Friday, 15 March 2019

Teaching How to Build a World

Just when I thought I was out...an internet debate pulled me back in.

(This time, I mostly agree with Alexis - with the important caveat that a course on DMing at university is plainly ridiculous even in the context of the horrendously stupid and frivolous shite that people somehow manage to hoodwink their departments into allowing them to teach. If you really want me to explain why, I will do so in the comments.)

I want to use this as an opportunity to put some flesh on the bones of this recent post. The central thesis of that post, if you'll forgive me calling it that, was that all human activities need to be "taught" in some sense, but how this is best done depends on the activity. Some activities (martial arts, sport, learning to drive, learning to write) are best taught in an explanatory way - let's say, didactically - and others (philosophy, legal reasoning, creative writing) are best taught through demonstration and osmosis on the part of the student. Almost nothing is absolutely in one camp or the other - it's all on a spectrum, shades of grey, blah blah. (And, of course, solo practice, intuition, innate aptitude, and all sorts of other variables are crucial as well.) 

Let's take Alexis's example of world building. He's absolutely right - most existing advice on "how to build a world" is terrible to put it charitably. Just execrably bad, stupid, pointless and wrong, and generally written by ignoramuses whose sum total of applicable experience is that they know about Faerun and have read some high fantasy novels and thought about them for about five seconds flat. 

But the takeaway message from this is not that there just needs to be better such advice. It's that the entire exercise is fundamentally flawed, being based on a misunderstanding of how to "teach" worldbuilding. The people making these videos and blogposts are making the wrong assumption that worldbuilding is an activity toward the didactic, learning-to-drive end of the spectrum of teaching, when in actual fact it's much much more towards the demonstration/osmosis, legal reasoning and creative writing end of the spectrum.

Let me explain. I say this on the basis of Yoon-Suin, which I hope would persuade anybody reading this blog that, whatever that book's flaws, it at least demonstrates that I know more than the average about how to make an interesting campaign setting that avoids cliche and that people want to run games in. How did I "learn" how to make Yoon-Suin?

Was it watching videos on how to make a world? Was it reading blog posts about "how to make a cool campaign world"? Was it because anybody told me how to do it?

No. I had worldbuilding demonstrated to me. Partly this was from reading fantasy novels of the right kind - The Book of the New Sun, the Viriconium books and stories, Gormenghast, China Mieville's books, and so on. And partly it was from other RPG settings - chiefly Planescape and Darksun. And finally, partly it was from reading other people's examples within the "OSR" scene - Kevin Crawford's stuff and various others. I got it from watching others, not from being told what to do. It was osmosis. Not didactic teaching. 

That's not to say that "How To" posts like Rob Conley's old fantasy sandbox guide can't be useful. But go on over to that entry and take a look at it carefully: what makes it valuable is not the beginner checklist of 34 steps (which is at the "learning to drive" end of the spectrum) taken in the abstract, but the subsequent entries showing how Rob actually did it for his own example (which is the "philosophy" end of the spectrum). It's not, I reiterate, that there is any learned activity which is purely in one camp or the other. Everything is a mix. But almost everything in this DMing lark has a much bigger element of one than the other. 

And finally, I end on the obvious point which is that at the end of the day this is all a hobby. It is supposed to be enjoyable. Learning how to build a fantasy setting by reading The Book of the New Sun is, believe me, a heck of a lot better in that regard than this sort of thing.

29 comments:

  1. The feasibility of an actual course aside, it seems that it's very helpful in promoting this osmosis. How many Youtube "worldbuilders" do you think have read The Book of the New Sun? I'll wager not many. A course (or a course-like blog) provides the impetus to begin this osmosis.

    New Sun is a good example because it is difficult. It's not a pulp novel, it requires quite literal study to fully grasp it. And for that reason, I bet most people frantically asking "how do I build a world???" would balk at having to actually do some work to learn how.

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    1. True: there is probably space for a "worldbuilding reading list". Maybe I'll make one.

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  2. I have run games recently for High School students and another group of Jr. High students. I do not have real plans for world building just a scrap sheet of ideas races and places so there is context of some sort...that and a map that is generic. I pick a place, as a start, picture its surrounds, think who are what might be there and game on. The rest comes through play and daily inspiration and the world expands as play progresses and through aha moments. I like to riff off the ideas the players mention in their side chats, backgrounds and roleplay or in their meta discussions. I picked up the basics from game worlds previously published....map, people, places, cosmology, events and run with it that and I am lazy.
    Even though all of this is made up mostly on the fly, the students are engaged and excited. I do not need blocks of text, 10 page world histories and 200 foot long timelines. The play develops the characters and setting. Its like taking suggestions and adding them where they fit like puzzle building Am I an amazing world builder or awesome DM...nah but the players think so so thats what matters.

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    1. The thing about riffing off the players and what they come up with is so important.

