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.