden magical people or creatures, sometimes secret societies). This can also manifest much more mundanely, or in a more scientific context: a character gets a new job working with a new technology, for example.
But there are also techniques that a writer of a novel can use to introduce the world even when the characters are completely embedded in the world already. Speculative fiction readers are often quite lenient about conversations where the characters are discussing things they already know, provided that the discussion feels in-character and it’s interesting to read. They accept that the price of entry of a speculative fiction novel is that they’ll have to sit through at least a bit of information dumping at the start in order to get their bearings. You can also ease the reader in with ‘setup’ – showing the characters’ daily routine, or having a few scenes demonstrating what ‘normal’ is before the plot begins. Obviously that’s a balancing act: you can’t go too long before providing a ‘hook’ for the plot, but that is another discussion best left for its own post.
But that doesn’t really work in a TTRPG setting. You usually bring the players in right at the start of the action for these games. There’s a reason “you all meet in a tavern, summoned by a mysterious benefactor” is such a common trope.
The other reason that it’s common, I think, is because it doesn’t involve the characters having any background information about the setting beforehand. It’s a low stakes opening that gives the characters a reason to interact when they don’t know each other, and a very standard, predictable setting to interact with, and also a reason to be going on the quest (money, usually), without the GM needing to set up the world very much at all.
I’ve run games before where I knew about the setting and the characters didn’t, and one of the hurdles that I sometimes come across is how to encourage the players to interact with the world. Especially if it’s a very new world, or one that isn’t following common tropes, I’ve had players reluctant to interact with things in the world in case they are ‘doing it wrong’ – they’ve been worried that throwing their ideas into the ring will somehow ruin my planning or worldbuilding, so it was hard for their characters to engage with the plot, or take actions to uncover any of the world’s mysteries. But at the same time, they mentioned that they had a lot of fun playing anyway, because they were enjoying exploring the world and finding out details whether or not they felt like they were meaningfully affecting the world, or pursuing their characters’ original goals.
I’ve also played in games where the players found it difficult to decide for their characters at all: they weren’t very familiar with the world, and it was not intuitive for them to decide what their characters’ options might be in this world without having a deep understanding of what that world is like.
So, clearly, the players need a touchstone for the world, and it’s best that they feel that they are familiar enough with the setting, or at least the genre, to make meaningful choices. Some players will enjoy exploring a setting with direction as well as ‘going on a quest’, but some will be put off if they feel like they can’t interact with the world effectively, or feel like decisions are hard to make because they have a lack of understanding of the world they’re interacting with. It depends on the story and your players, and how much information about the world you can convey, how quickly.
Games don’t have the same toolbox as novels, though. Players don’t want to sit through an infodump or a ‘normal’ introduction before they get to start making decisions. You could, very easily, do a normal day introduction to the game, but you would want to have players make decisions right off the bat – ask them who they interact with in the morning, where they slept last night, who they are meeting this evening and whether they’re looking forward to it. If the players need to understand the world to make those decisions, then they need to understand the world from the get-go anyway; you’re not actually solving your problem by running a ‘normal day’.
But you also don’t want to have to provide the players with a big folder of information right from the start, either. You certainly can, but not a lot of players are going to be interested in having to do pages and pages of reading just to play a game. Obviously some players won’t mind that, but I wouldn’t say enough of them to make it a best practice, or a best first option for worldbuilding in interactive stories.
Ideally, you want a way to introduce players to the world while they’re playing, relatively quickly. You want to convey the most basic information about the setting first, here meaning the information that lets the players understand some ways to interact with the puzzles you set for them. This means you want to convey genre very quickly, and you want to make sure you convey whether this is a world where fighting will get them very far or whether it’s a world where they’ll be expected to use diplomacy or stealth instead. Convey to them quickly who the main characters in the setting are, that they might go to for help or instructions. You’ll also want to convey tone quickly – is this going to be a Shenanigans and Hijinks game, or is it more serious?
In essence, the quicker the players can get to a point where they feel like they can pursue the quest (or their goals, whichever is the more appropriate term for your game) while exploring the world, without leaving them for too long at a loss at how to interact with things.
I think this can be extended to other types of interactive stories as well as just TTRPGs, but TTRPGs provide, I think, the most clear-cut case of when this happens. They’re not like video games where people can look up the world details if they get stuck. It’s also a very immediate kind of interaction: the players and the GM are responding to each other in real time, and making decisions collaboratively and immediately. Problems and stumbling blocks occur immediately and need to be addressed immediately, so it’s much easier to see these issues as they develop.
How you actually end up doing this will depend mostly on your game, the exact level of information you want your players to have at the outset, and the kind of experience that they want (and that the GM wants them to have).
This is something I need to work on myself – I like creating worlds and settings, but I’m not used to introducing people to them in an interactive setting. I’ve tried a few times and it’s never worked out as well as I hoped, especially when I was creating a world that didn’t adhere to very recognisable genre touchstones (Standard Fantasy World, or Standard Cyberpunk Dystopia, just as examples).
Maybe I’ll have more thoughts on specifically how to do this later. I might need to get more specific about the exact kinds of scenarios, because the approaches are so different depending on your audience and the type of thing you’re running. The important thing is to keep this sort of thing in mind when you’re designing stories, because it’s the sort of thing that’s hard to change as you go, and it’ll affect your audience more than you realise until you’re already starting in.