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    1. Don't make the mistake of trying to reason with him. Best not to engage. He's nuts, and the entire exercise of conversation with him is all about his ego and literally nothing more than that.

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    2. Too late I'm afraid. Your assessment seems 100% on point though.

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  4. Hey, funny, I just finished The Book of the New Sun (a translation sadlY) and I was really impressed with the world-building, although I think the author got a little too far on "tying up every possible loose ends", even if it made sense in some kind of mythmaking perspective.

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    1. Not something Gene Wolfe is usually guilty of. Most of his books and series leave vast amounts unsaid.

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  5. More seriously, though, while I hope these recent back-and-forths haven't given you too much unnecessary stress, I'm actually grateful for how much good discussion and food-for-thought has come out of it.

    While I started reading blogs mostly for tables, monsters, campaign inspiration, etc. ("gameable material"), the broader discussions about the hobby and creativity in general are what I value about yours the most.

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    1. Thanks! I get more interested in the topic of creativity as time goes on.

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    2. Also, no stress. It's just the internet. Now and again a blog comment will annoy me but generally speaking I take all this stuff with a pinch of salt.

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  6. I actually teach how to DM at university. Not a whole course on it, of course, but I spend two weeks of a game and experience design course on the topic and ask the students to write a report and analyze the experience. With that said, I don't think I could find a way to fit a whole course on DMing in a curricula and help the students while doing so, but RPGs and several tightly related topics (like worldbuilding) are a different matter.

    Slightly unrelated: I'm actually surprised, but I have been asked to talk in other unis about RPGs in several contexts. There's been an increase in interest on the topic lately, and I assume that having a PhD in something + being high profile in the Spanish RPG world makes me a good target for a talk.

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    1. That sounds a bit like what we do in law school - getting students to "reflect" when doing clinical work.

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    2. Exactly. In our case, I want them to reflect on the fact that they're doing "real-time" game design while DMing. This is more important than they immediately think, since it's true that their task is more difficult than "offline" game design, but at the same time it's also easier, since they can immediately see the reactions in the players.

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  7. One area where I think videos and those "didactic" teaching styles can help in the subject of world building is when you are pursuing the (perhaps false) goal of realism. When geographically relevant, it can be useful to know how forests grow and what they were like in medieval times, for instance. Or you may want to know what certain cities in certain cultures were like. In my opinion, world-building courses/videos/information should be almost science classes, not because we want our worlds to be as earth-like as possible, but because it can be useful to fall back on when we can't think of any more fantastic ideas. I am a bit of a world-building purist, though, so take this as you will.

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    1. You are probably right. I come at it from the opposite angle because I think fundamentally the exercise is not really about pursuing realism (that's clearly what motivates Alexis though). I actually think a course for hard SF writers on worldbuilding in the sense you are talking about might have its uses...

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  8. If you 'teach' people to worldbuild all you will have are the same boring consensus-approved worlds with no interesting or novel ideas.

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  9. All the worldbuilding guides I ever come across are map making guides.

    And as someone famously said "The map is not the territory." And neither is it the setting.
    But map making is something that you can objectively teach, which is probably why people keep doing it.

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  10. Best worldbuilding guide I got was GCSE Geography.

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  11. "heck of a lot better in that regard than this sort of thing."

    That guy is my go-to example for bad GMing advice! :D

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    1. I only came across him because of looking on youtube for worldbuilding advice videos. I doubt I will watch his others!

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  12. Agree. Makes me think: Back in middle school I started "world-building" by drawing up maps, coming up with ideas, and all of that other stuff kids love to do - and more or less what a lot of the videos suggest. But I don't think I really "got" how to do it until university-age, when I switched from the top-down "over-deity" approach to the smaller scale - picturing how the world looks like to the people in it, focusing on the details you would see with your eyes while living there (rather than big cosmic creation stories), and just overall making it feel real. Going off of one of your recent posts: it's like the difference between opening with a long-winded historical prologue, and opening right on the protagonist, except at a more abstracted level. Though while time definitely helped with correcting mistakes, and getting better at the details, I'd have to say that the biggest help was reading books, playing through certain games, and otherwise getting a handle on what felt right by seeing it in practice.

    That being the case, the best advice I ever got for world-building, or DMing as a whole, boiled down to "read more things, do more things, see more things." And more comically, "nobody cares about your creation myth so just stop", which really did nothing but good for me in the long run, even if mileage may vary.

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    1. Read more things, do more things, see more things... couldn't have put it better myself.

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  13. "I end on the obvious point which is that at the end of the day this is all a hobby. It is supposed to be enjoyable."

    kind of undercuts everything in your post, doesn't it?

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  14. https://grumpywizard.home.blog/2019/03/16/learning-teaching-game-mastering-efficient-skill-acquisition/

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  15. I agree that worldbuilding is better shown by example than taught in the abstract. This is an excellent book on the subject - https://www.amazon.co.uk/New-Worlds-Year-One-Worldbuilding/dp/1611387477/

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